It’s Narcissist Friday!
“So, tell me, just what is a narcissist?” I get that question a lot. People ask what I do and I stammer something about teaching and encouraging people through the internet and email (among other things) and we eventually get to narcissism. They have heard the word, of course. It has been out there for a long time. They even know it isn’t good. But when they stop to think about it, they have no idea what a narcissist is.
It is popular to think that narcissists are just people who love themselves. I have written about the difference between narcissists and egotists. Some people know that narcissists can be nasty and mean, but not all mean people are narcissists. Our culture says that a narcissist is someone preoccupied with her appearance, his accomplishments, or their majestic goals for the future. Yet, none of those really do justice to what a true narcissist is.
Somehow, I want to communicate, in a sound bite, something that will bring about that “Aha!” moment for a person. At the same time, I want to be accurate enough so that people step back a little as they begin to understand. My definition needs to be clinically and experientially accurate without too many big words or ideas. In other words, I want to help people quickly grasp the concept and also have that concept grow in their minds as they consider it later.
So here’s what I have so far:
A narcissist is a person who is so busy promoting an image that is desirable and superior that he/she has no interest in seeing other people as persons and is thereby capable of little compassion and great cruelty.
Now, I would invite your comments and confess that to be a work in progress.
But, when your friends ask about your narcissist, or when you try to tell someone what is happening in your life, you don’t have to use any definition. In fact, I usually tell people not to use the word “narcissist” in open company to refer to your person. Instead, you just have to tell what the narcissist does.
I have been amazed at how many people have encountered narcissists through their lives. I realize that those who seek do find, but I am not quick to diagnose narcissism. Yet, there are narcissistic characteristics that help to bring definition. Almost all narcissists overemphasize their own importance or accomplishments. Almost all narcissists focus on injustices done to them, but see nothing of what they do to others. Almost all narcissists take advantage of others without regard for the sacrifice or discomfort of the others.
When you give an example of what your narcissist does, many times you will find that others understand because they have experienced something similar. The chances are very good that someone among your friends has a parent very similar to yours. Or has had a spouse or boyfriend or co-worker like yours. Not exactly, of course, but close enough to identify.
Also, narcissistic behavior is already defined as negative in our culture. Certain aspects of narcissism are valued, of course, but other aspects are not. A politician may be ruthless and self-centered or even dishonest and his supporters think he is just the man for the job, but when they find out that he has fathered a child by a woman not his wife, they throw him under the bus. When you say that your boyfriend has another girlfriend, but sleeps with you and spends your money, even a culture like ours will understand.
We even have a perverted fascination with the damage narcissists can cause. Television and books are filled with narcissists because of the conflict they bring. Perhaps you can connect your narcissist with someone on television and tell your friends, “You know, just like so-and-so.”
Now, realize that the narcissist’s friends will probably not believe you. Some of them will believe you but still choose to support the narcissist against you. In a church, at work, even in divorce court—you will find that there will be people who either cannot or will not believe you. At those times there may be little you can do to explain what is happening. You can keep a log and be ready to tell the story when you are able, or you can just decide that you don’t need them to believe. You have value as a person and can make decisions for yourself without the approval of others. If you need to separate from the narcissist, whatever that means in the relationship you have, then do it. You know who has the problem.
Be prepared for the word “narcissist” to be watered down so that the concept becomes acceptable. The professional community is beginning to say that narcissism is prevalent and nearly incurable. They will increasingly turn their focus on the victims to try to help them not “get so worked up about it.” Plan what you will say to others to help them understand.