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

Community

community of kids

community of kids

A sense of community can protect us, buffer us against hardships. This is not just geographical community; it can be family, friends—anyone you value. Sometimes it is a group we belong to, via accident or choice.
During World War II, the strong sense of community in Denmark saved most Jewish people from being deported to concentration camps. Why? Because their neighbors felt these people were Danish first, and they spread the word as quickly as possible when they heard the Nazis were preparing to do a roundup.
Today in Denmark, a sense of community is being utilized to prevent bullying in schools. I wish I could recall the article I read and give credit, but here is what I do recall: Every Friday, the children in each classroom gather with their teacher and pick a topic that concerns one or more of them. They then discuss ways to deal with this issue. And students are assigned to take their turn providing a pastry (home cooked or purchased) that the entire classroom can munch on while they chat. This strikes me as absolute genius. The students all feel a stake in resolving the problem. No one is excluded, and every person’s opinion matters.
I cannot recall if this involves children of all ages or only certain grades, but I was so impressed. Maybe we in this country would do well to devote less class time to standardized testing and more time to community building activities such as this. It not only builds community; it also helps these students develop problem-solving skills that will help them later in life.
One frequent target of bullying attacks, in-person or online, is often the “new kid.” It is entirely too easy to isolate this person as “not one of us” and avoid feeling compunction for our actions. Yet many people do the opposite, going out of their way to meet and get to know that new person, to help them integrate into the already-existing community. Maybe that would be a good example for more of us to follow.
Maybe we should start by getting to know our neighbors. Some of us may do better starting with online communities. Or simply being responsive to others who reach out to us.
That connection is essential, and how each person goes about it isn’t the most important thing. Going about it is.

About Birthdays

Grandma celebrating

Happy Birthday

Birthdays get a lot of people down. Especially after their 20s. I find that tragic. Mind you, I cried real tears the day I turned 26, because I thought I was getting ancient. In retrospect, I find that incredibly amusing. I was married at that time to a man who didn’t much like cake, so I figured there would be no cake. I wound up with four! Not exactly in keeping with my low expectations. It was one of my best birthdays ever, and I can’t recall getting too upset about the passage of time since then.
Prior to enrolling in graduate school, I spent several years running a singing telegram service, Off-the-Wall. Predictably, the majority of these comedy telegrams were for birthdays, and one of the most popular was a spoof on aging–the Grim Weeper. I would dress in black, with a black veil and an oversized white lacy handkerchief, and boo-hoo about how this person’s life was over. And in no time flat, they would be laughing and saying “What’s the big deal? I’m 40 is all.”
I just had a birthday, one of many. Enjoyed it immensely, thank you very much.
One major take-away from those years of helping others celebrate their birthdays, is the realization that a birthday isn’t really about how old you are. Unless you just turned 18 and get to vote. It is a celebration of You. Your life, your existence, your very presence on this earth.
Whenever your next birthday rolls around, I hope you celebrate with friends, family, loved ones. If you are alone that day, I hope you celebrate anyway. I hope you enjoy cake and ice cream, or whatever it is that you enjoy. And I hope you find the occasion delightful.

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.