Echoes of Narcissism

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“I’m the greatest man in the world.”
Will Ferrell’s goofball character in the basketball spoof “Semi Pro,” upon incorrectly concluding that the team he owns will be joining the NBA

According to myth, Narcissus became the first narcissist when he stared deeply into a reflecting pool and fell in love with the image of the gorgeous man he beheld. By the time he realized that the object of his affections was himself, it was too late. Even the attractive, ardent Echo, parroting her idol’s every syllable, couldn’t pierce Narcissus’s self-involvement.

By getting a line on the narcissists in our lives, we can mitigate the suffering they precipitate. The first step is to recognize them — especially those with “narcissistic personality disorder,” defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as, “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” The second step is to understand that they practice a kind of psychological fundamentalism, only instead of Jesus or Allah, the narcissist himself is the beginning, middle and end of the story.

Narcissists are often smart, focused, charismatic and successful — after all, they’ve got only one person’s goals to worry about. Hewing to the myth, they tend to surround themselves with courtiers who echo their brilliant pronouncements. Nowadays, we call them “yes-men,” whether male or female.

An erstwhile CEO I know put together a talented, passionate staff but couldn’t resist incessant meddling, because after all, he could do everyone’s job better than they could. After losing his company, he told me he was convinced he could win the presidency of the United States, but didn’t want the job.

Narcissists are incapable of sincere apology and masterful at invoking sympathy. The above-mentioned ex-CEO stressed the importance, power-wise, of arriving late for a meeting and then contriving a mea culpa. Something like, “I’m so sorry I’m late, but I sprained my ankle while rescuing an elderly lady from two hulking attackers.”

Advanced stages of narcissism thrive on the Right these days, though the condition knows no political boundaries. (If Hillary had won the Presidency, we’d be drowning in an ocean of Clintonian self-absorption.) Mega-rich Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to the news his New York taxes are going up a bit? “I told Mayor Bloomberg: I’ll be the first to lead the way” out of the state. (His Echos, aka “dittoheads,” would be the followers.) Never mind that the Mayor never asked and that centimillionaire Rush will still net tens of millions a year.

Rush is a piker next to Fox’s Bully O’Reilly, who had this to say about Spain, whose court is inquiring into the conduct of six former Bush officials: “So here’s the deal, Spain, unless this action is condemned by Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero, then I am not going to that country.” Bill’s long been big on boycotts, but at least his others — like the ludicrous embargo of Ludacris — were aimed at recruiting other people. This time it’s about how awful it will be for an entire country if Bill himself doesn’t pay a visit.

It’s futile to argue with a narcissist. Years ago, I witnessed a close friend’s raging confrontation with his narcissistic boss, who was convinced that, given enough time, he’d make my friend understand his wrong-headedness. My red-faced friend finally grokked the hopelessness of a meaningful give-and-take, and screamed, “Don’t you get it? I understand what you’re saying — I just disagree.” The boss seemed unable to take this in, and his face turned almost catatonic. After a few moments of silence, he changed the subject.

Narcissists tend to fall in love with their own voices. I was in a steam room the other day when a guy I’d never met walked in. He nodded at me and, aiming for politeness rather than information, I asked “How you doin’?” I must have lost three pounds before he took a breath from recounting the details of his dramatic triumph — pace, heart rate, level, RPM, distance, etc. — on the elliptical machine. (Yes, given the opportunity, a narcissist will inflate his workout stats to a complete stranger.)

Narcissism’s not all bad. When you find it necessary to talk to a narcissist on the phone, take the opportunity to pay your bills or read that New Yorker profile gathering dust on your night table.

It’s hard to be in a close relationship with a narcissist, though they may attach themselves to one another in a kind of mutually assured egocentricity. Sometimes there’s a glimmer of self-awareness, as when a former good friend once acknowledged, over a Thanksgiving table, “I can’t see beyond myself.” I was touched by her honesty, but quickly became distracted by the sounds and smells coming from a nearby bathroom; her self-worshipping husband didn’t see the necessity of closing the door while conducting his business.

Let’s face it: narcissists are everywhere, and often occupy positions of power. If we can’t always avoid them, we can learn to identify them and make a conscious effort not to get enmeshed in their self-serving manipulations.

Think of how isolating it must be for a narcissist to go through life without the ability to feel what others are experiencing. Even if he looks like Narcissus, he’ll never find true intimacy, not even with himself.

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