I see the terms “narcissism” and “narcissist” tossed around a lot, often used as an insult but also trending in the media. It’s a very popular topic on Psychology Today, for instance. As I write this, psychologists are going on the record to call 2016 Republican presidential nominee and presumptive billionaire, Donald J. Trump, out as a narcissist – not that any overt narcissist would care, Trump being no exception. But not just anyone who behaves badly or even happens to come off narcissistic is necessarily a narcissist.
The concept of narcissism comes from the mythical Greek story of Narcissus, a beautiful, conceited young man who disdained those who loved him and becomes enamored with his own reflection in a pool of water, not realizing that it’s just an image, until he dies unable to have his desires reciprocated.
The classic narcissist mirrors this story (pun intended) as a charming individual, concerned more with their well-groomed appearance than the substance of their character, to the detriment of their relationships with others. However, the interpretation in popular culture of the narcissist as an arrogant, well-dressed, materially successful individual is, itself, a superficial exaggeration as few narcissists are able to attain such social status (however, many people who do come off very narcissistic).
There are diagnostic criteria published in the DSM for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and a bevy of fascinating resources that parse narcissism and what it means to be a narcissist in great depth, but the key indicator to me is lack of empathy. I think the image that they so meticulously craft, so jealously protect, lifted and manipulated from that and those around them, is designed to disguise this deficit of character.
Someone can be a jerk and choose to ignore how someone feels but the narcissist is quite literally missing the capacity to internalize, experience the emotions of another person, much less understand, consider or validate them. Whatever emotions they do experience, share no connection with how anyone else feels.
We all go through a developmental phase in our childhoods where we are little narcissists – it only matters what we want, completely oblivious to the needs, boundaries of others – but most of us grow beyond it to mature emotionally, recognize our connection with others and the universe around us, become more socially conscious of our actions. The narcissist does not. They remain petulant children in aging bodies.
Mother is a charming little blond woman with an air of childlike innocence about her. Whenever I’d say or do something she didn’t like, she’d sulk and tell the rest of the family cult that I hurt her feelings, mischaracterize whatever I did, and they’d rush to her defense, protecting her as one might a child. My feelings were never considered, they didn’t matter. It was impossible to resolve conflicts, essentially trying to reason with a contrarian child who simply couldn’t acknowledge my feelings and who would say anything (through anyone) to shut me down and carry on as though nothing happened.
Being unable to empathize has behavioral tells. Narcissists learn to fake the emotions they can’t feel, relying upon others’ behavioral cues to time their scripted play-acting to. Sometimes they get it wrong, coming off with a weird, awkward, cartoonishly artificial affect, revealing how inauthentic they actually are.
The day I learned of my grandfather’s death, a sheriff showed up at the door with the sad news. Mother instantly began wailing, making grief sounds, and pulled my siblings and I together, holding us close. We were children and very upset that our mother was visibly upset. But I noticed that while we wept tears, she did not. Hers were crocodile tears. She was just going through the motions, squeezing her eyes shut, making the sounds, setting the scene. But she didn’t actually feel what I felt. She didn’t hurt like I did.
Another time Mother and her then boyfriend now husband had some sort of disagreement. She was downstairs in the bathroom, again, making the crying sounds but not the tears. And he was just outside the window laughing at her. Weird, weird, weird memory!
See No Abstract. Speak No Abstract. Hear No Abstract. Feel No Abstract?
No empathy means that narcissists are deaf, dumb and blind to subtext and so irony is lost on them because they’re unable to relate ideas with feelings. Producers of children’s programming use subtext to entertain the parents, knowing that the children won’t pick up on the more subtle adult themes. Neither will narcissists.
If a joke that employed a double entendre was told, Mother would laugh only because we were laughing but she couldn’t understand the joke and we were unable to explain to her why it was funny. She was, however, amused by physical humor, slapstick comedy.
Mother’s letters read like German radio instructions, detailed linear stated observations devoid of any hint of personal introspection. No feelings. No questions. No meaning. No metaphors. They were the literary equivalent of trying to get through one of those old energy bars that looked and tasted like it was made of sawdust without a glass of water to choke it down. She’d dress it up by illustrating little flowers, butterflies, filigree and such – credit there, I guess this is the proverbial glass of water – but it was just pretty looking empty words! She’d share quotes by writers, deep ponderers like Thoreau and Emerson but not what their words meant to her. She obviously liked them. Maybe they tickled her somehow but she didn’t know why or was otherwise unable to express it. They ended up being just more decoration.
As I write this, I’m actually starting to feel a little bad for Mother. I’m judging her for being unable to adequately compensate to my liking for what on some level she must’ve realized was a shortcoming on her part. And if this wasn’t just a piece of a larger, far more insidious and exhausting puzzle that I continue to suffer as I work to resolve and recover from the deleterious effects it’s had on my life then I might be more sympathetic – but the narcissist only senses weakness in mercy and moves to exploit it every time. It’s the nature of the thing. So, yeah, I judge. It’s how I manage decisions like self-preservation!
If I Know I’m Going Crazy Then I Must Not Be Insane
No doubt, Mother regards me labeling her a narcissist a put down. One of her flying monkeys, Sister who sports a bachelors in sociology, once retorted that I must have Paranoid Personality Disorder.
But I’m not crazy. And I’m not wrong. I don’t call Mother a narcissist the same way Sister calls me an idiot.
Narcissism is a label that describes and predicts not only Mother’s behavior but also the behavior of the narcissistic family dynamic as a whole, myself included, which helps me connect with other survivors and that I need in order understand what is happening and to develop a healthier life perspective. It’s a term that may be used too casually ofttimes – it takes a qualified professional (not me) to diagnose someone with NPD and then only after clinical observation, unlikely since the narcissist almost never seeks help for a problem they aren’t able to acknowledge having any modicum of responsibility for in the first place – but it’s still useful for giving form to a nuanced, abusive condition, difficult to pin down, that otherwise leaves victims feeling as though they’re worthless, without hope and losing their damned minds.