We're all narcissists now... or are we?

There are few more common insults thrown at public figures these days than ''narcissist''. It is considered, in the mouths of many, a more sophisticated way of calling someone a bastard.

Politicians such as Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have been repeatedly called narcissists. Russell Crowe, Lara Bingle and Muammar Gaddafi have been labelled with the term.

A term with deep roots in psychoanalytic literature, it has become the go-to pop diagnosis by columnists, bloggers and television psychologists, and appears to have become so bloated as to have been rendered almost meaningless.

The concept of narcissism as a broad cultural condition goes back several decades. The historian Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, three years after author Tom Wolfe declared it the ''me decade''.

The rise of identity politics, reality television and self-help literature has since effectively elevated self-absorption from a passing trend to the norm. To now accuse someone of being a narcissist, in the age of Facebook, is a bit like accusing them of breathing. But are we really all narcissists now, or do we misunderstand its true meaning?

Havelock Ellis, the late-19th-century British sexologist, has been credited with coining the word after the myth of Narcissus, the Greek youth fatally enamoured of his own reflection.

Narcissists, Sigmund Freud later wrote, were nearly untreatable. Unspeakably lonely and shackled by grandiose fantasies, they were incapable of forming relationships - even with a psychoanalyst.

My patients who receive a diagnosis of this disorder remain among the most challenging to help because they often believe their problem is that others never recognise how special they are. In childhood, they had been deprived of essential emotional sustenance; as adults, their arrogance, sense of entitlement and exhibitionistic tendencies spring from the deepest humiliation.

There is a a Narcissistic Personality Inventory test that includes 16 pairs of choices. (For example: ''Everybody likes to hear my stories'' or ''Sometimes I tell good stories''.) There is a subset of true narcissists who will even boast that they aced the narcissistic test.

In the clinical diagnostic manual, the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include a ''pervasive pattern of grandiosity … need for admiration and lack of empathy''.

So, are we all narcissists now? For centuries, the rich and the powerful documented their existence and their status through painted portraits. A marker of wealth and a bid for immortality, portraits offer intriguing hints about the daily life of their subjects - professions, ambitions, attitudes, and, most importantly, social standing.

Today, our self-portraits are democratic and digital; they are crafted from pixels rather than paints. Our modern likenesses on social networking sites feature background music, carefully manipulated photographs, stream-of-consciousness musings, and lists of our hobbies and friends. We create them to find friendship, love and that ambiguous modern thing called connection. It is the timeless human desire for attention and admiration that emerge as the dominant themes in social networking.

But status-seeking has an ever-present partner: anxiety. Unlike a portrait, which hangs tamely on the wall signalling one's status, maintaining status on Facebook requires constant vigilance, regular updates. Every profile is a carefully planned media campaign. Like all narcissists, any of our pomp and bombast is merely a plea to be loved and accepted.

But here is the difference between a true narcissist and a modern-day social media junkie: true narcissists have less of a need for connection and more of a thirst for unending admiration. The definitive trait of today's younger generations is an insatiable passion for connection, however weak, which fuels their overuse of technology.

So while the concept may be overused when applied to the famous or the digitally self-obsessed, the cultural penetration of the word narcissist is a reminder that the remnants of psychoanalysis and Freud are always present.

His central idea, that we all have an inner world that is not only unconscious but repressed, is as important as ever.

In spite of what older generations might think, we can be confident and thankful that the vast bulk of us are not narcissists, but merely trying to fulfil the same desires and bonds as our ancestors from the Stone Age. These days, we just happen to be doing it while living in mega-cities and equipped with space age technology.

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist.

-National Times

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