It’s late summer 2016, and narcissism is in the air. The youth are busy editing their selfies, men keep stealing spotlights to profess their love, and the ever-spongy Donald Trump continues to absorb our national attention. It’s been called an epidemic. But what does that even mean?
In her new book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, Kristin Dombek looks at the story of the narcissist that we’re all telling ourselves, and tries to tease out what its popularity says about us. It’s a mesmerizing book, and one that works itself into some thoughtful knots, tying together an intellectual history of the term “narcissism” — from its mythological origins in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to its psychoanalytic origins in Freud’s unrequited crush on his friend/coke dealer — with a look at how the term plays out in the news and on the internet, questioning its own assumptions at every step.
She dives deep into a few facets of contemporary narcissism in particular. There’s the “narcisphere” — the corner of the internet where women gather to compare notes and share (and sometime sell) advice on dealing with narcissists — and the manosphere, where aspiring pickup artists try to become narcissists to attract women (see: Tucker Max). There’s the narcissistic millennial, embodied by Allison, whose Super Sweet 16 episode seems to encapsulate the artificial way we prop young people up as self-absorbed monsters. And then there’s the real monster — Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass shooter who murdered 77 people and was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, the psychiatric term for the condition.
At every turn, the book focuses on the perception of narcissism, what motivates us to label someone else incapable of empathy, rather than any problem with narcissism itself. This quickly leads to a conceptual hall of mirrors, where the very act of thinking someone else might be a narcissist (let alone writing about that idea) starts to seem like the darkest depth of self-absorption, or maybe the highest mode of being human. It’s a hard book to summarize.
More than anything, Dombek’s stresses that there are no easy answers. We decided to ask her some questions anyway.
You write that Tucker Max seems to represent an “essential, awful quality of 21st-century male masculinity.” Why would that kind of public assholery be happening now, in particular? Like, wasn’t Norman Mailer kind of known as a narcissist?
From what I read of Tucker Max, he’s very clever, right? He’s taking up that term and also poking fun at it, and at the way that we love it, and we love people who perform narcissism, and perform as assholes.
But I’m pretty sure the reason he used that word and Norman Mailer didn’t, at least to describe himself, is the popularity of psychological language today. Also, there are just so many opportunities to perform and have your performances seen now, like Tucker Max can blog about his exploits and actually be read. The internet let him perform his life in a very public way, and lets us all do the same, constantly.
You talk about how the Tucker Max mode of narcissism fed into the pickup artist community, but does that extend further, into the men’s rights activist movement?
I don’t know if the word and the diagnosis is being used in MRA circles as much, but the “red pill” moment — where you’ve been told your whole life that men have the power, and then you realize, no, women have the power [laughs] — that reminds me of the turning point in a relationship where you decide the other person might actually be incapable of empathy, and everything changes.
In the pickup artist world, there’s a real valorization of the narcissist as the alpha-est alpha male, who’s the best at winning over women. Is there that same type of mentality, of needing to emulate the narcissist to overcome them, in the woman-centric online narcisphere?
Yes and no. The strategy in the narcisphere for dealing with a narcissist is to go “no contact,” which is mirroring the thing you think the narcissist is doing. They’re capable only of coldness, and therefore you go cold.
But there’s probably something very different there — when you go no contact, you’re differentiating yourself from the narcissist, you’re saying no, the reason I got into this situation is because I’m too empathetic, and I’m too giving, and I need to cut myself off.
It seems like the male narcissist is kind of the bogeyman for both — self-identified beta males hate them but want to be them, and the women of the narcisphere fear them, but are drawn to them.
Yeah, they’re both playing off of the idea of natural male narcissists. And by looking at these two communities, I was trying to show how all these moments of mirroring and double binds, all these light and fast assessments of each other, get reduced to this one term.
And the trickiness of the book is trying to show this while I hide the ways in which I see them in my own life.
You specifically avoided using personal anecdotes?
I gave myself this challenge to not write from the first person, as like a sick joke with myself. I didn’t allow myself to ever write “I.”
Even if it’s not in the first person, it still seems like there’s a core experience of perceiving narcissism that you return to again and again.
Right, maybe I can talk about it personally now. In moments when I find myself like, shocked by someone else’s coldness, or their sudden turning away, I often can see, later on, a moment where I was kind of stuck interpreting their actions only as they applied to me, and projecting my own assumptions onto them.
That little tricky moment is a very tough moment, and one that we face as human beings sometimes very frequently, and on the internet maybe every five seconds. It’s the experience of thinking, is that person real? Are they with me? Are we actually quote-unquote sharing?
That moment happens in personal relationships, and can also happen in diagnostic moments, in the history of psychology. And it happens most intensely when we witness people doing things in the category of evil like Anders Breivik, we face this challenge of figuring out, is this person real? Are they human?
Why did you focus on Breivik in particular, instead of any of the other mass shooters of the past few years?
So the mass shooter is the kind of embodiment of what feels like a very contemporary evil, right? The person who not only wants to commit this violence, but does so because they want to perform it, want this moment of fame. I think we feel them as the symptom of our culture of celebrity, of hateful conversations at high speed on the internet. It’s this person who is very much like us in that way, but must be unlike us, because we aren’t killing people.
And with Breivik, there was a very important moment. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at first, which he was really upset about, and a lot of psychiatrists from afar said, “Wait, this looks like NPD.” So he was diagnosed again, and ended up being actually diagnosed with NPD. Which is rare, since shooters often kill themselves, or get killed, so diagnoses are usually speculations.
So the question that I wanted to ask there, and the question that disturbed me, is how can we take that character and apply it to, say, the whole millennial generation? It’s to imagine the future as evil, as a coming apocalypse that has a characteristics of a murderer.
I don’t want to get too hyperbolic about that, but I worry about the way that we then, if we identify as victims of narcissism in this huge way, disavow our own responsibility for the long, slow work of actually caring for the world and for other people.
But that gets to another paradox you write about in the book — how thinking of oneself as someone an empathetic person can actually get in the way of understanding other people.
Yeah, there’s a kind of fetishizing of empathy that I do, of my own empathy, and it’s something that I see gendered in certain ways in the narcisphere — the idea that women are more empathetic.
I worry about the ways of identifying with empathy prevents us from actually having it, sometimes.
But how does that work? If narcissists are partly defined by a lack of empathy, how can identifying as empathetic backfire?
I got really interested in the work of Adam Morton, who argues very persuasively that sometimes our attachment to our own decency, and our assumptions of decency as a natural human state that we are in, keeps us from understanding what someone else is doing.
A common-sense way that we use empathy, I think, is that there’s this natural care and understanding and warmth with someone, and that is good — you can empathize, you can understand. And in fact the work of neuroscientists on mirror neurons, which I mention in the book, says that we do that all the time, we understand each other without doing it consciously, because when we see someone doing an action, the same neurons fire in our brains as if we were doing it ourselves.
But sometimes we skip right to that feeling of, “Oh, I understand,” because we want the warmth, and we want to be able to know what to do next.
Why do you think we seem to care so much about diagnosing society at large, or a whole generation, as narcissistic? Why does it matter?
You could read it the opposite way, right? The moral panic over narcissism might be a symptom of holding empathy as the highest value, and caring more about kindness than ever before.
Or maybe it’s that we’re in this moment where we see these awful spectacles of violence all the time, and we feel more vulnerable, and very scared, so our dependency on kindness is revealed, in this apocalyptic way. I think the question of narcissism is basically a question of, “Do I trust the world or not?”