The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism
By Kristin Dombek
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
The word “narcissist” gets bandied about to explain personality traits from the benign to the sociopathic. It’s a word we go to when we want something that cuts through more common levels of selfishness, one that says, “No, you don’t understand. He (or she) is sick.” Naturally, those who suffer from the clinically defined narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have an easy defense against such charges. “He (or she) is jealous”; “he (or she) just can’t let it go.” We could allow such debates to denigrate into he said, she said quagmires if the recognition of clinical narcissism hadn’t become vital to our society’s health. When world leaders are motivated largely by how they’re perceived—a classic NPD trait—and a nascent generation is accepting online personas as true representations of lives lived, it becomes important we learn to recognize and deal with NPD before it deals with us.
Central to Kristin Dombek’s concerns in The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism is clarifying narcissism for those confused by the term. “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.” The effect of being around such a person is emotionally debilitating. The narcissist is too concerned with who gets attention, who has control, who gets praise. If he’s not the one harvesting these things, his world is not safe, and if he has the condition deeply, he needs to be harvesting this stuff all the time to maintain emotional stasis. Imagine trusting someone like that in a relationship, or in a business setting, or with the nuclear codes. (I know, but try.)
When exploring the condition, Dombek relies as little as possible on her experience in a past relationship with a narcissist, instead drawing more empirically from sources as disparate as Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the writings of Freud, MTV reality shows, and blog comments. One senses the author trying to get her arms around the whole of the disorder. She goes so far as to present arguments downplaying the condition through the insights of author-philosopher Rene Girard:
We become friends and fall in love with people upon whom we can project our fantasies that there are some selves that are, unlike our own, replete unto themselves, and therefore irresistible. But it is we who’ve made a mask for them, and when they turn away, the mask inevitably falls, and we call them fake, as if they’ve tricked us.
Dombek doesn’t make it her business to refute such claims, as a lesser book on the subject might. She’s more interested in understanding the breadth of the condition. The book seemingly can only fail her by representing the subject as simpler than it is.
With these complications comes the central paradox of dealing with narcissism in our society: where should our efforts focus, on the narcissist or the victim? Many therapists recommend running like hell when you realize you’re dealing with someone with NPD, but Dombek brings to light the inevitable downside of such a decision. “The moment you begin to find the other lacks empathy—when you find him inhuman—is a moment when you can’t feel empathy either.” This is a deeply disturbing element of the condition: To fight narcissism is on some level to become it. In such a predicament, how does a society reduce the effects of the disorder? Smartly, Dombek doesn’t pretend to know. Any answer at this point would be an easy answer.
When someone describes someone else as a narcissist, you can bet the person doing the describing has been hurt by the one being described. This complicated emotional terrain threatens to hamstring any rigorous attempt to converse about NPD, much less deal with it. Dombek offers a first step out of the pain of falling for a narcissist and into a much bigger problem: How do we stop those with a psychological disorder from making the world a projection of their need? With a deeply narcissistic president holding office and an entire generation accepting likes and retweets as genuine emotional currency, the problem seems poised only to grow.
Art Edwards’s reviews have or will appear in Salon, Colorado Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, Word Riot, JMWW, and Entropy.