It’s Narcissist Friday!
Narcissism is a choice. I realize that there are people who would disagree with me on this “diagnosis,” but I have neither read nor experienced any convincing evidence to the contrary. Maybe the choice was made long ago and has now become a pattern, a default, for the narcissist; but it is still a choice and the narcissist is both culpable for his/her actions and accountable for change.
Narcissists don’t change because they don’t want to change. Narcissistic attitudes and actions are useful to them, more useful than the alternatives. Even when faced with severe negative consequences, the narcissist will adapt and, through projection or blame, push away the change that is suggested. Some may make minor changes when their normal narcissistic behaviors become less useful, but those changes will be made for self-serving reasons, rather than any empathic concerns.
Perhaps we could say that narcissism is the ultimate pragmatism. It begins because it works and it is maintained because it works. And here’s a scary thought: it spreads because it works. Narcissistic behavior is becoming acceptable in business because it is easier and more productive. Empathy causes problems in business. Self-serving promotion is considered not only normal, but necessary. Cutting off relationships, using others, pushing blame and consequence to others, and enlarging personal accomplishments are all normal parts of business today.
Sadly, the same is true in many other areas of life. Narcissism–or the behavior associated with narcissism–is becoming normal in personal relationships, in churches and other organizations, and in social media. It may be because we have become a media culture, with young people learning life skills through television or other media. It may be because there are increasing numbers of us, and we all want to live in the same places. It may be because the last couple of generations of parents became more focused on themselves (perhaps for the same reasons) and young people have grown up in more of what we have called “dysfunctional” homes. Whatever the reason, a cursory glance at our culture would be enough to conclude that narcissism is becoming not only normal, but desirable.
Perhaps I don’t have to do any more convincing along this line. Perhaps it is so obvious that no one would disagree. Perhaps the qualities of narcissism—self-promotion, fantasy superiority, need for admiration, exploitation of others, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy or desire to care about the feelings of others—are so much a part of the normal lives of young people that no one especially thinks of them as problematic. When even those who are not narcissists accept narcissistic behavior as normal, the difficulty of dealing with those who hurt and use others may become insurmountable.
A culture of narcissism will only serve to validate and encourage the narcissists. Remember that they are the ones who have been doing this all their lives. They are very good at being narcissists. The pretend narcissists, the ones who want to use the narcissistic characteristics for their own gain, will soon find themselves being used and abused by the masters. The only real change is that the narcissists will no longer be seen as abnormal.
There is debate on whether Hollywood leads and promotes cultural change or simply reflects that change back to us. Dr. House was the narcissist we hated to love. The characters on House of Cards attract and repel us at the same time. The plot line of 50 Shades of Grey is surprisingly enticing in a culture that claims to stand against sexual abuse. None of these shows promotes the kind of culture that serves to lift people up and learn to love; yet they are increasingly popular and increasingly intense. We are being (or have already become) desensitized to narcissism.
Why? Because we are a culture that worships pragmatism. Whatever works. Whatever works to get me a job—lying, cheating, blaming, boasting—is worthwhile. Whatever works to make me feel good about myself—using others, cutting off friends in need, over-spending, dramatizing the events of my life—becomes important. We have been taught that our goals, even the sub-conscious ones, are more important than the truth or the relationships of our lives. And the way to accomplish our goals, in a narcissistic culture, is through narcissistic behavior.
So what do we do? I wouldn’t want to end this post on a negative thought. There are things we can do. First, don’t be surprised at what you see. The person who cuts you off in traffic probably hasn’t even thought about you or the fear you might feel. The friend who lies to make whatever points she thinks are important probably doesn’t even see the problem. Just because this is wrong and contrary to the values we hold does not mean that the behavior should surprise us or overwhelm us. Of all people, those of us who have dealt with narcissism should understand what’s happening around us.
In relationships, especially, we can call out the behavior. We still claim to hold positive values in relationships. So we have the right and responsibility to help others maintain those values. Narcissism still hurts others, no matter how normal the behavior seems. Hurting others is still not acceptable. Speak up against abuse and lying and cheating and compromised values. (And don’t feed the bank accounts of the 50 Shades people!)
But there’s more. We can smile more and be more kind. A thousand little acts of kindness to show the world that narcissism does not rule everyone. Affirm relationships. Tell people that you value them and are grateful. For so many, the characteristics of narcissism have been adopted because they are afraid or have been made to feel unimportant. Thank people. See people, especially those who have been invisible in the past. Do things narcissists wouldn’t think about doing, especially for the sake of others.
Here are a couple of simple examples. The next time you stay in a motel, thank the cleaners when you see them in the hallway and leave a tip with a word of gratitude. You just spent $150 on a room and you expected it to be clean. A couple of bucks might make someone’s day. Wave at the next police officer you see. Thank a nurse. Open the door for an older person. You know what I mean. Do little things that gain you nothing for people who may never connect with your life again. That’s not narcissism and it’s not pragmatic; it’s love.
We are called to be salt and light in a world of people who are afraid and want to be accepted. It costs us nothing to be kind and gentle and grateful. Let’s be anti-narcissists.