I’ve been reading a lot of big ideas lately.
Especially in determining which majors I’ll go into next year, I’m curious about a lot of different areas: philosophy, religion, psychology, physics (although I’m terrible at math and therefore could never make it a career), art history, etc,. It’s a lovely yet cruel issue of being wholeheartedly interested in a lot of different areas and feeling the pressure of somehow whittling that down into something meaningful to study.
Especially as I approach the upcoming year, I’ve largely determined which areas I can presumably study effectively without burning out, versus which ones I’ll just have to cram into books, articles, and documentaries I consume on the side.
Plus, these books are just enjoyable.
This summer, I’ve managed to find some excellent reads at well-curated independent bookstores. (Support your local indie, y’all.) Although I’ve stumbled upon good picks in Barnes & Nobles – and detest Amazon bookselling – I find that smaller places tend to give me a better sense about what will align with my personal taste.
I’ve debated reviewing them, after finishing. But it’s been difficult for me to assess them on any literary scale. I know which ones make my mind buzz and which ones quiet me, and I’m incapable of determining whether one of those has more merit than the other. I still would love to feature them on the blog, however, so I wanted to in some way incorporate that.
I occasionally obsess over existential crises and personal musings on a tucked-away writing blog, and so I thought I might try something similar on here. Taking a topic, a line, and writing my reflections on it rather than trying to craft an assessment on the book itself. Without further ado, here’s my first.
Baby Brain Pickings, anyone? GOALS.
Novel: The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Dombek | Goodreads
Release Date: September 12, 2016
Publisher: Faber and Faber Inc.
They’re among us, but they are not like us. They manipulate, lie, cheat, and steal. They are irresistibly charming and accomplished, appearing to live in a radiance beyond what we are capable of. But narcissists are empty. No one knows exactly what everyone else is full of–some kind of a soul, or personhood–but whatever it is, experts agree that narcissists do not have it.
So goes the popular understanding of narcissism, or NPD (narcissistic personality disorder). And it’s more prevalent than ever, according to recent articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Time. In bestsellers like The Narcissism Epidemic, Narcissists Exposed, and The Narcissist Next Door, pop psychologists have armed the normal with tools to identify and combat the vampiric influence of this rising population, while on websites like narcissismsurvivor.com, thousands of people congregate to swap horror stories about relationships with “narcs.”
In The Selfishness of Others, the essayist Kristin Dombek provides a clear-sighted account of how a rare clinical diagnosis became a fluid cultural phenomenon, a repository for our deepest fears about love, friendship, and family. She cuts through hysteria in search of the razor-thin line between pathology and common selfishness, writing with robust skepticism toward the prophets of NPD and genuine empathy for those who see themselves as its victims. And finally, she shares her own story in a candid effort to find a path away from the cycle of fear and blame and toward a more forgiving and rewarding life.
First, I’ll start by analyzing the book itself. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this tidy little novella (essay, technically.) In some ways, it was more academic than I’d originally assumed it would be; it’s stock-full of references, dates, and some jargon that went straight over my head.
It’s one of those books that, after finishing it, I’m not entirely sure whether or not I liked. That’s not to say it wasn’t valuable for me to read. It definitely was. I love the feeling of looking up wherever I am – my bedroom, a couch, (in this book’s case) a crowded coffeeshop – and suddenly feeling a surge of dizzying clarity. In this case, I looked at the people around me and wondered about our intersections. Not in the way On Love made me feel (like it’s all random and disjointed and somewhat made of luck that in no way diminishes its value) but in another way that questioned our own self-centeredness or lack thereof.
I’ll tackle some of those specific questions and realizations below, but The Selfishness of Others is a book that definitely provokes a reaction. So because I’m a person who just wants books that make me feel something or expand my mind, I enjoyed it as a whole.
In other ways, it’s shockingly personable and literary, especially towards the end. The author weaves in snippets of her personal reflections that sometimes wryly reflect her views on the subjects at hand. At times, this could get a little overt, but I still enjoyed them for the most part.
I only have two particular critiques:
- For one, parts of the essay felt sloppy. References felt rushed and overly esoteric. Because I’m not a psychology student at the moment, I wished she would have taken the time to slow down and refocus. It could have used some clarity.
- The literary ramblings were fun, but not entirely consistent. Some parts of the essay read like they’re taken from scholarship, while others are almost entirely personal. I do love books that are kind of mismatched – like The Unbearable Lightness of Being – but I wish that had felt more balanced.
Despite those problems, which were honestly pretty minimal, the book itself is an appealing thought wormhole of sorts. If that’s your kind of thing, I’d recommend. One of my favorite books, Franny and Zooey, covers similar questions. Is any act of goodness or kindness truly selfless, if you get a rush of satisfaction upon its completion? Because of that impossibility, can earnest philanthropy actually exist? What’s the balance between self-knowledge and self-obsession?
