We know the new selfishness when we see it. It’s in the laughter of the Atlanta girl who demanded the city’s busiest avenue be shut down for her arrival to her sixteenth birthday party, even though there was a hospital across the street. It’s in the way that, when the party planner pointed out the traffic, she said, “My sweet sixteen is more important than wherever they have to be,” and when he pointed out the hospital, she giggled and said that the ambulances could just “go around.” It’s in the way she didn’t give a shit about the sick and dying but did give very much of a shit when, in a store a few minutes after talking to the party planner, she was offered ugly dresses to try on, because why would she even go to her own party if she didn’t look hotter than everyone else? It’s in the way she not only did all this but did it shamelessly, on camera, for MTV’s reality television show My Super Sweet 16, and how, when it comes to millennials, this is just everything.
It’s in the smile on the face of the professional bad boyfriend, whose website led with “I’m an asshole” next to a picture of him with his arm around a woman with her face blanked out and “Your face here” printed across the blank, an image from the cover of one of the books about getting wasted and sportfucking that earned him celebrity, a small fortune, and hero status in a movement among men to obtain power over women by insulting them and regularly withdrawing or disappearing, and who also happens to have been in Atlanta, which may or may not be important. It’s in the way it’s getting harder to remember if there was a time before being a manipulative, shallow, grandiose asshole was something to brag about, before people shopped and exchanged one another like accessories to a personal brand.
And at its most horrifying, it’s in the smile on the face of the murderer. The one who set off a van bomb in a government quarter, killing eleven people, and then went to an island where teenagers were at summer camp and slaughtered sixty-nine of them as they tried to run and swim away, and who, when he was arrested and photographed, smirked contentedly. The one who, when asked if he had any empathy for his victims and their families, spoke not of their suffering but of his, of how traumatic it was for him to see all that blood, who complained about a cut on his finger and said he did it all to market his manifesto—more than 1,500 pages long—against women and Muslims, a manifesto that, like his Facebook page, featured pictures of him smiling in Knights Templar costumes. It’s in the photos and wounded rants that all the murderers now post on Facebook before they walk into schools and movie theaters with guns, as if a moment’s celebrity is worth any human life, even their own.
In the laughter, the smiles, the rants, and the violence we see a coldness, an absence of empathy rivaled only by a terrible need for attention. This is a kind of selfishness we increasingly fear, judging by the rising chorus that calls the young and the bad boyfriends by the same name as the murderers: narcissist.
But what is wrong with the narcissist? 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 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. There, you’ll be told that, yes, your loved one has the same disorder as the murderers, a new selfishness different in scope but not in quality from those characters who are the very incarnation of what we mean when we say evil. You’ll read, in that sizable 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 it before, and it’s a creepy one, but you have the most important role in the script. You’re the hero, and the movie goes, more or less, 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. Narcissists are the most popular kids at school. They are rock stars. They are movie stars. They are not all really rock stars or movie stars, but they seem like they are. They may tell you that you are the only one who really sees them for who they really are, which is probably a trick. If one of your parents is a narcissist, he or she will tell you that you are a rock star, too, which is definitely a trick.
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. What ever hurts most, he will do it. What ever 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. When this happens, your pain will be the pain of finding out that you have held the most wrong belief that you’ve ever been stupid enough to hold: the belief that because this asshole loved you, the world could be better than usual, better than it is for everyone else.
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. Take Immanuel Kant’s elegant formulation of how to do the right thing: act in ways that could be generalized to universal principles. You’ll choose the right thing to do, every time, if you ask yourself: If everyone acted in this way, would the world be a better place? Reason will always guide you to the right answer, and to its corollary, which is that we should treat others never as means but always as ends in themselves. The narcissist, in contrast, always chooses to act in exactly such a way that if everyone were to follow suit, the world would go straight to hell.
It might take you a while to realize that the narcissist is not merely selfish, but doesn’t actually have a self. When you do, it will seem spooky, how good she has been at performing something you thought was care. Now you see that she is like a puppet, a clown, an animate corpse, anything that looks human but isn’t. For the narcissist, life is only a stage, writes Alexander Lowen, the author of Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, quoted on the Wikipedia page about narcissism, and “when the curtain falls upon an act, it is finished and forgotten. The emptiness of such a life is beyond imagination.” You might empathize: how horrible to live this way, having to imitate self-ness all the time. You can think of it that way, compassionately— intimacy issues, attachment styles, some childhood trauma beyond their control—or you can decide that your compassion is another sign you’ve been tricked: that because the narcissist has a priori no empathy, yours is just applause to her, and she is not just fake, but evil.
