Benign Narcissism

Narcissism has received a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. Many narcissists with horrid intentions are gaining power in ways. This should not be ignored; we would do well to know how to steer clear of these toxic people, or at least to minimize the damage.
There are, however, many narcissistic people who are rather benign, so I feel it is important to make some distinctions. To begin with, we were all narcissists as young children; until about the age of seven, children have difficulty seeing things from the viewpoint of another. That is healthy narcissism and certainly nothing to be concerned about.
Like any other diagnosis, narcissism does not have an on-off switch; there is a continuum of narcissistic behaviors ranging from the benign to the extremely toxic. Say, for example, your family member or significant other makes plans for both of you to go to the Grand Canyon without first asking your opinion. You may be afraid of heights, though nothing has previously led you to share that information, and this person thinks they are rewarding you with a trip that you in actuality dread even thinking about. They come to you, excited with the plan they have made, and you break the news about your acrophobia. The reaction could be very telling about what degree and type of narcissism you are dealing with.
Do you hear “Omigosh, I had to idea. How about I make a plan to go to the Grand Canyon with someone else, and you and I take a different vacation, maybe a cruise”? Or “But the Grand Canyon is such a natural wonder. Do you think it might be worth doing some work on that phobia of yours so we could go together and both enjoy it”? Conversely you might hear “You never want to have any fun. The Grand Canyon is beautiful! I worked my tail off planning this, and you are out to ruin it.”
This is very telling. The first two responses could come from a benign narcissist, someone who is merely a bit absent-minded about checking to see things from others’ viewpoints. That third one? This is someone who is out to punish you any time you don’t see things they way they do. And willing, even eager to be verbally abusive in the process. This person wants his or her own way about things, with little to no consideration about the wants and needs of others—even of those in his or her closest circle.
This is toxic. And this is the type of narcissism you are being warned about in countless articles on the internet and in the popular press.
But let us please be careful that we do not put the more benign narcissists in the same category as the toxic ones.

reflection in water

girl admiring own reflection

Healing Childhood Trauma

angry child-b&w“The further back the story, the deeper the pain.” That was a principle behind narrative therapy, the retelling of your own story in the process of healing; I heard this in a speech several years ago by John Savage, author of “Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry”. It is not often that someone’s exact words will continue to stand out so many years later. Whatever the therapy: narrative, cognitive behavioral, reality therapy, EMDR…that principle applies. “The further back the story, the deeper the pain.”
If an early childhood experience continues to bother you, do not discount it. Your body, and your psyche, are giving you a message. There are ways to make your peace with traumatic experiences, to go on with your life, to integrate the past in a way that benefits your future self.
There are a number of factors at work in the processing of trauma, one of which is the ability to make sense out of what happened. In children so young that they do not yet have good language skills, this becomes far more difficult. They have memories in pictures sometimes, and there are body memories. The lack of a narrative makes it more difficult to process what has occurred. Some people are helped by listening closely to the stories those around them; for others that is not a feasible option.
Fortunately, far more attention is being paid to healing childhood trauma than in times past, thanks in part to research showing that these traumas can even affect epigenetics, the process that determines which of your genes will be expressed and which ones will be turned off. It can impact others in your circle who sense your pain, and it can impact future generations.
It is never too late to start down your path of healing. Suppose you are 95 years old and have only a few months to live, wouldn’t it be great to spend those few months enduring less emotional pain?
When people decide to move forward I often hear “This stops now” or “It ends with me.” And it can. With the right help and direction, lives can be reclaimed and thoroughly enjoyed. It happens every day.

About race

Gerard, Gerardie, Jason on couch 2013_About RaceHaving been raised in a household that was on the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement, I find myself with a mixture of observations and feelings.  Today, we have a Black President; I well remember my father saying that would be the day we had achieved what we set out to.  I wish he had been as right about that as he was about playing such an active role in the movement.

Over the years, my reactions to discussing issues of race have ranged from boredom (after all, it was discussed a lot during my growing-up years) to frustration that it is even still an issue.

A few days ago, as I was leaving a restaurant, a well-dressed young African-American man held the door open for me.  I said “Thank you, sir” and thought that would be the end of it.  This young man was beyond courteous; he was deferential.  His parents had clearly had the conversation with him that I never had to have with my own son.  He knew that a white person could be trouble.  Any white person.  And I am horrified that Black parents still need to remind their sons of this.

