Greek mythology tells the story of a man named Narcissus who was exceptionally cruel, even to those who loved him. As a punishment from the gods for a life poorly-lived, Narcissus was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Not realizing it was his own, Narcissus was so captivated by his image that he was unable to leave until he eventually perished there.
It is from this story that we get the term “narcissism”–an inordinate fascination with oneself, or excessive self-love. Vanity.
In extreme cases, this narcissism has been diagnosed as a type of personality disorder. In fact, the disorder has served as a scapegoat in the face of bad decision making–such as that of former senator John Edwards, whose explanation for committing adultery was “a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want.”
Now as much as these political scandals are almost becoming cliché, studies are now showing that such narcissism is not just for politicians anymore–it’s becoming more and more common among average Americans. A new book by psychology professors W. Keith Campbell and Jean Twenge entitled The Narcissism Epidemic charts the dramatic rise in the number of Americans who have the narcissism disorder. In a nationally representative sample of 35,000 Americans, one out of 16 respondents registered as a narcissist on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. These are people who agreed with statements like: “If I ruled the world it would be a much better place,” or, “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve,” and, “I find it easy to manipulate people.”
And young people appear to be the worst, registering highest in the population. Nearly 10 percent of twenty-somethings reported narcissistic symptoms, compared with only 3 percent of those over 65.
But what I found most interesting about the study was its conclusions about narcissism’s effect’s on society as a whole–and more specifically, dating and marriage. Interestingly, the rise in narcissism has been proportionate to the rise in the American “hook-up culture,” which the researchers explain as follows: “One of the hallmarks of a narcissist is short-term relationships that don’t require a lot of emotional investment…The current trend right now, especially among younger people, is that ‘I’m going to focus on myself, not on forging an emotionally close relationship.’”
Unfortunately, the consequences don’t end there. Narcissism has even more severe consequences for marriage. Because of the self-help culture mentality which teaches “I am great,” Americans have begun to scrutinize their romantic partners with a kind of “You better be great too” mentality. Twenge and Campbell have therefore concluded that the solution to having a healthy romantic relationship is NOT learning to love yourself first: “There is no evidence that people with very high self-esteem are any better in a relationship than people with low self-esteem.”
As Hannah Seligson of The Daily Beast summarized the situation,
“Narcissism, even in small doses, has shifted courtship into a high-stakes relationship culture. Now that people think more highly of themselves, expectations of what a relationship should be like have skyrocketed into the realm of superlatives. Twentysomethings not only expect to waltz into high-level career positions right out of college, they also expect partners who have the moral fortitude of Nelson Mandela, the comedic timing of Stephen Colbert, the abs of Hugh Jackman, and the hair of Patrick Dempsey.”
People are no longer encouraged to compromise or be patient. It is all about being fulfilled and making yourself happy, a practice that is not only toxic in marriages, but can lead to larger family problems. Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity explains, “Think of parenting. When your kid is being a pain, parents have to see the bigger picture—that being a parent has so many benefits and a deeper joy. It’s a perspective that people in good marriages have. Narcissists, however, have a big blind spot. For them, it’s about being fulfilled all the time.” This would perhaps explain why Americans are waiting much longer to have children, and on their own schedule.
It also explains why so many marriages are crumbling. Perel explains, “The culture of narcissism is about your personal happiness coming first and your partner coming second. It’s what’s at the core of divorce.”
So what does all of this mean for the self-help movement that seems to have fed our narcissistic culture? Some experts are saying it’s time to dump it. Therapist and relationship expert Terry Real concludes,
“There is a national obsession with feeling good about yourself. We have done a good job teaching people to come up from shame, but have ignored the issue of having people come down from grandiosity. Everything from feminism to 12-step recovery to religion has become about ‘I was weak, now I’m strong, go screw yourself. The danger is in narcissists taking this too far and blaming their partners if they’re not 100 percent satisfied in their love lives.”
All of this research seems to indicate that the Greeks had it right thousands of years ago when they first spun the tale of Narcissus: an over-emphasis on self leads to death. Perhaps not a physical death, but the death of everything around you–relationships, marriage, and family. And as Christians, we should not be surprised. All that narcissism really is is a form of idolatry–worship of the self. So while we should learn to love ourselves in a way that is healthy and recognizes the divine image in our created being, we should never be in the business of pushing self-help resources. Too many Christians teachers and writers fall on the wrong side of that line.
* For more on this, check out Hannah Seligson’s entire article here.