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what's the difference between feeling yourself and pathological narcissism?

In an age of self-love and promotion, it can be hard to distinguish the two.

by Douglas Greenwood
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25 July 2019, 9:14am

American Psycho

Look through your Instagram feed right now, and I can bet good money that there will be at least one selfie with a self-deprecating caption within the first few scrolls. “Seeking a face transplant,” I wrote on one of my own a few weeks ago. At the time, I didn’t think I was fishing for a DM slide of ‘u ok hun? :(‘ or for a friend to say “You have a really nice face, I’m sorry you can’t see that” -- but on some level, I definitely was. Maybe I was being vain, and yearning for the kind of attention I low-key crave to get through life. But it manifests in many different forms. After all, a few weeks earlier I posted a very similar selfie, very much feeling myself and looking for likes and attention. It garnered the same results just via a different approach.

Nowadays, it can often feel like our collective self-esteem is so low that we’re in constant pursuit of the approval of others. But is there something more sinister in our collective like-hunting? It’s sad but true that we all get a kick out of social media attention; psychological studies have shown that something as simple as a like on IG is “considered a sign of social approval” to young people. We rely on those around us -- or those who follow us -- to let us know either how great we are, beautiful we are or how much fun we’re having, rather than saying it ourselves. It sucks, but that’s one of the most obvious byproducts of living our lives online, where social acceptance has become both measurable and immediate. As a result, we’re not in a place to love and appreciate ourselves fully. If the internet exacerbates our greatest assets, it does the same to our biggest flaws too.

Look, first things first: being healthily interested in ourselves can be great! In a sea of self-doubt, isn’t it quite brilliant to find someone who’s so content with themselves? But how many times must you pat yourself on the back before you wind up simply sucking yourself off?

Last week, Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie revealed that she had put herself forward to be considered for a ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Emmy in lieu of the show’s producers, HBO, who didn’t submit her alongside co-stars like Lena Headey, Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner. But Gwendoline got the last laugh when she pushed through and made the final shortlist. A tweet from American radio host Julie DiCaro -- which stacked up 270,000 likes -- helped the news of Gwendoline’s proactive approach to getting industry recognition spread, along with the sage advice to “be your own biggest cheerleader”. The response was, unequivocally, one of support. Narcissism might spread like wildfire in the world of celebrity (a study in the Journalism of Research and Personality found that reality TV stars, actors and musicians were all the worst offenders when it came to self-obsession), but pathological narcissism on Gwen’s part this was not. Instead, it was the perfect encapsulation of what it means to love yourself in a healthy way. So what’s the difference?

Part of our struggle to toe the line between self-confidence and narcissism is down to childhood (isn’t it always). As psychotherapist and author of It’s Not Always Depression Hilary Jacobs Hendel tells me, during our most formative years, we’re taught to control compliments, and not let them get to our head. “We are all taught that it’s not okay to be too big, so we immediately diffuse compliments with ‘Not really’,” she tells me. Hearing a compliment triggers the positive emotions in our minds and bodies, but as adults, we’re quick to shut them away. “When you hear something positive about yourself, automatically your body starts to have this expansive appearance; a feeling of getting bigger -- that’s the root of the ‘big headed’ metaphor,” Hilary explains. “But when we get the responses -- ‘You’re conceited’, ‘You’re a show-off’, ‘Don’t get too big for your bootstraps’ -- we get a secondary emotion, shame, that squashes the original ones like pride and joy. Shame is an emotion that above all is there to prevent us from being disapproved of by the people we need and love. We avoid being banished or ostracised by burying our authentic pride and joy.”

Too much narcissism may be thought of as a form of mental illness, and we all sit at some point on its vast spectrum. Healthy narcissists, Hilary says, have “a healthy sense of self that comes about from being raised in a milieu where our narcissism was indulged when we were around the age of two; when a kid has exuberance and thinks they’re fabulous, [but they] grow out of that phase and are able to care about others as well as themselves.”

Pathological narcissism, however, manifests in a far more ugly way. You can spot it from afar. As Charlie Brooker never lets us forget, the modern mirror is a mobile phone, and the 2019 narcissist makes it their mission to be all over yours. In her book Destruction: Free Yourself from the Narcissist, self-help author Marianne Vicelich points out two of the traits that define the modern version of Freud’s initial diagnosis of malignant narcissism: “They want your attention” and “They need things right now”. Add to that one more: what authors Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, who wrote The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, consider “a lack of deep connections to others”.

"It’s a hard balance. But with our constant exposure to beautiful people online, indulging in a little bit of healthy narcissism and saying, ‘You know what? I am beautiful, and I am worthy of praise’, seems reasonable."

Bruce is a 23-year-old artist whose account sees his selfies interspersed throughout other examples of work. He’s aware of his narcissistic tendencies, suggesting he veers to the healthier side of the spectrum, “but I’m powerless when it comes to controlling it,” he says. “I’ve definitely cut down on social media, at least on my main account, just because narcissism and my autism can lead to some OTT and embarrassing points.” He credits “finstas” for becoming the go-to place to exorcise your narcissistic tendencies away from your more critical followers. 24-year-old Lottie is on the same page; her main account acts as a place for her make-up artistry, but it’s peppered with selfies in between. “If it was different and I used Instagram purely for the personal, I think I’d take time away from it to recenter myself,” she says. “I don’t know half the people on my Instagram personally, only a handful, but it’s important to realise who’s important in your life and whose opinion you really value. At the end of the day, we’re all on the internet for a reason and it’s easy to cultivate and carefully construct your appearance online in a way that makes you attractive to other people, more so than in real life. The more likes I get on something the more I feel appreciated.”

It’s a hard balance. But with our constant exposure to beautiful people online, indulging in a little bit of healthy narcissism and saying, ‘You know what? I am beautiful, and I am worthy of praise’, seems reasonable. If we were to accept compliments sincerely rather than deflecting them, Hilary believes it would have a genuine, measurable effect on our self-esteem, and bring us all a little bit closer to being narcissistic on a healthy level. “It would have a healing effect,” she affirms. “Slow down to a snail’s pace, and notice what physical emotions you’re aware of when you discuss a great thing that’s happened to you. The first thing that comes up is shame – but if you ask that shame to step aside for a moment, you can try and notice what emotions are there. You’re going against the messages your taught in society, but slowly you undo those by going back to those feelings of pride. It takes that back to the brain, and you increase your capacity to feel positive feelings.”

So there you have it: being a narcissist doesn’t have to be a bad thing, so long as you know where it stems from and you’re capable of controlling it. After all, it feels good to love yourself, and to know your own worth. Just don’t let it get to your head too much. Nobody likes a dickhead.