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Stoicism, Narcissism and Accountability

Let’s talk about this tweet:

This tweet was shared by a popular twitter profile that proports to share modern stoic advice and currently has just shy of 50k likes.

We’ve all heard this type of trite sentiment before. In fact, this type of thing isn’t too far removed from the playground rebuttal of “takes one to know one”.

The appeal of this type of defensive reasoning is fairly apparent. But, like most easy answers, adopting this kind of mentality can stifle our personal growth and long-term happiness.

What is Covert Narcissism?

We’re all familiar with regular, “overt” narcissism. According to Wikipedia, a narcissistic individual has the following traits:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • Believes that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  • Requires excessive admiration.
  • Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations).
  • Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends).
  • Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

No doubt these traits are familiar to most of us, either within ourselves or people we know.

However, these traits don’t always manifest as the loud, attention-seeking and self-absorbed individuals we tend to associate them with. There is another version: covert narcissism.

Covert narcissists* further their need to live in a delusional world where they are never wrong, have the best life, the most superior skills etc, by acting aloof and dismissive of others. Rather than wade into a room and try to convince everyone to accept their version of reality where they reign supreme, they render the opinions and detractions of the masses irrelevant by thinking things like “they are too stupid to understand” or “why would I care what they think anyway”.

Both forms of narcissism are antithetical to the considered life as they prevent us from unbiased introspection and self-improvement. Criticism is a form of feedback that forms an essential part of helping us understand ourselves. Stoicism teaches us that we can’t control the manner in which criticism is delivered, and indeed, it may often be given in anger or with a mean spirit. However, to ignore it without first questioning its validity because we can’t control its delivery is as ridiculous as crossing the road without checking for traffic because we can’t control the cars.

To return to the original tweet, one can see how if we allow ourselves to eschew criticism purely because we don’t “respect the individual”, it can easily be used as a tool to deliberately insulate ourselves from important, but uncomfortable truths. It becomes the classic immature “Yeah? Well what do you know?!” response that we are all prone to make sometimes when feeling under attack (but should avoid).

What’s the take-away?

Stoicism can provide us with an extremely valuable tool for insulating ourself against the emotional hurt of people not approving of, or disliking us. We can find solace in the notion that we can only act to the best of our ability/knowledge in any given moment and have no control over the reactions of others.

However, to conflate these ideas with the narcissistic inclination to dismiss uncomfortable, yet valuable commentary about ourselves by belittling or attacking others is to deny ourselves the opportunity to learn and grow.


*I talk about narcissists like they're a fixed thing/person, but it's important to remember that narcissism is a slope, that we can all slide down if we're not vigilant.