I can remember singing along to Madonna's 1985 classic hit, Material Girl. Being just six when it came out, for years I thought it was about loving fabric. Only later did I discover that a material girl is someone who loves owning things.
Two decades later, nobody - not even celebrities - would openly shout from the rooftops about their materialistic nature; although they may admit to a penchant for shoes, or handbags, or private jets, these are accepted as natural weaknesses, and endearingly ‘normal'. After all, don't we all have our own little insatiable fetishes, whether it be for snazzy cars, jewellery, expensive holidays, or a particular brand of face cream? Aren't we allowed to have one indulgence that we give in to? Surely we deserve to treat ourselves to these little luxuries? Perhaps. But your mother probably didn't, it's even less likely your grandmother did.
The idea that you deserve to spoil yourself with unnecessary luxuries is more rife today than ever before. When Madonna brazenly sang about her materialism, and other personality traits associated with it, such as narcissism, self-adoration and an appetite for men with heavy wallets, her fans were starting their steep climb to the top of the psychology world's Most Wanted list. Now, psychologists are saying that narcissism has reached epidemic levels and is not just affecting individuals, but entire communities and cultures.
The birth of a trait
Narcissism has been growing steadily since the 1970s, according to psychologists Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell, authors of The Narcissism Epidemic (Free Press), who define the trait as someone being over-confident and placing little value in relationships. Apparently, it was during this decade that drawing attention to yourself started to become widely accepted. The self-exploration trend of the post-war generation was giving way to the ‘express yourself' vibe of Generation X (which mainly consists of people born in the 1960s and 1970s). This desire to celebrate the real you meant that self-admiration, one of the core pillars of narcissism, was on the rise.
The explosion of the self-help industry in the late 1990s, which tells us all to love, respect and honour ourselves, turbo-boosted the self-admiration trend to its full potential. Layer this up with our preoccupation with celebrity, which promotes vanity and materialism - it is the most narcissistic of celebrities who're usually in the limelight, by nature, so it is their values that we associate with success - and finish off with a healthy serving of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogging, where we can broadcast the mundane minutiae from our lives out to a billion people, and you have a fertile breeding ground for narcissism.
The side-effects of narcissism are all pervading. It can stifle a person's career, by causing them to take risks, or to be lazy with their ambitions, safe in the delusion that success will find them no matter how hard they don't try. It can mess with relationships, because narcissistic people may never feel fully content with their partner, believing there may be someone better sitting pretty on the green grass on the other side of the fence. A narcissist may struggle with friendships, too, when people finally get bored of hearing incessant self-promotion, or when they realise they are being used to support the narcissist's personal cause. It can get you into debt as narcissists love to treat themselves to little indulgences, whether they can afford them or not, because they feel they deserve it - and they often take risks, due to feeling invincible. Narcissism can create all of these issues, and then leave you feeling completely alone when your inner validation is obsolete, and miserable when life doesn't serve up everything you ever wished for on a shiny platter.
Unfortunately, according to Dr Saliha Afridi, Dubai-based clinical psychologist (firstname.lastname@example.org), the expat community in the UAE is particularly vulnerable to narcissism. She says, "One of the downsides of living in an expat community is that the social pressures are less about duty to the greater good, and more about arrogance. People arrive here, not knowing anyone and are only here for the short-term - they need to make friends quickly, and want to fit in with the right house, the right car, the right sunglasses… but unfortunately it is easy to get caught up in this exhibitionist nature."
Helen Williams, counsellor at LifeWorks Counselling and Development (www.lifeworksdubai.com), agrees and suggests that the easy, ‘privileged' way of life may be to blame. She says, "Narcissism can only really happen in societies where all the basic needs are met. Otherwise people are too busy worrying if there is going to be another bomb blast, or where they are going to get a fish from that day. These sort of worries make a real difference… maybe that is why it is so prevalent with expats living in the UAE."
One woman determined not to get seduced by the narcissism in the air is Stephanie French*, who moved to the UAE with her husband four years ago. She says, "Back in the UK, I was a primary care nurse at a homeless drop-in centre in central London. To go from that to brunch… it just can't happen. We have friends with similar values here… we don't have lots of bling, so we know people only hang with us if they really like us. I say to my friends, ‘The day I start rocking the maxi dress and the Gucci sunnies, bring me back to reality.' We don't try to be the big boys. I call it the L'Oréal effect, based on their advertising campaign that said, ‘Because I'm worth it'."
Sarah Reece* has only been in Dubai for three months. With her fresh eyes, as yet untinged by all the marble and chandeliers, she can notice a clear distinction between the UK and here. She says, "I've met some lovely people, who are down-to-earth, but there are definitely people I've met who I think have been sucked into the lifestyle. It still surprises me when you go to bars and you see people strutting out of their taxis and valeting their cars… you can just tell they've taken on that persona of being a ‘Dubai person'. But I can also see that it's easy to fall into… You see everyone dressed up like that all the time and you feel like, ‘Oh gosh, maybe I should wear nice dresses and get an expensive bag, and get my hair done'. It does remind me a bit of The Truman Show sometimes."
Me, not us
One of the most disturbing side-effects of narcissism is the damage it does to relationships. Interestingly, having relationship issues is both a symptom and a side effect of narcissism. At the individual level, a narcissist may only look for partners (and friends) who make him or her look good, or feed their ego in some way. Once married, narcissism can lead to the breakdown of marriage when people start feeling that they deserve better than their partner. For example, a husband who keeps remarrying younger ‘trophy' wives in order to keep his ego happy and his status elevated.
