Monday, January 16

Survival guide

Many of us share some traits of narcissism that linger from our childhoods, and most manage to tame extreme notions that we might be special.

In the novel Fear of Beauty, a bullying terrorist who resents education, books, women, Americans, joy, you name it, swoops down on the fictional village of Laashekoh and takes control. Janhangir assumes he can whip up resentment against a nearby American outpost for a provincial reconstruction team, including soldiers and civilians whose goal is to provide technical support on agriculture, and he uses that as an excuse to take control of Laashekoh. Jahangir and his men are brutal with high-powered weapons at their disposal.

Jahangir is a narcissist, covering every insecurity when near those more productive and intelligent, with a brash manner and assertive ignorance.

Some observers like Zoe Williams, writing for the Guardian, have suggested that we are amidst a narcissism epidemic: "From attention-seeking celebrities to digital oversharing and the boom in cosmetic surgery, narcissistic behaviour is all around us. How worried should we be about our growing self-obsession?" The examples include increased reliance on cosmetic surgery, selfies and oversharing on social media and includes informaton from Pat MacDonald, author of "Narcissism in the Modern World" who wrote:

"Seemingly irreversible alterations to family life, technological development – including social media, attitudes to death and dying and celebrity worship, all feature in the rise of our narcissistic society and are interconnected trends. Group greed and grandiosity, as in the world of banking, have led to wide-scale corruption and cover-ups leaving us vulnerable and unable to place our trust in many organisations. Perhaps most sinister of all is our attitude to the planet that supports us, as we play a part in the destruction of much of the environment and many of the species that share the earth with us."

And how worried should we be about the self-obsession of others, the Janhangirs of this world, who might have control over us? Mayo Clinic lists the criteria from the DSMV, the diagnostic manual on mental health:
  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expects to be recognized as superior even without achievements
  • Exaggerates achievements and talents
  • Preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty
  • Believing that he or she is superior and can only be understood by others who are superior.
  • Requires constant admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Expects special favors and compliance
  • Takes advantage of others
  • An inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Envious of others and believes others are also envious
  • Behaves in an arrogant or haughty manner.
The cause?  Possibly genetics combined with parents who treated their children as objects with excessive praise or criticism. Awareness of the personality disorder is one means of protection. A goal is not to become what some call the narcissistic victim, compelled to reinforce the narcissist's self-image, obeying and telling that person what he or she yearns to hear, accepting all blame for the problems sure to ensue from focusing on petty appearances and slights rather than the larger challenges at hand. Oddly enough, some of the most insecure are repeatedly attracted to the traits.  

Some narcissists are downright clownish with their belligerence and unbearable and experts offer advice. "Keep your distance," suggests Preston Ni for Psychology Today.  Of course, that does not help when someone like Jahangir takes over an entire community and is capable of brute force. But Ni also advises reliance on assertive communication, saying no firmly, not over-reacting and expecting plenty of disappointments. "The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to 'stand down' a difficult person," he writes. "Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the narcissist, and compels her or him to shift from violation to respect."

Steve Berglas describes workplace narcissists for Forbes and also offers some defense: They overpromise. Any consideration of another is intended to exact future promises. They demand attention and immediate response. They crave praise, and any criticism must be couched as praise. They regard themselves as victims and expect others to share that view.

The narcissist's craving for praise can be maniuplated in practical ways, and some narcissists can be convinced to pursue good deeds to obtain that praise. "All is not lost," notes Williams of the Guardian. "MacDonald picks out five principles of self-improvement: gratitude, modesty, compassion (for self and others), mindfulness and community. Some of these are obvious – modesty as an antidote to self-love – and some have a practical application." 

Though some prominent narcissists seem beyond help. So back to the village of Laashekoh and how Parsaa and Sofi, husband and wife, managed to remove Jahangir. Sofi describes her feelings; "From my home, I watched Jahangir with disgust, how he raised tension and then smiled and laughed, letting everyone think that his wrath had faded. the speed of his changing moods was most disturbing. The anxiety of waiting for his next eruption was a dark and all-consuming force."

The couple remains mostly quiet about their concerns and resist in secret ways. Each is on the lookout for others whom they could trust, and for most of the novel, Parsaa and Sofi are uncertain about whether they can trust each other. One is more impatient and angry than the other. So, they work separately on their own strategies - analyzing long-term consequences, following Jahangir, tracking him and taking account of his secret deals and meetings. Both rely on help from outsiders to the village for support. This comes from the same American soldiers at the nearby outpost who Jahangir wants to attack.

Those committed to the development and enforcement of the rule of law is one challenge for the Jahangirs of this world and another is clashes with other narcississts.

And the worst experience may be for the child who is trapped at home with a narcissistic parent, as explored in Allure of Deceit. An interactive version of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory is available online - a good tool before dating or hiring someone as well as for assessing one's self. Studies suggest that self-reporting of narcissism has climbed among college students in recent years.

Some will be lulled into the notion of feeling special, but few appreciate or get along with a narcissist for very long.


Image of Narcissus and Echo, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, courtesy of Stefano Bolignini and Wikimedia Commons. The term "narcissism" is from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who is fascinated with himself and rejects the admiration of others including Echo, whose voice is limited to repeating just a few words of what another has just said.  

 

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