A Partial Defense Of Narcissism

Quiet Riot Girl believes that narcissism is less a personality disorder, and more a normal attribute of contemporary culture—even for men.

In 2010 it was announced that NPD—Narcissistic Personality Disorder—was to be removed from the next edition of the DSM—the psychiatry “bible’.

A few people such as Mark Simpson and I celebrated. Why? Because we believe, as Simpson’s work on metrosexuality has shown, that narcissism, far from being an individual “syndrome”, is a major aspect of the whole of culture. Men, in particular, have benefitted from growing acceptance of their “desire to be desired’, enabling them to express and look after themselves as much as women do.

But our celebrations were short-lived. Towards the end of last year, after much pressure from professionals and members of the public, it was announced that narcissism was officially sick again. It will appear in the 2013 DSM as originally planned.

Does this mean men across the land are turning in their hair straighteners and pink shirts? Are there mass group therapy sessions for recovering metrosexuals? No—of course not! It takes more than some fuddy-duddy psychiatrists to turn the tides of social change.

But the continued focus on NPD as a personality disorder has some worrying effects in my opinion. The main one I think is that it gives license to people to pathologise—talk about as if they are medical illnesses—normal behaviours by large numbers of people.

A stark example of this was an article in the UK about the British reporter Marie Colvin, who died in Syria recently. Journalist Jenny McCartney wrote:

It appears to me that what she stood for is especially important when set against the prevailing cultural current of our times. For although she certainly had an ego—no one could build a career in war zones without one—she seems to have been largely immune to the besetting diseases of narcissism and trivia which have come to devour so much of the modern age, and femininity in particular. [My emphasis.]

After identifying narcissism as a “disease” the journalist went on to say:

The schedules are packed with programmes about folk who are enormously fat, or frighteningly thin, or intent upon undergoing surgery to change their image or perceived age. This isn’t purely a media phenomenon: in real life, rising levels of obesity are already exacting a crippling toll on the NHS in terms of special equipment, gastric band surgery and a host of related diseases. People are simply gorging themselves to death.

In other words: narcissism is fatal. And people who display it should be what? Pitied? Treated by medical professionals? Discriminated against?

The writer also seemed to be suggesting narcissism is more of a problem for women than men. But I find when I look on youtube, facebook and twitter there are just as many phone-pics and videos of men showing off their bodies and style, if not more, than there are of women.

Once again men are being marginalised and ignored.

Another British journalist, this time in The Guardian, pathologised men’s narcissism and body consciousness in quite a pointed way. He asked:

what kind of sickness would make anyone want to emulate the washboard stomach of Men’s Health’s cover twit of the month? [Link added.]

Well, if he had read Mark Simpson‘s piece only a few weeks before in that very same newspaper he might have discovered that actually, the answer is a very ubiquitous kind of “sickness” called “metrosexuality”.

So in fact, whilst these journalists are making out they are “concerned” about the state of people’s sense of self in the 21st century, what they are really doing, is encouraging people, including metrosexual men, to feel bad about themselves.

A psychology journal made an odd historical comparison to contemporary narcissists, stating:

While this pattern of behavior may be appropriate for a king in 16th Century England, it is generally considered inappropriate for most ordinary people today.

In doing so they demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of contemporary culture, for ours is The Dorian Gray Age, and we all admire our portraits lovingly in all sorts of media, especially online, all the time.

Whilst I accept that there are some mental health issues that do involve people elevating their sense of self-importance to unhealthy heights, I do not think the term “narcissism” is the correct term to use to describe them.

This defence of narcissism is partial in that, whilst I am an enthusiast for metrosexual masculinity, including its core ingredient of “self-love” I am not saying narcissism is always positive. What I am saying is it is one of the most common characteristics of contemporary men (and women), and so to maintain its status as a psychiatric disorder is wrong, harmful and way behind the narcissistic times.

