What does it cost me to suspend doubt and work on it anyway? Nothing. Embrace it and change.
This post is likely to be the first of many on this topic.
I can’t help but think of narcissism as a dirty word. A nasty character trait. It is an echo-box word for me too, because I know so many women who lament the trait of narcissism in men and how corrosive it has been in their lives.
I wrote about this before, a post about accepting that there are aspects of me which might be narcissistic. The finger was pointed at me by someone whom I trusted implicitly at the time, and whose assertion really rocked me. You know who. Subsequently, my level of trust in that person declined, possibly related to how I felt about her assertion, but also in response to how she felt about relating to me as a narcissist. Whether I am one or not, the outcome is the same—we can’t work together.
My question is this. If the outcome is the same, whether I am an actual narcissist, then why not accept it and work on it? That’s a tough one.
For one, my rational mind screams ‘no’. In all my years of life and years of good and bad relationships, not one person has ever levelled that charge at me before. Second, in over 2 decades of therapy, the topic has never come up. Indeed, recently, when I asked all four of my therapists [yes, you read that right…there is a posse at work here], every single one of them said ‘no’. Only one said, “well, narcissism also speaks to certain traits that are present in all of us, but I’m not comfortable with that as a label.”
Another said, “if you are asking yourself whether you are a narcissist, you’re not.” That was my main therapist. My best friend said the same thing. She has known me for several decades. So, those are the voices lined up in the “no” column. In the yes column was one person who has been affected by narcissists and so is sensitive to the tendences in the people in her life and how they affect her. Her assessment of me was corroborated by people whose motives and expertise were easy to question by my rational mind.
So, while my mind is telling was coming up with all kinds of ways to debunk her assertion, over time my heart has understood that she could not possibly have any underlying motivation to say this to me unless it were true. What could she possibly gain from that? Nothing.
And indeed, before we reached an impasse, while I was willing to work on it and accept it, there was hope for the future. But sometimes criticism can be too much, or is poorly timed, or simply not welcome, or one becomes sensitive to it (all traits of a narcissist), and so I pushed back on the “diagnosis”. Once I rebelled she folded up her tent. I want to say “damned if I do, damned if don’t,” but it is way more complicated than that. In the end, what matters is the outcome. And the outcome was one I didn’t want.
While this was playing out, other things were playing out, and I don’t know if they are related, but the collectively served to loosen ties. And this, for me, has been an important lifelong coping mechanism. When someone close is hurting me, I seek ways to feel less close, so that they can’t hurt me as much. Do you do this?
Enter the wife
If there is one person whose views I would trust on this matter it is my wife. Only of late our interactions have been laced with bitterness and anger and hurt. Indeed, even though we are co-habiting right now, and “not talking” about the elephants in the room (who would have thought that me being trans seems to be more about her), every few hours she comes into my room, closes the door, and levels some new bombshell at me.
That I stole from her. That I lie to her. That she can’t trust me. That I have denied her sexuality. That I have robbed her of her self-confidence. That I have destroyed her faith in marriage. That I have destroyed her chances of ever finding happiness. That I am cruel. That I am particularly cruel for telling her that she couldn’t depend on me for her happiness, that she needed to find that happiness in herself. That I am a horrible person. That I don’t respect her as a mother. It was during one of these at least once-a-day unburdening sessions that she levelled the word narcissist at me. Yes. It came in a barrage of other terms of endearment: selfish, self-centred, manipulative, cold, cruel…but when she said it, I guess you can imagine it registered.
“Do you really think I’m a narcissist?” I asked, thinking uh-oh, this is not the time to be asking her.
“You are so selfish,” she said.
“But, a narcissist?”
“Hasn’t anyone ever told you that before?”
“No. And who other than you? Surely in 25 years if you felt that, you would have said it?”
At the same time, while nobody wants to admit to being a rotten person, or admit to some very massive flaws, nobody in their right mind would also ever want to have them. What is the purpose of a journey to become a better, more complete, happier person, comfortable in my own skin, happy, out, living my life as my best me, and finding out that I’m a jerk, or worse, a narcissist?
Let’s take a closer look at Narcissism
Narcissism is a form of self-involvement that makes a person ignore the needs of those around them. True narcissists will disregard others or their feelings. Narcissists can often be charming and charismatic. Narcissism exists on a spectrum, with healthy pathology to unhealthy.
