Niagara Gazette

September 8, 2013

SINGER: Dealing with Narcissism

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A well-known professor at the University of Rochester, Christopher Lasch, published a celebrated book of the late ‘70s, “The Culture of Narcissism,” which I read, but which left no memorable residue.

However, narcissism — a veiled, difficult-to-perceive, but serious personality issue — is alive and well, and if you’ve been bedeviled by someone you know who somehow doesn’t inspire your trust, and who seems too good to be true, he/she probably is! You know — the type who smiles perpetually in public and seems to have it all together, barbecues exactly the right way, has the right kind of home, etc.; but who deep down, lives only for image purveyed, and really cares little or nothing for anybody.

Authentic empathy is never a strong suit of this flawed, fundamentally false personality type. If you’d like more enlightenment on the subject, I urge you to consult a world authority on both narcissist and borderline personalities, the late James Masterson, particularly his book “Search for the Real Self.”

Narcissism is revealed in those for whom existence is simply a competition or series of mountains scaled, and ultimately, in a “look ma, aren’t I wonderful!” attitude. People are only important to such types as Christmas tree ornaments to make them look better — i.e., to enhance that all-important image they present. Very little can wipe the inveterate smile off their faces, including suffering that’s right before them, even in their own families.

I’ve denoted this personality trait in certain major historical figures, such as France’s ever sunny Chief of Staff in World War I, Joseph Joffre, committing thousands, even millions to certain deaths in ill-conceived offensives against German trench lines; and then showing (in his memoirs) not one iota of regret for it all. (During the war, he himself generally stayed back at headquarters far from the front, taking good care of himself there.)

We could also point to plenty of politicians past and present with narcissist tendencies, to kings like England’s Henry VIII, and so forth. To which cynics might retort: hey, aren’t all generals and politicians narcissists? The answer is emphatically no. There are plenty of generals who have cared deeply about their charges, wanting to spare lives whenever possible. And looking simply at past presidents, yes, a JFK or Ronald Reagan had to make the right connections on the way up, no question; but I still think they cared authentically and deeply about many serious issues, and about people, and I would call neither a narcissist.

In other words this is not a label one should throw around lightly or indiscriminately. Narcissism is far down the psychological line from normality or even from the moderate position of neuroticism.

And again, what’s bedeviling about it is how well the narcissist constructs a persuasive, beguiling image of togetherness and normality. So many know the feeling they have inside dealing with such types — that something here isn’t right, despite the fact that plenty of people out there seem to gobble up those ready smiles.

You know what? Whatever you intuit — if you’re a thoughtful, honest person, including with yourself — is correct; but I realize how tough it is to honor that knowledge. It was difficult for French authorities finally to dislodge “Papa Joffre” early in 1917 after a good million French lives had been lost (not to mention the many British who also perished due to his sway over their army).

And it’s tough in your own lives to believe what you keep feeling inside. Someone once said that narcissists are toxic personalities, but eluding them is not always an easy matter. Sure, they’re false deep down, but they’re also frequently buttressed in life by success, wealth, good clothes and vehicles, and by having other glitterati in their corner; to the point where you may say to yourself: who the heck am I to doubt all that? Why not enter the spider’s web with everyone else?

But the sooner you validate that persistent doubt in yourself, the better. Because they aren’t going to change ...

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.