Self-esteem is terrific. Self-esteem run hysterically riot is not. Martha Beck shows you how to deal with the Me! Me! Me! person in your life. (The ego you save may be your own.)
Esteem is a warm, accepting quality, and directing it toward oneself is a fine thing. However, not all aspects of human behavior merit this cozy welcome. Positive-thinking guides rarely draw the distinction between healthy self-acceptance and the malignant narcissism characteristic of tyrants who dominate relationships and households, if not entire nations. Think of someone in your life who seems to have an abundance of self-satisfaction. Now think about the way you feel after an interaction with this person. If you feel warm, nourished, and valued, you've probably encountered someone with healthy self-esteem. But if the conversation leaves you feeling ashamed, confused, self-doubting, or invisible, break out the red flags. It's highly likely you're dealing with a narcissist. Asian philosophy might call narcissism the "near enemy" of real self-esteem; something that looks like the genuine article but has opposite results. Learning to spot narcissists and deal with their destructive behavior can save you the world of hurt that awaits anyone who mistakes the near enemy for a friend.
How to Tell Healthy Self-Esteem from Narcissism
Try this: Go to the person in your life who reeks of self-esteem and ask, "In what ways do you think you need to grow or change?" If the person is psychologically healthy, the list will be as long as your leg. That's because real self-esteem is based on finding areas where we can improve ourselves and honestly working to overcome problems. Healthy people know that they are always a work in progress. Narcissists, on the other hand, will tell you they have nothing to change. They're unwilling to acknowledge their unfinished nature, because admitting imperfection is intolerable for them. This means they never correct mistakes or broaden their horizons, and whatever pain they feel festers indefinitely. Narcissists often live in anguish while refusing to accept that their own behavior has anything to do with their discontent.
Molly, as I'll call her, sought my services because she felt unfulfilled. However, bewilderingly, she also told me that her life was absolutely perfect. She wanted me to fix her pain but avoid the slightest suggestion that she herself should change anything. When I did recommend change, Molly became intensely anxious and defensive, almost hostile. She threw a mild version of the tantrum psychologists call a narcissistic rage, an explosive reaction to the idea that the narcissist might be less than perfect. Narcissistic rage may take the form of shouting, crying, whining, lying, or stomping out of the room—which is what Molly eventually did, to my immense relief.
The intensity of a narcissistic rage reveals not self-esteem but an underlying fear of being thought unworthy and bad. To deal with narcissists, it helps to understand that they generally detest themselves at some level. They've fully incorporated the values of some highly judgmental social system (a family, a religion, a community), where love is given or withheld based on external criteria. (If you're beautiful, thin, and smart, you'll be loved; if you're a fat, ugly grade-school dropout, forget it.) People who are socialized this way become addicted to status markers the way junkies are addicted to intoxicants; they crave praise because it's the closest they ever get to unconditional love. The following thoughts may help you avoid this booby trap.
Riding the Self-Esteem Roller Coaster
The problem with depending on external success is that it makes you terribly vulnerable to failure. If you rely on youthful beauty, growing old is a living annihilation. If brains are your ticket to self-acceptance, one whack on the head could demolish your entire excuse for being. The cycle of good and bad fortune is like the rise and fall of a roller coaster: What goes up inevitably comes down. The narcissist's objective is to stay at the high points of the roller coaster all the time. This is impossible. Real self-esteem comes from being able to enjoy the whole loopy ride.
I remember visiting my friend Steve, a political cartoonist, as he happily perused some hate mail that would have sent me into hiding for, oh, a year or two. When I asked him how he stayed so calm, Steve said, "Well, these letters are basically right. My last cartoon was pretty mean-spirited." A little later I noticed a beautiful crystal sculpture on the coffee table and asked Steve what it was. "That?" he said, in exactly the same mild voice he'd just used to criticize his work. "That's my Pulitzer Prize." Steve was riding the roller coaster of shame and adulation without being caught up in either its highs or its lows—and he was enjoying it immensely.
This is possible only if we have a point of reference that lies beyond the roller coaster. Imagine yourself as a loving mother watching your child ride the roller coaster from a safe spot on the ground. Do you notice when the child is going up and when she's going down? Of course! Does your love for her vary depending on which way the roller coaster is headed? Of course not! Adopting this benevolent attitude toward your own skittish, childish little ego is a fairly straightforward process, though not always an easy one. In Robert Frost's words,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
The "something like a star" that can stay our minds is our awareness that every person, including ourselves, is infinitely—and therefore equally—precious.
