Episode 28: The Selfishness of Others

On this episode of the n+1 podcast, Kristin Dombek, n+1 Senior Writer, Help Desk columnist, and author of The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism answers your questions about narcissism and selfishness. She’s joined by coeditor Dayna Tortorici.

Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Emily Lyver, Dayna Tortorici, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson, Frances Harlow
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Frances Harlow, Emily Lyver, Dayna Tortorici, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Dinosaur L

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, subscribe via RSS, or download the episode (76.7 MB).

Episode Transcript


Dayna Tortorici: Welcome to the n+1 podcast. I’m Dayna Tortorici, coeditor of n+1, and on this episode, Senior Writer Kristin Dombek offers the latest edition of her advice column, The Help Desk. Her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, was published earlier this month, and today she’ll be answering questions that touch on some of the book’s themes.

Segment 1: Pure Confidence

Dear Help Desk,

Last week I read Franny and Zooey for the first time. I loved it. At least until I found out that Joan Didion had dismissed the book as “spurious,” and like “self-help copy,” at which point I realized that that was exactly how I had read it. Explaining why she quit the theater, Franny tells us, “just because I like applause and people to rave about me, doesn’t make it right. I’m ashamed of it. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” Didion, for her part, wrote much the same in “On Self-Respect,” arguing that a man with courage could live without reputation. I’m inclined to believe that narcissism, in the sense of excessive self-importance and arrogance, is often just a psychological substitute for what Didion and Franny are getting at: real confidence. So my question for you: how do we build that sort of pure confidence, and how do we distinguish it from its less palatable relatives—self-importance, narcissism, and such?


Kristin Dombek: Pure confidence. I love the idea, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to describe how to get that, exactly, but I thought I would read Didion’s condemnation of Franny and Zooey. This is a few years after she’s arrived in New York and has finally gotten used to the idea of meeting Democrats at parties. And then she starts talking about Franny and Zooey. She writes:

However brilliantly rendered (and it is), however hauntingly right in the rhythm of its dialogue (and it is), Franny and Zooey is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living. What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle-classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.

And earlier, she accuses Salinger of encouraging his readers to look for Christ in their date to the Yale game. That’s what’s wrong with this book.

DT: Oh, burn.

KD: Totally. You know, the opinions of the Help Desk don’t necessarily represent n+1, or sometimes even me, but I do think that the Help Desk believes it’s all right to use literature and theory and whatever else we can get as self-help. It’s funny to me that it’s Didion saying this—these days, at least, she’s the essayist whom I most see people kind of using as self-help. And especially those two essays. “On Self-Respect,” and “Goodbye to All That,” about leaving New York. I’ve heard people claim New York is only for the very young and the very rich, or that, you know, you should never stay too long at the fair, and these phrases kind of haunt us. And we live our lives—or in my case, test our lives—against them. Like, no, I’m staying too long at the fair and it’s fine. “On Self-Respect,” which you’re talking about, holds up the standard for a kind of solitary confidence that I’ve always been drawn to, but which bothers me. In the place you quote, she writes

The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.

And the thing that you’re asking about, pure confidence—I think we have this idea that it has nothing to do with the approval of others. If we could only get to that thing, that solitary internal confidence that doesn’t have anything to do with other people, then we’d just be okay, no matter the situation. So I guess I want to point out that what Salinger actually says at the end of this book—and what Didion insults as looking for Christ in your date to the Yale game—is not that you want to find a confidence that has nothing to do with the audience. He shifts it a little bit. He says, you don’t perform as an actress, or in any way, for yourself. You do it—and he and Franny both agree—you do it for the fat lady, right?

DT: That’s right.

KD: And they both have these images of the fat lady, which their brother Seymour gave them, and we can deconstruct these images, critique them. For both of them, the fat lady is an obviously poor, obese woman who has flies buzzing around her and listens to the radio all day. But I kind of buy Salinger’s point a little bit, in that the specter of narcissism is just the thing that we should never do. We should never do something just because it’s a performance—because we’re going to get attention for it, because we’re going to get acclaim for it—but this can get in the way of the very simple idea that actually, no, you do things for other people.

