Why has Narcissist Become Such a Dirty Word?
Our culture is rife with warnings about the perils of being in relationship with anyone who might be a narcissist, which is a not very flattering way of referring to someone who has narcissistic personality disorder. Whether that person is your partner, parent, boss or friend, people are quick to offer guidance about how to spot a narcissist (as if they were hiding in order to trap you!) and how to extricate yourself from the relationship. Book titles like “Disarming and Becoming the Narcissists Nightmare,” and “Five Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life,” fill the best sellers’ shelves. There is little talk of redemption, or the possibility of working towards a resolution with these dangerous folks. The universal wisdom seems to be that the only wise course of action is to build whatever extreme boundaries are necessary to get this person out of your life forever. The warnings about people who are narcissistic can be so strident that at times it sounds like being in relationship with a narcissist is about the worst thing that could happen to you, worse than being with someone who is physically or sexually abusive.
Having been a psychologist for almost four decades, the current hysteria seems sadly familiar. Not long ago the same dire warnings were being promulgated about the dangers of being in relationship with someone who might be “borderline,” again, a shorthand insult for someone with borderline personality disorder. For many years, therapists and the culture at large seemed obsessed with first spotting and then protecting themselves from people with borderline personality. To refer to someone as borderline meant, “I’m scared of you and it’s all your fault.” The word was used so pejoratively that I vowed to stop using the term, and now I am considering making the same pledge about the term narcissist.
What’s missing from these hyperbolic overgeneralizations is any understanding that narcissism is an often-adaptive character trait found in many people, and not just a diagnosis. People who have narcissistic personality disorder are what therapists call “other-centered,” meaning that they are so insecure that they rely excessively on others to reassure them they are OK. The inflated picture of themselves they project to others is a not very effective way to compensate for their own deeply felt sense of inadequacy. There is an old joke about the narcissist out on a first date who talks incessantly about himself, leaving almost no room for his date to speak. Finally, realizing that he has been monopolizing the conversation, the narcissist says, “Enough about me, let’s talk about you. How do you like me so far?”
Narcissism is also a personality trait that, like most personality traits, is normally distributed in the population, meaning that most people have some narcissistic features, and some have far more or far less than average (APA, 2021). Most people who have careers requiring them to be in the limelight; politicians, speakers, athletes, likely have at least a healthy amount of narcissism. Narcissism helps people be more assertive, resilient, successful and tolerate adversity.
If narcissism is a naturally occurring personality trait, why have we become so obsessed with protecting ourselves from the dangers of narcissistic personality disorder? One potential explanation is that social media has in effect made narcissists of us all. It’s almost as if Shakespeare anticipated our modern age when he wrote “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (Shakespeare, 2006). Social media gives everyone an instant platform, and can give us the distorted impression that the mundane details of our ordinary lives are of great interest to many people.
Not surprisingly, there is a general perception in the culture that the millennial generation, the first ones who have grown up with social media, are more self-centered and entitled than previous generations. Time magazine did a cover story called “The me, me, me generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents” (2013). Research suggests that fifty eight percent of college students scored higher on measures of narcissism in 2009 than they did in 1982. Some authors attribute this to millennials being raised by boomer “helicopter” parents who overcompensated for their own experience of being raised by parents who were more hands off with their kids. It may be that our growing aversion to narcissism as a culture is a reaction to the increasing prevalence of narcissism in the culture, or it may be just the latest version of the tendency for each generation to complain that the younger generation is spoiled, entitled and don’t appreciate the sacrifices that have been made for them.
One final intriguing aspect of this trend is that as a culture we’ve gone from a preoccupation with borderline personality disorder which is most often diagnosed in women, to an obsession with narcissistic personality disorder which is most often diagnosed in men. Perhaps as the pendulum swings from fear and pathologizing women to fear and pathologizing of men we will eventually find our way to a middle ground that is more accepting and validating of all differences.
Excerpted in part from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships (Lasting Impact Press).
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). (2021). American Psychiatric Association.
Shakespeare, W. (2006) As You Like It The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edition.
Time Magazine (2013) The Me, Me, Men Generation: Millennials are Lazy, Entitled Narcissists
Who Still Live with Their Parents May 20, 2013.