It’s Narcissist Friday!
“Everybody thinks of themselves as right.” I heard that the other day. People who do bad things justify those things by thinking of themselves as right. On both sides of any issue you will find people who think they are right in their cause or opinion. In every war, where you have believed one side good and the other evil, both sides justify their actions by claiming to be right. In every argument, both people believe themselves to be right. Think about the church split you experienced, or the family argument, or that crazy blow-up you had with your friend. Everyone involved thought of themselves as right, didn’t they?
Sometimes there are two right ways of looking at a situation but, most of the time, it is more likely that both sides have done wrong. That’s why a real apology and real forgiveness can heal these differences. Normal people can empathize with their opponents and back off their need to be right. As they do that, they find a common ground that addresses both sides as right and wrong.
But narcissists and legalists must be right. They base their identity on being right. Both the narcissist and the legalist believe they are weakened if their argument is shown to be wrong. The narcissist believes his/her image is everything. That image includes being right, and losing an argument weakens the image. The legalist believes his/her spirituality is everything. That spirituality includes being right, and losing an argument weakens that spirituality. You see the similarities? They both must be right.
And here’s where things get ugly. Because of their need to be right, both narcissists and legalists depersonalize their opponents. Depersonalizing, the unwillingness to see others as people like yourself, allows hurtful actions against an opponent without guilt. Just like you have no remorse at sending poison back to the ant colony through your ant traps, the narcissist has no remorse destroying a co-worker or even a former lover who challenges his/her space. Nor does the legalist have any problem calling those who disagree all kinds of names or criticizing their decisions and values. Once you no longer see someone as a person, you apparently become free to abuse that person. You can use, manipulate, marginalize, even slander an opponent. It doesn’t matter any more than cutting down a tree that’s in your way.
Thankfully, most people are not that dedicated to their own image or spirituality. It is not as important for most of us to look right. In fact, it is quite possible to be right and to look wrong. We can walk away from an argument and allow the other person to think of themselves as right, if they need that. And we can also entertain the idea that we might be wrong. We can listen to someone who disagrees with us and seek a way to come together. While compromise is a bad word for narcissists and an evil word for legalists, it is a normal relationship skill for most of us.
To do this, you must be capable of two things. First, you must be able to be wrong. You can’t be so committed to being right that you base your identity on it. Second, you must be able to see the other person as a person. If you can acknowledge that the other person has a right to their opinion and a right to peaceful existence independent of you, then you can find a way to live in reasonable harmony with those who disagree.
Recently we have encountered another group that seems to be as challenging as narcissists and legalists when it comes to arguments. I call them “ideologues.” It means they are so dedicated/addicted/committed to an idea that they refuse to hear any other idea. We haven’t seen this much in our culture until recent years. While we have always had narcissists and legalists, the ideologues are often tied to the kind of politics we see today. In the past democrats and republicans, for example, could live and work together—even though they disagreed on candidates or policies. Today, we see some people so dedicated to their party or idea or cause that they do not hesitate to offend or judge anyone they think might disagree. They appear to have developed a blindness toward other perspectives and find it easy to depersonalize others. And when others are depersonalized, they can be mistreated without guilt. So ideologues destroy property, reputations, businesses, and relationships without regard to the pain they cause. And they seem to take every word of disagreement as a personal insult.
If you run across an ideologue, you will wonder if the person is a narcissist. If that ideologue is connected to church or Christian topics, you will probably think of him/her as a legalist. While it is certainly possible for the person to be either (or both), the ideologue may not be building his or her own image, nor see you as spiritually compromised. The person might be generous and gracious, but still absolutely rigid and passionate when talking about the cause or idea. Even though these folks can seem to be nice, they can transform when their special topic comes up. Most of the time, if it is possible, it is best to keep the person off their topic. Talk about other things, and you will find a different person.
Being right is different from needing to be right. Those who are at peace within themselves can find ways to be at peace with others, even when those others disagree. Handling these people who need to be right is usually just a process of dropping or avoiding the topic. You don’t have to lie and say you agree, even if they pester you. You won’t win the argument, no matter how well you present your case, so find a way to move on. But be prepared for them to bring it up from time to time just so they can remind you that they won the argument.