• Fri, Dec 10 2010

Bullish: How to Tell if You’re a Narcissist (and How It Might Be Holding You Back)

One barometer of narcissism in our culture is the long lines of deluded hopefuls waiting for a chance to embarrass themselves on American Idol. (The judges, to their discredit, regularly goad contestants into braggadocio — “Do you really think you’re the next Idol?” The answer they’re looking for is not, “I’ll respectfully defer to your professional judgment.”) On the Huffington Post, Melody Breyer-Grell suggests that Fantasia Barrino is a clinical narcissist. Here, Colin Horgan writes about the “endless display of people who refuse to believe they are terrible singers” — with videos, for maximum schadenfreude!

The thing that gets me about these kinds of videos is not so much the truly delusional (the world will always have its share of wingnuts), but the constant rhetoric about following one’s dream, and the singers’ families, who apparently support those dreams. Idol contestant Mere Doyle commented, before her disastrous Janis Joplin rendition, that her mother has “been with me, supporting me all the way.” When told that she is a terrible singer, she says, “I mean, with all due respect, I don’t know why everyone says that I’m good — my voice coaches… Not just my family, everybody that’s heard me.”

These people are enablers.

And if I hear one more person — ever, in any context — use Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech as a metaphor for his/her goal to become a pop star, sell more e-books, etc., I will get stabby. Stabby on behalf of justice. (Four Hour Work Week author Tim Ferriss once posted MLK’s entire “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” on his blog, prompting one commenter to write that he had never before heard of the work, and then, no joke: “This is a key lesson not only in blogging, but in life. At times I let myself become more impacted by 1 critic than by 100 fans. That’s the nature of the beast, but reading content like this helps me realize that it’s all just a small ripple in the ocean of life.” Yes, I’m sure that Martin Luther King was very concerned that you feel better about your blog.)

But back to dreams. Most people’s dreams are selfish. There’s nothing terribly harmful about most of those dreams — sure, try to be a pop star, or world-champion surfer, or an internet entrepreneur — but there’s nothing especially virtuous about them either. There’s no moral case for anyone’s being obliged to help you with those dreams. If you are so absorbed in your “dream” that you forget to vote, guess what? Then you’re a garden-variety narcissistic asshole.

It seems so un-American to say that people shouldn’t follow their dreams. I love an “awkward-gay-kid grows up, moves to LA, and becomes Prince Poppycock” story as much as anyone. But I’ve always wondered about the follow-your-dreams party line I feel like I heard so many times throughout my childhood. We would not say, for instance: “Follow whatever leader seems good to you at the moment!” Of course, we should choose worthy leaders before we follow; we should choose worthy goals before we strive. Are suicide bombers not, er, following their dreams? Their very poorly-chosen, misanthropic dreams?

Some people need better dreams, and I think we need to stop telling children to follow their dreams without providing some guidance on what makes a dream worthy, or big enough that other people ought to care about it.

This article from Psychology Today gives some techniques for dealing with narcissists, whether the narcissist is your boss or whether you’ve somehow agreed to regularly engage in sexual intercourse with a narcissist. And the Bullish column Dealing with Short Men, Tall Men, and Their Various Battles for Dominance deals with at least one subset of narcissists.

But if you suspect that you yourself may have been living a narcissistic life, what can you do about it? (And why should you bother?)

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  • KJ

    Sorry Jen, but disagreeing with Winnie the Pooh basically amounts to FIGHTIN’ WORDS! *fists up*

    Still love the column, though! (Fist fights solve all disagreements)

  • John

    Great stuff this. Been browsing the google thing and this has been best treatment of narcissism. Bit of humour bit of seriousness.

    I’m defo a bit too high on this scale, obviously not enough to be completely unaware though ;) No idea what to do about it, feel like the real me is still an adolescent and will crumble when faced without all the crap I build myself up with.

    And the edgy nastiness creeps out, the “the world hates pussy men” type shit.

    Maybe I can channel this shit into making some “shit happen”. You know good shit like.

    Uh oh!!! And theres the delusions of grandeur flowing out, in my fantasies Im talking to that guy who made Swingers, his buddy and Garry Shandling! Seems so beautiful, then I walk down road to buy some beer from shop and mumble to the guy without keeping eye contact.

    Ffs!! mun I wish I knew how to make it go away, and the thing is I fuckin do, which makes it worse cos it really is all my fault!! I just need to do stuff and learn stuff and build mysefl up genuinely but the pay off with my fanatasies is immediate gratification. The easy life baby :)