I’ll bet you think this article is about you.
“We all know selfishness when we see it,” writes essayist Kristin Dombek opening The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on The Fear of Narcissism. She’s right. We see it everywhere from TV to family and lovers. Playing in the tension between pathology and common selfishness, her book offers a thought-provoking look at how narcissism became a cultural phenomenon and repository for our fears.
What is wrong with the narcissist she asks?
This is harder to know. If you see the smile on the face of a murderer, you must run. But if you are unlucky enough to love someone who seems suddenly so into himself that he doesn’t care who he hurts, someone who turns from warm to gone when he doesn’t need you, so self-adoring or wounded he meets criticism with violence or icy rage, who turns into another person in front of your eyes, or simply turns away when he said he’d be there—if you love someone who seems to have the particular twenty-first-century selfishness in some more subtle, or worse, invisible way, you will likely go to the internet for help.
The internet of course offers answers to even the wrong questions.
You’ll read, in that seizable portion of the self-help internet we might call, awkwardly, the narcisphere, a story that can change the way you see everything if you start believing in it, giving you the uncanny but slightly exciting sensation that you’re living in a movie. It’s familiar, this movie, as if you’ve seen in before and it’s a creepy one, but you have the most important role in the script. You’re the hero.
The basic script plays out like this.
At first, the narcissist is extraordinarily charming, even kind and sweet. Then, after a while, he seems full of himself. It could be a “he” or a “she,” but let’s stick with “he.” That’s what you start to think, when you know someone like this: he’s full of himself. But the narcissist is empty.
Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. The murderer plagiarized most of his manifesto, obviously and badly, but often narcissists are so good at imitating that you won’t even notice. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they’ve come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people.
Because for the narcissist, this appreciation of you is entirely contingent on the idea that you will help him to maintain his selfiness. If you do not, or if you are near him when someone or something does not, then God help you. When that picture shatters, his hurt and his rage will be unmatched in its heat or, more often, its coldness. He will unfriend you, stop following you, stop returning your emails, stop talking to you completely. He will cheat on you without seeming to think it’s a big deal, or break up with you, when he has said he’d be with you forever. He will fire you casually and without notice. Whatever hurts most, he will do it. Whatever you need the most, he will withhold it. He cannot feel other people’s feelings, but he is uncannily good at figuring out how to demolish yours.
It isn’t that the narcissist is just not a good person; she’s like a caricature of what we mean by “not a good person.” She’s not just bad; she’s a living, breathing lesson in what badness is.
Immanuel Kant offered a formulation for how to do the right thing: Asking yourself, if everyone acted this way, would the world be a better place? Good people, we tend to believe, will treat others as the ends themselves, not the means. Narcissists, along with psychopaths, do the opposite. For them, people are the means toward other ends. “If everyone were to follow suit,” Dombek writes, “the world would go straight to hell.”
The realization that the narcissist, not so much selfish as not really having a self, changes everything. Suddenly you can see them for what they are: puppets or clowns. While they may look human, they are not.
So what should you do when you are confronted with a narcissist?
It seems no matter what you answer, you’ll be haunted forever. With equal certainty the internet offers two pieces of common advice: love them and expect nothing and hope that they change, or run as fast and as far as you can.
If the prevailing wisdom that narcissism is becoming more and more common is indeed true, today’s prevailing advice doesn’t scale.
Kant’s advice no longer holds. But that is not the worst of it. Running is an act of the very same coldness described by the diagnosis. What if the only way to escape a narcissist is to act like one yourself?
The question of the selfishness of others, though, leads quickly to the very difficult question of how we know things about others at all, and the mind-knotting question of how we know things at all.
Dombek goes on to explore provocative questions of ourselves—most of us can be put in environments where we display situational narcissisms; why is having a boyfriend or boss like having a villain; why do the narcissistic descriptions of others (“in moments you quietly bury deep inside you”) remind you of yourself.