Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall

Bond:  "You're cleverer than you look."
Q:  "Mm, still, better than looking cleverer than you are." ~ Die Another Day (2002)

As most readers already know, I'm a fan of 007. For several years, Timothy Dalton was my favorite -- he possessed a certain darkness that rendered the "killer" aspect of Bond's character believable. Well, move over, Timothy, Daniel Craig does it even better and with a conscience thrown in for good measure (Skyfall, 2013). I like that best of all: Bond is capable of empathy, he is not a narcissist.

He is brutally honest; he's willing to do pretty much whatever he has to in order to get the job done, but looking clever means nothing to him if it's not real. Were he a narcissist, on the other hand, looking clever would be everything. Furthermore, he would think himself exceedingly clever, even though he was not. It's difficult for me to imagine Bond gazing dreamily at himself in a mirror and saying, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the cleverest of them all?" He hasn't got time for such nonsense; a narcissist has nothing but time for it.

That's one of the many problems with narcissists: they believe their own press. They think they're far more intelligent than the rest of us, true or not. They're wise, we're foolish, they're cosmopolitan or sophisticated, we're naive or impressionable. If a narcissist appears to admire someone, it's because they covet what the other possesses. Admiration is a cover for competition and narcissists are poor losers. 

Ironically, the narcissist's intelligence tends to be less lofty than they'd have us believe. Engage them in a discussion and you'll discover their knowledge base frequently represents a collection of disconnected assumptions and quotes selected from sources they consider influential. Original thinking is not their strong suit. They're like Mockingbirds, whose song is a chaotic repetition of all the other birds in the sky. What matters is not what they think but how impressive they sound, citing statistics and references, and leaving you breathless in their presence. At least this is the case for the arrogant-type narcissist.

Covert narcissists are less willing to risk their fragile self-esteem by trying to impress you with how much they know. Instead, they prefer to listen, treating you like an amazing conversationalist who has them hanging on every word. In the process of winning your trust, they're actually searching for those points at which you are most vulnerable. The time will come when they'll use those points to your detriment, revealing themselves to have been a cunning adversary clad in the guise of a friend. 

It probably sounds terribly unfair, if not unkind, to draw attention to the predatorial aspect of pathological narcissism, but it's necessary in the same way we have to recognize the killer aspect of the James Bond character. The difference lies in the fact that Bond doesn't kill indiscriminately. He's not a cold-blooded murderer despite the numerous notches he might carve into the handle of his Walther PPK. He only shoots (or stabs or drowns or blows up) those who have it coming. There's either justice or necessity in his sights.

Narcissists are rather indiscriminate. Anyone is a good enough target if they're vulnerable and nearly all of us are, to some extent or another. Narcissists wish to demonstrate their self-assumed superiority and doing so is their ultimate value. We are either their privileged audience or an unwitting resource for supporting their self-esteem. We are never individuals worthy of respect and dignity. We are things and for a narcissist, one thing is as good as another, as long as our life blood lasts and we don't realize what's happening to us.

Prevention is the best defense and discovery our key strategy. Learning to recognize the wolf in sheep's clothing is hardly a waste of time. You can't avoid a predator if you don't know what one looks like or how s/he behaves. My four-footed neighbor, Freddy the Porcupine, has only one natural enemy, but you can be certain he knows who that is and how to steer clear of his habitats. In the same way, learning how to identify pathological narcissism and its practitioners is the way we sidestep being reduced to the level of "things" and retain our humanity. Trust me, this is definitely worth the effort.     

(Creative Commons image of Bond and Q by Andrew Becraft via Flickr)
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