|Narcissus by J.W. Waterhouse, 1912|
That’s me on a good-hair day: picking my bouquet of narcissus flowers, the ones that belong to me. Narcissus flowers otherwise known as "unhealthy traits and immature behaviors" require my dutiful scrutiny since I don’t like hurting other people, leaving a mess because I refuse to apologize or change my ways. As uncomfortable as it is to apologize for being self-centered, it’s even more uncomfortable not to. Not being able to make amends leaves me feeling, well---miserable. Like spending the night in a motel and not making my bed before leaving.
Leaving a mess for someone else to clean up is a decent metaphor describing what happens when the narcissist refuses to pick up his or her responsibility expecting you to do it yourself because you are the real mess-maker and therefore, deserve to be the cleaner-upper. Now, you aren’t sure who left dishes on the counter and might make the mistake of blaming yourself for a mess you didn’t create by yourself. It’s hard to know whose dirty plate is whose when only one person does the dishes. Before very long, you just DO the dishes without worrying about whose plate belongs to whom. Is this a housewife’s explanation of narcissistic plates, I mean 'traits'? Haha! Give me a break here, I’m doin’ the best I can.
When we’re taking a look at what psychologists define as ‘narcissistic traits’, we might over-examine our flaws and minimize the narcissist’s flaws. That’s been my experience, anyway. I minimized pathological traits because of my false assumption that everyone wanted to CHANGE their behavior if they hurt other people. That everyone harmed each other occasionally, but it wasn't intentional because as soon as we realized what we’d done, we'd stew in self-pity for a few days and eventually apologize. We woke up to our wicked ways and cleaned up the mess we left behind.
They do their dishes. We do ours. Everybody’s happy again. No hard feelings. Life’s a banquet.
Just take my word for it: I am not perfect and I make lots of mistakes and I’m one helluva dishwasher as a consequence. If you invite me to visit your home, I’ll do my own dishes, thank you very much! I may even make my bed before leaving, after washing and ironing the pillowcases so you won’t have to. My idealistic goal is to make sure I leave no messes behind when I pass through the pearly gates.
St. Peter will ask, “Did you make someone else scrub your bean pot or did you do it yourself?” And I can stare him right in the eye and say, “My bean pot was not only clean, dear sir, my daughter displays it on her counter!”
When I first took the NPI (Narcissistic Personality Inventory), it seemed fairly frivolous. After all, who would be arrogant enough to select B: If I ruled the world it would be a better place.
The longer I’ve thought about this test, the more useful it becomes for self-examination, though it’s probably a fruitless measure of pathological narcissism. A covert narcissist would never pick “B” because it would be too honest. It would pinpoint their disguised grandiosity. Not just because they need to convince other people they aren’t narcissists but because first-and-foremost, they must convince themselves. Any attribute threatening their self-image is automatically denied by their psychic overlord. The overlord with big teeth who protects widdle narcissists from knowing the truth about themselves.
“They can’t handle the truth,” as Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men. And the more you insist they recognize the truth about themselves, the more they defend their pretenses! You end up being the persecutor because nobody can rescue the narcissist from his favorite position on the Drama Triangle: the Victim.
I know it’s never ever easy to hear the truth about yourself when it’s contrary to the person you believe yourself to be. “What? You mean I hurt you when I didn’t call you back on the phone?” So you take that thought and you sit with it and you justify not calling that person back because one day, back in 1973 on a hot August night, she said something you didn’t like and so, she doesn't deserve a reply in 2010! Who does she think she is anyway?!! She hurt you FIRST so she DESERVES your silence!”
Then you catch yourself in the ‘self-justification campaign’ and you admit to being insensitive so you call her on the phone, sufficiently humbled to apologize for ignoring her. That’s my life. Make a mess. Clean it up. Make a mess. Clean it up. I’ll be doing dishes on my deathbed. I will not be doing my X-husbaNd’s dishes, though. B: I take my satisfactions as they come and B: I hope I am going to be successful because B: I try to accept the consequences of my behavior and B: I like to do things for other people. Like keeping my dirty dishes out of their sinks and not cleaning up messes that don't belong to me.
Sometimes usually I am not sure of what I am doing, which means B: There is a lot that I can learn from other people.
But here’s the mistake many of us make: We recognize our self-centeredness and identify with the narcissist’s struggles to work through narcissistic traits; we relate to the challenge of balance, being too much or too little either direction of the continuum. We understand unhealthy narcissism because we can tolerate the truth about ourselves.
The seven traits measured on the NPI are:
Take 3) superiority and; 4) exhibitionism, for example. Is it narcissistic to blog about our personal lives as if we’re such interesting and special individuals that other people should care? Or are we writing about our lives to figure out who we are, creating an honest, integrated relationship with our selves sans pretenses? I think the average person has numerous thoughts like this on an ordinary day, especially when you're learning about narcissism.
Self-examination is rarely pleasant. If it is, you're probably one. Narcissist, I mean.
ANYWAY, back to my point: The false assumption we make about pathological narcissism however is this: Narcissistic traits without ‘empathy’ are the foundation to objectification and therefore: exploitation. Empathy for others and communal values hold us steady, reigning us back to normal if we go too far either direction. Empathy is the glue to healthy relationships---with other people and with yourself. If you don't have glue running through your veins, there's a high probability you'll hurt the very people who care about you the most. That's a fact.
So what happens in the narcissistic relationship is that we see very clearly that the narcissist has issues, but assume their issues are no different than our issues. We assume all human beings want to love and be loved; maybe needing reassurance that they’re lovable until they feel secure enough to love us back. We assume everyone empathizes and would never be so callous as to ‘exploit’ people’s trust or devalue-and-discard them without chagrin. The idea that someone would manipulate other people and take advantage of them is so foreign we assume it only happens to people who aren't like ourselves. Certainly not to people we know. Like husbands and parents and wives and co-workers and children. Because once you’re ‘connected to someone empathically, the relationship becomes personal. You could not walk away from a mess and still think of yourself as a good person if you did.
You make the big fat mistake assuming that everyone else is like yourself.
The only way to leave a mess behind and justify it is to see people as serviceable objects, not human beings. To feel entitled to treat people the way they did not teach you to treat them, but because you’re so special, you're above the rules of common decency.
So you can take a list of narcissistic traits and for enlightenment purposes, view those traits through the eyes of empathy. Then take off your empathy glasses and examine those traits through the eyes of Prince Machiavelli. That might help you understand the distinction between narcissistic traits we all share---and pathology.
Narcissistic Continuum: Rescue yourself from the DRAMA
Narcissistic Continuum: Take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory