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The Eternal Battle for Social Influence
Narcissism is rampant, so how do we address it?
Back in 2021, I'd been dating someone for six months. She was well educated, confident, good-looking, went to the most prestigious universities, and had lived in many attractive places. We used to have meaningful and enduring conversations since she had good analytical abilities and a curious mindset, especially regarding people we met, which she used to describe in a bit judgmental and cold manner. The prelude to our relationship was idyllic and quite early, she initiated premature discussions about getting engaged or moving together. A few months passed and abruptly, I discovered a different person who was emotionally abusive, hypersensitive, and disrespectful, who converted previously constructive conversations into conflicts which eventually ended our relationship. Soon after, we had a post-mortem discussion, and she concluded: “I don't want to be with someone who doesn't care to drink tap water”. These last words left me bewildered as I've half-seriously wondered if buying a Brita filter would keep the relationship going? A week later, I received a few ambiguous and regretful messages from her, which escalated to a phone call in which she sought guidance on her new date, a “filtered-water-driven-man” who she was already annoyed with because of his dog.
Following that dramedy, I packed my belongings and embarked on a nomadic lifestyle in which I lived in multiple co-living spaces and met a wide and authentic group of people. One day, a new member joined the community; he was very good at articulating his ideas, and the way he managed to successfully influence his audience was astounding. Many of his interactions suggested that he has high integrity – pledging never to lie no matter what the circumstances were or seeing himself as on a “mission”. He has a long list of impressive accomplishments: a dozen academic degrees in various fields, founder of multiple companies and member of Forbes 30 Under 30, ex-national athlete, author, Keynote speaker on medicine, statistics – likely on humility as well. Fortunately, only a few days elapsed before my gut instinct urged me to investigate further by Googling his name where I found no strong evidence of anything he claimed. Among the few visible aspects, the majority appear to be erroneous, partially true, or completely exaggerated. Unsurprisingly, he was into cryptos as most of his Twitter activities revolved around spreading Bitcoin propaganda and most of his following were maximalists with laser eyes. As I suspected him of being a scam, I began a quest to demystify his character and was fascinated that he had justifications to cover himself from any possible inquiries that might compromise his fake identity that apparently, no one seemed to be concerned about. Aside from that “benign” aspect of his personality, he was highly knowledgeable, as seen by the several intriguing conversations we had.
A few months later, I abandoned a ten-year friendship with someone I had been quite close to. He used to invite me to social events where I met a lot of people and formed lasting ties with some of them. When it comes to socializing, he is so charismatic that he draws everyone with him. He could start a job in a new country, rise to top management in a matter of months, and organize the biggest Hip Hop parties in town all at the same time. Despite being constantly surrounded, his circle of close friends was shrinking as a result of serious disputes. Some of them forewarned me by recounting unbelievable stories, and the majority of them reported hearing terrible things while describing his tendency to attribute other people's achievements to himself. With that information in mind, I gradually detached myself by establishing boundaries, and I was able to maintain an almost-healthy relationship for many years as we helped each other in many instances, even though I was conscious that his main motive was not to be genuinely altruistic but rather to take credit. And because I'd accepted the underlying rules, our friendship arrangement worked for a while until we had a major disagreement, to which he reacted by trying to guilt me in a manipulative way. I was not offended because I was already aware of his predictable nature, and after reflecting on other similar situations I had experienced, I felt tired of playing this game.
In the course of these interpersonal encounters, I have met brilliant and inspiring people who were socially admired by those around them, ideologically driven to make the world a better place*, but who undeniably exhibited narcissistic characteristics. These individuals tend to be highly manipulative when it comes to achieving their own goals, entitled in the sense that they often believe they deserve special treatment or can only be understood by certain people, and emotionally immature as they rarely show effective empathy or at least cognitive empathy. However, their classification becomes more difficult as the list of deemed behaviors grows. Although there is no complete description of narcissism, the clinical literature explains its cause as a consequence of pathological insecurity. As a result, their self-esteem is chronically threatened, forcing them to constantly seek external validation. From this phenomenon emerge personalities that are typically characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, egotism, and lack of empathy. This explains why narcissistic personalities endeavor to be successful and superficial, which doesn't necessarily involve an Instagrammable lifestyle, a fancy car, a big house, or anything vaguely approaching the archetypal narcissist portrayed in the media. Some of them are hippies, personal trainers, or work in charities; they may use social media responsibly and are not always extroverted or arrogant.
Unfortunately, narcissistic behaviors are far from notorious, and despite the intensification of their expansion, they continue to strive insidiously as they constantly evolve to be more sophisticated, remaining massively endemic in our society. It is difficult to quantify the proportions of people who could be concerned, specialists like Dr. Ramani give numbers around 15% of the population, while my therapist believes it's considerably higher, but I assume she's biased since she lives in Paris. Narcissists, in my opinion, are comparable to athletes who have been trained in deception and compete to get the most attention without being caught. Some of them are good enough to fool Jersey Shore candidates, while others can reach high executive positions and, in some cases, potentially win a presidential election. In my experience, there are a few pink flags that attract my attention: I try to be careful with people who continually credit themselves – this can be done indirectly by using false humility; they don't demonstrate a genuine interest in their peers; their words are inconsistent with their actions – sometimes for many small details; they rarely express guilt and, in most cases, make insincere apologies; they can be very sensitive in the face of unwitting criticism.
Although narcissism can be explained descriptively, the way it manifests itself is often implicit and therefore, more difficult to notice for those who have never been exposed to it. Nevertheless, as a way to navigate through narcissism, I intend stoicism: a philosophy of happiness that promotes virtues inclined to live in accordance with nature, or at least according to its rules, since one of its fundamental premises implies that the universe is entirely rational and in which, every event can be linked to a cause and, therefore, everything has an explanation. A person who strives relentlessly to understand their environment will be better prepared to deal with its potential ramifications, as their awareness will guide them to anticipate and act on the things over which they have control and, in doing so, reduce unexpected friction that leads to unnecessary suffering. The pervasiveness of narcissism makes it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid or ignore how it can affect us. Consequently, gaining awareness of how it operates and being able to recognize inconspicuous behavior while being eager to unveil people's hidden motives, is a fine art that can be consciously integrated with practice, and which can allow us to manage our expectations and avoid disappointment.
Unexpectedly, after bringing this topic up in several conversations, I discovered that many people have been in toxic relationships, generally with a person that falls somewhere in the narcissism spectrum. After all, we all have behaviors that could be inadvertently misdiagnosed, and while it can be tempting to label someone with a random DSM-5 disorder because it's easier than taking responsibility for our own mistakes, toxic behaviors repeatedly observed over an extended period with no apparent willingness for the perpetrator to change, lead to legitimate questioning. And for this reason, relying on abstract concepts is often a necessary step for understanding the suffering experienced, and therefore, moving forward. Additionally, the fact that the Oxford dictionary has designated “toxic” as the word of the year for 2018 could imply a potential increase in awareness of this matter.
Finally, maintaining a friendship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies is not inexorably a zero-sum game; I have learned and benefited greatly from the majority of my previous relationships. Also, these people are not innately bad; some aspire to be better, while others can be purely evil. They may be partially self-aware, as I have heard a few of them say things like, “I know I have narcissistic traits” or “I don't understand why I sabotage all my relationships”. Unfortunately, there is no cure for narcissism, although many psychologists have observed some improvement after years of therapy for the most committed patients, they remain essentially the same. Since their constant desire for admiration will drive them to innovate and implement unique tactics to gain new emotional support, it is essential to empathize with their needs in order to remain sane in the face of their attitude.