Ten years ago, I don’t think I had heard of Narcissism, or at least, it had not registered in my brain as a ‘thing’. Now, not a day goes by without a conversation or an article appearing on my social media feeds (or in the media in general) on narcissistic people. You only have to google Narcissism to see how much information is out there on the subject. We all seem to know a narcissist, or several narcissists, even though Narcissistic Personality Disorder is apparently a rare condition and despite having written an article (It is not "All on the Label") on the misguided nature of labelling people, I seemed to use the label of ‘Narcissist’ quite liberally. I realised that I needed to develop a better understanding of what Narcissism actually is.
In my curiosity to find out more about it, I was recommended a book by Sandy Hotchkiss: 'Why is it Always About You’. This account provides an interesting and balanced perspective of, and useful strategies for interacting with, narcissistic people. People who are self important, powerful, manipulative, cruel, vain, and so on, are often flippantly labelled as Narcissists and because of this, I was somewhat surprised when, about halfway through the book, I became aware of an uncomfortable feeling around the fact that I could relate to some of the personality traits of a Narcissist.
My thoughts were “Of course I would relate, I am so often guilty of ‘making everything about me’”. Once, in my role as Head of HR, one of my team members asked to talk to me. She said she had been wanting to talk to me for a while but had avoided it until she just couldn’t anymore. The conversation was about her wish to resign. I immediately took it personally, which had been her exact fear. She pleaded that I didn’t make it about me, and it was one of those ‘wake up call’ moments, as I stepped back and acknowledged that I did this often.
I have been known to react like this with my children as well. I took their struggles very personally. An anxiety attack, for example, meant that I was failing as a parent rather than that they were struggling on their own (separate) growth paths. There were times when I was so caught up in a questioning space of ‘where have I failed?’ that I was unable to show up to support them through their difficulties.
Another narcissistic tendency is to “fantasise about success, beauty, brilliance and ideal love”. I can relate to this, too. I also have a “need for praise, recognition and acknowledgement" and can become quite petulant if I am not appreciated regularly. Ask my children!
These observations raise the question: do these traits make me narcissistic? Like any personality traits or disorder, there is a spectrum to Narcissism and it is therefore probable that I appear somewhere on the continuum. I do not despise or admire these traits in myself as they are part of who am. However, I do sometimes have to manually override them as my default mechanism when they are not an appropriate response to a particular set of circumstances and hopefully, being aware can only help.
What was also new to me, was Hotchkiss' inclusion in her book on ‘healthy Narcissism’. There is also plenty of literature available on this. In brief, it is ‘realistic self confidence, self love and self care’. I am quite sure I benefited from the presence of narcissistic traits in my career, people exuding confidence and self-belief can be intoxicating and motivating. However, self-belief needs to be balanced by the gift of humility, to allow others to be comfortable enough to retain their own share of self-belief and confidence. Being exposed to someone who is suffering from extreme Narcissism can erode anyone’s confidence, no matter how capable they know or believe they are. It is as if the person with strong narcissistic traits needs another’s energy to sustain them as theirs is not sufficient.
A person on the extreme (pathological) side of the narcissistic spectrum can be extremely fragile at their core, and will protect this fragility at all costs.They cannot access this place for self-reflection and growth for fear of imploding, and they cannot access the gift of empathy for fear of losing power. People who are genuinely suffering from Narcissism, may never experience peace within themselves, as facing themselves and their demons, is not an option. It appears to be that someone who has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder has little capacity to change, however much we may believe that we can help. Further still, it may well be that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a rare diagnosis as someone with the disorder does not believe they have a problem.
Narcissists are generally written and talked about as ‘other’ and people to be feared. However, in its extreme, it is a mental illness that a person may have rather than it is the person themselves. Seeing it as an illness can change the perspective and may make it easier to detach (unhook) from a person displaying narcissistic behaviour. For example, it is not that they don’t have compassion or empathy but more that they are unable to feel compassion or empathy for another living being, they experience others by what they can get from them and the need to destroy the very characteristics they found enchanting in another person stems from a need to control. The need to diminish others or push them away stems from a need to retain a positive sense of themselves.
Identifying someone as narcissistic - even if they demonstrate many of the characteristics of Narcissism - may only be constructive if we then turn the attention on ourselves and how we respond. If narcissism is as prevalent as it appears to be, then self-awareness may be the essential barrier needed as protection from being caught in an unhealthy narcissistic relationship with others. Being conscious of ourselves and our response to interactions with others can build our resilience and help us avoid the narcissistic hooks that are invariably around us and enable us to be more selective of who we choose to share our energy with and who we should, if at all possible, avoid.
Narcissism does not only refer to the extreme of a disorder. It ranges from being a healthy part of one’s personality, to being an illness. Using the term liberally can undermine its meaning in both its healthy sense and as a mental disorder. It is also far more complex than any label can demonstrate. A person closer to the pathological end of the spectrum or with Narcissistic Personality Disorder may not be able to help their behaviour any more than a person suffering any other physical or mental condition can. An expectation that they should or can change may not be realistic. The more conscious we are of what Narcissism is, the more conscious we can be of how we interact, what energy we put into a relationship, and the impact that it may have on ourselves and our own wellbeing. As with many things in life, we cannot always control our circumstances but we can learn and choose how to respond to them effectively.