By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
Narcissists are those people who make sure you know how much their car costs. Or which prestigious primary school their children attend, or how they go skiing in Aspen every year. Everyone likes a bragging moment once in a while; but narcissists depend upon them. They use their accomplishments and perceived superiority over others to strengthen their own frail self-image.
Their grandiosity is like gold leaf over toothpick scaffolding. “What narcissistic people of all appearances have in common is an inner sense of, and/or terror of, insufficiency, shame, weakness, and inferiority.” (179) They struggle with feelings of, “vague falseness, shame, envy, emptiness or incompleteness, ugliness, and inferiority, or their compensatory counterparts: self-righteousness, pride, contempt, defensive self-sufficiency, vanity, and superiority.” (185)
Causes of Narcissism
Why is this? Why do some people feel compelled to constantly compare themselves to others and toot their own horn? What turns someone into a narcissist? You might be surprised to hear it was not a doting parent who reminded them how special they are every five seconds. Below are a couple of possibilities that predispose someone to narcissism.
The Narcissist Caregiver
In this case, a child becomes a “narcissistic extension” for their caregiver. Think of the Jackson Five. Their father recognized their talent, and exploited it for his own glory. Dad was happy when they performed well, and unhappy when they did not. Children pick up on this, and do whatever they can to please their parent.
Child prodigies may be constantly reminded of how talented they are, but that is the only thing they are praised for. This inflates one specific sense of self. These people may have a big head, but it is for a narrow spectrum of their personality. They avoid showing any other part of themselves for fear of losing that which people constantly praise them for.
First impression is the most important
As the cultural focus has shifted to making a good first impression, rather than winning people over with a long-term demonstration of integrity, it has bred a form of contemporary narcissism. Mass media has enabled us to feed ordinary narcissism (Facebook, blogging) while simultaneously exploiting our insecurities (unrealistic standards of beauty in advertising). Also, as society attempts to sell the image of the U.S. as egalitarian, narcissism drives people to set themselves apart from the pack.
Narcissism as a coping Mechanism
Narcissistic people develop this way because of the high expectations placed on them. They internalize these expectations, and inflate their accomplishments and perceived superiority over others as a prop for their self-esteem. Everyone likes to be reminded they bring something special to the world just by being there. Narcissists live and die by that feeling. They have been so warped by an upbringing that refused to let them be anything but the best that they cannot let go and just be one of 7 billion. “They hold themselves up to unrealistic ideals and either convince themselves that they have attained them (the grandiose outcome) or respond to their falling short by feeling inherently flawed rather than forgivably human (the depressive outcome).” (181)
Sometimes they will manage this by glomming onto another accomplished person. They put a romantic partner or mentor on a pedestal of perfection and build their image on that. They feel superior simply by being associated with this person. Unfortunately, they may also sweep their idol off their pedestal the moment an imperfection appears. (182)
Consequences of Narcissism
Narcissists will sometimes choose status over practicality. McWilliams used an example of a mother whose son was accepted to Princeton but not Harvard. Even though he was happy at Princeton, and they actually had a better department for his area of study than Harvard did, his mother pestered Harvard for a year until they finally accepted her son. Every sign pointed toward him having a better experience at Princeton, yet she pushed him toward Harvard for the sake of the prestige. (181)
Their pathology sets them up for failure. Narcissists are so disgusted by their flaws that they are convinced only perfection will make up for them. So they build up a grandiose self-image in their heads and strive to have the newest and best everything. However, no one is perfect, which means this strategy is doomed to disappoint. (182)
Narcissists tend to swing between grandiosity and unworthiness– feeling “good enough” is foreign to them.
They struggle to develop affectionate, caring relationships because they tend to view others based on what they have to offer. They often either use other people’s imperfections to stoke the fire of their own ego, or they use their association with a powerful person to inflate their own importance.
Narcissists see dependence on others as a sign of weakness, so they often neglect those nursery school lessons of saying, “Thank you,” and, “I’m sorry.” (182)
The people around narcissists become collateral damage in the narcissist’s quest for superiority, as they tend to view others as competition, or use them as props for their ego. As McWilliams pointed out, they follow the mantra, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” (179)
Christian Counseling for struggling Narcissists
Narcissism is not just having a big head. It warps your perception of yourself, and sets you up for disappointment when you do not meet your own standards. It drives away those around you because of your arrogance and manipulative behavior. But, do not take this to mean God wants you going about in a hair shirt bemoaning your lowliness. Rather, follow the admonition Paul gave the Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil. 2:3-4 NIV)
Paul continues by reminding them of how Christ disregarded his own prestige as the son of God to serve others. If anyone had something to brag about, it was Jesus. Yet, he set an example of looking past our own noses to care for others. If you struggle with putting down others because they do not meet your lofty standards, consider meeting with a professional Christian counselor. They can help you develop a more manageable sense of self, and improve your personal relationships.
What-does-the-bible-say-about-pride Flickr user Serena 178
Am-I-A-Narcissist Freedigitalphotos.net user marin