Narcissism is often an attempt to tame shame

Recently I picked a book on a recommendation found online. Unless it was in a magazine or podcast. Maybe, yes. I read and listen to a bunch of various sources, and when a book title piques my curiosity off I go to the library app to request it. The library being what it is (awesome because free but a bit on the slow side) by the time a book gets to me I’ve often forgotten why.

This one was no different, and as usual I started reading wondering what on earth I was thinking when I requested it.

That didn’t last. For the book, The Narcissist You know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age by Joseph Burgo, was utterly fascinating from the get-go. Like a car crash on the other side of the highway that slows everyone down because we just can’t take our eyes off it even though we know it’s stupid and not just because it’s liable to create another accident or three.

Burgo, a psychotherapist with 30 years of experience (and a crack writer), organizes his book by types of narcissists; the bullying narcissist, the narcissistic parent, the seductive narcissist, the grandiose narcissist, the know-it-all narcissist, the self-righteous narcissist, the vindictive narcissist, and the addicted narcissist.

That’s a lot of navel-gazing, replete with titillating details of how utterly terrible and immoral the people he describes can be, and I’m not just talking about Michael Jackson. It’s tempting to slam the book shut and yell something to the effect that what the hell, we’re all doomed, why bother reading the fine print. This world is full of people who think only of themselves and about how they, and only they, ought to come out on top. Like Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods except less successful at it.

But hey, celebrities. Can’t stop reading about them. Burgo — did I mention he’s a crack writer? — uses their examples to describe narcissism in ways we can all relate to. It’s not an exhaustive list. There’s Eliot Spitzer, but no Bill Clinton. Madonna yet not much Mick Jagger. The Kardashians are unaccountably left out. Isn’t reality television a giant exercise in narcissism? It doesn’t appear to have crossed Burgo’s informed and keenly observant mind, so maybe I’m wrong about this. Add it to the pile of things I didn’t know but learned reading this book; a pile that includes some pretty disturbing stuff about yours truly.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is an actual diagnosis. Apparently if affects one percent of the population. It’s not the subject of the book. Too gruesome I guess.

We’re talking instead of “Extreme Narcissism”, which isn’t bad enough to warrant a place in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (that’s DSM to shrinks and people in the know; now you, too, are in the know, you’re welcome) but bad enough to write an entire book about. These people account for five percent of the population. Then there’s the rest of us. Sometimes full of ourselves, sometimes doubting ourselves, moving along the “narcissistic continuum” of awkward and awful possibilities.

The point of the book, Burgo helpfully tells us, is to learn to spot Extreme Narcissists in our environment, and what drives them to be the jackasses they are. “Once you recognize narcissistic behavior in others and how it affects your own psyche, you’ll be able to avoid inciting its most noxious expressions.” He adds that “At heart, Extreme Narcissists fear that they are frauds, that they will be exposed as small, ugly, defective, or without value. They constantly strive to come across as ‘winners’ because they fear that they are actually ‘losers’ instead.” OK, so far so useful. But then this: “I hope you’ll also learn something about yourself in the process — how your defensive reactions make you an occasional narcissist.”

Say what? You can be casual about this? Dear me. Now I’m in trouble.

OK, look. I know I don’t have a problem with narcissism, no more than the average insecure writer, I mean. We all have our moments, don’t we. But… could I have real issues? There’s only one way to find out.

I knew I was going to get antsy the minute I read that part about the fear of being a loser. That’s how I actually spell my name, did you know? I’ve been living with a giant case of impostor syndrome all my life, and it’s only in very recent years that I’ve started getting a handle on that sucker. A partial handle. We’re talking work in progress here. As in: a lot of work for not much progress.

The fear of being a fraud, the shame you feel when you believe you should be better than you are? The crushing lack of confidence in your own abilities, which you quickly masquerade under a thick coat of metaphysical concealer that everyone sees through anyway? Yep. Got that in droves.

Which makes me now wonder about Millenials and how they were raised to believe in themselves almost above every other value — I exaggerate, no doubt, but then I’m a GenXer and that’s what we do, piss on Millenials unless we’re busy trying to strangle Baby Boomers — isn’t translating into fewer young adults with narcissistic issues? Hmmmm.

I trepidated my way through the first chapter. Then the second… and then I was looking at that car crash, unable to peel myself away and not just because the crash involved my own mangled carcass.

Here are personality traits I found in the book, describing various forms of narcissism, that painfully apply to me.

“As a parent, he was perfectionistic and demanding but only intermittently focused on his children’s activities.”

OK, so it’s not so much that I wasn’t focused on the kids’ stuff. But have I been perfectionistic and demanding with my offspring? To a fault, yes. Has it made my kids behave better than their peers? Probably — they may not always show their manners, but I do know they have them in there somewhere. Has it made my kids happier? I doubt it. Has it made me happier? Nope. Did I do it anyway? Yep. Shame: 1, Brigitte: 0.

“Jason went on at some length about his wife’s critical, perfectionistic nature and her tendency to engage in character assassination during their arguments. As I listened, it struck me as one of those marital fights that actually concern something else, an emotional issue at work behind the scene.”

