April 20, 2017

Healthy Narcissism: Telling Children They Are Special

The Queen of Sheba by Edward Slocombe
I am old enough to remember when religious aunts lectured on the sins of wasteful living, reminding us people were starving in China and how could we be so selfish as to throw out a brown banana. Watchful uncles reprimanded nieces and nephews neglecting to relinquish seats to pregnant women or old women or anyone six months their senior. Remaining seated while back-bent elders shifted on life-worn feet was the penultimate of mortal sins how terrible. (I can imagine my stickler of a grandmother's wide-eyed horror at the spectacle of 21st century manspreading).

"Who do you think you are?" they'd scold. "The Queen o' Sheba?"

Pause Reading for a Musical Prologue 
Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by G.F. Handel


I am not too old to remember my mother giving me the side-eye for entering too many competitions and winning more contests than deemed felicitous for a gender-appropriate daughter. "Pride cometh before a fall," she cautioned, lecturing on corruptible vices,  pride being the mother lode of sin. Under her critical tutelage, my competitive drive slowed to a ladylike pace and then I married a man who taught me everything a mother never could about wrath, greed, lust and vanity. He had no compunctions against being extraordinarily special and he wasn't as occupied as myself, shushing a chorus of internalized voices nagging me to know my place, to remember the less fortunate, to respect my elders, to stop embarrassing my mother.

I tried silencing their voices but this led to rocky relationships requiring humble pies and downcast eyes because you can't love people and be loved back if you believe you're especially more special than they. Good people will cut you off like the spoiled bits of an Idaho potato and when you love loving people as much as I love loving people, you'll abdicate your throne and admit the error of your ways. You are special and this is valuable knowledge; but you aren't too special for rules. Rules are meant for everyone, even the Queen of Sheba. Cue humility and Handel.
"Age-appropriate narcissism is a concept based on the notion that we grow and develop in our ability to become separate and differentiated people and that this is a process that begins at birth and continues throughout life." ~Nina W. Brown 
A well-developed conscience requires the right nudge at the right time to awaken from its narcissistic slumber through what some people call the Best Years of Our Lives. The years of seeing ourselves as extra-ordinarily special, with unlimited possibilities and never a thought to the impermanence of life. The unquestioned assumption of being ninety with a face of sixteen and the limber dance of twenty-five. I indulge now and then in ancient memories of teenage narcissism, the glorious flooding of narcissism cramming every cell of my body with a sense of immortality and potential. I think about youthful grandiosity and how we must sacrifice childish narcissism in the quest for self, always a balancing act between caring for others and for ourselves. Healthy maturation is a lifelong journey. We need all the help we can get.

G.F. Handel, "18th Century Manspreading?" 
My Family

I love remembering apron-ed Aunts in crowded kitchens, more worried about their feather-light biscuits than derrières. Maybe it bothered them gaining weight, we wouldn't know, they never talked about it. They never apologized for their ample size; good character being more valuable than something they didn't struggle to achieve---like becoming movie star gorgeous and fashionable. I am lucky to have known a generation of women who didn't compare themselves to images they couldn't embody; to have had long conversations without the dreary mention of diets and celebrities.

Knowing they were special, and me too by extension, exceeded the superficiality of flesh. This is the kind of self-worth people need in order to love themselves and others: a self-love so embodied it can't be destroyed by the vicissitudes of life, nor shaken by life's uncertainties. A self-love assertive enough to confront Handel about keeping his damn legs together. (My grandmother would have confronted the patriarchy about Handel's inappropriate display and the patriarchy would have dutifully strapped his legs together because biscuits).

Knowing you are special is a fine thing binding us to one another because we know we are worthy of relationship, deserving of love, and capable of loving others. Our love has value. With the accompanying self-assurance of feeling special, we are less afraid to invest our hearts in relationships. Narcissism, the feeling of being special, fosters meaningful connections with others and with ourselves.

On the contrary, believing we are way more special than anyone else sets us apart, trading meaningful connections for the emptiness and isolation of unhealthy narcissism.

