Narcissism is dead. Long live the Tulpa! (The Paradox of Narcissism Today)


“I am just an avatar of someone I’ve invented. A messenger of certainties I’m trying to decode.”

HEAD, Jeff Rosenstock 

Accusations of narcissism are rife in today’s social climate, whether it’s leveled at celebrities, Gen Z, ex-boyfriends or politicians. Although it is common to explore “signs of narcissism” and question whether or not certain behaviors are narcissistic, shockingly little rigor is applied to understanding the meaning of the term itself.

Of course, we all know the myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and committed suicide or turned into a flower, depending on whether you take the Grecian or Roman telling. Images of narcissism are common in film and tv, whether it’s Patrick Bateman appreciating his reflection while copulating or a woman carefully studying her face in a compact mirror.

These two examples correspond well with Freud’s conception of narcissism in his essay “On Narcissism: an Introduction”[1] . Freud theorizes that (in patients with schizophrenia): “the libido which has been withdrawn from external objects” and therefore “[t]he libido that has been withdrawn from the external world has been directed to the ego and thus gives rise to an attitude which may be called narcissism.” He calls this pathological narcissism “secondary” narcissism, and differentiates it from “primary” narcissism, which is, simply put, the necessary function of an adult human to be able to derive libidinal satisfaction from both external objects (object-love) and the ego itself (ego-love). 

Narcissus, Felines and Females

Freud’s definition of narcissism is both similar to our current usage (self-love) and yet departs in an important way. There are three key symbols Freud mentions as examples of narcissism. Narcissus, the cat, and the woman. The last of these three is likely to seem the most problematic, and of course Freud was a man of his time, yet, there is an arguably feminist message at the core of his reasoning of why women are often narcissists:  “Women, especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment which compensates them for the social restrictions that are imposed upon them in their choice of object.” So what Freud states here is not that women have an innately narcissistic tendency, but rather, specifically because of social restrictions, they may often become narcissists. By being restricted from choosing a partner or lover, they therefore are less libidinally invested in them, and that potential object-love is introjected and becomes ego-love. He also concedes that, “there are quite a number of women who love according to the masculine type”. If we transpose this dynamic to the 21st century, we may consider that in the liberal democratic Western world we are all permitted to (at least in theory) make our own object-choice (in the sense of a partner, lover etc) and therefore, if we accept one of Freud’s aetiologies of narcissism being a shift from object-love to ego-love, as a response to restricted object-choice, we must suppose that the proliferation of (at least nominal) free choice in turn actually functions as a barrier to developing (ego-love) narcissism in the 21st century.

There are additionally the symbols of cats and children: “The charm of a child lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey.” Freud’s characterization of narcissism as “charming” rings completely alien to us today. Herein lies the distinction between Freud’s narcissism and the modern definition. Paradoxically, we often characterize narcissists as those who are desperate for attention, whether on social media or at the center of a party, and Freud’s entire thesis is that the demand for attention connotes “object-love”, the object of desire being the affection of the social media followers or partygoers. Consider how, for Freud, narcissism is also connected with autoeroticism: the self-satisfaction of drives. In contrast, we can imagine that the attention-craving subject is libidinally not autoerotic (ego-love) but exhibitionist (object-love). Interestingly, an oft-overlooked part of the myth of Narcissus (at least in the version in Ovid’s Metamorphosis) includes the figure of Echo, a goddess who falls in love with Narcissus but whose love remains unrequited. After Narcissus wastes away, Echo does too, highlighting the perils of both Narcissus’ ego-love and Echo’s object-love.

The Strands of Narcissism

To be more precise, there are essentially two clinical strands of narcissism at play here. The Freudian one, which we may term “libidinal narcissism”, and the psychiatric “psychopathic narcissism”.  Yet the way we use “narcissism” today largely corresponds to neither of them. The typical figure of narcissism imagined today is a Gen Z or Millennial influencer who incessantly takes selfies and posts them on Instagram. Yet, to be a libidinal narcissist, you would not need to post anything at all. Ever. If you were truly satisfied from ego-love, you could simply peruse the selfies on your phone gallery, like Narcissus gazing at his reflection, since narcissism in itself implies that the only valid admiration is that of the self. 

