In our solipsistic culture, critics often invoke the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus. The connection is obvious. Yet that’s part of the problem – because it isn’t really all about him. According to the classic version, he incurred divine vengeance by rejecting the love of Echo, a nymph who could only repeat the tail end of whatever she heard: the goddess Hera, who she’d offended by talking too much at the wrong time, had cursed her.
The term co-narcissism has been around since 2005, when psychotherapist Alan Rappoport published an article geared to raise awareness of how a person adapts to narcissistic parents. Like co-addiction, the term derives from codependency. A related term, also coined in 2005 but by Dean Davis, a psychoanalyst, is echoism. Dictionaries define it as a synonym for onomatopoeia, the use or creation of words that sound like what they refer to (kookaburra, pitter-patter, cuckoo, tick tock, zoom, howl, burp etc.). Personally, I prefer it to Rappoport’s coinage because it isn’t built on narcissism – just as Echo the nymph had a life before she fell for the vain young hunter. But that’s patriarchal language for you: man, therefore woman. Male, therefore female. No doubt about who or what comes first. So that’s why the mythic Narcissus isn’t a girl and Echo a guy. In patriarchal ancient Greece, mortal women couldn’t hunt, let alone vote, own land or inherit.
Not sayin’ that clinical narcissism – predictably called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) – affects one gender more than the other. (Even if statistics show it does. Oops! I keep forgetting society now comprises more than two genders, then fearing such gaffes will incur righteous rage, contempt and punishment: the go-to defences of a narcissistic culture… and, not coincidentally, my mother.) Now, what was I saying? saying? saying? saying?
The cause of NPD is unknown, though experts agree that genes, biology and environment (nature + nurture) may play a role. Yet the cause of co-narcissism is implied by the term. Survivors of narcissistic parents grow up to attract more in the same vein – until the pain of being treated like an object compels some to seek help. In contrast, narcissists don’t care to admit to their problems. Which on a collective scale might look like, say, climate change denialism (grandiose subtype) or greenwashing (covert subtype) – as corporations, quick to rebrand products applicably, manipulate wannabe activists of all descriptions with support from government agencies. A culture in which hiring private brand or market research consultants takes precedence over public needs, such as funding weather warning systems upgrades, is a culture afflicted with NPD. The Bureau of Meteorology, busy updating its image throughout a year of unprecedented floods, has been losing staff traumatised by mismanagement. Overwork, stress, mixed messages, gag orders… Echoes of my family.
If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If a narcissist is the fairest and no-one is around to impress, are they really there?
The first of these two riddles, a philosophical thought experiment (the phrasing of which originated in a 1910 book on physics), exemplifies the patriarchal penchant for abstraction. The answer is no. A tree can’t hear because it has no ears. Lucky some anti-logging activists are listening – though narcissistic governments punish those who interfere with business.
As for the second riddle, a narcissist needs an audience of one or more others for constant reassurance because they lack an inner sense of self. So, again, the answer is no, or not sustainably. Something essential is missing and so the narcissist seeks to extract it from whatever external source they can access. Which brings us to the matter of enabling. Co-narcissism or echoism, take your pick. Like, share, retweet. Pundits love to blame social media for the rise of narcissism, reportedly more marked in younger people. Yet it’s as if designers of networking sites like Facebook had this disordered dyad in mind. Online echo chambers have merely raised its visibility. And thanks to neuroplasticity, chronic digital activity reinforces certain behaviours and traits.
Narcissist or co-narcissist – which one are you? (Click here to take this quick quiz: yet another feature of digital culture, a hall of mirrors that feeds self-obsession.) While both terms can yield psychological insight, they exist on a continuum. Useful tools, fun to explore (as with, say, ‘addict’ and ‘codependent’), they nonetheless present a false dichotomy. What we’ve got is ultimately an infinitely tangled web of chicken-and-egg ambiguity. Ditto, virtuous green leftists vs. evil corporate giants. To totally stop enabling the system that’s trashing our planet and fast-tracking mass extinction would mean ditching all our devices, producing all our own food, walking or riding a quadruped and giving up pharmaceuticals. How many self-righteous finger-pointers, including me, could do it? I already cop stigma for not owning a mobile phone, opted for social exclusion last year to evade vaccination, and – yet again – doctors are threatening torturous old age or premature death if I don’t take their gross medication (more on which later). How much independence am I willing to risk?
But here’s the thing: the phenomenon of political correctness gone batshit – in step with the rise of the populist right? – is co-narcissism off the chart. Shame the fat-shamers. Claim your space. Cancel your critics. Assert your agency. Preach diversity and punish difference. A narcissistic culture parades its excesses in lycra tights, routinely buys takeaway lattes and snacks with shakes by day then orders meals delivered to its door by night, augmenting the growing global volume of disposable waste, and crowd-funds entrepreneurs while millions starve and wildlife dies. And a co-narcissistic culture demonstrates empathy through signing petitions, celebrating PC identity, praising ‘the science’ (or at least a specific instance of it, untethered from evidence), and slamming noncompliance on behalf of ‘the vulnerable’ – an ironically un-PC failure to respect the diverse ways in which vulnerability exists or can be created when random mandates destroy the health of some and the employment of others.
