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The Accidental Narcissist

And how to not become one.

Everyone knows someone who seems just way too self-centered and unreceptive. Popular now is the assumption that such people are narcissists – that they love themselves just too much.

We also hear that such people don’t really love themselves – they’re just compensating for too much self-doubt and self-loathing.

Indeed there's that. Still, I bet that despite appearances, much of the behavior we describe as narcissistic is not motivated by self-love, self-loathing, or really any agenda. It's just a habit any of us can fall into easily.

Here’s one way the habit might form: From childhood on, we all learn that society values various traits – traits we’d want to have or at least appear to have, traits that are going to make people want to open doors for us.

We’re told it’s best to always be polite, generous, positive, honest, open, and realistic. We’re told that it’s good to have self-esteem, self-awareness, and integrity.

We don’t necessarily learn much about what having each of these traits entails. Still, everyone knows that they’re hecka good.

Having self-esteem (which we’d all want anyway) we would want to assume that we have all these traits. We’re good; these traits are good so sure, we’ve got them all and anyone who says we don’t, well, they’re not being polite, positive, or generous which means they don’t have them.

Trouble is, these supposedly always-good traits are not entirely compatible. They often clash. For example, there will be times when we have to choose whether to be polite or honest, positive or realistic, have high self-awareness or high self-esteem.

That there will be tension and conflict between these good traits isn’t something generally taught or understood. People just assume it’s best to have all of these virtuous traits all the time. That’s what a lot of people assume is the meaning of integrity: having all the positive traits all at once in harmony, that is, with integrity.

I’d argue that having integrity means the opposite of that. It’s not assuming that you have all the virtues in harmony with each other but instead managing wisely the tensions and conflicts between them – having the wisdom to want to know when to apply which virtue precisely because there will be tensions and conflicts. For example, having integrity would be having the wisdom to want to know the difference between situations that call for honesty and situations that call for politeness.

Wanting to have high self-esteem comes naturally to us. Even if we have a serious chip on our shoulders, we’d rather not have that chip. Probably very few of us actually enjoy self-loathing. Given our chronic, natural bid for self-esteem, when someone challenges us, we’re likely to circle our wagons in self-defense.

We’ll defend ourselves by asserting that we have all of these positive traits. We back it up by pointing to the times when we demonstrated one or the other of these traits, or by pointing to our many friends who think we have those traits and by pointing to our opponents who lack one or another of these traits. “Me and my friends, we have integrity – we’re honest, polite and realistic always. We know better than to hang out with people who lack any of those traits.”

What we end up with is people clustered in mutual admiration societies assuming that outsiders are just wrong because they violate the imperative to have all of those virtuous traits always. We’ll ticket our opponents for not having whichever of those traits we wish they had at any given moment. I don’t like him. He’s not honest,” or “I don’t like him. He’s not polite,” never noticing that there’s a potential conflict between honesty and politeness.

Here are comments I received in the past week from two people who, from what I know are politically polarized and therefore might find each other difficult company.

  1. I’m the type of person that prefers to get at the facts. It frustrates me when the other person attempts to conceal or cover-up information that undermines their point or engages in double-talk. If I do a google search and discover a claim I made was wrong I will quickly share that information to set the record straight. I never want to leave the perception that I believe I was right about something when I was factually wrong. I've gone back to people weeks after a discussion to correct the record once I learned information that proved I had it wrong. It drives me nuts when people would prefer to cling to a stupid argument point even when they know facts that would undermine the point they made…Plenty of people are like me. Most of the discussions I have with people aren't confrontational. I find most people to be agreeable.
  2. I am committed to generative good-faith conversation…I will engage in fights only under oppression and outside of casual situations like internet chat. Debates are typically something I try to stay away from because when each of us starts with a mindset that I am right and You are wrong there is little chance that either of us will learn anything from each other let alone cohere an understanding neither of us alone could have achieved. If I encounter an obvious troll on social media I simply block them because they are destructive and waste people's time and energy. If it becomes clear to me that someone is unwilling or unable to hold my perspective to the extent they are able to process it, in good faith, I will typically stop responding to them.

Would these two people have a pleasant, positive, honest conversation? Based on what I know about them, I doubt it. They would disagree about lots and facts wouldn’t resolve their differences.

People rarely debate facts. They debate interpretations of facts. They debate the weight that should be given to various facts. As #1 notes with facts, you can just Google it. As Socrates put it, “And what sort of difference creates enmity and anger? Suppose for example that you and I, my good friend, differ about a number; do differences of this sort make us enemies and set us at variance with one another? Do we not go at once to arithmetic, and put an end to them by a sum?”

Despite what might make these two commenters disagree with each other, what they have in common might be a tendency to assume based on their embrace of the virtues that they are each The Reliable Measure of Virtue. They might fall prey to “pseudo-objectivity,” the sense that their subjective interpretations approach objectivity, that they are representative of the gold standard, the measure of all things. Pseudo-objectivity makes for easy but dangerous translations:

  • I want = you owe.
  • I'm disappointed = you have violated a moral imperative.
  • I don't understand = you're not making sense.
  • I don't attend to that = that's irrelevant.
  • I don't = one shouldn't.
  • I do = one should.
  • You're unreceptive to my idea = you’re closed-minded.

My guess is that based on their different beliefs, they might write each other off as either dishonest or unpleasant, indeed maybe as narcissists because, otherwise how could you explain their seemingly egotistical refusal to be honest and pleasant always?

At the extreme, this attitude can begin to appear as narcissism though how they come by it would probably be accidental. It’s not that they’re madly in love with themselves or madly trying to redeem their self-esteem. Rather, it’s just a habit that would arise in anyone from having embraced tension-free platitudes about how we should always be, for example, always pleasant and honest, always positive and realistic and then assume by that embrace that they are exceptional judges of character. Thus we would end up with lots of accidental narcissists accusing others of being narcissists.

There are ways to avoid this kind of accidental narcissism (there are probably many ways to become an accidental narcissist):

Don’t claim that you embrace these positive traits. Don’t even claim that you try to have them. Admit that, like everyone, you have to manage the tension between opposing virtues, trying to figure out when to apply which. Admit, for example, that you struggle with the trade-off between honesty and politeness, openness and closedness, self-esteem and self-awareness, that for you, integrity is an ongoing quest for the wisdom to know when to do what.

Don’t get near the slippery slope into accidental narcissism by pretending you have an exceptional commitment to these virtues, as though you embrace them all in harmony. And don't fall for easy outrage at anyone who implies that you might lack any of the virtues sometimes. No "Moi? Closed-minded? Impossible! How dare you! I hate closedmindedness!"

For really, who among us wouldn’t want to claim to have all the virtues in harmony? And really, who among us doesn’t actually have to manage the tension and conflict between them, whether we admit it or not?

Don’t want to be an accidental narcissist? Expect some anxiety about which virtue to pull out for which situation. That anxiety is the human quest, the wisdom to want to know the differences that make a difference.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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