 

Read more from the special section on mental illness

Photo credit: Flickr / qisur

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About Quiet Riot Girl

Quiet Riot Girl is a blogger with a keen interest in gender and sexuality. She has just self-published her first novella, about what might have happened if Michel Foucault, the french homosexual philosopher, had have had a daughter.

Comments

  1. Peter Houlihan says:

    “Once again men are being marginalised and ignored.”

    Wait, men are being marginalised by not being identified by journalists as having an imaginary disease? ;)

    Just wondering though: beyond the glib diagnoses of men using more than one kind of hair product as being mentally ill, is there an actual sickness here? I’m sure its possible for men (and women) to have an unhealthy self obsession that may need clinical treatment.

    • Hi Peter – well I said my defence was partial.

      if ‘an unhealthy self-obsession’ requires clinical treatment then maybe we should inform Mikey Sorrentino, David Beckham and Eminem? :D

      • Butterscotch says:

        Hi,it has been in my best interests to study the choices I make.So ,the education of attitudes,emotive tendences,degree of authenticity integrty led me to start and continue PA,thirty years now.With the poor examples around me I sought out the healing and planning for my life.What came first,upon all other efforts and dedication would rest ,is understanding of the purpose and usefulness of historic co operations among civil societies.That said the next on my list was to discover the self defeative emotive defences that my personality display,to everyone…EXCEPT ME.And I am sure it is the same in most others…So if it is accompanied with anything other than integrity,it may very well cause problems.Directed to problem solving is an adult developed expression of vanity…………..

  2. According to Michael Stefanone: “women in general are online more than men, and they also post five times as many photos on their Facebook pages.”

    Stefanone, M. A., Lackaff, D., & Rosen, D. (2011). Contingencies of self-worth and social networking site behavior. CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14(1-2), 41-51.

  3. kind of ridiculous point of view, people with npd are much morethan obsessewith their appearance they are abusive, you marginalized narcissism, not men. narcissistic traits are what you are talking, being vain these are pretty miniscule things compared to having no empathy for others or lying to get what you want or manipulating others, these are the reasons it be a disorder. is it becoming so common that people without high levels of narcissism are the minority in American society….possibly. the media, tv, facebook, Twitter make us all believe life is about me me me. this is not what GOD intended for us

  4. Chris Smale says:

    I am a lawyer dealing in family law.

    I will tell you that the incidence of female NPD amongst conflicted families – divorce and suchlike is terrifyingly high. If you use as a criterion the cases that come before lawyers I would say the incidence of female NPD is 50%. Think of the implications of that as an indicator as to who is bringing up the children of separated parents! It is a fact which most lawyers observe but sweep under the carpet.

    I agree with Quiet Riot Girl in that I am sceptical of calling NPD a personality disorder. I think it is a cultural phenomenon. If you want to give a name to the place the problem is rooted may I suggest, controversially the name would be “feminism”. Feminism is the kind of collective NPD that society has bought into.

    I disagree with Quiet Riot Girl’s take in this article. Narcissism is far more than being obsessed with your appearance. The article fails to touch the real problematic behaviour and trail of destruction wrought by NPD.

    • Interesting take Chris. I am going to digest your comments and get back to you.

      I think I am just uncomfortable with the term ‘narcissism’ always meaning something bad.

  5. Chris Smale says:

    cw wrote

    “kind of ridiculous point of view, people with npd are much morethan obsessewith their appearance they are abusive, you marginalized narcissism, not men. narcissistic traits are what you are talking, being vain these are pretty miniscule things compared to having no empathy for others or lying to get what you want or manipulating others, these are the reasons it be a disorder. is it becoming so common that people without high levels of narcissism are the minority in American society….possibly. the media, tv, facebook, Twitter make us all believe life is about me me me. this is not what GOD intended for us”

    Good points cw

  6. Clinical NPD and narcissism are not actually the same thing.

    • I know. I am arguing that whatever the mental health problems that are associated with/labelled with ‘NPD’ should not be called ‘narcissism’ in the title. I think it does everyone a disservice.

