Are we all narcissists, or is it just me?
The narcissistic chickens of Doug Savage.
Confession #1: I subscribe to goop.
As in Gwyneth Paltrow’s email newsletter thingy. Yes, the collaborations are often laughable (thanks, GP, but I’m not spending $795 on a jumpsuit), but the interviews are quite good. She recently interviewed Dr. Robin Berman in an article entitled The Legacy of a Narcissistic Parent, which brings me to…
Confession #2: I might be a narcissist.
Dr. Berman’s examples, stories, and descriptions really hit home, particularly, “Narcissistic parents take their children’s every feeling or action personally” and “Narcissists have a way of making everything about them”.
I thought back to my early months as a new mom, when my son was waking up multiple times a night. I recalled how my first reaction to his 2am crying was often anger, thinking, “God, doesn’t he know I have to be at school in 3 hours?” (Making it about me). Or rushing him as a toddler to put his shoes on, feeling like he was dawdling just to make me late (Taking his actions personally). I was filled with self-loathing as I contemplated my wildly unchecked narcissism.
I started to wonder, were my less than stellar early parenting moments just that—moments—or were they indicative of a broader narcissistic character flaw? What’s the line between having your own life and being a narcissist?
The Narcissism Spectrum
Here is the meat and potatoes of Dr. Berman’s article:
Narcissism runs on a spectrum, from healthy narcissism to malignant narcissism, with a lot of gray in between.
Healthy narcissism is basically good self-esteem. You believe in yourself and what you can do… You can empathize with other people… You aren’t devastated by criticism, mistakes, or failure.
Malignant narcissists have a very fragile and reactive sense of self. They are extremely self-involved and have a highly inflated view of themselves, which masks profound vulnerability and shame. They are fueled by praise and admiration, and deeply injured by criticism and even honest feedback.
Though it shames me to admit this, there have been times in my life when I’ve been on the malignant end of the narcissism spectrum, taking things really personally, feeling deeply injured by criticism, easily angered, overly fueled by praise.
Those “dark days” as I’ve started to refer to them, were at the very beginning of my journey as a mother and as an actor (I became a mom and an actor practically at the same time—a story for another day). I was deeply insecure. I felt like a fraud almost constantly—not talented, not nurturing, with no instincts for parenting or acting. That profound vulnerability was really at the root of my malignant behavior.
These days I would say I’m generally a healthy narcissist. I meet all of Dr. Berman’s criteria—good self-esteem, empathy for others, not devastated by criticism. Except…I can be extremely self-involved. I have a strong desire for independence, self determination, “me time”, and it’s only gotten stronger as I’ve developed more confidence as an actor and a mom. Is that it then? Is acting driving my narcissism?
My theory on actors and narcissism
Narcissism is an occupational hazard for actors. In fact, Ben Affleck says of narcissism, “It’s the one quality that unites everybody in the film industry, whether you’re an actor, a producer, a director, or a studio executive. “
There’s something unique to acting—we are the product, so in order to be successful, we’re focusing a lot on, well, ourselves. But my experience with actors tells me that there’s something more going on than simple narcissism. Most actors that I know have a deep sense of empathy for others that seems not completely aligned with Dr. Berman’s malignant narcissism.
Turns out my Spidey sense is supported by research.
A recent study of actors conducted in Germany measured two distinct aspects of narcissism: wanting to be admired (what they call narcissistic admiration), and maligning the competition (they use the term narcissistic rivalry). It found that actors scored higher on the “admiration” scale than people in other professions, but lower than other professions on the “rivalry” scale.
It seems that actors tend toward a unique brand of narcissism that is unlike that experienced by other people. I like to think that actors are just full of love—we love ourselves, but we love others too, which is maybe why we want others to love us so badly.
What’s so wrong with being a narcissist anyway?
I strongly believe that there is a healthy sweet spot in life and in parenting between self-centeredness and self-abnegation, between goddess and doormat. I’m determined to inhabit that sweet spot, and if it is to be found somewhere on the narcissism spectrum, I’ll take it.There is a healthy sweet spot in life and parenting between self-centeredness and self-abnegation, between goddess and doormat. Click To Tweet
Dr. Susan Karuss Whitbourne describes the concept of “adaptive narcissism”, and it really resonated with me.
“People with a solid sense of self-esteem will be better able to find the balance between being overly dependent or overly self-reliant. They can be self-sufficient but still capable of intimacy. At the same time, they may be the ones to be better at parenting. Because they don’t need to see their children as an extension of themselves, they will be more likely to produce mentally healthier children. The adaptive narcissists will not be helicopter parents, but will give their children greater room to grow on their own terms.”
I gladly out myself as an adaptive narcissist.
All of this makes me think that the key to staying on the adaptive, or healthy end of the narcissism spectrum, particularly for actors, lies in connection. Maintaining a sense of communion with others at an interpersonal, societal, and global level can expand one’s sense of self, and allow space for equivalent amounts of self love and love of others.
When I’m not feeling connected is when I find myself playing small, hoarding my tiny store of goodwill just for myself, and this is a stone’s throw away from the malignant narcissism Dr. Berman describes. Sometimes it takes work to cultivate this state of connection, but man, it’s so worth it.
OK, your turn… How do you stay on the adaptive side of the spectrum? I’d love to hear your thoughts about the whole narcissism thing as it relates to life, parenting, acting in the comment section below. And if you know someone who might enjoy this discussion, share away using the links on the left.