What connects people who are always late, don’t make their bed, wear stupid clothes and have stupid haircuts way too late in life?
They’re all egomaniacs.
We know about the classic sort of egomaniacs: People who are rude to waiters, club bores and show-off MPs (viz., Matt Hancock). Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are the modern ego writ large.
But rampant ego often disguises itself in more subtle ways. People who litter—classic egomaniacs. People who litter and have strong green views—egomaniacs with a severe case of cognitive dissonance.
Modern life is a fetid petri dish for the swollen ego, thanks chiefly to the internet. Mobiles and social media are like crack cocaine to the egomaniac—and almost as disastrous.
Imagine giving a device to someone which allows them to show off to strangers. That is essentially what a mobile, enabled with social media, is—a machine for showing off. They’ll never read a book again.
Social media is rightly vetted for things like pornography and racism. But unpoliced self-love is allowed to run wild. I’m afraid my journalist colleagues are some of the worst offenders: “Me, me, me…,” they are really crying as they post their own articles online. I’ve done it, too. And I also realize the foolishness of writing an article presuming to tell egomaniacs how to behave. Egomaniac, heal thyself.
I used to be driven mad by all these soul-crushing varieties of egomania. I can now spot the condition in a second: the man who launches into an anecdote within minutes of meeting you, the woman who never asks you a question; the ones who take all disagreement as opposition.
Then, three years ago, the writer A.N. Wilson told me: “We should feel sorry for egomaniacs. It’s a terrible condition to suffer from.”
I now see he was spot on. I still run from egomaniacs at dinner parties and refuse their invitations to lunch. I realize that, not only should I feel sorry for them, but there’s little they can do about it. Being an egomaniac is like having blue eyes or big ears. Self-obsession is incurable.
It comes in different shapes and sizes. There is an egomania spectrum that runs all the way down from the murderous psycho with narcissistic personality disorder down to the harmless bore you sit next to at lunch.
Still, if you suffer from the condition, however mildly, you always suffer from it in multiple ways. The egomaniac with stupid clothes and hair will also always be late and not make his bed. The egomaniac who plays loud music in the quiet carriage will also leave his empty, smelly microwave meal packaging on your table when he gets off the train. He’ll hit you with his rucksack as he moves along the aisle, too, unaware of the destructive effects of his selfishness. It’s an all-encompassing condition, just as politeness is. The polite person won’t do any of those things on the train.
All you egomaniacs out there can do something to mitigate your appalling condition. Observe the outward behavior of curious, selfless non-egomaniacs and try to imitate it.
It will be tricky for you, not least because self-deprecation goes against another modern force: the near-universal encouragement to push ourselves forward, be proud of ourselves and stand up for ourselves. That only leads to a new wave of boring egomaniacs, brittle souls who can’t stand criticism and have a complete lack of curiosity about others. They delight in terrible one-way conversations.
In Late Youth: An Anthology Celebrating the Joys of being Over Fifty, the writer Selina Hastings neatly summed up the two conversational tropes of the egomaniac—not just self-obsession but self-pity too:
- Tell an egomaniac that you’ve just seen a marvelous film and they won’t ask you about it. They’ll say, “Oh, I’ve seen a great film recently, too…” and then bang on about it.
- Or the self-pitying egomaniac says, “Oh, no one ever takes me to the cinema these days.”
This gruesome spike in self-promotion doesn’t make anyone happier. Quite the reverse. It only increases misery, as the inflated expectation of constant triumphs only leads to regular bursts of misery at falling short of your ludicrous goals.
Self-promotion also won’t get you to where you want. Egomaniacs never learn the number one rule: other people don’t like show-offs and they don’t believe them. Don’t tell me you’re brilliant, do something to prove it.
Egomania only leaves you with a tiny mental world to rattle around in, circumscribed by your limited thoughts in your limited brain. Not that egomaniacs can see their brain as anything other than planet-sized.
Again and again, studies show that any pursuit which leads you out of the minuscule misery chamber inside your skull makes you happier. Exercise, religion, reading, charity work, volunteering, buying other people presents… They all yank your thoughts out of your head and into the limitless universe beyond.
The 1971 catchphrase of the Egomaniac Age should be L’Oréal’s motto, “Because you’re worth it.” Well, start to think, “Because you’re not worth it,” and you’ll immediately be better company. More humility, more questions and more listening. That’s the route to becoming a kinder, more interesting human being.