Salinger is bringing in the Christian idea that you do things to reach out to people who may be suffering. For me, the only way to get to a confidence that works in the world—a confidence that’s neither narcissistic, nor attention-getting, nor this impossible kind of constant, solitary, isolated confidence that Didion recommends and that Franny’s longing for—is by acknowledging that you do things for other people. You get experiences, you interpret those experiences, and you listen to other people’s interpretations, and you have to keep doing that over and over and over again, and that’s the only way it happens.

Segment 2: Cowardice

Dear Help Desk,

You know those voices in your head that tell you to break up, even when everything is going perfectly in a relationship? Well, I’m having a problem understanding how the same choice—i.e. to leave or to stay—can simultaneously be described as cowardice and narcissism. For instance, I choose to leave my girlfriend. Is it fear of commitment (cowardice), or is it that I think I can do better (narcissism)? Or if I choose to stay, is that cowardice? (I’m afraid I’ll be alone if I leave.) Or is it narcissism? (She can’t live without me.) I don’t mean this to be a contrived question. This was my situation, and I never came up with a satisfactory answer. So then here’s the question: in a relationship, if cowardice or narcissism can so easily be confused with the other, how can we take intellectual responsibility for decisions that are essentially emotional?

Skull-fucked in Schenectady

KD: I think this is a good question about the relationship between intellectual responsibility and emotional decisions. But I just want to point out that what you’ve done here, Schenectady, is taken two terms that both mean “you suck” and opposed them to each other, so that in both cases, whichever one you choose, you suck. And I’m curious about why you’re doing that.

I was researching this book on narcissism for a couple of years and reading many, many, many self-help sites advising people to run from narcissists. And on these websites, narcissism is always opposed to something that’s its opposite. I’ve never heard it opposed to cowardice before, but it’s a kind of word that’s used to police in a way, right? And the way it’s often used to police is by opposing it to something else—like empathy, or naturalness or whatever. So I was trying to figure out why you picked these words and why you made these combinations: fear of commitment, thinking I can do better, being afraid to be alone, she can’t live without me.

They remind me of certain stories that get told on those websites about what men and women do in straight relationships. There’s a story that straight dudes are afraid of commitment, and that they’re using women, right? I think I can do better. One of the things that might be going on here is that there’s a story about—I don’t know if it’s a story about masculinity so much as a story about what dudes do that’s creating these impossible alternatives for you, if that makes sense. And I think this also happens in same-sex relationships. I’ve been in both, but it happens for me in straight relationships, where these stories about gender are very strong and they get invoked whether you like it or not. You end up playing with them—switching roles and kind of shaking them up. You kind of have to—that’s what happens, I think, as you love someone. But in these crucial, vulnerable moments when you’re trying to do something very difficult—like leave, or, commit yourself, or whatever—they arise and they fuck us. So I don’t know.

I’m speculating wildly because it’s a brief question, but I wonder if that’s part of what’s going on here. All of your alternatives assume not just that you’re a jerk—that you’re selfish—but that this is a decision that somehow has to do with you in isolation. Isn’t the thing about love that the center of your world shifts, that you start seeing your world not only from your own position but also as the other person sees it? That you’re as dedicated to their growth and their thriving in the world as much as your own, and they do the same for you and with you, if you’re lucky? It changes you. You’re in this constant negotiation because of that.

So this is why I think your question about your intellectual responsibility is really good. But I also want to say that if you didn’t know how to describe this situation to yourself, you might find out later that the intellectual reason—if there is one—might be different from what you thought. But I do think there’s a way to talk about a breakup and to think about it yourself that’s a little bit better than the way you’ve set it up.

