I admit it: I am a recovering narcissist.
Much of my life energy was spent in pursuit of what I wanted, what I needed, and what I thought was best. “Narcissism” is a term from psychopathology, but it’s essentially a fancy term for extreme selfishness.
I had good relationships with great women – strong, smart sexy females who thought I was a great guy… until I suddenly withdrew, or made plans without checking with them, or took off to chase success, or an intense experience, or another woman. As long as my needs were getting met in the relationship, I was pretty happy. But when I wasn’t, I began looking around for the next opportunity to fulfill my desires.
My partners were not weak or timid – they often confronted me about my choices and behavior. But my answer was typical of an intelligent narcissist: “If you want to be in relationship with me, you have to accept me as I am.” And they did – until they couldn’t take it anymore. I felt completely justified in my world-view. If they couldn’t love me as I was, there were plenty of women who would.
Each time I made a mess of a personal (or business) relationship, I felt bad. I recognized the damage I was causing, and began to look inward for answers in therapy, and in my men’s group. I read books and articles about narcissism, and worked on changing my beliefs, my early programming, and my social conditioning. I knew I had to change. I wanted to learn to really love. To do this, I needed to learn how to be unselfish.
Selfishness appears in a wide spectrum, stretching from healthy self-care to moderate, socially acceptable personal goal achievement, to the extreme form of destructive narcissism – individuals who don’t care about the impact of their selfish behavior on others.
We are all selfish at times. When you focus on taking care of yourself, or making yourself comfortable, this is a healthy form of selfishness, as long as it’s not taken to an extreme. Healthy people learn how to set good boundaries, and pursue their own interests realistically. They develop personal esteem, mature principles, and can accomplish their goals. From a solid sense of self, they can form deep relationships with others.
Children are naturally selfish and self-focused, but they are expected to grow out of it. They learn that other people exist independently, and have their own feelings and needs that must be taken into account. This early awakening enables a child to “play well with others.” A healthy self-focused child can grow into a healthy adult, capable of being a loving parent, a compassionate community member, and a trustworthy citizen. If an individual can’t make that leap into the world of “others,” they become a narcissist.
To be successful in a relationship, you have to create a balance between self-oriented pursuits (such as self-care and self-development) with its opposite: care and respect for the interests and needs of the other.
We all want to be cared for. The trick is to learn to love as an activity you actively engage in, not a state you expect to be swept up into. In a mature relationship, each person takes full responsibility for the entire triumvirate: oneself, the other person, and the third entity: the relationship itself.
Relationships fail when partners focus too much on getting their own needs met, and not enough on the needs of the other. This results in arguments over whose needs are most important – which is almost always damaging.
Psychologically, it’s hard to focus on the other person’s needs when your own needs are screaming out to be cared for, but if you can, your relationship deepens, as does your capacity to love.
Because safety is a key to a making a relationship work, narcissism is destabilizing and damaging. Someone who acts selfishly without regard for the other is unpredictable. At any time, they may suddenly focus on getting their own needs met, and withdraw from the two-ness of the relationship.
Ultimately, in my journey from narcissism to healthy loving partnership, the woman I now love has been a teacher. She has shown that honoring the needs of a beloved other can bring with it a potent sense of satisfaction and well being, more so than any of the short-term fixes of following selfish impulses.
In her own words: “Men: Do you want your woman to really open to you? With her heart, mind and passionate body? The key to this reality is your honest, continuous care about her, and about your impact on her. You can tell when you have hurt her, or harmed the relationship with your selfish behavior. She will react quickly, look unhappy, and express disappointment. She withdraws when you try to relate to her, closing down, disconnecting – the opposite of how you want her to be with you. You don’t need to be perfect or relate perfectly, you just need to own that you caused damage when it happens, get curious, and repair it as quickly as possible. If you make your woman’s happiness your priority, she will fill up with her own Feminine Spirit and want to give you her best all the time. You’ll get your deepest needs fulfilled as a result.”
Ultimately, narcissism is a win-lose game. But I have learned when I consider self and other equally, when I put my partner’s needs alongside my own, we both win. And that is a sweet place to land.