MR Round Table: Does “You Do You” Perpetuate Narcissism?

Guest Sophie Milrom joins us for this week’s discussion following a New York Times Magazine article by Colson Whitehead

04.17.15
Video still via YouTube

Leandra Medine: This week we’re round-tabling an article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine two weeks ago titled, How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture. Do you think that “doing you” perpetuates narcissism?

Amelia Diamond: I think it’s a sentiment that we reiterate frequently on Man Repeller. It’s pretty true to our ethos; that’s what MR is founded upon right? I’m going to “do me” when it comes to clothes. I think we use that term frequently in our writing, too. Reading this article made me realize these axioms that we use — “boys will be boys,” “no offense” — which Mattie touched on — they’re defense mechanisms. If we say that line, we’re untouchable. I definitely use “you do you” as a crutch. My point being: I don’t see it so much as narcissistic as I see it as a crutch.

LM: It’s like the exclamation point at the end of an e-mail.

Esther Levy: It’s kind of like emojis, too. We rely on specific emojis to emit that which we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to say.

LM: You can either define “doing you” as being the most honest, authentic, sincere and also kind version of yourself — because kindness seems to be a character trait inferred by authenticity and sincerity as far as I’m concerned — or, you can take it to mean something else. I don’t necessarily know that it might be perpetuating narcissism, but it might be perpetuating evil. I just don’t know if that evil is authentic to anyone.

Colson Whitehead [the author of the article] writes, “‘You do you,’ taken to its extreme, provides justification for every global bad actor. The invasion of Ukraine is Putin being Putin, Iran’s nuclear ambitions Khamenei being Khamenei. Haters gonna hate.”

EL: He’s being facetious, though, to suggest that if we continue to use the term as a pardon, we might, by virtue of that, condone dangerous things.

AD: It’s like that quote, “You can swing your arms at me so long as you don’t touch my nose.” When “you do you” affects someone else, that’s when it becomes a problem. Maybe that’s also when it becomes narcissism: when you do you something for the sake of yourself and disregard others.

LM: Right. Are you actually “doing you” though? Or are you doing what/who you want you to be? That’s when the meanings become convoluted.

Sophie Milrom, founder of EatPops, Man Repeller contributorI think there’s a difference between how it’s used in pop culture, and the inferences that this article was making. A lot of the people that this article mentioned were people who are in positions of leadership, like Obama and Putin.

When you assume a position where you’re responsible for a huge population, you’re no longer entitled to use “you do you” as a way of excusing your actions either in advance or retroactively. The way millennials use it is more appropriate for decisions that really have no impact on people. It’s more about autonomy and having room to do what suits you in any given situation, without feeling obligated to worry about everyone else.

AD: There’s a funny Instagram I keep seeing that says, “Every day I struggle with ‘I want to look good naked,’ versus ‘you do you’ or ‘YOLO,'” which is so true. We sit there and say, “I’m going to eat a salad, I’m going to workout” and then later that night you get to a restaurant and your friend’s like, “Just have some guacamole and 500 margaritas,” and you’re like “YOLO!” That YOLO term too — they’re different — but they go hand in hand.

In last night’s episode of Southern Charm (sorry for that)one of the characters, Greg, just graduated law school and he’s last in his class to take the bar and everyone’s freaking out because he’s partying too much and doing a really shit job at work. All of his friends are like, “Dude, shape up. Clean your room, stop drinking seven nights a week and study for the bar.” And his argument is like, “Why do you care? I’m doing me!” That’s straight up selfish and narcissistic. At what point do you say, “Now it’s time for me to contribute to society”? Which is not “you doing you.”

SM: I read somewhere that life is like being on an airplane. If and when something goes wrong and the oxygen masks come down, the instructions on the plane always tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting a child. The idea is that if you’re trying to save the child, and you pass out, you’re both going to die. If you save yourself first, you’re actually better suited to save the child. I think that’s doing you: putting yourself in a position where you’re doing what you need to be doing for yourself, and that enables you to be a better friend, employee or parent. But, a lot of the examples given in this article are more like, Someone’s hijacking the plane, and that’s a totally different situation.

EL: Something I found interesting in this article is that, yes, “me doing me” indicates a level of narcissism. But if I tell Amelia, “you do you,’ that also indicates a level of narcissism on my part. It implies that I think what you’re doing is okay because I would do it. I approve of you doing you.

