Caravaggio’s ‘Narcissus’, (c1597-99)
Caravaggio’s ‘Narcissus’, (c1597-99) © Bridgeman Art

The word might occur to you at dinner, at around minute 15 or so of a monologue that began the minute your companion arrived. There wasn’t a discernible difference between her arrival and the commencing of the monologue; barely a greeting, in fact, just wave after wave of language, stories whose subject is the same (how she’s been maligned or overlooked, perhaps), and she is not even pausing to breathe, and your breath shortens, as if it’s physically possible for a human being to suck the air out of another human being’s lungs from across the table.

Or it might occur to you in an entirely different kind of situation, with a friend or lover who seemed like the opposite kind of person — a real listener, warm and charming, preternaturally “present” with you, swiftly intimate. Then he pulls an invisible emotional zip-cord and goes cold, even disappears. Never mind if this second person’s reversal bewilders and angers you so much that now, at other dinners, you are the one whose stories of injury flow one from another. In both cases, it’s the same word that arises in your mind: narcissist.

Sometimes the word explains an encounter with dull self-absorption, sometimes with a consummate performer, a charming surface covering a vacuum, a fake. Either way, it names a stunning lack of empathy. It expresses a belief that there is a piece of this person missing, an essential fellow-feeling, what we call “humanity”.

And yet, at the same time, it gets its strength, its explanatory power, by linking the diagnosed to something that many have claimed, in recent years, is everywhere. Data gathered by social psychologists such as Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell are used to bolster the apocalyptic story that narcissism has become an epidemic, that among the young especially, traits of narcissism are on the rise, that the future is in the hands of Generation Me, and that more and more, a word that is used to describe the least human among us is the best word for all of us.

Not only psychologists but self-help gurus, bloggers, and journalists without the benefit or burden of training in psychology have joined the chorus, reminding us of the findings of the social psychologists and offering their own warnings and advice to those who might get caught up in the epidemic.

“Five Early Warning Signs You’re With a Narcissist” scrolls down the Twitter feed, and “18 Signs You’re Dealing With a Narcissist” and “Is Your Ex a Sociopath or a Narcissist?” and “Narcissists and Children of Narcissists: Yes, It’s Getting Worse!” And although organisations of professional psychologists discourage their members from diagnosing people without an in-person examination — a standard that a blog post on the American Psychiatric Association’s website reminded its members of recently — many perform long-distance diagnoses, explaining the behaviour of public figures in lengthy articles in national magazines.

Against the methods and conclusions of the social psychologists who claim there’s an epidemic, there have been levelled considerable critiques from within and outside their field. Twenge and Campbell gathered tens of thousands of surveys from 30 years of studies of college students and concluded that narcissistic traits were on the rise; others have argued that the measure — the 40-question survey called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory — is inaccurate and that the work is weak for the reasons social psychology studies are often weak: it is drawn from convenient samples of college students in introductory psychology classes. Other psychologists, such as Jeffrey Arnett, marshal evidence to show that millennials are more empathetic and responsible than any generation before.

Manhattanhenge sunset May 30,??2014 selfie
A boy takes a selfie in front of the ‘Manhattanhenge’ sunset phenomenon © Getty

Perhaps it doesn’t matter; more and more, the word just feels true, and we’re in an epidemic of diagnosis. But when the bore and the charmer both begin to look like a certain American politician, and the American politician reminds us of the worst of what’s online, which may be what the whole younger generation is like, and it begins to feel as if a new selfishness has taken the future hostage and your dinner companion is not just dull, your recently departed not just a fake, but the future itself is narcissism — it raises the question of what it is that we fear, exactly, when we say the word.

“You can love her, yes,” a therapist once answered, when I asked about someone who she thought might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. “But it’s different. You can love her like you’d love a six year-old. Not expecting her to be an adult. Not expecting her to love you back.” Like any diagnosis, the word narcissist sutures a person to a label that means he or she is not like you, not like normal people. And it signifies that you should turn away.

Of course we don’t necessarily intend, when we say the word, all that a clinical diagnosis implies, or we shouldn’t. As the World Health Organisation’s list of diseases, the ICD-10, puts it, a personality disorder is defined by deep behaviour patterns that are “extreme or significant deviations” from the way people in a given culture usually relate to others. And narcissism, serious narcissism, is rare. But the word exerts its power by association with deviance.

The memes that appear on the internet about a certain American politician include the following: 1) His face in a haughty, upward look, with the caption “Malignant Narcissist” underneath it. 2) His face in an ugly expression with the criteria for NPD — grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration, lack of empathy, and so on — superimposed over it. 3) His face while he’s giving a speech with a tally of the number of times he used “I” and “me” in the speech superimposed on it. 4) His face kissing his own face in a mirror.

The vanity, lack of empathy, and exploitativeness of the clinical narcissist are qualities shared by sociopaths; it is the diagnosis of cult leaders, of mass murderers. With our dinner companion, our lost lover, if the word gives us a moment’s solace, it does so by gathering its power from our sense of what pathology is. We’ve not only pushed them outside the circle of mental health, and into the company of the worst among us — narcissism, as a word, gets its bite from its association with a certain way of thinking about evil.

