Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Competitive or Narcissistic?

A friend once asked, "My ______ (spouse, significant other, you fill in the blank) says they're competitive, a 'winner,' and I thought that meant they'd be glad when I was successful, too, but it hasn't turned out that way. Sometimes I think they almost want me to fail. Am I crazy or what?" Get a question like that at a cocktail party and you immediately start thinking of increasing your malpractice insurance coverage. The reason is there's no single best answer and anything you say might be as much wrong as right; the last thing you want to do is pour gasoline on a smoldering campfire. We all know what that can do.

On the other hand, since I'm not offering any advice, counsel, or even going near a campfire with anything other than a bucket of water, I feel pretty safe here. Sometimes (not always, make no mistake) a person describes themselves as competitive or a "winner" when it would be more accurate to say, they're narcissistic. The problem is, narcissists are notorious for being completely unaware of their narcissism. If you're "in the business," it's called an unconscious process. The rest of the world sees it in their attitudes, behavior, and manner of speech, but the narcissist wouldn't believe it if you held a mirror to their face.

I'm speaking metaphorically, but don't let that fool you. One of the most powerful images of narcissism in literature is that of the vampire, and I'm sure you know, vampires cast no reflection in a mirror. To see yourself, there has to be a self to see and the only one that matters to a narcissist is the image that secures admiration or envy. The kind of self-awareness you and I take for granted is foreign to them. In computer language, it's a system, not a software problem.

So, here's where the squeaky wheel gets totally irritating. They really don't like competition, unless winning is guaranteed. As long as that's the case, everything's fine, but if there's an outside chance of coming in second, forget it. Being less than the best is too damaging to their self-esteem; better not to compete at all than risk losing, and anything less than first place is considered just that: losing.

When the spouse, significant other, or child begins to show potential or demonstrate their own uniqueness, the narcissist usually prefers to take credit for it themselves. If they can't, they'll ignore it or attempt to minimize its significance. They may compliment you on your initiative or proudly describe themselves as your "cheering section," because that makes them appear magnanimous. Anything to look larger than life.

My favorite joke about narcissists goes like this: "Well, enough about me, let's talk about you. What do you think about me?" Their first, last, and only love (if we can even use the word) is themselves or more accurately, the image of themselves they see reflected in the attention you pay them. The rest of the world is nothing more than an audience. We are resources for them to draw upon and our usefulness extends only so far as our willingness to applaud. And there's never enough applause, the play is never over, and there's never room on the stage for anyone else.

(Creative Commons image "Me" by Dade Freeman via Flickr) 
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