If you were truly satisfied from ego-love, you could simply peruse the selfies on your phone gallery, like Narcissus.

But, on social media, the valuation is not simply in the scopophilic admiration of one’s own image, but in the validation of seeing how others value your image through metrics such as likes, comments, views etc. This is to say, in the 21st century, we have moved largely from first order observations (seeing how you look in a photo) to second order observations (seeing how others perceive you in a photo through metrics, likes, views, comments). Very simply put, if the libidinal attachment is to the valuation of the image by others, rather than the self-image itself, it is not ego-love, but object-love, and therefore, not narcissism. This is not to say that someone constantly chasing validation on “social media” is not self-obsessed, but rather, self-obsession is increasingly mediated by second order observation.

The Political Economy of Identity

The formula one comes to can be considered similar to that of Marx’s theory of surplus value. Use values (and commodities) are created through labor time, which are then mediated by the market, forming the commodity’s exchange value. Similarly, before capitalism, because feudalist production was mediated through the landlord and serf system through rent, first-order production existed. The serf had direct access to the fruits of their labor (since farming still played a subsistence role) while the surplus went to the feudal lord. Whereas, under capitalism, the proletariat does not (usually) directly consume their product (they are alienated from their product) but rather, the commodity they produce exists solely to be mediated by the market, which is an economic “big Other”, (think of Adam Smith’s rather optimistic depiction of the “invisible hand”). In a reciprocating relation, the output (commodity production) simultaneously values the input (wage labor). Ego-love, with its connection to autoeroticism/self-satisfaction, mirrors the lower extent of alienation under feudalism, where serfs were “self-satisfying” by consuming (some of) their own product. In contrast, object-love means that satisfaction is dependent upon an other. To bring this back to social media, our identities are no longer determined solely by a co-present peer (our family, friends, etc), but is mediated by the technological “big Other”, what Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio refer to as the “general peer” in their book You and Your Profile [2]. 

When we make a post on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Facebook, even if we intend it only to be seen by our direct friends, family and colleagues, it will nevertheless be stratified through data, likes, views, comments, etc. Equally, much of the media we consume has already been stratified and curated by algorithms before it even appears. Rather, the algorithmic curation is usually a necessity for it appearing to us at all, on digital platforms. In conjunction with a market allowing the extraction of surplus value, we have a digital platform allowing the creation of surplus identity. And as a capitalist enterprise demands constant growth of production, the digital platforms demand constant growth of attention, incessant posting and viewing, production and consumption, in order to maintain their own structures, and in turn, our profiles (or vice-versa).

The Narcissist vs the Tulpa

So what is Tulparianism? Whereas Narcissus is a figure of myth whose ego’s libidinal satisfaction is dependent upon gazing upon itself, the Tulpa is a figure of Tibetan Buddhism who can come into existence only through the imaginative will of a human. This is an attempt to recategorize what is frequently misdiagnosed as narcissism. If we insist on using narcissism to refer to both: those who derive satisfaction directly from their own ego, and those who derive satisfaction from objects outside themselves, i.e.: the recognition and validation of others, we fail to discern anything at all, since there is no entity which is not either ego or object. Let’s look at the definition of Tulpa from Jan Westerhoff’s Twelve Examples of Illusion:

A tulpa is a being that often, but not necessarily, is human in appearance (it might also be an animal, a tree, or suchlike) and that is created purely by someone’s mind. A tulpa is different from a merely imagined being in that it can be seen by other people as well, and in that it may also acquire a certain degree of independence: when the creator wants to dissolve the tulpa it might not disappea Immediately.[3]

So as opposed to Narcissus being a figure of self-reciprocating libido (ego-love), the tulpa (by my interpolation of the Tibetan concept) is a figure of object-dependent libido. In order to exist, it must first exist in the imagination of an other. Similarly, under profilicity, in order to exist, we must exist in the imagination of a big Other (or general peer). Of course, another key difference from the Tibetan concept is that, as tulpas, we are not brought into existence by an other, but ourselves. We may consider the typical meme, popularized by Dolly Parton, of how one displays their identity on Linkedin vs Facebook vs Instagram vs Tinder as a representation of the multiplicity of identities we form. So, as tulpas, we conjure up self-images, or “shades”, a myriad of different “masks” for each platform. However, we cannot sustain them alone. They require (and of course, exist for) judgment by the general peer. It’s true that historically we have always presented ourselves differently in different contexts, we may wear a uniform for work, we may use profanity with our friends at the pub, but conduct ourselves more respectfully with our families. In these cases, our conduct is (primarily) directly observed by our peers. However, in the example of social media, our conduct is observed by a “general peer”, who is not co-present, and whom we primarily observe through second order means (metrics).

