Selfie danger and the myth of Narcissus

I want to begin by saying there is nothing inherently wrong with taking a selfie: its incredible technology exists allowing us to take stunning photos with our phones, including self-portraits. There are however worrying and disturbing aspects about selfies and their impact on our anxiety and mental health which I want to explore, along with some ideas about how psychotherapy could help with the underlying issues, where there is a problem.


It was this article on The Guardian which has made me worry about selfies.

The article is about young people who are having plastic surgery to look more like their selfie photos: it tells the story of a woman who took a selfie using a filter app which "enhanced" her appearance. She used the photo as her profile picture on a dating app, and her date complained she didn't look like her picture. She then approached a plastic surgeon to ask him to alter her appearance so that she did look like her photograph.

In extreme cases, an obsession with selfies can lead to body dysmorphic disorder, depression, and even suicide attempts - one young man in the article became so fixated on improving his appearance he was taking 100 selfies a day to check whether it was improving or not. He dropped out of school, became depressed, and tried to kill himself. Thankfully he is now recovered, and campaigns to raise awareness of the risks of such an obsession.

Of course, people have always tried to look their best in photographs, ever since photographs have been taken; think of grainy black and white photos of Victorian relatives in their Sunday best. But over time, there has been a switch from social pressure to look smart and respectable in a photograph (i.e. well-dressed and presented), to conform to certain (and unrealistic) body types and to appear sexually attractive, too. The internet, smartphones and the rise of celebrity culture have all played a role in this shift.


When we take a photo now, an infinite number of people can get to see it if it's published on Facebook or Instagram. Previously, a photo would stay in an album at home or on a mantlepiece, only to be seen by friends or family. Now, thousands of strangers can see the photo almost instantly and can comment on it, "liking" or not "liking" it. If you have taken and published a photo designed to show your attractiveness or conformity to a desired body-type, having hundreds of people comment negatively can be devastating.

Even a friend posting selfies of themselves working out in a gym can fuel a sense of inadequacy.

Viewing the posts of celebrities, models, actors, sportspeople and people you know who appear to live more glamorous, exciting lives can fuel a sense of inadequacy and anxiety about appearance. Such pressures can lead to developments in enhancement technologies, which allow the manipulation of photographs to make the subject appear thinner, blonder, more muscly - an endless list. This is a pressure which just didn't exist even ten years ago.

I am also not saying that people who take selfies are narcissists: I have heard the point being made, but I don't agree it is always the case.

I do think though that the original myth of Narcissus can help us understand something of the dangers...

The Myth of Narcissus

Narcissus, according to the Ancient Greek myth, was a beautiful youth that the whole world (women, men and the wood nymph, Echo) was in love with. He does not reciprocate, driving them all mad with unfulfilled desire. The situation worsens when he stops to drink at a perfectly smooth pool and sees his reflection in the water. He at first thinks that the reflection is another youth, falls in love with him, and becomes frustrated and desperate as every time he reaches out to touch him, the youth disappears. He cannot leave the pool as he can't bear being separated from his own image, and eventually wastes away, expires and dies, leaving devastation behind him as Echo, who failed in her attempts to woo him, is condemned to become a disembodied voice in the woods.

The tragedy in this story is that Narcissus was loved by everyone, could have had his pick of lovers, and had so much potential - such a wonderful life ahead of him. He became blind to the richness and wonder of the real world, what lay around him and what he could have become.

That is the tragic irony and danger of social media in the age of the selfie: when the world is more connected than ever before, loneliness, isolation and split-off, disparate existence has also never been more widespread.

The problem with taking too many selfies is that you never look beyond the pool: - you become obsessed with trying to reach something which is impossible to live up to or to obtain, leading to disappointment, inadequacy and, as we have seen, serious mental health problems.

A conventional photo will also usually involve at least two people - the subject (the person in the photograph) and the photographer. The photograph will be a representation of how the photographer sees the subject, and can sometimes reveal much of their relationship with the subject. Before photographs, portrait artists would paint pictures of people (usually rich, famous or important people), providing even more opportunity for the artist to interpret their subject. With a selfie, you have a lot more control over the image you present to others. This is a good thing in some respects, as it promotes self-expression and allows you to present to the world a side of yourself that others might not see.

It can also reveal our isolation: many selfies are photographs of people who are on their own, while a conventional photograph can be a memento of a shared experience. You can, of course, take selfies of two or more people, especially if you have access to a selfie stick.

Can psychotherapy help?

Psychotherapy is about connection on a much deeper level. If you think your use of selfies is becoming a problem, then speaking with a therapist might be able to help.

Again, I am not saying this is always the case, but if someone has reached the stage of taking filtered selfies of themselves and using the photos to present themselves to the world, perhaps to attract a partner, then I would want to think with them about why they needed to do this. If you take a selfie (or any other photo) that doesn't actually look like you because it has been enhanced, and publish it as your profile picture on an online dating website, you are creating an illusion and as soon as you arrive to meet your date, they will realise you don't actually look like your photo (like the woman in the article), and the illusion crumbles - a moment every bit as tragic as Narcissus reaching out to touch his lover, only to see him vanish in the disturbed waters of the pool.

It's tragic because if the person concerned had been able to accept themselves more and had just used an un-enhanced photograph, they still might have been asked out on a date, and there could have been a much happier ending. The constant barrage on social media of impossibly beautiful people with idealised body shapes undermines most people's confidence about their own appearance, leading to the need to enhance images and have plastic surgery.

Psychotherapy can be a search for inner beauty and self-confidence. The need to change your appearance through enhancement or surgery can be a sign of deep feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing. I think many people have a voice which whispers to them that they are inadequate or not as attractive or slim as other people, and it can be helpful to explore with a therapist where that voice comes from. What were the experiences, incidents and relationships with other people which led the growth of this voice and its power to undermine self-confidence to such an extent? Uncovering the roots of a problem can take you a very long way to resolving it, and so can an exploration of evidence to the contrary. Talking with a therapist can help you identify traits within yourself which show a different side of yourself, a self that is strong and capable and if you need to be, attractive.

Most people have within them positive attributes they were not aware of previously, and all people have the capacity to change. I believe this passionately and take a very optimistic view of people's ability to develop. Psychotherapy is often about the past and how it impacts on the present, but it can also be used to imagine how the future could be different and help us take steps towards that altered future. Solution-focused brief therapy is all about helping you imagine what life would be like if the problems which brought you into therapy was resolved, and then creating the steps you need to take to get to this point. EMDR can foster the resources you need within yourself to make the changes you want to make.

The depth of relational therapy, having the time to explore your life in detail and relieve yourself of burdens and challenge negative thinking patterns, within a nurturing relationship, can be the antidote to the lonely superficiality of the selfie.

And of course, the real tragedy in all of this are the countless lives wasted by people chasing an impossible dream of online perfection, oblivious to the richness and wonder of their actual, real lives, missing out on so much life and potential. Like Narcissus, wasting away by his pool, never knowing how much he was loved...

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Andrew Keefe, MA FPC UKCP: Psychotherapist EMDR Therapist Personal Trainer
London WC1V & E3

Andrew Keefe is a Psychodynamic Psychotherapist and EMDR Therapist, working in private practice in East London and Holborn. He previously worked as a therapist at The Refugee Council, Freedom from Torture and WPF Therapy. He has special interests in working with survivors of violence and terrorism, sexual abuse and birth trauma.

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