An Exploration of Hope and Paradox

Tag: Healing

The year we misunderstood narcissism

A conversation about acknowledging the real meaning behind the labels we use  

Recently, Politico published an opinion piece titled, 2022 is The Year We All Finally Got Tired of Narcissists*, and I had to read it because I too, have opinions on this topic.

Narcissism is a topic I’ve studied a bit over the past few years, and I think the term “narcissist” is one that is often misunderstood and overused. I get frustrated when I see it thrown around flippantly because calling anyone who has a shred of arrogance a narcissist minimizes what is a real and truly harmful mental disorder.

One thing the Politico article does well is to acknowledge that Narcissism is a spectrum and that we can all have narcissistic tendencies to varying degrees. It’s something I’ve believed for years but rarely heard talked about.

The other thing the article acknowledges is that narcissism can be a clinical diagnosis. And that’s where I deviate slightly from the author. I believe that the label of narcissist not just can, but should, be a clinical diagnosis. In other words, we need to leave the official label to professionals and stop throwing it around like we actually know what we’re talking about.

Since I’m not a therapist or psychologist, it’s not my place to diagnose someone with depression, bipolar, or any other form of mental disorder. So why would I think it’s okay for me to label someone as a narcissist?

Once we’ve studied the actual traits and behaviors associated with narcissism, I do believe that it’s okay for us to say someone is high on the narcissistic spectrum. In fact, it’s not just okay. It’s important. It’s important because narcissism is much more than suggested in the Politico article. It doesn’t just affect celebrities and high-profile figures, and it’s much more complex than wanting attention.

Being able to spot narcissistic traits is not about writing off people we don’t like or finding an excuse to label others as bad. Honestly, it’s about protecting ourselves and using wisdom when we engage with others.

And that’s where I disagree with the Politico author a bit more. I get that this is a short opinion piece, and they can’t cover everything, but I think they’ve left out some important aspects of the conversation.  

The article talks about the narcissist’s constant quest for eyeballs and acclaim, and it points to examples like Harry and Megan, Elon Musk, and Ye. Are these people narcissist? Maybe. Again, it’s not my place to diagnose. Several of the people listed in the article are certainly high on the spectrum. There’s a reason their names are brought up in the conversation.

What bothers me is that the article seems to focus primarily on a desire for attention and public recognition, as if only those who thrust themselves into the spotlight can be narcissists. There’s also an implication here that the reason we’ve gotten sick of them is because we’re tired of the spectacle these people make in the media.

Take for example, this quote: “For the worst of it, see Ye, whose perennial need for attention has evolved from outbursts at awards shows to wearing ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirts and making antisemitic comments on podcasts.” What Ye did was undoubtedly inexcusable, but to call that the “worst of it” and then hold up Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried as simple “cautionary tales” is to misunderstand the true danger of narcissism.

The true danger of narcissism, in my personal experience, is not simply the self-grandiose thinking and need for attention that could lead someone to make harmful and abusive statements (thought that’s part of it). The true danger is the ability and willingness to lie, manipulate, gaslight, and deceive. That’s what we see with Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried.

Again, I’m not here to call them narcissists, but since the Politico article brought them into the conversation, I will agree that that they exhibit narcissistic traits. In my opinion, they exhibit some of the most dangerous narcissistic traits in their ability to deceive and manipulate on a grand scale and still not fully recognize or acknowledge what they did wrong.

The article also uses a great deal of real estate to talk about Harry and Megan, and it’s clear the author is bothered by the way they seek the spotlight. I’ll be honest that I don’t follow them enough to have a strong, educated opinion, but I was surprised to see them on this list. With some people who are in the spotlight, I believe there is more going on than what we see.

Seeking (and seemingly loving attention) might place someone on the spectrum, but it doesn’t necessarily make them a narcissist. For Harry and Megan, capturing their private moments or asking for millions of dollars for a book deal could be simple business savvy, as opposed to narcissism. Not to mention, Harry was born into the spotlight. While he’s left the royal family, there is a degree to which the spotlight will always chase him. The things he and Megan are doing could simply be an attempt to ensure the spotlight thrust on their family is as accurate as possible.

I mention this because it’s another reminder that we must be careful when and how we use the term. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge not everyone who seeks the public eye is a full-blown narcissist. Similarly, not all narcissists are in the public eye.

That last piece is critical for us to acknowledge. While we’ve seen the damage that can be done by individuals like Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried, what we really need to look out for is people in our personal sphere who exhibit strong narcissistic tendencies.  

