He who falls in love with himself will have no rivals. — Benjamin Franklin
Please pardon me for talking about a very grim topic—the epidemic of narcissism in our culture. I’m doing this to give hope, validation and power to the partners of self-centered people and for all of us to work on this major health issue—narcissism—together. Hope is very much alive with such efforts. You likely know someone who is exceedingly self-centered and oblivious to the needs of others. About one in ten people have major chronic problems with self-centeredness and qualify for a clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). You might say, “Is that all?!” You may know many people who chronically only think and talk about themselves, exude charm, crave admiration, lack empathy, see themselves as special, are very thin-skinned, rarely ask anything about you, tend to know all the answers, and appear highly successful. You may even mistakenly admire people like this and wish you were as successful as they are.
You would be in good company because for the last fifty years America has been in the grip of another epidemic—the Narcissism Epidemic. Social scientists believe it worsened in the 1970’s and has only magnified since that time. In my mind it is the worst of all plagues—a sickness of the soul—and many of us can’t even see that it is happening. A number of us either brush aside the thought that we ourselves have this disorder or else idealize people who think they are special and often worship them. Being selfish and exaggerating our accomplishments almost seems like a requirement for success these days. In fact, it is a disaster (and a fate worse than death).
Oh oh, yes I’m the great pretender
Pretending that I’m doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell
— The Platters (1956)
Practical examples of narcissists in every day life
Actually, the number of self-centered people is probably much greater than one in ten. Many are quite successful in business (at least in the short run), are quite reluctant to admit they have any flaws, and avoid asking for help. They are the “great pretenders” of life. They are the exquisite con-artists of life. They even fool themselves into believing how truly great they are. Unfortunately, in our culture where image is everything, it’s not that hard to hide the void of our true emptiness from others. This is especially true when selfishness itself is portrayed as a virtue in our culture and your reputation is made on how well you can sing, how much money you have, and what kind of car you drive. In a superficial culture it’s easy to hide our emptiness. I always liked that T-shirt that read “Nuclear War! But what about my career!”
Although I do not advocate labeling other people as narcissists since it is not our place to judge and we often do so inaccurately, I do believe it’s wise to see narcissism in action in order to protect ourselves against it. This might (but not necessarily) include the following examples:
- Protestors who feel entitled to break into and loot family stores or block freeways in response to racial injustice.
- An uncle who refuses to get vaccinated and wants to meet in family gatherings because he thinks it’s his right alone to decide if he gets the shot.
- Renters who refuse to look for work even when jobs are available and expect the government to pay to keep their landlords from foreclosing.
- Schools that tell their students they are special and shouldn’t have to study to get good grades.
- Parents who blame the teachers even when their children act up and disrupt learning for others in school.
- College students who see it as their right to cheat on tests and then later brag about their grades.
- A man who controls and abuses his girlfriend and later kills her when she tries to leave him.
These ne’er-do-wells are enabled by a culture that sees their behaviors as part of the normal growing pains of life and basically harmless. Unfortunately, such attitudes only encourage misbehavior, ignore the suffering of people who are harmed by these behaviors, and also reinforces the belief that none of us are responsible for our behaviors. It is a grave disservice to troublemakers themselves who are not learning from consequences and later possibly turning into selfish monsters who wreak major havoc on society.
What is it like to be a narcissist?
You might think that people who constantly see themselves as superior to others would deep down have a massive insecurity. Actually, just the opposite is true. They don’t see themselves as condescending or dismissive but just supremely gifted, even when there is no evidence to support that view. They have two selves—an outward false self and an inward true self, whom they detest. They live in a two-dimensional world and do not see beyond their image when they’re looking into a mirror. They actually lack an identity and cannot describe themselves in a They have two selves—an outward false self and an inward true self, whom they detest.realistic way. They are very surprised and offended when others see their obvious flaws. They spend their whole life managing and manipulating their image and they get very little out of personal relationships. When the truth is shown to them, they disparage and demean the person showing them who they really are. Their primary existence is in a fantasy world of their own self-promotion. They do not see themselves as flawed even when concrete evidence is shown to them. They are exquisite manipulators and self-promoters who can’t help themselves. Their nearest animal relative is the king cobra, whose deadly poison can kill in 11 minutes. They hypnotize you into worshiping them and terrify you with their icy stare. They are predatory—they need to suck on others simply to exist. In human development they resemble the 2–3-year-old who cannot separate from its mother and demands to be the center of attention. Most of us can tolerate the selfishness of infants and teenagers who are normatively narcissistic, but we have a much harder time with older people acting like babies. You are at best an object to be used if you are around a narcissist, much like a parent is in the first few years of life of their infant. If this pattern continues with a narcissist, you will likely lose your identity, feel demeaned and sometimes lose your life.
What causes people to be narcissists?
If you know the answer to this question, please let me know immediately. We can make millions of dollars curing the world of a great scourge. In my experience there are four factors that increase pathological narcissism:
- Social context that over praises people for looking good and pretending to be great as opposed to being good and actually accomplishing beneficial goals.
- Parents who either coddle their two-year olds, set no limits with their behavior and ingenuously over praise their children for the most minor of accomplishments.
- Social media pressures that replace parents and cultivate stardom and specialness and distrust in relationships with others.
- Biological factors that account for about 40% of chronic self-centeredness.
How can I safely relate to a narcissist?
As you can tell from reading this article, I am not terribly keen on hanging out with self-centered people. I don’t bask in the sunshine of specialness. I don’t like how little they make other people feel. I prefer to believe what Sheldon Kopp, a famous psychoanalyst once wrote, “There are no great men” under a picture of a man sitting on a commode. I do believe that there are many people who continue to do really great things—policemen and their wives who risk their well-being each day for us, teachers who are invested in creating great lives in our children, and front-line medical workers who do thankless, exhausting jobs just to keep us alive. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg. So first of all, don’t hero worship unless there is concrete evidence for doing so. Praise deeds, not people.
Praise deeds, not people.Be street smart and take off the rose-colored glasses. You will never change or inspire a narcissist. You will not save him or her. Only God can do that, and He often fails at that. Don’t be naïve. No matter how many favors a self-centered person offers to do for you, politely turn down the favors. Don’t make a pact with the devil. You will suffer your worst nightmares if you do. Don’t become co-dependent with such a person. Whatever is missing in you will not be solved by the narcissist, it will only be make things worse. You cannot bask in another’s sunshine to be successful. Work on yourself and your own sunshine. In your weaker moments don’t pity or feel sorry for the narcissist as that is a sign you are “being had.” A self-centered person can heal perhaps with the same odds that a person with terminal nth stage cancer can heal, but it is highly unlikely, especially when your loved one doesn’t even know (s)he has a problem. Save yourself, get support for yourself and run for the hills. I can speak from personal experience about these strategies. If you have to be around a narcissist set limits with him or her and don’t argue as it is a waste of time. Get psychological help if you are in the grips of a self-centered person.
How can I help change the narcissism in our society?
You can only do your part. Study this subject. Read The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. and W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D. (Free Press, 2009). Basically, be the change that you wish would happen in our society. Lead with compassion and forgiveness and become a better listener and less of a speaker and know-it-all. Embrace humility as your best friend and don’t be proud of yourself until you have actually accomplished something praiseworthy. Realize that your accomplishments are mostly due to other people’s competence and love for you. Join the human race and remind yourself that you are not special. Raise unselfish kids. Read, Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba, E.D. (Touchstone Books, 2016). Have your kids do household chores early on in life to learn the joy of contributing to others. Set limits with them and listen to their feelings. Remember, “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.”
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
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Last Updated on November 8, 2021