Let’s Stop Using Narcissism As a Four-Letter Word
Have you noticed that the word narcissist has morphed into a term of derision and contempt that is easily thrown around at will? But how many people really understand where the term comes from or what it means? How often have we heard, “Her husband is a narcissist,” or “My boss is such a narcissist!”
Understand narcissism from a clinical perspective requires a little historical background. The clinical etiology of narcissism originated from the Greek myth and was used psychologically to describe relational or environmental circumstances that resulted in one or more of the following:
• injury or damage to a person’s basic sense of self worth (identity),
• diminished ability to read other people accurately and fairly (qualities of being a good partner or friend),
• blind spots in how a person processes information and reality (beliefs and perceptions).
The bottom line is that these “injuries” leave individuals compromised in terms of how well they are able to navigate the world as well as contribute to the world.
Vulnerability to narcissistic wounding generally stems from how we were parented, which leads to the question, “Who among us had a perfect childhood?” Even if you grew up in an environment of economic privilege, did you really had the freedom to be who you wanted to be while being taught to treat others with equal value? Where this question leads is – regardless of our circumstances, we all carry around a little bit of narcissism. So, when it comes to labeling others, instead of seeing the log in the eye of our neighbor, let’s first take the splinter out of our own.
Public opinion has identified the narcissist as someone who is grandiose, self-absorbed, so self-serving, and entitled, that they don’t believe that “the rules should apply to them”. It is easy to find those people. All we have to do is turn on the news.
But, if we were to adopt a compassionate framework, we would understand that the posture of confidence exhibited by many narcissistically-driven individuals can best be understood as just that, posturing. Even though some actually come to believe that the constructed version of the self is true, somewhere underneath the surface lies a secret fear that they are a fraud or are taking advantage of others and will eventually be exposed.
At the core of most narcissistic behaviors is an underlying feeling of shame. In fact, feelings of shame and uncertainty lie beneath the surface of much of the extreme polarization we are witnessing today, whether the focus is on the political climate, struggles with neighbors, or even closer to home - with families and friends.
From a psychological perspective, most people don’t understand that there is a direct relationship between the narcissistic wounding that occurs when people are misunderstood or marginalized and how quickly this can trigger underlying feelings of shame and the reflexive need to self-protect. When people become triggered, they often become defensive and angry rather than learning to engage in conversations that heal rather than divide us.
As a psychologist, I have found that shame is one of the most difficult emotions to endure, and people try to distance themselves from it at all costs. This distancing behavior can range from: bullying (both kids at school as well as over-bearing bosses), to proving self-worth by trying to be perfect, successful or glamorous, or by escaping from the overbearing pressure to achieve or perform though self-medicating behaviors and addictions.
As long as people don’t see the connection between their underlying fears of being less than and their over-driven need to prove themselves, we will never get off the treadmill of overwork, overspending, over-competition, over-entitlement, and lashing out when we fall short, become frightened, or are disappointed.
The good news is that once we see the connection between efforts to prove our value, fear of the others, self-protection, and retaliation, it’s as if we awaken from a hypnotic spell. Our direction becomes clearer. Compassion for others increases.
Shame is the unnamed elephant in the room. Not acknowledging it as a powerful, underlying driver of behavior allows us to continue learned, habituated patterns that are destructive and unsustainable. As social psychologist J. A. Whitson (2013) states, “Some of our most dangerous human instincts come from our inability to walk in someone else’s shoes.” Walking in someone else’s shoes is the best antidote to narcissism.