David J. Ley Ph.D. explores characteristics of narcissism and how they affect our vote.
The word “narcissist” gets thrown around a lot these days.
Narcissus was a character in Greek mythology, who was so enamored of his own beauty that he died next to a pool of water, captivated by his own reflection. The narcissus flower is a delicate beauty, often found nodding over the water on the banks of such ponds.
We all know such people — those people who never met a mirror they didn’t like. In today’s world of selfies, there are even theories that the number of selfies you post is a reflection of your degree of narcissism.
The problem of narcissism today, though, has less to do with beauty, and more to do with arrogance. Unhealthy narcissists discount the opinions or ideas of others, and cannot consider the idea that they, the narcissist, might not be right about something.
Over the years, I’ve seen a funny thing with some narcissists — that they can almost appear psychotic in their reinvention of the world and history.
While you might remember an event perfectly well, the narcissist always remembers it better than you, and it just so happens that their recollection confirms their argument and their belief in their own rightness.
But is narcissism really a bad thing? Some of the common personality tests have historically pathologized self-confidence and assertiveness, painting these traits as narcissism. Narcissists aren’t humble. But, many powerful people in our world aren’t either. Many of our most famous, celebrated leaders turned the world topsy-turvy, because they believed their way of looking at the world was better. Was it narcissistic for Martin Luther King, Jr. to believe that he was right, and segregation was wrong? Looking back, we celebrate Kohn F. Kennedy’s triumphs, and we ignore the signs of selfishness and entitlement.
It takes an incredible degree of self-confidence, assuredness and, yes arrogance, to look at the world, and think you know how to run it better. But isn’t that why we elect politicians? We’ve created an election system where every candidate must assert that they, and they alone, have THE ANSWERS. As a populace, we are selecting candidates because we want a new answer. We want someone to fix things, things that seem broken. We want a new voice, and yes, we want one that will change things for the better.
Craig Malkin’s thoughtful book Rethinking Narcisissm points out some of our flaws in this. We paint narcissism as a bad thing, but in truth, what we call narcissism contains components of healthy functioning. The challenge, Dr. Malkin points out, is when these ingredients are in bad proportions.
So, how do we tell a healthy, confident leader who has passion and new ideas, who has the drive to succeed, from a narcissist who views everyone around them as less than themselves? True narcissists cannot admit they made a mistake. Even when their recollection is proven untrue, the unhealthy narcissist “doubles down,” and their conviction (and paranoia) increases.
A healthy, confident, assertive leader is one who resists simplistic divisions of the world. Narcissists live in a simple, black and white world. For them, the world is divided into two groups of people: people who serve the needs of the narcissist (including the narcissist’s desire for aggrandizement) — and everyone else.
I don’t know whether Donald Trump is truly a narcissist or not. And neither do any of the reporters or talking heads on television. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a clinical diagnosis, and not one that should be bandied about casually and unethically. Those reporters and talking heads who call him a narcissist don’t acknowledge that Trump is acting exactly like we’ve taught him to, by a media-driven election process which encourages candidates towards cliffs of arrogance, overconfidence and simplicity.
But I do know that in selecting good leaders, we need to choose based upon both confidence, and willingness to admit mistakes or ignorance. We need to seek out leaders who acknowledge that the world is a complex mix of right and wrong and in-between, and who can learn from others. If we don’t want our leaders to behave like narcissists, then we should stop rewarding such behavior.
This article originally appeared on www.PsychologyToday.com.
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