The Accidental Narcissist


I have been so touched by recent suicides, both in our community and around the nation, if not the globe.  The stories keep rolling in.  An almost constant theme: the suffering person does not feel they can keep up, or prove their worth, or fulfill society’s expectations of what it means to be a good or functioning or contributing member of their family, school, community…

In psychology, the word narcissism is usually reserved for people with “personality disorders.” This diagnosis suggests they were raised without the necessary affirmation from healthy adults to develop a sturdy sense of self, one that can operate confidently and with healthy relationships.  Narcissists need to surround themselves with people that constantly build their egos, that make them feel special and even superior to others, that insist on the illusion of grandiosity to feel worthy.  

There are different kinds of narcissism, like “infantile narcissism” which is relatively unsophisticated… they throw lots of tantrums and remind me of certain world leaders. I digress.  There are much more sophisticated narcissists, like those who are super high functioning and earn all the accolades they need.  They might seem and act like sincerely effective parents or friends or professionals, feeling genuinely great about themselves.  It’s usually in times of stress or conflict that their narcissism becomes more pronounced and confusing to others.  Such as, if such a great parent, why do situations suddenly seem to be more about looking good than showing true empathy toward their child?  

You can look up different kinds of narcissists online.  These categories are mostly made up by lay people.  It’s kind of interesting to look them up, but none of them describe what I am talking about today.  You might even learn about how narcissism leads to depression, because we can’t always feel great about ourselves, and that’s depressing to a narcissist.  But what you don’t hear is how depression sometimes leads tonarcissism.  Enter the wrecking ball. 

Forgive the frequent reference to Mike.  I am not interested in diagnosing Mike with anything (other than his evident depression). Which is why he is just such a perfect example.  He was the LEAST narcissistic person I knew.  He was humble, hardworking, surrounded himself with people that challenged him, took feedback to heart, and worked on being a truly good person.  He had several chances to be “big.”  He was an award-winning writer with several books up his sleeve, but he never quite published them.  He was a little shy.  He never tried to be the center of attention.  He liked asking questions more than talking about himself, and when talking about himself he would defer to other experts- philosophers, usually, but also leading neuropsychologists and any great thinkers he could find.  He was the most empathetic person I have ever met. He felt sad for socks that were half-sticking out of a drawer, and he would tuck them in every time.  He was even better with his kids and clients, and don’t even get me started on his pets.  

Still, we all have some dormant narcissism.  We all want to know that we are good and special.  This is where the depression can go awry.  People with depression often feel crushing self-consciousness. Self-consciousness becomes humiliation, then guilt.  It consumes them.  As psychologists, it’s one of the first things we try to do away with, because guilt is so detrimental to getting better.  Depressed people often feel they aren’t living up to expectations, they won’t ever give enough to the world.  When they realize that other people have it worse, they feel even worse about being depressed.  They may fear they will not be accepted or will not be good for those around them.  They begin to feel like a burden, like they are taking up too much space and not giving enough back to be worth even the air they breathe. 

A depressed person can’t think clearly, can’t plan their way out of things, can’t see the future. It’s easy for us to tell them it will get better.  And it almost always does.  But to give it a chance, they have to agree to just be human, to just face each day with whatever they have to offer, to fend off the bullies and jerks telling them they are not good enough.  They have to find people and circumstances that resonate with them.  Or music or animals or mountaintops or purposeful jobs. 

Mike resonated with so many people and places and things, but in the end, he was too afraid he might lose them.  He was so used to being good at life that he came to depend on it.  He couldn’t just be the guy that does an okay job.  In the end, he was trying so hard to feel good about himself that he began to feel terrible.  He was a truly great person, and he set the bar too high.  He only had to be here and to take care of himself long enough to get out of his funk.  People do it, even though it’s hard.  It takes real humility, not humiliation. 

In the end, there was no amount of reassurance to fill him up, which sounds a lot like a narcissist.  


Remember: we are all special, we are all worthy.  We don’t always feel it, and we panic.  It’s ok. It’s a matter of time, practice, reassurance.  More practice.  More humility.  Real actions. Little ones, day by day.  Finding resonance, the right circumstances, the right environments.  Buying some time, believing in yourself.  Tolerating your flaws and remembering that we all have them.  It’s ok.  It’s not great, but it’s ok.  We are all doing the best we can every day, and that’s enough.  If you wonder if you could do more for yourself or the world, think about what you want to do, what you can do, and do it, whenever and however possible. That’s all.