Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Essence of Narcissism

To understand what is going on in your relationship with someone suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), we must dig down to the root of the disease. Ready to take a stab at it?

When we interact with someone, our actions draw feedback in response. Our actions aren't just acts, as if we are communicating by kissing or punching that other person. Usually our communicating actions are words and other media of communication such as facial expression, tone of voice, diction (word choice), posture, gestures, and so forth.

Think of all this as information in a message we're sending.

It draws continuous feedback. This feedback isn't just what that other person does or says back. It's also the information in the look on his face, the tone of his voice, his diction, posture, gestures, and so forth.

We are alert to this feedback, because it is the only evidence we have that communication is actually taking place. Even communicating computers continually issue feedback information about the data they are receiving, as during a download. For example, the only way a server on the Internet knows that it maintains a connection to your computer is through the constant feedback your machine sends, which essentially acknowledges the receipt of every packet of information by answering "Got it...."

We humans rely on this feedback information to judge whether our message is being understood and how it is being received. For example, a teacher constantly studies the looks on the faces of a class to see if they are getting what she says. She responds to this feedback, either judging that it's safe to go on or that she should try to make the point more clear. Again, for example, if you are correcting a child and you see him start to hang his head, you respond by letting up. Or, at least if you aren't a narcissist you respond that way: a narcissist will do the opposite and pile on.


This bounced-back information reflects the impression we're making on whomever we're interacting with. If what we're saying brings a smile to his face, for example, we see that we're making an agreeable impression on him. In other words, in this bounced-back information, we get a reflection, or an echo, of that impression. A reflection of our image.

The word image in this context doesn't just refer to our outward appearance. It usually refers mainly to our character, what kind of person we are.

So, that other person is, as it were, a mirror, echoing the image of his impressions as feedback. When he is paying attention to us, it's our own echoed image we see in the mirror of his face. Mostly in his eyes.

Though we are aware of this reflection while interacting with others, normally it's but one of many considerations in the moment-by-moment choices we make about our behavior. It may, for example, influence our word choice, tone of voice, facial expression, and so forth.

But honest people rely on this feedback only to warn them of misunderstanding or hurting the other party's feelings. They don't prostitute themselves to it. For, that's the essence of hypocrisy, as in the politician who says one thing before the people of one town and a contrary thing before the people of another town. Honest people don't shape their behavior to reflect a warped/untrue image of themselves. In other words, they don't act the way they do entirely for effect = to look or sound or seem a certain way.

Unless they happen to be talking to themselves in the mirror like Hamlet does in his fiery soliloquies. If you've ever made a speech to yourself in the mirror, you know that it's entirely for effect. When we are thus playing to our image reflected in a mirror, we are operating in a special mode. In fact, in that special mode we typically address ourselves in the second person (as "you" instead of "I").

Fortunately, before the bathroom mirror is normally the only time normal adults behave entirely for effect.

Certain other circumstances may come close though. For example, when we meet a stranger, especially if he or she is a potential mate or an important person, we are anxious to make a good impression and may start posing a bit before that mirror. Which is why we say stupid things at such moments: we're thinking about how we sound instead of what we're saying. Being on a job interview is a similar situation. Those who keep their wits about them and don't play to the mirror are the ones smart employers want.

If you're with me this far, you can understand what is different about narcissists. So, keep a tight grip on that thought: Attentive people's faces are mirrors that we see our image reflected in. The problem with Narcissus is that he can't get enough of his.

Kathleen Krajco