Today, Liz Scott joins us on the blog, discussing the recent release of her memoir This Never Happened (University of Hell Press, Feb 2019) and how performing from it at her book launch prompted her to reflect on the idea of narcissism. Check it out:
Narcissism: Good or Bad?
My memoir officially launched a couple of weeks ago at the venerable Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Standing on that podium in front of some 120 people was a mind-blowing experience so before I could express my gratitude, I needed to admit how challenging the whole thing was for me. I talked about how I had lived most of my life trying NOT to be my mother who was a person of bottomless need and an unquenched desire to be famous—famous as a writer. So there I was, my name on the marque outside the store, having been on a TV show earlier that day, interviewed on the radio the day before and standing in front of 120 people who had come to see me—I was feeling kinda famous and, to my horror, it felt pretty damn good! To quote my own book, it was like I was on “…a grease-lined slippery slope straight down to Crazy Town.”
Which brings me to narcissism. It’s inevitable these days: turn on the news and before long you’ll hear the word “narcissist.” I’m not going to get on my political soapbox now and if you know me, you get enough of my ranting anyway. But as people who know me understand, I have a particular interest in this topic. At a broad level we are culturally fated to grapple with this personality feature. It’s in the American DNA. Ours is an individualistic culture where characteristics like self-reliance, independence, and personal ambition are highly valued. So different from collectivistic countries like Japan that focus on what’s best for the community and where unity and selflessness are valued traits. Doesn’t sound like us, does it. In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote his famous book, The Culture of Narcissism, and if he were alive today, I bet he’d be writing a sequel because this personality feature seems increasingly endemic.
Then again, maybe it’s just me. I have my eyes peeled for narcissism. As the child of one—probably two—certifiable DSM-V narcissists, it’s the lens through which I view the world and I will lift up every rock if I catch a whiff. I’m on the lookout and I have not reserved that scrutiny for the rest of the world only. I have relentlessly applied it to myself as well. So there I stood on the podium, having written a memoir—a book where “I” is the topic so isn’t that prima facie proof that I, too, am a narcissist? In theory I do believe that we all have a story to tell; that we are each entitled to the space we take up on this planet; that each of our voices should be heard. But the decision to commit my story to paper and send it out into the world has been fraught. Feeling entitled myself to have a story worth telling, that my life is worth the ink, feels perilously close to believing that I am extraordinary.
There’s this old Hasidic tale I heard. When a child is born, the Rabbi says you are to place one piece of paper in each pocket and carry them with you your whole life. One reads: The world was made for you. The other reads: You are but a speck of dust in the universe. The Rabbi instructs that we are to always hold these two seemingly contradictory concepts at one time. For those of us living in reaction to extreme narcissism, it’s easier to believe the speck of dust part. But that’s its own kind of pathology. In the original Greek myth of Narcissus he became so enthralled with his reflection in the waters of a lake that he would not leave for fear of losing sight of his image, ultimately dying from longing and starvation. But what about the person who cannot even look at herself at all, cannot bear to see what is reflected back? Maybe someone who can’t look in the literal mirror in the morning. Or someone who can’t form a realistic assessment of their abilities. Healthy narcissism is a necessary characteristic in order to develop authentic self-esteem. Without the confidence that comes with a secure sense of self and a healthy level of self-regard, how able are we to meet the rigors of any life? It’s vital to recognize and feel gratitude for your gifts and to take pleasure in a job well done. Healthy narcissism is knowing you are awesome (read:okay) without the requirement that others are less awesome. It does not depend on feeling like you are the center of the universe but on the belief that you, along with every other being, have a story worth telling and that you are worth the particular and singular space you take up on this good earth.
Like so many other things, narcissism is on a continuum. The capital N kind is pathological and, if you can, I suggest you limit your interactions with these folks as much as possible. But false modesty, marked feelings of inferiority and an unwillingness to assess one’s strengths and weakness realistically?—also not so great.
I’m working on it.
Liz Scott has been a practicing psychologist for 40 years, helping clients to identify life themes and make sense of the puzzle of their lives. She has brought this focus to her writing in the last fifteen years, first as a short story writer and most recently in her memoir, This Never Happened. She has been published in numerous literary journals and served two terms on the board of Oregon Literary Arts. Originally from New York City, she currently lives and works in Portland, Oregon. You can find more information at www.liz-scott.com