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Are We Too Quick to Call Everyday Assholes Narcissists?

Kristin Dombek's new book 'The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism' takes on our culture's tendency to overdiagose.

by Sabra Embury
Aug 17 2016, 4:00am

Photo by Amy Touchette/courtesy of FSG

Kristin Dombek's The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism is a thoughtful and often hilarious inquiry of the supposed rise of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. People with NPD have a pathological need for admiration from others and lack empathy; they have rich fantasy lives and enormous senses of entitlement that belie fragile egos vulnerable to the slightest criticisms.

Since 2013, Dombek has penned a column for n+1 called the Help Desk, where she slays her advice-seekers with lines like, "First of all, Marx didn't call it alienated labor for nothing, dear," and "expending considerable effort in a cathartic sort of way—think of Charles Mingus, Sid Vicious, or Axl Rose on stage." These sharp-sighted quips make their way into The Selfishness of Others. Although in the book Dombek's more concerned about her own "narciphobia" than about diagnosing others' selfishness, her voice appeals to the wide range of people affected by narcissism—the tired, used-up victims, people who tried (and inevitably failed) to love and save someone with NPD, and perhaps even the actual narcissists themselves.

I emailed Dombek to talk to her about her engaging new book (which is out this week from FSG), why we should refrain from overdiagnosing potential narcissists, and what calling out someone else's narcissism might say about us.

VICE: It seems the label "narcissist" is more ubiquitous than ever, used to describe every power-hungry egomaniac.
Kristin Dombek: My hunch is that the popularity of the word, as an insult, or a citizen diagnosis, these days, is partly about a fear of the internet itself, where it spreads. About how we have to deal with so many people so quickly, without being able to test who they are behind the images and words they put online.

More generally, the commonness of the term these days is an example of the dominance of psychological language in our everyday ways of relating to others and thinking about ethical problems. It worries me that we've come to use psychological diagnosis in a very unexamined way in everyday conversation, as if it's scripture, as if its categories are clear and true, and we can just fit people into them. Historically, that kind of language has often had an agenda, under the surface.

For those who are unfamiliar, what's the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath?
People must ask the internet this all the time—"Is my boyfriend a sociopath or a narcissist?"—judging by the number of posts on this topic on relationship self-help sites. Neither a narcissist nor a sociopath can give real love, people tend to agree about that. But while both are just tricking you and using you, or so the story goes, narcissists are more focused on getting affection and attention they need to maintain a grandiose, vain self-image, while sociopaths don't even give a shit; they're just trying to get power and win. The narcissist might drop you and then keep coming back to try to persuade you that he's actually cool and perfect, and that it's you who is the problem; the sociopath might just take off when she's done.

The studies that claim to show narcissism is actually increasing are not convincing to me, so I got interested in the question of why narcissism [has become] one of our most common fears about other people. Fear of narcissism is a little different than fear of sociopathy or psychopathy; it's about fakeness, and performance, about the possibility that someone can seem to have a warm, charming surface, but under the surface, total absence of empathy, total emptiness.

And that emptiness is definitely more nurture than nature, right?
There's a total lack of consensus in the psychology literature I've read. But dating self-help sites tend to present it as a natural thing, like an essential category: Some people just don't have empathy. You can feel better about your ex-boyfriend because he's essentially a narcissist, he's not capable of love, he'll never change . It's not that he chose not to feel empathy for you, he's not capable of empathy at all. You were fooled . The commonness of this story makes me suspicious.

"It worries me that we've come to use psychological diagnosis in a very unexamined way in everyday conversation, as if its categories are clear and true and we can just fit people into them."

Just as there's a spectrum of autism, do you think there's a spectrum of narcissistic personality disorder? Or do you see it working in stages: early inward versus full-blown zero-empathy monster?
These are huge questions. If you look across the subfields of psychology, there's a good deal of disagreement about whether narcissism is a thing we are or a thing we do, if it's better defined as a clinical condition or a spectrum, a thing in the brain or a thing at all, a permanent and untreatable lack of empathy or a condition that can be healed. The lack of consensus is so great that the American Psychiatric Association came close to removing "narcissistic personality disorder" from the last edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . And yet there are hundreds of websites about toxic and fraudulent romance that dispense advice about "narcissists" as if the term is clear-cut.

I've read enough to become a committed agnostic. When the word comes up in my head, it feels more useful and accurate to think of it as a thing we do—as a thing I do, and have to work against doing, and a thing others do, and I have to work to understand them. In other words, since the word is there, shouting at me, when I do something shitty or cold, or someone else disappears, I'm trying to make it more flexible.

