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Facebook: Healthy or Unhealthy Narcissism?
by Shonnie Brown, MFT
Facebook is undoubtedly an interesting phenomenon for a psychotherapist's exploration. And I admit
to being on Facebook. I've read accounts of many users' attraction and subsequent revulsion to
online social networking. And I certainly feel my own ambivalence. It may be worthwhile to ask
yourself what your intention is on Facebook. Is your Facebook persona congruent with the self that
you feel yourself to be? What do your Facebook habits tell you about your self-esteem or lack
Facebook and Narcissism
The book "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement"
by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. and
W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D. speaks quite critically on the subject of Facebook as social networking
for narcissists. What I find most interesting is that the book reminds us that Facebook (as well
as MySpace) originated among teenagers (lacking adult psychological development) before
progressing into full-fledged use by the adult population. The authors quote college students as
saying that Facebook is "attention seeking," all about "broadcasting who I am," and a venue for
the most socially competent people to document their popularity as well as become "obsessed with
other people's narcissism." The authors also state that the very structure of Facebook is designed
to "reward the skills of the narcissist" through self-promotion, flattering photos and competition
for the most friends. The fact that true narcissists often do not get along well with others isn't
a problem on Facebook, because there is no genuine interaction. In fact, often one does not even
know one's Facebook "friends." For these people, it may be all about status and how one appears to
others. According to the authors, Facebook and other social networking sites "reinforce narcissism
in an endless loop."
Healthy and Unhealthy Narcissism
People with a healthy degree of narcissism have grown beyond the "me as the center of the
universe" developmental stage of a child and have learned to value themselves in appropriate
relationship to others. Healthy narcissism acknowledges one's strengths and unique talents as well
as those of others. Good self-esteem, belief in one's ability to make healthy choices and set
appropriate boundaries are all part of healthy narcissism. People with a healthy degree of
narcissism will compete, but not be devastated by loss. They do not generally see themselves as
above or beneath others and they understand we live in a world of give and take, compromise and
Unhealthy narcissists have developed a persona of superiority, a need to control and a sense of
being at the center of the universe. Narcissists are often people in power, but also men and women
who have positioned themselves as highly respected community members. They are usually charming,
with a veneer of compassion, generosity and friendliness. But how they feel inside or behave in
intimate relationship may be entirely different. The false self they show the world masks a deeply
buried contemptuous self who is in desperate need of love and approval.
It has been interesting for me to notice various exhibitions of narcissism on Facebook. I can
divide my Facebook friends into categories.
- Adults who joined Facebook under others' pressure and just don't use it.
- Members who mostly use Facebook to exchange photos and news with family and close friends.
- Members who do interesting things and have a "following."
- Members who have developed a Facebook niche. They post things that they like and hope others
will like within that niche.
- Members whose niche has become a mission. They feel compelled to post messages all day long on
- Big social networkers: people who are running for political office or feel that they must let
the public know what they are doing several times per day as part of their job.
- Compulsive networkers who may have nothing of particular value to say but need the ongoing
reflection by others.
It is not my job to judge or diagnosis which of my Facebook "friends" use social networking to
reap narcissistic rewards. But here are some questions I have devised for people to ask themselves
in determining their own motivations with Facebook:
- How does Facebook serve my needs and the needs of others?
- Am I choosing Facebook over personal interaction? Why?
- How would I be using my time if I were not on Facebook?
- Do I feel empty when I think of my life without Facebook?
- Do I feel compelled to post everyday? More often?
- Is my Facebook persona congruent with the "me" that real friends know?
- Do I view my number of friends as meaningful?
Facebookers Speak Up
Recently I asked my Facebook friends to respond to the question, "Why do you use Facebook and do
you see that use as healthy? Why or why not?" These are some of their replies (names protected for
Megan stated: "I vowed to only post and comment on topics that raise awareness on the health of
the planet... anything about (her primary interest), the natural world around me, etc.... and I
like to amplify the information I receive (on these topics)."
Jane replied: "I use Facebook as a central location where I can see news and articles posted by
organizations I support... Using Facebook makes me feel more connected to both my local community
and the larger community of people with similar interests."
Karen said: "I use Facebook because I'm horrible at keeping in touch with people. I love that I
can see what my friends (and their kids) are doing without having to talk on the phone..."
Richard said: "I like to let people know what I'm doing and educate them about what's going on in
Bill said: "My goal is to have 5,000 Facebook friends."
My friend, Gail, a social/political activist, uses Facebook to put forth her agenda in a way that
is completely congruent with who she is. Two other friends are running for political office. They
use Facebook all day long to do what politicians do--promote their agendas and publicize what
they're doing. Others announce their luxury vacations and tell us what wine they are pairing with
what food or what group they joined and want us to join too. For many teenagers and adults, their
Facebook pages read like a high school yearbook. For others, Facebook is an opportunity to help
create a better society. My observations, combined with the authors' research, seem to indicate
that Facebook is a mirror that reflects each individual's level of psychological and emotional
development. You may remain a narcissistic teenager on Facebook. You may become an adult and work
to make this world a better place. Or, like many of us, you may demonstrate a bit of both.
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