The narcissist is, according to the internet, empty. Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they’ve come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people. Narcissists are the most popular kids at school. They are rock stars. They are movie stars. They are not really rock stars or movie stars, but they seem like they are. They may tell you that you are the only one who really sees them for who they really are, which is probably a trick. If one of your parents is a narcissist, he or she will tell you that you are a rock star, too, which is definitely a trick.
Because for the narcissist, this appreciation of you is entirely contingent on the idea that you will help him to maintain his selfiness. If you do not, or if you are near him when someone or something does not, then God help you. When that picture shatters, his hurt and his rage will be unmatched in its heat or, more often, its coldness. He will unfriend you, stop following you, stop returning your emails, stop talking to you completely. He will cheat on you without seeming to think it’s a big deal, or break up with you, when he has said he’d be with you forever. He will fire you casually and without notice. Whatever hurts most, he will do it. Whatever you need the most, he will withhold it. He cannot feel other people’s feelings, but he is uncannily good at figuring out how to demolish yours. When this happens, your pain will be the pain of finding out that you have held the most wrong belief that you’ve ever been stupid enough to hold: the belief that because this asshole loved you, the world could be better than usual, better than it is for everyone else.
It isn’t that the narcissist is just not a good person; she’s like a caricature of what we mean by “not a good person.” She’s not just bad; she’s a living, breathing lesson in what badness is. Take Immanuel Kant’s elegant formulation of how to do the right thing: act in ways that could be generalized to universal principles. You’ll choose the right thing to do, every time, if you ask yourself: If everyone acted in this way, would the world be a better place? Reason will always guide you to the right answer, and to its corollary, which is that we should treat others never as means but always as ends in themselves. The narcissist, in contrast, always chooses to act in exactly such a way that if everyone were to follow suit, the world would go straight to hell.
It might take you a while to realize that the narcissist is not merely selfish, but doesn’t actually have a self. When you do, it will seem spooky, how good she has been at performing something you thought was care. Now you see that she is like a puppet, a clown, an animate corpse, anything that looks human but isn’t. For the narcissist, life is only a stage, writes Alexander Lowen, the author of Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, quoted on the Wikipedia page about narcissism, and “when the curtain falls upon an act, it is finished and forgotten. The emptiness of such a life is beyond imagination.” You might empathize: how horrible to live this way, having to imitate self-ness all the time. You can think of it that way, compassionately— intimacy issues, attachment styles, some childhood trauma beyond their control—or you can decide that your compassion is another sign you’ve been tricked: that because the narcissist has a priori no empathy, yours is just applause to her, and she is not just fake, but evil.
If you work for a narcissist, or are the child of one, or are in love with one, what should you do? Some mental health professionals think that you can love a narcissist, in a way, but that you just have to treat him or her like a six-year-old and expect nothing from that person. Some do think that narcissists can change. Deciding between these two theories can haunt you forever. And on the internet, the change theory is a minority opinion; just about everyone advises that if a narcissist begins to entangle you, you should run. As one blogger put it: “What does one do when encountering a narcissist for the first time? The simple answer: grab your running shoes and start your first 5K right there in the middle of the cocktail party!”
Something that might bother you, if you know someone who you think may have the new selfishness, and pause to consider the narcissism story’s logical claims, is this: If he is empty inside, this narcissist, who or what is it, inside of him, that is imitating having a self? If he is nothing but a performance, who or what is doing the performing? Is he animating his selfiness with another, also fake, part of his selfiness? But what, then, is animating that part? If the descriptions of narcissism sometimes don’t exactly make sense, in this way, how can they describe so creepily well most ex-boyfriends and so many bosses? Why is having a boyfriend or a boss so much like having your own personal villain, anyway? If the uncannily accurate descriptions of your personal villain imply that he or she is outside the empire of normal mental health, flickering eerily at the edge of pathology, why do these descriptions also (in moments you quietly bury deep inside you) remind you, sometimes, of an entirely different person—that is, you? And why does the nightmare with which the internet is obsessed, of encountering people who look and sound real but are fake, remind you so much of the feeling of reading the internet itself?
There isn’t time for these questions, according to the narcissism script; there isn’t time to do anything but put on your running shoes and embark upon your first 5K. It will likely not be your last. In this day and age, you will have to run that distance again and again. Because there are hundreds of blogs and articles and features and books claiming that there is an epidemic of narcissism that started in the United States but is spreading fast, that even Europeans are becoming more selfish and that in China, where the disorder is compounded by the “Little Emperor” syndrome caused by the one-child policy, the millennials might be even more self-obsessed than ours—that we live in a time so rampant with narcissisms, so flush with false selves masquerading as real selves so selfish that they feed on other selves, a time so full of contagious emptiness, that ours is a moment in history that is, more than any other, absolutely exceptional.
If more and more people are now more evil and fake, using the rest of us only as means to fill their contagious emptiness, Kant’s elegant formulation no longer works; it assumes that because reason is our guide, others will, for the most part, act in the ways they wish everyone else to act. But that is not the worst of it; the recommended treatment for an individual narcissist—give up, run—doesn’t scale, either. If narcissists are increasing in number, and everyone were to run a 5K from everyone else all the time, there would be serious logistical issues. But setting these aside, the strategy enacts the very coldness described by the diagnosis, as if the only way to escape the emptiness contagion is to act like a narcissist yourself, and turn away from anyone flat and fake as an image on your computer screen—that is, from the twenty-first century itself. If we were all to do this, we would have an epidemic indeed. The script confirms itself, and the diagnosis and treatment confound the evidence, until it gets harder and harder to know whether people are really more selfish than ever before in the first place. In this way, it matters whether or not it’s actually real, the epidemic, but it matters even more whether or not we believe it’s real.