In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the son of a river god who fell in love with his own reflection. Upon realising he couldn't stop looking at the image of his own beauty, he lost the will to live – and stared at it until death.
I've been thinking about narcissism a lot while watching the deeply unsettling American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The serial killer responsible for Versace's murder, Andrew Cunanan, was – like Narcissus himself – the epitome of conceited.
But I'm less interested in this guy's personality than how his brand of narcissism pervades current-day society.
In the book in which ACS: Versace was based on, author Maureen Orth believes that Cunanan exhibited the traits found in classic narcissists. "In effect, they cannot distinguish an image of who they imagine themselves to be and an image of who they really are..." she writes, quoting a psychiatrist. "Narcissists do not function in terms of actual self-image because it is unacceptable to them."
That sounds all-too-much like everybody in 2018, not just an infamous serial killer from the 1990s.
I've begun to wonder how we all became so obsessed with our own image, and why actual self-image has become unacceptable to us. How is it that modern society has become so ashamed of reality that narcissistic fantasy has become the new norm?
We don't shun narcissists anymore for puffing up their chests more than they should; we encourage them through social media.
The crucial societal change I think we've seen in recent years is how nobody gets accused of boasting anymore. I've always been a critic of Tall Poppy Syndrome yet what's happened the world over is the other extreme. Rather than cut people down, we've started to let them grow higher than they ever should have.
I don't post to Instagram myself because I don't really like sharing personal photos – if you're a reader of my columns, you'll know I share enough about my own life as it is – but I have an account.
I've been shocked to learn that some of the people I see there (often my actual real-life friends or acquaintances) have followers above the 20,000-30,000 range.
These are software developers and engineers and lawyers from the public sector. People whose physical self-image should be completely irrelevant to their identity.
I look at their social media pages and ask myself how they have amassed such followers, and I've only one theory. Narcissism begets narcissism. Narcissists are caught in a vicious selfie-led cycle of upholding your own self-beauty whilst consuming and commenting on the beauty of others.
Such efforts have been packaged as "confidence", though, not narcissism. This is why we applaud it. Confidence has positive connotations and when we see somebody showing us their "best self"; whether it's our best friend or a celebrity model, we call them brave. We tell them how strong they are for rising up against the haters.
That latter part isn't a bad thing – I think the most important thing in a culture of 21st Century, always-on connectivity is being unaffected by one's cynics. Yet my issue is that the way society encourages rising up is with physical beauty. It's a bit like that old saying when somebody goes through a relationship break-up: "the best revenge is looking hot".
Here, we don't get told that beauty is for the few, we're told it's accessible to the many. This is what's driving our current brand of narcissism. It's not acceptable to be ugly, or even average. Everybody can improve their own self-image, if not in real life than at least through a selfie lens.
Beauty is less about admiration and more about envy. We all want to be beautiful because everybody else seems to be beautiful. The result here cannot be anything but unachievable expectations and disappointment – the genetic gods simply weren't that frivolous when it came to physicality.
I won't kid myself – or you – I care about my physical appearance. Yet I put all my effort and pride into how I present myself in real life. I don't see the point in creating photographs that make you look better than you really do, only to disappoint when seen in person.
Everyone has heard of Tinder date disasters where the troglodyte at the restaurant is not the babe they sold themselves as.
I'd rather look haggard on a 5.8-inch screen and positively glowing in the flesh. I take pride in looking presentable, but I'm able to distinguish what I have with what I don't.
I only hope that this is enough to prevent me from falling into Narcissus's ever-so-easy mythological trap.