Are you noticing anything missing in the Valentine’s Day Greeting Card aisle of the grocery store this month? If you’re one of the millions of Americans who—begrudgingly or otherwise—will be paying their annual tariff to Hallmark in celebration of this most polarizing holiday, you already know there’s a heart-themed card dedicated to nearly every possible sort of relationship, from grandparents to partners to platonic friends. But if greeting card platitudes were truly a reflection of our current society, there’d be an entire aisle dedicated to a sorely missing category (or three!): “Me, Myself, and I”. Thanks to social media, that Great Objectifier, we are now—more than ever before—our own objects of affection, attention, and love. Like Narcissus gazing at his own reflection, we stare longingly into the eyes of our cameras as we take selfie after selfie… and then stare even longer at the version of ourselves we were (after many takes) able to capture. Our essence lives inside those photos, or so we’d like to think. To project them into the world is to give others the opportunity—no, the privilege!—of seeing us as we truly are. So, in the spirit of the season, I want to show you some love—tough love that is—and ask you point-blank: Are you excessively in love with yourself? Does the world begin and end with you? If your gut says yes, you may be a narcissist. Stop sabotaging your life, snap out of that admiring gaze as you look at your reflection in the mirror, and read my advice below to begin to end this negative behavior once and for all.
In a recent New York Times piece, author and columnist Arthur Brooks wisely referred to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s differentiation between healthy self-love (“amour de soi”), and a self-love that’s poison to the soul. “amour-propre” is “a kind of self-love based on the opinions of others,” Brooks writes. “[Rousseau]…believed that arbitrary social comparison led to people wasting their lives trying to look and sound attractive to others.”
Indeed, over three hundred years later, Rousseau’s words have taken on new meaning. Much has been written about the Narcissistic Personality in the last 30 years in the psychoanalytic literature and in popular psychology. There are important lessons that can be gleaned from this research in how to identify the Narcissist in love and at work…such that you can avoid unnecessary pain in relationships with Narcissists… as they inevitably result in breached commitments, dishonored contracts, and broken hearts.
What are some of the hallmarks of the Narcissistic personality? First and foremost is excessive self-absorption. The Narcissist is rarely, if ever, truly interested in others. He or she may go on at length about themselves, but rarely demonstrate a meaningful interest in you.
Second, Narcissists are incapable of true empathy. They may be able to feign empathy because they are intelligent enough to have learned the concept of empathy, and may use it as a technique to manipulate others and win people over. As one of my patients once put it, “I know what empathy is, but I’ve never felt it.” But true empathy requires compassion and understanding – capacities that the Narcissist sorely lacks. When he or she attempts empathy, it has a shallow quality that will not resonate within you emotionally, and will lack a feeling of emotional connection. Genuine empathy is felt as a deep emotional resonance within your heart that comes along with a caring emotional connection with another human being.
Third, the Narcissist is only interested in his or her own happiness, and you exist only to make them happy. A Narcissist attends to your happiness only when it can bring them something they desire or covet – whether it is showing you off to others, getting you into bed, or manipulating some favor. It is all about boosting their self-esteem and sense of self by fulfilling their needs. In contrast, someone capable of mature love is concerned about his or her own happiness, but is also genuinely committed to helping you find happiness in your own life.
The Narcissist may be extremely attractive, charming, interesting, fun and exciting for quite some time in the early phase of a relationship. They may sweet talk you – saying how important you are to them and how much they need you in their life. However, the Narcissist can “talk-the-talk” but cannot “walk-the -walk.” Count on the Narcissist to bolt when reality, ambivalence, or conflict that isn’t resolved in their favor start to enter the relationship. “Bolting” may take place at an emotional level where they withdraw from you into self-absorption, or it may involve their ending the relationship to move onto the next object of their Narcissistic pleasure. When the inevitable conflicts arise in a real relationship, count on the Narcissist to focus on your flaws and the various ways you don’t satisfy them, as opposed to working toward an understanding your point of view, as well as expressing their own, to enable a win-win resolution of conflicts.
The Narcissist can outwardly radiate a great aura of confidence and competence that may be beguiling. At times this personality trait may be expressed as arrogance. This posturing often masks deep feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and unmet dependency needs that are threatening and frightening to them at an unconscious level. The Narcissist may jealously and possessively attempt to control you, or alternatively remain at an emotional distance, as a result of his or her unresolved dependency needs, which threaten the development of true intimacy. Thus a relationship with a Narcissist can feel like a very lonely place, even while being physically together and participating in an active social life.
Not all narcissism is bad. “Healthy Narcissism” is a positive trait that brings along with it positive self-regard and self-esteem; an appreciation of one’s strengths and capabilities; the confidence to explore the world, adult relationships, and one’s own inner life; the ability to ensure that one’s own needs are met in a relationship, along with a keen interest in meeting the needs of one’s partner, and a willingness to compromise to achieve mutual happiness; and a rock-solid set of principles and virtues that are not shaken or influenced by external pressures. If one has healthy narcissism and finds themselves becoming involved with a Narcissist, they typically have the inner strength to break away and move on, even if it means bearing the feelings of loneliness, and living alone.
If you are not a Narcissist, perhaps you are struggling in a relationship with someone who is. Many adults repeatedly become engaged with Narcissistic Personalities. Due to unconscious forces, lack of self esteem, a repetition of earlier formative relationships, and a compulsion to repeat self-sabotaging behaviors, they seek out love relationships (and enter business relationships) that from the beginning are destined to bring heartache and failure.
Many clients first come in for psychotherapy in the midst of a crisis, or when they have recognized a pattern in their lives where they have been involved in a series of relationships that don’t work out, and where they feel chronically unhappy. We come to learn in the course of therapy that they repeatedly choose Narcissists as lovers and companions. We also uncover the sources of their low self-esteem that serve to perpetuate this pattern. Through psychotherapy, the unconscious determinants and propagators of this pattern can be identified and resolved, and healthy narcissism can be nurtured and strengthened. Through the process of therapy one makes healthier choices – seeking out and finding true partners who provide mature love, an emotional connection, empathy, support, and a durable love. Successful therapy helps to ensure that future relationships do not wither away and die, but remain alive and vibrant.
If you’d like to learn more about mature love, and how to create a love relationship that is resilient and unwavering, download Session Seven from my book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self-Love.