The world is full of mirrors, and the internet gives us infinite ways to view ourselves. In the quest for self-knowledge, the mind makes an ideal starting point, and on the web, the lines between medically established disorders, pop-psychology, and metaphysics blur. Like other diagnoses, the brain’s quirks, named and categorized or just speculated over outside a professional’s purview, can become a filter through which people define the totality of their lives. Sun sign, Aries; rising sign, anxiety.
Scour Instagram’s explore tab today and it’s apparent that the internet’s obsession with psychology and categorization has only expanded, manifold, a slurry of pastel-colored warning signs of #emotionalvampires among bikini pics and cat photos. Online, everyone can be sorted by emotional type: INFP, #narcissist_survivor, Empath, Hufflepuff. No matter how abstract, a label is a starting point — it’s a role you can play or play against to ward off the confusion of personhood.
The language of therapy is one that millennials and Gen Zers speak fluently, rattling off terminology (from “depression” to “depersonalization”) in a way that might have been stigmatized even 10 years ago. Whereas psychoanalysis was once the province of the elite — or, more recently, those with decent health insurance — start-ups are invading social media to cash in on our malaise in real-time. This leaves us full of both jokes and an earnest desire to figure out why everything is terrible, all the time. Worse: maybe social media addicts like me are so preoccupied with rooting out the psychologically aberrant — the potential harm other people might do or might have done — that we aren’t addressing the realities of our situations.
My depression is high and I’m not pic.twitter.com/tImsXOswch— Animated Text (@animatedtext) August 14, 2019
“People want to share about mental health online because they are searching for answers and are hungry for information about how to help themselves,” said Judith Orloff, a UCLA psychiatrist and author of the forthcoming book Thriving as an Empath. She identifies as an empath herself, and hosts an Empath Facebook group with 15,000 members, all of whom are selected for suitability based on their responses to questions like “Why do you think you’re an empath?” and “What do you hope to learn from our group?” The group is a forum for community and discussion about navigating daily life as a person who, in Orloff’s words, lives as an “emotional sponge,” often isolating to self-protect from overwhelming stimuli of daily life.
On Orloff’s Instagram account, a cheerful grid consisting of sans serif book quotes and insider humor — “I got 99 problems but 89 of them belong to other people (#Empath #HighlySensitivePeople #Introvert #Codependent #Codependency #Empathy)” — help her 12,200 followers (and lurkers) understand what an empath is. “I use #empath, #highlysensitiveperson, #introvert, because that attracts those people to my posts,” she told me.
And while Orloff comes with credentials, a large percentage of the internet’s psychological advice comes without any attribution — let alone accreditation — whatsoever. Of the 12,000 Instagram posts hashtagged #emotionalvampires, one of the top posts, from an account called @narcandempath with 82,000 followers, depicts an illustration of a brain and its composite “parts.” “Female Empaths,” it reads. “She needs her freedom, she needs stability, they know what they want, she doesn’t do short-term relationships — all or nothing, she always tell [sic] the truth, she loves hard, they are intense.” It’s like the diagnostic equivalent of the “Any Female Born After 1993…” meme. The same account posted an interview clip with Orloff, and its owner purports to be a “Narcissistic Healing Abuse Coach.” There’s no name, but there is a Paypal link. (I reached out to @narcandempath for an interview, but after some initial back-and-forth, the account did not respond to my questions, which ranged from, “Who are you and what’s your background?” to, “How can you know whether someone’s a permanent narcissist or just a temporary jerk?”)
The internet, unhampered by academic hand-wringing and not subject to peer review, can seem to a layperson as if it outpaces the professional mental health community’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which was last updated in 2013. You won’t find a definition of “emotional vampire” or a “covert narcissist” in the DSM, but both of them have thousands of posts on Instagram. Their definitions, contested depending on who’s doing the defining, are roughly, “life-ruining interpersonal parasite” and, “undercover fiend without a conscience,” respectively. Social media takes what the academy produced and stitches together Frankensteined hybrids like “narcopath,” someone with myriad personality disorders. By pairing psychological terminology with new-age concepts, accounts potentially give users a reason to believe they may have conditions that don’t actually exist.
