Over two decades ago, in the introduction to I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, Wendy Kaminer remarked: “Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”
While I don’t agree with all of Kaminer’s points in the book, I have seen the phenomenon she describes. I generally find self-help books glib, misleading, and unenlightening. (There are exceptions, but the genre as a whole rubs me the wrong way.) For instance, the self-help guru Louise Hay claims that illnesses are caused by negative patterns of thinking; change your thinking, and you will get well. What a dangerous oversimplification, and how unfair to the seriously ill!
I have known the pressure to provide prescriptions. My book was criticized (in an otherwise appreciative review) for not doing so; I have seen other books receive similar rebukes. What if the book was never meant to be prescriptive? Many, it seems, regard such books as bookshelf parasites: taking up space but not doing their job, which is to tell the readers exactly what to do and how to lead their lives.
So I was dubious from the start when I saw Tara Parker-Pope’s article “Divorcing a Narcissist” (about Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Free of You? How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family). The article contains an interview and a link to a “book club” discussion (to which I contributed a comment). While I recognize that narcissists exist and can do great harm, I suspect that many with narcissistic traits are not narcissists per se. There’s a big difference between having traits of extraversion and being an extravert; the same goes for narcissists, paranoiacs, and many other types. Moreover, some traits are temporary; a person can experience paranoia in a period of intense stress and worry without being a paranoid type.
Yet many of the comments burst with epiphany: “OMG—yes! That’s my husband exactly!” Oddly, each “exactly” differs from the next; the commenters describe a variety of painful relationships, with little in common among them. There is nothing wrong with considering the possibility that a loved (or not-so-loved) one has narcissistic traits–but why rush to call him or her a narcissist? Something else (worse, better, comparable, or incomparable) may be going on. In addition, very few commenters admit to defects of their own (beyond putting up with the narcissist for too long). It seems that the book—or at least its underlying concept—invites the willing to a mass finger-pointing party.
I don’t plan to read the whole book—I have too much else to read—but I did read the beginning, just to gauge my impressions. Dr. McBride cautions right away against loose use of the term “narcissist,” noting out that narcissism is comorbid (i.e., coexists) with other disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Hystrionic Personality Disorder. She then provides the nine traits listed in the DSM. So far, the approach seems reasonable. (Incidentally, the status of NPD in the DSM has not been stable; at one point it seemed that NPD would disappear from DSM-5.)
The mischief arises when she goes on to describe how the traits might play out in life. Each of her descriptions could apply to someone who wasn’t necessarily narcissistic but rather snobbish, controlling, entitled, vain, or hyper-competitive. They leave too much room for the kind of loose diagnosis that the author warns against. For example:
5. Has a sense of entitlement and expects automatic compliance of others. Example: Marcy felt she was entitled to pay less and demand more from the law firm she had retained. She refused to talk with the paralegals, always demanding to speak with “the attorney I am paying so much money to.” If her hysterical demands were not met instantly, Marcy would threaten to change attorneys. Her favorite saying to her friends and family was “I will demand attention and be heard immediately, and if you don’t believe me, just watch.” Marcy’s lawyer dumped her right before the proceedings began.
Marcy may be a narcissist, but she also may not be. From this description, we do not know. Even the attitude “I will demand attention and be heard immediately” sounds like a clumsy version of what children are often encouraged to do. Certainly Wendy is going about it inappropriately, but she’s not alone in trying to get through and be heard. In some contexts, such aggressiveness is common.
In another example, the author describes someone who keeps the family waiting while she dresses up for going out; when she finally emerges, she expects them to exclaim how gorgeous she looks. A great deal of that could be cultural, not pathological; in some cultures (including U.S. and European), women are expected (or expect themselves) to take “forever” dressing up.
Then the author comes to this blistering statement:
These nine traits describe why narcissists cannot love. They place primary importance on “what you can do for me” and expend a lot of energy on appearances. In a relationship with a narcissist, you will eventually realize that this person does not see the real you. You are the person’s object to be manipulated for his or her own goals and needs.
Egad—how did we land here? The author has moved from a cautious beginning (not everyone with narcissistic traits is a narcissist) to a full-blown conclusion (the narcissist cannot love). Aware of possible objections, the author then asks, “Is your partner a narcissist?” and offers eighteen questions to help the reader decide. (“As you go through this list,” she advises, “put a check mark next to any question you answer yes. The more questions you check, the more likely it is that your partner falls somewhere on the narcissism spectrum—maybe even has a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder.”) In this way, the author ends up not only condoning but even facilitating sloppy diagnosis.
Very well (or not). But why does this have popular appeal? If someone has a self-serving spouse, what does it matter whether this person is a narcissist? If the relationship has gone bad, that’s enough reason to take some kind of action. The spouse may actually be loving—many difficult and troubled people are—but if the love doesn’t come through, that’s a setup for a miserable marriage.
Suppose the author is correct that a full-blown narcissist cannot see the “real you.” Does the person rushing to diagnose the spouse really see the “real diagnosing other”? To see the other, one must stay open to uncertainties and surprises. Sometimes, even with those uncertainties and surprises, it’s clear that two people must go separate ways. It is possible to leave someone unpackaged.
Of course, that’s difficult, and there lies the book’s appeal. Divorces require toughness and resolve; if the parties let themselves waver, they will. Diagnosis offers certainty, which propels action. Yet certainty about another person (and even about oneself) creates its own harm. The greatest challenge is to take action in the absence of simple answers: to keep an open soul but move forward in one’s life.
Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.