At the social level, the attitude that there could be someone better out there for you has lead to the widespread acceptance of no-strings-attached relationships, and terms such as ‘friends with benefits', say Twenge and Campbell. No doubt this belief has helped boost divorce rates, too.
The boom in use of social media sites, like Facebook and MySpace, has provided a fresh new avenue for narcissism to flourish in. It's not only how many ‘friends' you have, status updates feed self-importance, uploading photos of yourself is a perfect outlet for vanity, and having your statuses and photos liked by your hundreds of friends boosts self-admiration - all traits which are linked to narcissism. Counsellor Williams says, "Facebook allows people to say, ‘Look at me, I'm so important'. What they don't realise is that it also shows that you need to have your self-belief reinforced by other people."
Afridi agrees. "The ‘tell me how wonderful I am' culture of Facebook feeds into this trend. It makes you feel like people care when they comment on your status, but they might just be bored."
Twenge and Campbell take it one step further saying that not only does it allow you to be narcissistic yourself, but that Facebook "allows you to become obsessed with other people's narcissism, too." Don't even get them started on YouTube and blogs.
So once you have accepted the fact that narcissism is an issue, and that you may be succumbing to the disease, how do you go against the cultural grain and stop yourself from becoming a self-loving, self-promoting, paid-up member of Generation Me, as Twenge has aptly named it?
Afridi and Williams say that just by being aware of the narcissism epidemic, you can start to rein it in. Afridi asks parents to be aware of spoon-feeding narcissism to children by calling them ‘princess', or by telling them they can be anything they want to be - tell them this, she says, but add on that they have to work to achieve it.
Williams believes that people need to start looking inwardly for validation, instead of externally. "Self-esteem means feeling good about myself, intrinsically. Other-esteem means I only feel valued if you value me, or if I feel better than you - for example, if I have a better car than you, or more Facebook friends. A lot of people confuse other-esteem for self-esteem, which it isn't."
Twenge and Campbell provide multiple antidotes for narcissism fever, depending on which symptom you are showing, but for general narcissism rehab, they propose three goals: humility through honest appraisal of yourself; having compassion for yourself and not beating yourself up about things you are not proud of; and mindfulness, meaning living in the moment.
Turning on reality
Becoming aware of the narcissism epidemic is like finding out that Santa doesn't exist. You've had your suspicions for a while that something didn't quite seem right - that it all seemed too good to be true - but you pushed the thought away to keep the magic alive just a little bit longer. In the same way that Santa-gate didn't mean that Christmas wasn't fun anymore, being aware of narcissism won't take the fun out of enjoying your life. The point is just to know that narcissism is everywhere, in our songs, in our values, and most importantly in our minds - so much so that we don't even notice it as being strange anymore.
Dr Afridi says, "Our culture is becoming narcissistic by nature - and that is the really scary part, because once it becomes part of a culture, it becomes accepted as normal. We all have a responsibility to become aware of it - to communicate it to our children. It's not enough for people to be thinking, ‘Is that me?' It is you. It's going to be you."
There's no need to feel guilty, or duped. Even Dr Afridi, Williams, Twenge and Campbell admit to falling prey to it at times, whether it be choosing flattering photos of themselves for their websites, or getting a kick out of having a Facebook status ‘liked' by friends.
All we have to do is adapt alongside our shifting, evolving culture, so that we don't fall behind or miss out on something great. What we need to remember now is that we can have too much of a good thing. And it seems that time has come.
Symptoms and treatment
Here are the six main symptoms of narcissism and how to counteract them in yourself and your children, as outlined by psychologists Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell, authors of The Narcissism Epidemic.
Symptom 1: Vanity
Example: "Having perfectly white teeth, great hair, a new sports car, or an attractive girlfriend all serve the same psychological function, making others think you are cool, special, popular or important."
Treat it: Remember that it is OK if you don't look like a Hollywood star. Instead, find out what you need to do to improve your health and focus on that goal.
Symptom 2: Materialism
Example: "Materialistic people are less happy and more depressed. They also report more physical health problems and are more likely to drink too much alcohol and use illegal drugs."
Treat it: Make an effort to save and focus on becoming more eco-friendly, which should naturally shepherd you towards a more frugal lifestyle.
Symptom 3: Uniqueness
Example: "Feeling special helps justify the narcissist's belief that it's OK to cut in line, get something for nothing, and treat others as inferior…"
Treat it: When bringing up children, focus on your love for them, rather on the fact that they are special.
Symptom 4: Antisocial behaviour
Example: "Narcissists are aggressive exactly because they love themselves so much and believe that their needs take precedence."
Treat it: Aggressive behaviour is not cool at any level - remember that.
Symptom 5: Relationship troubles
Example: "People often use the term ‘feeding the ego' to describe narcissists' approach to relationships. If the relationship proves to be sufficient food, it works. And if not, it doesn't."
Treat it: Avoid entering relationships with narcissists, or try and educate them on the merits of meaningful relationships.
Symptom 6: Entitlement
Example: "You can feel entitled to a flat-screen TV without earning the money to pay for it. You can park in a handicapped space because you are in a rush. You can graduate from college and expect to get a fulfilling job with a six-figure salary straightaway."
Treat it: Start practising gratitude for the things you and your family have in your life. Think about the long list of people who played a part in getting you where you are today.
* Names changed