Authenticity and narcissism
[Originally a comment in a thread here.]
These two comments, especially SK's, induce so many thoughts in me and remind me of so many bits of knowledge that I almost don't know where to begin.
Except with this:
SK, or anyone else on here, if you've had only or even mostly the kind of relationship described above, run, don't walk, to this website.
Human authenticity is a fascination of mine, something I have made a study of all my life. Perhaps it’s best explained backwards; more recently, I’ve made a study of its diametric opposite, narcissistic personality disorder, and I need to start there. The narcissist is the ultimate—and consummate—creator of a false persona, so much so that they conceal from themselves the existence of their true self, and how much they despise it. They live for attention and reassurance that their false self, which they present as perfect, accomplished and impressive, claiming status and accolades that are not truly deserved, is their real self. The other thing they ask of other people, especially those close, is to act as emotional punching bags and recipients of blame, though they won’t do this until you commit yourself to a relationship with them.
Narcissists do not relate to other people in normal ways in that they do not have empathy, and they do not take responsibility for the predictable consequences of their actions. They leave swaths of destruction, mangling other people’s self-esteem, relationships, reputations, organizations and lives. They emotionally damage their lovers, their friends, their children and their co-workers.
They are very common—psychopaths get all the headlines, I’ve said before, but narcissists do 99% of the damage—but they sucker people in because the knowledge it takes to spot and avoid them is not commonly held. If you are a person of normal social function, a narcissist’s behaviour will baffle you, and you will not understand why they do and say what they do, or why they don’t listen to reason no matter how fervently and eloquently you offer it. Learn about the logic that rules their minds, however, and it all makes sense and falls into place, and you know what to do. (Which is generally: get away.) They should teach this stuff to kids in high school health class.
I have a lot of experience with narcissists. I was raised by one and possibly two of them, and, like many children of narcissists, went on to have serious relationships with at least one. There are certain traits common to people who tend to fall in love with narcissists, and I had about 95% of them, though in my healing work I’ve gotten rid of a few. Breaking away fully, i.e. not only of narcissist lovers, but of a self-image borne of their worldview, has been a long, arduous and astonishingly liberating process, absolutely worth every bit of time, effort and money.
There is a book on narcisstic parents, Trapped in the Mirror by Elan Golomb, and I recommend it to anyone who was a child of one or more such people. Good though it is, however, it lacks the usefulness—the checklists, the instructions, and above all the success stories—as well as the laser-beam clarity of Melanie Evans’s website, referenced above, which is about love relationships with narcissists and how to survive and escape them. (They so infrequently turn out well that for practical purposes it is best to say they never turn out well.) When I read the parts about how narcissists behave and what sorts of things they say, I thought, ‘Does this woman know [narcissist’s name here]??’ When I read the full description of how a narcissist’s mind works, it answered every single baffling question I had ever had about that person, even things that I’d thought were about mental process, seemingly unrelated to their psychology. If you think you’ve ever been with a narcissist or are with one now, I repeat, do the 100-metre dash to that site. Yes, she is selling something—she makes a living helping victims of narcissists through her healing methods—but you don’t have to pay a dime to get lots of empowering information from her site, and ongoing emails with more.
But conversely… there is this thing called “authenticity.” With it go the natural human traits of empathy and responsibility, i.e. recognizing one’s own ability to affect others, sensing what they feel and modifying behaviour because of it. With authenticity also goes these other natural human traits, healthy self-esteem, and affinity for others, i.e. liking other people and wanting to be with them just for being other people, not for what you might get from them.
My parents didn’t model these things to me, at least not in a normal way. I had to pick them up along the way... out of books (part of why I am a writer), from people outside my home, and ultimately through healing work. The culminating step has been taking courses with Landmark Education, which includes among its tenets: “If you are feeling a loss of power, ask yourself where you are being inauthentic.” Landmark does not look at authenticity as a moral requirement, a duty to other people: it recognizes that authenticity is the way to be most effective and free in your life. That message was a mind-blower the first time around, but after I tried it a few times I learned it was true.
Of course I had been portraying Chevenga and other characters enacting that principle for, ehh… decades. Have I ever mentioned that my writing brain is smarter than the rest of my brain?
As the child of narcissists and an incest survivor, I put on many masks to conceal my mangled self-esteem and cope with emotional damage, as is natural. (All personality disorders are extreme versions of normal human tendencies; narcissism, for example, is the extreme version of putting your best foot forward.) The main masks, if I recall rightly, were “nothing is wrong with me,” “everything’s fine” and “act normal.” I felt that it was crucial to maintain these masks to have any relationships with other people, because, I thought, no one would have anything to do with me if they knew the horrible truth. This is actually the seed of narcissism; the true self-esteem of a narcissist is absolutely abysmal, they despise themselves, and that is why they build up a false persona of such intensity and impressiveness. It’s also why they despise people who truly love them; that love is not in accord with their own self-hatred so, after the honeymood period, they reject and poison it.
But my self-esteem was never quite that bad, I guess. There was always a seed of it that was rock solid, however deeply hidden. And while all this was going on, I was picking up on the power of authenticity from outside sources, and being fascinated by it. As for those three masks… well, how you get rid of masks is by making them unnecessary through accepting your true self. (Any narcissists reading this: pay attention!) I had an epiphany in September of 2000 that made me begin to realize that what my mother had always said was wrong with me was not… thus that there was nothing really wrong with me; end of need for mask #1. That made everything fine, except for the usual little crap that everyone has that you deal with every day; end of need for mask #2. This all meant that really, I was normal; besides, what the heck is normal anyway? End of need for mask #3; “act normal” got transformed into the imperative “be authentic.”
