…And What it Says About us

Each evening, when her husband disappeared into his nightly video games, Maria pulled out her phone, popped in her earphones, and started scrolling TikTok. Within weeks, her feed was almost exclusively dedicated to one topic, which was striking since the issue was not something she’d thought about before: narcissism. 

Once she started following “narc” feeds and people like zipzoptherapy (138.1K followers), _stronger_than_before (383.3K followers), and talkswithfox (418.6K followers), she couldn’t seem to stop. She told me at one point, she was spending up to three hours a day on the app.

Maria, who works for a chemical company and asked to be identified by her first name only, was reeled in because, finally, people understood her! Content creators were describing to a tee the debilitating form of manipulation she was enduring in her marriage. At last, she had a diagnosis for her husband’s perverse behavior. 

“I figured out there’s absolutely no question that he’s a full-blown narcissist,” she said. Within a year, she gathered her courage and finally left him last year. “This whole subculture of NarcTok is something else,” she says. “It finally gave me the strength.” 

Narcissism as a topic is breaking out on TikTok. The hashtag #NarcTok has drawn 1.9 billion views to date, and #narcissism 1.6 billion, notable when you consider that it ranks just slightly behind Bipolar (2.1B) and PTSD (2.5B) on views, conditions with much higher prevalence. The popularity of narcissism TikTok posts are also striking relative to the incidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the population – around 1%. Several popular NarcTok content creators said that upwards of 70 to 80 percent of their followers are women, between the ages of 30 and 50.

“I figured out there’s absolutely no question that he’s a full-blown narcissist.”

maria, who left her husband last year

It’s not just TikTok that’s a hotbed for conversation about narcissism – as well as armchair diagnosis and psychoanalyzing. Quora subgroups like All About Narcissists and Narcissistic Victims Syndrome Support abound, each boasting upwards of 80K followers. The Reddit community r/raisedbynarcissists has over 750K members. One Reddit thread even asks Why is Quora so obsessed with the idea of narcissism? (None of the replies, alas, are particularly helpful.) It is unclear how much money narcissism presenters are making on TikTok. However, rack up more than 100,000 views over a 30-day period and you can apply to get paid by TikTok’s Creator Fund.

A Feb 2022 Vice piece calls this narcissism frenzy “our latest online moral panic,” bemoaning what feels like an “interminable search for narcissists among us.” A humorous 2016 Vice video, “How Narcissists Took Over the World,” deems narcissism “a label that has replaced psychopath as the thing we now dub everyone.” 

Screenshots from Lance Wright’s zipzoptherapy TikTok channel

NarcTok: A lively community

The NarcTok “community” within TikTok is teeming with therapists of all kinds – life coaches, people who identify as narcissistic abuse survivors, “self-aware NPD” writers like Lee Hammock with 1.3M followers –  each offering information, sympathy and entertaining riffson everything from “gaslighting infidelity” to “intrapsychic” mechanisms of narcissists, often set to music. The vibe is Wild West: Everyone is an expert, overgeneralizing is constant, and “over-the-top, one-dimensional” content has “contributed to a monstrous stereotype of a personality disorder,” according to Vice. Insider jargon is ubiquitous – “lovebombing,” “hoovering” and “trauma bonds” are tossed around constantly as tell-tale narcissist behavior. Role play is popular, too: TikTok’ers impersonate both narcissist and victim, or dramatize classic narcissistic one-liners.

In the research literature, narcissism is characterized by entitlement, self-absorption, grandiose expectations of oneself and a tendency for conceit and self-enhancement. Of the two common subtypes, grandiose narcissists are typically exploitive, domineering, likable (at least initially), risk-taking and arrogant. Vulnerable narcissists are defensive, exhibit “false modesty” and concern for others, conceal exploitative behaviors and are often distrustful and socially isolated.

Narcissism, however, is not a disorder per se, nor a clinical diagnosis. “It’s a normal pervasive trait that exists all around the world – the drive to feel special, exceptional and unique,” says Craig Malkin, a psychologist, lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Rethinking Narcissism. We all exhibit this trait along a continuum, he notes, and what is problematic is only the far edge of the spectrum, where lack of empathy and self-aggrandizing are so intense as to damage others. 

That’s where one meets Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The official Diagnostic Statistical Manual, psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, defines NPD as a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), a constant need for admiration and a lack of empathy. It lays out nine criteria for a diagnosis, including a sense of entitlement; interpersonally oppressive behavior; and  the belief that the narcissist is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or connect with, extraordinary people and institutions. Someone has to exhibit at least five of the nine traits to be diagnosed with the personality disorder. 

