An Exploration of Hope and Paradox

Tag: mental health

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

Jerking the Steering Wheel

On occasion, I hang up from my weekly Zoom call with my therapist and wonder if I’m her most annoying patient. Some days I’ve analyzed myself so much before our session event starts that it probably feels like I’m trying to do her job for her. Other days, I’ve been running so fast I that I’ve fallen out of sync with myself, barely know what I’m feeling, and have a million different things racing through my head. On those days, I basically just throw up all over her.

Recently, we had one of those days. I was out of sync, and what came out in therapy was a list of things I’m frustrated about, including, “It feels like I’m going to be stuck here forever.” Like any good therapist, she promptly asked me why it felt that way.

I’ve stayed stuck before. I’ve put up with situations and relationships that weren’t good for me. I’ve hesitated to have hard conversations because I don’t know what will happen when they’re over. I get used to the status quo and then don’t question it. Even when we’re not fully satisfied with our lives, there’s something about familiarity that’s comforting.

In the past, I’ve also let fear control my decisions, and it’s cost me time. I don’t want to lose more. “It feels like if I don’t jerk the steering wheel, I’m going to be driving down this same road forever,” I told her.  

Funny thing is, I’m finally on road I’m happy with. Not that long ago, I was careening down a road lined with one nightmare after the other, seemingly headed toward the forest of no return. It’s a long story that I won’t go into now, but I got off that road.

And now, I’m puttering down a road of recovery. Like I said, it’s a good road, and I’m happy here. I’m making friends, building perspective, and letting go of things that were holding me back. I’m gaining things as I travel down this road, and the nightmares that are now in my rearview mirror remind me how much I have to be grateful for. But did I mention, I’m puttering? Or at least, that’s what it feels like.

Cue me telling my therapist that I worry if I don’t’ jerk the steering wheel, this road will be the rest of my life. Ten years from now I’ll still be “working toward” fixing relationships or “finding” the courage to tell my story. Or worse, I’ll be realizing that it’s too late to have hard conversations because the people I need to talk to aren’t around anymore.

I’ve only been seeing my therapist for a few months, but that’s long enough for her to have learned that I’m impatient—at least with myself (honestly, she probably had that one nailed in our first two sessions). I’ll give you all the grace and patience you need, but when it comes to looking in the mirror, I expect myself to have things figured out, fixed, and accomplished yesterday, or more likely, months ago. The fact that I’ve been on this road for longer than a month must clearly mean that I’m not doing enough.

It sounds silly when I spell it all out like this, but that’s the benefit of hindsight. In my throw-up-my-frustrations therapy session, my fear of going too slowly or of being stuck here forever felt very real. And somedays, even with perspective, it still does. On those days, I remember what my therapist told me: “Small adjustments to the steering wheel still move the car.”

I knew when I said it that jerking the steering wheel would cause a crash. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve actually picked up the debris caused by others jerking the wheel in their lives. I’ve been collateral damage in their crashes. But to someone who feels like they need to take action, to fix things, to figure it all out, small movements don’t feel like enough.  

So, I’m learning to be patient with the process. When I feel like I haven’t done enough, I remind myself of all the “little” things I’m discounting. Going back to therapy. Connecting with women from church, even though I originally didn’t want to. Ending my involvement with toxic people. Writing, if even in limited amounts, about my experiences. Identifying my weaknesses and recognizing when they’re driving my decisions or dictating my emotional state.

To me, these feel like small things. But my therapist is right*. They’re changing the trajectory of my life. I’m becoming a different person—it’s just not happening overnight. Because it’s not supposed to.

So, wherever you’re at in your life, I invite you to join me in being patient with the process. Extend to yourself the same patience and grace that you would a child or good friend. When you look in the mirror and are tempted to criticize yourself for not having done enough fast enough, consider the things you have done. Write them on your mirror if you need to so you’ll see them every day.

Even if it’s one thing, that one thing can lead to movement. And for where you’re at right now, one thing may be enough. No one is keeping score. You’re not on anyone’s clock but your own. Just keep puttering on down the road, make small adjustments when you need, and whatever you do, don’t jerk the freakin’ steering wheel.

*My therapist told me that when I eventually write a book, she wants a commission. For now, thank you will have to do: Thank you S.B.

Photo by emrecan arık on Unsplash

  1. Thank you Jessie, makes me think what defines us. Sometimes we get stuck in pain. Very encouraging blog.

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