From the DSM to the Mainstream

The American Psychiatric Association has decided to eliminate Narcissism as a personality disorder.  It probably it has to do with the absence of rigorous diagnostic standards, a problem of particular concern to researchers.

That does not mean that “narcissism” will disappear from the thinking of clinicians.  Nor will it disappear from our cultural conversations.  Clinicians and researchers may battle over its precise meaning, but, liberated from its technical role in the mental health industry, “narcissism” may become more useful and familiar than ever.  It’s a term we need.

In the myth, as told by Ovid, the young boy Narcissus, beautiful but vain, spurned the many women who fell in love with him.  Finally, after he rebuffed the nymph Echo, who then died of grief, he was punished by the gods.  Fixed on his own image in a pool, unable to tear himself from it, he wasted away.

We tend to think this is a story about a self-centered individual, just as we have thought about narcissism as an individual psychopathology.  But the myth suggests several important interpersonal and social dimensions as well.  First of all, Narcissus and Echo represent a failed relationship:  the boy who cannot really see another, the girl who cannot speak up for herself.  Then there is the havoc wreaked on the community by the selfish boy:  social expectations of love are thwarted.  Finally, Narcissus, cursed to see nothing but himself, cannot survive.

There are messages in this for us.  In a world characterized by consumption, competition, and status, appearances easily matter more than substance.  The focus on Facebook “friends,” texts and tweets makes it harder to deepen relationships into lasting bonds. Success is measured by money and fame.  And a celebrity-based culture makes it more difficult to grasp that there can be more profound forms of recognition.

Not all narcissists are easily recognizable.  They are not all beautiful or constantly preening.  They don’t always dominate conversation.  On Wall Street, narcissism is often hard to discriminate from greed and arrogance.  In corporations it can look like bullying.  In politics it can resemble conviction.

Some have said that a certain amount of narcissim is normal, even essential — and that is probably true in a sense.  To know who we are, we do need to see ourselves reflected in others.  But to call that “narcissism” is a sign that we can no longer clearly discriminate the dangerous forms of self-absorption that impoverish our social relations from the real relationships and we so desperately need.