In her booklength essay on narcissism, Kristin Dombek enumerates the varieties of Narcissisms that plague the world order these days. There’s the Narcissistic Leader, whose ego runs the office you work for, the Collective Narcissist whose group or tribe is the best in the world, the Sexual Narcissist whose libidinal prowess must always be tested by new conquests. There’s also the Corporate Narcissist, the White Coat Narcissist, the Spiritual Narcissist and, of course, the Conversational Narcissist. The list is several pages long. (I wonder if you, like me, will be able to effortlessly match a face you know with each new term you read.)
For each of these different types, Dombek describes that there’s a legion of wounded bloggers out there talking about them. And it’s always a them. She wonders whether these disparate classifications can even be called ‘narcissism’? What ties them together?
Are all these diagnoses of emptiness measuring variations in the same kind of emptiness? How can the person who sucks the conversation air out of a room and the one who lights it up, the one who can’t keep a job and the one who leads an organization, the one who is overly positive about herself and the one who is overly humble, the one who takes all and the one who gives all, have the same disorder?
Such is the difficulty, if we’re being honest, in talking about mental health/illness at all. Every year, the APA expands upon its Bible, The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), absorbing someone who might have been called “greedy” 50 years ago into what can now be medically classified as “disordered.” Hence, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), what the DSM defines as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity…need for affirmation, and lack of empathy.” Dombek is right to question whether such a diagnosis casts a vaguely wide net over who needs help. But what she also points out is that these scientific diagnoses serve to numb us from, shall we say, a more personal reading of the disorder.
Dombek continually refers back to a “narcissism script” that we all operate from. This script, which is solidified by American exceptionalism and our social media feeds and our own issues with denial, is that the guilty ones—the narcissistic ones—are out there. Namely, not us, not me. Whenever we talk about narcissists—within an election cycle or within our closest relationships—it is in the effort to distinguish ourselves from the definition. The narcissism script labels these others: “the bad boyfriend,” “the psychopathic murderer,” “the needy millennials” or “the uppity feminists.” We are victims to their schemes.
Of course, just as big a problem is the narcissism of victimhood—something Dombek is wise to observe. A minister friend recently told me that a lot of marriages tend to follow along a martyr-culprit binary, where one person is the self-centered narcissist, the other the self-centered wounded. One person is routinely apologizing, the other routinely offended. Dombek explains that this binary shapes all of our human relations, but there is rarely a word spoken against the righteous wronged. While plenty of blogs are feeding frenzies for those who have been victims of ‘narcs,’ there are no websites that describe a girlfriend/boyfriend who is ‘martyring out’:
[There are] no websites that explain how at first she idealized you, telling herself you were the best man she’d ever met, and kind of glossing over in her head the more negative qualities you so charmingly explained—your great love of beer, your tendency to brag when insecure, your need to watch Ultimate Fighting Championship ten hours a week, the way closeness sometimes freaks you out—but who now takes these things as personal affronts. There are no websites that explain how, because of what she has been reading, you are beginning to present as a fake, entire self-absorbed person lacking in empathy, who cannot be helped, and from whom she should run.
Dombek spends much of the essay leaning upon the work of French philosopher René Girard, whose writing discusses the phenomenon of mimesis, the inborn act of mirroring and mimicking others in the worlds we occupy. Girard argued that our desires are mirror images of one another, to the point that when we become aware of our uncanny similarity to one another, we are drawn to violence. Our fixation with the narcissism of others, whether it is Donald Trump or your husband or your boss, actually betrays a frustration with and refusal of our own narcissism. It is an attempt to split ourselves from the likeness of our peers.
Splitting, the attempt to control the world by dividing it clearly into good and bad, is what a narcissist does when he turns cold, and why he’s so scary: he’s decided you’re evil, or no longer in the realm of people who are with him, who feed his self-image, and therefore you are against him. But for chickens and monkeys and the rest of us, splitting happens, too, at the edge of our empathy scale, which is to say, the edge of the category of beings we recognize as familiar.
This categorical numbing is happening every day, when you hear people flabbergasted by the newest celebrity wagon fall, when you hear churchpeople hungry for and offended by the newest parishioner gossip—even when you see someone pass over their current conversation for someone across the room. We turn our faces from those who might show us a self we’ve worked hard at keeping hidden. Instead, we hold up the “false sense of decency” that draws a line in the sand between the atrocities of narcissism, and the bounty of being good.
It is easier to choose to see others as mirrored inversions of our false sense of decency—to imagine that when they do selfish or violent things, it must be decency they abhor. When it speaks through us, sometimes, the narcissism script helps us do this, valorizing closeness and empathy as the ultimate moral good, and as what is increasingly lacking in others, so we can perform astonishment at the boyfriend, Milgram’s subjects, the Nazis, the millennials, the world—in exactly the moment when, if we were to acknowledge the difference in context, we might find too threatening a similarity.
The similarity is really what Dombek is after in The Selfishness of Others. One word she continues returning to is the word apocalypse—the Greek word for the truth that comes when the veil is lifted. She writes that “We’ve made shorthand of it: violent cataclysm, the end of the world, as if the real truth will always be a disaster.” Like Girard’s understanding of the “sacrificial crisis,” we are undone when the veil is lifted on our narcissism ‘script.’ When we are forced to examine the eerie closeness of one person’s self-love to our own. When our moralizing explanations for the narcissism of others are revealed to be bankrupt, our dissociations leave us. When our classifications and distinctions are obliterated, we are left with nothing but the truth. The good news is that this apocalypse—when you realize you are your neighbor, that the narcissist in your life is you—also brings you to the beginning of empathy.
This, after all, is what Jesus taught, and eventually what he died to satisfy. We enter the temple with our script—of all the disordered bad guys and the one good guy (me)—and we are given the apocalypse of the “one who told me everything I ever did.” All of our distinctions—our victimhood and our countless narcissisms—are blurred in the light of his grace.