While the quality of education in America has sunk ever deeper into the toilet, there’s been a correlating impression by many recent graduates that they know everything. I realize this is not a new phenomenon—God knows that I knew way more in 1994 than I do now—but what’s fascinating to me is the way that a lot of kids in this generation kick around fifty cent words that they have a very foggy definition of (very foggy), ultimately changing the essential meaning of the word through nuance and ignorance.
Narcissism is one of those words, and it’s coming up quite a bit in terms of self-obsessed reality television stars, with Snooki from Jersey Shore going so far as telling Barbara Walters, “I think I’m fascinating.”
And so Snooki, who I’ve only read about because I rarely watch television in general and never watch reality television because I know enough people in real life that are far more interesting than idiots who transform themselves into a Barbie caricature or whatever, has become sort of the narcissism spokesperson for the “Me Generation” … but interestingly, narcissism (or narcissistic personality disorder, if you want to be precise), is reportedly on the American Psychiatric Association’s chopping block for inclusion in the psych bible Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
So does this mean that the self-obsessed are going to have to face some hard facts here?
In most cases there’s a difference between a clinical narcissist and one you see on TV, psychologist Keith Campbell tells NPR’s Audie Cornish.
“The thing that makes it clinical is when you go to the extreme where it’s pervasive, where it affects all aspects of your life,” says Campbell, who heads the psychology department at the University of Georgia and co-authored a book, The Narcissism Epidemic.
If you’re a clinical narcissist, he says, there’s real pathology associated with it.
“You can’t help yourself but try to get attention or seek admiration,” Campbell says. “It interferes with your life. … [I]t distorts your decision-making. It destroys your relationships.”
I know some people (not a ton, fortunately, but enough) that really fit this definition. Most of them have very little reason to think particularly highly of themselves, which makes me think that there’s got to be some sort of legitimacy to narcissism as a mental problem. There’s one guy I know that I can totally picture sitting and staring proudly into his reflection in a pool of water like the mythological Narcissus even as his children are hungry and his bills go unpaid. Scary.
However, according to Dr. Campbell, narcissism is pretty much just “a manifestation of normal personality.” If the proposed changes to the 2013 edition of DSM go through, a psych patient would instead hear about where certain traits place them on a “continuum or spectrum” where they’ll then be told, “You have high levels of traits that are associated with narcissism.”
Is the terminology really changing anything? Is telling someone that he’s been diagnosed with a “narcissistic personality disorder” any different than telling him that he has a lot of traits on the narcissistic continuum? I get ridiculously aggravated by things like this, where the essential underlying bottom line doesn’t change, but people have to fuck around with the wording. It happens all the time in the education field, and sometimes it just makes me want to scream.
Especially because, in the case of narcissism—continuum narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder—the treatment (generally therapy) wouldn’t change a bit. What Campbell is hoping for here is that societal perception of narcissism will be what changes.
And while things won’t change much for those on the couch, he says, the way we talk about narcissism in culture might.
“When this happened I went and looked at Twitter just to see what people were saying about it,” Campbell says. “The most common response was, ‘It must be so normal now, it’s no longer a disorder.’”
And the second-most?
“‘Gee, I guess I’m OK, then’,” Campbell says. ”People see there’s narcissism everywhere, and they’re just shocked … that they’re considering getting rid of it. It’s such a perfect term for so much of what we see in society.”
Um … is it just me, or does Campbell sound about as knowledgeable as Snooki? In a way, narcissism is a valid term for what we see in society, not just celebrities but us common folk, too … and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a psychologist) to realize it. However, is it really fair to give somebody a clinical diagnosis when they are merely reacting to a lifetime of being spoiled and indulged? This is a question that’s going to be coming up a lot …
How many people are guilty of updating their Facebook status every time they take a piss or something? My most recent Facebook update reads, “Picking up a sick first grader” because my daughter was sent home sick from school yesterday. Does anybody care that my kid has strep? Well, I mean, of course people care, but is there any need for me to announce this to my 500+ Facebook friends (no, I’m not cool … I just went to a big high school)? Is there a part of me that craves those nice little “Oh, I hope she feels better soon” comments? Probably … and thinking about that actually bothers me a lot.
Ultimately, the definition of narcissism in this day and age has to change. With the advent of social networking sites where a lot of people chronicle their daily lives, often in real time, there’s a level of narcissism that has pretty much permeated our culture.
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