      • It felt ambiguous to me, but maybe because I read it late at night. With that said, I agree. The common view of narcissism is way out of line with what actual pathological narcissism actually looks like. It does both the people who don’t have narcissism but simply have a healthy self interest and the people who actually suffer from the mental illness a disservice.

  7. Having had my life systematic ruined for over a decade by an actual narcissist I am deeply concerned by this articles misreading of the word. Narcissism doesn’t mean vanity. Vanity is the most obvious part of Narcissism, but NPD altogether much more sinister than simple image-arrogance. NPD is, after Anti-Social Personality Disorder (the condition formerly known as psychopathy), the disorder second most likely to be present in a murderer. Narcissism takes that vanity up as a sense of entitlement. The narcissist’s mind says, hey it’s Ok to kill my children if Social Services try to take them from me, because they are not people equal to me, they are property, they are mine, and I am Godlike, I will take them rather than let them exist outside of my control. Anders Brevick, Fiona Donnison, Josh Powell, Lianne Smith, Brian Blackwell, Iain Brody- all narcissists whose distorted and limited grasp of reality led them to kill persons made vulnerable by age or proximity. The one connecting factor? The victims did not serve the purposes of the narcissist. I could submit a whole article on this, but please, for the sake of those of us who survived a Narcissist and those who are still trying to, learn the difference.

    • Chris Smale says:

      Yes Sarah. I agree.

      I have been profoundly affected by my experience of real NPD. Although my line of work leads me to a mainly male experience of female NPD your post hit home really well.

      I don’t dismiss the original article out of hand. I think QRG raised interesting enough points. But I think it failed to distinguish between narcissism as the kind of innocent thing normal people do in the gym or in the mirror or the internet even – and clinical NPD which tears lives apart.

  8. Hi all – especially Sarah and Chris Smale.

    I am in no way dismissing the severe kinds of mental health problems that cause the behaviours listed under ‘NPD’. I am rejecting them as a result of ‘narcissism’ per se. And saying that linking illness to narcissism doesn’t help either, as Collin said, sufferers of mental health problems (or their loved ones) or those who display narcissism in a healthy way.

    The psychiatry establishment was about to remove NPD from the DSM. But didn’t due to pressure.

  9. Chris Smale says:

    QRG

    Maybe the point of your article wasn’t as obvious to me as it should have been. We read these things too fast. I am grateful for discussion of the subject. I think the label “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” like other labels eg “Parental Alienation Syndrome” or whatnot merely disguise bad behaviours. I think they are psycho-babble. What we used to call “narcissism” is innocent. I suspect you and I are of the same mind?

    • Hi Chris

      Yes I pretty much agree with you there.

      I think as well it could be an interesting exercise to link previous comments about feminism, and ‘psychobabble’. Because I think feminism is full of psycho-babble!

      and some of it demonises and makes monsters and ‘psychos’ out of men without justification.

      QRG

    • So, let me understand what you are saying, Chris. You think that NPD or say antisocial personality disorder, are just made up things to excuse bad behavior?

      • I’d also like an answer for this. Men as well as women are affected by personality disorders and, as I’ve know quite a few, find the disorder quite troubling when they are fully aware of it. It’s not “feminism” anymore than it’s “MRA.” It’s a disorder that profoundly affects the person’s ability to navigate social interactions.

        • Chris Smale says:

          I wrote previously:

          “I am a lawyer dealing in family law.

          I will tell you that the incidence of female NPD amongst conflicted families – divorce and suchlike is terrifyingly high. If you use as a criterion the cases that come before lawyers I would say the incidence of female NPD is 50%. Think of the implications of that as an indicator as to who is bringing up the children of separated parents! It is a fact which most lawyers observe but sweep under the carpet.”

          The incidence of male NPD is much less. But this is not the point. Bad behaviour (and I mean truly evil stuff) is not the domain of either men or of women. Men and women are not held to the same standards. That is he reason why men with NPD partners lose their children to evil women. The incidences of it being the other way round are almost negligible. This is an outcome of feminist ideology.

          I use the word “evil” advisedly. I think it is a better description than NPD, Collin..

