Saturday, July 07, 2007

Attention -- the mirror in another's eye

Narcissists are addicted to attention. That is not just a figure of speech: I mean it exactly. Like heroin addiction, this addiction is so potent that withdrawal is life-threatening.

What do narcissists get from attention? The same thing we all get.

Another person's attention is a kind of mirror reflecting the image of ourselves we're portraying in the interaction. We all notice when we are making a good impression on somebody. We see it reflected in that person's response to what we're doing and saying. We often adjust our words and behavior to tune that response. People do this in a job interview, for example. They also do this when meeting a potential mate or anybody they wish to favorably impress, such as the traffic cop who just stopped them for speeding or some V.I.P. they're being introduced to.

Playing to the mirror of another person's eye is perfectly normal — under certain circumstances. In fact, it's adaptive. Like scorpions approaching each other as potential mates, or ships at sea or in space, people play this game to smooth the interaction and establish a safe connection.

But we don't like doing this. It's a bit nerve-wracking. And we know it's a game. (See the excellent book The Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne.) Playing it makes us uncomfortable. And there are limits to how far we will go. We don't mind being civil and friendly or even humble and overly agreeable to smooth our interaction with a person. But we immediately sense the prostitution in our actions when our hypocrisy sensor goes off. Then our self-respect kicks in. In fact, we prefer the company of intimates and friends — people we can be ourselves with.

Narcissists are different in that they are in game-playing mode 100 percent of the time and are not trying to make a safe connection. Or a good impression. The reflection they're playing for is grandiose — not pleasing, friendly, or good.

Kathleen Krajco