If you work for a narcissist, or are the child of one, or are in love with one, what should you do? Some mental health professionals think that you can love a narcissist, in a way, but that you just have to treat him or her like a six- year- old and expect nothing from that person. Some do think that narcissists can change. Deciding between these two theories can haunt you forever. And on the Internet, the change theory is a minority opinion; just about everyone advises that if a narcissist begins to entangle you, you should run. As one blogger put it: “What does one do when encountering a narcissist for the first time? The simple answer: grab your running shoes and start your first 5K right there in the middle of the cocktail party!”
Something that might bother you, if you know someone who you think may have the new selfishness, and pause to consider the narcissism story’s logical claims, is this: If he is empty inside, this narcissist, who or what is it, inside of him, that is imitating having a self? If he is nothing but a performance, who or what is doing the performing? Is he animating his selfiness with another, also fake, part of his selfiness? But what, then, is animating that part? If the descriptions of narcissism sometimes don’t exactly make sense, in this way, how can they describe so creepily well most ex-boyfriends and so many bosses? Why is having a boyfriend or a boss so much like having your own personal villain, anyway? If the uncannily accurate descriptions of your personal villain imply that he or she is outside the empire of normal mental health, flickering eerily at the edge of pathology, having the same disorder, or at least traits of the same disorder, as a man who would chase children across an island and murder every one he can catch, why do these descriptions also (in moments you quietly bury deep inside you) remind you, sometimes, of an entirely different person—that is, you? And why does the nightmare described by the Internet, of encountering people who look and sound real but are fake, remind you so much of the feeling of reading the Internet itself?
There isn’t time for these questions, according to the narcissism script; there isn’t time to do anything but put on your running shoes and embark upon your first 5K. It will likely not be your last. In this day and age, you will have to run that distance again and again. Because the story about the new selfishness is not just about your boyfriend or even the millennials or the murderers. According to Neil J. Lavender, a Psychology Today blogger and co-author of the books The One-Way Relationship Handbook, Impossible to Please, and Toxic Coworkers, “Like so many mental health professionals we believe that there are more narcissists today living in the United States than at any other time, with the millennial generation leading the pack. Our entitlement, rock star, ‘all about me’ mentality seems to be a swamp for breeding narcissists.” And a few clicks away are hundreds of blogs and articles and features and books that say the very same thing, that there is an epidemic of narcissism that started in the United States but is spreading fast, that even Europeans are becoming more selfish and that in China, where the disorder is compounded by the “Little Emperor” syndrome caused by the one-child policy, the millennials might be even more self-obsessed than ours—that we live in a time so rampant with narcissisms, so flush with false selves masquerading as real selves so selfish that they feed on other selves, a time so full of contagious emptiness, that ours is a moment in history that is, more than any other, absolutely exceptional.
It’s winter in the northeastern United States, and cold. Something called a “polar vortex” is hovering north of the country. There has been blizzard after blizzard. The storms are named after gods, and they come in alphabetical order, like hurricanes: Atlas, Boreus, Cleon, Deon, Electra. In Chicago and Minneapolis, it feels like −30 degrees Fahrenheit. The movie Frozen is the winter blockbuster, and the hit song is “Let It Go,” sung by a princess who’s turned her kingdom to ice, making it seem as if the weather were part of a Disney marketing campaign. The app is Tinder, selfie has been declared the word of the year, and a study has come out showing that our language is more self-centered than ever before. You can see it in song lyrics, in novels, and in nonfiction. American writers are using I and me 42 percent more than they did in 1960. Making its way around the Internet is a picture of Obama with the caption “Obama uses ‘I’ and ‘Me’ 117 times in one speech while walking on water.” The literary establishment has read the first two volumes of a 3,500-page, six-part autobiographical novel about every mundane detail of the life of a sweet but anxious and self-absorbed Norwegian man. It’s a winter when it’s easy enough to find oneself hunched over one’s computer screen, locked in horrified gaze at the self-adoration of others, and look up to find one’s friends talking on and on about themselves, their words frozen and repeating “I,” “I,” “I.” Listening to them, wondering if they even remember you exist, is like watching Narcissus bent over that still pool in Ovid’s myth, stuck in the inaugural selfie.