AD: It’s a little bit of the devil on your shoulder. Memes are ruining my life, but there’s another one that goes, “I end all of my advice to friends with, ‘Idk though, you do you,’ so that it’s not my fault if I ruin someone’s life.” Which is kind of funny, because you can give someone a whole speech like, “Divorce him! He’s not right for you!” but if you end it with, “I don’t know though, you do you,” you can’t be held accountable.

LM: That is where the narcissism comes in though. I’d like to touch a little bit more upon narcissism in 2015 and whether or not the definition has changed in the wake of social media and the personal branding that is involved in our existences online. I think in order to discuss “you do you” in a narcissistic capacity, we need to define narcissism. Is there healthy narcissism? What defines malignant narcissism?

SM: Narcissism is a personality disorder. It is an excessive interest in yourself, very often also in your appearance to others. So the defining characteristics of narcissism are seeing yourself through other peoples eyes, and having an obsessive need to understand how you appear to others.

It’s also on a spectrum. Having zero narcissism would be problematic. Then a certain point, if you have enough narcissism you have what’s diagnosable as narcissistic personality disorder. Something I’d like to note is that narcissistic personality disorder is one of the hardest disorders to treat. Because of the way narcissists interact with other people, it makes it really hard for them to end up with the right therapists. Because they will normally find a therapist who ends up feeding their narcissism. It’s one of the trickiest psychological phenomenons out there.

AD: If there’s a spectrum, and a total lack of narcissism is problematic, then that means yes, there is some level of healthy narcissism.

Social media feeds our inner narcissist. Duh. We’re looking for likes and Twitter followers. But this narcissism doesn’t harm anyone. It’s just “us doing us.”

LM: You have to really intellectualize the concept of “doing you” in order to find the perpetuation of narcissism in it. I do still believe that there is healthy narcissism. Maybe it’s called vanity?

SM: It would be very unpleasant to be around someone with zero narcissism. But there’s a difference between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. People who have that disorder — it defines them and their relationships.

AD: Then this concept of “you do you” can’t perpetuate narcissistic personality disorder — like you said, NPD is a medical condition. It’s there regardless of slogan.

SM: It can be a tool. A person with narcissistic personality disorder probably cares more about followers and likes then somebody without it.

LM: And is someone who also wants to be celebrated for “doing themselves.”

AD: Someone who wasn’t previously inclined to be narcissistic, who then signed up for Instagram and saw that this whole community was based on praise of self, that can proliferate and grow one’s narcissism. I don’t think all of these kids who are obsessed with their selfies started that way.

SM: I agree. I think it’s definitely a “chicken and the egg.” Narcissism can also stem from insecurity. Maybe you sign on to Instagram and you see what everyone else is sharing, and you feel the need to compete, and you get a certain sensation from participating and it triggers each thing to be more intense.

LM: But what is a narcissist’s relationship like with the third party? Do they not care about their activities either? Or do they feed on their existing and posting also?

EL: I think a narcissist would care about other people’s accounts, because by liking a photo, I’m validating that what this person posted is right. I like a picture because I believe it reflects me. I like a style photo because I would personally dress like this.

AD: Of course. But don’t we also follow people with whom we have nothing in common?

SM: I definitely am not living the same life as the Fat Jewish, but nothing makes me happier than the things he posts online.

AD: When he sits in a vat of chili, there’s no greater reply than, “you do you.” But isn’t that what our society is literally begging for right now? Mass acceptance of everything. You were born a man and you don’t want to be a man, Bruce Jenner? Do you.

LM: But it’s also very easy for us to say that because we’re emotionally detached from these situations. If that was your father you might be like, “Don’t ‘do you,’ you need to do what is best for me.”

SM: When it comes to parenting, that’s a position where you assume responsibilities for somebody else. The day you become a parent — whether you did intentionally or not — you became responsible for another human being. If you run for president, you give up a certain abilities to make selfish decisions. I think that’s something the article didn’t necessarily do a good job of differentiating. Are people doing this for self-preservation? To what extent are they doing it as a way of managing their own personal lives?

AD: Do you guys feel like you do you?

LM: I don’t think I do me all of the time. I don’t think I can. If I was “doing me,” I would not be eating all of the food groups. (This is a metaphor.) I would live on ice cream. But because there are grains and carrots and a cup of almond milk and a piece of chicken on my plate, and all of those need to be satisfied in some way, I need to be able to accommodate their being there. I need to make sure they’re satisfying me in the most operative way possible, and that I’m giving them all of the attention they need to operate in the best way possible.

