“I got into a ridiculous argument with my ex this past weekend when I went to pick up the kids. She greeted me with, ‘Are you a narcissist?’ I knew she’d read about that study that said you could identify narcissists just my asking them if they were narcissists. Of course I said, ‘No.’ Then I asked her the same question and she said no too. But she is a narcissist. So then we got into this whole argument.”
Spencer is probably my fourth patient who has brought up that study which I had also read about. Defining a narcissist as someone who is egotistical, self-focused and vain, the researchers found that asking the one question, “Are you a narcissist?” was as effective as identifying a narcissist as a 40 item diagnostic test. Although I have seen neither the study itself nor the 40 item test, my experience – both clinically and personally – leads me to question whether narcissists will so readily identify themselves.
“It’s so ridiculous. I can’t see how someone who has had all the plastic surgery she’s had, who takes hours to get ready to go out, can call me a narcissist. It takes me five minutes to get ready for work and if I never looked in a mirror again that would be fine.”
“Why did Bonnie think you were a narcissist?”
“She said I never think of anyone but myself, throw a fit when I don’t get my own way, and am very superficial. Superficial! Look who’s calling who superficial. She’s never done anything worthwhile in her life. I’m the one who busted my ass to get my doctorate, to become a tenured professor, to provide the home that’s now hers, the life-style that she’s grown accustomed to. Superficial, my ass! And I also don’t call that thinking only of myself. I did it for her, for them.”
“Is that true, Spencer, did you do it for them, or did you do it to prove to yourself – and to your father – that you were smart and worthwhile and accomplished?”
“And that makes me a narcissist?”
“I didn’t say that, Spencer. I think there’s always some self-interest in what we do. I was just questioning your saying that you did it for them.”
“That’s beside the point. I was just refuting Bonnie’s argument. I can’t believe I’m wasting my time – and my money! - talking about this. Do you have anything worthwhile we can talk about?” he asks, sarcastically.
I’m instantly flooded with feelings – anxiety, anger, fear. I feel both challenged and diminished. Not for the first time, I’m aware that Spencer reminds me a great deal of my father – angry, demanding, short-tempered and, yes, narcissistic. I’m also aware that the fear and anger are feelings both Spencer and I experienced as children in relation to our respective fathers. This awareness doesn’t make my feelings vanish, but it does help me to remain in my role as therapist.
“Well, I think it’s very important, Spencer, that we look at what’s going on between us right now, because I think you’re treating me just as your father treated you as a child. You’re being challenging, angry, and dismissive towards me just as your father was toward you. And that leaves me feeling both angry and less-than, just as you felt with your father.”
“So now I’m a less-than narcissist,” is Spencer’s retort.
“I can see how tough your father was, Spencer; how he never gave you an inch; how he didn’t listen to what you said; how he always had to come out ahead. I’m not your father, Spencer. I’m not trying to diminish you. I wonder if you could take off your father’s glasses and see me through your own eyes.”
“So do you think I’m a narcissist?” Spencer persists.
“You’re unrelenting, Spencer,” I say shaking my head. “You know when you said before, that you’re a less-than narcissist? Well, there’s a lot of truth in that, not especially for you, but for many people who have some narcissistic characteristics. They’re people who feel less-than, but who have developed a way of feeling better about themselves, of keeping that less-than feeling at bay. I think you do it by being angry, by shutting down alternative opinions and, probably most importantly, by trying to convince both yourself and others of your accomplishments and specialness.”
“So you’re saying a narcissist looks like someone who thinks a lot of himself, but actually doesn’t think much of himself at all.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. And I’ll have to think about whether it applies to me.”
“I appreciate your being open to thinking about it.”