Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | April 24, 2010

Narcissists

Very few people spend considerable time thinking about themselves. That might sound like a surprisingly dense or a surprisingly naïve statement; take your choice. You’ll see in a bit that it is neither. Narcissists in particular avoid thinking about themselves at all costs. You might think that most people think about themselves most of the time and that narcissists take it to the limit, but that just ain’t so.

Obsessing about what we want or don’t want is not the same as thinking about ourselves, rather it’s thinking about things. Granted, we are the ones who want or don’t want those things, so in a real sense we are thinking about those things for ourselves, for the sake of our own interests. But thinking about our own interests isn’t the same as thinking about ourselves. It’s just another way of thinking about something other than ourselves. It can actually be a way of avoiding the need to think about ourselves.

At this point, some people might wrinkle their brows in skepticism and wonder what I’m talking about. If I’m not talking about what we want and what we’re going to do to get it, what else could “thinking about ourselves” be? Wondering that would just confirm how unfamiliar we are with thinking about ourselves. Maybe we actually do some thinking about ourselves without being aware of it, but I’ve got to believe that being aware of it would be an improvement.

So what do I mean by “thinking about ourselves?” Thinking about ourselves isn’t something we do in order to get what we want or to avoid what we don’t want. Thinking about ourselves is something we do in order to understand what we truly want and why we want it. Understanding those things is about as close as we can get to self-knowledge, at least it seems so at this stage in our mental evolution. Ask anyone who has been in therapy: figuring out what we want and why we want it isn’t easy. We pay good money to get people to help us do it, if we go that deep at all. What if we could spare ourselves the expense? Maybe we could ask ourselves those questions and find the answers on our own without the plethora of psycho-tonics and miracle cures we continually hype to each other. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

What we think we want is often just a substitute for what we really want but don’t believe that we can get. Getting the substitute never really satisfies us, no matter how much of it we get. Of course it doesn’t. No amount of a substitute could ever be enough. It isn’t what we really wanted anyway, and it leaves us with no more of what we really wanted than we had before. A good example of a substitute is looking for sex when what we really want is intimacy, or looking for intimacy when what we really want is love. Another example is substance abuse.

Even when we know what we really want, we usually don’t know why we want it. “But of course we do! It’s obvious,” someone might retort. “It’s obvious” is the flag we fly when we are in denial over our own ignorance. Being obvious never proves something to be true. Being obvious is precisely why we don’t look a little deeper in order to understand. Many things have been “obvious” at many times to many people and turned out to be dead wrong. We won’t know about it until we look into it. Besides, it’s quite possible to want something that is a really good thing for really bad reasons. If we understood the true reasons why we want what we want, we might decide that what we want is much more important to us than we initially thought. Or, we might decide that our reasons are bad ones. One thing is clear: until we understand why we want something, even an obviously good thing that everyone wants for “obvious” reasons, we simply don’t know whether getting it will be a good thing or a bad thing.

Many people haven’t considered doing the kind of deep self-reflection that getting to the bottom of these things would require. Even more people haven’t spent the kind of time that it takes free from outside stimulation and distraction to actually engage in this kind of self-reflection. Maybe those facts are why things are the way they are in our world, especially when it comes to our personal relationships. Maybe much of the violence and injustice that we engage in is simply a result of chronic frustration. After obsessively doing everything we could manage to do and taking so much pain to get what we wanted, we find out that our efforts and our pains were futile. Even though we got what we wanted, we didn’t get what possessing it promised. Not only does it seem futile, but it leaves us lost. Having believed that our prizes would meet our needs, we hold them in our hands still in want and without a next step. And that’s if we are lucky enough to be among the few who were born into opportunity or privilege and weren’t stymied somewhere along the way, unlike most who are trapped in perpetual longing:  “If only…”

Engaging in deep self-reflection might seem daunting, a recipe for interminable self-absorption. Some people react to the idea as if it were a black hole that would suck them into dark, crushing nothingness. Isn’t this kind of navel contemplation the stuff that narcissists are made of? How could it be a good thing? Aren’t selfishness and self-centeredness parts of the problem? I agree, they are, but I am not talking about becoming more self-centered or self-interested than we already are. I’m talking about refocusing the self-absorption that we already indulge in, not doing more of it. I’m suggesting that we look away from what we usually focus on—getting what we want and doing what we want—and focus instead on understanding the ones who are doing the wanting: us.

