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…