(Note: this probably sounds as if it all happened easily and smoothly and indeed is complete. It didn’t—it was decades of education, internal wrestling and learning experiences, some of them horrendous—and it’s not—I still have my times, and I am still catching and exposing snippets of self-delusion, each successful capture a small delightful burst of liberation. But it’s complete enough that I understand it enough to write about it as I have here.)
To best deal with narcissists, it serves to remember the image of the mirror (remember the word comes from a character in a Greek myth who falls in love with his own mirror image). The key here is that mirror images are always backwards.
Thus, a narcissist will vociferously deny whatever is most true. Pathological themselves, they will pathologize you even before you realize they’re pathological. The ultimate victim-blamers, they will accuse you of being selfish just for standing up for yourself. They will tell you that you have to take responsibility, not only for your actions, but for all their actions that you supposedly forced them into. Always projecting, they will tell you that you are egotistical and hiding your shortcomings by being grandiose. When you derive joy from a success of your own, they will accuse you of grandstanding and lording it over them, because that’s how they are (helplessly, furiously, pathologically competitive) and they can’t imagine anyone else being different. If you try to get a word in edgewise while they are dominating a conversation, they will accuse you of hogging the airtime. Ultimately, if they discover the word “narcissist,” they will accuse you of being one, quite possibly long before you figure out that they are. This is the reflection of you they throw back at you. You have to resist your normal responsible human tendency to think that if a complaint about you is made, there must be some aspect of truth to it, and remind yourself: it’s backwards!
As SK pointed out about one of her ex-boyfriends, the degree of self-delusion almost defies belief. If you are normal, you cannot understand how anyone can hold such ideas. That makes you doubt yourself, because of that normal responsible human tendency. When dealing with narcissists, you have to completely abandon said tendency. You have to understand that the fact that they’re saying these things about you has nothing to do with you at all, and that it really all is flaming bullshit, borne of the hell in which they live, for which they want to blame and punish the world. They’re doing it because they’re narcissists, and narcissism is a mental illness—that’s all. Having a good understanding of the narcissistic mind helps immensely.
Being raised by narcissists makes it all incredibly confusing, because as a child it is natural to learn your self-image, your social skills and your mores from your parents. Narcissistic parents not only will instill unhealthy versions of all these, but being liars, will totally cover their tracks as part of the whole process, piling up layer upon layer of lie—upon which you will then pile more layers of your own out of a child’s natural loyalty and a human mind’s natural dissonance reduction. It basically took me 50 years to figure out that the reason I had to spend so much time, energy and money on self-discovery was because I was raised by freaking narcissists.
In fact, my mother’s always accusing me of being “too big for my britches” and former partners having attitudes like “I have to prove to you you’re not as good as you think you are,” along with observing in myself what I now realize is normal human desire for recognition had me worried up until quite recently that I was a narcissist, and liable to cause the suffering that they do. I’ve been sweating over this, truly, since I was a kid. But once I understood more about narcissists from Melanie Evans’s and other good narcissism sites plus Trapped in the Mirror, I became more certain that I was not. When I mentioned my concern to a dear friend, she pointed out that I couldn’t possibly be a narcissist, because narcissists do not worry that they are narcissists. They can’t possibly be, because they’re perfect, you know. And they don’t worry or feel guilty for a moment about hurting other people.
So in terms of knowing oneself as per cap’s comment, I am with her in feeling the unexamined life is not worth living, one reason why I examine life so much in the context of my writing. Narcissism is the antithesis of knowing oneself. Narcissists so desperately want to not know themselves that they create huge complex edifices of lies about themselves, so as to fool themselves along with everyone else, 24/7. The more intelligent they are, the better they are at dissembling; they also develop skill at it as they get older and build a more complete pallet of normal human behaviors, copied from other people, to display at will. They get really good at faking, you guessed it: authenticity.
To address SavageKitsune’s question, “Is that really living?”—well, I have my opinion. I avoid narcissists but I do not envy them. In a very real way, they destroy themselves.
SK also wrote: “When you present your authentic self, when you are rejected, that hurts a lot more than having your fictional character rejected.” Not if you’re a narcissist; in that case it’s, well, backwards. I think Melanie Evans gave an example on her website of a very deeply closeted gay man, a narcissist, who was somehow outed to his family. To reassure him, they told him that they had really always known, and loved him for who he was anyway. Rather than reassured, he was enraged, furious that they could have thought such a terrible thing of him. You can never win with narcissists.
Incidentally, I'm thinking about introducing a truly narcissistic character--or else having an existing one prove to be narcissistic--since with all this research as well as life experience I think I've learned enough to portray them well. There is only one character in PA so far who I consider a true narcissist, and while he very much drives the plot up to a point, he's not onstage that much: Kurkas. I think some might argue Riji Kli-fas is, too, but he strikes me as too self-aware and self-accepting.
Update: D'oh! How could I forget Ser "Brilliant! Brilliant!" Abatzas Kallen? He'd be your example of an unintelligent narcissist.