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I wrote this about fifteen years ago. I have made some progress but I still have my moments.
People like to tell me now and then that I am narcissistic. Yet I see myself as kind and generous. You might say I am in “denial,” about being a loving person, but there is actually some evidence to back up my perception of myself. I have a long history of “loving too much” (codependency), and I go out of my way to help people all the time. On the other hand, in public I have been known to really go off on people the way narcissists tend to do. So who am I—naughty or nice? Well, the honest answer is both. And I have come up with a very simple term to describe this. I am a “situational narcissist.”
Narcissism is a mental illness, albeit an unsympathetic one, and I could tell you horror stories about my childhood, but this does not let me off the hook. Once you grow up, the root cause of your problem becomes nothing more than an explanation of why you are the way you are. You are still, no matter how difficult it may be, obligated to change—to become the best person you can be, or at least better than the person you were when you started out.
You might be thinking maybe I am a nice person who gets in a bad mood now and then. But the last person I victimized behind the counter at Starbucks would really disagree with you. She was too slow and I ripped her to shreds. I was not just annoyed because she was ignoring me to help someone else, I was angry because, as a situational narcissist, I believe I am at the center of the universe (at any given moment), and should be on the top of your priority list. When I am in line somewhere my attitude and body language say it all: “Step aside, I am here and I am more important than you because I am in a hurry.” Every now and then I actually say this out loud and everyone laughs, but it is really just a slip of the tongue.
It might be fun to tell you some of the stories of my narcissistic outbursts, because I can make light of them now and turn them into humorous anecdotes, but the truth is this part of my personality is embarrassing to me. To get away from my shame I even created an alter ego whom I call Gretchen. I introduce her to people after an incident and blame her for my outbursts. “Gretchen made me do it,” I would say. Poor Gretchen, what a great scapegoat she was before my therapist made me give her up. Anyway, my point is that you can trust me, I am capable of being narcissistic—self absorbed, rude, belittling, unsympathetic, etc. etc.
Since I am only a “situational” narcissist, let’s talk about the situations that trigger my narcissism. They are stress, fear, being ignored and being the target of rude behavior.
Let’s start with stress. It creates anxiety and Gretchen immediately takes over to handle the situation like a warrior on the battlefield. She has no diplomatic skills whatsoever. It is conquer or die trying. Fear, like stress, also triggers narcissistic behavior. I once figured out in therapy that I am afraid when I leave the house. I was not only bullied by the neighborhood kids when I left the house as a child, but out in the big bad world I have been kidnapped, robbed, and beaten—all of which have left me with a mild case of post traumatic stress disorder.
All of this means that once I leave the house I am anxious to do what I have to do and get home. God help you if you get in my way. Another major trigger for me is being ignored. This is typically referred to as a narcissistic wound. It stems from not getting enough attention as a child. My mother had four children in two and a half years and had her hands full. I was also the middle child. While my sisters were happily playing on the floor, and my mother was holding my baby brother, I was screaming for my mother to pick me up and hold me. Being the middle child has long been recognized as being difficult. So you don’t want to ignore me. Finally, if you are rude to me you must have a death wish because I go ballistic. You will get a mouth full, not to mention the finger. I tell myself I am only standing up for myself, but what about the people around me when I am doing this. There is such a thing as disturbing the peace.
So here I am 69 and a situational narcissist with a lot of understanding about what is wrong with me and how I get triggered. So what comes next? What do I do about it? Well the tough part is over. I have done what few narcissists can do, I have identified and owned what is wrong with me. Now I must change.
I have written a whole book about change. It is entitled, The Art of Changing.” In summary it says I must get help (therapy and support groups) and make a commitment to thinking and acting differently. Then I must keep this goal in my conscious mind at all times and not slip back into denial. I must become acutely self-aware, watching myself fail before I succeed, and finally, with the desire to change ever foremost in my mind, I must think before I act.
Wish me luck as I embark on this journey. As Daniel Goleman points out in Emotional Intelligence, changing your personality is one of the hardest things you can do. But this is important to me and I am hopeful. 2003
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