When Ukraine’s War Isn’t About You: The Narcissistic Inclination to Co-opt Tragedy, Explained

It was a photograph of a young woman standing in Moscow’s Red Square. The woman was an acquaintance of writing, the 30-year-old photo. She had included it in her sub-pile focused on health and lifestyle last week, along with her expressions of concern for the people of Ukraine. Some distant ancestors, she had always believed, came from this part of the world, and her heart was there with them. Perhaps his compassion was genuine. His self-centeredness definitely was.

The urge to see ourselves in history is deeply human and understandable. We watch the spiers of Notre-Dame burn and sadly recall a life-changing trip to Paris. We hear of a celebrity who died of a seemingly minor head injury, and we remember a friend who was also lost too soon. Identification is an essential part of how we cultivate empathy in the world. Think of Barack Obama when he said, “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that could have been my son.

This is completely normal. Laurie Hollman, PhD, licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and expert in self-perception and narcissism, explains it this way: “People often think of the impact on ‘me’ before considering another person. It’s natural to identify with the other person’s situation and first assume that the other person’s situation is similar to the one you experienced. It’s just a starting point to first acclimatize to something familiar to oneself before embarking on the experience of another.”

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But much like a dead-eyed robot, there’s a moment when empathy cuts through the rubicon in Uncanny Valley, leaving us feeling uneasy instead of emotional. Think, this time, of Gal Godot and his famous friends crucifying “Imagine”; or more recently, of AnnaLynne McCord taking to social media to poetically imagine herself as the foster mother who saved Vladimir Putin from himself.

As our TV critic Melanie McFarland recently recounted, the list of celebrities who have awkwardly inserted themselves into public tragedies is a classic exercise in second-hand embarrassment – ​​with John Cena wishing he “could somehow or else summon the powers of a true #Peacemaker” while hashtaging his show, Andy Cohen spelling out “PEACE” in Wordle tiles. It’s not that these famous people can’t or don’t feel heartfelt grief and outrage. It’s that they don’t do such a good job of expressing those feelings in a way that doesn’t concern them.

Where human connection is minimized, one wants to seek approval and praise from others in the online world.

Yet it’s not just the ignorant rich who grope here. I’m thinking of this writer from Substack, who composed an entire newsletter entry ostensibly about Ukraine, but mostly about herself and the time she went to Russia. I think of the neighbor whose fascination with the high-profile murder of a colleague has become an uncomfortably common anecdote in social circles. And I think of how often and how easily the appearance of empathy can be weaponized – Well, I’ve been through something tough and I’m fine, why can’t you?

Social media, along with all the other forms of mass communication that we have perpetually at our fingertips, make it not only easy to express every idea that crosses our minds, but almost obligatory. Your sober response to police brutality or pandemics may be unwelcome, but your silence may also be judged harshly. The pressure to respond somehow, can seem incessant and intense. And a well-crafted Facebook post or group text can give the illusion of actually doing something right.

“In this digital age, where human connection is minimized, one wants to seek approval and praise from others in the online world,” says Dr. Lea McMahon LPC, Licensed Counselor, Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Clinical Director at Symetria Recovery. . “Even if the issue is not related to us or affecting our daily life, we still want to talk about it through social media. People want to appear empathetic and caring online because it helps to strengthen them. their picture.”

Everyone loves a little dopamine hit of validation, just like we instinctively look for commonalities or discrepancies in the stories we seek. But for some people, everything can become their own personal story. In her 2011 memoir, Kris Jenner hinted that had she been a more caring friend, she could have saved Nicole Brown Simpson’s life. “Nicole really wanted someone close to her to know what was going on,” she wrote, “so someone — namely me — could be a witness.” Donald Trump is a champion of the complex art form of the saviour, as evidenced recently by confident assertions about Ukraine that “As everyone understands, this horrible disaster would never have happened if our elections had not not been rigged and if I was the president”, and that “The fake news said that my personality was going to drag us into a war… but in reality, it was my personality that kept us out of the war.”

As psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo notes, “A narcissist views themselves as the center of their universe. empathy. A lack of empathy makes it difficult for a person with NPD to understand another person’s point of view – it’s all about them.”

So how can we avoid both the obviously stupid responses to tragedy and the more subtle outward signs of Main Character Syndrome? Hollman says that when it comes to being truly helpful to those in need, “It’s okay to say, ‘I want to help, but I’m not sure what works best for you. Want tell me more about what happened or is happening?’ In other words, good people often want to jump in to solve each other’s problem, but solutions are premature – better to keep these ideas for the distant future after learning the direction the other person is leaning in. is listening carefully to what is going on in the other person’s head.” And when in doubt, she simply advises: “We need to think before we speak or act. The person to whom the tragedy really happens should be the center of attention. Thinking about yourself before speaking impulsively is what which is in the best interest of the other person.”

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