According to Rappoport, all narcissists were raised by narcissists, whose parents were reputedly even more narcissistic. And if I can trust anecdote and documentation, both my parents had narcissistic fathers and both were closer to their co-narcissistic mothers. So what made my mother one and my father the other? Curiously, the narcissists I’ve known well also take after the parent of the opposite gender. But to tell whether that’s a general trend or just a pattern I’ve attracted due to my history would require far more research. Which reminds me…
Why do men, even those fond of psychologising, generally have less to say on the topic than do women? The blogs I follow offer incisive cultural commentary informed by both politics and psychology. And yet, with a few exceptions, these bloggers make assumptions shared by their gender; the texts that claim their attention betray reflexive deference to male authority. Which, though it needn’t invalidate their ideas, begs the question of what scope exists for balance, wholeness and wisdom when reliant on a history written by men and a body of knowledge bounded by male-dominated science. Meanwhile, I feel like I’m observing unseen and unheard from behind a two-way mirror… mirror… mirror… mirror…
A very interesting read. I can’t answer your question and speak for all male psychologisers, but I never gave NPD much thought because my baseline assumption is that dealing with people, all of them, is narcissism by degrees. I think we tend to assume narcissism as an assertive, obviated thing, but I also think false impressios of meek and humble pie are also strains of narcissism. Ye olde ‘lookit how understated and passive, long-suffering and patient I am.’ As to why narcissism seems to inhabit a male world, I’d think it lies with the division of expected behaviours. How a woman exhibits narcissism might be subtler, albeit not always, than a man. I’ve noticed that women among women don’t reward ostentatious behaviour as men might regard it among men. Example: Mr. Trump, say what you will of him, seemed to have had more popular appeal than Ms. Clinton despite having similar levels of (I think annoying) braggadoccio or however the Italians spell it. In the case of ‘Trump Style’ lady politicians there seems to be far more attention on them and scrutiny.
Of course I’m not a woman so there’s only so far my individuated observations can carry me in determining if that’s a reflex of this patriarchy I keep hearing about, or some potential aspect of this evolutionary group strategy I’ve heard about.
Anyway. My compliments, lost in my triggered autism, on a well written thought.
Thanks for your response. Yes – agree it’s a matter of degree. And ‘experts’ in the field distinguish between grandiose & vulnerable or overt & covert types. Besides which someone totally lacking narcissism could be mistaken for a doormat; it’s a function of ego. I sometimes use psychological terms to discuss broad cultural trends, which means I tend to generalise. And now I’m about to do it again. Because we live in a culture where males have traditionally been rewarded for certain attitudes & behaviours that in excess denote so-called narcissism – authority, entitlement, exploitativeness, competitiveness etc. – while women w/ such tendencies have traditionally been suppressed. Instead, they’ve been encouraged to channel narcissism through vanity: a woman who spends hours a day focused on her looks will have less time to compete on male-dominated turf. Personally, I’ve known roughly equal numbers of males & females w/ strong narcissistic traits. And I think the balance w/in an individual can & often does shift over time. Re Trump & Clinton, I think it’s complex. Similar level of arrogance, different styles…
Out of curiosity, and I’ll skip the prosaic warmups, I tend to view -archies as exploitative and opportunistic. We’ve had the appearance of a “patriarchy” for the long hours because it has suited the environment. They SAY we used to have a “matriarchy” because in ancient myth women were more coequal to men, and archaeology suggests women as earliest subjects of anthropomorphic art. (I don’t buy that all art was porno because the subjects had,ahem, generous portions.) But that hypothesis is troubled, although I don’t disagree that there may have been the appearance of a matriarchy. My spellcheck doesn’t believe me, I’ve had to correct the word matriarchy six times to thwart the bleeding autocorrect. Anyway. They SAY we’re entering a matriarchy now, although some say gynenocracy. Which i remain skeptical of, because it strikes me more a victimocracy in which (at least White) women rank low and have been kicked down the ladder by men pretending to be women, and so on. But that leads me to a slice of TERF I haven’t looked into.
Anyway. Point I’m probably poorly making is that I think oligarchies use the environment for their advantage. A patriarchy would benefit a mobile civilisation, a matriarchy would benefit a sedentary one. That kind of deal.
Which I think helps flesh out why having a focus on women’s rights and power now, does not stop the deleterious exploitation of said women resulting in an exacerbation of maladaptive problems previously attributed to men. (Drink, drugs, whoring – escapism.) Now I’m sure the argument can be made that women haven’t achieved equality yet, or whatever. But the goalpost is shaky and easily moved because men never got the equality, not really. Especially if you consider the incomplete universal suffrage prior to women’s suffrage, and how that remains a bartering chip of big business whose cogs are mouldable chess pieces rather than assigned genders.
There’s my thought for the morning. It doesn’t amount to much. But it’s one I’ve pondered, all over my archives if you’re ever bored. But I won’t shill too hard.
Given that the ancient Greek root of -archy means ‘rule’, some folk will always get exploited: a reflection of the natural world, which has a pecking order too. Women as the earliest artist’s models, & much myth besides, suggests they originally came first, & the sea, said to be the source of all life, is characterised as feminine. Chicken or egg, though? Not sayin’ today’s patriarchy should be replaced by a matriarchy – I don’t conceive of either as the lesser of two evils. What interests me is the possibility, faint tho’ it seems, of individuals waking up to & integrating their own dualities instead of waiting for the state to fix global warming, banish viruses, enforce borders that create illusory safety etc. To me the whole non-binary phenomenon is both symbolic & symptomatic of what most humans lack: inner balance of polarities, masculine-feminine integration. Jung called it individuation.
I don’t see oligarchy & patriarchy as mutually exclusive. Systems inevitably overlap. Is our civilisation mobile? Increasingly so, w/ migration on the rise, & not just laterally but upwardly/outwardly, if plans to colonise Mars & beyond come off. But it’s sedentary too, & getting more so by the minute, w/ factory-farmed food home-delivered.
Am partway through reading, & not due to boredom, a long post on your blog – which, it strikes me, caters for a highly specific audience.