Now and then, a feature in the Sunday New York Times called “The Ethicist” catches my fancy. Written by Chuck Klosterman, it’s an entertaining set of reader questions posing dilemmas of etiquette and morality. In the hope of an expert opinion on how to proceed – ethically – some of these tidbits are amusing and others are instructive.
This week’s mention of narcissism, in the context of placing nude images on the internet, seems like a silly question – at first. Once I’d stopped laughing at Mr. Klosterman’s response, it got me to thinking.
Here is the gist: a reader wishes to post flattering naked photos of herself on the internet. She hesitates. The reason for her reluctance is the fears that doing so is narcissistic. However, she then wishes to know – what exactly is wrong with narcissism?
Is It Bad To Be a Narcissist?
Nude photos aside, which seems to me an entirely other issue (we’ll cover that in a moment), her query to the Ethicist gives me pause.
Apparently, it gave Mr. Klosterman pause as well, since he makes a distinction between solipsism (an obsession with yourself) and narcissism (an obsession with how others perceive you), noting that narcissists are invested in external perception more than internal authenticity. Moreover, people tend not to like being around narcissistic personalities.
My, my. Is this distinction most of us make in those showy, self-absorbed individuals with whom we find ourselves on first dates, at company meetings, or… worse… on the tube, representing our government?
Setting aside those pesky matters and cutting to the (Ethicist’s) chase:
There is nothing inherently wrong with narcissism as long as you don’t care about yourself and you don’t care about other people.
Backtracking a few psychological notes, clearly, the Ethicist was not looking to lay out ten tips on being a better narcissist, nor ten symptoms to signal narcissistic behavior. Nor was he offering a treatise on our increasingly self-absorbed society, as we all grab for our maximum likes, fans, and follows.
Yet the very question of “what’s wrong with narcissism” begs for a more thorough discussion.
Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
The subject of narcissism isn’t new territory for many, but it seems to be such a recurring theme in daily life that a quick refresher doesn’t hurt.
Psych Central offers these symptoms, and this is only a subset:
- Overblown sense of self (exaggerates accomplishments, expects to be seen as superior)
- Preoccupied with fantasies of power, brilliance, perfect love, unrealistic success
- Believes himself to be unique
- Demands attention and admiration (excessively)
- Takes advantage of others
- Lacks empathy
- Discounts opinions of others, is arrogant, haughty
Five or more of these symptoms must be present for a diagnosis of NPD, and the subject must be over the age of 18. We may also remind ourselves of the origin of the term “narcissism,” which comes from Greek mythology. Narcissus sees his reflection in the water, falls in love with himself, is unable to separate image from reality, and eventually dies.
As to the reader’s reason for asking about narcissism – the desire to post naked photos of herself on the internet – not only have we become inured to nudity on the net, but its presence elicits everything from indifference to outrage, depending upon who you ask, who you presume is looking, and whether or not you consider the context as art or pornography.
Nude images and sex tapes float across the interwebs with little more than a shrug these days, at least in some circles. In others, we know they’re career killers, or at the very least, deal serious blows to relationships. Then again, for some they seem to support if not bolster their living; we are, after all, living in Kardashian-inspired Selfie Culture.
The reader who poses the question to the Ethicist, age unknown, doesn’t provide context that would seem relevant: profession, relationship status, venue where she wishes to place her images, and so on. Instead, she focuses on the question of narcissism (the issue of external perception), which is amusing considering her placement of photos is… we may assume… for purposes of validation by others, i.e. external perception, or some element of narcissism.
Otherwise, why not enjoy them for herself, or herself and a significant other?
Nudity Ethics? Or Practical Considerations?
Setting aside issues of children or exploitation (at any age), let’s consider nudity on the internet. The Ethicist doesn’t address the reader’s photos, as he takes up the charge on narcissism instead. And it strikes me as even more ironic that the question of narcissism is raised in the context of being naked, as in my experience, the true narcissist is rarely naked in an authentic sense; the narcissist shies away from the very vulnerability that characterizes emotional nakedness, which is certainly a factor in establishing trust and intimacy.
This interesting little question also reminds me of a Sex and the City episode many years back. Samantha, the most unabashedly open of the four women when it comes to her sexuality, poses for a set of professionally staged nude photos, one of which she frames and places in her apartment. To the best of my recollection, and this is paraphrased from memory, “I love my body… and when I’m old and my tits are on the ground, I can look back and say… I was something.”
Narcissistic? Sure. And if you’re a woman who is over 40, you may understand that it’s a good deal more.
Can You Have a Good Relationship With a Narcissist?
While I was entertained by Mr. Klosterman’s remarks, I would qualify that the extent to which someone exhibits narcissistic tendencies makes all the difference in the world. The narcissist is not incapable of love, and showing it. But the greater the degree of indifference to others, of inability to see himself or herself in a more genuine way, to feel empathy and communicate in a true exchange – the more problematic (and hurtful) the result. To himself and to others.
If you are the child of a narcissist, you may feel belittled or dismissed or simply overwhelmed by the “big” personality of your father or mother. This does not preclude good moments or guidance that takes place in any parent-child relationship.
If you are married to or in love with a narcissist, again, depending upon the degree to which behaviors prevent intimacy, you may find great difficulty in loving a narcissistic partner without losing yourself.
In our self-promotional society, and one that encourages us to “fake it til we make it,” the fine line between narcissism and healthy self-interest may be tough to negotiate much less to discern. But most of us are able to recognize lack of listening, absence of empathy, the need to always be right, and so on.
So… is it “bad” to be a narcissist?
When it’s difficult to really listen, difficult to take in feedback, difficult to connect with others, and potentially miserable for the people in your life to fully trust that you are willing to value and connect with them, I wouldn’t call that good… would you?
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