Technofeudalism and the Tulpa

In Technofeudalism, Yanis Varoufakis’ claims that, with the rise of Big Tech and proliferation of rentierism rather than profiteering, we have moved beyond capitalism and are now in technofeudalism[4]. He notes how “[c]urating an identity online is not optional” for young people, and they “must somehow work out which of their potential ‘true selves’ will be found most attractive”. Varoufakis quotes a graduate who once told him “no one will offer me a job […] until I have discovered my true self”. 

Varoufakis then considers how the monopolizing of digital spaces leaves users in a position of “cloud serfs” who have no “refuge from the market”. Although he does not name narcissism itself, he explains how this move has “produced individuals who are not so much possessive as possessed, or rather persons incapable of being self-possessed”. Again, the impossibility of self-possession mirrors the impossibility of narcissism. Narcissus’s self-possession was his downfall, but for us, self-possession is increasingly impossible. Since we can no longer directly possess ourselves, we are cut off from (exclusive) ego-love as a means of libidinal satisfaction. As tulpas, we must conjure up self-images for each platform, which can only sustain value (both exchange value and identity value) if they are equally met with validation from the general peer through likes, views, comments, replies, favorites, reviews, reacts, etc. As capitalism continuously overcomes barriers towards commodity exchange, our identity formation immediately becomes representative of exchange value or, as Yanis Varoufakis puts it: “[cloud capital incites] billions of non-waged people (cloud serfs) to work for free (and often unconsciously) at replenishing cloud capital’s own stock (e.g. to upload photos and videos on Instagram or TikTok, or submit film, restaurant and book reviews)”. 21st centuries identities are much easier to commodify than Narcissus’ reflection.

As tulpas, our self-images (or profiles) must be both nurtured by ourselves and by the general peer, as a tree draws nourishment from both the earth underneath and the rays of sun from above.

Tulpas in Plato’s Cave

Speaking of sunlight, there is a certain Platonic parallel to be drawn here. Of course, Narcissus is the figure of ego-love. In contrast, the voyeurs in Plato’s allegory of the cave can be considered to be figures of object-love. The cave dweller’s libidinal enjoyment is entirely tied up in the other: the false images projected onto the wall of the cave. However, as pure ego-love is impossible today due to the increasing extent our libidos are mediated by the “general peer” (or big Other), pure object-love is also impossible. The cultural peak of object-love was the midcentury, as film and television became hegemonic in society. Like Plato’s cave dwellers, Adorno notes how film (of the Hollywood variety) “forces its victims to equate it directly with reality”[5]. This passive relation to mass media has been augmented with an active relation of profile curation (or in language of the tulpa, shade-creation).

However, an important distinction to be made here is that we may encounter folly if we consider there to be a duality of “appearances” and “essences” as Plato’s formalism suggests. Niklas Luhmann (a significant influence on Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s theory of profilicity) posits in his book The Reality of the Mass Media[6]:

The question is not: how do the mass media distort reality through the manner of their representations? For that would presuppose an ontological, available, objectively accessible reality that can be known without resort to construction; it would basically presuppose the old cosmos of essences.

The question for us then is not: “how does profile curation and social media distort reality?” But, to quote Luhmann again: “what kind of a society is it that describes itself and its world in this way?” Or, what kind of society arises when it is composed of tulpas?

