Fear of Narcissism
Yesterday, I talked with someone who is deathly afraid of her anger. She said, “If I allow myself to express anger, I’m afraid I’ll be a narcissist.” I worry about this, too. But our fear of narcissism comes from a fundamental misunderstanding. We confuse a simple trait, narcissism, with a mental disorder (narcissistic personality disorder).
As with any other trait (like generosity), narcissism exists on a continuum. This means it extends forever in both directions, a line without a true beginning or end. We all live within a range on this never-ending line. Everybody poops. Everybody has narcissism. For an interesting essay on this fear, Tia Tolentino reviews Kristin Dombeck’s book, “The Selfishness of Others.”
What is Narcissism?
Narcissism involves selfishness, a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration. Narcissism affects us all because it’s a universal human experience: everyone’s a narcissist, on some basic level.
We know it’s normal for infants to be narcissistic: babies can’t take your perspective and newborns can’t even distinguish themselves from their caregivers. So, we all come into the world with natural narcissism which hopefully expands to a more complex experience of self and other. But for awhile, that natural narcissism keeps us alive.
Anger taps that natural narcissism for just a moment. It filters the world through our own selfish perspective: what we want or need jumps front and center. And this moment of selfishness promotes self-interested behavior, like the infant who screams and flails her arms to draw attention to something very displeasing to her (hunger, discomfort, boredom).
So, fear of narcissism really means being afraid of a part of myself that is all about basic self-preservation.
Again, think of the narcissistic continuum. You probably shift back and forth on the line, depending on the relationship you’re experiencing at any moment. Who brings out most of your narcissism? Who takes the more narcissistic role with you? Ponder these questions, and you’ll discover something about your attachment patterns . . . how you tend to bond with significant others.
Can I express anger and not be narcissistic?
Good question. It depends on how you do it. While you’ll always have the basic survival narcissism, grownups get to use empathy and compassion while expressing anger. Yes, care coexists with anger when you own your feelings instead of projecting or blaming. Blaming and projection sound like this: You are so dishonest! You just want to hurt me!
But expressing anger responsibly sounds like this:
- I’m so furious you’d make that assumption about me without asking me.
- I feel offended by what you said.
- I feel angry. Can you help me understand what made you do that?
Notice how I can say all of this and still care for you. I love you AND I feel so angry with you I could scream. Can you tell me what was happening in you at that moment? Please help me make sense of this.
Try the above with someone close to you: just practice the words, even if you’re not angry. Ask your loved one to do the same. Notice what happens next.