So, what are we to make of all this interest? Is narcissism spreading? Is all our selfie-taking, TikTok-posting and avatar-creating making us increasingly self-obsessed? 

Not necessarily, according to many social scientists. There’s no research-backed consensus for a rise in narcissism. San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge in 2009 asserted there was a “narcissism epidemic” among college students. She analyzed National Personality Index data from 1982 to 2006 and concluded that narcissism scores rose significantly, a change that she attributed to the self-esteem movement and parents over-praising their kids. 

‘The Narcissism Epidemic is Dead; Long Live the Narcissism Epidemic’

Subsequent research, however, disputed her claim, with multiple research teams criticizing Twenge’s personality metric as oversimplified and nonstandard. A 2017 paper, “The Narcissism Epidemic is Dead; Long Live the Narcissism Epidemic” in Psychological Science, came to the opposite conclusion of Twenge’s finding: “Today’s college students are less narcissistic than their predecessors and there may never have been an epidemic of narcissism.” 

Other scientists are not so sure. In 2011, a team of researchers examined 30 years of college student data and determined that empathy had fallen by 40 percent, a shift they linked to cell phones. Dr. Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has also done research on empathy and technology, commented that today’s near-constant use of cell phones has created a “‘talk culture,’ but it is not necessarily a culture in which talk contributes to self-reflection.”

Still other academics theorize that narcissism is becoming a cultural norm due to the impacts of social media. “There’s really solid evidence that American culture has changed toward doing more extreme, individualistic, self-promoting stuff – something neither good nor bad,” says University of Zurich Professor of Psychology Chris Hopwood.

The constant need, fed by social media, to call attention to oneself, even if means ignoring others’ needs, is consistent with a narcissistic personality trait being reinforced by online life.”

Elias Aboujaoude, Stanford psychiatry professor

But that change is bad – even dangerous, says Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University psychiatry professor and author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality. “What used to be thought of as narcissistic, vain, and self-centered behavior is now the guiding norm of society,” he wrote in a recent tweet. 

When I reached out for more details, Aboujaoude  wrote back that  “there is a psychological need now to feel relevant and desired by attracting friends, followers and likes…The constant need, fed by social media, to call attention to oneself, even if means ignoring others’ needs, is consistent with a narcissistic personality trait being reinforced by online life.” Everything about the medium reinforces narcissistic instincts, he says. “What is sad and ironic is that many of the supposedly healthy social media discussions of narcissism are, themselves, full of narcissistic expressions. In a way, we can’t help but act ‘narcissistic’ online.” 

So maybe this explains such flocking to narcissism content? Researchers and content creators offer hunches but no proven theories. New York University associate professor of psychology Pascal Wallsich’s take is that  narcissism isn’t so much a condition of excessive self-love, as it is “self-loathing in disguise.” The media response to his findings was “stunning,” he said. “It was like we’d discovered fire.” He thinks the rising trait is self-doubt, which is why narcissism, as “a compensatory adaptation to overcome and cover up low self-worth,” is resonating.

Video of therapist Matt Phifer, who has 875.6K followers on TikTok

The culprit is social media, or “social comparison on steroids,” he says. “If narcissism is born out of insecurity, do you think comparing yourself on social media to the whole world is going to go well? There’s always going to be someone with more fun, more money, a better life,” he said. “That is the challenge of our time: How do you preserve self-worth when every day you are confronted by people who are better than you?” he said. 

His theory is echoed by Mary Kowalchyk of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Narcissism is better understood as a compensatory adaptation to overcome and cover up low self-worth,” she says. “Narcissists are insecure, and they cope with these insecurities by flexing.” 

‘Behind closed doors’

The desire  to share painful, often hidden, experiences is also drawing people to narcissism content on TikTok. “Before social media, people would suffer in silence,” says Matt Phifer, MSEd, a therapist with 885.9K TikTok followers who bills himself as a “toxic relationship expert” and posts frequently about narcissism.“Narcissists are really good at hiding all of the abuse. Most of what a victim is experiencing is behind closed doors.”  

TikTok, then, provides affirmation. “There’s a lot of people who say ‘I literally was going crazy,’” Phifer told me. “When they see me, or Lance (Wright, of zipzoptherapy) literally acting out narcissistic abuse, it starts to become very validating,” says Phifer. “There was actually something deeper going on. ‘There’s a reason for all my pain.’” 