In the debate of who did what wrong, I guess it's all pretty relative.
There are assholes, of course. But yes—my hunch is that I'm fascinated by the way these diagnostic terms shape our stories about romance, gender, sexuality, generations—our feelings about the culture and condemnations of whole groups, like millennials. And worried by the way the word "narcissism" helps us fetishize our own empathy, as if "we" always have it and "they" don't.

"When the word [narcissism] comes up in my head, it feels more useful and accurate to think of it as a thing we do."

You say that Freud argued that narcissism, at its base, stems from an instinct of self-preservation, especially when dealing with cold, cruel, or violent parents. Is this at all related to the type of narcissists who are constantly posting selfies?
The social psychologists who warn of a narcissism epidemic today, citing selfie-posting and so on, actually believe that the thing they're calling "narcissism" comes from too much parental attention and coddling; they think narcissists have too high self-esteem—which is the opposite of what Freud thought. Are they talking about the same thing, even? I'm not sure.

But no, we'd better hope that all people who post selfies are not necessarily people with personality disorders. Selfies are shared and shared for the sake of contact. I've noticed that some of my most wildly generous, empathetic friends post the most selfies. Why is this? It seems too simple to claim that anything that is expressed through self-representation is necessarily self-absorbed or vain. Sometimes selfies are posted for vain reasons, sometimes for no good reason, and sometimes for important, generous, even revolutionary reasons.

What if we're able to let their actions not necessarily be about us?" —Kristin Dombek

Speaking of revolutionary self-representation, you briefly mentioned novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard and the success of his memoirs being treated, by some, as a symptom of all this.
What Knausgaard has done is mysterious, isn't it? Knausgaard has been called narcissistic, and many have cited the popularity of the memoir genre as a sign of a cultural shift toward narcissism. But this doesn't make sense to me. For every one person who writes a memoir, there are multiple people who read it, right? In the case of Jeannette Walls or Cheryl Strayed, a gazillion people. So even if Jeanette Walls or Cheryl Strayed were narcissists for writing about their lives (and there's just no way they are, or their books would be boring and non-revelatory and people would not love them as they do), then what about all the people who are reading their memoirs? It's hard to imagine cold, non-empathetic, entirely self-absorbed people caring enough to read hundreds of pages about someone else's life. My point is that maybe it's not the "I" that's the problem; maybe the "I", as a mode of expression, in image or writing, or music, for that matter, can be humble or tyrannical, generous or attention-seeking, conservative or revolutionary, and so on.

Is there a common "tell" you've noticed among people with full blown NPD? From all your research, have you noticed an ability to meet people and see characteristics of NPD emerge sooner than later?
There are many posts suggesting "tells," ways to test people and diagnose right away. I'm more trying to learn how not to do this. Diagnosis can protect you from being exploited. Also, it's fun, sometimes, to talk about with friends. Maybe I'm a spoilsport by worrying over it.

But there's a structural similarity with every kind of bigotry, everything that causes the horrors we see in the world: to put people in a category first and then decide how to treat them. I think most professional psychologists would agree we should be more cautious. The APA, this week, published a message to its members not to be tempted to diagnose certain political figures from afar; there's a standard that's been in place since 1972, the Goldwater Rule, that forbids diagnosing people you have not examined yourself.

Do you believe a symbiotic relationship between empaths and narcissists exists? That the empaths are "consumed" and emptied so that they too eventually become narcissists themselves, like some vampire apocalypse?
That's a story that's told, again and again, online. And it's a compelling one—it must be. The thing is, everyone ends up, at one point or another, thinking that their partner is the narcissist, and they are the empathetic one, right? There are all these moments over the course of an ordinary relationship when your partner (or parent or boss) can look evil, and when you do, to them, too.

In the book, I'm trying to tease apart that vulnerable moment when we fear the other's selfishness, and the way our habit of diagnosis overdetermines the moment, encourages us to label things as mental illness when we might be better off sitting in the difficulty without deciding what it is. What happens if we let the psychological language go, and the moral language, without labeling it "selfishness" or "vanity" or, especially, "pathology"? What if, in other words, we're able to let their actions not necessarily be about us? I think there's a lot of sweetness in the moment just after that, sometimes, when we accepted one another's temporary self-absorptions, and them, ours.

The age-old wisdom that says don't take things too personally.
That's the joke that fearing narcissism always plays on you—when you start calling others assholes, you're giving up on them, and then you're one, too. You're interpreting the actions of others only as they affect you. So while that story about the vampire apocalypse can be true of some relationships, its popularity tells a deeper story about being human, maybe the deepest one: 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 center of the universe.

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Kristin Dombek's The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism is now out from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.