It’s Narcissist Friday!
A friend of mine recently went around a room straightening curtains and pictures. Now, I’m tempted to label him obsessive, but he is simply a person who has a keen eye for incongruity. He sees things that don’t fit and, when he can, he does something about it.
Most of us live regularly with things that don’t fit. We may not even see them. But we usually feel them. There is a whole movement of interior decorating and design that promises to minimize the feelings of incongruity we often feel in our homes or at work. The idea is that incongruity adds to our stress, even when we don’t know it.
When something is wrong in your world, what should you do? You can’t see it, but you know it’s there. Something isn’t right. Maybe you feel it in your body. Not exactly pain, but discomfort. A sense that things aren’t what they should be. Maybe it’s something with your child. Nothing you can point to, but something worries you. Maybe it’s something in your marriage.
You hate even to admit the feeling to yourself. You shrug it off, over and over. You tell yourself that everything is okay. You reinterpret the words that were said, the discovery that you made, and blame the suspicions on yourself. You convince yourself that you are feeling okay. And he didn’t say what you thought you heard. And she couldn’t have meant that.
We want things to be okay. We are invested in things being okay. We don’t want to have to deal with things not being okay. Yet, a part of us knows that something is not okay. And, when we experience this, we find within ourselves something called “cognitive dissonance.”
That “dissonance,” just as the word indicates, is made of two competing harmonies. It would be like listening to two songs at the same time. The attempt to do both is uncomfortable and futile, so we find ways to adjust. We sense the incongruity, but we convince ourselves that everything is okay. After all, we were taught to doubt ourselves. “It’s just me,” we say. It isn’t hard to dismiss the feeling that something is off.
The brain does this often with sounds and smells, even sights. For example, you can work all day in a certain room without noticing the hum of the fluorescent lights until someone turns them off. We all know the relief that comes when the hum is gone, but we didn’t hear it or notice the stress before. Your brain does this because you have to focus. It rightly categorizes the sounds of ticking clocks, whirring fans, humming lights, and more as understandable and not important. The stress is there, but not particularly uncomfortable. At least not as uncomfortable as it would be if you had to focus on all those sounds.
Most of us have learned to do this with the behavior of others. At the airport, people are often rude, intrusive, and aggressive. Some are confused and in the way. We overlook these things because to focus on them would be almost overwhelming. Besides, we tell ourselves, it doesn’t really matter.
And we do this in our relationships. We hear things that are said and we let them go. It isn’t just forgiveness. It is self-preservation. With some people, we have to let go of a lot of things. They give orders rather than requests. They tear down rather than build up. They speak with a mean spirit, rather than a kind heart. And we let them. We excuse them. We feel the incongruity and we let it go. We adjust the reality we see so that it fits the reality we want.
Narcissists count on this. Narcissists understand that most of us will excuse their behavior, not question their motives. When the narcissist contacts your client and encourages criticisms of your service, you find it hard to believe that he would undercut you that way. He must have had a reason, you say. He must have been trying to help, you say. If you talk to him, he says the same thing. Not a big deal. You are blowing it out of proportion. You can trust him. But when he ends up with your client and you lose the business, you finally understand. The incongruity was there and you knew it, but you covered it up.
The narcissist knows that most of us do this. We do it because we doubt ourselves. We do it to protect ourselves. But sometimes we do it to our own hurt. So many have said that they had no idea what was happening until it happened in their relationship. Narcissism sneaks up on its prey. There are hints, but those hints are subtle sounds of incongruity.
So what do you do? You look and listen and admit the truth. Begin to trust your heart. When something is wrong, acknowledge it as wrong. Then make a conscious choice. Confronting the incongruity has a cost, but so does covering it up. Choose what you will do.
I was taught to listen to the car as I drive. If something sounds off, even if I can’t identify what it is, it bugs me. I listen and focus until I understand what that noise is. My wife and kids can’t hear it, but they aren’t driving and aren’t responsible. Sometimes I will stop to investigate the sound. Then, once I know what it is, I can deal with it. Most of the time it’s nothing and I can just get back to driving. Sometimes it really is something, but I can’t deal with it at that time. And sometimes, I have to stop and deal with it right then and there. Knowing the truth gives me freedom to do the right thing.
You have to face the incongruities you feel in your relationships. Why would that person say that or do that? Should you just overlook it? Should you ask? Should you investigate? Don’t just dismiss the feeling. Make a conscious decision. When you do that, the narcissist might not sneak up on you.