If more and more people are now more evil and fake, using the rest of us only as means to fill their contagious emptiness, Kant’s elegant formulation no longer works; it assumes that because reason is our guide, others will, for the most part, act in the ways they wish everyone else to act. But that is not the worst of it; the recommended treatment for an individual narcissist—give up, run—doesn’t scale, either. If narcissists are increasing in number, and everyone were to run a 5K from everyone else all the time, there would be serious logistical issues. But setting these aside, the strategy enacts the very coldness described by the diagnosis, as if the only way to escape the emptiness contagion is to act like a narcissist yourself, and turn away from anyone fl at and fake as an image on your computer screen—that is, from the twenty-first century itself. If we were all to do this, we would have an epidemic indeed. The script confirms itself, and the diagnosis and treatment confound the evidence, until it gets harder and harder to know whether people are really more selfish than ever before in the first place. In this way, it matters whether or not it’s actually real, the epidemic, but it matters even more whether or not we believe it’s real.
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. So I’ve cleared a good stretch of time, and interned myself in a little room at the side of the apartment I share with a boyfriend who is, suspiciously, like the millennial and the professional bad boyfriend, also from Atlanta, a trend that may require further examination. It’s a strange, windowless room, more than twice as tall as it is wide, and for some reason there are electrical outlets near the ceiling, and a peephole in the door—it’s like an apartment inside the apartment. It is not a good room, but I’m in here, in the kind of quiet you only get with a foot or two of snow, watching the world through that narrow peephole that is my computer screen, and reading as much of the Internet as I can bear, and what ever it refers me to, in order to try to get to the bottom of the question of the narcissism epidemic. In doing so, I hope to save you some time.
So enough about the setting, although it does bring up another version of the story, another villainous character to add to the murderer and the millennial and the bad boyfriend: the artist, or more specifically, the writer. A while ago I attended a panel on the topic of the presence of the writer’s self, the I, in writing. On the panel were three esteemed writers, two female memoirists and a literary scholar, a man. As the panel progressed, the man began to speak about the narcissism of the I in literature. People often start out writing from their own experience, he said, in the first person singular. But then they grow up, and begin writing he and she rather than me, generously inventing on behalf of the we. The third person, he explained, is less selfish and more real than the first person: the reader can empathize more, if the writer gets out of the way.
It was a new twist on a story that condemned fiction in the first place, the story that spoke through Plato, who wanted poets kept out of his Republic because their fakery keeps us from knowing true being, and through Freud, who listed artists and writers alongside criminals in his description of those immature, vain characters who won’t grow up and reckon with a disenchanted world, who suffuse the world with their own selves instead—a kind of character that Freud was one of the first psychologists to name as the narcissist. At any rate, I’m interested in the question of the epidemic because I want to know how to feel about everyone and the world and how to act, and because I’m worried about the future. But it won’t surprise you to hear that I have a personal stake in the subject, too. I’m an essayist; I write the word I all day long, and I’m nervous when I do. More than anything, I don’t want you to think me self- absorbed. So I will try to take up the topic of the narcissism epidemic objectively. If using the word I turns out to be a symptom of narcissism, you won’t hear from me again.
Though there’s a danger in this, too. The female memoirists on that panel may have had good reasons for writing about and from the I , but we didn’t get to hear about them. When the writer was talking on about the generosity of the third-person, objective voice, its mature capacity to create empathy, they tried occasionally to speak, and the facilitator posed questions to them directly, to help. But the scholar just went on, saying not “I think this” but “this is true” and “this is how things are,” and he did not stop speaking, and in the audience, it was harder and harder to breathe.
- Diagnostic Criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- 1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- 2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- 3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high- status people (or institutions).
- 4. Requires excessive admiration.
- 5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
- 6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
- 7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- 8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- 9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
- Reprinted with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (copyright 2013), American Psychiatric Association