(NarcTok role-plays) get the essence of something deeper: the narcissist’s feeling empty and needing to project inner rage in order to feel alive, the narcissist’s lack of self esteem”

sherry turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT

MIT’s Turkle, a social science professor and clinical psychologist whose specialty is human-technology interaction and psychoanalysis, spent an hour or so on NarcTok after I contacted her for comment. She was struck by the range of people – “old, young, racially diverse, socioeconomically diverse” – who were posting. She was also moved by the NarcTok role-plays. “What is impressive is how specific and compelling these videos are,” she wrote. “Only a very few confused narcissism with selfishness or self-centeredness. They got the essence of something deeper: the narcissist’s feeling empty and needing to project inner rage in order to feel alive, the narcissist’s lack of self esteem that requires special treatment that can never be special enough.” 

Noting that the videos act out both sides of the conversations with narcissists, she adds: “They are painfully down to earth. A woman tries to get her partner to go to a birthday dinner at her mother’s house. After cajoling her partner, giving him time, reminding him, after he is making them late, he attacks, (saying) her demands are sucking him dry. She is made into the projected evil manipulative object. The dynamics are made crystal clear… by the woman literally acting out both sides of a conversation that goes back and forth. This medium allows for a certain therapeutic possibility because it enables the person making the video to capture and rewatch a dynamic that is clearly toxic.”

Interestingly, the narcissism explored in the video may itself be linked to social media, which is “creating a new state of the self where we look to who we are on screens for feelings of self-worth,” Turkle says. “We need to connect in order to know who we are. In this environment, where we don’t know who we are, we lose the capacity for empathy because we are using others to shore up our fragile sense of self. It is not surprising that in our environment, TikTok would become a place for people having trouble with the narcissists in their life to play out these anxieties.” 

Phifer posts on NarcTok regularly, but he recognizes the huge amount of  misinformation on mental health TikTok. “There’s no guarantee you are getting good info. Anyone can get on and say anything,” he says. Evan Frederiks, a clinical social worker in Minnesota who posts as evanthecounselor, concurs. “There’s no way this many people have encountered or been in a relationship with people with true NPD,” he says. That means, he says, that many people are being wrongly labeled as “incurable sick monster(s) incapable of getting better.” 

There’s another reason much of the labeling may be misguided. “Labels give people an excuse for bad behavior,” says Phifer. “It’s very quick and easy to say someone is a narcissist, for you to not take any responsibility for anything that’s happened. It gives people the opportunity to put the blame on someone else,” he says. 

On TikTok, “non-experts and experts are equating all abuse with pathological narcissism,” adds Malkin. People on TikTok list signs of narcissistic abuse that aren’t unique to narcissism. “There’s this kind of fascination with the mysteriousness of the experience,” Malkin says. “Are you being narcissistically abused? Yes, this is happening to me. From what I see they are just describing abusive behaviors.”

Narcissism content also creates  a self-reinforcing feedback loop. “NarcTok feeds on itself,” says Malkin. James Brillon, a LFMT in Orange County, California, says, “I started doing it, and the response to the narcissism material was overwhelming. He started posting four months ago at the recommendation of an SEO consultant to boost his therapy practice. Now , he makes more and more narcissism-related posts. The more content he puts out, the more people encounter it – driving more popularity and still more content. 

“I didn’t set out to have a niche with narcissism; I wanted to talk about all disorders and therapy,” says Lance Wright, known on TikTok as  zipzoptherapy. But when he posts on  anxiety disorders, for example, “it doesn’t hit the audience. NarcTok has been hot since I’ve been on.”

TikTok’ers talking about narcissism may not be trying to pass off their videos as “therapy”; several have posted a slash mark through that word  in their TikTok signature and concede that scrolling is no substitute for counseling. “Just watching videos is not healing,” says Frederiks. “I’m always telling people: ‘You need to do the work.’” 

Maria, the chemical company worker who left her husband, has been in intensive counseling since moving to Arizona a year ago. She understands that TikTok was just a gateway. “It’s supportive,” she says.“I learned a lot and others learned a lot. It is not a replacement for one-on-one therapy with a good, qualified therapist. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t doing that.”

Type of work:

Diana Kapp is a journalist and the author of Girls Who Run the World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business (Random House 2019). Her writing work has taken her inside San Quentin prison and to deepest Afghanistan....