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

One Additional Letter

smiling lemon

What a smile

I have one more letter behind my name now. Just one, not a set. I am now an LPCC, or Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, when I was formerly an LPC, or Licensed Professional Counselor. That extra “C” does make my life easier. As of this past October 7, I no longer need to have a supervisor sign off on diagnoses and correspondence. And I clients write their checks directly to me. Yup, counseling law required that as an LPCC I not collect my own money. The extra “C” did mean I jumped through enough hoops to satisfy the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker, and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. (I know, it’s a mouthful.) I got a criminal records check–which was a real accomplishment because it is hard to get my fingerprints. I completed and documented 3,000 hours. And of course additional hours were missed due to my sometimes forgetting to post them, so I’m sure I did way more than was necessary there. This included a huge amount of supervision–though I got lucky on that score. Running a private practice, I chose and paid my own supervisor. Where else do you get to choose your own boss? And my supervisor, plus a former supervisor who covered a very few hours back in the very beginning, filled out their own double-secret documentation for the Board. (Double-secret as in, I was not permitted to read it.) And I filled out a form. And I sent them a cashier’s check! That was the magic action, I’m thinking. I am happy, my clients are happy, and I’m guessing even the Board is happy. You’ve all experienced this at some point, though: You go through a major life change: getting married, getting that degree, getting the promotion you had your eye on…and then you wake up the next morning and the change matters, but you are still the same person you were before. Luckily, I liked the person I was before. And now the difference is I am a few days older and I have one more letter behind my name.

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.