• Fri, Dec 10 2010

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

Over the next few years, following my ex-boyfriend’s comment, I realized that that was actually a pretty narcissistic website I had going on there. For one, my last name is difficult, so — on a whim in 2004 — I bought the domain JenIsFamous.com. Over the years, I became increasingly embarrassed by this. (My business cards now all say JenniferDziura.com, which goes to the same place.) It was a decision that implied that fame was more important than doing the work of comedy. It also led to my frequently being introduced on comedy club stages as “Jennifer Dziura from Jenisfunny.com,” which, in retrospect, might have been a better domain name, really. Also, numerous non-native speakers have deduced from my URL that my name is “Jenis,” which is a little too close to the limits of my rhyming comfort.

But seriously. Unchecked narcissism leaves lasting effects. Picasso was a legendary narcissist (“Every time I change wives I should burn the last one…. They wouldn’t be around now to complicate my existence.”) In Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life, author Linda Martinez-Lewi writes about Picasso’s emotional abuse of wives and mistresses, and destruction of nearly all of his relatives (seriously, the account contains the phrase “he took his short life by drinking bleach, bleeding himself out”). In contrast, apparently Audrey Hepburn was a lovely person — she was perfectly capable of managing fame and a creative career while being free from the effects of narcissism.

Not only does narcissism harm those around us, it also gives us a false picture of our performance, setting us up for nagging doubts about our abilities — a situation likely to prompt even more narcissism as a defense mechanism. It turns out, interestingly, that math students with higher self-esteem perform worse on actual math tests. (Because thinking that you’re good at math doesn’t make you good at math! It’s like the American Idol of math! Sadly, inflated feelings of specialness do not take the place of actually knowing how to find a common denominator, etc.) Malcolm Gladwell has written frequently about the “10,000 Hour Rule” — it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. Spend 10,000 hours intelligently, on one thing, and you’ll be pretty special, except that it will be an actual fact.

So, here are a few suggestions for keeping in check the narcissism that seems somewhat expected in our culture, and hence avoiding having a bunch of less narcissistic people secretly (or not so secretly) hate you:

  • While I think most ambitious people trying to break into a field go through a phase of “fake it til you make it,” there comes a time (in one’s life and career) for absolute transparency. For instance, I was recently asked to tutor a four-year-old. When asked if I had ever taught such a young student before, I could’ve fudged the numbers — but really, four is several years younger than my youngest clients. I told the parent that I’d never had such a young student, and asked if I could meet the kid in order to determine whether I thought I could do the job. (As it turns out, the kid likes everybody, so we were super-cool. A standoffish four-year-old would’ve been beyond my skill set.) But if I couldn’t do it, I would’ve told the parent to call me in a few years. Admitting a lack of expertise (outside of your actual area of expertise) builds credibility, and combats the narcissism of pretending to be queen of all things.
  • If you live in a diverse city, keep in mind that many people you come in contact with come from cultures in which any bragging at all is considered extremely rude. (There are all kinds of college admissions materials written to encourage Asian students to make eye contact in interviews and speak directly about their accomplishments. And in Mongolia, it’s polite to call someone’s baby ugly, because complimenting babies is bad luck.) So, if you find yourself dominating a conversation by talking about yourself a bit too much (I still do this when I’m tipsy — sorry, friends!), remind yourself that, while such behavior is considered normal-to-annoying in mainstream American culture, it is actually considered disgusting by many people in the world, some of whom may be present. And no one wants to be disgusting.
  • In job interviews and other business situations, take the focus off of showing how great you are, and put the focus on figuring out what the gaps and cracks are in the organization, and being the person who can fill those gaps or cracks. If you spend all your time being impressive, the conversation is actually controlled by the other person: what do you want him or her to do with that information? I learned a lot by watching the entire first season of the show In Treatment: specifically, I learned to ask questions like Dr. Paul Weston, and to direct a conversation while doing a minority of the talking.
  • Reject baseless self-esteem exercises. Do not heed Queen Latifah’s exhortation to . Queen Latifah quotes Winnie the Pooh, saying “You are … smarter than you think.” Actually, a whole lot people think they are smarter than they are. There’s nothing revolutionary about trying to brainwash yourself into thinking you’re special. We are born narcissists. Babies are very selfish. We have to be taught otherwise. Bolstering self-esteem is like reverting back to our own infancy. Anyone who would suck on someone else’s tits ten times a day without so much as a thank you is not someone we should be emulating.

One criticism of the above might be that I’m just suggesting that we all build false humility. I came out in favor of fake niceness (in consumer transactions) in the Bullish column How to Remain Blissfully Unfrustrated in the Face of Other People’s Incompetence, and here I’ll say that false humility is better than no humility at all. There’s also nothing wrong with doing community service to get into college provided that you do the job well. In fact, what a lot of us think of as acting “fake” is what previous generations thought of as “behaving yourself.” I’m fine with it.

Of course, it’s possible to take humility to an undesirable extreme. At that end of the spectrum is — in a phrase often deployed by evangelicals — “dying to self.” Here, enjoy many prayers to be used for the purpose of stomping out your own individual goals, volition, and self-regard! Apparently this is from the Bible: “Those who are dead to self will not feel so readily and will not be prepared to resist everything which may irritate. Dead men cannot feel.” Great! (I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ recent reference to God’s rule as a “celestial dictatorship, a sort of divine North Korea.” Both God and Kim Jong-Il would like your selfhood to die.) Interestingly, the internet is full of people (usually women bloggers talking about submitting to their husbands) bragging about how much they’ve died to self. DEAD WOMEN CANNOT FEEL. So, if submissive Christian wives and Queen Latifah had a self-esteem love child, maybe it would turn out just about right?

So, narcissism may no longer be a personality disorder, but it’s still fucking annoying to others, and may be holding back the narcissist more than she is aware. Narcissists are very easy to exploit — all American Idol contestants sign a contract allowing the show to use their footage in a defamatory way, but the narcissists’ delusions cause each of them to think that, surely, they will be the ones who come off well. So that’s perhaps a narcissistic reason to make a good faith effort to cut down on narcissism.

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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 :)