Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.
Am I a narcissist, or just vain?
Inquiring mind wants to know,
They say that narcissists tend not to know they’re narcissists, so I might be self-soothing when I suggest that, based on this line of questioning alone, you are probably not a narcissist, but even if you are there’s no need to panic because, as with tumors, there are two types of narcissism: the malignant type and the benign type. The malignant type of narcissists are who you’re asking about, which I feel comfortable asserting because I’m you and the reason they’re different from vain people (you are def vain, btw), is because vanity is motivated by exterior appearance and your presentation to the world around you, as a reaction to a recognition that, uh, there is a world around you.
Narcissists, on the other hand, are incapable of true empathy. It’s not just about outward appearance or reputation, it’s an incapacity to see other people as a separate entity altogether. Those around us, by the rules of bad-tumor narcissism, are a mere extension of our own needs or goals. When I asked this question to Abie this morning, he put it deftly by saying, “Vanity is like weed, narcissism is like heroine.” Now that I think about it, I don’t know exactly what he meant—but it has an interesting ring to it. I guess narcissism could kill you, but vanity might actually be a multi-million dollar industry waiting to happen? Wait a second, it already is a multi-BILLION dollar industry called beauty. I am just blowing my own mind as we go here.
Does thinking that make me a narcissist or just vain? And further, is the beauty industry really motivated by vanity? I could probably argue either way—that on the one hand, when we look better, we feel better and therefore we are better, but then again who is to say what is better and what is not? Am I so ingratiated in a broader culture-perpetuated vanity-mindset that I can’t even see that I’m a victim of it? But to call myself a victim, to try to defend the beauty industry as driven by vanity as opposed to just affirm that it is driven by vanity supposes that vanity is objectively bad. And maybe that’s what’s not true.
If what vain people do is essentially weigh the importance of what the people around them think, you might argue that they’re actually kind of thoughtful. Super thoughtful! Like… maybe Abie, who showers 2x daily and has a rigorous skin-care routine, does so for the sake of others. Because in the event that you are to brush up against him as an unassuming passenger of the subway, I am confident in my saying that it will smell good. I never think like that. I go days without showering and don’t smell great, but mostly take the stance that if my body odor offends another that is their problem. So maybe vanity is thoughtful, and I am not that.
Does that make me a narcissist?
I mean, I definitely have tendencies. Don’t we all? Isn’t the primary motivation behind the pursuit of procreation born out of the narcissistic idea that our seeds are worth spreading? Isn’t the proliferation of social media and its offspring—selfie culture—the apogee of this? But I get the sense that narcissists don’t realize the world is much bigger than they are. I get that! I get that not everyone is here for the function of getting in my way or facilitating my acceleration, but, you know, now that I’m typing it, I’m not sure I always got it. I always knew it—or knew to say it—but I didn’t live it gutturally until I melted into a puddle, deflated into a shell of myself, face-planted enough times to course correct and netted out somewhere between hedonistically in love and scornfully in contempt with myself. But was that distorted thinking narcissism or arrogance?
Does one necessitate the other? Are they the same thing? Or is arrogance more synonymous with vanity? Am I confusing myself and conflating the terms? Here’s what I know right now: There are spectrums. There are extremes. It is best to land some place in the middle. As long as I am not fucking up anyone else’s life, as long my output is by and large positively contributing—adding as opposed to draining—a little bit of benign narcissism is okay. Dare I even say necessary.
The absence of it would have never enabled my thinking that anything I have to say is worth being heard and, look, maybe it’s not in your view, but I am from a school of thought that believes everyone has an interesting story to tell if you are willing to listen, and the best way to get them comfortable sharing theirs is by sharing yours. So to answer your question, am I narcissist? In the end, 822 words written from me to me seem to suggest so.
Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya.