When children grow to adulthood, they leave many things behind, unfinished Spaghettios, mac and cheese, little plastic figures from Saturday morning TV superheroes, and piles of unwashed clothes. If we are lucky, they also leave behind self-absorption.
Narcissism serves for a time. A self-image based on shape and size, be it breasts, legs or muscle mass is the shallowest articulation. Intellectual gifts that culminate in a stratospheric GPA help too. For others, an ability to get invited to every party is part of identity formation. We experiment, try new things and discard elements of personality that don’t get a payoff. However, some people get stuck and take buns of steel, a magna cum laude or crammed social calendar as a measure of worth.
You know the type. A conversation begins in the back yard while you’re out raking leaves on a fall morning, and after an exchange of pleasantries, you listen to them talk . . . about themselves . . . unceasingly. Some of what they say may be interesting or entertaining. Maybe you even give them a little more attention because they are bright or good-looking. Eventually, after they leave, you pause … you feel empty. You were just a mirror for their projections.
Some adolescents are expert at smug self-assurance or indifference. For the most part being “cool” is a defense for not having a clue how to act or feel. This is part of growing into adulthood. Most adults find it a pain, but to the young person it is a way of testing waters and retreating to safety without commitment.
For others, the smug, arrogant cockiness remains and becomes a way of dealing with life. The self-focusing needed to find out who we are, never reaches fruition.
A challenged narcissist is a wonder to behold. There is injury, a wound very deep, that nothing can heel. Their experience of life is unique. It has never been experienced by anyone else. Thus the injury they endure, real or perceived, denies a common history as a human being. Their life may be remarkable, but not that astonishing.
Unfortunately, a narcissistic personality linked to personal charisma frequently moves into the public arena. Then these traits articulate themselves in public policy we must endure. Frequently, it’s characterized by greed, corruption and an inability to listen to the real concerns of real people. In politics as usual, no matter what party – the privileged become favored and those without, oppressed.
A self-absorbed attitude in a young person may be tolerable because we know it is
a “phase” or “stage” that will give way to a matured perspective. A narcissistic orientation in an adult is at best annoying, at worst sad. When it trickles into public policy, we are at risk.