Reading about the online “involuntarily celibate” or “Incel” community (also called “Love-Shy”) in the wake of the Isla Vista mass shooting, I find myself compelled by the incel narrative. Most people feel similar feelings in times of hurt, but they do not let those feelings define their concepts of relationships and romantic interests. This piece is not to professionally diagnose or treat those who self-identify as “incel” or “love-shy,” but I do want to examine their narrative in the context of the personality traits associated with narcissism.
The “incel” or “love-shy” community is the soft, squishy version of the MRA/PUA/Anti-PUA/RedPill/etc community, which believes that being involuntarily celibate is indeed a failure on their own part and which is often less aggressively violent while more sympathy-seeking in their rhetoric. Obviously, most of the participants of the MRA/PUA/Anti-PUA/RedPill/etc rabbit hole of misogyny don’t actually act on their voiced violent impulses, but they are clearly expressing a powerful and captivating narrative of angst and confusion which is projected onto an external source which is most commonly women. In direct contradiction of their title, the celibacy of many of their members is entirely voluntary. While trying to describe the complexity of their condition, involuntarycelibacy.com states “Some incels have had opportunities for casual or paid sex but have declined them because they don’t consider them a real relationship (or in the latter case it’s illegal for them in their residential jurisdiction.) What they are truly missing is the affectionate touching, holding and kissing and unconditional give-and-take that true couples the world over enjoy.” The Love-Shy Wiki defines love-shyness: “Love-shyness is a proto-disorder [sic] characterized by an extreme fear of romantic interactions with the opposite sex.”
The incel community seems to see it’s lack of sex as “involuntary” (or externally imposed) but also caused by an internal flaw. Those who identify as incel consider themselves part of an under-served group of people suffering from an under-studied psychological disability which is their involuntary celibacy. By definition, being celibate is not a mental condition. It is an interpersonal (lack of) interaction. Having difficulty in romantic endeavors can be a symptom of an underlying anxiety or self esteem issue, but in and of itself, not getting laid is not a psychological condition. The paramount feature of those who self-identify as incel seems to be narcissism combined with not being able to get laid.
Commonly, when we think of narcissists we think of charming (and not so charming) extroverts—the kind of people parodied in the song “Selfie.” Outgoing and seeking extremes of adoration and attention, these narcissists belong to a category called “overt” narcissists. Often personified as female, desperately seeking male attention and social status, it is easy to spot and label these people, and many of them are likely aware that they are significantly more interested in themselves than others (they just believe that this is because they are just that much more interesting). It is easy to see that they struggle to create and maintain deep relationships with others because their interactions are purely instrumental in order to meet their own needs—behaviors that would likely repel those who seek a deeper connection and a more equitable partnership.
Less known is the category that I have come to believe those that self-identify as “incel” fall under: “covert” narcissists. Their needs are equally as wholly self-centered as the overt narcissists, but their expression is somewhat different. For further reading on the two types of narcissistic presentation the chapter in “Disorders of Narcissism: Diagnostic, Clinical, and Empirical Implications” is publicly available on Google Books and the original article that published the useful table (reprinted in the chapter linked to above) which compares overt and covert expressions of narcissism is not available online (sadly, the earliest issue of this journal available is from 1996, and this chart was published in 1989). It’s also available (in decidedly unacademic-looking comic sans) on an Appalachian State University Psychology course website.
Obviously, not everybody who exhibits one symptom, or even many symptoms, of narcissism can be described as having narcissistic personality disorder and I am not diagnosing any one person with a mental illness. The incel narrative, however, has many expressions of the clinical features of NPD. Being a sad sack with low self esteem is not a guard against narcissism. The covert narcissist is described as feeling “morose self-doubts… feeling ashamed; fragility.” Extremely negative navel-gazing is still navel-gazing.
The description of the covert narcissist’s interpersonal relationships reads that they are marked by an “inability to genuinely depend on others and trust them; chronic envy of others’ talents, possessions, and capacity for deep object relations; lack of regard for generational boundaries; disregard for others’ time” (object relations here meaning interpersonal caring relationships). I think this speaks most clearly to what people who self-identify as incel and love-shy are identifying with. “That Incel Blogger” (or “CoAlphaAntiModernistIncelBlogger” as he now calls himself) says “It is a great misconception that being an involuntary celibate means you are somehow defective. In fact, it is the completely opposite – in modern society you pretty much have to be degenerate scum to succeed with women.” showing that simultaneous sense of superiority and resentful envy of those he views as more successful than himself. In spite of his belief that incels are above the “degenerate scum” who have relations with women and that they are not defective he still believes the very point of his blog’s existence is to advocate for “government intervention to incel problem [sic] by using non-coercive, voluntary programs” .
Furthermore, the shy/covert subclass is described in romantic relationships to have an “impaired capacity for viewing the romantic partner as a separate individual with his or her own interests, rights, and values.” Well, here we get to the actual relationship portion of the self-identified incel’s narcissism. We can see that their concept of the person they want to become voluntarily coital with is highly simplified and distorted “ The western woman’s choosing criteria, as she can have relation with whoever she please under feminism, she will be part of the harem of an “Alpha” male that is tall, muscular, square jaw, etc.” Here, we can also see how the “Pick Up Artist”’s whole “human relationships as a game in which winning means a man sleeping with a woman who doesn’t want to sleep with him” philosophy and vocabulary infects the incel narrative, this one belonging to “surviving incel,” which is an article of it’s own.
Sex is an issue fraught with anxiety and private shame for many individuals including later-life virgins and people with partners in the triple-digits. The landscape of intimate personal relationships is scary without prior experience and without support from empathic members of a social network. I don’t blame people who have felt that they have been denied a seemingly universal part of the human experience for being frustrated. People who have struggled with intimacy in romantic or sexual relationships deserve help, but those who self-identify as members of this incel community are displaying something wholly other than the pro-social behavior of seeking help and going through the difficult work of a therapeutic process with a professional to view the roots of their issues with relationships. They display narcissistic traits and proclaim that they both want sex with anybody, but don’t want it with just anybody; they are simultaneously better and worse than everybody else; and most sadly that they do and don’t need help (from psychologists or the government), that they do and don’t have internal mental traits that are keeping them from forging sexual (let alone otherwise meaningful) relationships.