Self-Confidence vs. Narcissism: Where Do We Draw the Line?

The Greek myth of Narcissus tells the tale of a young, robust, and incredibly handsome man who is enamored by his own reflection – so enamored, in fact, that when he cannot physically grasp the object of his admiration, he dies of sorrow on the bank of a river. From this fable we derive the word “narcissism,” meaning an extreme admiration for one’s own attributes. And while the events of Narcissus’s life remain in the ancient past, there is a reason his story is still referenced in the present: narcissism is a ubiquitous trait in modern cultures.

Consider the evidence: certainly, you’ve observed narcissistic behaviors in others before, perhaps in yourself as well. According to the Washington Post, narcissists are not difficult to spot, because they have no problem with identifying themselves as such. They enjoy the attention they receive, and sometimes even feel deserving of it.

The perfect venue in which to breed narcissism is the realm of social media. The growing prominence of social networks has corresponded with a spike in egoistic attitudes; the New York Times quips that “narcissism has increased as quickly as obesity since the 1980s.” Truthfully, the Times isn’t too far off the mark: according to a study conducted at York University, which examined the relationship between subjects’ self-promotion on Facebook and their Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), those who were active users of social media exhibited greater likelihoods of being narcissists.*

So, where do we draw the line between healthy self-love and toxic self-obsession? Certainly, a degree of self-esteem is required to lead a confident, happy life, but is there a threshold at which people wrongly contort their over-inflated egos into the label “confident”? In 2012, author David McCullough famously delivered the graduation speech at Wellesley High School, with four of his words standing out above the rest: “you are not special.” McCullough did not intend to say that the individuals before him were failures or that they had no purpose because they were “not special.” Rather, his point was meant to be a reality check, reminding his pre-adult audience that regardless of how they were raised, upon entering the real world, treating oneself as the center of the universe is not conducive to being a productive, likeable member of society.

McCullough’s message is a strong one, and one that we could all stand to be reminded of once in a while. Instead of spooning our egos bowlfuls of social media likes, or relishing in the joy of taking “the perfect selfie,” we should be connecting with one another more interpersonally and shifting our foci outside of the self.  You can love and respect yourself without obsessing over yourself; Narcissus could have just smiled at his reflection and carried on his way. There are countless experiences that life has to offer that are much more worthwhile of pursuit than the attention of others. Or, as McCullough would advise, remember that when you are climbing a difficult mountain, do so in order to see the world, not so that the world can see you.

*Interested in what your own NPI might be? Take the assessment here.