Have you ever struggled with someone difficult in your life? Do you know how to spot narcissism? I saw this “Narcissist Check List” in a meme on Facebook recently, and it hit a little too close to home:
– Two-faced, critical of others behind their backs
– Blames others for failures
– Acts different in public and private
– Superior Attitude
– Lives in fantasy world of porn and affairs, and dreams of fame
– Distorts facts to suit own agenda
– Irresponsible with money
– Only emotionally available when wants something
– Lacks empathy for others
– Provokes others, then blames them for fight
– Can’t admit mistakes
Psychologist Stephen Johnson describes a narcissist as someone who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.”
The Mayo Clinic describes narcissistic personality disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. Behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism… Narcissistic personality disorder treatment is centered around talk therapy (psychotherapy).”
In my younger years I was a classic narcissist. I’m not a big fan of labels like this, or labels at all for that matter, but the hard reality was that in my 20s and 30s and even into my early 40s, I fit most, and at times all, of the characteristics in the above list.
I gossiped about others, it helped me feel better (or less horrible) about myself. I blamed others for my failures (while internally piling heaps and heaps of guilt and shame on myself for both failing, and blaming others). I was a very different person in public than I was in private. In public I was charming and had a real knack for making others think I was sincere, calm and kind. In private I was a rageaholic that could stand absolutely no criticism of any kind… regardless of how wrong I was. I was at times much more comfortable with porn than I was intimacy. (Not surprisingly, I also chose partners that were as uncomfortable with intimacy as I was.) I distorted facts to paint a picture of myself as Mr. Wonderful (and Mr. Victim) to the point that I absolutely believed my own “facts” much of the time. I always earned a good living, but mismanaged the hell out of it. I was very controlling, both covertly (with insincere kindness) and overtly, by bullying. My inner demons and self-hatred were never far from the surface. If they were triggered, I would attack those closest to me, and then blame them for it. And I would have chewed off my own arm before admitting I was wrong. Unless admitting I was wrong made me look good, and made the other person look badly. Then I’d readily admit I was wrong, but without sincerity in my heart, and usually in a really manipulative way that made someone or something else to blame for it. I could appear sympathetic to others, and at times I did experience genuine empathy, however I always used it as an opportunity to make myself look gallant and superior. I’m grateful to have overcome these behaviors, I’m grateful that I’ve learned what genuine joy and happiness feels like. I’m grateful that I’ve become a man that I’m able to love and appreciate.
Here’s a bit of what I learned in the process of moving from that guy, to the person I am today:
I wasn’t born that way. Narcissism is a survival mechanism, or really multiple survival mechanisms. Abusive environments in childhood breed narcissistic personality traits. When your formative years are spent in a state of intense fear the human ego builds patterns of defending itself. Additionally, abusers are frequently narcissists, and we learn what we see as children. We learn what we live.
Children interpret abuse as “I must be a bad person. Why else would I be being treated this way?” Even though I didn’t think the abuser was either rational or sane, that wasn’t enough in my young mind to let myself off the hook. Raised in the Catholic church, I had a very strong sense that God must either hate me, or be really, really angry with me or He wouldn’t have allowed the mental, emotional and physical abuse. More proof that “I must be a bad person. Why else would I be being treated this way?”
We humans don’t want to feel horrible, we innately want to feel good. We’re programmed that way. When the external messages coming at you at a young age are frequently negative, and the environment fear-producing, the human ego begins telling itself stories to feel better. It’s defending itself, on the inside, as well as the outside. On the inside I made up one set of stories to try to feel better about myself, and on the outside I made up a different set of stories to survive. We humans are imperfect, we make mistakes, we sometimes exercise bad judgment. As adults it’s impossible to be perfect. Kids are learning everything in life from scratch. How do you learn without making mistakes? Children who are not abused lie about their mistakes. I think it’s less about fearing the consequence, and more about fearing feeling bad about themselves. It’s a mechanism of the human ego. When you know those mistakes or bad judgments are going to be met with physical and/or emotional abuse, or both, the lies become a matter of survival. Crazy making survival. There’s one set of lies and justification happening internally, to try to feel better about yourself, and there’s a different set of lies happening on the outside, to try to prevent more abuse. To survive. Eventually, truth based in reality is lost, and the lies, justifications and defensiveness (which are really just thought forms) have taken on a life of their own. The justifications and defensiveness becomes the new reality.