So, I don’t think I do me all of the time, no. I do think that “you do you” operates as a blanket qualifier the same way “boys will be boys” or “haters gonna hate” do. Do you think you do you?

SM: I think a good example of “you do you” is social obligations. We live in New York and everyone at this table probably has things every week that they commit to but don’t want to do. I give myself a lot of wiggle room to cancel plans. If I’m supposed to see a friend, and 8 p.m. rolls around and I’m really exhausted, I’m actually being a better friend by going to bed early versus showing up in a bad mood or zoning out.

If it was somebody’s wedding, I’m not going to say, “I’m not going to go because I was in the mood for a good yoga stretch,” but I think it’s okay to give yourself a lot of leeway within a certain framework. It shouldn’t be a blanket statement for any situation, but I think that if you can appreciate nuance, a lot of the time, it’s okay to stop and think about your needs before you make decisions.

AD: I don’t think I do me a lot at all. Social obligations, definitely not. The number one thing that the whole world says about me is, “You need to learn to say no.” I am very aware of what others expect of me and I try to rise to that. I’m very “me do me” when it only effects me.

The people who “do themselves” the most are little kids. They don’t want to wear pants, so they take their fucking pants off. They need to pee, they pee. There’s no more baseline level of “doing you” than children. They don’t have societal constructs, they don’t know to do anything other than “them.” It all ties back to maturity.

LM: Do you think that “you do you” has the potential to become an insult?

AD: Totally.

EL: I think it’s interesting that “you do you” has to indicate a level of flippancy or immaturity. I think it’s what you make of it. I don’t think “me doing me” is sitting home eating a tub of ice cream — it’s taking care of myself.

AD: Right, but would “us doing us,” on a beautiful day, really be sitting inside at work?

LM: Well, it’s us doing us within the boundaries.

AD: I’m talking about sans boundaries.

EL: “Doing you” is being a responsible adult.

AD: I don’t know that “you do you” means “being your true self, at your core, inherent level.” You do you means: do what ever the fuck you want. It’s being sporadic.

SM: I don’t think it means that at all. I think it means do what you need to do, and don’t worry so much about what other people think.

AD: But don’t you think that if you don’t care what other people think, that’s sort of saying, “I’m going to do me.”

SM: You came to work for a lot of reasons, it’s not an abundant concern for the way others perceive you.

AD: Well, me being at the office right now doesn’t mean it’s me. The “you” implied in “you do you” isn’t necessarily your core self. It’s a little bit of, “fuck it.” That’s how I think society uses it at least. That’s why we can use it as a disclaimer. A shrug. That’s why “boys will be boys” is in the same family. When I say, “me do me,” it doesn’t indicate that I’ve meditated on myself spiritually.

LM: Do you think that it’s okay that we’re called a narcissistic culture?

EL: I think it’s valid.

LM: Definitely, but is it acceptable?

SM: It almost condones it. It’s meant to shame us, and instead we embrace it. Selfies have become so wrong they’re right. People are so shameless at this point because it’s been formalized. If there was no name for it, that would be so weird and unacceptable. It’s like, “I’m in on the joke when I partake in being narcissistic.”

AD: When you think about our grandparents’ generation, they were the selfless generation right? Never complained, worked hard, didn’t believe in allergies…I don’t know if that’s for better or for worse; but they’re considered the golden generation.

SM: I think it’s for the better. In New York there’s a lot of compare and despair. It’s really easy to lose sight of what’s important to one’s self. There’s so much action and insight into what people are doing at any given moment. I think not having that information is easier and gives you more grounding. You’re able to focus on what’s in front of you. It’s like being at a party on a Saturday night and not thinking about what else is going on.

Nobody in this room is like, “Oh, I wonder what’s going on on Mars right now!” The information is not available to us, so we’re not thinking about it.

AD: Susan Miller actually told us.

SM: But it’s Saturday night and you’re at a party and you’re thinking about the thousand other places you can be. I think it’s healthier and easier to not be inundated with information that’s going on with other people. Me “doing me” is not checking that stuff. Because I’m like, “Where is it getting me?”

AD: So “you doing you” is not a destructive wild naked baby in a fine china shop.

SM: I think it’s saying, “I trust you to make the right decision for you.” If I said to you, “Amelia, you do you,” that’s me saying, “As your friend that really cares about you, I trust you’ll make the decision that’s right for you.”

Check out past Round Tables here

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