Psychology of the Selfie

Words by Shelly Brown

Narcissism. It’s been a concept in psychoanalytic theory for a hundred years, but the idea of narcissism has been around for centuries, rooted in Greek mythology. The son of a river god and a fountain nymph, young Narcissus was blessed with divine looks. Spending his childhood climbing trees and frolicking through the woods, his body grew strong and his hair long and luscious. As the boy’s looks and charm increased, so did his following. Growing so accustomed to constant devotion, he began to see himself above others and above kindness and love. As potential friends and lovers approached him, he turned them all away, believing no one to be worthy of his love. Men and women, mortals and gods, were all turned away by Narcissus. Soon Nemesis, goddess of retribution against hubris, placed a curse on Narcissus: he was to feel the devastation of his own unrequited love.

Modern Selfies.jpg

While strolling the forest, Narcissus came upon the calm, clear waters of a spring. As he leaned down to take a sip of water, he caught a glimpse of his own reflection, falling deeply in love with it. Narcissus grew angry that the reflection would neither speak to him nor come when he called. Each time he reached for the beautiful face, it disappeared. Narcissus had never experienced the longing and love for another. With his intense focus on getting the love he wanted, Narcissus plunged into the spring, only to sink deeper and deeper into his own reflection and never return.

Was the first selfie actually a reflection in an ancient Greek myth? Is this story representative of how easily we can plunge into the depths of our own longing, which can even translate into modern day screen time? True human nature is nothing new. There is no behavior that has never been—only new ways to diagnose the behavior. We can look to ancient wisdom and stories for most of our core issues, cycles, and seasons. As technology puts a new spin on our culture as a whole, we are able to create new ways to point the finger at problematic behaviors. Enter the selfie—the newest platform to show the world the things we want it to see. Just scan your Instagram and you can find people who live lives of exotic vacations, perfect love stories, and immaculately clean homes with immaculately clean toddlers. While there is an artistic element to sharing our stories through a designer eye, when does it begin to be harmful? When does obsessing about our image and ourselves adapt the term “narcissism?”

The term itself gets thrown around quite a bit, and it is never OK to say people are narcissists because they take a few selfies, speak highly of themselves, or indulge in a bit of vanity.  In his book Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin explains that it can be good to feel special, and that narcissism becomes unhealthy based on the degree to which we feel important.

Narcissism exists on a spectrum. The healthy side of the spectrum allows us to feel special, to go after what we want, and to overcome failures. It also helps our relationships improve as we are able to view our partners with an equal degree of importance. Holding ourselves in a space of being special turns into true narcissism only when one becomes dependent on the need to feel special. This higher end of the narcissism spectrum causes people to claim the distinction of importance only for themselves. Too low on the spectrum can be harmful as well, causing one’s self-esteem to plummet into feelings of worthlessness and unimportance. It is in the middle of this spectrum that we find the courage to stand out, to be authentic and fearless enough to claim a healthy sense of narcissism.

Growing up in the technology age presents its own set of challenges that those of us over 30 may not have experienced. While trying out different identities is a natural and essential part of adolescence, today’s youth can experiment with identities from their smartphones. Previous generations had to go through these years of identity formation while presenting themselves in real life. People now have the capability of presenting themselves however they wish to be perceived without even stepping outside. Instagram ready when you roll out of bed? Feeling sad and need to post a pouting face? Maybe you want to make sure an ex knows that you were out partying with friends? Anything necessary to show the lifestyle you want everyone to think you have.

Then comes the dopamine rush. Functional MRI brain scans have shown dopamine releases in the brain similar to heroin use when social media images are liked or garner positive comments. Dr. Andrea Hendricks explains that this chemical release can lead people to feeling an increased sense of importance. Emotions rise to extremist perspectives as instant feedback is attained. A sense of loving more, feeling more, and believing no one can truly understand can mean the outlets we use to connect to people actually push us further apart. Dr. Andrea sees clients with feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety that are directly linked to their social media use. The immediate knowledge of only the best parts of someone else’s life causes some clients to compare their lives and feel a lowered sense of self-worth. She has seen dramatic reductions in clients’ stress levels when they remove social media from their phone for even a single week. While her clients can be reluctant at first, this allows them to detach from the cause of their anxiety and realize that moderation is key.

While social media can be a great way to keep up with old friends and share moments with family, moderation is key. Where are the lines for who you talk to and how you engage? This new frontier of communication can lead to a new level of entitlement—no longer needing to stop and think about what you are saying. Dr. Andrea sees couples in her office whose inflamed sense of online entitlement leads to text threads filled with things that they would never say to each other in person. The courage involved in saying something to someone’s face is no longer a necessity, and the excitement of talking to someone your partner might not approve of is easier than ever before. All of this easy access to surface level communication can be a cause for alarm if it is not managed well. Perhaps narcissism rises on the spectrum when we can use our thumbs to say what our voices can’t?

So, what can we do about this? How can we maintain a healthy narcissism and strengthen our relationships rather than allow social media to undermine them? Dr. Andrea recommends starting at the core with a 60-day challenge to change our social media habits. Let’s be honest—it’s not a reasonable expectation to completely rid ourselves of devices. But training for moderation and responsibility is key. Knowing our core values and boundaries are important life skills that require device skills. Where are your boundaries? How do you maintain them?