Profiles run deep. On the 14th of April 2023, Spaniard Beatriz Flamini emerged from a cave she had resided in for five hundred days, a task she undertook out of a desire to be alone and prove her self-sufficiency. But even this profoundly impressive and dedicated act of seclusion, paradoxically, necessitated the judgment of the general peer. She posted on Instagram both prior to entering and after she left the cave. Of course, this is not to accuse her of narcissism or self-centeredness, but to show how even this intense act of solitude is still committed by a fellow tulpa who is compelled to curate her profile (and therefore identity). Even in the cave, she performed for the GoPros, essentially vlogging. “What kept Flamini going, it seems, were the two GoPros,” the author of the piece writes. “The camera confessionals became the underground equivalent of social-media posts.” 

We have here an inverted version of Plato’s cave dweller, who performs for others instead of passively observing the shadow puppets. We simultaneously create shadow puppets (shades) in the form of self-images and observe how those self-images are observed. This is not merely a distortion of reality, however, but how reality is formed. The point is of course, not to particularize or pathologize this behavior, but to universalize it in the sense that, in order to understand ourselves and form identity in the 21st century, we all would likely do more or less the same thing, and increasingly so, especially in the younger generations. 

What if we delete our profiles?

So what if you decide to delete all your social media profiles and “opt out”? (Assuming it is even viable – Moeller and D’Ambrosio extend the concept of profiles beyond merely social media accounts and include an academic’s Google Scholar rating as a profile – as well as an Airbnb host’s profile and the profiles of journalists). As claimed earlier – as tulpas, we cast self-images into the social environment through profile curation, which then must be maintained reciprocally by the “general peer”, which creates multiple “shades” of ourselves. However, this is merely the active mode of “shade-creation”. Shades are also created passively. On Instagram, many users participate by uploading photos of themselves and their activities which we can class as a type of “active” shade-creation. However, simultaneously, there is a “passive” shade-creation – where we interact with content on the platform and the algorithm decides what to serve us based on the interests and topics it believes we are interested in. So there is simultaneously “active” and “passive” shade formation. If you take the example of Spotify, where the vast majority of users are not actively creating and uploading music but passively listening to the content on there, we can see it is primarily a platform of “passive” shade formation. We do not choose our identity, but are supplied one by the platform based on our listening habits. This sounds dystopian, but we are libidinally invested in this function of the algorithm. We happily share our passively curated activity through “Spotify Wrapped”, where the passive shade in turn becomes a type of active shade through our amicable sharing of its insights into our profile. Importantly, the social platforms do not function as a kind or mirror, (or Narcissus’ pool of water) simply reflecting (or even deriving from) a concrete or essential identity through music or tv and film preferences. It merely constitutes an interpretation of our identity through how we choose to participate with it and any data they procure through third parties. This is not to say that this interpretation does not in turn shape our identity (and therefore reality) in a reciprocal relation.

Understanding Instead of Judging

So what benefit is there to be had from stepping away from the term “narcissism”? We may apply our tentative theory to an article recently published in The Independent: Going to an art gallery or to a gig? Prepare to meet the iMorons. The writer does not seem to be interested in understanding why this phenomena of phone recording at gigs takes place. He asserts that the “iMorons” have a sense of “electronic entitlement” and phones are a source of “comforting convenience”. He assumes that their habit of filming at gigs or art galleries on their smartphones is an act of “documenting their proximity to great art – and boasting about it online“. We (and the writer) are clearly intended to enjoy a type of moral superiority here, rather than engaging in any act of empathy or understanding. If we look at some replies to a post on the r/1975 subreddit, asking: “Genuinely curious! Why do you hold up your phone & record the entire concert?” We can see some explanations from Gen Z themselves: “I record because I have a bad memory” and “I take […] videos […] because I have problems with my memory”. Perhaps it is not about social clout at all, but rather, a symptom of memory degradation in the youth. 

Of course, this is purely anecdotal evidence and only a handful of comments. But, as a recent study states: “In the general population, long-term effects of excessive screen time were associated with reductions in long-term memory and cognitive development” and suggests “Generation Z children would be more likely to exhibit learning and memory impairments when compared to Generation X children”. So rather than simply brushing off this phenomenon of gig filming as individual selfishness and a moral failing of the youth, if we cast off the antiquated “narcissist” narrative we open up a non-moralising, non-judgemental space for understanding and empathy. 

