When Jean Twenge described narcissism as an epidemic in 2009, she was mostly referring to kids and adolescents. In her book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Twenge cited numerous reasons – from greater access to social media, and the ability to craft profiles and construct self-images that only portray them in the best light, to growing up in an instant gratification world that leads to a superiority complex and the inability to delay gratification – kids of her day were becoming more narcissistic.
Today, those kids have grown up, and as evidenced by the popularity of blogs, articles, and social media devoted to the topic, the narcissism epidemic surges on.
The question is: Why are we so intrigued by narcissism?
In his brilliant book, Missing Out: In Praise of The Unlived Life, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes humans as “creature(s) trying to get out of something”. The point Phillips makes is that we always want something more than what we have, and we are pretty sure that if we don’t get it, we will be missing out. But this is also why we are fascinated by those who seem to get what we want. On some level, these people are getting away with something precisely because they are enjoying the very things we are missing out on.
As Phillips describes it, the idea of “getting away with it” involves two “it”s: first, the object of desire; and second, not paying the penalty. A cheater is a cheater not just because he got something he shouldn’t have but also because he didn’t pay the penalty for it.
People don’t like cheaters. They take what isn’t theirs, freeload off others goodwill, take advantage of those less fortunate, and shortcut the system that the rest of us have to abide by. In short, they act as if the rules don’t apply to them.
Narcissists are like cheaters. While they may not steal directly, they take what isn’t theirs. In relationships, they take their partners’ emotional resources and use them for their own – also known as manipulating or gaslighting. In groups, they take attention that is not earned – which is why they often interrupt, speak louder than everyone else, and use condemnation of others to elevate their own self-image – what Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, calls “kissing up and kicking down”.
Yet while we can punish cheaters – as long as we catch them – if we catch a narcissist, the punishment they deserve, is unfairly wrest upon us. In fact, there is no punishment for being a narcissist. What we might hope for is that they would at least pay the penalty of guilt or remorse. Instead, we pay it when we are blamed for enforcing the rules of what we thought was a reciprocal society.
You give and take, as Adam Grant says. What you don’t do is take and take – especially if we can’t punish you.
But narcissists don’t live by those rules. The only rules they do live by are the ones that serve them: I recount the facts as I do so long as I come out looking right. I hold the authority on what is right and wrong, and I am always right. I don’t have to apologize because I don’t ever make mistakes, and I am never to blame. That these same rules may cause suffering to those around them is beside the point, because, when you are always right it can never be your fault.
The thing about cheaters, criminals, and derelicts is that we like to see them pay for their crimes. But that’s just the frustration with narcissists, as much we would like to punish them, there is no penalty. On some level, they are always getting away with it.