It’s Narcissist Friday!
Nearly every overt narcissist is surrounded by sycophants. You see them when you go to church, when you attend the political rally, when you watch television. They are the ones cheering the narcissist on and running interference with his critics. They are the ones explaining her hurtful or stupid words. They are the ones condemning anyone who questions the great person. They are the ones who won’t let him/her fail.
The word, “sycophant,” wouldn’t be used much if we really knew what it meant. In fact, the history behind it is somewhat disgusting.
In ancient Greece, some politicians held themselves above demeaning those who disagreed or who challenged ideas. They ignored objections and plowed ahead with their ideas as though other opinions didn’t matter. However, they really didn’t like the ones who opposed them and wanted to ridicule them somehow. According to the stories, these politicians would surround themselves with followers willing to agree with anything the teacher promoted. These followers had no lofty ideals to maintain, no separation from ridicule or crudity. At first, these followers mocked the opponents of their masters with crude gestures and laughter. In fact, the word, “sycophant,” comes from one of the crude gestures they would make behind the back of the speaker. They called it “showing the fig.”
Eventually, these followers went farther than ridicule. They accused their masters’ opponents of indiscretions and even crimes and found evidence to support their claims. Through the centuries, the term “sycophant” has come to mean something like a parasite, one who lives in the glory of the master and serves the master by using unscrupulous and offensive means to promote the master’s cause. The master, of course, does not officially condone these actions, but turns away from seeing them.
This history of the word “sycophant” explains something of what we see today. The teacher/politician/boss says something heretical or strange, then backs away as the followers defend his position by demeaning and attacking those who disagree. He/she doesn’t have to muddy his or her hands by entering the fray—except perhaps to offer some kind and wise word and act saddened by his mean-spirited opposition. You won’t hear the narcissist say what he really thinks of you publicly because his followers will say it for him. They can be far more ruthless than he can. The public figure must remain somewhat civil, but the sycophants can say the most disgusting and hurtful things. They may even produce lies and attack opponents physically.
The connection to politics is historical and obvious, but how does this connect to our narcissists? At work, the narcissistic boss or employee will have supporters like this. In a family, the narcissistic sibling or parent will be supported in this way. The narcissist husband expects his wife and children to hate anyone who opposes him and run interference against those who dislike him.
Even covert narcissists have supporters who intercede for them. Your mother says the most hurtful things, but your sister tells you it’s your own fault. Your boss is unfair in the way he deals with you, but some of the other employees think you are the problem. Your pastor is a manipulative preacher and counselor, but the elders protect him and suggest you should leave the church. The moment you criticize the narcissist, someone else pounces on you.
To get these supporters, the narcissist will praise, threaten, lie, pay, blackmail, or whatever else it takes. The sycophant is the narcissist’s dream support. Willing to sacrifice to make the narcissist look good, the sycophant does the dirty work. They attach themselves to the narcissist for several reasons. Some have to, because of what the narcissist knows. Some want to get the scraps left by the famous person. Some still believe the narcissist loves them. Some will be ready to step into his position if the narcissist fails or if the narcissist is promoted. This is the relationship the narcissist cultivates.
The problem with sycophants is that they won’t let the narcissist fail. We watch the big man or the influential woman and see incompetence, arrogance, and laziness. We watch for them to fail. We wait. But nothing happens. The narcissist continues to prosper because the sycophants interfere. They hold off criticism. They compensate for inability. They attack opposition. The narcissist does not fail because they serve him/her well.
Yes, sycophants are fickle. Most of them will quickly transfer their loyalty if the power base changes. But don’t hold your breath. Narcissists are good at finding and creating their support.
Now, if you have been such support for a narcissist, covering their lies or compensating for their failures, don’t feel too bad. Part of the “superpower” of the narcissist is to get people to support them. They manipulate what others think of them, and it can take a long time to see the truth. Even when you do see the truth, you may not know how to get out. To stop your support might be risky. So, do what you can as you can. If you are out, don’t get back in.
In fact, in a day like ours, we should be careful about throwing our enthusiastic support behind anyone, at least at first. Take the time to know the person. Don’t let yourself be manipulated into being “on their side.” Hold your judgment until you are confident that you are not being deceived. Sometimes that can take a long time, too.
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