Narcissists often like to surround themselves with people who feed into their ego, and build relationships to reinforce their ideas about themselves, even if those relationships are superficial. There are two types of narcissism: grandiose and vulnerable.
The grandiose narcissist typically grew up being treated as superior to others, and this trait carries forward into adulthood. They tend to brag and be elitist or arrogant. They tend to be aggressive, domineering, and to exaggerate their importance. They are very self-confident, and not sensitive.
The vulnerable narcissist comes most usually from a childhood of neglect or abuse. These people are more sensitive. Narcissistic behaviour is a coping mechanism designed to protect these people from feelings of inadequacy. They may drift between feelings of inferiority and superiority but will most often feel offended or anxious when they are not made to feel special.
Narcissism is a pathology which is relatively less well understood, as most narcissists do not accept the diagnosis or seek treatment. What are some common signs?
- A sense of entitlement…the rules don’t apply
- Manipulative behaviour…they may try to please and impress you at first, but their needs will soon assert themselves. Narcissists will typically keep people at a distance to help maintain control over them
- Need for admiration…a near constant need for praise or admiration…such people may brag a lot or exaggerate their accomplishments
- Lack of empathy…unwilling or unable to empathise with the needs, wants or feelings of others. They struggle to take responsibility for their own behaviour
- Arrogance…the narcissist sees themselves as superior to others so can be rude or aggressive when they do not feel they are being treated as they deserve
Narcissism is also characterised by an excessive interest in one’s own appearance (is my focus on body image and health and wellness a trait of narcissism?). That said, the term narcissism, particularly in the age of social media (I’ve even wondered if blogging is an exercise in narcissism, or whether BDSM is its antidote), has become heavily overused and misused. Narcissism is technically a pathology, and to say it exists on a spectrum is to dilute its meaning. In truth, what can be said is that true narcissism is an imbalance in what are otherwise essential or healthy traits. “Healthy narcissism” is correlated with good psychological health: self-esteem, an absence of gloom, a generally cheery outlook.
Modern thinking on narcissism has focussed in on four dimensions:
Narcissism is a normal personality trait. High levels of it, however, become pathological and self-defeating…which might be characterised by “feelings of entitlement and superiority, arrogant or haughty behaviours, and a generalised lack of empathy and concern for others. Sigmund Freud described the pathological version or narcissism as, “a pathology which manifests itself in the inability to love others, a lack of empathy, emptiness, boredom, and an unremitting need to search for power, while making the person unavailable to others.” As an interesting aside, sexual narcissism “has been described as an egocentric pattern of sexual behaviour that involves an inflated sense of sexual ability or sexual entitlement, sometimes in the form of extramarital affairs.”
Narcissism as a disorder is posited as making up roughly 6% of the US population. Women are less likely to be narcissists, with an estimated 4% v. 8% for men. It isn’t hard to see how this is possibly a by-product of social conditioning. So many boys grow up in families where both their assertiveness and desire for power are praised, meanwhile the same traits are often discouraged, or worse, in girls.
Narcissism and its Outcomes
Interestingly, narcissists are more likely to become leaders than other people. This is born from their self-belief and their wish to control. There is a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop associated with those two traits, fed in turn by positive feedback. It is cheeky of me to say so, but the Dom/me would surely be fed by this too. You might argue that these are positive traits and common in leaders, even necessary. But they can also mask deeper issues and very easily go awry.
“Narcissism is associated with various interpersonal dysfunctions, including an inability to maintain healthy long-term relationships, and may result in unethical behaviour and aggression. In other words, our narcissism could be a sign that something is deeply wrong both in our relationship with ourselves and therefore our relationship with the world.”— Emily Grijalva, assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management
Interestingly, how narcissism manifests is different depending on the sex. [Yes, that is me reporting on gender bias].
“When male narcissists are angry, they tend to be aggressive and explosive. When female narcissists are angry, they’ll punish their victims by withholding attention and affection. Female narcissists utilise neglect or guilt as a form of control, whereas male narcissists are more likely to utilize power and status as a form of control.”–Psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli
[I would note that I display the female form of narcissism, not the male kind—so, I guess that there is a silver lining].
Spinelli further asserts:
“In an attempt to mask their insecurities or flaws, female narcissists tend to be overly concerned with their physical appearance and social image. The female narcissist is not genuinely interested in things like character and values unless it is used as part of her image. Material items like clothes and cars can help validate their insecurities.”–Spinelli
This can be become particularly acute with children, as apparently female narcissists often regard their children as extensions of themselves whereas male narcissists do not…and this may lead to pressure on the child from the mother to raise her status.
Final thoughts on narcissism
It is hard not to see oneself in many of these points…and I include the gender distinctions as both contain relevance. Do you as a reader find yourself in them? I would think that these are traits we all share. The issue is when they rise to an unhealthy level.
I will accept that something in me provoked feelings in someone else that screamed of narcissism in an intolerable way. Perhaps this person is more sensitive than others to this. In truth it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is/was a person I care deeply about and who felt she had to reject me for feelings of being triggered by narcissism. If not for her, what if there is someone else in my future who I care about that has the same issue? In truth, why not for me? Who wants to let one’s own “way-of-being” rule the way we are felt and perceived by others? I sure don’t. Not unless it is to make people feel good about themselves for being around me.
I would surely welcome anyone who is wrestling with any aspects of this to join me in DMs or on this blog to further this discussion for the purposes of healing and growth.
An Aside on Narcissism as National Character
There is an interesting stub on Wikipedia which posits that American Culture since the Second World War has diverged from much of the rest of the world, and has become increasingly a “me” society, increasingly narcissistic. This is an idea that would merit its own post. As someone who lives in both the US and overseas, I do see this certainly manifested in both good and bad ways in popular culture, in the relentless desire to improve the self, but also in national politics.
Personal Growth through an Intervention
I don’t know if you have had times in your life where you were confronted by aspects of yourself that upset other people, made you hard to be around, and then used these openings to change yourself. I can remember as if it were yesterday, my first real leadership role at work. I had been sent to another country to work for one of my company’s prestige client accounts, and I had a team of people who were all expats like me, some from the US, some from Europe, some experienced, but mostly not. It doesn’t matter what industry we were in, or that the client was in, other than to say that both were characterised by, even famous for, a macho laddish culture that saw us working hellish hours, delivering “at any cost” and being always on the road. It was a high-stress environment.
As a first-time team lead, I had a lot riding on a successful outcome, more so because how important this client was to our company. The senior partners who “owned” the relationship were some of the most senior people in our company globally. One bad word from one of them would end a career, and of course, delivering for them would be a boon. My main client was a business school classmate of one of these two heavyweights, so I had no doubt that the information would flow.
Our team structure saw me spending the bulk of my day with the client in their building, while my team stayed back at our office, doing the work. There was a team manager who was also green, my age, and similarly stressed. It was his second time managing a team, and his previous team lead, a “friend” at work, said very good things about him, but that he needed to be given clear direction.
The rest of the team, another 5 people, ranged in experience from having done a few projects to one lad who had never done one before, and who was woefully ill-equipped to do the job he was brought to do. Indeed, he essentially had a nervous breakdown in the first week.
Outside of the office there was violence in the streets. On my first day in the client’s offices, someone opened fire with a machine gun on a bunch of police standing around, killing several of them. Retaliation soon followed, and the police descended on the area and more or less randomly shot people that made the mistake of still being in the area. I could hear it all way up on the 30th floor of my client’s building. The distinctive popping noise was a punctuating backdrop to conversations with the executives I was having as I did my rounds.
That morning when I was being dropped off, my driver said, “I am going to wait here. Leave the door open. I will leave the car running, and I won’t leave until you are safely inside the building. If you see or hear anything, then you come running and you dive right into the van and we’ll speed off.”
“That’s all right,” I had said not quite believing him. Well, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate the care.
The same care was in operation in the evenings when we left the office. The team secretary carried a pistol in the waistband of her skirt to go to the locked company parking lot where we worked. “You never know,” she said as she cocked it and stuffed it into her waistband. I don’t like guns.
