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