It’s Narcissist Friday!
I was recently challenged about something the commenter believed was a generalization. I have to admit that this kind of writing makes generalizations easy. A “hasty generalization” is a logical fallacy in which the presenter makes a statement about all members of a group based on observations of some members of the group. Usually it is the result of insufficient evidence, but sometimes generalizations are made purposely to strengthen an argument. It can be used to support a stereotype and can be demeaning to someone in the group who does not have the characteristic.
It would be easy for me to fall into this trap as I write about narcissism, especially since few narcissists will come to set the record straight. It is easy for any of us to assume that all narcissists exhibit the particular characteristics we experienced from the ones in our lives. But the truth is that narcissists, like their victims, can exhibit a variety of characteristics. We have talked about overt and covert narcissists, for example. Their techniques are different, even if their goals are ultimately the same. And we have talked about varying levels of narcissism in different people.
I generally write, on Narcissist Fridays, about “destructive narcissists,” those who hurt their victims, usually through emotional manipulation and abuse. They often share a set of characteristics and it is helpful to talk about these characteristics. But please don’t assume that all narcissists are the same. Nor will any certain narcissist treat all people the same.
In fact, I suspect there are more “functional narcissists” around us than we realize. There may be many people who are unable to see others as real people, but have learned to live peaceably in society. For them, the reality of family and friends and others is accepted via a “because I said so” authority. What they learned is that trying to live among people while treating them as things is less than successful or productive. Society pushes these “narcissists” into compliance.
They still lack empathy, but cover that with a sincere desire to “do what’s right.” They can be kind or sympathetic or loyal, when those qualities are expected. Basically, they have learned how to function well in relationships.
Functional narcissists can give themselves away. Sometimes you will notice a person exhibit inappropriate emotion in a certain situation and then abruptly change the emotion to fit. This can be a simple deception, of course, but it can also be a functional narcissism. We accept this in young people as they learn how to interact with others.
We should not consider this insincere. In fact, this may be the direction to take a narcissist in a non-clinical counseling relationship. The literature is less than optimistic about changing a narcissist into a caring person, but he can learn to do the things caring people do. If he cannot feel what others feel through empathy, he can at least accept that they are feeling something and seek to affirm them in their feelings.
Someone might suggest that this describes all of us, that we must learn to accept and respect the feelings of others. That is a valid point. However, most of us have learned that through empathy, a type of bonding that enables us to connect with others. I am describing someone who does not have that ability, but still seeks to accept and respect the feelings of others. Perhaps it doesn’t matter why someone does the right thing.
I suspect that there are people who search for an answer to the strange behavior of a spouse or friend or parent and find that narcissism almost explains it. But not quite. The cruelty may be missing. The person might honestly not be aware of how manipulative she is. And, when confronted, might be genuinely upset and regretful. Functional narcissism could be an answer.
I do not like the idea of “healthy narcissism.” It sounds too much like saying that a little cruelty is a good thing. I don’t know of any narcissistic characteristics I would value enough to emulate willingly. So I am not saying that a person could keep the “good parts” of narcissism and avoid the bad. Instead, I am suggesting that a person could learn to compensate for his or her lack of empathy and the ease of depersonalizing others. The ability to function in relationship without empathy could have been learned while very young.
I have come to believe that narcissism is a learned behavior, a way of coping adopted in very difficult circumstances and reinforced by years of fear. If that is true, then the narcissist can learn ways of interacting with people that are acceptable and are ultimately beneficial to him. Counselors and others who may not have the opportunity for the in-depth therapy narcissism requires could help the narcissist learn to function as a caring person. Those who love the narcissist and wish to continue the relationship without the pain may be very grateful.
What do you think?