Self-reflection is far from being narcissistic. Focusing on themselves and understanding themselves are things that narcissists avoid at all costs. Avoiding self-understanding and engaging in the dysfunctional behavior that their avoidance drives them to are precisely the things that make them narcissists. Narcissists are compulsive about getting the focus off of themselves. In fact, they are crazy about it. Just try criticizing a narcissist about a mistake that he or she made and see for yourself. Bring along your stopwatch while you’re at it. There is no question that the narcissist will somehow get you to feel like it’s your fault for criticizing him. He might even blame you for the mistake you criticized him for because he was worried about your criticism before he made the mistake, so your anticipated criticism stressed him into making the mistake. (Even writing the words makes my eyes cross.) The only real question is how quickly he can get your head spinning in circles—thus the stopwatch. Some are quicker than others.

Or try something much less threatening. Ask a narcissist to explain why he did something or why he wants to get something. With a little luck he won’t take it as a prelude to criticism and you can leave your stopwatch in your pocket. Stay on his good side and the narcissist will be glad to explain things to you. He will tell you how wonderful what he did was, (in a nicely modest way, of course,) or how wonderful what he wants to get is, but you’ll notice that something is noticeably absent: any information about why he did it or why he wants to get it. It’s almost as if the doing, wanting being—him—is simply nowhere in the picture. If you persist a bit and ask him to give you some real information about his reasons for doing what he did or wanting to get what he wants, get out your stopwatch again. The speed at which you switch places from interested friend to insinuating interrogator can be breathtaking.

If you try out my little suggestions, take heart and don’t fret. You did nothing wrong and you meant nothing by it. You know it and I know it, but the narcissist cannot recognize it, nor does he care to. After all, it’s not about you. Your friendly inquiries brought him towards the edge of an abyss, and in his panic to escape the danger of going over he treated you like someone who was trying to push him off. The abyss is the darkness of his real reasons, his real wants, his true identity, his own soul. Something lurks down there so terrifying that he can’t go near. He can’t face any of it: the abyss, his fear, the lurking beast, anything. He can’t even admit that there’s a place for any of it to be. That’s why he keeps himself so absent. And you were the one who tried to take him there… How dare you!

We all have some narcissist in us. It’s the part of us that objects to the idea of deep self-reflection, that ridicules the idea or fears it or gets overwhelmed by it. The narcissist in each of us is one reason that “know thyself” has been the advice of wise men throughout the ages in all kinds of societies. The narcissist in us is one of the reasons that over $120 billion was spent by Americans in 2003 for mental health care and substance abuse treatment, according to the 2007 report Health, United States, 2007, published by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The same department reported here that in 2005, just two years later, the spending for mental health care and substance abuse treatment increased by 67% to over $200 billion. Do you think that we got $80 billion happier as a result?

The narcissist in each of us fears exposure. Our inner narcissists are fine with truth and stark realism as long as the truth and realism are about someone else. (Think reality TV here.) We are on our way to spending $1,000 per person per year—man, woman, and child—for treatments that at best only hold our inner narcissist in check. By the end of the 20th Century, according to Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, almost 20% of the American population received mental health treatment, including both adults and children, a slightly higher percentage of children than adults. We have no evidence that such treatments are improving our situation overall, nor have we ever had such evidence. Judging by increasing costs and utilization rates, the treatments are failing. That’s not news, but maybe the reason for it is. Maybe most of the time and energy we spend wanting and getting and most of the treatments that we buy to cope with the consequences are focused on symptoms instead of cause.

Anything, at all costs—want more, get more, do more. Then try to fix ourselves afterward. Just don’t look at the narcissists behind the curtain.

Maybe we should suck it up and look the weasels square in the eye.

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Responses

  1. […] wrote a piece three years ago on one of my other blogs, my first article on the subject, Narcissists. Check it out to see if I learned anything in the meantime. I doubt this second one will be my […]


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