Why is it some people just won't follow social distancing directives? They could be narcissists. Narcissism might also explain some surprising comments by some very high-profile people -- including Elon Musk, who's just announced he is reopening the California Tesla factory despite a county order not to.
Most of us are doing our best to abide by social distancing orders and keep everyone safe. But we all know a few people who blithely ignore the warnings, announcing that they're unconcerned about the coronavirus. If you have friends or colleagues taking a devil-may-care approach to Covid-19, there's a good chance those people are narcissists, according to licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Sean Grover.
In a post on the Psychology Today website, Grover explains why narcissists have a hard time following the social distancing guidelines that have become part of normal life for most of us. While all of us are vulnerable to Covid-19 and the disease has proved capable of killing healthy people in their 20s, it's certain that older people and those with existing health problems are at greater risk of severe illness and death. Thus, maintaining a safe social distance and in particular wearing a mask are not only good ways to protect our own health--they also safeguard the most vulnerable members of our community.
"Communal thinking is impossible for narcissists," Grover writes. "They lack empathy, have an omnipotent view of themselves, and like to believe they are exempt from social norms. Is it any surprise that they ignore Centers for Disease Control recommendations?"
As for Musk, he's taken a lot of criticism lately for his public comments, such as "The coronavirus panic is dumb!" which he tweeted in early March. He ranted about social distancing orders on a recent Tesla earnings call, "This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom!"
Although an actual diagnosis is impossible from afar, many psychologists have noted that Musk exhibits narcissistic tendencies, and he himself has tweeted, "If I am a narcissist (which might be true), at least I am a useful one." No wonder he can think about the coronavirus only in terms of how it affects him and his beloved company.
Or consider the unquestionably narcissistic video posted to social media by High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens. Hudgens was apparently bummed -- make that very bummed -- about the cancellation of Coachella, which she called "bulls--t." "Even if everybody gets it, yeah ... people are gonna die, which is terrible but inevitable," she said. Then she added, "Maybe I shouldn't be doing this right now?" That was a good insight, but she went ahead and posted the video anyway.
After a predictable firestorm of negative reactions, Hudgens first complained that her comments had been taken "out of context," although it's hard to imagine a context that would have made them appropriate. As negative publicity mounted, she gave in and issued an apology. "This has been a huge wake up call about the significance my words have, now more than ever," she wrote -- managing to be contrite and narcissistic in the same sentence.
Throwing his own birthday party despite Covid-19.
The connection between narcissism and lack of social distancing became particularly obvious for Grover on a recent trip to buy groceries. As he struggled to keep six feet away from other shoppers and read his shopping list through glasses fogged by his mask, he saw a man squeezing his way through the crowd. That shopper wore neither mask nor gloves and made no attempt to keep his distance from anyone. He was talking loudly on his mobile phone about a birthday party he was throwing for himself that evening at his apartment.
How should you deal with the narcissists in your own life or workplace who just can't be bothered with social distancing measures? It's futile to talk to them about their responsibility to the community or to protect the people around them. You can try sharing information about the many healthy young people who have died of Covid-19, but since narcissists tend to feel invulnerable, that may not help.
It's probably best to set simple and definite boundaries -- "You cannot come to work unless you wear a mask," for example, if your workplace is still open, or when it reopens. Once you've put such a boundary in place, make sure to keep to it.
What if the narcissist is in your social circle, or worse, in your home? Here again, setting definite boundaries and sticking with them may be your best hope. Since you know the narcissist hasn't been taking precautions, you should probably assume he or she has been exposed to the coronavirus, so take any necessary precautions to avoid being infected yourself.
Or, if you have a choice, consider getting the narcissist out of your life altogether. Grover notes that narcissists can be charming and fun to be around. But often, the relationship comes at a cost because narcissists tend to want attention at all times. Spending too much time with them can be emotionally draining. And these days, you need all the emotional energy you can get.