That sentence may sound ominous or fearmongering. That’s not my goal. My goal is that we acknowledge the fact that narcissism is a spectrum, and we could come across people in our personal lives who are high on that spectrum. At best, those people will be annoying and obnoxious. At worst, they’ll be manipulative, deceptive, and ultimately, dangerous.

That’s why this conversation is important. Having this conversation can help us protect ourselves and our children. It can help us spot individuals in our families, workplaces, and social circles with whom we might need to set boundaries (or possibly disengage completely).  

But first, we must understand what narcissism looks like. Again, the “narcissistic” label should never be used simply to write off people we don’t like or would rather not deal with. While I’ve studied narcissism for personal reasons, I am by no means an expert, so I’m not going to attempt to cover the characteristics in detail here today. Instead, I’d rather point you to a few of the professionals whose knowledge I found helpful.

If you truly want to understand what narcissism looks like, I’d encourage you to take a peek at these or similar resources that unpack how these traits actually play out. Simply Googling something like “top 10 traits of narcissists” will get you a nice, tidy list that barely scratches the surface. While moderately helpful, these lists miss some of the manipulative techniques used by those who are high on the spectrum and, in my experience, can lead us to think people we’re engaging with couldn’t actually be narcissistic.  

I think it’s important to include a note that we must always remember grace in these conversations, because none of us are perfect. If our goal in labeling someone narcissistic is anything other than calling a spade a spade and protecting ourselves and our loved ones, then we need to check our motives.

There is grace for even the clinically diagnosed narcissist who has caused personal or large-scale harm. But extending grace does not mean that we don’t set boundaries. It doesn’t mean that we don’t protect ourselves. (For more on that topic, read this 2021 post, Using Someone Else’s Shower.) I will always champion and encourage healthy boundaries and self-protection. Recognizing narcissistic traits can help us identify when we need to set those boundaries and understand the best ways to protect ourselves.

*If you’re curious, here is the Politico article. Read it with a grain of salt. It’s not wrong, but it is an opinion piece that, in my estimation, misses important parts of the conversation and attempts to diminish narcissism to a simple desire for attention and fame.

Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

Shaking your fist at the sky

Responding to loss and disappointment without channeling your inner 2-year-old

When I turned 2, I received a shiny red trike for my birthday. As if the trike wasn’t an exciting enough gift for a small child, mine came with a giant mylar balloon of Bozo the Clown tied to it. I don’t know why Bozo, but it could have been of anything and I would have been just as thrilled. That balloon was bigger than my head. It was bright and colorful, and I had probably never been given—let alone seen—anything like it before. 

Now, imagine my little dimpled, curly headed face overwhelmed with birthday pleasure. Thrilled at the thought of her first trike, sure, but even more than that, enthralled by the giant clown face whose smile was bigger than hers. 

Barely old enough to know what a birthday is, I’m sure I was hyped up on some sort of sugar and the excitement of having so much attention directed at me. Even though it was August, it was gray and cloudy out, but clouds weren’t going to stop me from trying out my sporty new trike. So, we wheeled that baby out to the backyard, Bozo balloon and all. 

And that’s where it happened. The details are sketchy—it was 30 some years ago after all. I’m not really sure how long we were outside or what exactly happened to compromise the safety of my Bozo balloon. All I know is that one second, Bozo was chillin’, suspended above my new handlebars, and the next second, he was headed for the clouds, that big smile of his almost making it look as if he was laughing as he went. 

And I lost it. Maybe when you’re 3 you can handle these things with a little more grace and dignity, but at 2, the only thing you know is to let your pain and disappointment wash over you in a flood of tears. 

So that’s what I did. I cried. I cried for Bozo. Really, I cried for myself. For the loss of something that was mine for such a short, sweet amount of time. For the fact that an injustice had been done to me, on my birthday of all days. I don’t know how long the crying went on, but I can picture myself, 30 pounds of frustrated energy, shaking her tiny fist at the sky as tears run down her face. 

And it wasn’t the last time I would take that stance. Since then, life has taken a lot of Bozo balloons from me. It’s snatched up all kinds of stuff that I liked. Stuff that I thought I deserved. Stuff that brought me happiness. Stuff that I wanted to keep suspended above my life, if only just to look at and enjoy. 

I’d like to say that I’ve handled each loss better than that disappointment on my second birthday. But I’d be lying to say that I haven’t thrown tantrums, screamed, asked why, and gotten angry. I’m not 2 anymore, and my emotional intelligence has gotten stronger, but so have the blows that life has dealt me. 

When I look at life, including loss, disappointment, and my reactions, I’m reminded of my second birthday for a couple of reasons. 