The narcissist is like John Milton’s Satan, who speaks in chiasmi: the mind, Milton has Satan argue, “can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”. Evil is our word for a lack of empathy, for deception, for falseness, but the feeling of evil can also come when the world as we know it might be upended, or so we fear.

But sometimes, just before we shut it down with the word, is the realisation that someone is seriously messing with our sense of what truth is.

The particular memes I described above, about the American politician, are not about Donald Trump, though there are plenty of memes in that direction, too, plenty of diagnostic articles. They were made by conservative Americans, and the face behind the lengthy list of diagnostic criteria for NPD is Barack Obama’s.

Which is not to say that narcissistic evil is simply relative to where you stand. Sometimes the fear is worthy, and the politician should not be voted for, and perhaps examined; the person should be divorced. But I’ve heard the diagnosis used, in all earnestness, to explain the self-absorption and immaturity of couples who, unfathomably, choose not to have children, and I’ve also heard it used, by someone who’s chosen not to have children, to explain the choice to do so, on an overpopulated planet. And here, our current word for evil seems to provide cover for a fear of a worldview, or a choice, or even a way of being, or a whole category of people whose experience somehow cancels out your own.

In Paradise Lost, Milton echoed Ovid’s Narcissus in his depiction of Eve. He had her, in her first moments alive, glimpse herself in a pool and fall in love with her own image, in “vain desire”; it was her narcissism that made her vulnerable to evil. Freud, too, would unite “narcissism” with “femininity” in his inaugural essay on the topic: “Women, especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment . . . ” That the narcissists described today by online advice blogs are generally straight men only confirms the word’s utter flexibility. When it is difficult to reckon with a difference, it is easier to call a person fake, selfish, and sick.

An online meme featuring Barack Obama
An online meme featuring Barack Obama

The word arises in the mind to describe the feeling of watching a whole generation perform their lives online — the selfie-posting, the live-tweeting of nights out, the Kardashians — the monstrous new superficiality of our new lives. And here, for me, the word catches the most traction.

Maybe we are acting more and more, in general, in ways that were previously considered vain. But is the internet manufacturing a new kind of self, different enough from the way selves have been before that its most fluent practitioners — those who might post a selfie, incidentally, with considerably less anxiety and self-concern than a 50-year-old does — deserve the same name we give to people lacking the conscience to keep them from mass murder?

It’s an old claim, too — since the late 1970s, when Christopher Lasch condemned the superficial self-absorption of the time in The Culture of Narcissism, and Tom Wolfe satirised it in “The ‘Me’ Decade” on the cover of New York magazine, it’s adapted the language of psychology textbooks to explain the difference of the young. It’s always easier to see it in the previous generations’ condemnations — the nostalgia for a time that is slipping away, when selves were whole, and deep, when we didn’t have to perform them, when you could really trust people. The word as a description of the feeling of the centre shifting out from underneath you, as it does at that dinner table when your friend goes on and on and you fade into the wallpaper behind you, as if unseen; the feeling of history passing you by as you become invisible, and unable, any more, to speak.

If the narcissist challenges us to reckon with the possibility that empathy is something that can be performed, so does every post on our Facebook feed. Behind our computer screens, who knows what is going on? Some of my most empathetic and generous friends post the most selfies; maybe some of the people who never do, but post constant outward-seeming messages about injustice, are secret assholes.

Perhaps we fear narcissism because we are all more conscious of how much we make ourselves, how much might be under the surface, how unknowable we always have been. We bear witness, more and more, to selves under construction, in virtual space. In the comments sections, we react to others at lightning speed, on a scale greater than ever before in human history, judging others as fake and evil.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, in August
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, in August © Reuters

The word narcissist asserts that our values are different from those of the American politician, the internet, the young, the dinner companion — that we have empathy, and they don’t, but sometimes what it covers over is our fear that we are a little like them, for we are called upon to do the very same things. Like every apocalyptic story, the story of the narcissism epidemic gives us a way out, a way to differentiate ourselves, asserting a kind of decency that is in danger of making us as self-satisfied as the ones we fear.

I cannot say whether or not the next time the word comes into your mind, you should write the person who causes it to arise in your mind off, completely; never see your dinner companion again, cut off contact with your former lover, try to love her more like a six-year-old, expecting nothing. But if everyone did that, we’d have an epidemic indeed. Because in that moment, the language of psychological diagnosis encourages us to consider ourselves the empathetic one, and judge the other as selfish — that is, to understand her actions only as they pertain to us.

And in this sense, while the internet challenges our understanding of what empathy is, how to interpret it, and how to perform it in meaningful ways, the moment when we fear narcissism is not a new thing at all. The psychological language that teaches us to dread the other makes a tragedy of what is also the oldest comedy of all. When you start calling each other assholes, you’re interpreting the actions of others only as they affect you. When you give up on them, then you’re one, too. The popularity of the word tells a deeper story about being human, that the internet forces to a crisis: when others look more selfish than we do, that’s often the moment when we’re most stuck in our own position, mistaking it for the centre of the universe.

Afraid of the feeling of the centre shifting away from us, of history moving past us, we interpret the world as if its meaning is its meaning relative to me, and, when we fear the narcissism of the other, the joke is often on us.

Kristin Dombek is the author of ‘The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism’ (Faber)

Photographs: Bridgeman Art; Getty; Reuters

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