My friend and I often attended psychotherapy workshops together. Usually we felt inspired by what we learned, but occasionally there were speakers who had a very different effect. We left their workshops with less self-confidence, and both of us felt the irrational impulse to transfer our entire caseload to the speaker we’d just seen. It seemed the ethical thing to do, given that those speakers were so clearly superior in their ability to help people.
Eventually, we would come to our senses, as the fog of insecurity about our skills lifted. The first one to shake it off reminded the other that we did have training, we did know what we were doing, and we each had a certificate saying we were good enough for the licensing board. But even so, it took a while to recover from how inept we felt.
Many of us have had that self-deprecating kind of experience around certain people. It doesn’t have be an expert in your field. In fact, it could be as simple as the way someone else dresses, how the person speaks, or what he or she seems to know. In this person’s presence, we get the uneasy sensation that we are about to be exposed as unworthy in some crucial aspect of our being.
Of course, these interactions have nothing to do with our actual worth. Instead, it is about the uncomfortable feelings that get stirred up in most interactions with a narcissistic person.
People with a heavy dose of narcissism—defensively exaggerated self-esteem—create a vibe that makes the people around them feel insecure about themselves. This is because narcissists have had their own sense of self-worth called into question early in life. As children, they were never sure they could elicit unconditional love from a completely reliable caregiver. As a result, in adulthood they cannot endure the excruciating suspense of whether or not people will find them worthy of attention. Instead, with their superior demeanor, they create an interpersonal dynamic of either admiration or intimidation.
A person with narcissistic issues has an aura of exclusivity about them. They effectively communicate the message that they have talents and assets you don’t. If you don’t realize what they are doing, you will automatically feel off-balance and less-than, just like my friend and I after those workshops. You will find yourself withdrawing your own self-approval from living life just as you are. Suddenly, being you feels woefully mismatched to the task of successful living, a sure sign you have fallen under the narcissist’s interpersonal spell.
True narcissists are not going to wait around for the thumbs up or thumbs down of other people’s approval. They have learned that a proactive mask of superiority is the best insurance policy against emotional rejection. The narcissist always comes out on top emotionally by generating reactions of fear, awe, or inadequacy in other people. Their self-assured vibe disavows your own unique individuality and gives the impression that the only way you will be worthy is to try to be just like them.
On the other hand, non-narcissistic people—even those more skilled than you—won’t make you feel bad about yourself. Instead, you will likely find them inspiring, as if you had just glimpsed something appealing or beautiful in them. You might feel a little awe, but in a good way, like you can’t wait to improve your skills, too. Their competence is inclusive, not exclusive. In a social interaction, you might find yourself spontaneously asking their advice or getting their ideas about a problem you’re having. You wouldn’t feel sheepish about asking how they got to where they are. You would rightly sense that they would be sympathetic toward your quest for self-improvement. The best teachers or role models enjoy seeing people develop and want everybody to be his or her best. They know that everyone at the soul level has dreams, and they want you to realize yours, too.
Whenever my friend and I were lucky enough to go to a workshop given by one of these inspiring professionals, we went back to work as better therapists. We didn’t want to send our clients to them; we wanted to be more like them with our clients. These kinds of teachers are so encouraging because they make us believe we can become our best vision for ourselves.
After an encounter with very accomplished people who are non-narcissistic, you will go back into your own life with more hope and a spring in your step. They will make you feel that you can become something more than you are. So in order to know what kind of person you are interacting with, watch how your self-image reacts. A good teacher or truly admirable person will make you feel it’s better to become yourself than to wish you were someone else.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.