It’s Narcissist Friday!
As we grow up, we face various challenges. People are unkind, situations become difficult, we make wrong choices. How we handle life’s challenges reveals a great deal about who we are and how we think. Sometimes patterns develop that carry from childhood throughout our lives.
Let’s suppose you are in first grade. You don’t know anyone, and you feel intimidated. After you find a desk, one of the other kids looks at you from across the room. Right at you. Then he says, “You’re stupid!” Everyone hears, of course. Some laugh. Some just look away. Some stare at you. Even the teacher says nothing.
You know how that makes you feel today. But at the time one question would have been running through your head. “Am I stupid?” From that point you would develop a way of handling criticism. As you matured you would have plenty of opportunities to refine your skills.
Twenty-five years later someone at work or in your organization says, “Well, that was a stupid thing to do!” Yes, it was referring to you. By now you have a way of dealing with such things.
These four categories might not be exhaustive, but they seem to be the most common ways people handle criticisms and attacks.
Agree – Some people simply accept the fact that they are stupid. They might not like it, and they might get on your case for saying it, but they own it. Being stupid has become a definition for them. They are victims of stupidity. They accept little risk or responsibility. They feel and act defeated and picked on. They tend to be sad and guilty and sensitive. Their addictions get them through life, they think. They accept the judgments of others who consider them stupid.
Compensate – Some people do everything they can to not be stupid. They become perfectionists, driven to do things right. They hate being wrong. They are obedient, hard-working, rule-abiding, and careful. Ever since that day in first grade, they have worked to be smart. No one considers them stupid today.
Deny – Some people will fight. They hate the feeling that comes with the challenge. If you say something that makes them feel that way, they will be in your face. They have become angry people, defensive and cynical. You might call them aggressive, especially if they start to feel criticized. Few will dare to refer to them as stupid.
Most people, you see, will internalize the personal criticism. They carry the label around with them throughout life. They react to that label over and over again. Thinking about it makes them feel defeated, or angry, or driven to do better. They try to deal with it. But there’s fourth group of people who handle it differently. These are the ones we call narcissistic.
Hide – Some people learned that there were ways to turn the challenges back on others. In their hearts, they internalized the criticisms like others, but compartmentalized them. So the little boy sat in his desk and became numb. Every time something like that happened, he seemed to build a stronger cocoon around himself. Then, one day, he called someone else stupid. He noticed how it hurt that person, so he did it again. It gave him power to make someone else feel like that. It wasn’t long before he was able to keep others on the defensive. He became condescending and controlling. He learned that attacking first kept others from attacking him. They feared him.
The narcissist learned to cover his fears and inferiority by using and manipulating the feelings of others. As long as they were concerned about their own feelings, they wouldn’t threaten his. He could stay hidden. Because of his aggressive behavior, the others deferred to him. They let him lead and control. He began to see that he could overcome his negative feelings about himself by being superior. As long as he could keep the others fearful and submissive, he was the winner. All attention had to come to him. His way could be the only right way. Anyone who disagreed would have to be silenced.
Some narcissists learned that they could maintain their control by having others fight for them. Others could be the heroes to protect and provide, as long as the narcissist remained in control. Others would serve and bend and sacrifice, while the narcissist appeared to be the victim. But the underlying response to the criticism was the same, manipulating the feelings of others.
So today, when the narcissist is told that something he did was stupid, his response may be to intimidate the people around him, to become angry and threatening toward the accuser, or to be hurt and need special attention. In no case will he allow himself to feel stupid. He will lie, accuse others, blame anything, rather than feel stupid. And he won’t care who he hurts in the process. He will become the monster, frightening the children around him until he feels strong again.
But the narcissist never really dealt with those feelings from childhood. He just pushed them into hiding and pretended to be something bigger and better.
As long as he could fool others, he could fool himself.