How the Modern World Breeds Narcissism

Our urban, online lives are feeding mindset that destroys relationships, threatens workplace
September 10, 2020 Updated: September 10, 2020

An over-inflated ego is nothing new. The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus has been used for centuries to call out this unsavory behavior. The story is about a handsome young hunter seeking the perfect partner. Several ladies fawn over him, but Narcissus finds each one inferior.

The story ends with Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, leading Narcissus to a pond, where he falls in love with his own reflection, and dies alone.

Like many ancient stories, the Narcissus myth is a cautionary tale. It warns against the dangers of getting too full of yourself. Freud borrowed the story to create the concept of narcissism—a mental condition characterized by shameless adoration for oneself and a chronic lack of empathy.

W. Keith Campbell, a social-personality psychologist, researcher, and psychology professor at the University of Georgia, says that when he began studying narcissism more than 25 years ago, there wasn’t much interest in the topic. Back then, it was seen as a dusty, old, psychoanalytic term, with little relevance to the time.

But in the past few years, interest in the concept has exploded with an abundance of articles and books on the topic.

According to Campbell, we are now living amid a narcissism epidemic, as many features of modern society fuel it. His latest book, “The New Science of Narcissism: Understanding One of the Greatest Psychological Challenges of Our Time—and What You Can Do About It,” points to a variety of ways contemporary culture breeds this behavior.

“If you were to design a society for narcissism to thrive, it would be a society where I could have lots of shallow relationships, where people never got to know my reputation if I cheated others, because I could just find new relationships,” Campbell said.

“It would be a society of style over substance.”

Self-Centered City Living

It’s easy to see how our culture promotes a sense of entitlement and selfishness. Influential entertainment and advertising industries have stimulated our desires for decades, whetted our appetite for status, and cultivated an aspiration for fame. More than any generation that’s come before, we yearn to feel special, and we’ve never had more opportunities to express it. We can show off any moment of our lives with a carefully staged selfie, or post a scathing public review whenever any product or service doesn’t meet our expectations.

Even the format of modern social environments contributes to this self-serving mindset. Campbell notes that narcissism fares best in big cities and online—places where you can maintain some degree of distance, and treat those around you as disposable. In a small town or close-knit community where everybody knows your business, this behavior becomes much harder to maintain.

“Narcissism is pushed out of those kinds of communities because people don’t want it around,” Campbell said. “Everyone knows if you’re full of yourself, so they just ignore you.”

Confidence and Consequences

Despite all the ways self-centeredness is sold to us, a narcissistic worldview always carries an unavoidable snag: It destroys relationships. Ask anybody who has been married to or has worked for a narcissist. Research shows that the people most impacted by this personality disorder are those who live and work closely with these individuals.

And yet, narcissists also tend to be very attractive. At least at first. Campbell says these people often exude confidence and power, which are positive traits in a potential mate. As time goes by, however, their charm fades; as you discover that they’re only in it for themselves.

As with other mental conditions, narcissism exists on a spectrum. We can all have moments where we feel that life is unfair, or that we’re not getting what we deserve out of it, as a result of petty inconveniences. Especially when our ego feels threatened, we can easily dismiss the feelings of others, and think solely of our own gains and losses. Hopefully, humility and compassion quickly bring us back to a more balanced perspective.

A full-blown narcissist, on the other hand, has no humility. He lives exclusively to elevate his ego, and feels little remorse for those he hurts. Several factors go into diagnosing the most extreme cases—Narcissistic Personality Disorder—but a key qualifier is when the behavior causes damage. Campbell says people who are merely arrogant but can still function reasonably without hurting others shouldn’t be diagnosed with a personality disorder.

The Epoch Times asked Campbell about what contributes to narcissistic behavior, and steps we can take to counter this trend.

Questions and Answers

The Epoch Times: When I think of a narcissist, I picture someone very extraverted and confident to the point of cocky. But you say there is another, much more common kind of narcissist that is fragile and covert?

W. Keith Campbell: When most think about narcissism they think of the grandiose. This is someone with self-importance, entitlement, assertiveness, and bold self-confidence. These are people who are full of themselves, but they end up doing reasonably well in life because they’re not afraid to date people, or be celebrities and politicians.

In our modern world of social media, the grandiose narcissist has become more important. They make more posts, and they promote themselves more. They’re in your face more. So you see a lot more of it.

But there is another form of narcissism seen more clinically which is vulnerable narcissism. The vulnerable narcissist still wants attention but they’re really scared of negative attention and getting attacked. So it’s a real push-pull. It’s a painful process.