This made me think of a passage from from the beginning of Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror. She’s interviewing the playwright Ntozake Shange, and Shange says this thing that made no sense to me the first time I heard it, when I was very young. She’s talking about knowing who you are, and she says that you don’t know what you’re giving if you don’t know what you have, and you don’t know what you’re taking if you don’t know what’s yours and somebody else’s. If you’re in the desert, she says, you have to know what’s you and what’s the desert. And I first heard that when I was like twenty, and it didn’t make sense to me. I was like . . . what? The self is a construct. What’s all this stuff about knowing who you are and knowing what’s yours and what’s other people’s? But those words have stayed with me, and I think it’s one thing that you can sort of test and know in those crucial moments in relationships, when everything is a mess. Over and over again, you bring stuff to relationships, right? And you might start to notice what that stuff is. And you are capable of saying and thinking, “what is this thing that I’m always bringing, what is this story that always starts getting told whenever I’m in a relationship?” You can take responsibility for that, I think. You can take an intellectual responsibility for that, for sort of tracking it, and for not imagining that that story is the way it is because of the other person. And so if you ended up hearing the same voice over and over again—“I’m afraid of commitment, I’m afraid of commitment”—then you could say, “wait, I’m always afraid of commitment.” But maybe that’s not this relationship.

DT: That’s very wise.

Segment 3: Interruption

Dear Help Desk,

I have a friend—several friends, but one in particular—who has a habit of, in the first few moments we get a drink, launching into a monologue that will sometimes go on (I tested this once) for as long as forty-five minutes if she is not interrupted. The topics seem to range from how she’s been mistreated to how she’s been ignored or misunderstood. She seems like she’s talking to me, kind of, as she makes eye contact and acts very much like I must be interested, but it’s really difficult to be interested. And yet, this is the thing: I really like this friend. I’m drawn to her. I care about her. I’m not going to stop being friends with her. She can be wildly generous in other ways. For example, she once took care of my cat for three months. I just want it to be more of a, you know, back and forth. What should I do?

Breathless in Budapest

KD: My advice here is simple. Interrupt her. This is actually a really hard thing to learn to do. There’s something that’s very tempting to do in that situation, which is: stop breathing and start judging and start diagnosing, right? And the minute you do that, you’re abandoning that person in a way, but you’re also at risk of turning cold yourself, and then you’re stuck, right? I’m a recovering really shy person, so I spend a lot of time not speaking unless someone asks me a direct question. But what I’ve learned is that actually, people who are really fluent talkers, sometimes they need help, they want help, they want not to be left alone in this monologue, so what if you’re actually just like, tormenting your friend by abandoning her to go on and on?

Sometimes when you interrupt someone like that they look at you gratefully. I mean, sometimes they don’t, but because you say that you’re drawn to this person and that you care about her, there are two alternatives. The first is kind of promoted by the self-help realm: this is a person who doesn’t care about you, this is a person who doesn’t have empathy, this is a person about whom you should say, “this is a toxic person. It’s an imbalanced relationship.” And maybe that’s true sometimes, but if you don’t want it to be that way, it might be that you act differently with this person than you do with others. Give her a life raft.

DT: Yeah, I’m not waving, I’m drowning.

KD: I’m not waving, I’m drowning. Exactly.

Segment 4: Ridesharing

Dear Help Desk,

My brother thinks I’m selfish because I refuse to give him rides when I don’t feel like it. I think he’s selfish because he won’t learn how to drive. He’s twenty-five, able-bodied, socially active, and claims to enjoy “relying on other people.” Who’s right?


Keys to the Street

KD: I would view this from a purely utilitarian perspective. We don’t know very much about the situation. So while you’re riding in the car, does your brother entertain you with witty anecdotes? Does he tell you stories about his day? Does he ask you questions about your own life? Is he contributing anything to this ride situation at all? Or is he sort of sitting there, like some kind of prince who expects to be driven around? Is he sort of sulking because his goal isn’t to rely on other people, but to feel like some kind of celebrity? I don’t usually think of things in utilitarian perspectives, but in this case—in the case of sibling relationships, and it’s also maybe true in romance—we kind of weave a web of transactions where we rely on other people and they rely on us, and if there’s some other location other than the car-riding situation where he’s doing things for you, then this might not actually be a bad thing. We don’t need cars. We don’t need to have more cars. Not everybody should have a car, you know? Maybe there’s a reason to live that way. However, you are siblings. You’re brother and sister. I would bet that there’s something about this car-riding situation that is part of something that’s been going on since you guys were very young. And I think that one of the most interesting and important things that you can do in life is be friends with your sibling, and learn what that stuff is. Because this is the only person who’s lived in the closest thing to the same world as you, and yet also lived in a completely different world. And so now you’re in these two worlds, these two different definitions of selfishness and generosity, and I would kind of suggest you throw those terms out and, like, get down to business.

