Let’s talk about something most of us have a hard time acknowledging, identifying, and accepting – in ourselves and others. Narcissism.
There is a pervasiveness of narcissism in our culture. Social media, society, and even our president encourages it. Post about the best things in your life, not the dark sides of them. Base your self worth on how many “likes” you get to your portrayed existence. Talk about your accomplishments and not your failures. Take your selfie while going to a dress-up party and not when you’re in your pajamas at home, wallowing in Ben and Jerry’s after crying for hours. When people ask about how you are, say “I’m good” or “I’m fine,” not “Well, I think my partner and I will break up, my parents and I have a strained relationship, and my job is on tenuous ground.” We are taught to create masks and make our lives look perfect, idyllic. When everyone knows it’s not. This is why depression and anxiety and suicide is so rampant in our society and our culture. Japan is even worse.
There is a difference, however, between our taught narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Outside of the technology and day-to-day sphere, we are all narcissistic sometimes. In fact, it benefits us to be. By recognizing the positive things about ourselves, we can have higher self esteem and it encourages us to connect with other humans in positive ways and empathize with them as well. If we see ourselves in a generally positive light (without inflation and ego), we can love others better and give more to the world.
NPD, however, is a personality disorder characterized by a consistent inflated sense of self-importance and a lack of ability to empathize with others. They often take advantage of others to get what they want, even stooping to manipulation. They require constant attention and admiration and any criticism of their behavior is taken as a threat, while they dish out their own criticism without regard for others’ feelings.
Behaviors of people with NPD, in contrast to basic narcissism, are rooted in desperately low self-esteem, shame, and guilt for their existence. Despite their outward appearance of arrogance and thinking they are God’s gift to mankind, deep down, they are very deeply hurt and in pain and pushing away the thing they most want – connection, intimacy, love. Often, this is because their parents and caretakers did not provide this in earlier years and so they made an “ideal self” inside of them that they could believe was special and amazing. This is why criticism feels so awful to them. They need to prove they are right and others are wrong because any threat to their created “ideal self” is proving their own insecurities, fear, shame, and guilt correct.
I bring up NPD and narcissism in general because I am convinced D has it. Understanding its basis reminds me again of how human he is. Though it makes me sad, it explains why he hasn’t changed. And it reminds me of the compassion and love he deserves, even though he may never accept or appreciate it. The below quote especially rings true:
“For narcissists, when their position has been exposed as false, arbitrary, or untenable, will suddenly become evasive, articulate half-truths, lie (actually, as much to themselves as others), flat-out contradict themselves (and to a degree that can leave the other person gaping!), and freely rewrite history (literally–and audaciously–making things up as they go along). This is why at such times they don’t seem adults so much as six-year-olds. And in fact, when others inadvertently trigger mini emotional crises in them, there’s little doubt that, both cognitively and emotionally, they can regress to a maturity level of that age (or less).”
D knew he was smart. He also fortified this trait in himself so much so that he could debate with people endlessly to reinforce how smart he was. He was always right in his head. And when others tried to defend their beliefs, he would pad his esteem with criticisms of how unintelligent they were. In this way, he acted just like a young bully in school; cutting people down to raise himself up. But most bullies outgrow this behavior, when they find it is intolerable and unfair to others. And he never did outgrow it. Still hasn’t (based on his behavior in the recent call and his continued scathing, name-calling comments on The Guardian).
There was a moment right before I left D where I witnessed him standing in front of a mirror, buying the first muscle shirt he had ever owned. He looked at himself with this awe – awe that he had grown into a man with muscles, that he could wear something and people would view him as strong. In a sudden flash, I realized he still saw himself as a child, one who never got the love he needed and still didn’t believe he deserved it. (Every time I saw him thereafter, he was wearing that shirt.) He was still a child whose biological father had died when he was too young to know him. A child who couldn’t fight back against his abusive grandmother, who raised him. A child who wasn’t protected by his alcoholic grandfather or his mother, who dropped him off at her parents to take care of him while she went off to Germany with a new man to have more kids with him. She never came back.
He wears a mask like everyone else, but his is so hardened, there is no (obvious or easy) way to remove it. His is hardened in the long-ago past to protect himself from the pain that remained so deep in him, that he was unwilling to uncover it. And of course he is unwilling – it is scary, it hurts, and it may actually require him to chisel away at his mask and become vulnerable and see himself for who he is and accept his own behavior. None of us *want* to do that. But maybe all of us *need* to.
In starting to chisel away at my own negative behaviors and fears and anxieties, I am reminded that D is just a human – like me, like everyone. He wants love like everyone does. And like most of us, he is entirely unaware of what it looks like or how to get it – and prevents himself from receiving or giving it in a cycle of repeating the abuse he received. Can’t we all relate to this in some way? We are all broken and we all have some kind of trauma. I don’t think there is a childhood that hasn’t been traumatic in some way. But I believe we all have the capacity for healing if we work at it, if we continue to be vulnerable and honest with ourselves and others. Just like the Japanese idea of kintsugi, I believe we are more valuable having been broken and put ourselves back together than we are never having been broken at all. If any of us were “complete” humans, we’d be ethereal or enlightened or something. We work at and continue to be imperfect – and maybe that is the beauty of being human.