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By Rob Gannon
I was speaking with a client recently who expressed concerns about dealing with a spouse who she believes is a narcissist. This term — narcissist or narcissism — has been front and center recently. (Critics have labeled a current U.S. presidential candidate as a classic narcissist.)
This condition is real, and it can be quite damaging to those who exhibit it and others. So what is it? How can we recognize it? How do we deal with it?
The word’s origin is from Greek mythology where the handsome young Narcissus falls in love with his reflection in a still pond. This isn’t just self-love. The key to the Narcissus myth is that he failed to recognize the reflection as his own. So with a narcissist, there is a disconnection with the true self.
This differs from egotism, which is all about the self and a self-centered mentality of separateness and superiority, a belief that one truly feels better and more special than others.
The narcissist needs to act special and craves the approval and adoration of others. The true self is lost and now it’s all a big cover-up, filled with the pitfalls of a constant cover-up. There is certainly a level of egotism in narcissists but not necessarily vice versa. I know, this runs pretty deep but hang with me. Let me break it down in one simplified statement; narcissism is egotism on steroids.
All of us have an ego, and we use it and manage it (hopefully) in a healthy way. There is healthy self-love and self-esteem. There is healthy self-confidence and, yes, even healthy selfishness.
It is quite a bit harder — well, darn near impossible — to have a healthy narcissism. It’s a disorder; it can come from early abuse and trauma that places it beyond our “fixing” or “changing.” Narcissists need professional help but here’s the catch: they think they are perfect and awesome so there’s no reason for help.
I have written about the ego in the yachting industry previously in this space, and I think we can all recognize it and its effects. But here’s how to recognize it. Narcissism is marked by a profound lack of empathy, a fundamental inability to understand and connect with the feelings of others. Narcissists react poorly and sometimes viciously to criticism or anyone simply disagreeing with them. They crave attention and even adoration. Not just recognition, but way over-the-top recognition.
Also, because they lack empathy, narcissists can be hurtful and are prone to seek revenge for perceived slights. They also know how to push other people’s buttons to bring them down to their misery level.
Sounds like a party, doesn’t it? It’s not, and anyone who has had to deal with a narcissist knows how difficult it can be.
So how do we deal with a narcissist? First off, recognize and have some understanding of what dealing with a narcissist means. Don’t expect them to just change. Remember, this condition goes deep; we will not fix it. It might work to give them some of the food they live on — a little attention and stroking — but beware, this is like a coiled snake so don’t get too close.
Be as kind as possible, but be aware. If the situation becomes unacceptable, it’s best to step away. Watch for the toxic energy spreading. It’s hard to miss.
Let me end by offering this little test to see if someone is a narcissist. It’s useful even for someone unfamiliar, just to find out where they’re coming from. It’s a question that can tell a lot.
Ask the person, “In what ways do you need to grow or change?” Once you understand the narcissist, you will know what you’re looking for in their answer.
Enjoy the voyage.
Capt. Rob Gannon is a 30-year licensed captain and certified life and wellness coach (www.yachtcrewcoach.com). Comments are welcome below.