Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The monsters of the ego

Are you a victim of narcissistic abuse?

No, I have not turned the subject of my blog into a self help recovery group, but unfortunately the scientific profession is populated by narcissists and by their traumatized victims. So the likelihood that, if you work in scientific research you may be either one or the other (or sometimes both) is very high.

Narcissism is classified psychiatrically as a "personality disorder", along with other well known types of illnesses such as the much discussed borderline. Many people suffering from narcissistic disorder are high achievers, driven, focused, successful. Invariably highly self centered and incapable of empathy for other human beings, they often become the perpetrators of abuse, typically in the form of manipulating partners, collaborators, and other close human relations, into acting as "mirrors that clap", whose sole function is to provide a continuous source of validation to the narcissist. These same people are then disregarded entirely whenever they cease to provide the narcissistic feed and dare to commit the unspeakable act of existing as other people, with their own individual rights to existence, dignity, and self-expression. The narcissist, with his insatiable hunger for being always at the center of everyone's attention, for special entitlement to a privileged right to existence, can inflict an infinite amount of pain and anguish on the people who, in one role or another, end up being exposed to his endless demands for self-gratification. As it is well known from the psychological studies of narcissism, the attitude of the narcissist comes in fact from a poor self-image, and unstable sense of self worth, which needs to be continuously validated at the expense of other people.

Here's a few quick hints on how to recognize, before it's too late, if the people in your life whom you feel close to - collaborators and friends for instance - are narcissist abusers and if you are becoming the victim of a relation with a narcissist.

Test 1: Unmask the narcissist. Have you ever observed him engage in five or more of the following behaviors?

- He cuts people off when they are trying to speak, interrupting them continuously in a disruptive and obnoxious manner.

- He pretends to be an expert on things he truly knows nothing about, and insists on being right at all costs even when more knowledgeable people disagree.

- He shows a lack of empathy towards problems of other people, such as a cold and insensitive response to an illness or an accident that you or somebody else close to him suffered.

- He has an extremely low tolerance for criticism.

- He is always seeking approval and admiration, if not adulation, from other people.

- He demands to be loved and admired by everybody but is rarely capable of reciprocating.

- He is distrustful of the motivations of others, suspecting people of envying him and scheming against him.

- He shows a clear disproportion between the importance he attributes to things that happen to him and to the same things when they happen to others.

- He behaves as if other people were identical and interchangeable: behaviors such as telling the same things over and over again in exactly the same way on all occasions, without any care for the specific sensitivities of different audiences.

- He exhibits a tendency to praise and cherish people for a period of time, as long as they serve the purpose of feeding his narcissistic needs and then abruptly dismissing them when they reveal themselves as real people with rights and needs.

- He thinks that special rules apply to him, or that he is above the rules that apply to all others.

- He is unable to sense the pain he inflicts on others.

- He is self-obsessed, continuously thinking and talking about himself.

- He exhibits a tendency to perfectionism and an exaggerated fear of committing mistakes.

- He is workaholic.

- He surrounds himself preferentially with people who please his ego without ever posing a challenge, such as people he can safely perceive as intellectually his inferiors.

- He rejects, if not overtly attacks, people who pose an intellectual challenge or dare to explicitly disagree with any of his statements and pronouncements.

- He uses acts of generosity towards other people to generate in them a sense of dependence and indebtedness, which is then used as an instrument for manipulation and control.

- He wants at all costs to be always "the first of the class".

- He is unable to offer a sincere apology.

If you checked five or more items from this list, then you are dealing with a narcissist and your mental well being may be in serious danger. If you checked close to all of them, then you are dealing with a severe case of "overt maladaptive narcissism" and your life may be in danger too. Seek help!

Test 2: Are you the victim of abuse? If you have just identified one of your close relations as a narcissist, think of whether in the course of your interactions with him you experienced five or more of the following sensations and thoughts.

- You feel physically tense: back ache, stomach ache, fast heart rate, difficulties breathing...

- You never know what to expect: he is seemingly caring and considerate one moment (when in need of your approval) and coldly dismisses you the next moment with no warning and no justification.

- You developed a severely damaged sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

- You underwent a prolonged period of severe depression, possibly with suicidal thoughts.

- You begin to doubt your own existence and your sense of reality.

- You experience lack of sleep for prolonged periods of time.

- You have a sense of not being allowed any room to voice your own thoughts and opinions.

- You feel you have to struggle to be heard.

- You feel that whatever he does to you, he will always blame you for it.

- You experience exaggerated feelings of guilt.

- You are drawn back into trying to relate to him even though you only experience pain in doing so.

- You feel trapped in an impossible situation, unable to find a way out.

- You feel as if you had to fight all the time and are worn out and exhausted.

- You are scared and confused.

Seek help with a mental health care professional! Being a victim of narcissistic abuse can be a severely traumatic life experience, especially if the perpetrator is a person you admire and looked up to as a role model. Especially if your professional life is entangled with this person, getting out of the abusive relation may be extremely challenging. It may seem frightening, and you may be tempted to put up with more abuse, as an attempt to defuse the tension and save what mattered so much to you in the relation, what you thought you were sharing. Beware: there is no such thing as sharing with a narcissist, and you can only learn that the hard and painful way. There is no healthy give-and-take relation with a narcissist, only a manipulative, crippling, subjugating type of giving and a demanding, exploitative, and insensitive type of taking. It is especially difficult to accept this when your interactions with him are both at the personal and at the professional level. How much of yourself, your work, your aspirations, do you have to sacrifice in order to save your life and your psyche from the destructive assaults of your narcissistic abuser? How could I be such a fool? The painful realization often comes with a sense of disbelieve, how could I have not realized he was like that? That's another thing that the psychiatric literature on the subject teaches us very clearly: the narcissistic personality is especially good at that, at being deceptive and manipulative, at simulating genuine affection and caring. Except that, in reality, the narcissist is only capable of caring about himself. He can care about you only as long as he continues to see you only as a mirror, which is usually for the first period of your personal or professional relation. As soon as he begins to perceive that you have a voice of your own and a a right to existence, the troubles start and since then on there is no return, because there is no possibility of a two ways communication, really. It is painful, extremely painful, to come to the conclusion that people who have meant a lot in your personal and professional life can only destroy you and that you should disengage to save your life. It is painful, but the alternative is only to continue to descend along the dark path of self-destruction. Stop! Break the chain that keeps you tied to an abuser in the vain hope to catch once again a glimpse of what things were like when you lived in the illusion he fabricated for you by promising that you'll be journeying together and sharing the joys of intellectual fulfillment.