If you’re a vulnerable narcissist, you still think you’re awesome, but you just think that other people are jerks. Vulnerable narcissism is core in a lot of problems and in a lot of suffering. I see it in myself all the time—my entitlement and my defensiveness. Somebody says something and I get wounded by that. It’s painful.

Clinicians who’ve been talking about narcissism since the 1960s or even before, have seen people who are more vulnerable than grandiose. A person would come in depressed, but when they started talking, the clinician would see that this person was really full of themselves, they just think everyone doesn’t appreciate their genius.

That’s in the extreme form. In the mild form, the person thinks they’re kind of a big deal and nobody appreciates them, but they’re too scared to go out there and fight. They’re living in this fearful space where they want attention and they’re scared to get it. They’re anxious a lot.

These people are more likely to end up seeing a clinician because they’re suffering. They feel that insecurity. With a grandiose narcissist, your wife and your kids are suffering. Your workers are suffering, but you’re not suffering so much. You feel good about yourself. It sort of works until it doesn’t.

The Epoch Times: What’s the dividing line between simply having narcissistic traits and those who have a genuine disorder?

Mr. Campbell: To be a clinical disorder, you have to have a high level of narcissistic traits, and if you read the DSM-5 [The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition], it’s a mix of grandiose and vulnerable. But you also have to have impairment. This is key. It has to be messing up your life somehow. Maybe it’s hurting your decision making because you take too many risks, or maybe you’re overconfident and you’re hurting your relationships. This is really important with a grandiose narcissist, because you might not feel bad, but you’ve ruined your marriage, or you’ve ruined your workplace.

For a vulnerable narcissist, you can have impairments like depression or anxiety. But you have to be clinically submitted and you need a psychiatrist to diagnose you. That’s why you’ll never hear me say, “That person has narcissistic personality disorder.” Making a clinical diagnosis requires clinically significant impairment, and it’s hard to do at a distance. That’s why I leave it up to the pros.

The Epoch Times: It’s clear why a vulnerable narcissist might seek help, but how are grandiose narcissists able to change? If you think you’re infallible, how do you admit you have a problem?

Mr. Campbell: In most of the research, if there’s a problem in therapy with a grandiose narcissist, they just bail. Or they don’t seek it in the first place.

But they do know they have a problem. One recent study that one of our grad students did looked at a huge group of narcissists and asked if they were aware of their traits, positive or negative. What we found was that grandiose narcissists would admit they were kind of antagonistic. They knew they were mean sometimes. They knew it was a problem, and they wished they weren’t like that as much.

So they are aware of it, and I think there are opportunities there to work with people. I’ve personally heard people say that they know they’ve hurt their family, and hurt their relationships. These people will see a happy family and say, “I want to have that in my life.” They might not want to give up what they do for themselves, but they see that it looks nice to have a family.

The Epoch Times: I’ve heard several horror stories from people who’ve had narcissistic partners, so you’d think this would be a personality type people would try to avoid. But you say just the opposite is true. So what makes narcissists so attractive?

Mr. Campbell: When we start dating in our culture, we’re looking for action-oriented traits: people who are confident, outgoing, and extraverted. They come up and introduce themselves. They’re looking to hook up. Those kinds of traits are associated with narcissism. You can be confident and a really lovely person, too, but these traits are also part of grandiose narcissism.

The standard model of a relationship is that you start dating casually, and intimacy grows over time. You start with the action-oriented part and move to the caring, communal part. You get to know each other, then you become more emotionally intimate.

But that transition doesn’t really happen as clearly with narcissists. At the beginning, they are exciting and super fun. Six months later, you are starting to think about the future and want to get to the intimate part of the relationship. But the narcissist wants to keep it shallow, keep it fun, and keep getting what he wants out of it. That’s when things start to break up.

It’s really hard because nobody wears an “I’m a narcissist” T-shirt when they’re at the bar. They never say, “I’m going to make you fall in love with me and then I’m going to wreck you. And then I’m going to make you doubt yourself and think you don’t know how to judge people.”

If you meet a fun, exciting, outgoing person, it’s hard to know how it’s going to turn out. You really have to get their track record. I believe past behavior is the best prediction of the future.

The Epoch Times: A narcissist is someone who lacks empathy. But why do we need empathy? What’s wrong with just looking out for yourself?

Mr. Campbell: The problem is the levels where things work. When you are selfish, hedonistic, and do exactly what you want all the time, you become impulsive. You commit crimes. You lose your relationships. Eventually, people just don’t want you around, because you’re always thinking about you.