          • I seriously doubt you understand what is actually required for a person to be diagnosed with a legitimate personality disorder. Psychiatrists/psychologists don’t dole out personality disorder diagnoses willy-nilly.

            I am far from the crusading feminist, but I honestly don’t think you have any idea what you’re talking about.

            • to be honest Collin, I think people who have ‘no idea’ what they were talking about were the ones who pressured the psych establishment to keep NPD in the DSM. Psychiatrists wanted it removed but bowed to pressure. Including from members of the public!

            • There is a whole long debate about the legitimacy of NPD when it could be considered subtypes of other personality disorders like Avoidant Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder just to name a few. In general, there is a great deal of overlap between many personality disorders and, really, I think diagnoses of personality disorders can be tough to differentiate depending on the mix of symptoms.

            • Collin you are correct. Personality disororders are often blended, that being said very hard to diagnose. People with NPD rarely if ever are diagnosed, because if there is a problem with something in a persons life it is life that is the problem not the one afflicted. You will rarely if ever see anyone who is outright diagnosed with NPD. BPD or Avidant yes, becasue sometimes these folks attempt suicide or something to get them treatment. NPDers would never try to kill themselves, they are Godlike actually. Chris Smale is correct, it NPD runs rampant. I can agree with the point that NPDer could just as soon be called evil. If you have ever met a shrink who has treated NPD, they say it is almost always a losing battle, maybe this is why they took it off. A person with NPD especially covert NPD is a chameleon and they know what people want and expect from them, thus a therapist will often think they are pretty normal. But these people are far from normal, they can justify about anything that they do. Until you see people lives ruined by a person with these issues, do not downplay how serious it is. The person with NPD will almost never appear affected by the horrible things they do to people, you will never have an i am sorry or an apology, in fact you will be blamed for everything and this my friends is the worst kind of abuse….

  10. This article is offensive to anyone who has been abused by a person with NPD.
    QRG: You seem to use “narcissism” and “NPD” almost interchangeably but they are, in fact, very different things. I can assure you that nobody who has been abused by someone with NPD would say it was because their abuser had too much “self-love” or cared too much about their hair straightener. You could have chosen to do some good in the world by writing about the difference between the common interpretation of narcissism and how that differs from NPD. Instead, your approach undermines and diminishes the abuse suffered by victims of those with NPD. You minimize what NPD actually is and reduce it to a list of petty, superficial behaviours. If you want to write about the importance of self-love that’s fine, and a worthy topic, but that would be a very different article than the one you wrote.
    Two of the main reasons victims of abuse don’t come forward is because they’re afraid nobody will believe them, and they are ashamed and believe that the abuse was somehow their fault. Your article perpetuates this. Victims of NPD have no bruises to prove they were abused. All they have is shattered lives and crushing self-doubt. Do you really want to give abusers (and society) more reasons to blame the victim, and do you really want to give victims even more reasons to doubt themselves? NPD is not something to be taken lightly, and it’s NOTHING like the common understanding of narcissism.
    Please, please educate yourself better before posting articles about topics as serious as this.

    • Hi Linda.
      I have educated myself.

      I have read a number of accounts by psychiatrists and psychologists who DISAGREE with the decision to keep NPD in the DSM, and to keep using the label ‘narcissist’ to describe what I and they believe to be serious mental health problems.

      QRG

      • I can’t tell how much disagreement there really is here, but would it be accurate, QRG, to say that you don’t object to the constellation of symptoms currently classified as NPD being diagnosed and treated as a serious disorder, but you object to the “N” part in the label, because “narcissism” seems like a piss-poor word for describing it given its everyday casual meaning? Or do you think the condition itself, regardless of the name attached to it, is just some psycho-mythology that should get the axe like outdated theories about demon possession and bodily humors?