I like to think that most white people are fair-minded, but of course you can’t tell that about anyone on sight.

Here is what I wanted to say to this kind young man:

“I am so sorry that your safety depends on your being deferential to a person who is in no way superior to you, who happens to have the benefit of white privilege every single day.

“I know your parents raised you right by having ‘the conversation’ with you about avoiding violence or unjustified arrest due to the color of your skin.  They were right.  What is wrong is that they had to do it.

“Young white men are allowed a few minor mistakes, and even to be a bit mouthy on occasion; it is wrong that you do not have the same opportunity.

“I hope you go far in your life.  And I hope that by the time you have a son, you can safely skip that conversation.  I saw enough in one brief moment, to know that you are a fine young man and you deserve better than to have to ever spend one nanosecond worrying how people will respond to the color of your skin.”

Are Trauma Memories Ever False?

Traumatized

I’m terrified!

One issue I come across, a lot, is abuse. And abusers frequently work hard at convincing their victims that their memories are false. Kind of like a person who intentionally trips you as you run past, then makes a big show of helping you up while commenting the entire time how they really tried to prevent the fall. A gymnast could begin to question his or her sense of balance.

This is frequently referred to as “crazy making,” the serious effort to convince you that you didn’t see what you know you saw, hear what you know you heard, or experience what you are absolutely certain you experienced.
When it comes to traumatic memories from further back in time, there is controversy about their accuracy. This controversy works like crazy-making: the victim cannot recover from a trauma that they are being told did not occur. A refusal to believe someone who is reporting severe trauma and/or pain leaves that victim without an ally.
There is even a False Memories Syndrome Foundation. According to wikipedia.com, numerous members of this group have actually been convicted of abuse. The Book The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis states that “If you feel something has happened, it probably has; details may vary but the essence is there.”
Jennifer Freyd, Ph.D., author of Betrayal Trauma, talks about how the body remembers traumatic events. She mentions research in which children who had suffered early traumas they did not recall, were put in a room full of toys, and acted out exactly what had happened! (Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D. also has significant research in this area of body memory.)
This Foundation has led many to believe there is actually such a thing as False Memories Syndrome. According to the recently released DSM-V, which has been criticized for excessive diagnoses, there is no such diagnosis.
This creation of a phony syndrome has made it more difficult for professionals and their clients to collaboratively resolve traumatic events.

How’s Your Ego?

self-image, self-esteem, strength of ego, healthy ego, narcissism

“Look at me!”

No, I am not talking about the Freudian concept of id, ego, and superego.  This is about your confidence level, your self-image.  It’s about self-confidence versus narcissism.

Narcissistic behavior is on the rise in this country, which I detest; at the same time, I welcome healthy and strong egos.

When children are young, narcissism is developmental.  They cannot comprehend another person’s viewpoint.  Toddlers are paying attention to who is watching them; teens often spend excessive time preening.  This is healthy narcissism, and not a reason for concern.  It does not reflect the primary characteristics of the more toxic narcissism among adults:  arrogance, feeling of entitlement, and lack of empathy.

The most egregious of these, to me, is lack of empathy, which may be reflected in numerous ways.  Some people prattle on about their luxury vacations, their investments, the children’s private schools…while knowing full well that you don’t have enough in your refrigerator to get through the week.  They never ask how you are or if they can be of help, because they simply don’t care.  Others are savvy enough to go through the motions, like asking how you are surviving as a caregiver for your mother’s Alzheimer’s.  They don’t really listen to your answer, but at least they have the social skills to fake it.

If you are choosing this type of person as a friend or significant other, carefully consider what life with that person will be like when life doesn’t give them what they want.  These people seldom improve.  This will be the person who bellows for days about a head cold, then is too busy to tend to your pneumonia.  Or it will be the person who, when you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, goes around telling everyone how difficult that has made his or her life.  Never mind about what it does to you!

I love to ask two questions:  1) Am I dealing with a narcissist? 2) Am I becoming one?  Of course, if you bother to ask Question 2, the answer is probably No.  Narcissists are amazingly low on self-awareness, and question 2 is unlikely to cross their arrogant little minds.