There’s often a point where you have to sacrifice your own desires for the team or the family. But what you get is to be part of a group.

So if I’m on a football team, that means I become a team player. I support people when they score, and pass the ball so others can take the shot. My benefits over time will be much greater than if I’m just completely selfish. Sometimes, if you’re super-talented, you can get away with it for a while. But eventually, people won’t want you in their lives.

It’s about trading some of your own individual desires for the betterment of the group. In the long term, it benefits you, and the group. This is classic social theory, but you have to give up something you love to have something more. If you live for yourself, you don’t get that much. You have a very limited life.

The people who do what they want every day are not happy. You can look at the data: People who are impulsive aren’t happy, because they screw everything up.

A Legend in Your Own Mind

The Epoch Times: Social media often gets blamed for making us more self-centered, but another contributing cultural trend you mention is fantasy role play. How does this encourage narcissism?

Mr. Campbell: When I was in high school, you could be captain of the football team, but there weren’t a lot of other opportunities to be cool. But you could be part of a group, and that was fine.

Now, we’ve created a culture where everybody thinks they’re awesome, but you have a world where the actual opportunities to be awesome are still very limited. So we built these other areas where people could gain esteem, like Instagram, or multiplayer games. These are like full-time jobs where people can build a lot of status.

People get a lot of their narcissistic needs met in these fantasy worlds. It’s not just narcissism by any means, it can be creative, too. But that seems to be part of it.

The phrase “a legend in your own mind,” is about crafting a narrative of yourself. And fantasy role play gives you a real place to do it. You don’t have to be a CEO, a high-powered lawyer, or captain of the football team anymore. There’s a bigger space for people. It opens up the potential for status and esteem that wasn’t there before.

The Epoch Times: What can parents do to avoid raising a narcissist?

Mr. Campbell: First, be a good role model. Be a decent person. Love your kids.

The second thing I always say, because parents always want a mnemonic, is CPR.

C is Compassion. Teach them empathy, or at least demonstrate that yourself. You can be full of yourself, but as long as you have some compassion, you’re not going to be a disaster.

P is Passion. If you get people involved in any activity or pursuit that they’re really passionate about. Whatever kids are into—dance, sports, art—the ego isn’t involved as much. It’s more about flow state, intrinsic motivation, and joy. It’s much more fun for me to go surfing and just enjoy it than to take a bunch of pictures of myself surfing and show people how cool I am. Open up those passion channels for kids, and have them just enjoy what they’re doing.

R is Responsibility. This is about taking responsibility for your own actions, good or bad, and realizing that you’re responsible for the outcomes. The ability to take responsibility allows you to engage in a real way with the world. When things go well, you get credit, and when things go poorly, you get blamed. And over time, you can develop self-esteem from that. If you can see when you succeed or fail, you can know who you are. You know what you’re good at; you know what you’re bad at.

I’m a believer in natural consequences. If you go surfing and you fail, you get hit by a wave. Nobody tells you that you’re a bad person. You just get sucked into the water, and you don’t want to do that again.

It’s a learning process, but there’s no one else involved. It’s just nature or reality teaching you. I think that’s really important to ground people. If I got knocked over by the wind, it’s less emotionally painful than getting knocked over by another person. You can learn a lot.

I put my kids in situations that have natural consequences all the time. Kids get so excited by this, because they can figure out where they win and lose. Their skills can improve really quickly, and there’s not really ego involved because there is nobody judging them. It’s just them.

The Epoch Times: If we find ourselves in a close work or personal relationship with a narcissist, how should we handle it?

Mr. Campbell: A lot of it depends on the power structure of the relationship. You want to make sure they don’t have control over you. As much as you can, you need to protect yourself. If it’s in the workplace, they could come after you. So you need to be keeping records of everything and talking to HR. In the family, you have to figure out where your finances are. Really figure out the structure of the relationship, and make sure you’re not vulnerable to attack.

Then, once you feel safe and you’re not in a position where you can be taken out at the knees, it’s fine to engage them directly. If you have a narcissistic boss, figure out where you stand in the company, build some alliances, and then you can have a discussion about very specific behaviors that you have problems with. Don’t tell your boss that you think he’s a narcissist. Don’t go into it angry. You might think it sounds great to call him out on it, but it might not be.

I don’t mean to sound scary, but I’ve heard so many of these stories that I’ve become a big believer in making sure your bases are covered ahead of time. These people are so manipulative, and you’ll never win. You can never out-manipulate your narcissistic spouse. Taking the time to protect yourself is very important.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner