Have you noticed the dramatic increase in the amount of online material about narcissism these days? Some of it is professionally written and found in blogs, newspapers and magazines. Much of it, however, is found on frustrated and angry threads all over the web, coming from individuals whose personal experience has led them to identify the narcissist as the new “enemy of the state.” In many respects, the concern is quite real.
Narcissism, named for the Greek god Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, is a divisive quality that impedes empathy and cooperation. In reality, narcissism is a complex psychological phenomenon with much variation in the personalities of narcissists. For example, consider how different Donald Trump is from Charlie Chaplin – or Adolph Hitler from Leonard Bernstein. The reason for the variation is two-fold: First, while the term “narcissism” refers to the imbalanced, self-heavy relationship between self and other, there is much among narcissists that differs widely, such as education, culture, intelligence, and ethnic background.
Furthermore, like most psychological phenomena, narcissism is far from being an absolute. At one end of the continuum, there are people with narcissistic tendencies, whose inflation and conviction of self-importance is considerably less than absolute. For an example of “narcissistic tendencies,” consider William Shatner, best known as Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame, whose narcissistic side has often been malevolently pointed out by his old helmsman, George Takei, whose rigidity, relentless belligerence toward Shatner and inability to make peace with his old colleague suggests some of his own narcissism. At the other end of the spectrum, you will find Hitler, Stalin and the like. Those at that extreme see themselves as being worth so much more than others that mass murder becomes reasonable and justifiable.
For a wonderful example of murderous narcissism, see the Alfred Hitchcock film “Rope,” about two wealthy college boys who kill their friend just to see if they can get away with it. (Interestingly, one of the students turns out to be much more narcissistic than the other.)
The narcissist simply does not play well with others. When you’re with a full-blown narcissist, psychologically, you feel like you don’t exist. The cognitive flexibility necessary for empathy and compromise are just not there in the narcissistic personality. Narcissists often end up in relationships with partners who have very poorly developed senses of self. The result is that all the “self” in the relationship resides in the narcissist.
The child of a narcissist has a very difficult time developing self-esteem and self-confidence because there was never room for any of it during childhood when the power was all in the narcissistic parent. The child is always made to feel wrong whenever taking a position that differs from that of the parent. The psychological work for the child involves learning to find and trust that self that has been denied and punished all those years. The person learns to become legitimate.
In dealing with narcissists, it is critical that we stay aware of the fact that reality allows all of us to be here in the real world, none of us worth any more than anyone else. If we resist disappearing when not seen, it becomes less likely that we get stuck in the projections of the narcissist and experience that painful emptiness that comes from not being acknowledged. The strength of the narcissist is not real, just as love and empathy are stronger than fear and anger. Remember that the appearance of strength in the narcissist’s rigidity and persistent selfishness is actually pathology. In a world of increasing narcissism, let us all try to stay more aware of the beautiful interconnectedness of all life.
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