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Narcissistic People & the Lost Art of Conversation

Most people are mainly interested in talking about themselves.

Most people are narcissistic.

I'm not using that word in the clinical diagnosistic way, nor in the everyday sense of vain or conceited. What I mean is that most people are almost exclusively focused upon themselves, their personal interests and their own emotional needs for attention. A certain amount of preoccupation with oneself is normal and healthy; it becomes a problem when you're not truly interested in other people or ideas and only want to talk about yourself.

Here's a fairly common experience for me: I'm at a party or social gathering, speaking to someone I've just met, or an acquaintance I haven't seen in a long while. I'm asking questions, inquiring about the person's background or catching up since we last met. Fifteen, twenty minutes pass...we're still talking about the other person. I get the feeling that I could be anyone; I'm just a receptacle, a mirror or an audience. I provide needed attention to the other person; he or she has no interest in getting to know the man who's listening.

As a therapist (by temperament as well as profession), I'm a good listener and adept at drawing people out. As a student of human nature, I'm genuinely curious and, for the most part, fascinated by the variety of people I meet. Sometimes I feel lonely, though. I used to be surprised and disappointed that the person I'd just met didn't want to get to know me. Now I expect a lot less. Lack of genuine interest in others—that's what I mean when I say I find most people to be narcissistic.

Even with friends, conversation tends to mean waiting your turn to launch into your own story, waiting for the gap or the conversational trigger that will make the transition over to you seem more or less natural. With some truly narcissistic people, the transition seems forced—they'll use any excuse to change the subject. It can even seem funny if you look at it from the right point of view, although painful when you recognize the reasons for that kind of behavior.

For those individuals, their families were so deficienct and the expected kind of parental attention so lacking that there's an unquenchable need to have other people listen and make them feel significant. In this way, narcissistic needs are the companion to many other psychological problems; getting attention is often felt to be an antidote to the basic shame that's the residue of early emotional damage.

In my practice, I naturally expect my clients to be preoccupied with their own needs. Of course they are! After all, they're paying me to listen and my personal emotional needs have no place in our relationship. In my own treatment, I found it profoundly satisfying to be able to talk about myself as much as I wanted without having to ask questions back. My clients are usually needy and narcissistic and so was I.

But after many years, there came a time in my therapy when I began to have a greater regard for my therapist, to see him as a separate person who didn't have an ideal life and who didn't exist merely to give me what I needed. With clients I've seen for quite some time, we usually reach the same point: I become more real to them, less "Dr. Burgo" their therapist and more "Joe" who surely must have everyday pain and trouble, too. I regard it as another hallmark (along with the ability to feel both grief and gratitude) of successful psychotherapy.

What I long for, and find rare, is the kind of conversation where we're not talking about me or you but about an idea or current event, maybe a good book one of us has read. I enjoy the back-and-forth of discussion, one person adding to or disputing what someone else has just said. I want to feel I've learned something, or that in the conversational give-and-take, we've both come to a new understanding.

I'm an everyday narcissistic, too—at times, I want to tell my stories—but for the most part, I know all my own stories and they don't interest me. I want to hear your stories, too—but after we've caught up, let's talk about something larger than either one of us.

With the holidays upon us, where parties and family gatherings are on the calendar, there'll be plenty of opportunity to watch yourself and others at work. Is the conversation of the type I described? Are family and friends just waiting for their own turn to be the center of attention? Does one person tend to dominate? How about you? Do you ask questions? Do you take an interest in other people?

Try another experiment. Before you go to the next party or gathering, decide on a current event you want to discuss, something that truly interests you. Read up on it, find out what you need to know and then come up with some questions. Unless you're sure of your company, stay away from politics and religion—you've probably heard such advice before. Don't talk about sport or TV shows, and avoid gossip about people you know. We live in interesting times, the world is changing rapidly. See if you can get a different kind of conversation going...and see if anyone else is interested.

You might also keep it in the realm of the personal but try to go deeper. Which decision do you regret most in your life? In retrospect, if you could have chosen any career path, what would it be? You might start off by making a personal disclosure and invite others to join in. Talking about personal issues doesn't have to mean serial narcissistic display as long as you're actually interacting.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

More from Joseph Burgo Ph.D.
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