MIRROR, MIRROR ON WALL, WHO’S THE MOST AWESOME ME OF ALL?
-n 1. Inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity. Synonyms: self-centeredness, smugness, egocentrism. (dictionary.com)
A dedication in the book Trapped In The Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in Their Struggle for Self by Elan Golomb, Ph.D. (1992), goes as follows:
“To my mother, whose last words before an unexpected death were, ‘I have to learn to assert myself.'”
The dedication first gave me a chuckle, then almost as quickly as I’d been inspired to laugh, I took pause. How awful an illustration of a lifetime with your mother – it all boiling down to a single sentence that espouses one’s own need opposed to giving out something of herself at her last breath for others to hang on to. She continued, into her death, to take. As horrible a picture as this is to me, it is also a true characterization of what Narcissistic Personality Disorder can look like.
An estimated 6.2% of the US population has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), meaning they meet five or more of the following criteria according to the DSM-IV:
-A grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating their abilities, talents and achievements with expectation for being recognized as superior
-A preoccupation with persistent fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
-A belief that he or she is “special” and unique and could only be understood by and associate with those people and/or institutions of the same status
-A constant need for attention, affirmation and praise
-A strong sense of entitlement and an expectation of special treatment, as with unflinching compliance with his expectations
-Is interpersonally exploitative of others, taking advantage of them for personal gain
-Lacks empathy: is unwilling or unable to identify with the feelings and needs of others
-Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of them
-Shows arrogant or haughty behaviors and/or attitudes
STORY TIME WITH JULES:
Once upon a time there was a young man named “Sam”. He grew up as the eldest male in a family of three. His two younger sisters were around, but according to his recollection of childhood, they added very little to the table. Sam thought of himself as “the man” of the family, not because his father was away much of the time, but because he deserved that right. In fact, when he looks back, if he had been born fatherless, he would have had more freedom and responsibility to be “who he was destined to be”. His father just tended to “get in the way” while his doting mother gave her only son the strokes that he needed. She fed him literally and figuratively. “Not because she was a particularly giving person”, Sam would add, “as much as because (he believed he) truly deserved to be treated differently (than his siblings).” This was “a matter of fact, dammit, not (him) just talking out of (his) ass”, he informed me as we sat in my office many years ago.
Sam had been referred to me by his girlfriend, “Sarah” who had come in to see me hoping to keep their relationship in tact. Sam was the puzzle piece that I needed to see in order to help them decide if their relationship could ever get to a two-sided place. Sam believed he was sitting in my office with his girlfriend of seven months in order to convince Sarah that she was the problem. Within several minutes of our first meeting he’d made it clear that Sarah had “self-esteem issues” and was “too needy”.
“Where did that confident, beautiful blonde go?” He whined. “Man, my friends wanted her so bad! I HAD HER! HA!”
He’d suggested that perhaps I could “toughen her up” as he was on an upward ladder and hoped that Sarah could be his partner (read: eye candy) as he made his climb up the gold stairway to success. Initially, Sam believed in his mediocre athletic abilities. His goal being an NBA ride to infamy. He was scrappy and hard working for the most part, but lacked the height and the athleticism to be that college star or later, that professional athlete that he’d always thought he was meant to be. Instead of pouring that determination into other ventures he accused coaches and even school athletic administrations of failing him somehow. They chose not to see what he could bring to the table because they were “too busy looking at the taller players or the more celebrated players, or they just plain were threatened by his obvious talent and good looks.” He believed in himself to such a large degree that he screamed “discrimination!” “Injustice!” “Prejudice!” “Foul Play!” all at once. Everyday. Until he was dropped from the program.
Years later, as a father, he created a family that was both imperfect and infallible. He created a beautiful home that always needed to be better and nicer than his neighbors. He had boatloads of “faithful” friends who he stroked and was able to manipulate with his favor until they questioned him, at which point they were scum. Worse than scum. They questioned him? That was deplorable. A chink to the ego only meant that the “friend” was in need of humiliation and a swift kick out to the dumpster. Unless of course this “friend” limped back bleeding from the humility he’d acquired after the brutal beating he’d deserved for questioning Sam’s integrity. At this point, and because he considered himself a compassionate kind of guy, Sam would forgive the offender while demanding loyalty from that point on, and he’d add that redemption came with a price. So Sam’s “friend” got demoted on the rather large list of “friends”. Instead of being fed the filet mignon at the grand dinners, this “friend” got hamburger and he would like it.