Segment 5: Pokémon Go at the Bar

Dear Help Desk,

I’ve been thinking a lot about the simultaneous worlds people live in. The physical world, in the personal world of heart and mind, and the virtual world of the internet. We are all living in all of these worlds at varying degrees at all times. What happens when more and more people decide to spend the majority of their time in the virtual world, while others don’t want to? I’m thinking about Pokémon Go as a phenomenon for more people moving themselves into a digital space. As a willing participant in the physical world but not a willing participant in the virtual game occurring on top of my physical world, do I become a prop in the game, like a tree? Is there a Pikachu on my head? This somehow feels like a violation, a breach between worlds. What happens when the social contract between personal physical space and virtual physical space is violated by an unseen computer program that I have not chosen to participate in? Do I then become an interloper, or a trespasser in the virtual world that is using my physical world as their game board? Do I become a piece of the game that I didn’t decide to play? Or are the players of this game intruding on my world? Can you please help me figure this out?

Lost in Space

KD: Right? A lot of people, around me, at least, are having this kind of threshold moment where it’s like, okay, now we’ve crossed over to this thing we’ve been expecting for a while, where these worlds are coming together. I was at a bar a couple of weeks ago and my friend was bartending, and three things happened. Her manager, who was watching the bar from her home, started changing the music in the bar. Her boss called and told her that she shouldn’t have done something she’d just done. And then there was a woman next to me, and there was a Pikachu on the bar in front of us for her—but not for me. And for me this was the moment when I was like, oh, this isn’t the past or the present anymore, this is the future. Here we are. This is what’s happening. Right? Whatever it is. So it’s a great question. My head kind of explodes when I think about this. Doesn’t yours? Because I’m wary of treating it as a violation or fearing it just because it’s happening. You know, that’s the way I look at it. I don’t think there’s any way around it, so it’s more about, how do we deal with it?

Segment 6: Trump Voters in the Family

Dear Help Desk,

I tend to avoid talking politics with my relatives because we often disagree, and confrontation is not the family style. My sympathies slip out from time to time: yes, Obama is a U.S. citizen. No, ebola isn’t spreading via immigrants. But I’ve never argued outright, because staying on good terms feels more important than changing their minds. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking I should at least broach the subject with my younger Floridian cousins, some of whom are voting for the first time. Maybe I can talk them out of voting for Trump, if that’s the way they’re leaning. I feel it’s selfish of me not to, since the only reason I haven’t is that it’s uncomfortable and difficult for me. But I also feel like I should just let them vote how they want to vote, since I’m not that interested in hearing their arguments for Trump. They’ll only drive me crazy, and if I try to listen I fear I’ll snap. Is it more selfish to try to sway them my way, or try to leave them be? If I do approach them, how do I do it without losing my head?

Chicken in Chinatown

DT: This is actually just me.

KD: This is your question.

DT: This is my question.

KD: But it’s a lot of people’s question.

DT: I think it’s a lot of people’s question.

KD: Yeah.

DT: So what do I do?

KD: I want to say first that to me, this is an example of a situation where . . . even though I know I asked for questions about selfishness and narcissism, selfishness is maybe not a helpful word here, right?

DT: Well kind of. I do think that my instinct—which feels like a self-preserving one—is not to do anything. And I do feel like the negative consequences are more obvious and immediate and personal. Selfish. Because, you know, obviously the right thing to do is to talk to them and really listen to what they have to say. Like, really listen and try to understand what’s underpinning their arguments. But, knowing my family and knowing how these arguments usually go in the broader culture, I’m going to hear headlines I’ve read. I don’t want to talk about Benghazi, but I know that the right thing to do—the unselfish thing to do—is to talk to them, but to talk to them about Benghazi. So that’s why it feels selfish—that’s why selfishness feels like it has to be part of the question. I’m like, is there a corner I can cut here, where I can have this conversation and convince them and win without doing a lot of work?

KD: Or, can you have the conversation because you’re interested, even if that’s not extended to you, as well?

