Thursday, April 7, 2011

In the Looking Glass

Recall that another person's attention is a kind of mirror reflecting the image of ourselves we're portraying in the interaction. We all notice when we are making a good impression on somebody. We see it reflected in that person's response to what we're doing and saying. We often adjust our words and behavior to tune that response. People do this in a job interview, for example. They also do this when meeting a potential mate or anyone they wish to favorably impress, such as the traffic cop who just stopped them for speeding or some V.I.P. they're being introduced to.

Playing to the mirror of another person's eye is perfectly normal — under certain circumstances. In fact, it's adaptive. Like scorpions approaching each other as potential mates, or ships at sea or in space, people play this game to smooth the interaction and establish a safe connection.

But we don't like doing this. It's a bit nerve-wracking. And we know it's a game. (See the excellent book The Games People Play by Dr. Eric Berne.) Playing it makes us uncomfortable. And there are limits to how far we will go. We don't mind being civil and friendly or even humble and overly agreeable to avoid topics of conflict and smooth our interaction with a person. But we immediately sense the prostitution in our actions when our hypocrisy sensor goes off. Then our self-respect kicks in. In fact, we prefer the company of intimates and friends — people we can be ourselves with.

Narcissists are different in that they are never themselves. They identify with their image instead. So, they are in game-playing mode 100 percent of the time. And they are not trying to make a safe connection. Or a good impression. The reflection they're playing for is grandiose — not necessarily pleasing, friendly, or good.

For example, if someone looks at you in fear, that reflects an image of you as powerful. Being powerful is grandiose, so a narcissist really likes to see people looking at him in fear. In fact, he'd rather see people looking at him in fear and trepidation than in admiration, because it's grander to be powerful than to be merely admirable.

This is why a narcissist who becomes a dictator becomes a Nero, Stalin, Hitler, or Saddam Hussein. These men were just narcissists capitalizing on the fact that no one could hold them to account for anything they did. So, when they gained absolute power, the angel-faced mask came off, and they concentrated on making everyone just plain terrified of them.

Because that's the biggest ego boost, all narcissists bully and intimidate whomever they can whenever they can. Some don't dare bully and intimidate anyone outside their immediate family. Others go around intimidating everyone in their presence so that a hush falls around them wherever they go, because when people fear to say anything — ANYTHING — he might overhear.

It's amazing how charged the atmosphere around such a person is. The cliché that "the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife" is no overstatement. You'd swear that any moment somebody is going to crack and scream, "This is crazy! What are we all so afraid of this guy for?" But nobody ever does.

I know of two who did that daily for decades to everyone in their workplace, even their superiors. A normal person would feel terrible if people reacted to his approach that way. But to a narcissist, it's nirvana. Because that's the way people act when God walks into a room.

Notice how abnormal this behavior is. Normal people don't like to see others looking at them in fear. That would hurt and deeply disturb a normal person. So, we almost never behave in a manner to evoke fear. We do that only (a) while engaged in a fight, to persuade the other party that he might as well give up or (b) when we feel threatened and are posturing to avoid a fight by making that other party think twice about attacking. In other words, we use fear-evoking behaviors for an essentially peaceful purpose — to discourage fighting. That's why the moment the other party backs off, the steam stops coming out of our nose and ears.

In fact we see the same thing throughout the animal kingdom: animals are ferocious one second and acting like nothing happened the next.

But narcissists use fear-evoking behavior out of the blue to threaten and thus initiate strife. That's because they have a completely different purpose — to make themselves feel grand by intimidating whomever they can whenever they can (and get away with it).

Unlike us, they don't seem to mind strife. I don't think it's an unpleasant experience for them, like it is for us. In fact, they seem to enjoy it. After all, it gets them what they want. And they don't want to get along; they just want to get their way. They don't want to be liked by anyone; they just want to be obeyed, feared, or admired by others. Like children, they want what they want and they want it NOW. They never think ahead to future consequences.

I'm sure they know that strife is an unpleasant experience for us, one that we try to avoid. So, they menace us with it as a way to say, "If you don't do what I want, I'll start a fight. And how will you like that?"

Manipulation. It works too, doesn't it?

So, the reflection a narcissist plays you for varies greatly. The common denominator is that it always reflects an image of him or her that is grandiose.

Narcissists want you to look at them in admiration, adulation. They want you to look at them approvingly, gratefully. They want you to look at them in awe. Oooh, that's a good one — very grandiose. They want to see a reflection of themselves as magnificent in your eyes. They want you to hang on their every word. They want you to never remove your eyes from them. They want you to reflect their grand importance by carefully discerning and attending to their every need, without them even having to ask for what they want. For, when you wait on them hand and foot, you reflect an image of his highness that is majestic.

Therefore, grandiosity need not be reflected in the mirror of someone's pleased or admiring face. In fact, as every chest-thumping rapist knows, it is best reflected in the outraged, desolate and wretched face of someone who can do nothing to stop him from demolishing her for maximum impact.

That's the victim, but the rapist's reflection in it is that of one who is so powerful as to have such a demolishing impact on her.

It's a rare narcissist who can vaunt himself on just anyone though. So, a narcissist plays different people/mirrors for different kinds of grandiose reflections. He'll play a priest for one kind of reflection, his buddy in a bar for another kind, his boss for yet another kind, and so on. As the narcissist Sam Vaknin explains it, each person in his world is like a different kind of flower that the narcissist (a bee) visits to exploit for a different type of nectar. That's as good an analogy as any.

I knew one narcissist that I wish people could see on a split screen, with his persona in a church compared with his persona in a tavern. The difference was so extreme that the show would be hilarious! If his bar buddy saw him in church and his priest saw him in a bar, neither would believe it could be the same person.

By Kathy Krajco