Oooooh, boy. Here we go. I am no longer married, but during the 17 years I was there were a lot of fights. Nasty things, too. And by nasty I mostly mean me. Endless quarrels that descended quickly into a meticulous evisceration of his entire family tree, criticizing everyone and everything. Including myself, yes. I have my faults but I’m not completely delusional — I could see, even back then, that many of our marital difficulties originated with me. Mostly because I knew I was in the wrong place and with the wrong person, and pretty miserable because of it. Most of the viciousness I displayed in those arguments (and to be fair, I was very good at being vicious) could be blamed on the fact that I didn’t dare admit to myself that I needed out of that marriage.

“It should come as no surprise that many Extreme Narcissists are highly competitive in virtually every area of their lives, whether in athletics, the business world, or the social milieu they inhabit. They need to win at sports, destroy the competition in their given field, or feel that they are wealthier, more popular, better looking, or more admired than other people — that is, the social ‘winners’ in their world. Whatever the domain, victory in competition supports their inflated sense of self: they are the winners who prove themselves superior to the losers they defeat. And they need to go on proving it, again and again.”

Well, shit, said the karate world champion. You want hypercompetitive type A? I’ll give you the best goddamn hypercompetitive type A in the whole freaking world and make it look easy. Because it’s a challenge. And I must not just win it, but destroy the necessity of having that challenge in the first place. Ahem. Yes. Did I mention my Impostor Syndrome and what role it plays in making me thoroughly addicted to smashing every record that pops up in front of me? Yeah. Well. I guess I win that one, too. Except (like most of the other stuff I’ve “won” over the decades), it doesn’t seem to make me feel that much better about myself. Why is that, I wonder?

“In middle school and later as an adult, the Bullying Narcissist often creates his very own ‘team’ — at the workplace, within his family or social set — enlisting others in a joint effort to defeat and humiliate his target. While the typical middle school victim is usually a loner or marked by unfavorable difference, someone already lacking in social capital, adult targets are often highly successful.”

Well, I guess I’m not textbook Bullying Narcissist because I don’t tend to work in teams for anything. But… one thing I do is notice who’s on who’s team. And if they’re on a team that goes against my interests, they’re against me and I enforce my own laws by shutting out people whom I believe are rooting for the wrong cause. And I never forget whose side they were on. So maybe I’m a passive bullying kind of narcissist. Or maybe I’m just a very strong Scorpio? I hear loyalty is a big deal to us…

“… the Seductive Narcissist appeals to our own narcissism in order to get what he wants from us. The bargain is implicit, unspoken: I will make you feel that you’re an exceptionally fascinating person, eminently desirable, if you agree to feel the same way about me.

This seems to describe Bill Clinton. And that jerk who took me for a ride. There are people who make you feel like you’re unbelievably awesome, and you should listen to the part where it says unbelievably. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Oh, and did I mention I may have used this technique a bit in my day as a political journalist? It worked pretty well, too. It got people talking to me. I confess I didn’t feel bad about it at the time, any more than I do now. Politics is a game and we all play it to the best of our abilities. Plus most politicians are narcissists so I guess that’s fair.

“Many Seductive Narcissists fall head over heels in love with someone they perceive to be an ideal mate, a partner to complement their idealized self-image, and then fall out of love once the imperfections begin to show.”

Yeah, a bit. Especially when I was younger. (I am thankfully less stupid nowadays.) But the temptation is still there. Not necessarily in the till-death-do-is-part sense of the word. But let’s just say I have enthusiasms that swing widely. Perhaps you do, too. Sometimes we fall in love with an artist only to be crushed when they invariably one day do something that disappoints us cruelly and then we hate them. Maybe that means we never loved that artist for who they were, but rather because of what they told us about ourselves. Not that we’re self-obsessed or anything.

“Toward those people who don’t hold much psychological value, Seductive Narcissists may consistently come across as self-confident, even arrogant and superior. Toward those people they depend heavily upon to maintain their sense of self, they can seem surprisingly insecure. They may struggle with persistent doubts about their own worth, wanting constantly to hear that they are loved.”

It’s interesting, this need for love. Certainly I’ve felt it all my life, almost cripplingly so. It’s responsible for a ton of mistakes I’ve made, including a few dangerous and expensive ones. I always thought my insecurities were the direct result of my crappy childhood, where love wasn’t much of a thing. But maybe it’s deeper than that. Certainly I find myself sounding less arrogant now that I finally managed to bungle my way into a solid, healthy and loving relationship in which I feel valued for who I am. Maybe we ought to prescribe that. Wouldn’t it be a hoot, being a pharmacist handing out Prince Charmings for the good of mankind? **

There are more painful quotes, but that should do for now. In the end, what reading the book taught me was that we are all narcissists to some degree, and some of us have a more pronounced problem with it than others. I count myself in the second group but my ambition is to move over into the first one by being less of a jackass, less insecure, and more loving.

** Yes, it’s a joke. No, Prince Charmings don’t exist and even if they did you shouldn’t just sit there and hope for one. Try to be charming yourself and see what happens instead.

Writer | Ottawa. Books include Épître aux tartempions, Le national-syndicalisme, Down the Road Never Travelled, Not Just for Kicks, Le livre Uber (upcoming).

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