All these factors combined to put me under intense stress, my team under intense stress, and it brought out the worst in me. I was rude, domineering, sharp, short, unpleasant. And it was very evident. I remember being on the phone with some hapless employee of some company and I was just thinking how dumb this person was, and I was so rude, and at one point I used the “f-word” and hung up. It was horrible, but it felt so normal and necessary and justified in the moment. That is what stress does to you. Brings out the worst. The thought of it still shames me.
One evening while we were still in the office, my number two called a team meeting. He stood up and spoke for the team, as he lived with them and worked with them all day every day. He said that they had to tell me that my behaviour was intolerable. They used the phone example above as one of several that they collectively found unacceptable. I listened. And at the end of it, I said, “I accept your criticism. I see it, and that isn’t the kind of person I want to be. I’m very sorry for this, and I will stop it.” I teared up, promised to change, and then we all went out to dinner.
I did change. The project ended up being a success for all of us, the client was over-the-moon, and over the years, my number two and I had very parallel careers both in our company and beyond and became fast friends. As a funny aside, one of the team members, a very attractive blonde woman who was several years younger than me showed up in her underwear and a cropped camisole at my door one night and asked me if she could come in. Would you know it, I turned her down. The guy in me said I should have done it, but the me in me always wanted emotion first.
I share this story as it is possible to face the ugliness within and change. As a certain someone has said, not everything has to be rainbows and lollipops.
The Narcissism Angle
This story seems relevant to me in accepting and levelling with a “diagnosis” of narcissism. To me, a condition both worse and harder to expunge. But this time I don’t have a team giving me an intervention, I have one person who levelled this at me. But what cost to me if I believe her, if I accept it, if I work on it anyway?
I have to say to myself, what purpose would it serve her to level this at me if were not true (at least for her)? I have to say to myself, what is the difference really if she feels that aspects of my character and behaviour reflect these traits, even if I have never seen them before? Isn’t it the same thing—if the effects are there, then what difference does it make?
What am I going to do about it?
The first step towards healing is understanding. I will self-identify aspects of my actions, feelings, words, and deeds to see if I spot narcissistic tendencies. When I see them and write about them, I will identify them (in these posts). Same in my normal life. I will take up the cudgel with my therapists and work to identify and let go of these traits.
Who am I doing this for?
I do this for me. The people in my life will surely benefit, but the main beneficiary will be me. To remove corrosive aspects of our personalities is very liberating, and those in our lives who benefit from it will reflect it back to us.
I am also conscious that I have lost someone very important to me from it, whether I like it or not. I don’t do this for her, or with any intent to go back to her. I am not sure that we can ever go back, and I am not sure that I would be able to go back, either within me or within her. Time will tell if such is meant to be.
Please tell me your thoughts with your vote
Dear reader, what do you think? Am I a narcissist? Let me know either way…in the comments or by leaving your vote.
My best friend (who doesn’t think I am a narcissist and who is relieved that you-know-who is out of my life) has told me that self-love and service are the two ways to wipe-out narcissism. An interesting choice of words.
“Narcissism is an easy diagnosis for angry people to make to point fingers and absolve their own accountability and play the victim,” she said…and she most definitely believes that this is the case with my wife.
I can never go back
We can’t go back in life. We move on, move forward, but we can keep learning from people in our past long after they are no longer in our lives. This will have to be one of those instances…
How to let go of the scourge of narcissism?
Do we need to accept the diagnosis to move forward with these forms of growth? Perhaps not. Here are some things I will do, you could do, anyone can do:
- Move from self-esteem to self-compassion
- Treat yourself with kindness rather than comparing yourself to others
- Accept yourself as you are, don’t evaluate yourself against anyone else, and let go of the need for praise and recognition
- Stop talking and listen: nurture your ability to listen to others. Be curious.
- Cultivate a commitment to others: be reliable and keep your promises, be on time and do what you say you will—these are important forms of respect
- Stop making excuses for yourself when you feel anger, upset, or behave in an inconsiderate manner
- Express your feelings, show your vulnerability
- Ask for help: from your friends, from a therapist, from a spouse or partner
This is only the first step…a half-hearted acceptance is an opening. But who on earth in their right mind would actually want to be a narcissist or even to display narcissistic tendencies? Not me. So, I no longer look at her with a desire to push back. I accept the challenge. I’ll let you know how I get on.