As published on the Huffington Post
Are selfies causing narcissism? With all the latest fervor about selfies you might think that people who take them are narcissists.
But what’s true about selfies is that just as not all celebrities are narcissists, not all selfies are a symptom of narcissism. Sure, some selfie takers might be seeking validation but probably not because of a personality disorder. People take selfies for a wide variety of reasons: to show off and get props, to celebrate an occasion or a moment, to share an event, to mark something personally memorable, to share something fun with friends, to note an achievement, to make fun of oneself. In all the conversation about selfies, people seem to miss the fact that tons of selfies are silly, self-deprecating and fun.
Chalking all selfies up to narcissism shows that we don’t really understand narcissism. Condemning teens for being the selfie generation is another indication that we don't understand narcissism.
Narcissism is far more than being in love with one’s image in a photograph. It’s a personality disorder – which means that a person uses a limited set of behaviors for all of life’s situations. A key element is lack of awareness (and therefore consideration) of other people, and all sorts of behaviors flow from this basic dynamic. In fact, narcissists don’t “relate” in the classic sense most of us assume; instead they “enmesh.” It’s a different, specific way of being in the world and relating to others, which tends to make long-term relationships rocky and unrewarding.
People in relationship with a narcissist have a wide range of experiences from mildly frustrating to life threatening. While it’s useful to wonder what causes and reinforces narcissism, it belittles the challenge of narcissism when we narrow it down to “She must be a narcissist since she takes a lot of selfies.”
While our culture seems to be calling teens out for being narcissistic for doing too many selfies, we don’t seem aware that it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to be focused on their peer groups and to be self-oriented. They are continuing the work of individuating so that they can successfully separate and stand on their own – this can look and feel like narcissism, but it’s really part of growing up. Yes, some of these teens may have had the seeds for narcissism sown when they were younger, and those seeds may be growing during the teen years, and may bloom into narcissism in adulthood. But this is not how it will be for all, or even most, teens.
Could it be that calling teens out for doing selfies may be our generation’s rock n roll? And, maybe, the older generations are being narcissistic by calling teens out for selfies – assuming the old way of using the new technology is better than the teen’s way?
Calling everyone who takes selfies out as “narcissist” is like accusing everyone who wears black of being a punk. It’s an overgeneralization that invites people to rely on shallow notions of narcissism that do not serve us.