It’s Narcissist Friday!
The concept of personal space challenges most of us. Some people seem to have a very small sense of personal space. They push themselves right into your face to talk, sit right next to you, and keep their hands on you too long. Others have a very large sense of personal space. They back away as you come near, and always keep a seat between themselves and the next person. Different cultures handle this differently, as do different families.
Last week I wrote about territoriality and narcissism, how the narcissist needs to control his/her world by maintaining ownership. That was a long post. This one will not be as long. I just want to look at this idea of personal physical space.
Most of the narcissists I have known seem almost phobic about being touched. A pat on the back will seem like an offense. I have seen them wipe themselves off when people have touched them, almost as though they were dirtied or something. I have seen them refuse to take an offered hand, or dance around to avoid a hug. They allow others to think of them as germophobic, but the truth is something more.
At the same time, most of these narcissists (not all) are very generous with their own touching. They will put their hands on someone’s shoulders to give a phony back rub. They will put their arms around someone’s shoulders. They will shake hands and hold on too long. They will hug people of the opposite gender when it might seem unnecessary. Some are even willing to risk harassment charges with their touch.
What’s going on? Well, touch can be a controlling technique. To receive a touch from someone is often to submit to that person, to allow him/her into your personal space. When we allow someone into our space, there is something shared that seems intimate. Lovers look into each others’ eyes and brush lips or cheeks. For someone else to do that would seem creepy or threatening. At the least it would seem inappropriate. The whole concept of personal space is to protect ourselves.
So we can understand why the narcissist doesn’t want to be touched. It’s too open, too risky. People who get too close begin to see things the narcissist would rather they not see. They can’t be submissive or out of control.
And we can also see why the narcissist would want to touch others. If touch is a way of controlling, breaking through personal barriers or boundaries, then the narcissist must at least try. Putting his arm around the young lady is a way to see if she will be receptive to his influence. Putting his hands on a co-worker’s shoulders is a way of exerting his superiority. Stepping in or sitting too close might be a way of threatening. Whenever others are uncomfortable, the narcissist sees an opportunity.
What seems like yet another hard to understand inconsistency in narcissistic behavior is actually quite consistent. The narcissist loves to control, but hates to be controlled. If he/she sees touch as a way to control, expect to see both this overly expressive touching and the fear of being touched.
But listen, if you are a woman and a man touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, tell him to stop and tell him loudly. Yes, that is harassment. It is not an accident or an innocent gesture. We live in a day when men know they have to be careful about touch. Don’t be afraid to challenge the behavior. The narcissist will protest his innocence, but he almost certainly will not do it again if others hear about it. (Yes, the same process could be used if a woman touches a man in an uncomfortable way, but that protest will probably not be as effective. The culture doesn’t understand the reality of that as much yet.)
And if you are a man who is touched by another man in a controlling or condescending way—and you are able—do the same thing to him. If he comes to sit by you and sits right next to you so you are uncomfortable, do the same thing to him when you see him sitting alone. Or, better yet, put something of yours on the seat next to his. See how quickly he moves your stuff or changes seats. If he puts his hands on your shoulders as you sit at your desk, do the same to him. If he thinks he has opened the door to you coming in to his personal space, he will quickly change.
There are always risks to dealing with narcissists. Be careful and be sure you are safe. At the same time, I think the fear of being touched will outweigh the desire to use touch as way of control for the narcissist.