Just what’s behind our obsession with how to diagnose a narcissist?
People who have been hurt and disappointed by someone who shows them less attention and care than they expected or hoped for.
Mental diagnostics are a double-edged sword. They’re scientific-sounding and credible, which means they’re strong and incisive. And yet they’re heavily value laden.
People use them to cut through nonsense. For example deciding that someone is a narcissist is a good way to stop pouring over the details of their self-rationalizations.
But we also use them to create nonsense, for example when we ignore other people’s reasons, because after all, they’re just narcissists. Narcissists are very good at diagnosing narcissism to get what they want. If you disappoint them, then you must be a narcissist and it’s all your fault.
We’d like to think that diagnosing narcissism was as easy as diagnosing ingrown toenails, but it isn’t for two reasons. For one, minds are much more complex than toe nails. For another, ingrown toenails aren’t a source of stigma, but mental diagnoses are.
When a partner shows us less attention than we want, diagnosing him or her as a narcissist puts responsibility squarely on the partner. You’re fine; your partner is mentally ill.
This can be a source of justifiable relief. Some people are just way too self-centered for relationship. There really are narcissists in the world, just not as many as you would guess from the number diagnosed as narcissists by disappointed partners.
We think of ADD as a mental disorder, though one somewhat less stigmatized than narcissism. But ADD is to some extent a product of changing environments. We live in the 21st century ADD. There’s simply vastly more that any of us can pay attention to, much of it extremely stimulating, accessible and distracting.
Narcissism is to some extent a cultural phenomenon too. We live in a society that has come to take its preferences very seriously. Technology has proven increasingly reliable at fulfilling our wishes. When you wish for something, you can bet there’s an app that will deliver it.
People, not so much. People don’t meet our expectations half as reliably as technology does. We expect more from partnerships than people ever have. We process in relationships, trying to wire them just right as though they were malfunctioning technology. If your partnership were a computer, you would have tossed it years ago replacing it with a more efficient model.
Social, cultural and technological change is a backdrop easy to ignore. Paying attention to it, it’s easy to see why there would be more of the behaviors we diagnose as ADD and narcissism. The world is full of a number of extraordinary new things, I’m sure we should all feel as happy, entitled, and distracted as kings.
I’m a narcissism diagnoser. I’m very interested in what makes someone an asshole. I believe its one of the most fundamental questions in all of moral philosophy especially in a free society. In free society we don’t want to dictate what everyone has to do. We want to afford people free range delimiting only the outer boundaries of acceptable behavior. So one of my life-size questions is the koan: What is butthead other than someone I butt heads with?
I frame it that way to put a check on my tendency to count as a narcissistic butthead anyone who disappoints me.
Our technological world exposes us to people everywhere, and one take-away is that there are all sorts of moral standards. We apparently all have expectations, or entitlements in its literal sense, that which we are, in fact, entitled to expect.
I happen to live in a pocket of the world and of world history where we expect a lot. I’m grateful for it, but it is a bit humbling if I stop to think about it. When I get outraged at some injustice to me and am inclined to diagnose someone as a narcissist for disappointing me, it’s sobering to remember that unlike many worldwide, I think I’m entitled to hot water, stocked grocery stores and reliable electricity. My sense of injustice is relative.
Technology also exposes me to high-leverage narcissists, the tyrants and dictators that still populate governments world-wide. That fuels my curiosity about how to diagnose narcissism too.
If you turn out to be one of those narcissism diagnosers, it’s worth keeping all of this in mind.