Without further ado, here are some lines and ideas that got to me, and what I took away from it all.
I’m going to divide these into questions and concepts I mulled over while reading, not the individual section headers.
Is it a paradox that has no solution?
By obsessing over whether or not you are a narcissist, do you in fact become one? By diagnosing those around you with narcissism, does that mean you’re a narcissist because of false ideals of superiority and authority?
It’s really easy to blame everyone else for everything by saying we live in a selfish culture. (That’s one of my pet peeves: “Social media is just because everyone’s obsessed with themselves. Everyone’s shallow.”)
But by preaching something like that – saying that everyone else “acts” a certain way – does that mean you see yourself as above the law, or being morally superior in any way? How is that not the same thing?
The Selfishness of Others first explores the claim and then rebukes it with an example from one of the narcissists detailed in an earlier chapter. She claims that all of this is because our generation cares more; they’re more concerned with people they’ve never met.
“It’s easier to talk about the inappropriately grandiose dreams of the young – to go to college, to get promoted – as narcissistic than to talk about the various reasons why these average dreams will be thwarted.”
This section also talked about low-income groups, the American dream, and why “materialistic” culture is more likely due to the difficulty of economic prosperity in this day and age.
How do you construct your identity?
This book both illustrates extreme claims (like mass murderers) and smaller examples (like romantic partners who cheat.) One of the lines I underlined – after a particularly in-depth case study – was that even in these examples, “the moment you begin to find that [the other person] lacks empathy – when you find him inhuman – is a moment when you can’t feel empathy, either.”
The Selfishness of Others also really helpfully describes the concept of “splitting,” a habit responsible for a lot of the terror we see in the modern world. The edge of the familiar, the bifurcation of the outside world into us vs. them. Fascinating.
In an essay called “Empathy for the Devil,” philosopher Adam Morton claims that “when we are struggling to understand the actions of someone who has done something wrong, it is seeing ourselves as humane…that most limits the accuracy of our empathy.”
So the debate about whether or not true narcissism exists never fully reaches a conclusion. Instead, it offers both sides and leaves you to figure out the rest. As it states, “we are who we are in relation to others, to groups, to culture.”
I love this idea, particularly because a lot of the books like this I read are to foster more of a sense of identity. Who am I? How do I compare to others? How much of identity is something I can change?
What’s the balance between self-sufficiency and dependency on others?
“In a 1979 critique of Freud’s ‘On Narcissism,” Girard suggests that what Freud diagnosed was not a kind of personality at all, not something people are or have, but the ordinary dynamic of all desire. We’re all performing self-sufficiency the best we can…such dependence on others is our fundamental, existential state.”
I try often to be independent, to love the feeling of being alone. I love to go to movies by myself; my default state to recharge is sitting by myself in a beautiful place, engrossed in whichever project I’ve deemed most worthy. But still, there’s a part of me that always longs to connect with others deeply and earnestly. So am I as self-sufficient as I like to believe?
She also brings this up in relation to others, in the sections “The Bad Boyfriend” and “The Artist.”
“Only one person can be the center of another person’s world at any given time, and ideally, this would always be you. This is where all the narcissistic romance websites invite you to be: in the center of the world, stuck in time, assessing the moral status of others, until love is gone.”
At this point in the essay, it feels like a circle with no solution.
So what can we do?
Towards the end of The Selfishness of Others, the essay explores the idea of mirror neurons, and empathetic accuracy. As it states, “the problem may be that people can be very good at assessing the mental states of others without being conscious of sharing those states.” Is awareness of sharing those mental states what motivates compassion? (According to a cognitive scientist at NYU cited in the book, yes.)
“Just because we’re made of sharing doesn’t mean our understanding of others, often unconscious, leads us to care about them or treat them well.”
As Morton and Dombek both claim, “the way protecting our image as a moral person can keep us from being exactly who we want to be – good at understanding the world and others, at preventing atrocities, at helping people to heal and change.”
This essay kind of drove me crazy, but in a good way. I went down this rabbit hole of taking narcissistic personality inventories and personality tests, trying to figure out whether my existential musings mean that I’m, in fact, a narcissist. How much of the world’s spin can you put on other people? How much do you assume for yourself?
I’m not sure what I think about all of this, but it’s valuable. If only for that checkbox, that step back, that evaluation of how I interact with others and what this all could mean in the end. I’m glad I read it, even though I disagreed with some narrative choices. And I did, truly, think it could be a lot clearer, even sorting through it in hindsight.
Questions for y’all
- If I were to turn this into a “book club” of sorts – embedded a chat room, or prodded discussion in the comments, or even just hosted a read-along for similar books and essays – would y’all be interested?
- Should I have just reviewed it, or do you like the discussion?
- What topics would you like to see covered in these features?