Ramani Durvasula
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Today, I am going to talk about the most overused, misunderstood, problematic word of our time - a phenomenon, a word that is shaping all of our destinies. That word is "narcissism." "Narcissism" is a word that is being used to understand bad behavior everywhere - in national leaders, in heads of state, heads of corporations, fancy academic types, athletes, celebrities. We actually no longer recoil at their grandiosity, their entitlement and their incivility. In fact, too many people award them grudging admiration for their successes, and that grants permission to everyone to replicate these abusive patterns of behavior with impunity. Now, things got confusing when people started using "narcissism" as a clinical term. It became a way of medicalizing bad behavior. It's actually not a diagnostic term. Narcissistic personality disorder is a diagnosis, but it's pretty rare because these folks don't show up to be diagnosed anyhow. (Laughter) So narcissism is in fact a personality pattern. It's a sort of way of relating to the world. It's an adjective to describe their style, much like we could describe someone as agreeable or stubborn or introverted. Some of these patterns are valued by society and others aren't, and the fact is most people don't receive being called narcissistic as a compliment. It's just, however, a descriptive term, and no matter how much we turn our noses up at it, paradoxically, as a society, we reward it. Dr. Allen Frances was one of the architects of the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, and he argues that we actually give badly-behaved jerks an out when we call it a diagnosis. If a person is a jerk, then they're a jerk. Disliking the pattern of behavior doesn't make it a mental illness. That so-called jerk has to be experiencing problems in their life for their narcissism to actually be considered a diagnosis. So if we were to cobble together all the various "things" that make up narcissism we'd land on a very uncomfortable summit. Narcissism is comprised of certain pillars, as I call them: lack of empathy, grandiosity, entitlement, superficiality, admiration and validation seeking, hypersensitivity, rage and a tendency to manipulate and exploit people. It's confusing because they're simultaneously under-responsive; they tend to be emotionally aloof, cold and distant; but then they're hyper-responsive - they have hair-triggered tempers that set off like that when their fragile egos get threatened. So narcissism, however, I believe, is synonymous with pathological insecurity. The key to understanding the narcissist is that they feel constantly unstable and empty. Their grandiosity is actually an immature defense against these threats to their sense of self, and they're desperate for the world to keep validating them. On their good days, they look happy, they're great, they're grandiose, but on the bad days, the facade crumbles quickly, and we see disproportionate rage, shame and vindictiveness. I became interested in narcissism through a couple of different pathways, but the most striking was the fact that more and more clients were coming into my office and talking about relationships in which their partners treated them with utter disregard, indifference, coldness. They lacked empathy, they would question their reality, they would lie to them at times, they were unfaithful, they were inconsistent. And no matter what they tried with their partner, it didn't get better. At the same time, I started working with more narcissistic clients. And would you know? Nothing we tried really made things better. In fact, they just remained difficult people. And I don't think I'm that bad a therapist. So it was clear that these relationships were being kept in place simultaneously by hope and fear - hope that some day it would get better if they kept trying harder, but fear that if they left these relationships, they would be alone forever, without a partner or even without a mother. And some of them had the fear that maybe this is as good as it gets. The world has become more insecure, and the reasons for that are varied. Gallup's annual Global Emotions Report said that 2017 was the most miserable in about a decade. The report indicated that sadness, anger, worry, stress and physical pain were more frequently endorsed last year than in the 10 years prior. Now, Gallup speculated on a variety of reasons for this, but let's spitball for a minute: could it be that this increase in misery could reflect the increase in insecurity, incivility and tolerance of narcissism our world supports? The increasing insecurity in our world and the platforms that capitalize on it, such as consumerism, have created optimal fertile ground for narcissism to incubate and proliferate. When human value is driven entirely by external incentives such as success, then qualities such as empathy do not have a fighting chance because we no longer value them, and they're no longer valuable. So why do we get pulled into these relationships? We're not flocking to narcissism because we love emotional coldness or invalidation or shallow people. We're drawn in because narcissism is seductive. I call it the three Cs of narcissism: charm, charisma and confidence. That's not to say that all charming and charismatic people are narcissistic. However, we do know that these traits are so seductive that we get drawn in, and they can blind us to the more venomous characteristics that are unfolding at the same time, such as entitlement, vindictiveness or lack of empathy. So then, once a person is in a relationship and it's uncomfortable and it's painful, why would they stay with the narcissist? All of us are vulnerable to those narcissistic charms, and in fact, we may be rendered even more vulnerable to sticking around for the abuse by a narcissist if we originated from family systems in which the patterns of narcissism were normalized, such as having a cold, authoritarian, distant, invalidating or abusive parent. Our own insecurities render us vulnerable and also less able to climb out when the climate shifts from charm and charisma to invalidation and abuse. Most of us are great at giving second chances, and second chances are in fact the accelerant for narcissism at all levels. When we are in a narcissistic relationship, we make excuses: "That's just how he is. He didn't really mean that," "She means well. Ah, that's just her culture." And there's the rub - that's how this infectious virus of being in any form of narcissistic relationship, whether with an individual or a family or a company or a culture, can slowly proliferate and take over. Most of us issue second chances with zeal. Our storytelling in our culture is immersed in tales of hope, redemption and forgiveness, and while that's all very healthy, in the wrong hands, hope and forgiveness may not represent an opportunity for growth or change or restoration but, rather, permission to just keep things going as they are, because with narcissists, forgiveness is interpreted as "Hey, let's just keep the status quo." Have we created a world in which narcissism as a pattern, as a personality, is becoming necessary to succeed in the new world order? This is where we hit a bit of a problematic divide - the very qualities associated with material success are actually bad for our health because while these qualities may be festered and fostered by our cultures and our schools and our economies and our societies, they are never going to be good for our close relationships. And that doesn't just mean spouses and partners. That means parents, children, siblings, extended family, friends, colleagues. Narcissistic patterns undercut the core of what's necessary for healthy relationships. Those things include mutuality, respect, compassion, patience, genuineness, honesty and trust, things that are simply not possible with a system or a person which is narcissistic. And it's in that intimate relationship space where we see the most profound impacts of a narcissist, whether that be a spouse or a partner. A relationship with a narcissist is a gradual indoctrination. You slowly become inured to their lack of empathy, their tantrums, their rage, their insults and their entitlement, their lies and their challenges to your reality. Their insulting words slowly become your self-talk, and before you know it, your new mantra becomes "I am not enough." Anyone who has had a narcissistic parent will acknowledge that it shaped the arc of their lives. It instilled an insecurity in a chronic jousting at psychological windmills. From an early age, narcissistic parents leave a legacy, including an inability to trust your own instincts, to safely enter close relationships, to trust your own abilities, and a lifetime can be spent trying to gain the notice of the aloof, detached and disconnected parent. The proliferation of narcissism in leadership - in our culture, governments, companies and world - has made very difficult workplaces. The narcissistic boss is the insecure tyrant. These are workplaces ruled by fear and subterfuge, abuse and vindictiveness, deceit and slippery ethics. And in the face of the Me Too movement, the top notes of narcissism pervaded all of the stories - the entitled and untouchable tyrant pillaging the workforce, and in most cases, with almost no consequences. The most painful realization is that narcissistic patterns are just not that amenable to change. At a minimum, for any change to occur, the narcissist has to recognize the harmful pattern of their behavior, then they have to want to change it, and then they have to put in the daily work of change. There is a small number of cases where that kind of happens, but under conditions of stress and frustration, the usual issues of rage will pop up - the rubber band of personality returns to its usual shape and size. The small changes that could be made may not be enough to make a close, intimate relationship sustainable, and if somebody is not willing to recognize that they need to make changes because they're hurting other people, there's little likelihood they will make a change, but there is a likelihood they will continue to blame other people, the world or you for their bad behavior. So that means that the only remaining strategies are to maintain your expectations and set boundaries, not to try to change that person or waste hope on the possibility of change, but to recognize that this is how it is, and either accept it or slowly step away from it. Now, this is very individual, and it's not always possible. If it's your parents or your child who's narcissistic, you may not be willing to sever that tie. Finances, culture, children or love can make walking away from a marriage or a romantic relationship seemingly impossible. And that's fine, but managing expectations on this pattern can protect you from the downstream effects of this ongoing abuse, and allow you to construct a more realistic reality. Sadly, most of us put 90% of our hearts, minds and souls into our most dysfunctional, unhealthy, invalidating relationships and save the little bit that's left for the people who are good and kind to us. It's time we flip this skewed calculus and start giving the best of ourselves to our healthy and reciprocal relationships, and really only give the bare minimum to the relationships that really aren't helping us grow. Perhaps that's a healthier way of negotiating these treacherous waters of narcissism without losing ourselves in the depths of self-doubt and self-criticism. Now, this can be extended to our thinking about the world at large. It can be small fixes such as turning off the polarizing discourses we hear and learning to measure our self-worth and the worth of others with new metrics of success: authenticity, compassion, kindness and empathy. We can learn to tend to our own gardens and not get pulled into hostile interactions that benefit no one. So this begs a question: can there be happy endings where narcissistic or antagonistic personalities and cultures are concerned? I actually think there can be. The greatest challenge about happy endings in real life is that they rarely look like the ones we crafted when we're young. And it's easy to get stuck in our own old narratives. People who come from narcissistic families may feel as though they missed out on having a parent who is an ally or a supporter, even as they go into adulthood. People who married narcissistic partners may find themselves mired in a nightmare of emotional abuse or simply finding that they're actually alone despite being married. Few people write stories of their lives that build in disappointment. I have found that survivors of all kinds of narcissistic and antagonistic relationships actually can and do have happy endings. They just don't look like they thought. All of us are bigger than this epidemic of narcissism. Any of us can change the "you are not enough" narrative that still resonates. We can re-parent ourselves. We can look at the entitled shenanigans of people who shriek, "Don't you know who I am?" and realize that you don't give a damn about who they are. Where there are scars, beautiful things actually can spring forth. Khalil Gibran writes, "Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars." Yes, the world is in fact becoming more narcissistic and insecure. Don't let the global epidemic of incivility infect you. Inoculate yourself, find your communities. Find common ground with other people instead of living in polarization. Practice kindness and empathy even when other people are not. Choose your friends and your romances with care. Every life story can be a miracle or a tragedy. It just depends on how you write it. These days, with the world in such disarray, anyone who is surviving with their empathy unbroken, their heart sound, their integrity in place and their sense of humor intact is nothing short of dauntless. Pushing back on narcissism is a human rights issue. All of us need to stop giving permission to narcissism and narcissists and start taking our lives, our souls and our world back. Thank you. (Applause)