Meghan Daum hit the nail on the head when she wrote “Narcissist–give it a rest.”:
“At any given moment a whole lot of people are accusing a whole lot of other people of being narcissists. In recent years, the term for a self-destructive “personality disorder” has become the insult of choice for almost anyone doing almost anything.” -Source
Narcissist is the word of choice when wanting to offend someone. Why? Well, because it can pertain to any human being doing anything, just like Daum points out. You don’t actually need to back up your statement with any articulation of the accusation. It is a self-explanatory slur for someone who exists on planet earth.
Dr. Susan Jaffe puts it like this, “It sounds more impressive to say that someone is narcissistic rather than a jerk.” It is doubtful that people even know what Narcissistic Personality Disorder is. Many people using “narcissist” in every day speech seemed to be confused it with Antisocial personality disorder, which is in the “cluster” of personality disorders with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Should we be concerned with the long-term effects of the frivolous use of this fashionable slur?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder that is so frequently misused, even by Psychologists, that they removed it from the DSM-V in 2013. Many have voiced concerns with the future of care of patients with true NPD due to the change.
The problem with the overuse and misuse of a term specifically linked to association with perceived mental illness is that it perpetuates the stigma attached to mental illness as well as confuses the public about the true definition of the term. (Important to note: Personality disorders most-likely are not true mental illnesses. -Source: KENDELL,R.E. The distinction between personality disorder and mental illness The British Journal of Psychiatry (2002) 180: 110-115 doi: 10.1192/bjp.180.2.110)
This new social revival of the word has, of course, made its way into parenting discussion as well. Bloggers are having a field day accusing widely varying parenting practices they either don’t understand or don’t follow themselves as being the means of raising narcissistic human beings.
Also, social movements to better oneself have been labeled the downfall of our society, making everyone in our culture a narcissist. When in reality NPD should be less than 1% of people in the general population (most are male- ½ to about ¾).
What people don’t understand is that narcissism is not so simplistic.
NPD sufferers lack empathy, are categorized as impaired, and are rarely successful. These are highly concerning traits which is different from the idea that narcissism merely means someone who appears self-absorbed. Specific narcissistic traits have been considered healthy. Even Freud claimed that narcissism had the potential to be positive, specifically in early childhood development. Adaptive narcissism has been identified by researchers as an aid to self-sufficiency, leadership, self-confidence and a lower rate of anxiety in social situations. I think it is important to note that there is a spectrum of narcissism with high being considered self-destructive and unhealthy, and a moderate to low level being considered more of a positive trait. (It is also important to note there is a spectrum of all personality traits and all characteristics which we might think of as pertaining to mental illness. So much so that even the NIMH has decided that they are going to support research that discusses traits on dimensions, not categories.)
The Leading Role Concept
We are all supposed to have leading roles in our own life stories and be supporting characters in the stories of others. If you think about it in that way, it levels the playing field. We are not “more” special than anyone else, except in our own life story. This idea helps put into perspective the healthy mindset of being self-aware, self-reflective, and ultimately having love for oneself and finding ourselves worthy of that love from others. The leading role concept is one, it seems, our children innately know, but as parents with shifting priorities this seems to be something with which many struggle. Nevertheless, most will come to terms with the fact that a healthy well-cared for self taking a leading role can help empower our children to understand their leading roles in their own life and uplift them to be well-rounded individuals. Another aspect of the leading role idea is that there can be social barriers that prohibit equal growth for this leading role concept. For instance, a Caucasian child in the U.S. would have little difficulty finding similar looking children’s characters and role models with whom to identify and see himself becoming. An African-American child, however, may have trouble finding a leading black character with whom to identify and help shape his own idea of a leading role in his life (even if it is just for fun or play at this stage of development). This is one of the many reasons that people need to be aware and make a conscious effort to address issues we see our children facing that may hinder their development in our society.
The Drum Major Instinct
If I haven’t lost you yet, I’m going to throw this out there by Martin Luther King Jr. “The Drum Major Instinct.” You can listen to his whole sermon here.
The Drum Major instinct is more or less a sermon on positive and negative aspects of innate narcissism. Dr. King brilliantly points out the unhealthy aspects of the drive he believes all men have for greatness. Using Mark chapter ten from the bible as the start of his sermon, he points out how the disciples desired greatness and glory, asking to sit on the right and left side of Jesus. Rather than chastise the disciples or call out “narcissist!” Jesus goes on to help guide this desire for greatness to what is worth true glory: having a servant’s heart. Dr. King points out that the desire for greatness isn’t wrong, but the belief most humans have on how to achieve greatness is. He then continues with how the process of climbing the social ladder for glory can lead to exclusivity or hurting others.
I think the key for us as parents is to not oppress our children’s desire for greatness. These qualities are wonderful, if understood properly. Rather, we need to help guide them into adulthood with concepts of what true greatness is because this is polar opposite with what our society believes. We are a society that yells “narcissist” at the drop of a hat, while also holding on to idea that success and greatness are connected to accolades, education, finances, celebrity, and material possessions- all connected to oneself. No, I would rather take note from Dr. King and, when discussing greatness with my children, let his prophetic words speak clearly as to what is great:
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.
Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.