DT: I am interested, or I feel like I would be interested if I felt like they had . . . I think this is why it’s important that these are my young cousins—that they don’t appear to be political. They don’t post Donald Trump memes. They post beautiful pictures of themselves having finished their second half-marathon, looking awesome and being sweet. And so I don’t really imagine that they have a rich interior life on this subject. I kind of imagine that they’re just doing what their parents do. So in that sense I’m not that interested, but maybe I should be more interested.

KD: This brings up something I really struggle with. I was politically conservative for the first half of my life and then completely changed, and when I was inside that world I had no sense of a world outside of it. When I started to meet people who were more progressive, they were so shocked by my existence that they didn’t have a way of talking to me that wasn’t kind of condescending. Even so, they made a huge impression. They started to make these chinks in the unity of the world that I lived in. Clearly, we have at least two very different worlds in this country. It’s so hard for people on either side of this election to understand people on the other side. And I think you’re right that if we don’t have a sort of evangelical mission to inform the whole world of our rightness—and this goes for people on either side—what is it that keeps us from trying to understand the others? It’s going to be uncomfortable, right, so what is it that motivates you to do it?

DT: Right now it’s fear of the consequences.

KD: Right.

DT: Which is not exactly a generous motivation. It’s like I feel like I have to.

KD: But isn’t the bigger issue that those of us on either side aren’t writing to each other more generally? Or writing against each other? I think the problem here is not about your family—it’s about what motive we have to talk to people outside our filter bubble, the little virtual world that we make. One piece of advice would be to try to have those conversations with people here, not putting the fabric of your family, as you put it, at risk, right? So that you’re kind of channeling that guilt toward . . . but what does that mean? How do we do that?

DT: What’s funny about that is that I think that my family is one of the last few places where I encounter people with seriously differing political opinions and cultural backgrounds, as odd as that may be.

KD: But that’s probably true for a lot of people.

DT: I think it’s true for a lot of people.

KD: So maybe that’s a place to start. If I say anything about this, it would just be like, super cheesy: I think we all kind of have to try. We really do.

DT: What’s the best way to do it? And maybe some practical background would be: I’m not super tight with this family, but pretty close. I love them a lot, we see each other on holidays, and we have a lot in common, if not this particular thing. The other thing is, I’m not even sure if they are voting one ticket or the other. I haven’t even talked to them about it because nobody’s willing to go there. I just know that their families usually vote Republican. I feel so embarrassed and chicken that I don’t know how to handle this, but what do I do? It’ll be like, “oh hey, it’s me, your cousin you haven’t seen in a while. I’m sending you a personal email.” They’re going to be like, “I’m on Snapchat. “

KD: Oh, you’re not actually going to be visiting them. You’re just wondering if you should reach out and bring up your political views.

DT: I’m just like, how do I even enter the world of Pokémon Go? I think I just need to accept the fact that I’m not going to be cool. And I don’t mean cool as in, impressive or whatever, I mean, like, I’m going to seem mad awkward.

KD: You’re just going to write to them and be like, “so who are you voting for?”

DT: Yeah, maybe. “ This is awkward, but . . . who are you voting for?”

KD: I wish you were hanging out with them.

DT: My sister is closer with them. And they worship her, they love her. Worship is strong, but she’s the coolest, and I’m kind of trying to pawn it off on her, because they actually have hung out more recently. She’s like, “I’ll give them money.” I told her that she didn’t have to give them money—she should just say, “oh my god, you’re so cool, I’m obsessed with you, who are you voting for?” And they’ll do it.

KD: Maybe your sister should do it.

DT: Okay. Maybe I’ll make my sister do it.

KD: But I’m worrying about the larger question, which is: how do we cross these lines to talk to people and write to people more generally? But, I need a cigarette.

DT: Let’s have one.

KD: Okay.


DT: This has been the Help Desk on the n+1 podcast. Thanks to Kristin for answering our questions, and all of our advice-seekers for writing in. To submit a question to the Help Desk, you can write to Kristin at askkristin@nplusonemag.com. Kristin’s book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, is out now. Thanks to Frances Harlow for producing this episode, and to Malcolm Donaldson, in absentia, for producing the n+1 podcast. Also to Aaron Braun, Eric Wen, and Emily Lyver. Thanks for listening.

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