20 Shades of Narcissism - Kindle book by David Thomas


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Narcissism in Unequal Societies

Being rich has a lot of advantages. The purchasing power of the rich enables them to obtain goods and services as they need them: big houses, nice cars, better healthcare, expensive restaurant meals, and so on. On the other hand, most people would agree that poverty has a corrosive effect on both the impoverished people and the larger society. So what should those in society who are caring and compassionate do? Working towards making the poor richer sounds like a good thing to do, or alternatively making the rich poorer; or maybe not, since that would be succumbing to the politics of envy. But if we were able to make all of the poor rich, would that solve the problem? Or would it just create other, unforeseen problems?

We make the assumption that to be caring and compassionate, what we need to do is resolve the problems faced by the poor. But what about the rich? Don't they have quality-of-life issues too? In their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provide compelling evidence that more unequal societies are not only bad for those unfortunate enough to be at or near the bottom of the pile, but also for the well-off. An unequal society lowers the quality of life for everyone who lives in that society because of the increased likelihood of violence, drug abuse, serious diseases, obesity, mental health problems, and incarceration.1

The lowering of quality of life is across the board and is demonstrated time and time again in the book with charts based on the empirical research of the authors and other researchers. Celebrities and the seriously rich make up less than 1 percent of the population, but even they are not exempt from the problems created by very unequal societies. The authors point to the problems of violence, drugs, and mental illness associated with the lives and deaths of various famous individuals such as Britney Spears, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, the assassinated Kennedy brothers, Princess Diana, and Princess Margaret.

Two of the most unequal societies in the rich countries of the world are the USA and the UK. The USA is the richest, but also possibly the most unequal. The disparity between the richest and poorest members of its society is huge, and the charts show repeatedly that it is also the sickest society of the rich nations, and the UK is never far behind. For example, a chart showing the UNICEF index of child well-being in rich countries plotted against income inequality shows the USA and the UK as two of the most unequal in terms of income and two of the worst for child well-being. In fact, the UK is the worst for child well-being of the twenty-two rich nations shown.

The book has highlighted a problem of profound importance, and maybe the next generation of politicians will work towards redressing the current unbalanced state of affairs. But in the meantime, we have got to live with the problems inequality causes. It may take more than one generation of politicians to close the inequality gap to a level that significantly benefits us all, but our recent experience of political leadership suggests that it may not happen, at least not in the current generation.

So who in these unequal societies is to blame for the social and environmental breakdown, the problems of violence, drugs, and so on? Can we identify those who contribute significantly to society's problems? Most of us would agree that the politicians, particularly those at the top in recent decades, are the long-term cause of the problem. Policies under some leaders, Margaret Thatcher and George Bush for example, have caused inequality to rise dramatically. But we all have a need to survive, and thrive if at all possible, in the society in which we find ourselves. We cannot wait for politicians to resolve the problem; their failure to significantly raise the living standards of the poor is a major part of the problem.

As inequality increases, the number of individuals who contribute to societal problems must also increase. These individuals cause possibly the biggest problems in terms of numbers suffering from stress and anxiety, which has grown dramatically as the levels of inequality have risen. But who are the individuals in society at the root of the problem? The answer is narcissists and their co-dependents. As inequality increases, the number of narcissists increases; as does the number of co-dependents who supply the support network for the narcissists.

Narcissists are terrified of not being well regarded by others. The underlying dynamic of narcissism is a deep, usually unconscious, sense of being inadequate and vulnerable to blame and rejection, so they attempt to control the behaviour and viewpoints of others in order to protect themselves from receiving a blow to their ego. There are two principal circumstances where a narcissist will create stress in others. When he (most narcissists are male) becomes aware that someone has seen through his façade, the false image that he presents to the world, he will react in a vindictive and sometimes malicious way. But he also causes significant damage to his co-dependents, who may be a wife, a colleague, an employee at work, or a friend, and they rarely make the connection between the often constant stress they feel and the narcissist who they so admire.2

Typically, both narcissists and co-dependents have suffered stress of their own during childhood and adolescence from their parents or carers, but in adulthood they face the world in different ways. They both see the world as a threatening place, but the narcissist comes out fighting to control his environment, whilst the co-dependent looks for refuge. As co-dependents crave security, they are attracted to narcissists, and as narcissists crave power, it is a natural symbiotic relationship. These pairings and groups are found everywhere in present-day USA, UK, and other western societies. They can be in family, social, or work settings.

