When a clinical word creeps into daily conversation, it tends to get watered down (stressed, depressed, addicted to Twitter). It softens from a diagnosis into more of a quirk. “A little OCD” might mean you simply love to perfect your PowerPoints or stack your books in the Zoom background just so. Adorable! But then there is another category of clinical word that tends to get harsher as it spreads. For example, narcissist. I don’t know many people who would humblebrag that they are “a little narcissistic.” (“Fun fact: I just love to gaslight my friends!”)
Ever since Trump perfected the template (grandiose, manipulative, easily wounded, unable to tolerate even minor scenarios in which he isn’t deemed central or special), the label has been steadily spreading to celebrities, shitty boyfriends, and sometimes mothers. #narctokadvice is flooded with pictures of terrible exes whose faces are rubbed out and replaced with Johnny Depp’s. Infinite listicles describe life with a narcissist as a psychological war zone and explain how to spot the signs and fight back: “How to Argue With a Narcissist” or “5 Ways to Weaken a Narcissist” or “The 7 Lies We Learn From Our Narcissistic Parents.” On #narctok, the final stage of enlightenment is “no contact,” meaning forever cutting the narcissist out of your life.
Elon Musk is a “narcissist” or sometimes a “narcissistic sociopath” or a “toddler.” Ben Affleck is both a philosopher of narcissism and a narcissist, according to this five-part YouTube series on the subject, though the comments devolve into a debate about whether J.Lo is also a narcissist and possibly Jennifer Garner and — Who knows? — maybe all of their little nepo babies, too.
For women, the bar is preposterously low. The Kardashian-Jenners, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Cardi B, Madonna, and pretty much any other prominent female celebrity, not excluding Beyoncé and especially Meghan Markle: all possible narcissists according to one quotable shrink or another. Symptoms cited by critics include singing, posing for pictures, posting pictures, stealing too much attention, talking about their own life — doing everything we demand of them and, honestly, many things we all do ourselves.
What’s confusing about the insult is how many of the behaviors we define as narcissistic in celebrities we routinely indulge in ourselves: narrating and documenting our own lives, behaving as if we always have an audience. When research psychologist Jean Twenge wrote in The Narcissism Epidemic about the epidemic of misery among post-millenials, she mostly blamed cell phones, social media, and the “culture of selfies” for the shift. Fifteen years later, the teens are still drowning in hopelessness. But calling them narcissists is about as helpful as calling them obese. What can they do with that diagnosis except hate themselves even more? One good answer comes from a long-dead Austrian psychoanalyst who called himself “Mr. Z”: Take back the word.
In the ’70s and ’80s, a debate over the meaning of narcissist broke out between two psychoanalysts, Heinz Kohut (Mr. Z) and Otto Kernberg. Kohut and his family escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria in the late 1930s. In the U.S., his singular dream was to be accepted into the Chicago School for Psychoanalysis so he could spend his life treating patients and debating with colleagues about Freud. But when he entered classical analysis himself with someone from the school, Kohut found it a “burdensome chore” and an “extended failure of understanding,” according to his biographer, Charles Strozier.
In Freudian theory, narcissist suggests someone who got stuck in an infantile phase because they didn’t get enough love, then spent their life in a desperate and futile attempt to regain it. But in practice, Kohut found this approach formulaic and cold, crushing of his creative spirit. “Kohut deeply objected to the idea that narcissism, or any form of self absorption, is necessarily bad,” Strozier writes. Narcissism, to him, was the engine of ambition, a creative force that pushed you beyond your limits to try things you might not be confident you could do.
Kohut’s view eventually became known as “self-psychology,” a much gentler and more relational form of analysis. He spread the idea that, in fact, the only way children could thrive is if their parents worked hard to make them feel special. To him, a healthy dose of narcissism grounded a child and allowed them to have empathetic relations with others. (It’s the RuPaul idea: “If you can’t love yourself …”) The sentiment permeates parenting today; only the word fell out of favor.
Kohut died suddenly of leukemia at 49, and Kernberg, a rival scholar of narcissism, took on the word. Kernberg’s darker view informed Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, which warned of a coming generation obsessed with fame and celebrity. Lasch’s predictions were alarmingly correct, but his tone was unnecessarily dire. He predicted that, much like a borderline patient, all of us staring at a flickering screen would start to feel our “amorphous existence to be futile and purposeless.”
In his excellent 2016 book, Rethinking Narcissism, Harvard Medical School psychologist Craig Malkin translates Kohut’s very clotted writing to a basic spectrum. On the healthy side of narcissism is what he describes as the ability to hold “positive illusions,” a belief that, despite the facts at hand, we can do great things. At this end of the spectrum, it’s necessary to set aside critical voices and not let them derail us. Narcissism becomes disordered, he says, only if we get rigid and prickly around any small critique and, from there, can slide into a total lack of empathy and become psychopathic.
Malkin says he fully supports reducing contact with someone in your life to zero if that person is abusive. But asking if a partner is a narcissist is a “distraction,” he says. “My first question is ‘Are you physically and emotionally safe?’” If the answer is “yes,” then their narcissism might be a trait you can work with.
Malkin writes beautifully about his mother, the “incandescent” figure of his childhood and a narcissist. He writes about how resentful she was when he had to move her into a small apartment and how she could not rest until she bought herself a pair of four-inch Manolo Blahniks that made her feel special. He writes about how he came to think of narcissism not as the whole of her but as something she used to comfort herself and how, when she died, he could say good-bye with more love in his heart.
I, too, have a narcissist in my life I try and sometimes fail to love. After a recent insane argument, during which I fully regressed, I spent a good two weeks soothing myself on #narktokadvice. I envied these young amateur shrinks with their emotional mastery, their foresight to distance themselves from the danger so as not to ruin their own relationships. I found wise friends, like this confident queerdo with their sparkles and cute rainbow shirt: “There’s no bigger inconvenience to a narcissist than another person’s emotions.” I flirted with some of the “no contact” gurus, too, but the advice didn’t stick. My narcissist is getting older now. I still want to try.