Knowing we are special is a blessing and this is what my relatives hoped to teach me. The people I saw as special also saw me as special and this became the ground beneath my feet when everything that mattered slipped away. It's times like that, when your life has been devastated by profound disappointment and loss, that healthy narcissism allows us to grieve our losses without losing our selves in the suffering.
"Healthy narcissism boils down to striking the right balance. At the heart of narcissism lies an ancient conundrum: how much should we love ourselves and how much should we love others? The Judaic sage and scholar Hillel the Elder summarized the dilemma this way: "If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, then what am I?" ~Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism (pg. 14) 
Portrait of his family by Cornelis de Vos

My Family's Secret
I'd like to share a secret about my family because there's honest-to-God no group of people who believe they are more special than the family I was born into. Even my ex would corroborate the peculiarity of our indefatigable self-esteem. He joked about my collection of relatives obviously taking more pride in a day's labor than reflections in a mirror. Oh, they were respectably clean, even spotlessly so, carrying white handkerchiefs for spitting into and wiping on children's faces should jam spoil toothy grins. I never saw an unclean or beautiful relative in my sixty years of family reunions, yet they believed they were special because each generation had been told they were special, the tradition handed down like a recipe for self-rising bread. You know the yeasty sour dough that multiplies on its own if you save a bit of starter for the next batch? Yea. That's the kind of healthy narcissism my family stores in five-gallon buckets. If Dr. Malkin researched genetic narcissism, he could use my family as a profound example of it.

"My Family Reunion  Portrait"
I've pondered my family's heritable resiliency but only recently come to understand the value of older generations telling younger generations they were special. "You may not be the Queen of Sheba, CZ, but you're the queen of hearts in this family". Being told over and over how special I am and always have been, lifted me to my feet when life knocked me down. Falling face first in the dirt has happened more than once, though never as gawdawful as the time I competed for my husband's love and lost. Bless my inner tabernacle choir for getting me out of that mess. Hallelujah!

Here's the Deal: Being Special is a Responsibility

My family took more pride in preserving our good name than breaking free and making one for ourselves. They were farmers in Europe becoming farmers in America losing money more years than they profited. They still ended up wealthy in spite of predictable setbacks curiously declared unpredictable. My relatives never measured themselves by failure, never wavered from proclaiming themselves successful. They trusted everything would work out swell and then set their minds to the task. It's worth repeating as I've written before: my family has nerves of steel and wills of iron and everyone agrees who's known a single one of us. We are resilient I think, because each person in my family inherited their own pair of hand-me-down rose-colored glasses and we're only too pleased to be wearing 'em.

If someone had asked my grandmother, "What makes me special?" she'd have replied, "You were born in this family. That's why you're special." If I'd have queried her about who was more special, me or my cousins, she'd have told me to grab knee pads and beg forgiveness for thinking too highly of myself. "There's pride and there's false pride and you'd best discern the difference if you wanna be in heaven with the rest of us." 
For people who didn't grow up in families like mine, it might be hard to understand the importance of preserving the family name: a source of communal pride and a leveling mechanism for deficient or excessive narcissism. I learned to keep my selfish behavior in check because of the way my actions would affect my family which is why it was prudent to move to France before coming out as a rebellious sinner. Unfortunately, my obscure american name was relatively common overseas; but sacrebleu! I had taken my husband's name when we married! That meant I could take a french walk on the wild side without upsetting my relatives. I could break every rule in the book, indulge in a multitude of wrongs, immerse myself in a hotbed of devilish evils and yes, I am lying my ass off right now. Those internalized values which comprise who you believe yourself to be as a child, never disappear; and those internalized voices you admired and wanted to be part of? They're never silent, either, glory hallelujah!


Nevertheless, even being an uprighteous young woman with the firm intention to be good, I made mistakes growing up. Maybe in order to be good, we have to make mistakes but that means we mustn't justify a single one--and that is hard to do if no one ever said, unequivocally, that you were special. That you were born into a peculiarly special family because that's where you belonged and no one but spiritual warriors had ever been granted your name so never ever give up never stay down never believe you are better or worse than anyone else. You may be special but special is as special does so don't betray the people who are counting on you to protect their heritage.

Now it might sound like telling a child they were special would inflate their narcissism but being told you're special was a responsibility, not a status symbol. It wasn't a gift without strings. You lived up to your name and that meant a whole host of religious rules and social sanctions intended to build character.