Bullying is a demonstrable action; narcissism or emotional vampirism, whatever that really means, is a protracted state of being.
In her 2016 book The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, Kristin Dombek writes of the numerous “strains” of narcissism she saw named by journalists, bloggers, and others online as she assembled her research. There are, among countless others, Narcissistic Leaders, Sexual Narcissists, Medical Narcissists, and even Spiritual Narcissists, wherein a narcissist might easily camouflage themselves as, say, an empath in order to infiltrate a community of actual empaths, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This doesn’t mean that the label of “narcissist” is one without meaning, or that any terminology outside the DSM is suspect. A therapist might use the phrase “toxic relationship” even if it isn’t a diagnosis; a psychologist would recognize the concept of empathy, even if the existence of empaths is up for debate.
Still, the range of advice and categorization of mental health conditions online is mind-boggling. Drawing a map of any given concept based on the internet’s information means the vast majority of us are disordered in numerous ways, many of them conflicting. “The silent treatment is ABUSE,” according to an Instagram post by NarcAway, an account run by a self-proclaimed survivor of narcissism. And if my sense of intuition often proves true, does that make me an empath? If I’m empathetic, compassionate, and headstrong, am I an Indigo Child? What even is an Indigo Child? (The answer: sensitive children believed to possess emotional intelligence that borders on the supernatural.)
I asked Fernando Lizzi, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Hoboken, New Jersey, whether an Instagram account, Tumblr post, or Facebook group might help someone identify their own psyches or the people they need to excise from their lives. “Everybody can know someone that is acting a certain way — a narcissistic way, a selfish way, etc., and kind of ‘diagnose’ him,” he says. “But it’s actually not a diagnosis, it’s an opinion. In order to get a popular diagnosis, you need to go to a proper professional. I think there’s a lot of confusion about that.”
In other words, akin to the broad strokes that imply someone might be an empath, someone — everyone — can demonstrate bits and pieces of the behavior associated with a diagnosis. “If it’s narcissism, it’s seen as a sort of resource; [online] groups created to address certain situations like that — bullying, for instance — that might be acceptable. But I’m not so sure it’s the same,” Lizzi said. “You may be dealing with a narcissistic person or certain traits of a narcissistic person — self-absorption, taking certain advantages, etcetera, etcetera.” Bullying is a demonstrable action; narcissism or emotional vampirism, whatever that really means, is a protracted state of being.
As Dombek points out, psychology has grown so pervasive as to infiltrate numerous strata of our daily lives. “It is a private labor made increasingly public and compulsory,” she writes. “Corporate gurus advise CEOs to hire Chief Happiness Officers … To relax, we take BuzzFeed personality quizzes, as if to scratch some enjoyment out of the very kinds of measurements that determine our success, and even at the bar, we sit down and talk of our progress toward mental health.”
For an example of the big picture, Lizzi pointed to mass shootings, which have become one of the defining (and depressing) phenomena of our era. In funneling modern traumas through the lens of psychology, whether it’s gun violence or the impossibility of living on minimum wage, it’s possible that we’re ignoring the tangle of politics, social issues, and inequality that loom just as large. We’re wielding one particular analytic tool and ignoring others.
I can’t help but think it’s comforting to hear we’re not crazy or unjustifiably paranoid; we’re just terrified. Even so, social media is just one more room into which we can lock ourselves, no safer than anywhere else but as quiet and reflective as Narcissus’s forest glen. “Maybe we’re getting short on explanations,” Lizzi said, “because the issues are bigger.”
“Still o’er the fountain’s wat’ry gleam he stood,” Ovid writes as Narcissus bends over the still pool. “Mindless of sleep, and negligent of food / Still view’d his face, and languish’d as he view’d.” It might as well be a face reflected in a lock screen, the insufficient solace of a few hours online.