Is Narcissism The New Normal?

29/02/2016 11:43 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Man pointing at reflection in mirror

I recently read a New York Times article about narcissism becoming more prevalent in society. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a single friend of mine. She had begged me not to refer to her ex as a narcissist, because it was apparently the new buzzword of the dating world.

Everyone around her seemed to be dating a 'narcissist' and everyone she had ever dated had been a 'narcissist'. They were everywhere, those narcissists, and quite possibly she was one of them.

So when did narcissism become so ubiquitous?

Narcissism has been around since ancient Greece. In fact, Narcissus was a Greek God, son of River-God Cephissus and nymph Liriope. Myth would tell us that Narcissus scorned and disparaged those who loved him, so Nemesis (another Greek God) guided him to a body of water. Narcissus, in catching his reflection, became so obsessed with his appearance that he could perceive nothing else, and eventually lost the will to live.

While the myth of Narcissus has inspired writers and artists through the ages, from Ovid through to Carravaggio, Dali and Wilde, most people would say that narcissism has grown in the past 20 years or so, since the birth of social media and it's omnipresent, pervasive presence in modern society.

We're now all equipped with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. These platforms give us the potential to create our own personal brand and, in doing so, a celebrity-esque doppelganger (and I use the word doppelganger with care -- because it's not really ourselves represented in those digital worlds but the person we would like to truly be, carefully curated and meticulously executed).

So we're now bandying the word narcissist about as though it's our fundamental nature. But what does narcissism really mean? Psychology Today defines narcissism as: "Arrogant behaviour, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration -- all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships. People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centred, manipulative and demanding. Related personality traits include: Psychopathy, Machiavellianism."

Personally, I'd like to be struck down by a chronic case of Machiavellianism. I can see myself plotting and scheming in the alcoves of my house and office, drumming my fingers together with a raised eyebrow, potentially even developing some sort of affected British accent (after all isn't that how all cartoon villains speak?)

But no, it would appear that narcissism is the spirit of our day and of the times. So cast aside the Machiavellianism and instead start focussing on your own reflection in a body of water, or in the mirror, or in a selfie.

Are we all just a little bit obsessed with ourselves? Will we too, like the original Narcissus, become so fixated with our appearance and the perfect selfie that we'll just wither away and die?

Kim Kardashian's book, Selfish, a curated bunch of her very-best selfies, was a New York Times Bestseller, and actually had a series of extraordinary reviews. Kardashian was perceived as a 'trailblazer' of the selfie-movement (yes, there is something called a selfie-movement, I kid you not), a new form of digital portraiture.

And who am I to judge? Hell, I've taken enough selfies to not throw stones. So don't worry if you do too -- you're definitely on trend. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that narcissism is the zeitgeist of our age.

Georg Hegel, the German philosopher who coined the term zeitgeist (or almost did) in his work Lectures on the Philosophy of History, wrote: "no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit."

So, my friends, I ask you this -- Is the spirit of the narcissist our very own?

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