From carefully tweaked glamour shots to extreme selfies—those stomach-churning snapshots of individuals hanging precariously from skyscrapers or posing in front of moving trains—selfies are the lifeblood of social media, and no profile is complete without at least a few of them. And, everyone knows at least a few people who are particularly enthusiastic about capturing their faces from every angle and posting their pictures for all to see. This trend is so widespread that many have wondered if it’s created a generation of narcissists….
The Truth about “Selfitis”
A few years ago, an article claiming that the American Psychiatric Association classified taking selfies as a new mental disorder made its way through social media feeds.
According to the author, the APA defined “selfitis” as “the obsessive-compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for the lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy.” The article broke down three levels of the disorder, including borderline selfitis, acute selfitis and chronic selfitis, and noted that there while there was no cure for selfitis, cognitive behavioral therapy was an effective treatment.
Unfortunately, the fact that the article was published to The Adobo Chronicles, a popular satire site, escaped the notice of many. The APA never made this distinction, and most health professionals agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong with posting selfies.
In fact, a recent study that looked at the selfie habits of 276 college students found that there wasn’t a correlation between narcissism and posting selfies. Those who scored low on a measure of narcissism posted as many selfies as those who had high scores. Some students provided narcissistic reasons for posting selfies, but for others, it was a way to connect with others or boost their own self-esteem.
Does a Photo Reel Say Anything About Mental Health?
While the “selfitis” article was satire, it may contain a grain of truth, particularly for those who post dozens of pictures of themselves to their social media page daily. Taking and editing a selfie gives the individual an opportunity to control how they’re perceived: They can emphasize the features that they like most while downplaying or even eliminating the features they don’t like. The end result is far from authentic and may only vaguely resemble the individual, but it’s the image that they feel comfortable sharing with the world.
While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the selfie-loving individual is a narcissist, at its core, this desire to control the viewer’s perception is narcissistic. As is the case with most narcissistic tendencies, it may cover insecurities and leave the individual feeling as if they don’t measure up to their own standards.
Narcissism and Mental Health
What Is Narcissism?
Narcissism has become something of a buzzword that’s frequently thrown around, particularly in relation to social media habits. To a certain degree, a small dose of narcissism is healthy. It can help foster a positive self-image, help the individual cope with embarrassment, take pride in their accomplishments and have a balanced interest in their appearance and how others perceive them. However, a narcissistic personality disorder, also called “pathological narcissism,” goes far beyond feeling pride in accomplishments; it’s a brain disorder that often needs professional intervention.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines NPD as a personality disorder that’s characterized by a lack of empathy, a need for admiration and a pattern of grandiosity. This is a relatively uncommon condition, with only about 6 percent of people being diagnosed with it at some point in their lives. It’s associated with a variety of signs and symptoms, such as:
- A need for constant admiration
- A lack of empathy
- Being preoccupied by grandiose fantasies of money, power, fame or success
- A need to be recognized as special or superior to others
- An exaggerated sense of self-importance
- A sense of entitlement
- An arrogant or demanding attitude
- A belief that everyone is secretly envious of them
- A tendency to exaggerate talents
- Being manipulative of others
It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between being narcissistic and having NPD. Most people demonstrate narcissistic tendencies at some point in their life, but as a brain disorder, NPD is fairly rare.
Narcissism and Co-Occurring Mental Health Issues
Like many mental illnesses, NPD is often accompanied by co-occurring disorders such as substance use disorder, various forms of depression, and sociopathy.
Narcissism and Addiction
Despite the overconfident facade, NPD can cause extreme isolation and loneliness. Individuals with this disorder may feel as though they don’t live up to the image they’ve created, which can cause feelings of shame and worthlessness. The very nature of the disorder makes it difficult for the individual to form meaningful, lasting relationships, which is a crucial part of mental wellness.
To deal with these feelings of isolation and worthlessness, many individuals self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs. The belief in their own superiority may also make them more likely to participate in risky behaviors, as many with this disorder don’t believe that their actions could have negative consequences.
Narcissism and Depression
According to a 2020 study, those with pathological narcissism are at a higher risk of depression. While researchers aren’t entirely sure why this is the case, it’s been suggested that an individual’s inability to deal with uncomfortable emotions may be at the root.
Like all mental health disorders, pathological narcissism is complex. On the one hand, its characterized by extreme arrogance— the individual’s genuine belief in their own superiority. On the other hand, there’s a vulnerable aspect. Many with this disorder faced adversity in their formative years in the form of trauma, abuse, or neglect. They understand how to accept empathy from others without seeing the give-and-take nature of healthy relationships. Those around them often end up feeling burned out and decide to end the toxic relationship.
To hide their flaws and avoid the pain of losing a relationship, an individual with NPD may work hard to maintain a certain image while growing more detached and depressed. Rather than working through these feelings, the individual allows them to build up over time. Eventually, these feelings may disrupt work performance and daily routines, leaving the individual feeling out of control and further driving the cycle of depression.
Narcissism and Bipolar Disorder
There’s a lot of overlap between pathological narcissism and bipolar disorder. Both disorders may cause the individual to set high, unattainable goals, have an exaggerated sense of self-confidence, and become more prone to participating in risky behaviors.
Particularly during manic episodes, an individual with bipolar disorder may present narcissistic personality traits. There’s disagreement among experts over whether the conditions overlap or if they’re actually occurring separately. Even so, it’s commonly recognized that narcissism and bipolar disorder often go hand-in-hand, and professional help is beneficial.
Narcissism and Sociopathy
The clinical term for sociopathy is antisocial personality disorder. Similar to NPD, APD generally develops during adolescence, and it tends to have a profound effect on how the individual interacts with their world. Common traits of APD include a disregard for social norms, a lack of remorse, and aggressive behaviors.
Individuals who have NPD or APD can be charming, intelligent, and charismatic. Senses of entitlement and exaggerated self-images are common across both personality disorders, along with a lack of empathy and emotional responsiveness.
Generally speaking, those with APD meet the DSM-5’s criteria for narcissism, but those with pathological narcissism don’t necessarily have APD.
Treating Narcissistic Personality Disorder
There are conflicting opinions among experts over whether personality disorders such as NPD can be cured, but those living with this disorder can benefit from treatment. Most who are treated for this and other personality disorders benefit from a combination of one-on-one talk therapy and group therapy sessions. These sessions may help the individual learn to relate better to others and build meaningful relationships with healthy interactions. They can also help the individual explore the causes of their emotions and what drives their feelings of entitlement and superiority, along with repressed feelings of low self-esteem and shame. Therapy sessions also give the mental healthcare professional the opportunity to identify and address co-occurring disorders.
Living with Narcissism
Individuals living with pathological narcissism can learn how to maintain healthy relationships and lead productive lives, but help from an experienced mental healthcare provider is essential. At FHE, we specialize in treating a broad range of disorders. To learn more about our programs, call us at (844) 209-9875.