Co-dependents tend to work beyond healthy (and sometimes ethical) limits to do whatever the narcissist needs. They are emotionally dependent on narcissists; as a result, they tend to take on their view of the world and so spread their negative behaviour further afield.

To survive in an unequal society, we need to increase our awareness of those narcissists and their co-dependents who create the stressful conditions in which we all have to survive. Stress can be a killer if exposed to it for long periods; we all suffer from it from time to time and when we do, what matters most is whether our friends, siblings, parents, or other colleagues behave towards us in a manner that helps us or hurts us.

Take a situation when you suffer a setback, for example, when you fail an examination, or fail to get a prestigious job that you applied for. You are upset. Your colleagues, friends, or parents can respond in one of three ways. They can say negative things like 'you're hopeless, useless; give up; you're not clever enough; you just haven't got what it takes; or you don't try hard enough.' This has the effect of making you feel worse, shows no empathy, and gives the impression that the person saying it is superior, making you feel inferior. Alternatively, they might say, 'I know you tried hard, it just didn't work out this time; do you think you needed more time to prepare?' This is a fairly neutral and empathetic position with a degree of practical encouragement. Another alternative might be: 'You are brilliant. I don't know how you could fail; the examiner must have made a mistake; let's not talk about it; let's go and have a drink; let's go shopping and buy some new clothes, and then we can go to the cinema or watch a soap on television.' This has the effect of making you feel better, shows a considerable amount of empathy, almost to the extent of being sycophantic.

These three different types of response by your colleagues, friends, or parents will not have a significant effect on you if it is a one-off situation. But over time, being constantly subjected to the first, non-empathetic, or last, over-empathetic response will have severe negative consequences.

The first one is narcissistic. If he was saying what was really going on in his mind, he might declare, 'You let me down. It's all about me. If you can't do it and make me look brilliant, don't bother. If you succeed in an area that doesn't pose a threat to my ego, then I'll be right by your side, sharing your success to make me look good and massaging your ego so you will speak well of me. If I'm not clever enough to get the glory myself, then I'll accept "reflected glory"3 from you. If you fail, fall from grace, I'll drop you and find someone else who is successful. This way everyone I know who matters, will admire me. Fantastic! In the long term, if I can keep up this pretence, I can fend off all emotional threats and feel good. I cause suffering to others, but that is their problem. Unfortunately, if I fail to keep up the pretence, it will mean I may suffer severe emotional problems; but this just means that I will fight to my last breath anyone who sees through my façade and challenges me.'

The second one is being honest and realistic in his assessment of the situation, neither putting you down nor flattering you. In his company, you will remain on an even keel. If he spoke his mind, he might explain why he is being honest with you, by saying, 'You suffer ups and downs in this world. Don't be big-headed when you are up. Be realistic and honest with yourself when you are down. See what needs to be done, and do it, if that's what you want. This way, you feel pleasure when you succeed and sadness when you fail. You will learn to deal with the ups and downs of life in a way that keeps you in touch with reality, and if you have the drive and enthusiasm, it gives you the means to make a success of your life in the long term. You won't need to rely on others for the regulation of your self-esteem or feelings of self-worth.'

The third one is co-dependent. He is saying, in effect, 'When you fail at something, I massage your ego so that you will feel better and you will still like me. I don't want to say anything to upset you because in the mood you're in, you might say something upsetting back to me. I was brought up to pander to the emotional needs of others. No point in being realistic and honest; it will just upset you more. I indulge in ego massaging behaviour and I always look for excuses for failure. I need to avoid being upset or upsetting others, unless they upset me in which case I will over-react by being very nasty back to them, but if they don't back off, I'll break down in tears. I go out of my way to get close to you, but unfortunately I will have a negative influence on you as I will not encourage you to be realistic and honest in the face of adversity; forget about it, sit down, and watch an escapist programme on the television is what I say. This way, you will turn to me every time something goes wrong; I can massage your ego and make you feel better, this also has the effect of making me feel better, and hopefully you will do the same for me when I need it. Regrettably, in the long term, this will almost certainly lead to you not achieving your full potential.'

