Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Psychological Harm of Vanity

When Snow-White’s evil stepmother in the classic fairy tale peers into her mirror to ask who is the “fairest of them all” it is not difficult to see her as a villain. Vanity, narcissism, and arrogance have long been viewed as undesirable traits by most. While arrogance in celebrities and politicians are part of an expected way of the world, when we encounter vanity in everyday life, it is less than charming. Vanity, pride, and narcissism are often seen as interchangeable, yet while they are not, all the same, they are closely connected. Based on the social comparison theory, there is an upward or downward classification of vanity. Downward vanity refers to others thinking they are lower than oneself, whereas upward vanity is thinking others are higher than oneself. Psychologists identify two kinds of pride as well, one healthy and one unhealthy form. Authentic pride is a healthier type which allows us to feel good about ourselves and confident in our strengths. This kind of healthy pride leads to positive social traits like agreeableness and emotional stability. Hubristic pride is one often seen accompanied with vanity, egotism, and arrogance. This harmful form of pride leads to unpleasant social traits like aggressiveness and blaming behavior.

When it comes to identifying someone beyond the realm of normal, healthy pride, there are several signs to look out for, either in ourselves or in others. One sign of pathological arrogance, i.e. narcissism, is being uncaring about someone else’s perspective. One sided-arguments are incredibly common in these individuals. Likewise, everything must center around them: their problems, their viewpoints, and their wishes. Often rules don’t apply to these individuals because they are convinced that there should be an exception made for them alone. They have a strong hatred of criticism, and if someone points out their shortcomings, they lose their control, thus leading to hostility. Blame is never placed on themselves, but on everyone else, with healthy responsibility eluding them in every area of life. Psychologists have also found a link between narcissism and anger issues because of them being quick to anger, thus responding aggressively.

Most celebrities and people in the public eye exhibit many if not all of these signs. Some of the vainest celebrities include Kanye West, who once stated, “My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.” Justin Bieber is another well-known example of narcissism and vanity as he once stated “Don’t say I’m not talented. If you haven’t noticed, I wasn’t made, I was found.” Gwyneth Paltrow is another such example since she infamously stated: “I am who I am. I can’t pretend to be somebody who makes $25,000 a year”. Undoubtedly, Donald Trump is the most widely recognized narcissist who exhibits pathological vanity. One of the many arrogant quotes he has said was “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich”. These individuals display obvious signs of narcissism and vanity that seemingly have no cost, due to their wealth and fame. However, in the real world, vanity comes at a high psychological price.

One such cost comes with one of the most fundamental aspects of well-being: the comfort of relationships. With severe and persistent vanity, there is bound to be relational difficulties such as lack of empathy and aggression. Personal costs come with the price of vanity as well, since vain individuals are more likely to need the most expensive superficial means like the latest technology, the most expensive clothes, and in some cases, plastic surgery. Psychologists have also discovered that those with higher levels of arrogance respond more to dominance-related imagery and words. It could be argued that this finding is not surprising since arrogant people use a form of inner and outer manipulation, meaning, the outer world is manipulated to appear like everything is beneath them, especially other people. Empathy is an essential fundamental of relationships, and since vanity and narcissism reduce empathetic understanding and listening skills, relationships can seem nearly impossible. Narcissists are unable to feel shame, so there is no room for improvement or more open communication.

According to 31 years of research addressing narcissism and its prevalence, social scientists discovered that men of all ages are significantly more likely to be arrogant and narcissistic. Interestingly enough, men and women showed no significant differences in vanity. It could be argued that the perception of vanity in women is skewed due to the societal pressure to participate in the beauty industry’s impossible demands. Women who may seem vain likely partake in these ritualistic beauty behaviors as a societal necessity, not necessarily because of the psychological belief that her beauty is greater than another’s. When it comes to recognizing narcissism and vanity in oneself, responses can make all the difference. Research shows that one of the most valid tactics for identifying vanity is simply to ask: “To what extent do you agree that with the statement: I am a narcissist?” In these questionnaires, narcissism was synonymous with vanity and arrogance. Those with the highest responses of vanity always admitted they were vain and felt no shame. Whereas those who would feel shame over being referred to as narcissistic, had lower indications of narcissism. Usually, it is a good sign when one worries about seeming overly arrogant because that demonstrates a difference between socially conscious confidence and socially dismissive vanity. While there is a line between confidence and vanity, it would be beneficial for us to take a constructive look at our own perceptions, knowing that confidence is healthy and necessary, while arrogance will inevitably be unhealthy and destructive.

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