According to the Washington Post, a 40-question psychological survey used to determine whether an individual is a narcissist was recently replaced by a single question. I’m going to spoil it for you. The question is, “Are you a narcissist?”
“It’s pretty cool actually, because narcissists aren’t afraid to tell you they’re narcissistic,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University. “If you ask people whether they have casual sex or take drugs, they’re not likely to be honest with you. But narcissists just aren’t ashamed of their narcissism,” he said, “And they’ll tell you so.”
My first impulse was to think about myself, so I was off to a great start. I thought about my self-confidence, which is rapidly approaching excess. I remembered that I’m often criticized for arrogance and told that I’m hard to work with. I have high expectations and a sense of entitlement. I recognize, shamelessly, the excellence in what I do. I boast about my achievements and I love attention. Look at me! Look at me!
Am I a narcissist? Well, sure. And, true to the Brad Bushman’s assessment, I don’t see it as a problem, either. At least, I don’t see it as being any more of a problem than anyone else’s worst personality trait, though perhaps that is my own deluded rationalization, or I am using uncommonly lousy people as a basis for comparison.
I haven’t always been this way. For the first 20+ years of my life, I felt crippled by self-loathing. Even the slightest hint of negativity against my work or my character left me paralyzed, incapable of functioning. I felt worthless, like a burden, a waste of space. Also, during my sophomore and junior years in college, I was very depressed. I treated myself and other people horrendously. It was the rigorous demands of my professors which began to shake me out of that funk, an effort that endured through my chains of command in the Navy. They deliberately set me up for failure through unreasonable expectations and made me deal with it. I saw that falling short wasn’t a big deal – I looked around and no one besides me even cared that much – especially when I began to understand that these failures tended to be out of my control. Messing up wasn’t the end of the world. I could be decent without being perfect. So I failed and embarrassed myself and bumbled along through my last years of college and then my first years of the military. It would seem like this might turn someone bitter and complacent, but, for a Type-A asshole like me, it made me persistent and resilient and, in time, proud.
It makes sense that, with the swinging of the pendulum, I’ve found myself on the other side of the self-esteem spectrum. I have faith that time, experience, and maturity will eventually slow me down to a respectable median of jaded adult complacency balanced out by nagging Catholic guilt.
But I think there are a few important ways in which I depart from the standard DSM definition of a narcissist. For one, I am very empathetic. I care deeply about the wellbeing and happiness of others, especially those close to me. I am thoughtful and find a lot of joy in making other people feel good about themselves, sometimes to the point of being annoying and overbearing. In that vein, I’m also a pretty positive person. I try to make complaints into jokes. I’m still terrified of being a burden to someone else, especially professionally, which I think is the source of my need to over-achieve. I learned some hard lessons in two decades of being way too critical of myself and others. Now I do my best to withhold judgement and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I want others to do the same for me, but it would be pretty naive to expect them to.
So whatever qualms you have with my personality – and most are totally valid and not at all lost on me – consider this: self-esteem is not a zero-sum game. I don’t take away from your own self-confidence by having confidence in myself. I see this a lot when someone compliments me and I agree with them. I get accused of being full of myself. First of all, thank you for being nice – really! It makes me happy, but I don’t need another person to be the arbiter of my self-worth, and if I don’t respond to a compliment in a way that meets your expectations, maybe you should take some time to think about your true motivation behind giving a compliment. Was it to make me feel good, or to make yourself feel good about making me feel good? Second, I think people assume that recognizing a positive trait in yourself is a comparative assessment. But it’s not! If I say that I look cute today, I’m not saying that I’m cuter than everyone else. You’re putting words in my mouth. My head is so far up my own ass that I’m not even thinking about anyone else’s cuteness. I can be cute and they can be cute at the same time. Great! But right now I’m talking about me, not them, so stop making it about someone else! Me me me!
Am I really hurting anyone by being such an insufferable narcissist? I don’t think so. It seems like most criticisms of my personality are actually reflections of other people’s own insecurities. There will always be those who hate me simply because I don’t hate myself. I can’t change what they think about me. I can only change how I think about myself, and for now, I’m doing more or less okay with being frustratingly, obnoxiously confident.