It's extraordinarily helpful for me to draw on personal experience in my work with clients. It adds a depth of emotion and understanding that's hard to reach when I don't bring some of myself into the room. That's one of the reasons I openly talk about my relationship with my mother inside my book Rethinking Narcissism. She introduced me to the topic in the most immediate and vital way possible. And I couldn't have imagined introducing you, the reader, to narcissism, without describing the very struggles that brought me to the topic in the first place. I thought I'd share some of the background from the introduction of my book. I'd love to hear from you in the comments if you've had anyone in your life you've suspected of being a narcissist, and want to share how that's affected you.
Excerpt from Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — and Surprising Good — About Feeling Special.
"My mother was the most wonderful and infuriating person I’ve ever known: she was a narcissist.
I wasn’t aware of it for the longest time, not until I was in college and immersed in an introductory psychology text.
There, printed in bright bold letters just below a picture of the Greek youth Narcissus staring at his reflection in a pool of water, was the word narcissism. When I read the accompanying description, I remember feeling relieved and horrified all at once. The term perfectly captured the paradox of my mother.
She was the incandescent figure of my childhood, irrepressibly outgoing, infectiously funny, and wonderfully caring. The world seemed to revolve around her. A striking nearly six-foot-tall blonde, with a thick English accent from her upbringing in Great Britain, she seemed to make connections everywhere she went—the grocery store, the coffee shop, the hair salon. She was devoted to friends, buoying them through illness and hardships, and dedicated to improving her community, whether the project was cleaning up a playground or organizing a bake sale. And as wife to my father and mother to me and my brother, she was always there, generous with her love and counsel.
But her glow gradually dimmed as I, and she, grew older. She seemed to become more self-involved. She bragged about her accomplishments as a young ballet dancer, sometimes making the point by demonstrating—awkwardly—a split or plié. She name-dropped, boasting of brushes with celebrities (though I could never tell if the encounters were real or imagined). She grew obsessed with her looks, frantically charting wrinkles and chasing spots around her body and starving herself to stay thin. She interrupted people when they spoke, even when they were in the midst of sharing their pain and anxiety. Once, when I tried to tell her of my anguish over a romantic breakup, she dreamily muttered, “I never had any trouble finding dates.” I was stunned by the non sequitur.
What had happened to my mother? College gave me the word narcissism. But I really didn’t understand what it meant. I had so many questions. Had she always been a narcissist and I hadn’t recognized it? Was she suddenly pushed to it by circumstance, namely getting older? Could I do anything to get back the loving, unselfish woman I remembered from my childhood?
I devoted myself to finding answers. In the library, I pored over books and articles from Freud onward. As a psychologist in training, I interned with one of the foremost experts on narcissism. I took a postdoctoral fellowship focused on helping personality-disordered clients, hoping to better understand narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), the most extreme form of narcissism. But even though I learned a great deal during those years, my understanding still felt incomplete. Then one day, I saw something that changed my thinking about narcissism—in my mother, in my clients, and in myself—forever."
To find out what it was I saw, and learn more about my experiences and research, check out my book Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad — and Surprising Good — About Feeling Special, available online and in book stores, which provides guidance, reassurance and practical advice. I hope it brings clarity to to the relationships in your life.