        If it’s a name quibble, I have a similar one with it comes to Bipolar Disorder. There are several sub-classifications of BPD, but it irritates me that while a single major depressive episode does not qualify for diagnosis as bipolar, a single manic episode does. Thus, someone who has experienced a single severe mania, but never the depressive side, and none of the cycling back and forth that is usually associated with bipolar (a.k.a. manic-depressive) is still diagnosed and treated as bipolar. The rationale is that very few people who have a severe manic episode will ever have just the one without treatment, but still, the very word “bipolar” describes two states – and evokes that expectation and stigma in anyone who hears the word – so it always strikes me as a terrible label for people who’ve only experienced one side of it, one time.

        Pardon my tangent, but my point is that I can relate to having a strong distaste for the label associated with a condition, even when I concede the reality of the condition itself. If it’s the condition itself you think doesn’t belong in the DSM, independent of what label they slap on it, I disagree. I tend to side with those who say it warrants inclusion, but I can’t say it’s a debate I’ve followed closely or feel like I have a stake in.

        On the broader issue of the vocabulary of mental health/illness, I think there’s a huge chasm between what some words mean clinically, versus how they get used and what stigmas attach in everyday language. It feels like a constant battle to fight the misconceptions that occur because so much vocabulary gets used loosely and disparagingly in everyday conversation, that has very specific, non-trivial, high-stakes meaning to people who care about those words in the clinical since, either because they’ve been diagnosed with them, or have been close to people who have. That’s why it grates on some people so much to have words like “narcissist”, “bipolar”, or even “crazy” tossed around as insults and pejoratives, when to them, it’s a condition to be afflicted with, not just slang to describe someone who’s being a dick/bitch.

        • Hi Marcus thanks for your comments. Very perceptive.

          I have some problems with how all mental health problems are diagnosed and labelled to be honest, which would make a different and longer discussion. I am influenced by Foucault who was very critical of the ‘clinical model’ of psychiatric illness overall. I am also influenced by Freud who was loathed to label and pathologise individuals, but rather showed up patterns of mind and behaviour that are apparent, in a greater or lesser degree in all of us.

          • I don’t know enough about Foucault to comment on his views, but I think Freud’s contributions to psychology, while very influential and important in the development of the field, have been largely replaced by more sophisticated thinking and methodology, particularly when it comes to neurobiological factors that were completely unknown and inaccessible in Freud’s day.

            I’m not a big fan of modern psychiatry, but I’m even less of a fan of any era of psychiatry that preceded this one, since it gets less and less scientific the farther back you go, back to the point where there was no “psychology” and you just had people who weren’t possessed by demons, and people who were. I don’t think psychology will ever evolve to level of hard science that we see in something like physics, but even so, there are bona fide scientific advances and discoveries that continue to improve it as a field, which carries over (eventually) to clinical practice.

            Maybe modern clinical psychiatry is like democracy: it’s the worst form of psychology except for every other kind that’s been tried. (Hat tip to Winston Churchill.) At least it beats exorcisms, asylums, and electro-shock therapy in days of yore. I sure wouldn’t want to see it return to a more Freudian approach, although in it’s day, that was probably the best available option, too.

  11. MichelleG says:

    There is a difference between confident and narcissism, much like the difference between assertiveness and aggression — one is healthy and one is not.

    Our world/culture has increasingly become narcissistic (reality TV, Facebook), so in order to make all the narcissists we’ve been producing, feel normal and admired, experts have been pressured to downgrade and remove narcissism from the DSM. Which I think is a bad move and a shame. Regardless if the vast majority share this trait, narcissism is not a virtue!

    Consider the following:
    “It’s at this stage of egomania and narcissism where most personalities stop developing; they remain in an infantile state even though they have matured physically. Ego-satisfaction is the only concern, avoiding punishment by authority figures and achieving one’s individual goals is the life-game, and understanding or awareness is totally unnecessary and boring. The authority figures will tell us what is real and what we’re supposed to do, so we have absolutely no need to think for ourselves. Since personal satisfaction is primary, however we achieve our goals is okay. There are no moral values beyond feeling good about ourselves and making others fear and respect us. Any consideration for the good of others is weakness and stupidity.”

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