If narcissism were a disease, it would be considered a pandemic.
Our culture not only condones selfishness, but celebrates it as a virtue. Materialism, driven by corporate interests and advertising, reinforces the focus on accumulation for self. The media is suffused with a focus on individual success, beauty, celebrity, fame, and status. The rugged individual is held up as a model of excellence, alongside the ultra-rich CEO, the celebrity sports figure, the bad-boy artist, and the soldier of fortune. Even the online culture supports our need to be “friended,” noticed, and popular. Public narcissism is the latest result of our self-focused social structure.
Both men and women are selfish, but in general, men are more deeply programmed to look out for #1, to get their own needs met, and to do whatever it takes to get ahead. It’s more difficult for males to climb out of this deep self-hole and finally grow up into truly loving, caring human beings.
Women, on the other hand, have traditionally been programmed to care for, and care about, others. As a generality, they learn early to be collaborative and generous to others (sometimes to their detriment). In the extreme, they may bend themselves around another person’s needs, becoming codependent or self-sacrificing.
Where are you on the Narcissism Spectrum? Measure yourself from 1 to 7 on each of these parameters. Ask yourself: “How much time and attention do I spend on either side of this range?” Circle the number that is closest to where you function most of the time.
Thinking about Myself 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Thinking about Others
Caring for My Needs and Desires 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Caring for Others’ Needs and Desires
Seeking Approval and Admiration 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Admiring and Praising Others
Feeling Superior to Others 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Celebrating Others’ Accomplishments
Treating Others as Objects 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Treating Others as Sacred Beings
Being Right & Proving I’m Right 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Learning from Others
Doing What I Want To Do 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Doing What Others Want To Do
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Cold, Intolerant, Judgmental 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Warm, Caring, Compassionate
Withdrawn and Self-absorbed 1…2…3…4…5…6…7 Connected, Collaborative, Supportive
Your answer for some questions may be, “It depends on the day.” We move from one side to the other depending on our mood, our circumstances, and the people we’re hanging out with. Overindulgence in anything (i.e., drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc.) can drive us to the selfish extreme. Spiritual pursuits usually inspire us toward the warm, caring side of life.
If you find yourself mostly on the narcissistic extreme, you’ve probably seen the effect your behavior has on others. Perhaps you go into angry tirades, dumping your unprocessed feelings on others. Or you may suddenly leave, or withdraw into yourself, ignoring the feelings of those you left behind.
If you’ve ever worked for a severe narcissist, or been in relationship with one, you know how awful it feels. You feel ignored, abused, diminished, or uncared for. You consider walking out the door and never returning. And if you can’t walk out (because you’re a child, or an employee), you feel trapped.
Narcissism is especially damaging to children. Kids can’t develop healthy self-esteem when they have narcissistic parents. If it happened to you, you developed strategies to work around the deep ego wounds that resulted. You may have even developed your own form of narcissism as a defense against theirs. (Read “Children of the Self-Absorbed,” by Nina Brown, for an eye-opening essay on this syndrome.)
As I studied my own narcissism, and sought a cure, I found the deeper causes in my family upbringing, my psychological development, and the social programming and indoctrination I received throughout my growing years. As with any addiction, awareness is the first step of the cure. Understanding is the second step, and changing your behavior comes next.
Take it from one who is recovering: it’s possible to heal.
At the age of 60, I’ve finally achieved success in loving. I have a brilliant partner who brings out my best virtues. We have an agreement to help each other out of our periodic ego storms and self-absorbed reactions. You have to do your inner work, but the ultimate healing of narcissism comes inside of a healthy relationship. We use compassion and forgiveness to restore and repair breaks quickly. We’re committed to learning to love better, and love more.
The ideal state is not just a balancing act between Self and Other, but a state of inclusion, where both my needs and desires, and her needs and desires, are taken into account.
Love is a condition in which everyone feels cared for, respected, and honored. Extend this idea to your colleagues at work, and your workplace will improve. Extend it to your children, family, and community, and you have the foundation for a civilization based on love, otherwise known as Heaven on Earth.