So where Freud once wrote that “the type of female most frequently met with” tended to love narcissistically, we are now more likely to apply that characterization to men. “If there’s one thing a girl with a bad boyfriend has,” Dombek notes, “it’s the moral upper hand in the religion of mental health.” Here, she turns to the corner of the Internet she calls the “narcisphere,” a collection of blogs and forums in which women, mostly, solidify a sense of their superior powers of empathy and raise their collective consciousness about surviving narcissism and about narcissism-induced P.T.S.D. “If you are an especially giving person, warns the Internet, you are a prime target for narcissists,” Dombek writes. The narcisphere has a gendered inverse, which some call the manosphere and which is dedicated to teaching men how to dominate women by feigning self-confidence. This is the realm of pickup artistry. It is much worse than the narcisphere.
In suggestive detail, Dombek imagines a scene through the point of view of a boyfriend who has been identified as a narcissist by his girlfriend. The girlfriend, who has been spending a lot of time on the Internet, and has become convinced that her boyfriend’s fairly ordinary flaws are symptomatic of a serious disorder, watches him, “lip trembling.” He asks what’s wrong. She puts on a fake smile and says nothing; the narcisphere has advised her to protect herself and withdraw. And there begins an emotional arms race, in which the only way to respond to someone you assume to be entirely insincere and empty inside is to suppress your own instincts for kindness—to act, in other words, like a narcissist. “It can be spooky,” Dombek imagines the boyfriend thinking, “how unrelated what she says is to what seems to be going on inside.”Jia Tolentino is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of the essay collection “Trick Mirror.”