Am I a nar­cis­sist? You asked Google – here’s the an­swer

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Anouchka Grose

Inevitably, yes. The ques­tion is, how deep is your love? Nar­cis­sism is seen by some as a mat­ter of lay­er­ing. For Freud, there is pri­mary and sec­ondary nar­cis­sism – pri­mary nar­cis­sism mean­ing the drive for self-preser­va­tion, and sec­ondary nar­cis­sism mean­ing see­ing your­self as if from the out­side and think­ing, you are great. You’re pretty much born with the first one (although it can get eroded), and then the sec­ond one comes along later. If you’re a ba­si­cally nice per­son, your well-bal­anced nar­cis­sism won’t get in the way of your ca­pac­ity to love other peo­ple.

The writer David Foster Wal­lace also had the idea of two or­ders of van­ity. Peo­ple who are “first or­der vain” want ev­ery­one to think they’re bril­liant, and will do things to bring this about. They’ll buy clothes, learn jokes, and read books in or­der to make a good im­pres­sion.

But “sec­ond or­der van­ity” is more twisted. These peo­ple will do all the same stuff as the first lot, but will also do ev­ery­thing they can to ob­scure the fact that they’ve done it. They will care­fully dress to give the im­pres­sion that they don’t care, or will learn jokes and then tell them in such a way as to sug­gest that they don’t think they’re funny. They are so vain that they hide their van­ity un­der a layer of ap­par­ent in­dif­fer­ence.

Wor­ry­ing about one’s own nar­cis­sism is a sure­fire route to con­fu­sion. How can you ever hope to find a per­fect bal­ance be­tween healthy self­ish­ness and a love for oth­ers? And how can you tell whether your wor­ries about your own nar­cis­sism are born of earnest self-ques­tion­ing, or a deeply vain wish to ap­pear non-nar­cis­sis­tic to oth­ers? There are plenty of in­ter­net ques­tion­naires that claim to mea­sure nar­cis­sism, but it’s too easy to tell what they’re get­ting at, and to re­spond ac­cord­ingly. If you don’t want to be told that you’re a self-de­lud­ing so­ciopath just an­swer no when they ask: “Do you see your own needs as be­ing more im­por­tant than other peo­ple’s?”

The prob­lem is that ex­treme, patho­log­i­cal nar­cis­sism isn’t as oned­i­men­sional, or sin­gle-lay­ered, as some ques­tion­naires might sug­gest. It’s cer­tainly not the case that ap­par­ently self-in­ter­ested, solip­sis­tic peo­ple con­stantly feel great about them­selves. Ex­ag­ger­ated self-puffery is more likely to be a tragic cha­rade, an over-com­pen­sa­tion. You might feel like the small­est, least lov­able speck of rub­bish in the world, at the same time as feel­ing quite ex­cep­tional. If you feel the first thing very strongly, you may fight hard to present the sec­ond thing to the world. And if you make a good job of it, the world will agree. But if you fail, the world will deem you im­pos­si­ble and/or ridicu­lous. (Or, as of­ten hap­pens, the world will get into a bit of an ar­gu­ment about which is the case.)

For Freud, nar­cis­sism and the ca­pac­ity to love oth­ers weren’t fixed char­ac­ter traits, but were bound to­gether in a kind of ac­count­ing sys­tem. If you send loads of love out­wards towards an­other per­son, it might leave you feel­ing a lit­tle de­pleted. Still, if you’re lucky enough to be loved back, your sup­plies will be re­plen­ished. But if all your love – or “ob­ject-cathexis” if you want to sound de­spi­ca­bly un­ro­man­tic – spills out­wards with no hope of a re­turn, you may find your­self feel­ing ut­terly de­stroyed, even to the point of in­san­ity.

In this state you can try to fix your­self by devel­op­ing an ero­tomanic delu­sion – be­liev­ing that the other per­son is, in fact, madly in love with you. On the other hand, your er­rant li­bido might be re­tracted al­to­gether, flood­ing back towards your own ego, and mak­ing you feel like the mas­ter of the uni­verse. Either op­tion can be pretty an­ti­so­cial.

So be­ing a “good” mem­ber of so­ci­ety means man­ag­ing your li­bido so that some stays with you, keep­ing you eat­ing and wash­ing, while the rest goes out­wards, keep­ing you lis­ten­ing and shar­ing. But there will al­ways be fluc­tu­a­tions ac­cord­ing to the re­wards and frus­tra­tions of life. It’s not at all the case that al­tru­ism is good and nar­cis­sism is bad. An ex­cess of al­tru­ism might even be a nar­cis­sis­tic de­vice, a way of mak­ing your­self feel, or ap­pear, great, in clas­sic “sec­ond or­der” tra­di­tion.

Ba­si­cally, there’s no real way of know­ing, from the in­side, whether or not one’s own nar­cis­sism is “just right”. Still, per­haps this leaves open the ques­tion of how to han­dle other peo­ple’s. While it can be hard to as­cer­tain how much of a nui­sance you are to oth­ers, it’s maybe eas­ier to tell how much of a pain they are to you. So, in the spirit of see­ing nar­cis­sism as a very dif­fi­cult hu­man prob­lem, per­haps it can some­times be pos­si­ble not to hold other peo­ple’s too pas­sion­ately against them.

Deep down, crazy nar­cis­sists are suf­fer­ing souls. If some­one else’s nar­cis­sism is mak­ing your life hell, rather than risk ex­ac­er­bat­ing the prob­lem by try­ing to tear them down, you could take them by sur­prise and try to make them feel a lit­tle bet­ter about them­selves. (A bizarre, counter-in­tu­itive “cure” for toxic mas­culin­ity? Any­thing’s worth a try, although isn’t this what women have al­ready been try­ing for cen­turies?) At the very least it’ll be a way to take the fo­cus off your­self for a while …

• Anouchka Grose is a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, and au­thor of No More Silly Love Songs

An ex­cess of al­tru­ism might even be a nar­cis­sis­tic de­vice, a way of mak­ing your­self feel, or ap­pear, great

A de­tail from Car­avag­gio’s paint­ing of Nar­cis­sus. Pho­to­graph: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images

Sig­mund Freud: a case of sec­ondary nar­cis­sism? Pho­to­graph: Har­lingue/ Vi­ol­let/Rex

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