Brené Brown’s Quip To Tim Ferriss Might Shift Your Perspective On Narcissists

Photo: Maile Wilson
brene brown
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Self

If you’ve ever lived with a narcissist or worked with one, you know the way they operate can be draining at best and catastrophic at worst. A recent Psychology Today article summed it up nicely: Narcissists disrespect experts and boundaries, live for drama, and will throw others under the bus at a moment’s notice to further their own agenda.

My most recent experience interacting with narcissists was in a professional engagement that I’m still recuperating from. I’m in consulting, and at one point my main client was a startup media agency owned and operated by narcissists. The company was dysfunctional and toxic:

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The owners couldn’t handle anyone being negative around them.
They turned any blame or responsibility thrust upon them around onto other people.
They spent all the company savings on an agent to try and land themselves a TV show so they could become wildly famous.

If you’ve ever had to work or live with a narcissist for an extended period of time, you know the kind of behavior I’m talking about. Week after week, we were left to clean up the flaming wreckage of empty promises these owners had made to their clients, and at least one employee was placed on forced medical leave from burnout. It was depleting and exhausting.

It was around this time that I came across an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show that featured Dr. Brené Brown. A world-renowned researcher on shame and shame resilience, Dr. Brown’s insights first burst onto the mainstream stage with her 2010 TEDx talk on vulnerability, one of the most popular talks of all time.

The two bestselling authors bounced back and forth on different topics in refreshingly unscripted conversation, and in this dialogue, some pretty incredible gems bubbled to the surface. One was an observation from Dr. Brown on narcissists and how most people misinterpret the way they truly function; being managed by narcissists at the time, I naturally leaned in.

Formally Defining Narcissism

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), a person is said to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) when they exhibit five or more of the following nine criteria:

1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

3. Believes that they are “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).

4. Requires excessive admiration.

5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations).

6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends).

7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.

9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

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My first thought upon reading these criteria is that these characteristics would seem to apply to a lot of people. (About half of Instagram, yes?) My second thought is darker: Am I a narcissist? Then comes my third thought: Is everyone a narcissist?

Surely social media is a catalyst for this behavior, right? Not necessarily. Researchers have been studying the relationships between narcissism and environment for a while now, and while it’s easy to assume social-media-savvy generations are the most narcissistic, the science doesn’t back it up.

What Science Says About Mainstream Narcissism

Research in the journal Psychological Science in 2016 found that today’s young people aren’t more narcissistic in a clinical sense than previous generations. They’ve just been taught to look at themselves from an earlier age.

They also have more agency to do so through tools like smartphones, selfies, and social media feeds. (Thanking my lucky stars I was born in 1987 and missed the landscape of having Instagram in 7th grade, honestly.)

There’s also a curious 2018 paper published by the journal Public Library of Science which asserts that cultural norms are factors in shaping personality.

In this study, scientists examined the differences between residents of former West Germany and former East Germany; Germans who had grown up in the more culturally individualistic West Germany indicated both higher levels of desire for grandiosity and lower levels of self-esteem than citizens of more collectivist East Germany.

I wouldn’t let us all off the hook that easily, though. A 2018 report from Allianz Global Assistance found that a third of all millennials intentionally curate their vacation photos to make trips look better than they actually were, with three in five saying the primary intention of this effort is to elicit envy.

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While we may not be all evolving into diagnosable narcissists, it’s likely that the nuances of modern life enable some of NPD’s character traits for a lot of us. So when does it go off the rails and into full-blown disorder? For that, I’ll defer to Dr. Brown.

The Quip

About thirty minutes into the interview, Dr. Brown’s passing comment is one of the interview’s best gems.

In case you can’t watch or listen right now, here’s what Dr. Brown states:

“Do you know that narcissism is the most shame-based of all the personality disorders? Narcissism is not about self-love at all. It’s about grandiosity driven by high performance and self-hatred. I define narcissism as the shame-based fear of being ordinary.” — Dr. Brené Brown on The Tim Ferriss Show

I don’t know about you, but that statement hits me like a brick wall. “Grandiosity driven by high performance and self-hatred” sounds like my early twenties in a nutshell. When shame goes unchecked, it can infect your life and make you cling to arrogance, loneliness, and self-loathing.

We don’t want that! So let’s get to work. In our efforts to untangle some of our own self-centeredness, perhaps we can take Dr. Brown’s insights and start doing a little personal excavation around why we act the way we do. Research from the National Science Foundation has found that 95% of the thoughts you think each day are the same every day, so by digging up some of your root motivations and replanting them, you could actually change the direction of your life.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Examine your relationship with technology. Social media is not life, it’s a highlight reel. If you find you’re measuring yourself against impossible expectations, it might be time for a break to reset and detox performative behaviors.
  • Keep an open mind. Confirmation bias — the tendency to seek out information in a way that validates your existing opinion— is a poison. Lucky for us, the antidotes are self-awareness and personal growth, and if you’re reading articles like this one you’re probably headed in the right direction.
  • Pursue excellence, but be a good sport, too. As famous drag queen Alyssa Edwards says, “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is.” Let competitiveness motivate you, but don’t let it destroy you.

Dr. Brown points out that “We lose a lot of people with this (work) because it’s not an efficient process,” and it’s true.

Personal growth can sting at first, and it’s guaranteed to be messy. But by increasing awareness of ourselves and why we behave the way we do, we not only get better at detecting this behavior in others but also check ourselves and move toward a happier, more authentic life.

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Named a 40 under 40 by the Houston Business Journal, Nick Wolny is a writing and marketing strategist for entrepreneurs. He’s written over 200 articles for outlets such as Entrepreneur Magazine, Fast Company, and Business Insider, and has given over 60 live TV interviews for NBC, CBS, and FOX commenting on behavior, media, online business, and the LGBTQ economy. Follow him on his website. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.