The narcissist and the co-dependent will never tell you the truth, only their own version of reality designed to do what is best for them, what is best for their ego, not what is best for you. On the other hand, an honest friend keeps you in touch with the real world, doing what is best for both you and him in the long term. Short-term solutions to a problem are exactly that, short term. Repeated short-term 'aesthetic' solutions to life's setbacks inevitably result in ever-increasing long-term emotional problems.

The mechanism by which you suffer at the hands of the narcissist and the co-dependent is the opening of a reality gap. When the narcissist puts you down and makes you feel useless, a gap appears between your real self and the 'useless' person that you feel you are. Repeated doses of the same 'bad medicine' saps your confidence, and the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to deal with. You become insecure, unable to take on tasks that previously you had no difficulty in completing. Continued exposure to the narcissist means that the reality gap cannot be closed, and return to your former confident self is not possible.

When the co-dependent works his magic on you, it is even more difficult to detect. How can someone who shows so much empathy be a negative influence on you? The answer again lies in the reality gap. This time, the gap appears between your real self and the happy person you feel that you are. Ego massaging has the effect of making you feel good about yourself, even after a setback like failing your examination or being turned down for at a job interview. But what is not apparent is that it is a short-term, aesthetic effect. Your ability to deal with failure, your resilience, has been compromised. If you don't recognise what it was that caused your failure, how can you take the necessary action to overcome it next time?

So when you feel down after failing your examination, whom do you turn to? Not your narcissistic friend, he will make you feel worse; maybe your honest friend, but he'll only tell you the truth; most will choose their co-dependent friend for an ego massage. But beware; trading long-term ethical behaviour for short-term aesthetic fixes is not in your best interests. It will result in you failing to achieve your true potential with potentially serious consequences for your well-being. In later life, looking back at missed opportunities is one of the causes of depression.

The narcissist is at the root of the problem as a person becomes co-dependent through exposure to a narcissist, usually having been primed to respond to the emotional needs of others by a needy parent. And narcissists have big emotional needs, demanding attention from anyone who is prepared to give it to them, or is too weak to resist their demands. Those narcissists who are able to keep up the pretence force the inequality gap wider and wider. They are drawn to and often succeed in areas of life where a big ego and a complete lack of empathy can almost guarantee success: politics, sales, and finance, for example. Being needy and greedy, the successful narcissists drive the gap ever wider between themselves and the ever-growing underclass of people who want to avoid conflict, and just get on with their lives.

Those who are not narcissistic and not co-dependent, the honest and realistic people, those who are relatively healthy and emotionally strong enough to avoid being dragged down by the narcissists, are in a minority.4 They make decisions based on what is right, as opposed to what is best for their ego, as does the narcissist, but they appear to be fighting a losing battle. The nature of democratic systems of government means that almost everyone above a certain age is entitled to vote, but if the honest and realistic people are in a minority, it means that their influence will be severely limited. People often vote for people who are charming and project an image of self-confidence. Narcissists are often charming and exude self-confidence; it may all be false, but the voters are usually unaware. How many political leaders have been voted into office, only to deliver failure?

Narcissistic people cause huge problems in our social order. The dramatic increase in numbers of people seeking relief from their mental problems through 'happy' drugs, such as Prozac, is testament to our societal problems. But the potential dangers related to increased risks of violence, drug abuse, obesity, and mental health problems can be ameliorated by raising our awareness of the dangers associated with the narcissists and co-dependents, whose numbers are booming as the inequalities in our population continues to grow.

1 Wilkinson, Richard, and Pickett, Kate, (2010), The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Penguin, UK.
2 Thomas, David (2010), Narcissism: Behind the Mask, Book Guild, UK.
3 'Reflected glory' is a term used by Emma Nichols and Arthur A. Stukas in their paper 'Narcissism and the Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model: Effects of Social Comparison Threats on Relationship Closeness (2011)', in The Journal of Social Psychology.
4 Professor Manfred Ket de Vries, a renowned writer in leadership and psychology, when asked how many business leaders are well adjusted individuals, said, "You can argue that 20 per cent of the general population is relatively healthy; 20 per cent is relatively sick; and the other 60 per cent, who all suffer from 'neurotic misery', are somewhere in the middle. That applies to most people I meet." (The dark side of leadership, Business Strategy Review, Autumn 2003, Vol. 14, Issue 3, p. 26).

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Book - 20 Shades of Narcissism - by David Thomas