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Peas in a Pod: Social Media and Narcissism

If you're on social media, you've been there. At some point, you have reported or blocked another user who is hell-bent on harassing folks. We have been in that place where we have respectfully disagreed with someone only to see them unleash the replies of fury. We have wondered what is going through a friend's mind when they post...that...picture. What's up with folks being so focused on themselves and being so grandiose yet so sensitive?

Part of what compelled me to pursue my master's degree in strategic leadership from Tennessee State University was an interest in narcissism, something I talked about on "For Our Edification." My final project wound up being a case study of the Fyre Festival and how folks are adversely affected by narcissistic leadership. One significant theme that emerged in my studies was experts' concern that narcissism is an epidemic that has been quietly spreading for decades.

Because of my research, especially studying Fyre Fest, the correlation between social media and narcissistic behavior became apparent. An internet search of "social media" and "narcissism" will give you lots of results; experts definitely see a relationship. So, I believe that casual social media users need to understand how narcissism affects them on these platforms.

Social media has long been a haven for narcissists. Using Krizan and Herlache's Narcissism Spectrum Model (NSM), there are three main attributes: self-importance, grandiosity and vulnerability. The foundation of the model is self-importance where a sense of entitlement is dominant. From that, narcissists experience feelings of grandiosity consisting of exhibitionism and hubris. Vulnerability is marked by defensiveness and resentment.


While self-importance is the foundation of the NSM, many of us first notice the exhibitionism of narcissists' social media posts. The selfie fest is an indication, although it is not the determining factor. Still, you can't ignore those who are dying to flaunt their latest expensive (or expensive-looking) outfits, hair, makeup, chiseled bodies, motivational selfies, etc. on a daily basis. For example, did you hear the one about the university financial aid officer who lived his best life on social media while his employer was being embezzled to the tune of $1 million? Even without the embezzlement accusation, you have to wonder about the attention-seeking, extravagant lifestyle shoots.


I'll never forget the exchanges I had about MySpace in the early aughts. Those of us who were 30-plus years old at the time saw the entitlement getting worse in front of our eyes. We were young professionals speaking at schools and mentoring then-teens who would repeatedly tell us that we didn't understand that MySpace was "private" because it was...well..."my space." That was a generation of folks--now in their late 20s to early 30s--who genuinely believed that social media gave them the private space to do what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted.

Self-importance also features a key narcissistic trait, lack of empathy. Narcissists believe that their use of social media, no matter how negligent, is more important than others' reactions. It's posting that revealing pic regardless of how embarrassing it may be to people who care about them. It's the belief that their truth should be other people's reality, because narcissists think that the way they see the world is the way others should see the world. This is because narcissists commonly lack emotional intelligence and self-importance leaves no room for considering others' feelings.

Even more nefarious, however, is the narcissist's tendency to feed off of the insecurity of others. Driven so prominently by self-importance, narcissists are intuitive and particularly skilled at identifying folks on social media who are either looking for answers or under educated. This explains why so many narcissists are highly skilled at forming cults via social media and also why they thrive in chaos. The more confusion they can cause, the more attention they can draw to their social media presence.


I believe the way you can tell really tell that you're dealing with a narcissist, however, is their level of vulnerability. Notoriously insecure, narcissists tend to lash out hard. It could be those passive aggressive subtweets, rage-filled replies or even highly defensive inbox messages. To me, it's the infamous zero-sum "I said what I said" post or the outright refusal to accept another user's thoughts that gives it away. Narcissists take even the most respectful responses to their posts as attacks on their intelligence or character. And, yes, even when a narcissist posts the most offensive content, they believe that they should somehow be exempt from any form of chastisement even from the other social media users who they offended. A common narcissist trait is their belief that the rules don't apply to them.

To be fair, having narcissistic tendencies doesn't make one a narcissist. Many folks are simply trying to boost their personal brands to promote their businesses or their causes on social media. In those cases, narcissistic behavior--not full-blown narcissism--becomes a necessary evil. Beauty consultants should show their makeup and hair work. Fitness consultants must show off their bodies to attract customers. A scholar has to flaunt their intelligence to attract students and/or funding. That is why I pay more attention to how folks respond to the way other users challenge them.

For the casual social media user, the name of the game is managing your response, because narcissists do adversely affect others. I steer clear of meaningless and toxic posts. Use the block and mute buttons. Consider doing a social media fast as long as you need to--a month, a week or 24 hours. I call that HIAMO--happy I am missing out. The rub, however, is that I don't fast as much as I used to because of my job in communications and marketing. In that case, I find stuff on social media that makes me happy--love, happy families, people celebrating overcoming obstacles in life, baby animals, etc. Finally, seek out and follow users whose content feed your intellect and spirit. At least, this way, your focus is being your best self instead of fighting a raging narcissist.


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