Books on narcissism, and the culture of narcissism are all around us. Every
day we have many opportunities to promote ourselves on Facebook, Twitter.
If you don’t like the price that you agreed to for your airline
ticket, immediately Twitter about it, because the chances are reasonable
that you will have an airline representative contacting you
offering you money to stop putting negative comments about their company out in cyberspace. Wow! Talk about power. You complain and someone immediately pays attention to you, and gives you preference, money and discounts. We hear every day that “you are worth it” and that you need to “advocate for yourself”, when advocating and having a
histrionic meltdown seem to be synonymous. There are fewer and fewer consequences, at least in the United States,
over what has become a culture of narcissism.
Yet the very discussion of cultural narcissism blurs the line between self-absorbed
people who are aware of how self-absorbed they are, and the personality
disorder of narcissism. Personality disorders are not clear, bright lines.
are spectrums of behavior, but when it becomes a personality disorder, the person has less awareness of a bigger world perspective, in a way that affects their ability to function. How you react to someone who is self-absorbed
but self-aware of being self-absorbed, and how you must react and deal with someone who has a personality disorder
of narcissism is very different.
A clinical definition of narcissism is someone who has an extreme sense
of self-centeredness and superiority. A narcissist has a world view in
which there is an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Tthat is their
reality, there is no
room for an alternate world view. They must be admired and they believe they are entitled to special treatment. Iif they do not get it, then there is something wrong with you. A narcissist takes advantage of others for their own gain and lacks empathy. There is a chronic feeling of internal distress, with a persistent pattern of behavior that extends back to early
adulthood, and a belief that the cause of the distress is external.
There is a healthy amount of narcissism in any one who is very driven,
or at particular times in their lives. A new mother, for example, is convinced
that her baby is the most special baby in the whole world, and that only she truly
knows what is best for that baby, from the brand of diaper to when you begin feeding solid foods. Fortunately for all
new mothers, that perspective begins to change as you start to see the bigger world view, and you get more experience with other mothers and other babies. Most politicians, by nature, are trying to sell their personal belief that they are unique and only that person can truly change the world.
Pathological narcissism, as opposed to cultural traits of narcissism, is
different. And narcissists can come into your life on a daily basis. This
came home to me recently. I had a new client that I had told her that
I would get the initial paperwork done within a week. In the week after
I met with the client, my office changed bookkeeping systems and telephone
systems. We lost voice mail for two days, and I was in court or preparing
for court during those two days, so my normal office
procedures were not in place as to returning calls or returning voicemails. On the 7th day after I met with the new client, she came storming into my office, not stopping at the receptionist, and interrupting a meeting, hysterical because she had
been calling my office in the middle of the night and was not able to get my voicemail. She began screaming that it
was unheard of for an attorney not to return phone calls within a few hours, that she couldn’t tolerate being ignored like that, and that she had not slept in two nights because of the anxiety of not being able to get my voicemail. That particular interaction was a warning sign to me that this person had more than the stress of starting a divorce, that she had a personality disorder. I spoke with her about appropriate boundaries, and that while I tried to return phone calls within 24 hours, that it wasn’t always possible to do so. She seemed to calm down, and I got
her the paperwork for review by the end of the day. The next day, she left a voicemail while I was in a meeting with another client. Two hours later, she began writing emails that this was totally unacceptable for her to be ignored, and what was I going to do to prove to her that she would never be ignored again. I immediately wrote a letter stating that I was terminating my representation. I was very careful not to give negative feedback to the person. If you give negative feedback to a narcissist, you are not just commenting on their behavior, to them you are attacking them as a person and challenging their
worldview. I stated that we had different viewpoints of appropriate boundaries of an attorney-client
relationship, and that she would be better to find an attorney with a viewpoint similar to her own. This still wasn’t
enough, because three days later, she again came into my personal office, interrupting the phone call I was on, and demanded to know why I was doing this to her, and why I had changed. It was clear that she had great internal distress and could only see external causes when her expectations about what she was entitled to were not met.
Ahh, I can hear you saying in your head “well, that type of situation
would only come up for divorce attorneys. After all, the worst in people
comes out in a divorce, that’s why you would see more evidence of
disorder.” I don’t think so. I think you see people with personality disorders every day. I learn a great
deal from listening to my children’s stories. My son is the manager of a tire and automotive repair shop. He has a repeat customer, who comes in with her BMW that requires special oil, and demands the $19.95 oil change. He explained to her that her car requires oil that costs $35 per quart, and that it takes more than the standard amount of
oil, or it would damage her car, and that for her car, the oil change will be $300. She became outraged, and angry,
arguing long and hard that she was entitled to the $19.95 oil change, despite signs that clearly states the price is for standard grade oil up to 5 quarts. She complained to corporate headquarters that she wasn’t getting what she was entitled to, and that she will not tolerate being treated that way. This client now has 35 formal complaints to corporate about why she is
entitled to a $19.95 oil change. She keeps coming back because not getting what her internal world view believes she
is entitled to, creates internal distress that must have an external cause, or er internal sense of self will fall apart.
Maybe you think it is just lawyers and retail that have daily interactions
with people that may have narcissist personal disorder. I don’t
think so. My daughter is a teaching assistant for a graduate level biostatistics
class. One student became vry angry, because he had not gotten credit
for his answer. She pointed out that he had made a fundamental mathematical
mistake early on in the answer, with the result that the entire analysis
was wrong. The student
became enraged because he felt entitled to credit for trying, even if he was wrong, despite the fact that if that kind of mistake had happened in a work environment, there would not be credit for trying. The student then appealed to the professor,
and then the dean of students, and finally to the president of the University. He had internal distress, and there had to be
an external cause to explain why his expectations of being treated as special had not been met.