The Selfishness of Others: An Essay
on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Dombek
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016; 160 pp
Reviewed by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Perhaps you first noticed it watching serial killer-centered episodes of American Justice, or while browsing Reddit, which hosts an alarming number of subreddits on the subject (see “Raised by Narcissists,” “Narcissists in the Wild,” or “Managed by Narcissists”): an increasingly common diagnosis, particularly of the armchair variety, of narcissistic personality disorder. This trend is the focus of Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a slim, eloquent essay exploring the various ways in which NPD, marked by an extreme lack of empathy, a ravenous need for attention, and a free manipulation of others for personal gain, has become a popular diagnosis for a whole a spectrum of personalities, from murderer to bad ex-boyfriend.
The narrative reads fluidly from reflection on Ovid’s account of the Greek myth of Narcissus, to appearances of narcissism in our own culture, including contestants of MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen, the most notable example of which demanded that an Atlanta thoroughfare (and sole access path to a major hospital) be closed to traffic for her party. But Dombek’s most striking revelations concern the experience of reading about narcissism—its telltale signs, its potential for damage—online.
“(W)hy does the nightmare described by the Internet, of encountering people who look and sound real but are fake, remind you so much of the feeling of reading the Internet itself?” she muses. It is suggested that the Internet has played the largest hand in the propulsion of the armchair diagnosis, with a pool of self-help sites and message boards comprising “the narcisphere,” in which posters recount unfortunate brushes with narcissists and advise one another as to warning signs and coping methods, ready to “help you replace your own language for what until this point may have seemed a nebulous and hazy selfishness.”
The essay lands gracefully on a final, disquieting suggestion: that the blurring of narcissism as a term reflects a certain wide-spread uneasiness as to our definition of empathy, the lack of which is perhaps the most well-known symptom of narcissism. It is confounding and frightening to consider that we don’t have as much empathy as we believe we do, or that our empathy is not enough for truly feel for, and connect with, one another. Increased attention on narcissism may suggest some unsettling truths about the limits of our ability for fellow-feeling. This realization may prove even more ominous—and necessary—if, like doubtless countless others, you pick up the book upon seeing the term “narcissist” and think, “Hey, I know one of those.”
“(W)e deplore and fear narcissists because empathy is, increasingly, our highest value,” Dombek argues. “But the moment you begin to find that the other lacks empathy—when you find him inhuman—is a moment when you can’t feel empathy, either.”