The dictionary defines narcissism as “excessive or erotic interest in one’s self and one’s physical appearance.” At best, it’s a trait that others find downright aggravating. At its worst, however, narcissism can be a pervasive, destructive personality disorder. In her new book, Everyday Narcissism: Yours, Mine, and Ours, psychologist and social worker Nancy Van Dyken peers beneath the egotistical veneer to explain the roots of narcissism and how to get past it.
The book draws a distinction between the clinical personality disorder and what Van Dyken calls “everyday narcissism.” She defines the latter as “a garden variety form of narcissism that we will recognize through people who are prone to pleasing, trying to get other people to please them or take care of them. It’s an unconscious level of wanting to be taken care of and feeling responsible for other people.”
In her book, Van Dyken writes: “Carrying the well-being of others on your shoulders? Heavy, isn’t it? Meanwhile, a very important life is being neglected. Yours. We humans take extraordinary measures to feel safe, even sacrificing awareness of our truest selves in order to follow explicit and implicit rules…. Our own false self then relates to the false selves of others. How precarious is that?”
She then answers the question: Why is this a form of narcissism? She notes that most people have somehow internalized the following: “I am responsible for how other people feel and behave. Therefore, I experience myself as all-powerful. I am responsible for how others act towards me. Therefore, I once again experience myself as all-powerful. Other people are responsible for how I feel – and are supposed to make me feel safe, happy and OK. Therefore, I am the center of the universe.”
Myth No. 1: We are raised to believe that we have the power and the responsibility to control how other people feel and behave.
Van Dyken used an example of a 5-year-old girl being told by her parents to give her 65-year-old grandmother a kiss goodbye. The child doesn’t want to, but she’s told that grandma will feel badly if she doesn’t. The child then gets the message that she is responsible for the feelings of the three adults.
“It gives her a real false sense of how much power and responsibility she has,” she said. “We hear that over and over and over enough, and we come to believe that we do have that much power and are responsible for others in that manner.”
“We are raised to believe that we have the power and the responsibility to control how other people feel and behave.”
Myth No. 2: If I take care of you, you’re supposed to take care of me.
This myth is about believing that you have the power and responsibility to control how others feel and behave. In a common exchange, person A might say, “Well, I wouldn’t have gotten so mad if you had come home on time.” And person B might respond, “Well, I wouldn’t have gotten so angry if dinner had been on the table on time.”
“It’s holding the other person responsible for how I feel, and if anger’s in there, it’s your fault that I’m angry,” Van Dyken said. Some people express their anger by yelling, cursing or calling names. “If someone gets angry in that manner, that has nothing to do with you or me,” she said. “That has to do with a decision they made about how they’re going to express their anger.”
She said people don’t really have the power to make others angry — or happy. “I always say to my clients, ‘If you have that much power, you’re sitting in the wrong chair.’ I have a lot of people coming in who would like me to be able to make them happy, and only they can make themselves happy. So if you’re not happy, don’t blame your partner.”
Myth No. 3: Your needs are more important than mine.
Van Dyken expanded on the example with the grandmother and grandchild. In that case, the child’s needs did not matter. “They were so unimportant, no one even talked about them,” she said. “They didn’t care that she was hurt. They didn’t care she was upset with Grandma. ‘Just make sure Grandma’s happy, and I’m happy.’ And children hear that over and over and over again.”
“Rules are more important than I am.”
This myth is repeated often in the workplace, where an employee might defer his own task or responsibility to assist a co-worker who has asked for help.
“We’re so afraid to say no because somebody might not like us,” she said. “Somebody might not see us as a team player. Somebody might not see us as cooperative. And our basic drive in life is to belong, to fit in. It’s really hard for people to say, ‘No, that won’t work for me.'”
Myth No. 4: Rules are more important than I am.
When societal rules, church rules, family rules or any kind of rules are considered above a person’s feelings, it can be harmful. Van Dyken recalled one man who said to her, “Well, I know that there’s a social rule that says I’m always supposed to feel adequate and sexy and secure, and don’t talk about those feelings [of inadequacy] if you have them because you’re not supposed to have them.”
Myth No. 5: If I don’t follow all these lies, I’m not loveable.
This is the myth behind the psychologically damaging message that you were not born loveable and must do things to become loveable.
“If you’re told that your feelings don’t count, then you’re not very worthwhile. If you’re told that what you want and need isn’t important, then you’re not very important. You’ve got to change all that, then you’ll become important,” Van Dyken said. “We are born perfect. Who we are is perfect. That doesn’t mean we don’t have flaws and things to learn.”
She said she often uses a metaphor of a puppy to drive the point home with her clients. If a puppy urinates on the floor, chews up shoes or generally misbehaves, the owner doesn’t stop loving it just because it’s being a puppy. “We’re exactly the same,” she said. “Perfect as we are.”
Recovery: Finding Your Truth
Van Dyken said she wrote the book with the goal of helping people make conscious choices to think differently and steer away from the myths of everyday narcissism. It’s hard because narcissistic thought patterns are instilled at a very young age and often put us at the center of it all when we don’t necessarily have the central role that implies.
“If you’re told that your feelings don’t count, then you’re not very worthwhile.”
“Our parents tried to do the best job they could with us. They just passed on what was done to them. Most all of this is unconscious,” she said. “We were just taught, that’s how you do it. I think that with myth No. 1 — ‘Go give Grandma a kiss goodbye or she’ll feel bad’ — we’re trying to teach our children sensitivity. There’s a way to teach sensitivity without discounting the child.”
She said the myths prevent people from living with their own truths because they are conditioned not to trust themselves.
“When we don’t take care of ourselves emotionally, it affects us spiritually, it affects us physically,” Van Dyken said. “I just spoke to a woman the other day who has terrible anxiety. She’s steeped in these myths. She’s very successful, has a very high position in an international company. I told her, ‘You need to get to the doctor because you’re trying to please all these people. You are so capable. You can do all this. But it’s killing you. You’re 100 pounds overweight, your blood pressure is high. You need to get a stress test done. I’m very concerned about you medically. Because everybody else matters and not you, and you’re miserable.'”
Van Dyken said her book is meant to be a “spiritual guide” to help readers reconnect with their own wisdom.
“We’ve learned not to listen to it because it’s selfish. We’ve learned not to listen to it, because it doesn’t matter. But that wisdom, if you listen to it and act on it, it will guide you to have the exact life that you want,” she said. “It’s not easy. But when you do the hard stuff, you get the great rewards.”