‘Narcissist’ Is the Worst Insult

Photo: Cecil Beaton/Condé Nast via Getty Images

There’s pleasure in finding an insult that really lands — with the thud of absolute condemnation, the sizzle of something slightly illicit. Circa age 17, I remember feeling this way about douchebag. Today, Americans seem to feel this way about narcissist.

At first glance, there’s the everyday sense of “self-involved,” “self-aggrandizing”: The narcissist is a selfish jerk who thinks he’s so great. But look closer and the label becomes more grandly, satisfyingly damning. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, someone with narcissistic personality disorder “is interpersonally exploitative” and “unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” Venture into the realm of pop psychology and the narcissist is a mask over a void, a simulacrum of humanity, a terrifying abyss, a vampire. Usually if you start playing fast and loose with the DSM you’re going to risk offending someone, but nobody’s worried about offending the narcissists. Calling someone a narcissist means placing them beyond the reach of empathy: They don’t feel it and so you don’t have to either.

As Donald Trump (“A Textbook Narcissist?”) looms orangely on the political horizon, the term appears ripe for scrutiny. What does it mean that narcissism has become a default explanation for behavior we find baffling and abhorrent? In The Selfishness of Others (out this week from FSG), Kristin Dombek considers the rise of a cultural diagnosis. Incorporating personal experience, psychoanalytic theory, plus critical readings of social science and pop culture, she examines a host of familiar contemporary villains: millennials, transfixed by their smartphones like Narcissus at his pond; fleeting romantic partners, who promise happiness only to vanish; mass shooters, smiling in their mug shots. The narcissists are everything that we — those of us who situate ourselves in the first-person plural of upstanding, right-thinking moral rectitude — are not.

And this, as Dombek observes, has made the narcissist’s definition oddly slippery. What “we” dread most, what strikes us as most alien and incomprehensible — these things keep changing. Freud’s original conception of narcissism focused on women and gay men, whose resistance to his analytic formulas made them inscrutable. Nowadays, the narcissist tends to look more like the bad boyfriend who menaces female readers of self-help books. Narcissism scholarship abounds: Researchers have surveyed classrooms of intro psych students, counted instances of the word “I” in popular songs, and conducted meta-analysis over time. Their findings are carefully quantified and also totally vague. (If an increasing number of undergraduates agree with the statement “I like to take responsibility for my own decisions,” that tells us — what, exactly?) Purported varieties of narcissism now include sexual narcissism, spiritual narcissism, and communal narcissism, wherein the narcissist works to be perceived as kind, generous, empathetic, and charitable by the other members of his or her group — so, “exactly the opposite of whatever a narcissist is conventionally conceived as being.” Trump is a narcissist, but so, too (according to other observers), are Barack Obama, Edward Snowden, and Beyoncé.

Narcissism first gained favor as a sweeping public diagnosis in the ’70s — the period that, on the cover of this magazine, Tom Wolfe called “the Me Decade.” In 1979, around the same time the DSM began including narcissistic personality disorder, the historian Christopher Lasch published his best seller The Culture of Narcissism.

Lasch traced the way specific clinical traits psychiatrists observed in narcissistic patients were now inculcated in society at large. Americans had lost their sense of historical continuity; the potential end of the world had left them uninterested in future generations. Meanwhile, they were bombarded with mass-media spectacles and stuck in meaningless, bureaucratic jobs. Was it any wonder that these circumstances might lead them to put on bright faces while nursing secret emptiness, and begin looking inward for answers?

But what starts as an astute (if unscientific) reading of emergent sensibilities spirals out into general disapproval of modern life: permissive parenting, bad; the university, also bad; professional sports, somehow bad too. Lasch works “by a kind of deductive reasoning,” Dombek writes, “accumulating examples that become uncannily similar once the premise is assumed, a way of knowing — apocalyptic reasoning, we might call it — common enough in books (not to mention to any individual having a particularly bad day, or year).” The result reads as reactionary dismay.

Another one of Lasch’s bugbears is contemporary writing: He sees both confessional narratives and postmodern meta-fiction as obvious symptoms of narcissism. It’s a concern that has persisted over the last 30-odd years. In The Selfishness of Others, Dombek remembers attending a panel about the writerly self, the use of I on the page. The panel included two female memoirists and a male literary scholar. The scholar began to speak about the narcissism of I: Many writers start out working from the first-person singular, he explained, “but then they grow up, and begin writing he and she rather than me, generously inventing on behalf of the we.” He continued in this vein for a while. “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,” Dombek reports. He proceeded despite their attempts to speak, overrunning the moderator’s effort to direct questions their way. “The scholar just went on,” she writes, “saying not ‘I think this’ but ‘This is true’ and ‘this is how things are.’”

The accusation of narcissism tends to preclude further analysis, and to throw the accuser’s own limitations into relief. Call something narcissism and you don’t have to try to understand it; plus, you look good on the moral high ground. As Dombek points out, in what might be the closest she comes to Lasch-style judgment, the popular advice on dealing with narcissists — shut them out, condemn them, feel superior — sounds awfully similar to the behavior of a narcissist.

The two books’ subtitles, in this spirit, present a useful contrast for considering the question of narcissism. Lasch is describing “American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.” What did we expect before our expectations diminished? Unclear, but definitely more than we expect now. His emphasis is our happy, hazy shared past; he writes to warn us of what he assumes we once had and are now in danger of losing. (It’s our narcissism that keeps us from making America great again.)

Dombek, meanwhile, has written “An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism.” There’s something gracefully modest in the fact of describing this short book as an essay — subjective, frankly limited in scope. Does saying so suggest diminished expectations? Solipsistic immersion in private thoughts and experience? Or the necessary beginning of some exchange? One person’s thoughts, with or without that I: It’s the best any of us can do, even if it’s only a start.

‘Narcissist’ Is the Worst Insult