Sam created a world of expectations for others that may or may not be parallel to that which he placed on himself; as he naturally saw himself at a higher level than most anyone else. He did this “only because it was true.” That’s what he’d tell his first wife, Sarah, who bought his success story and accommodated his whims until she could no longer sell out and live without validation, empathy or respect. At some point years later she returned to me in therapy hoping I could help her find herself again. She had a young son closely resembling his father in genetics. She feared he might end up like his father and swallow her up. She didn’t know if she could sacrifice herself again like she had before. She wondered if she could love this child anymore than she already did, but how could she condone him behaving like his father had? Could she be the best mother to a son who adored and idolized his father? Could she teach him empathy and humility or was this a genetic deficit that she couldn’t tangle with environmentally or alone?
When Sam looked into the mirror he saw strength and good looks, an incredible ability to achieve all he would ever want, along with superior intelligence, which went without saying. He didn’t see all these positive traits because he was arrogant or self-centered, as he’d been accused; He saw them because they were just there and, in his mind, he was a realist. He would tell himself with a chuckle, “Sometimes a banana is just a banana, baby!” and ease on down the road.
When Sarah looked into the mirror she saw premature aging under her eyes. In perhaps her only act of rebellion while married to Sam, she’d refused to get a “tuck” for her aging lids and Botox for the wrinkles. They were her war scars. She had endured what seemed a lifetime of giving-in to get along. It was now time to take something back.
* Sam and Sarah are fictional names for real clients. Specifics have been altered.
**Sam and Sarah’s son came to therapy with Sarah for several months, periodically throughout the years. Both are doing very well and have an understanding of Sam’s diagnosis. They are able to work around it so that their son can also spend small amounts of time with his father, when Sam avails himself.
***Sam has not been seen by me or any other therapist, that I am aware of, since our first series of meetings “for Sarah”. He is reportedly with his third wife, raising a fourth son.
FYI IN CASE ANYONE IS WONDERING:
Not surprisingly, a significant portion of the US population are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. Many more people do not meet all of the criteria for NPD, but may still exhibit narcissistic personality traits from time to time. For this reason it is difficult to know for sure how many people carrying such traits might be out there.
People diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder can easily slip by undetected because they don’t appear to be sick or stereotypically carrying any mentally illness, unlike people with other personality disorders or behavioral problems. People diagnosed with npd appear to have an over-inflated sense of self-importance, an insatiable need for attention and a lack of empathy. When you first meet them or get to know them it seems you are enjoying time with someone that has a high level of self-esteem. That can be attractive to a reserved person, like Sarah. Sam seemed fun, energetic, outgoing and just a little egotistical initially. Not a red flag raiser probably. Unsuspecting people can be easily lured into their inflated self-importance and grandiose schemes and before they realize it, they’ve become involved with someone who is toxic to their wellbeing.
Perhaps one of the most troubling things about narcissistic personality disorder is that it can be very difficult to treat with therapy because the clients are often in denial or completely unwilling to accept that they have a disorder. If someone truly believes that he or she is special, more talented and superior, imagine how challenging it might be for a therapist to convince him or her otherwise. It is for this reason that people with narcissistic personality disorder rarely seek treatment, and usually only agree to therapy at the urging of friends or family members, or to treat other issues (such as anxiety or depression) that result from the disorder. Many therapists have to release their narcissistic patients when they reach an impasse and the patient believes they are fine and refuses to see the problem.
Narcissistic individuals enjoy talking while experiencing great difficulty when it comes to listening. Reciprocation is not in their vocabulary. Therefore it can be relatively easy to tell if the person you are with has narcissistic traits or tendencies. Ask them questions, check out their social media sites (pages, contents, status, input….revolving around them?) Check yourself. Do you feel manipulated? Are you getting yourself in too deep with another’s grandiose plans? Are you giving so much that you feel taken advantage of, or even exploited? Is your relationships admiration-dependent, in other words, you-stroke-me, I-stroke-me?
You may have to ask yourself: Is this banana JUST a banana?