Being concerned for others is the foundation upon which mature morality is constructed and it isn't an easy process for any of us. The slow development of conscience may be the task of community and my relatives seemed to know this without reading a lick of psychological literature. At least I'm fairly certain they never read an article about healthy narcissism unless it had been featured in The Farm Journal or Reader's Digest maybe

Nothing says "I see you" like telling a child: "You're Special"

Every family reunion followed the same pattern: first there were tears of joy at the sight of nieces and nephews and grandchildren and then hugs long-and-breathtaking. Afterwards came the stand-back-and-let-me-take-you-in look, a wizened gaze piercing souls so deep I believed Aunt Blanche could out an impostor in a single stare. Not even a sociopath could pass her scrutiny! What my family told me after every lasting embrace was that I was special and it was my responsibility to live up to my good name. They knew my character and what they knew had come from God's lips to their ears, no need to have it confirmed by anyone else.

One aunt said I was chosen to be in the family because the spirits had told her so and even if I didn't believe in ghost stories, her validation was deep and comforting. Knowing we are valuable, that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, protects us when-and-if we forget our birthright. Like the time my ex dared challenge the collective agreements of an ancestral battalion of aunts and uncles and grandparents going back to Adam and Eve.

"You are Special," they had told me. "Never forget it!"

And I didn't. And it saved me.




RESOURCES

Craig Malkin "The reality is that we all fall somewhere between utter selflessness and grandiosity. A healthy middle, healthy degree of narcissism, is essential for a strong sense of self. Malkin deconstructs misconceptions of narcissism and offers clear, step-by-step guidance on how to protect ourselves and promote healthy narcissism in our partners, our children, and ourselves." Rethinking Narcissism: the Bad and Surprising Good about Feeling Special. Amazon Link

Craig Malkin's The Narcissism Test: What's Your Score? Huffington Post. 

Nina W. Brown "...is professor and eminent scholar in the Educational Leadership and Counseling Department at Old Dominion University. An expert on narcissism's effects on relationships, she is the author of ten books, including Children of the Self-AbsorbedWorking with the Self-Absorbed and Whose Life is it Anyway?" ~Amazon page

Normal and Yucky Narcissism on The Narcissistic Continuum. "Healthy narcissism allows people to tolerate criticism and failure, and contain negative feelings like guilt which leads to even deeper pro-social emotions like remorse and forgiveness. Healthy narcissism, as described by Heinz Kohut, includes creativity, empathy, a sense of humor, awareness of finiteness, and wisdom."

Healthy Narcissism on The Narcissistic Continuum. "Healthy narcissism plays a crucial role in the human capacity to manage challenges, successes and changes; to overcome defeats, illnesses, trauma, and losses; to love and be productive and creative; and to experience happiness, satisfaction, and acceptance of the course of one’s life." ~Elsa Ronningstam

2 comments:

  1. When a solid rooting is established and felt at a young age, it's forever. We can reconnect to it in difficult times. I feel it as a form of love and sometimes it was never said but however transmitted and deeply ingrained.
    Thanks CZ for reminding us of this blessing.
    nat

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for reading and replying, Nat! We recently had a wedding reception to attend and I was flooded with warm-and-cuddly feelings for extended family. I wanted to add my story to our growing knowledge about the healthy narcissism Dr. Malkin writes about, "The importance of feeling special".

      Some people misunderstand narcissism and believe that telling children they're special will inflate their egos but my experience says otherwise. It's the children who were never told (or felt) special that compensate for a lack of love with inflated grandiosity. That kind of unhealthy narcissism cannot sustain the inevitable slings-and-arrows and rejections we all experience.

      I think it's a bit daring to say in public that we felt Special; that our family believed we were special; that we told our children they were special. Of course, there has to be a factual basis to such expression and if we tell people they are special but ignore or demean them, well--words cannot compensate for hurtful actions.

      My therapist assured me many years ago, that I was very attached to my family, despite our challenges. My "love" for them and they for me, has pulled us through some terrible times when a less-secure attachment would have interrupted reconciliation and forgiveness.

      I appreciate your comment about a solid rooting, that it isn't always spoken aloud but children know on a visceral level that they are cared about and loved. Truly, you are right---this "knowing" never leaves us and yes, it is a blessing to be grateful for!

      Hugs,
      CZ

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