We're all on the narcissism spectrum. Aspire to be in the right place, and practice healthy self-love.
No one wants to be labeled A Narcissist.
For fifteen years we’ve been inundated by cascades of pop-psychology scare content about narcissism, the malignancy of narcissists, and how to tell if your least favorite person is a narcissist (Your ex! Your ex!).
Do we love ourselves too much, or not enough?
We meditate, we pray, we engage in self-improvement, we journal our gratitude, and we seek happiness, but not, hopefully, at the expense of others. (Unless, of course, we’re that sort of narcissist.)
We seek love, but the experts tell us finding love starts at the mirror.
‘Self-love’. There’s something a little scary-sounding about it.
If there are some who love too much as a bestselling self-help book in the 1980s labeled it, clearly there are people who love themselves too much.
Are you a narcissist?
No, you say, shaking your head. I’m not like that! I’m not perfect, and I can be selfish and egotistical, but I’m not a narcissist!
When I blogged on Medium a few years ago, the platform overflowed with young women convinced their ex was a narcissist. The stories of evil, awful, selfish, egotistical, abusive narcissist partners cascaded through my daily newsletter and the Medium landing page. Genuine Narcissistic Personality Disorder afflicts about 4% of the population, and Medium’s female writers had dated all of them.
These guys got more tail than Herschel Walker.
Many of the stories described guys who were typical young, self-involved, inconsiderate jerks, but hardly narcissistic. You know, like a lot of women can be, too.
I began to wonder if perhaps some of the ladies themselves were narcissists, angry at their exes for not recognizing their glorious greatness.
Eventually someone wrote a useful article on narcissism. It was based on the book Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists by Dr. Craig Malkin. I borrowed the book from the library.
Malkin noted that more recent psychological research and understanding had drawn psychology professionals to understanding narcissism as a spectrum that all human beings are on. Narcissism, they note, isn’t all bad, and you want to be in the right place - with neither too much nor too little.
The book details how the narcissists preoccupying self-appointed experts fall on the higher end (8-10) of the scale. We think immediately of famous narcissists like Donald Trump, the ‘gold standard’ of the most malignant narcissism, the way Hitler is held as the ‘gold standard’ of evil.
At the opposite end of the scale, 0-2, are what sounds like the prisoners detailed in psychologist James Gilligan’s books about violence inside and outside the prison system. He describes people whose spirit has been psychologically ‘murdered’, often by a lifetime marked at birth by abuse, viciousness, cruelty, and utter lack of love.
I’m quite sure it has always sucked to be Donald Trump, even well before he began being held to account. But if I had to make a choice between being a one or a ten on the narcissism scale, I’d choose ten. I might make everyone around me insanely miserable, but I probably wouldn’t have murdered anyone, and I’d likely be compensated for my mental and spiritual anguish by being a rich asshole who can get away with a lot because I’m such a manipulative fuck.
LinkedIn, home of the humblebrag
There’s no better place to observe narcissism in the wild than the professional social media platform. Self-esteem and professional pride die scrolling the LinkedIn feed.
LinkedIn is famous for the ‘humblebrag’, self-aggrandizing posts sharing how wonderful and awesome you are while maintaining a veneer of humility so you don’t sound like an asshole.
“I am humbled and grateful to accept the role of Chief Emperor at Some Company, having been given the trust that I can fill the massive shoes of Joe Blow, who is retiring. I hope I can prove worthy of this role, bringing 47 years of experience to widget production, along with my thirteen certificates in AI, my eighteen Ph.Ds, my three globally viral TED talks and having made the Forbes Thirty Under Thirty list for fifteen years straight until I reached my 30th birthday.”
A few years ago I got flamed and lambasted on LinkedIn for calling out a humblebrag by a Millennial military veteran who posted that she wasn’t sure why everyone was always thanking her for her service to her country when she did it for the flag, God, her family, democracy, and more mealy-mouthed blah blah blah. She clearly sought praise the way only famously self-involved Millennials can do and others took the bait, showering her with compliments, and I called out her validation neediness and virtue signalling. When one older gentlemen defended her - he thought she was just The Awesome - I suggestede he was currying favor because she was very pretty (she included a particularly lovely photo of her lovely loveliness). I caught holy hell all day long and hoped my employer didn’t notice (no one said anything anyway). It WAS a humblebrag. But never call out the Holy Sacred Military Veteran. At least not a beautiful young woman.
If ever there’s an unhealthy vision of Narcissism Gone Wild it’s LinkedIn. If you’re not inclined to brag about yourself, scrolling through the LinkedIn feed will convince you you’re a loser. Everyone else must be doing better than you because they’re accepting new roles, getting degrees, or touting their super-smart daughter or son who just graduated from college and they got perfect grades all throughout and I’m oh-so-proud of them. A few years back, Millennials had taken to treating LinkedIn like Facebook and posted endless photos of themselves looking hot to get people to tell them how pretty they were (yeah, guess which gender did it a lot more!). Way to go sexualizing the workplace, children.