The first reason is that I don’t remember this birthday as the birthday where I received my first trike. Instead, I remember it as the birthday when I lost my Bozo balloon. If my mom called me today and said, “Hey, I’ve been looking through old pictures. Remember your second birthday when we got you a trike?” I’m certain my automatic reply would be, “You mean the birthday when my balloon floated away?”

The loss, injustice, and pain are the main thing I remember. All the excitement of a 2-year-old birthday celebration and the ensuing moments of fun and enjoyment with a new trike, and I choose to remember the few seconds I spent crying over a balloon. 

I do that in life too. I look at the things I’ve lost and re-frame stories based on what was taken from me or how I was hurt. It’s easy to do this. When life deals us true injustices, it’s natural and sometimes even necessary to look at what we’ve lost—to grieve the things that were taken from us.

The question is, how long will we stare up at the place in the sky where something just floated away? When we’re looking up at a fading dot among the clouds, it’s hard to see the trike sitting on the sidewalk, waiting for us to ride it. 

The second reason this birthday reminds me of life is that my memories of it are formed by stories and pictures shown to me by others. I know I recounted this story in seemingly vivid detail, but in full disclosure, I don’t actually remember it. After all, I was 2 when it happened.

But the story has been recounted to me many times since. I’ve seen pictures of the Bozo balloon and of myself, smiling and testing out my trike before the fateful moment came. 

My parents have told me all about my disappointment and the pain they felt watching a 2-year-old “suffer” on her birthday. And I’ve taken on that pain with them. Even when I was 10 and 13 and they would tell me this story, I would frown and say, “I feel so bad for my poor 2-year-old self.” And that became the narrative of my second birthday. 

I let the stories and memories of others inform my own. And my second birthday isn’t the only time I’ve done that. At times, I’ve rehearsed the negative in my life. I’ve listened to the narratives of others who validate a victim mentality, who say it’s justified to feel bad for myself when I’ve lost something—or had something taken from me.

It’s easy to listen to those voices. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we do have legitimate reasons to be sad—or even to feel bad for ourselves. Sometimes it’s validating to hear someone else say, “It sucks that your balloon floated away on your birthday.”

I’ve had therapy sessions where that’s basically the conversation. Me saying, “This sucks, and I don’t like it,” and my therapist agreeing: “You’re right, it does.”

She’ll let me sit there if I need to, but she won’t let me stay there. That’s why I keep going back to her. She doesn’t spend her time telling me how messed up my life is or how bad I have it. She spends it helping find new ways to look at the things I’ve experienced. Gifts I’ve been given. Moments of joy. Things I can change.

I have a few round-table friends who do this too. And those are the friends I want in my life. The ones who will not just sit with me and cry, but also remind me that I’ve been given a new trike to ride. The ones who help me find fresh narratives, rather than just validating a “poor you,” mindset.

If we want the “poor you” mindset validated, we can always find those voices. There are plenty of people who would be willing to tell us how bad we have it. But if I listen only to the voices of those telling me what a raw deal I got, I’m allowing myself to become a victim. By agreeing with them, I freeze myself as a 2-year-old shaking her fist at the sky, staring at the space where the balloon just disappeared, while there’s a shiny red trike just waiting for me to hop on. 

It’s natural to be angry, and upset, and frustrated when we lose something. It’s normal to feel violated when something it taken from us. Those are feelings we need to acknowledge and find healthy ways to express. Once we’ve done so, the question becomes: Will I allow that anger and violation to define my perspective? Will I listen to those who tell me I have a right to be a victim, or will I choose to be intentional about how I respond?

Will I surround myself with people who acknowledge the reality of my pain without letting me wallow in it? Will I chose to ride the bike, even if it reminds me of the balloon that was taken away?

I get that it’s not easy. Trust me. I have nearly daily reminders of reasons I could choose to be angry—reasons I could cry and shake my fist at the sky. In the time I’ve spent doing that, I’ve learned that focusing on my pain only breeds more pain. However, when I’ve chosen to look away from the pain, I’ve learned that there’s always something better to focus on, even in the midst of legitimate suffering.

I hope I’ve made it clear by now that I’m not saying to ignore pain in some sort of Pollyanna move where you pretend that everything is good when you’re hurting inside. I’ve done that too, and while that’s a topic for another day, I’ll say here that this is not beneficial either. 

What I am talking about is acknowledging your pain and then choosing not to give it attention or power. I’m talking about letting yourself have a good cry and then looking away from the sky and down at the trike. I’m talking about finding a new perspective or something good you can focus on when life, or people, or simple memories send reminders of injustices.

It’s not a one-time thing. Like I said, it’s sometimes a daily choice for me to not shake my fist at the sky. But the more I surround myself with people who help me focus on what’s good, the less I want to stare up at the balloon getting smaller and smaller on the horizon.  

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