Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Is It Always About You

Sandy Hotchkiss’s Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism is a clear, well-set out, very readable examination of the nature, effects, provenance and prevalence of narcissism. Not the full clinical disorder, but those who are strongly narcissistic.

Part I is about the “seven deadly sins” of narcissism – shamelessness, magical thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, bad boundaries – each of which gets a chapter. This was the weakest section of the book. I found the discussion informative but not entirely on-target. I suspect because lack of empathy was not used well enough as a structuring theme and there was perhaps a little too much theoretical baggage being carried – unlike the rest of the book, there was no use of descriptive cases. (My own take on narcissism is set out in this post.)

Part II is about where narcissism comes from, examining the stages of childhood and the effect of narcissistic parents. Hotchkiss argues that early childhood and adolescence both involve naturally narcissistic stages that can get “frozen” if there is a lack of appropriately empathic parenting – the ability to both nurture and develop a sense of appropriate boundaries. It is psychoanalytic analysis updated by references to data on brain development.

Hotchkiss argues that, depending on circumstances, narcissistic parents produce either narcissistic children or children who become ripe for exploitation by narcissists later on in life (they are effectively “pre-programmed” for it). Both have deficient Selves, but deficient in reverse ways. The former has no real sense of shame, because they lack a sufficiently robust sense of self to “carry” the emotion. The latter have, if anything, too much shame because they lack a sufficiently robust sense of self to put boundaries on the emotion. In the former, the capacity for shame has been short-circuited, in the latter over-developed. Hotchkiss clearly regards the latter as much more treatable than the former.
Part III is about how to defend yourself against narcissism. While I was not always convinced by Hotchkiss’s analysis of narcissism, her suggestions for dealing with narcissism are spot on – with the partial caveat that the “run now!” option is not sufficiently explored. The four strategies are:
know yourself, embrace reality, set boundaries, cultivate reciprocal relationships.
In other words, moderate your sense of shame by building up an appropriate sense of self embedded in support networks which reinforce both. Easier said than done, of course, but clearly the right approach. (You can’t always run away from narcissists in your life and it is no good running from one if you just run to another.)

Part IV is a discussion of how narcissists in your life operate. So there is a chapter on adolescent narcissism (what’s normal, what’s not), narcissism and addiction (which she sees as being connected by the intolerable burden of shame and the need to drown it), narcissism in love (the fusion delusion, where one is simultaneously the wonderful partner that the narcissist is entitled to and the deeply deficient person who fails to live up to the narcissists’ wonderful example), narcissism and work (the abuse of power) and narcissism and aging (The Mirror Cracks: how narcissists usually get worse as their body increasingly fails to support their inflated self).

Part V is about the increase prevalence of narcissism in modern society and advice on better parenting. While her comments are quite mild, it is clear that Hotchkiss has little time for the dreadful “self-esteem” push, though her discussion was crying out for Simon’s self-esteem/self-respect distinction.

Bernstein’s Emotional Vampires is a more broadly useful text, since it covers a wider range of personality disorders and gives a much broader analytical-and-action framework. But, as Bernstein points out, there are elements of narcissism in all the major personality disorders. Bernstein is also better at ramming home the point that they do not think as you do. In doubtful situations, take Simon’s advice, trust your gut feelings, step back and ask yourself who is getting what they want here?

That being said, Hotchkiss gives some excellent advice about how to deal with narcissists and has some very persuasive analysis of the origins of narcissism and the vulnerability to narcissism. Simply being aware of patterns makes them much less powerful and is a much better basis to escape from them. It is being about understanding and practical action that makes Why Is It Always About You? (which should have been subtitled How to Deal with Narcissists) a useful, even enlightening, text.

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