Narcissists are usually very difficult to be in relationships with. One big reason is because, at first glance, they can appear very normal, very sane. Even wonderful. We tend to think of folks that are not sane as the schizophrenic homeless person talking to an invisible nemesis. It’s apparent at first glance. Narcissists are every bit as out of touch with reality, but it rarely appears that way. There’s shame, self-hatred, all of that “I must be a bad person” underneath it all, creating multiple layers of lies and deception, hiding it from ourselves, and keeping it buried from the world. The lack of awareness of what’s real and what’s not is caused by the multiple levels of internal and external defensive lies told for years, sometimes decades. I had very little real sense of empathy most of the time, Even though I had minimal ability to truly understand and share in other’s feelings and struggles in my day-to-day life, I had a very heightened sense of how to appear that I had great empathy. There were some people, and some instances, that I did feel empathy for, especially my daughter. The large majority of the time however, I felt only my own deep sorrow and pain. Sometimes others would perceive that I was feeling empathy, when in reality they were going through something that triggered my own emotional pain. I wasn’t feeling empathy for them, I was feeling sorry for myself. Much of the time I was expert at appearing empathetic and kind, without actually feeling it.
I saw multiple therapists over a 20+ year period of time. I knew I was fucked up, the deep well of emotional pain I felt, and the sorry state of my relationships was ample proof. In some ways therapy helped me be more functional, in other ways it was a great environment to hone my narcissistic skills. (Many narcissists are very good at fooling therapists, for a while at least.) I re-examined my childhood so many times that by the time I was in my early 40s my emotions were nothing more than a pile of open, raw wounds. I believe therapy has merits and benefits, usually before labels become attached. Therapists are human, and they have human judgments and limitations, just like the rest of us. Once they begin adding labels such as narcissist, bi-polar, borderline personality, etc. many can begin to see a client as “permanently flawed”. I can’t blame them. 20 years ago I saw myself as permanently flawed. Hopelessly broken. Unfixable.
Traditional therapy consists of talk therapy and/or drugs, frequently with an emphasis on drugs. Both have their limitations. Talk therapy is primarily crisis-oriented, meaning insurance companies don’t want to pay for more than a couple appointments, so therapy is limited to the bare minimum number of appointments necessary to get you out of the immediate crisis, and no more. That can work for someone who is generally mentally and emotionally strong and healthy, and is in need of help through a crisis such as an illness, death or divorce. Drugs are the answer for everyone and everything else, from depression to narcissism and bi-polar disorder, and everything in between.
The problem with using drugs as a long-term solution is the way the human ego is wired. Issues like narcissism and bi-polar are rooted in the human ego. When the ego is not limited or reduced, it expands. In other words, if the root issues AND the behaviors of the narcissism, or bi-polar, or depression aren’t addressed, they get worse. As they get worse internally, the drugs are no longer able to mask the problem. So higher doses, or combinations of drugs are given. And it gets worse and surfaces again, and more or different drugs are given. Eventually the underlying issue has grown and festered, and now there are other side effects as well. The side effects of the drugs, and the patient feeling more and more hopeless and permanently flawed to name a few. Think of it this way. Put a piece of masking tape on some mold, or even a crack, on a wall. The masking tape hides it, right? You can forget that the mold or crack is underneath it. You don’t see it. Wait a month, or a year. The mold, or the crack are growing. They’re now expanding out beyond the tape. So you put more tape on. And so it goes, year after year, decade after decade, until the wall comes crumbling down. Sooner or later, you’re going to deal with it. The more we ignore it, the longer we mask the symptoms, the bigger the underlying issues become. Just like the mold or crack in the wall, the earlier you start dealing with it, the less there is to deal with. If you recognize yourself in any of this, today is a great day to begin your life change. There will be less to deal with today than there will be a month or a year or a decade from now.
Life Mastery Coaching is about mastering your life. Regardless of whether your challenges are narcissism, depression, bi-polar disorder, holding a job, maintaining good health, or struggling to manifest a life that’s pleasing to you, we all have the potential to be greater than our egos. We all have the ability to live life joyfully and with calm and inner peace. The question is whether you’re willing to do the work, to make the changes in your thoughts and your life necessary to become who you came here to be. I promise you, you did not come here to spend your life depressed, sad, hopeless, on drugs or a failure. Every one of us has unlimited potential. When you find your true self, when you meet who you really are, you will recognize the difference between that person and your ego. When you re-acquaint yourself with who you were when you entered this world, your life will change.
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Scott McMaster is an Author, Life Mastery Coach, Motivational Speaker and Business Consultant in Prescott, Arizona.
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