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

Are you a narcissist? If you really are, you probably won’t care. Or else, you’ll read this article and think, “Yes, but that’s for people who can’t back it up. Boo-ya!”

This November, the task force behind the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) announced that Narcissistic Personality Disorder had been removed. The New York Times had a cheeky take on the matter: A Fate That Narcissists Will Hate: Being Ignored.

I’d been thinking about the topic of narcissism ever since 2005, when I was working to establish myself in stand-up comedy. An ex-boyfriend found my website and emailed to say that the site was “the most narcissistic thing I’ve ever seen.” Yikes. Was it? One must consider the source for these kinds of comments — our exes will hardly be the ones giving our eulogies. [Editor’s note: unless you are Sonny Bono and your ex is Cher.] My site looked like a standard promotional comedian website, I thought, with some slick photos I’d had taken. And, of course, when I was mentioned in the press, I’d blog about it, and add it to the site. Isn’t that what you do when you’re trying to make it in comedy?

I ran the issue by my best friend, an artist whose Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School now has over 100 branches on five continents. She told me to forget about it. Of course, this also comes from a woman who employs an assistant to handle all the emails from fans who want to take her to lunch.

How much self-promotion is good business, and how much is too much? How much irrational self-confidence is good for you, and how much does it take to make you an asshole?

The Times article gives a good description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (N.P.D.):

The central requirement for N.P.D. is a special kind of self-absorption: a grandiose sense of self, a serious miscalculation of one’s abilities and potential that is often accompanied by fantasies of greatness…

The second requirement for N.P.D.: since the narcissist is so convinced of his high station (most are men), he automatically expects that others will recognize his superior qualities and will tell him so. This is often referred to as ‘mirroring.’ It’s not enough that he knows he’s great. Others must confirm it as well, and they must do so in the spirit of ‘vote early, and vote often.’

Finally, the narcissist, who longs for the approval and admiration of others, is often clueless about how things look from someone else’s perspective. Narcissists are very sensitive to being overlooked or slighted in the smallest fashion, but they often fail to recognize when they are doing it to others.

Apparently, the dropping of narcissism as a personality disorder is due to the rise of a “dimensional approach” to diagnosing disorders, in which symptoms are chosen à la carte for a particular patient, rather than matching a patient to a prototypical list of symptoms that characterize a disorder. But one can’t help but think that maybe we don’t need “N.P.D.” because narcissism has become startlingly normal.

There have been numerous reports that “being famous” is the number one goal of young people today. I don’t want to blame all the narcissism on young people, though. Baby boomers are doing plenty of it, and in between the “entitled” twentysomethings and the supposedly-world-changing Boomers is the Real Housewives set, making inflatable lips de rigueur. There is also evidence that “Millennials” are more civically responsible. (Here’s an academic paper examining the evidence for a rise in narcissism over the decades).

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?)

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: 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.

originally published on The Gloss