Self-awareness and “narcissists”

November 10, 2012

It occurred to me after I posted this that maybe I should note that these thoughts were in part precipitated by a comment by David Brooks, on the PBS NewsHour last night, about charismatic leadership, in his analysis of the David Petraeus affair.

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I don’t mean “narcissists” in a clinically significant way, although my category overlaps with that one, I think, I mean the group of people who sees the world from only one point of view — (a) from the point of view of themselves, and (b) from that part of themselves, within the point of view of themselves, that is limited by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

In my experience, suggesting to a narcissist to become more self-aware goes over like a lead balloon.  Sometimes worse.   (As in, the person blows up — for example, a person was asking me for advice, many years ago, on how to improve her social life, and I suggested expressing more warmth.  The next morning she was in her temper-tantrumming mode.)  Some of them self-justify, go through intricate rationalizations, or just “yes” you to your face and go on as before.  I think they’re too invested in their (maladaptive) coping strategies, and maybe it’s actually the case that their instinct is right, that they are not ready to drop all their current way of navigating the world so completely and all at once.

Maybe accepting the idea of developing self-awareness exposes the discrepancy between the self-protective false self and the more authentic self, I don’t know.  But I think it’s a paradox with unfortunate consequences that people in a position to have influence over others often have narcissistic qualities that actually result in their not having helpful substance to share once they arrive at their positions to share substance widely and publicly.

It’s that old elephant and the blind men feeling it — this world seems to be set up in such a way that we all need to communicate and work things out with each other.  I try to remain open to that but without letting other people tie up my resources in unhelpful interactions in the meantime.

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