I’m not accusing people on LinkedIn of being raging narcissists, not even the humblebraggers. Remember, we’re all on the scale somewhere. But social media particularly encourages our inner narcissist to step forward, spread our wings and let our Inner Trump out of the cage for at least a few moments. Far fewer will ever admit to their inner Imposter Syndrome.
Self-love vs narcissism
Self-love is on the narcissism spectrum, but the latter’s got so much negative baggage attached to it.
Self-love levels aren’t immutable. We may or may not be born with propensity toward a particular place on the scale but we can move up and down it our entire lives. There are times when we might score higher and others when we score lower. We can be arrogant and egotistical when things are going great and the world is our oyster, and feel low and useless, like when emerging from a bad relationship or losing a job. People falling at the lower end of the scale, past the healthy region, aren’t easy to live with either. They too need constant validation but they seek it in subtler ways and will still suck your energy if you let them.
I said to a friend of mine last week, “I made one New Year’s resolution this year. I want to learn how to love myself.”
“Wow, that’s a tough one,” he said. “I’d like to know how to do that too.”
The easiest person to dislike is yourself, and to distrust anyone who tells you otherwise, since we each know what an eff-up we are. We’re crystal-clear on every mistake we’ve ever made, every time we hurt someone, what our faults are - and we can exaggerate all of them into monstrous proportions. We torture ourselves with the woulda-shoulda-couldas. To paraphrase Stanley Kowalski, “I coulda been the Chief Emperah! I coulda been someone!”
All it takes is for some random asshole to put us down and we believe it, or let it ruin our day, or take up residence in our head.
But if someone says something complimentary to us? We might smile and say, “Thank you,” but inside we’re blowing it off because the other person doesn’t know us like we do.
A few years ago I was talking with a friend. I forget what it was about but I think I was saying something like, “I’m such an idiot! I can’t believe I did that! How could I have been so stupid?”
And he said to me, “Stop talking about my friend Nicole like that! I know her really well and I don’t appreciate you putting her down! She’s an awesome person!”
It stopped me in my tracks.
Sometimes when I catch myself beating myself up for something, I remember what Sam said: “Stop picking on Nicole! Don’t you dare talk about her like that!”
Maybe too much self-knowledge is a bad thing. While I beat myself up over things I’ve done wrong, said wrong, screwed up, or cost myself, I totally forget the good things I did, the people I’ve helped, the times I’ve put myself out for someone else.
What if we made more of an effort to remember the good things we’ve done, the compliments we’ve received, and wrote them down in case we forget them?
I have a file on my computer desktop called Nice Things People Have Said About Me. When I get a really heart-warming compliment, I put it in the document. Then when I’m feeling low (“I’m the most incompetent salesperson in the world!”) I open it up and review it, especially the kind comments from sales clients who loved my work, and supportive comments from my boss.
When I think my weekly articles are going to waste, the document reminds me of a few commenters on Medium who said my articles had really changed the way they think.
Last week I received a beautiful white calcite crystal cluster from a campaign client who wanted to thank me for all my hard work promoting their products. So I guess I don’t suck.
Treat yourself as well as you do others
It strikes me what what we need more in the world is not less self-love, but more genuine self-love. And you know who needs it most? Actual narcissists. The ones everyone writes about.
If you really are ‘all that and a bag of chips’, as a friend of mine used to say, you don’t have to humblebrag constantly, seeking validation from others.
Donald Trump may be a world-class narcissist, but I’d bet my bottom dollar somewhere, not too deep inside, he hates himself.
Why didn’t he want the world to see his tax returns?
Now we know the truth: It illuminates he’s such a failure as a businessman.
Why has he threatened to sue any school he attended who releases his grades, since he claims to be a ‘stable genius’?
Things that make you go hmmmmmm.
Healthy self-love is treating yourself the way you know to treat others. Telling yourself you’re not an idiot when you do something poorly thought-out. Boosting yourself when you’re down, and reminding yourself of the kind things people have said to you.
And believing them.
Only this past week, when I did something monumentally bone-headed, and had to remind myself not to beat myself up over it, and looked for the elements I couldn’t have known about, and analyzed how my anxiety led me to take an action before I had all the facts, did I finally think, “I really have to practice self-love. Someone who loves herself won’t lead herself astray like I did.”
There’s a Promised Land of greater happiness for those who can practice genuine self-love, without moving into narcissism territory.
Forgiveness. Compassion. Kindness. Can anyone argue we don’t need more of this in the world? We can be both humble and proud of ourselves at the same time.
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