Why Is Everyone So Crazy About Narcissism?
Six reasons why narcissism is a repulsive and alluring personality trait
In the quest for a viral blog post, I can’t help but notice that a lot of the most popular posts address narcissism, including pieces on the trials and tribulations of dating narcissists and the occasional, edgy, confessions-of-a-narcissist posts. Add to those the posts on research addressing narcissism, and one gets the sense that this is an issue people are trying hard to get a handle on.
Perhaps that is because narcissism is both one of the most powerful aspects of our personalities — a wellspring of energy, productivity, self-care and individuality (among other things) — and one of the most lethal tools for self-destruction and ruin.
Narcissism can be like a high-tech racing motorcycle, too much power to handle, a wild stallion unwilling to be broken, a hungry, craven beast hiding in the shadows, a chain-saw that jumps out of your hand, a sickly psychic vampire pulling you down, or just simply a captivating reflection in a stream that distracts us from what we need to be knowing.
Narcissism, in a good relationship with oneself, is like the best thing ever. You are alone but not lonely; you more or less do the things you want to do; most of your relationships are satisfying or heading that way (including tapering things off with toxic relationships); your work is consistent with your stage of professional development; you don’t beat yourself up, but you usually deal internally with challenges in a reasonable way or recover from stumbles with reasonable resilience; you are looking after your health; maybe you are at peace with existential issues. We can live with the things we can’t control and feel good enough about the way we exert influence. We are always learning, always imperfect, taking things in stride — except when we don’t! We basically believe in ourselves, but not so confidently that we miss what is in our blindspots too much of the time.
Narcissism isn’t a big deal when there is balance. In this case, you know the lay of your own land, the peaks and valleys — it’s not a source of excessive fascination, but you pay enough attention to what is important. Narcissism isn’t problematized: It’s ordinary, expected, and proportionate.
So with those elegiac considerations in mind, here is a list of potential reasons why we (at least some of us, including you if you have read this far) are so interested in narcissism:
1) We are narcissistic: The core of narcissism is self-attention. So the very concept of narcissism attracts the narcissistic parts of ourselves — but may be repugnant to other parts. This love-hate/push-pull is the proverbial flame to the moth of our own narcissism.
2) Narcissism is a defining feature of our species: While we are a collective species, utterly dependent on collaboration far more than competition, the competitive aspects stand out against the more stable background, by and large. Of course, collaboration sometimes takes the center stage, but then the spotlight is shared in the absence of a single shepherd leading everyone to the promised land of getting along. Regardless, whether more obviously in competition or more subtly, narcissism is a uniquely human characteristic. The way human group psych works, when some group likes the spotlight and can commandeer the conversation, they tend to become the leader. Narcissism is about power and instant gratification, hiding vulnerability, and is associated with at least fantasies of safety and immortality. Is narcissism evolutionarily adaptive at this point in history? Unclear, but we kind of understand we have to get a handle on it.
3) Others are narcissistic: We may be drawn to people with lopsided narcissistic characteristics because through identification and association with them, our own feelings of insecurity and vulnerability are alleviated. We may be drawn to narcissistic people because being around them can motivate us to elevate our own needs — this can happen when a narcissist drains us too much, forcing us to put our own needs first (don’t be selfish!) — or when we are inspired by a healthier narcissist to model positive attitudes and behaviors.
4) It gives us a feeling of goodness: Reading about narcissism and presumably trying to get somewhere with it makes us feel like we are doing something useful with our time. It feels like, and may be, a form of learning. However, it can also be a way to seek to feel morally superior, as a lot of material on narcissism is geared toward trashing and blaming narcissists. Of course, some behaviors are unacceptable, but taken out of context it is too easy to trash the other person and avoid dealing with our own participation. Don’t blame the victim, though. Narcissism is a distraction from what is important, and a distraction which works great because it feels productive — like watching a really good TV series instead of reading a really good book, and saying they are equivalent. Not that one is better than another, but you could pick up a book from time to time.
5) Narcissism is awesome and narcissism sucks: There is something about the dual aspect of things, especially when one thing contains extremes of good and bad, compassion and sadomasochism, love and hate. It is an emotional brain hack — when we are presented with dramatic concepts, it activates all kinds of systems in the brain — conflict systems, deep emotional reactions like fear and yearning, confusion, feeling drawn toward as well as pushed away, a quickening in the ribcage and a stirring in the gut. We are fascinated because there is something there we simply cannot grasp. It is too simple for us to understand, and too close to see. In one sense, narcissism is a trick of the mind which makes us real, and at the same time is the loose thread which makes the tapestry unravel, and who wouldn’t be fascinated by something like that?
6) Narcissism is sexy but can be gross.
That’s about it for now. I’m still giving it thought. People gain a lot from reading about narcissism, but there is also a voyeuristic component I find notable.