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Obsessions of Self and Synapse
Spectrums we all fall on
It never ceases to amaze me how frequently I encounter people who profess to be the prey of narcissists. I, for one, never deny anyone their experience. Sicko narcissists do exist in our world; I was the victim of one as a 5th grader. Perhaps the ultra-individualism of the contemporary Western World serves to produce more narcissists than ever. And yet, as therapy-speak seeps into every corner of our culture, the term “narcissist” has become an all-purpose label to describe your ordinary jerk.
Any good psychologist will remind you that you, too, are “narcissistic.” And this is normal! On a cold night with three other people and only one blanket, it is human to wish to enjoy its warmth, even at the expense of another’s shivers. If your cancer-stricken partner abuses you, it requires a healthy narcissism to put yourself first and leave.
As the saying goes: if the plane is going down, put on your oxygen mask first. Narcissism is a spectrum, a continuum that all humans find themselves on—even monks in caves. It’s healthy to be a tad narcissistic; without any drop of it, one’s a doormat. When narcissism goes too far, though, and you are the only one who thinks you’re great, it enters the territory of the “pathological” and requires mending.
Similarly, addiction is also a spectrum. Especially if we can agree upon the definition:
A compulsive behavior one cannot quit, resulting in negative consequences.
Humans have grappled with addiction since the dawn of civilization. Be it alcoholism, the infinite scroller, or crack-headedness, addiction is an ever-more many-headed Hydra, each with a different face. In other words, a spectrum. A monster.
I believe, though, that the word “addiction” has suffered a similar diminishment in meaning and value, and therefore accuracy, as “narcissism.” As society grapples with the complexities of human behavior, terms like “narcissism” and “addiction” are losing their precision and power, a phenomenon known as concept creep. But I don’t think we should abandon these words altogether for fear of offending. Rather, we should seek a deeper understanding of the shades of gray within these labels, recognizing the spectrum of behaviors. Only then can we confront the truth and break from the chains that bind us.
And … truth?
The truth is that “addicts” are not just the lost souls huddled in the streets or the hollers of the Rust Belt—or even the fired knowledge workers who find themselves in church basements, convinced they have a “brain disease.” As I did. More than ever, addiction is a spectrum that virtually everyone finds themselves on, whether your drug of choice is Oxy, seemingly harmless alcoholic seltzer water, Adderall, PornHub, work, seed oils, or TikTok. The manifest fact is that late-stage capitalism has birthed new compulsive tendencies that demand a new understanding of addiction and “sobriety.”
The writing is on the wall: in the future, digital media will be regarded as the cigarette—or worse—of our generation. I believe social media specifically is more akin to cocaine, exploiting the same dopamine pathways and leading to a tolerance for rapid bursts of pleasurable stimuli. Unless you are one of the rare, gifted souls who use social media strictly as a “tool,” it’s likely that these apps are, in fact, narrowing your worldview. This is because, as I’ve argued, addiction is a type of reciprocal narrowing: as your brain becomes more desperate to seek out the same reward cycle in endless repetition, your entire perspective and what brings you pleasure narrows progressively with it, and you begin to lose agency over your life.
I’m not here to ruin your weekend by labeling you an addict. That’s not my intention. Instead, I want to highlight that the addiction spectrum is a real thing, and for most people, its center of gravity has shifted from mild to moderate. Without intervention, it will continue to careen toward severe. We’ll keep telling ourselves that it’s okay to exist primarily behind a screen because we feel informed or connected to a few interesting people, or some other rationalization that people often use to stay in their comfort zone. We are caught in a complex web of dependency that’s sapping our strength; I’m just as enmeshed as anyone.
Consider when you say you want to stop doing something—whether scrolling Twitter, binging Netflix, drinking three beers post-dinner, or waking up with Instagram. You try to resist, but it’s like a magnet pulling you back every time. And with each step, the pain, however slight, grows sharper. A new layer of subtle agony settles in, a grating dissonance reverberating through body and spirit. There’s a civil war raging within you—a battle between the part of you that yearns for something wild and alive, and the part that fears the unknown. It’s a conflict fought out in countless small skirmishes each day, creating tiny fractures in your psyche. That’s the thing about an addiction, for the most part, on any given day, it’s really not a big deal to take another little hit. That’s the danger, the seduction, the quiet Come Hither one follows until the cave builds itself a door behind you.
Unhealthy narcissism, or extreme self-interestedness at the expense of others, erects a similar solitary confinement. The tribe knows to abandon members who care only for themselves. And ironically, those who care only for themselves are doomed to behave with self-abandonment.
But not all caves are as dark and damp as others, and not all doors are as impenetrable. It’s undeniable that an extra bowl of crack is worse than an extra bowl of weed is worse than, yes, one more TikTok reel. But a cave is a cave and a door is a door and you are the one inside.