The myopia caused by the desire to judge comes to a head when the writer of the piece attempts to discern between “[a] real world of pure horror and adversity – of war, cost of living crises, rent slavery, nuclear threat, global warming tipping points toppling daily, and Laurence Fox” and “the one in our pockets.” (A true Platonist.) Ironically, almost all of the issues he states as being in opposition to “the one in our pockets”, are things you can only learn about through your smartphone, and are therefore not actually separate from the world “in our pockets.” The writer even seems to be unaware of the fact that the article itself is exclusively a part of the world “in our pockets”. (The Independent has been an online-only newspaper since 2016). There is no concrete solution suggested in the article, although phone bans are mentioned. By stepping away from the compulsion to judge we can see that there is a wider dynamic at play here than simple individualized moral failing. If cognitive degradation inflicted by screens is resulting in worse memory, is there a role for the government to restrict the extent of which exploitative “attention economy” tactics are employed? As ex-Facebook employee Sean Parker has stated “[Facebook] is exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” in order to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible”. 

Accusations of narcissism are, of course, rarely intended to problem-solve. Niklas Luhmann explains that two of the key “selectors” of the mass media are norm violations and moral judgment, and we can see both employed in the article. There is also a libidinal enjoyment derived from accusing someone of moral failing (which concurrently promotes one’s own “goodliness” and journalistic profile). In this sense, the writer simply carried out their job, and did it well. However, if we are interested in understanding rather than judging, we must seek to recognize phenomena as structurally based rather than individually based, which means seeing yourself in it, rather than seeing yourself outside of it. (This article you are reading is also a part of the mass media world “in our pockets”.) 

The Tulpa and Functional Amnesia

How does this connect to the tulpa? Well, not straightforwardly. But memory is a key theme. In an age of increasing complexity, the maintenance of the tulpa’s “shades” becomes paramount. With the increasing speed of the circulation of capital and news cycle, trends appear and disappear evermore frequently. The function of memory is not merely to stockpile information, but to forget what is no longer needed. As Luhmann states: “without forgetting, without the freeing up of capacities for new operations, the system would have no future”. This of course refers to the mass media system, but in this case, we may interpret Gen Z (and actually all generations) as internalizing the cognitive necessity of forgetting. The “digital natives” are merely at the center of the whirlpool in terms of circulation speed, and shades and profiles are a tool with which this complexity can be “dealt with”. 

Flexibility is demanded more and more with each passing generation. For example, we no longer remain in the same job or career for our whole lives, and are instead expected to keep pace with the frequent changes in technology and society. (Anna Kornbluh emphasizes how the artistic world has internalized capitalist processes in her book Immediacy[7]: “flexibility and fluidity, emanation and connectivity, directness and instantaneity are economic premiums as much as they are artistic ones”.) So the cognitive shift towards increased forgetting may be interpreted as a form of adaptation rather than maladaptation. It is notable that one of the key symptoms of dissociative identity disorder is “discontinuities in identity and memory”[8]. This is of course, not to make light of a serious psychiatric disorder, but rather, to draw an intentional parallel between memory function in the tulpa subject and dissociative identity disorder, as psychiatric professionals have done.

So perhaps it is high time that accusations of narcissism were put to bed, so we can better understand ourselves as 21st century profile-curating, shade-creating tulpas.


[1 ] Freud, Sigmund. “On Narcissism: An Introduction” in The Freud Reader edited by Peter Gay (W.W. Norton & Company, 1995)

[2] Moeller, Hans-Georg, D’Ambrosio, Paul J. You and Your Profile: Identity After Authenticity (Columbia University Press, 2021)

[3] Westerhoff, Jan. Twelve Examples of Illusion. (Oxford University Press, 2010)

[4] Varoufakis, Yanis. Technofeudalism. (Penguin Random House, 2023)

[5] Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment (Verso, 1997)

[6] Luhmann, Niklas. The Reality of the Mass Media. Trans. Kathleen Cross (Stanford University Press, 2000)

[7] Kornbluh, Anna.  Immediacy, or The style of too late capitalism.  (Verso, 2023)

[8] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition). (American Psychiatric Association Publishing, 2013) P. 624