Recent statistics indicate that the incidence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is on the increase. Therefore more and more of us will come across narcissistic individuals in the course of our daily lives, whether at work or in the family home.
We recently looked at the case of Elinor, who has a mother who suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. As narcissists rarely seek treatment as they are not aware that they suffer from the disorder, it is up to friends and family members, the primary sufferers at the hands of the clinical narcissist, to take steps to protect themselves. Related articles, includes diagnostic criteria are included as links at the conclusion of this article.
Elinor has suffered for most of her life at the hands of her narcissistic mother. Of course, when Elinor was a child she had no idea that her mother had the disorder. As with any child, we accept our parents as being how all parents are, until we arrive at a point where we are able to reason that this is not the case. As we mature we are able to better gauge as to whether our parents did an "okay" job, which is the acceptable professional standard for parenting, or whether their style of parenting left a lot to be desired. It is often after we have children of our own that we can truly decide how effective both our parents and our own parenting style is.
But back to Elinor. Because narcissists can never be pleased, except for very short periods of time, the partner, friend or child of a narcissist is in a continual battle to please and amuse, flatter and placate, the narcissistic person in their lives. Selfish and self-absorbed, the narcissistic parent gives little emotional return and so the child of such a parent continually seeks approval, attention and most of all, love. It is a pointless task, as the narcissist does not really understand the concept of others, much less love for them.
But Elinor had tried her best. Over the years she has showered her mother with gifts, tried to interpret her every whim and do all in her power to get that all important love and attention. Elinor is now 39. Despite having a husband and two children of her own, she still puts her mother first. This is because neither her husband nor her children can fill the hole in her heart that should have been filled long ago by her mother.
Elinor's mother has a habit of rejecting many of her daughter's gifts, simply because she doesn't like them. When Elinor gets it right, her mother's face lights up with joy and Elinor feels happy. At last! She has done something right! But just as often as not, Elinor's mother does not care for the gift and tells her daughter so, even though many times the gift has been hand made by her daughter as she is an excellent craftsperson.
Elinor sought counseling due to her increasing anger and spells of depression. What we discovered was that part of Elinor was still seeking approval from her mother. But worse than that, she was seeking approval from a mother who was clinically unable to give approval. Elinor was playing a losing game: no wonder she felt an increasing sense of rage and sadness. Furthermore, her marriage was under strain as each time one of these event occurred, she lost valuable time crying and withdrawing from her family. With teenagers in the house, she was in danger of losing precious time with those people who were actually capable of loving her.
In coming blogs, we will continue the story of how Elinor got out of a 39 year old trap with her mother.
Surviving a Narcissistic Mother By Christine Mattice
Do you believe that your opinions and feelings don't matter? Do you believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with you? Do you believe that, no matter how high your achievements or how hard you try, you will never be good enough? Well, join the crowd. You may be one of the millions of people who were raised by a Narcissistic mother.
I just discovered that I, too, am among the ranks of this particular group of people, those who had a mother who loved herself far more than she could ever love her children, a mother who crippled and abused her children with her Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Narcissistic Personality disorder, or NPD, (named after the mythological Narcissus, who died gazing at his reflection in a pool of water) is, according to the Mayo Clinic, "a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe that they're superior to others and have little regard for other people's feelings."
Though this description sounds like healthy self-esteem run amuck, NPD has little in common with true self-esteem. People with healthy self-esteem love and value themselves as MUCH as they love and value others. In contrast, people with NPD value themselves MORE than they value others—in fact, they put themselves WAY above everyone else—and have no regard at all for the rights and the feelings of others.
Though most people have some narcissistic traits, this does not mean that most people have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Rather, NPD is a spectrum disorder, which means that people can have various, and varying, symptoms of the disorder without being clinically diagnosable as an NPD. However, the more of these symptoms (as listed by the Mayo Clinic) the person displays, the more likely he or she is to be a full-blown NPD:
Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
*Believing that you're better than others
*Fantasizing about power, success, and attractiveness