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Are You Absolutely Certain You Are NOT A Narcissist?



Are You Absolutely Certain You Are NOT A Narcissist?

Just what’s behind our obsession with how to diagnose a narcissist?

In these pages, two kinds of articles win most interest. One is about how to make our sex and love lives more exciting. The other is about how to diagnose a narcissist.

We can guess that the readers of the first kind are wishing for a more exciting sex and love life. And the second?

People who have been hurt and disappointed by someone who shows them less attention and care than they expected or hoped for.

Mental diagnostics are a double-edged sword. They’re scientific-sounding and credible, which means they’re strong and incisive. And yet they’re heavily value laden.

People use them to cut through nonsense. For example deciding that someone is a narcissist is a good way to stop pouring over the details of their self-rationalizations.

But we also use them to create nonsense, for example when we ignore other people’s reasons, because after all, they’re just narcissists. Narcissists are very good at diagnosing narcissism to get what they want. If you disappoint them, then you must be a narcissist and it’s all your fault.

We’d like to think that diagnosing narcissism was as easy as diagnosing ingrown toenails, but it isn’t for two reasons. For one, minds are much more complex than toe nails. For another, ingrown toenails aren’t a source of stigma, but mental diagnoses are.

When a partner shows us less attention than we want, diagnosing him or her as a narcissist puts responsibility squarely on the partner. You’re fine; your partner is mentally ill.

This can be a source of justifiable relief. Some people are just way too self-centered for relationship. There really are narcissists in the world, just not as many as you would guess from the number diagnosed as narcissists by disappointed partners.

We think of ADD as a mental disorder, though one somewhat less stigmatized than narcissism. But ADD is to some extent a product of changing environments. We live in the 21st century ADD. There’s simply vastly more that any of us can pay attention to, much of it extremely stimulating, accessible and distracting.

Narcissism is to some extent a cultural phenomenon too. We live in a society that has come to take its preferences very seriously. Technology has proven increasingly reliable at fulfilling our wishes. When you wish for something, you can bet there’s an app that will deliver it.

People, not so much. People don’t meet our expectations half as reliably as technology does. We expect more from partnerships than people ever have. We process in relationships, trying to wire them just right as though they were malfunctioning technology. If your partnership were a computer, you would have tossed it years ago replacing it with a more efficient model.

Social, cultural and technological change is a backdrop easy to ignore. Paying attention to it, it’s easy to see why there would be more of the behaviors we diagnose as ADD and narcissism. The world is full of a number of extraordinary new things, I’m sure we should all feel as happy, entitled, and distracted as kings.

I’m a narcissism diagnoser. I’m very interested in what makes someone an asshole. I believe its one of the most fundamental questions in all of moral philosophy especially in a free society. In free society we don’t want to dictate what everyone has to do. We want to afford people free range delimiting only the outer boundaries of acceptable behavior. So one of my life-size questions is the koan: What is butthead other than someone I butt heads with?

I frame it that way to put a check on my tendency to count as a narcissistic butthead anyone who disappoints me.

Our technological world exposes us to people everywhere, and one take-away is that there are all sorts of moral standards. We apparently all have expectations, or entitlements in its literal sense, that which we are, in fact, entitled to expect.

I happen to live in a pocket of the world and of world history where we expect a lot. I’m grateful for it, but it is a bit humbling if I stop to think about it. When I get outraged at some injustice to me and am inclined to diagnose someone as a narcissist for disappointing me, it’s sobering to remember that unlike many worldwide, I think I’m entitled to hot water, stocked grocery stores and reliable electricity. My sense of injustice is relative.

Technology also exposes me to high-leverage narcissists, the tyrants and dictators that still populate governments world-wide. That fuels my curiosity about how to diagnose narcissism too.

If you turn out to be one of those narcissism diagnosers, it’s worth keeping all of this in mind.

[Jeremy Sherman]

Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years. Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher. Historically: I've taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world's largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24. Authority: None. I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they're based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say "don't believe everything you think. I'll go one further: I don't believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Self-expressively: I've written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week. Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions. * Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon. * More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what's significant and how to respond to what life deals us? * Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively--not what you should, but what you shouldn't do. We say "don't be a butthead," but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what's morally in and out of bounds. * How do and should we balance the ambigamist's tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta). I've written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another. Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think. Purpose: A natural history Doubt: A user's guide; a natural history Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension. Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.

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