Narcissism is our latest online moral panic

The reality of the much-maligned personality disorder is being distorted by the internet.

by Jessica Lucas
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08 February 2022, 8:00am

When Lee Hammock was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in 2017, it felt like the end of the world. His search for answers about the condition had led him to the internet and he, like too many unsuspecting Google users, was overwhelmed and horrified by what he discovered. In the hierarchy of hypothetical social enemies, people with personality disorders like NPD rank somewhere in the top five, around sociopath, psychopath, and micro-sexuality-haver. As a result, in the cultural imagination of an increasingly jargon-literate internet, you are a master manipulator incapable of love. “We feel like we can’t be out in the world because we get vilified,” says Lee. “It’s like you’re a heretic.”

The interminable search for the narcissists among us has certainly spawned a lot of content. On TikTok, the hashtags #narcissist and #narcissism have racked up a collective 4.4 billion views, whilst the Reddit community r/raisedbynarcissists has grown by 100% in two years to over 750,000 users. But experts and community insiders are worried this preoccupation with NPD – presumably brought to you by the empaths who can feel your pain and are perfectly entitled to make it about them, actually – could have some negative repercussions. It would by no means be the first time: between the allegedly lovebombed women who labelled West Elm Caleb an emotional abuser and the true crime obsessives writing up administrative biographies in the event of their untimely death, the online sphere has made catastrophising one’s own life into something of a fine art.

According to Dr. Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist and lecturer for Harvard Medical School, narcissism is a normal personality trait which exists on a curve and impacts everyone in the world; full-fledged, clinical NPD, which affects roughly six percent of the population, is extremely rare. Still, Dr. Malkin is concerned that online scapegoating could deter narcissists, who often struggle to accept their flaws, from treatment. “When we create images of monsters who you have to look out for around every corner, and vilify narcissism, it makes people more reluctant to seek help,” he says. “Most of the people that I've seen who meet criteria for NPD, it felt like a death sentence to accept it.”

Although this could explain the rather gaping absence of self-identified narcissists from the online discourse around them, not everyone shies away from advertising their diagnosis. Lee, for one, makes videos about narcissism for over one million TikTok followers through his account @mentalhealness. “When you hear the word narcissist you don't think of someone like me, a married, Black father of three. You don't picture a human,” he says. “You picture some kind of demonic being.”

The influencer creates skits which work as a caricature of an interaction between a narcissist and their victim – like imagined arguments, first dates, and family events – in an effort to provide examples of narcissistic abuse while playing into existing narratives about the condition. “People see those skits and they recognise the behaviour. They say they didn't realise what they were going through,” says Lee, who also makes Q&A-style videos answering questions about NPD. “When my followers see other people commenting and going through the same thing, it helps them feel less alone.”

While Dr. Malkin acknowledges that Lee’s videos are beneficial in the sense they spread awareness about NPD, he has some reservations. While educational, Lee’s solo clips follow the one-person, low-budget formula that’s brought success to many TikTokers like ADHD influencer @connordewolfe, but it isn’t the most nuanced format. The over-the-top, one-dimensional image of narcissism presented by popular, viral content is (shocker) kind of harmful. “One of the biggest dangers is that we miss our own narcissism,” says Dr. Malkin, who refers to this phenomenon as projection. “We label the other person a narcissist and assume that they’re the problem.”

“People will promote a lot of misinformation. They start talking about eugenics.”

Like many of society’s ills, the vilification of narcissism is not just limited to TikTok. The Reddit group r/raisedbynarcissists was designed to help abuse survivors seek support and guidance – but the internet’s tendency to over-pathologise has taken its toll on the community. “I feel like there's a ton of confusion over the word narcissist right now,” says Helena*, a moderator of r/raisedbynarcissists from Illinois. “As much as I love our community – I think it's done a lot of good – I don't think that the name of this group helps at all.”

Despite the moderating team’s best efforts to educate its users, many members of r/raisedbynarcissists tend to immediately conflate abusers and those with conditions like NPD. “People will promote a lot of misinformation. They start talking about eugenics,” says Helena, whose attempts to erase and correct such posts with her fellow moderators prove to be an uphill battle each week. “They talk about how these people shouldn't be allowed to be born. They think they should be murdered.”

Unfortunately, according to Dr. Malkin, casual stigma makes it easy for people to think this way. “These people are not psychologists, so they tend to focus on narcissism in its most pathological forms,” he says. Often, the people who take this view are trying to help survivors of abuse, or understand abuse they’ve experienced themselves, but this hardline thinking only serves to further endanger victims. “It makes it harder for people to leave abusive relationships, because when they see signs of humanity, they tell themselves the person can’t be a narcissist. Then something horrible happens, and the cycle continues.”

While the internet’s obsession with narcissism may stem from the very real need to help victims of narcissistic abuse, it has in large part contributed to a monstrous stereotype of a personality disorder. As with a number of unfortunate offshoots from a burgeoning “accountability culture”, the results are a mixed bag, but also an inevitable consequence of a world trying to do better in a tumultuous information age. “Are they all dealing with narcissists? Maybe, maybe not. But they’re getting clarity and some kind of camaraderie, so they don't feel alone in the world,” says Lee. “It opens people's minds to the idea that something might be wrong in their relationship – and I think whatever it takes to help you heal is worth it.”

*Names have been changed.

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