I am frustrated. I just woke up annoyed. Ever been there? The reason I have a low grade level of aggravation this fine morning is because I find some of the teaching on narcissism to be truly damaging and confusing to survivors. I know that’s not the intent of well-meaning people but the outcome is still the same.
I do a lot of reading, listening to podcasts/radio shows and in general spend time doing research on the topic of narcissism, sociopathy and psychopathy. I can tell you that there are different camps of people out there who propose a wide range of beliefs about the development of personality disorders and the spectrum of what we should expect as normal human character flaws. Narcissism seems to be the gray area where most discord bubbles up. Good ol’ Sigmund Freud tried to normalize narcissism and some folks have been jumping on the Siggy bandwagon ever since. From a modern therapeutic perspective, I find it frightening.
You see, when people speak, write and share their belief that we all have some level of “narcissism” within us, it completely waters down and minimizes the depth of trauma a survivor has experienced at the hands of a real, fully developed, clinically diagnosable Narcissist with a capital N.
We are not all narcissists.
Within any given moment, do we all have the ability to be completely self-serving, manipulative, snarky to a stranger, snap at our kids, slam doors in the middle of an adult temper-tantrum, seek our own self-preservation at the expense of someone else and so on? Sure we do! No one would argue that people can be real dirtbags at times. However, once the moment of our toddler-esque meltdown is over, we feel bad. We realize what a jerk we were and are embarrassed that we took our inner annoyance out on another person. We apologize by saying sorry, doing something nice for the other person or we just inwardly repent for being hostile towards a stranger. We come back to our baseline of being a normally decent human being and can reflect back on our ridiculous behaviors. Narcissists can not do that. Should I say it again? Narcissists can not do that. They can not, will not, don’t desire to be self-reflective, always blame others and will never ever change. So, back to the question of whether we are all a little narcissistic. No, we are not. Narcissists are narcissists and the rest of humanity have a normal range of moods and character flaws. Big huge gaping hole between the two.
Why do I find it damaging to survivors when people speak and write about narcissism being normal? Imagine growing up in a home with an alcoholic. For some, this sadly won’t be too hard to imagine because that’s exactly what they did. They know the palpable tension that was in the room every evening or weekend while the alcoholic became more and more drunk. They know the embarrassment of having friends over when the alcoholic couldn’t or wouldn’t hide their intoxication and it spilled out for everyone to see. They know the terror when the alcoholic became enraged and lashed out verbally or physically, or perhaps both. An adult child of an alcoholic knows in every fiber of their being what living with a true alcoholic is like. Now, imagine people were writing books, speaking and sharing the belief that we are all a little bit of an alcoholic. Yep. Every single person who engages in drinking a beer, glass of wine or cocktail is now an official alcoholic. Seems odd right?
It should seem off because not everyone who consumes alcohol does damage while they consume alcohol nor is it a pervasive pattern of behaving. Ahhh. There’s that terminology again. Pervasive Pattern of Behaving. You see, that’s the key to determining whether a behavior is merely normal character defects or perhaps warrants a diagnoses. As a counselor, when folks talk about their relationship to alcohol and their stories start to worry me a bit, I ask them to go to a local recovery center and do an assessment with a specialist. We need to know where on the spectrum is the person regarding addiction. Some people come back to my office and say that the assessment showed they have tendencies towards alcohol addiction but their behaviors don’t currently rise to the level of an Alcoholic. Other people don’t come back to my office because they immediately entered a 28 day rehab program because their relationship to drinking was abusive. During recovery meetings, those people will have to become real comfortable saying their first name and adding “I am an alcoholic” behind it. Acknowledging they have a problem is part of the recovery. Not everyone needs to be able to say they are an alcoholic because they are not one. Same with narcissism. Not everyone behaves in ways that rise to the level of being diagnosed as a Narcissist.
Now, let’s pause here and clear the air on an important matter. I am from the school of thought that we don’t call someone a Narcissist unless they are a narcissist as defined by the Narcissistic Personality Disorder criteria. This belief is not unlike that of determining whether someone drinks alcohol in a normal manner or rises to the level of an addiction and now the term Alcoholic fits. There isn’t “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” and then “Narcissist Junior”; as if Narcissist Junior is some watered down version of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
To all those people who choose to use the term Narcissist loosely, please and for the love of all that is good and wise, stop calling normal people Narcissists. Please. I am begging you.
If you are not a licensed mental health professional and trained in the criteria for diagnosing Narcissism (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), then do your research and start by looking up the DSM 5’s criteria.
We all know that language and word choices play a key part within any group or culture. In the recovery community of psychological abuse, we must pick our language carefully and with intent. Our purpose should be to highlight the incredible fraud that is being perpetrated against victims and to highlight the road to recovery and healing. By watering down the word “Narcissist’ to include any 2 year old child who selfishly wants a toy is harmful not only to the toddler, but to society as a whole. Do some people propose that even kids are narcissists? Yes. That’s the level of misguided thinking that permeates the conversation on this topic.
For you survivors, I strongly encourage you to find a set of beliefs within the recovery community that fit you and your view of your own experiences with a narcissist. Dialogue on the topic is wonderful and I think a wide range of views help survivors find where they fit best in the recovery community. Until scientific discovery finds that magical moment or spot in the brain that can definitively tell us how or why narcissists exist, we will continue to seek answers and that’s a great thing.
Keep Dreaming Big! – Shannon