Narcissism Isn’t On The Rise, More People Are Just Speaking Out

Narcissism isn’t on the rise, more people are just speaking up - Openletr Cover.png
Self-awareness is not self-centeredness, and spirituality is not narcissism. ‘Know thyself’ is not a narcissistic pursuit.
— Marianne Williamson

Let’s talk about narcissism. It’s a word that’s been weaponized in recent decades against any number of people: those who annoy us, those who strike us as self-obsessed, and parents who may not have done such a hot job raising us.

I used to love the word and even bought one of those books that described narcissistic traits in exhausting detail, which allowed me to identify friends and family in the margins. Years later, when I flipped through it, my face went hot with shame, as I realized how narcissistic it was to get excited about identifying all the narcissists in my life. My own name didn’t grace any of those margins. Narcissists were something other people were, and it was my job to identify them. It was satisfying, like making a citizen’s arrest.

But the word continues to grow in popularity and many claim that narcissism is “on the rise.” Whole cultures are considered narcissistic. Whole generations are. It’s occurring to me that in getting excited about spotting narcissists everywhere, we have lost some scope on the matter.

The notion of narcissism first appeared in Greek mythology in reference to Narcissus, the pretty boy, who couldn’t stop looking at his own reflection. Psychology picked it up as a term for someone too selfish and grandiose. Think Donald Trump, who is a narcissist extraordinaire. He has accomplished nothing greater than displaying a narcissism so flamboyant it would seem cartoonish were it not for its malignancy. After all, if you consider what it involves, a person interested in oppressing another must be suffering from some sort of malignant narcissism, as it subjugates anyone who isn’t like the oppressor in the most intimate of ways. The oppressed are dehumanized by pathologizing their humanity, no matter how much it mirrors that of the oppressor. Their feelings are wrong and their way of expressing themselves is wrong. This is repeated until they believe it themselves and hate every aspect of their being that is dissimilar to the oppressor’s, who has made himself the standard. The cruelty is so effective that the oppressor’s self-adoring gaze is often projected successfully onto the world despite the propaganda.

We could make a solid argument that Donald Trump is one of the few who fits the exact description of narcissistic personality disorder, which is very rare. The Mayo Clinic defines it as “[…] a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Trump knocks that out of the park.

But what about the rest of us and what are people talking about when they say narcissism is on the rise?

Psychology Today describes it as a phenomenon in which young people, in particular, are more frequently selfish and only interact with or help others for some personal gain.

In college, I read an account of an ancient Roman who laid out the rules for the patriarchy of the day as he saw it: a wife should obey and please her husband by mirroring his feelings, expecting her to forgo her own emotions. It wasn’t just in Rome—those oppressive patriarchal views persisted well into the 19th and 20th centuries, and, in many places, continue to thrive. In the United States, women were expected to be obedient in marriage, could not own property, did not have rights over their own children and could not vote. White culture picked that up. It uses those of European descent as the gold standard for humanity and for what is the preferred perspective on all important matters. White narcissism claimed to discover an inhabited land and made heroes of the swindlers and opportunists that killed natives and swept the rest off the land they wanted to conquer. White narcissism got rich by ruining thousands of Africans lives and their descendants and justified it with a bogus mathematical calculation that afforded their prisoners less humanity.

When the narcissism of unjust rulers is allowed to flourish unchecked, it’s the ruled ones who pay the price. They are diminished to the point of effective non-existence. A woman who is not allowed her own agency or emotions becomes a sacrifice for the narcissism of her husband and all the men in her life. Similarly, a community expected to live without rights at all, as in the case of Africans imprisoned for slave labor, becomes a sacrifice to the narcissism of a race that views everyone else as inferior. It’s bloody and there’s killing involved. Now that’s narcissism, and narcissism has ruled the globe for all of human history. There wasn’t much empathy and people weren’t cooperating. It’s just that the voices of the oppressed were easier to silence. Whenever people imply we’ve lost something—kindness, civility, empathy—I always pause. What do they think has been going on around here for thousands of years?

These days, as I see it, the opposite is true for most of us. More people have a voice and they use it. More people have platforms, even if it’s a quiet blog and a YouTube channel, or they just comment on news stories. Women are speaking up, people of color are speaking out, and people of all ages are taking to the streets to fight for a culture that strives to include everyone rather than clings to racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes that have caused so much harm.

There will always be narcissists. But they’re where they often are, in leadership positions they’re not qualified for, and it has nothing to do with the youth. It has nothing to do with a culture that is excitingly in the process of reclaiming itself. People are discovering their value and their power and learning how to erect necessary healthy boundaries. As more people learn their own value, the more we will dismantle the narcissistic patterns that have been ruling us for millennia. We are often a slow-witted and awful species, but so many more of us have taken to the streets to protest injustice or sailed from Sweden to yell at the United Nations, or stood up for people who don’t look like us. Our ability to empathize and love is growing, even if gradually, not shrinking. This is something to celebrate. We are something to celebrate.

Cover photo via Sheable