How Narcissistic is the World Today?

Chances are, you think you know a narcissist personally. You may have a family member or ex that comes off as a “total narcissist” the majority of the time. You will even hear people label entire generations (like Millennials or Gen-Z) as narcissists.

After all, in our social-media-obsessed era, it does seem like an increasing number of people are adopting an image-based ideology and “me-first” attitude.

The origin of the term narcissism actually comes from Greek mythology. The legend says that Narcissus, an attractive young man, saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell so in love with his own image that he couldn’t leave. Because of his self-obsession, Narcissus slowly withered away and died.

Ah, the Greeks were so creative.

Since then, narcissism has been considered a negative trait, with an increased interest in the disorder beginning in the 20th century.

But how common is narcissism? Is it really a growing epidemic like some critics suggest?

Experts would respond with something along these lines: nope.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is rare and always has been — it affects an estimated 1% of the population. Though 1% of the U.S. population equates to approximately 3.5 million people, NPD is still far less common than other mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders and mood disorders.

So what separates someone suffering from NPD from someone with a healthy ego or a touch of vanity?

Defining a True Narcissist

Psychologists warn that, since most people don’t understand the various ways NDP can look, most true pathological narcissists will evade detection and never get the help they need.

Having a positive self-image is a sign of mental health, but when someone’s emphasis on their self-image impairs their daily functioning, this is a sign of NPD. This dysfunction can look like problems in a relationship due to issues with empathy or intimacy, friction with others due to grandiosity (an unrealistic sense of superiority), and/or constant attention-seeking behavior.

However, narcissism doesn’t always look like someone who desires to rule the world and have constant affirmation.

There are forms of NPD that have nothing to do with looks, fame, or money. For example, there are narcissists that devote their lives to helping others and pride themselves on being helpful or selfless — there’s a good chance you’ve personally met someone that was so intent on being a self-sacrificing martyr that you didn’t even like talking to them. There are also introverted, vulnerable narcissists that need constant reassurance, can’t handle even gentle criticism, and view themselves as more sensitive than those around them.

What all narcissists have in common is that they focus on some kind of self-enhancement.

photo by Vince Flemming

Whether it’s feeling like the best employee at the office, or the most caring volunteer at the soup kitchen, or the misunderstood poet that spends hours writing, these thoughts and behaviors set them apart from those around them, and this helps them to cope with their unstable sense of self.

So while all narcissists feel superior to others, not all narcissists feel satisfied with themselves as a person.

Compounding Problems

Because of this vulnerable sense of self-image, narcissism is often linked to other mental illnesses such as depression. For example, if a narcissist that feels the need to always be successful experiences a job loss, they will suffer severe damage to their sense of identity, which can lead to serious depression.

It’s when this rage or depression sets in that narcissists may actually seek outside help. They won’t, however, seek treatment for their narcissism. Only by asking questions about their depression will a therapist be able to discover a potential case of NPD.

So the odds that your least-favorite aunt is actually a narcissist are quite slim. The key behaviors to look for are more intense than simple vanity or a large ego. However, if you come across someone who excessively looks to others for the upkeep of their self-esteem, or views themselves as much more important than everyone else, or has impaired empathy and mostly superficial relationships, then you may be dealing with a narcissist.

How to handle the individual depends largely on where they fall on the narcissism spectrum and the type of narcissism they exhibit, but urging the individual to seek outside help should always be the first step.

Just make sure you choose your words carefully and that you act out of love.

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