Dear nearly-saturated drama-watchers,
When this letter first came out back in March, I stated my intentions for it to be weekly. And then I missed a week. So, I started referring to it as my “weekly” letter, leaving myself some wiggle room to miss the mark on occasion. But since then, I’ve not missed a single Friday so I am hereby today dropping the quotation marks around weekly. But I’ll keep them in my pocket and re-attach them at a later time if necessary.
We’re in a stretch where I’m explaining some different types of dramas. We spent a week or two looking at what I call the Master Drama in which the relational obligation is to submit. You “get along” with a master drama person by acquiescing to his or her control. That’s why we call them “my-way-or-the-highway” people. Today, I want to discuss the Mirror Drama.
(By the way, the drama types I’ll be telling you about all begin with the letter M. I do this, partly to make them easy to remember, and partly because of my A.C.D. (Alliteration Compulsion Disorder.) I have this obsessive need to make lists of things that begin with the same letter. I’m admitting this to you because my sponsor wants me to break out of my denial and be transparent about it. He assures me that admission is the first step toward remission. So, there it is. I’m attending meetings and making progress but I must say, it’s been distressing, demoralizing, and debilitating. But I’m going to lick this thing because I’m determined, dedicated, and devoted.)
Anyway, back to the mirror drama. The mirror drama person is a narcissist. Narcissism has become one of those terms that gets used so routinely that it sometimes loses its precise meaning. I hear it all the time. Someone will say, “That guy’s such a narcissist,” but what he really means is, “That guy irritates the bejeebers out of me.” It’s become a catchall pejorative, a convenient term of derision for labeling someone you don’t like.
It’s little like the word “fascist.” Somebody on one side of the political spectrum will call somebody on the other side a fascist, when what’s really being objected to is the other person’s heavy-handed manner, not to his admiration of all things Mussolini.
I call narcissism the mirror drama because your obligation in the drama is to mirror back the narcissist’s greatness. “My role is to be wonderful and your role is to reflect my wonder” is the relational stance of a narcissist. Or to put it another way, “I’m the sun, you’re the moon. When I look out into the blackness of space, you’re there to reflect back my brilliance.”
It’s a common misunderstanding to think of narcissism as excessive self-love but, as Greg Lester has masterfully observed, it’s more precisely about the love of image. As we all know, the term derives from Greek mythology where the hunter, Narcissus, saw his reflection in a pool and fell in love with the image. He died staring at his reflection.
The most authoritative definition of narcissism is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition.
I’d like to walk you through DSM-5’s diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and then make a few comments about each one. The manual describes it this way:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) or the following:
Note the term “pervasive pattern.” This describes the narcissist’s persistent stance. He or she doesn’t have narcissist episodes or narcissism “attacks.” It’s not like, as Greg Lester points out, the narcissist is walking down the street and suddenly says, “Whoa, I think I’m better than everyone else,” only to resume humility later in the day. It’s an ongoing way of being.
(1) Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
In narcissism world, being perceived as great is more important than actually being great. Image is more important than reality. If a person has what we call positive self-esteem, that doesn’t mean he only sees his positive attributes. Rather, he sees the good along with the bad and has, therefore, a neither overly-positive nor overly-negative self-appraisal.
But the narcissist has an excessively low view of himself internally. Consequently, he strives to maintain a grandiose exterior. That’s your job in the relationship—to keep his external attributes polished and shiny.
(2) Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
My wife makes me look good. I’m quite certain that people think more highly of me because I’m married to her. But that’s not why I married her. I married her because of the person she is.
A male narcissist, on the other hand, might marry a “trophy wife.” A female narcissist might marry a rich and powerful man to enhance her status. The relational stance of the narcissist is, “I like being around you for image enhancement purposes.”
(3) Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
I had a friend in college who, whenever he’d walk by a mirror, would stop and say, “You good looking thing, don’t you ever die.” But he was joking. If the narcissist said that, he’d be serious.
(4) Requires excessive admiration
I had another friend who liked to say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve been going on and on talking about me. Why don’t you talk about me for a while?” But again, he was joking. The narcissist’s favorite subject is himself and that should be your favorite subject as well, by the way.
Perhaps the best TV example of a narcissist was Michael Scott from The Office. He once asked, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
(5) Has a sense of entitlement, (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations)
You’ve heard it said about someone, “The rules don’t apply to him or her.” The narcissist sees himself or herself in a special league above all the rest of us.
(6) Is interpersonally exploitative, (i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)
The narcissist steps on you to lift himself up—and feels quite justified in doing so.
(7) Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
In an earlier letter, I discussed empathy. That’s the quality that enables you to feel bothered if a personal flaw adversely affects the other person. Narcissists are empathy-deficient. That’s why we say things like, “It’s all about him” or “The world revolves around her.” Narcissists are oblivious to the needs of those around them—with one exception. If caring for you makes me look good, I’ll do it.
(8) Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
The narcissist wants what he doesn’t have and has convinced himself that others are after what he’s got.
(9) Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Again, “getting along” with a narcissist requires you to worship at the feet of his greatness. He loves people who love him and trashes those who don’t.
So, that’s the mirror drama, the narcissist. I don’t know about you, but I thought this letter was darn good and decidedly delightful and definitive.