The word ‘narcissism’ has become a staple in our everyday lexicon. It stems, of course, from the popular myth of Narcissus:
A self-absorbed man who falls so deeply in love with his own reflection in a riverbank that he becomes transfixed and immobile, staring at his outer shell for all of eternity. In clinical psychology, the term “narcissist”, however, references the personality disorder, in which one has an overwhelming need for admiration, exaggerated feelings of self-importance, and a lack of empathy or care for others. In its extreme, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can be downright dangerous, but, according to Nancy Van Dyken, practicing psychologist of over 35 years, there exists a much more mild and subtle form of narcissism and one most of us struggle with daily — Everyday Narcissism.
I spoke to Van Dyken in preparation for this article. By her account, this “garden variety” of narcissism, which she discusses at length in her book, ‘Everyday Narcissism’, is a type of narcissism many of us carry in our psyche: five predominant myths about who we are. Van Dyken discovered these myths through noticing patterns of behavior in her clients; she found that only when the patterns of thinking and behaving were clarified by her and understood by her clients, could they be changed. This inspired her to flush out her theory and write a book on the topic. According to Van Dyken, these five myths that create the ‘everyday narcissist’ are taught to us as young children, and give us a false sense that the world revolves around us. Unfortunately, these thoughts only become reinforced with time and age, leading us to greater unhappiness and much less satisfaction in our daily lives.
The five myths are:
1. We are responsible for—and have the power to control—how other people feel and behave.
This myth can arise from the simple act of being forced, as a child, to give someone we aren’t comfortable with a hug or a kiss goodbye, for instance. Though our initial reaction is not to, we do so in any case, so as to spare the other person’s feelings. Within this myth, we are taught that we are actors – not agents – responsible for the feelings of others, which are more important than our own. Thinking that we are responsible for other people’s feelings is akin to thinking that we are all powerful, and able to control how others feel.
2. Other people are responsible for—and have the power to control—the way we feel and behave.
If we are responsible for the feelings and behaviors of others, this suggests that others are also responsible for ours, in turn. This myth makes it particularly difficult to have agency in our everyday feelings, and, in turn, look towards others to help us feel certain emotions or behave a certain way. In reality, we have full control over what we think, feel, and how we behave. Thinking others are responsible for our emotional states is narcissistic, according to Van Dyken, because it places us at the “center of the universe”, to believe that others should treat us in specific ways to yield a specific response.
3. The needs and wants of other people are more important than our own.
This is the myth from which people pleasing emerges. Typically taught alongside Myth 1, this myth may arise from being taught certain values that cause us to act in a way which is antithetical to our feelings. For instance, teaching children to be kind across all situations, according to Van Dyken, may be done with good intentions, but ultimately teaches children that taking care of the needs and wants of others are more important than their own. While this certainly applies in certain situations – a mother to an infant child who can’t support itself, for instance – it should not apply across situations and people, which sometimes requires a not-so-nice attitude.
4. Following the rules is more important than addressing our needs and feelings.
As Van Dyken notes, “when rules are made more important than the human being they are meant to serve, people become wounded.” By putting rules before our needs as humans, and teaching compliance and obedience without the caveat that sometimes rules are meant to be broken, the myth that structures are more important than how we live within them becomes inherent. In other words, we can’t be ourselves truly, nor can we value ourselves if we are constantly more preoccupied with following a specific set of rules instead of how we feel within and about them. We thus organize our world as a careful set of rules in order to feel as though we deserve certain rewards if we follow the rules, so to say.
5. We are not lovable as we are; we can only become lovable through what we do and say.
This myth is a combination of the previous four, in that we are shaped to take responsibility for the needs and feelings of others, and make others responsible for our own feelings and needs, and thus become transfixed into thinking that we are only as good as what produce for someone, and undeserving of love, otherwise. For the narcissist, a grandiose sense of self can emerge. For the everyday narcissist, feelings of unworthiness of love emerge.
The difficulties that come as a result of these myths is that they entangle and hollow our lives mainly because of how they change our beliefs and, indeed, our reality. Depending on how far these myths are engrained in us, our entire reality can be shaped by trying to people-please, by treating ourselves as victims, and by not taking responsibility for our lives: “As an adult, most of us cannot be victimized. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but it’s only under rare circumstances. Most of us have choices. We may not like the choices, but as long as we have a choice, we are not a victim. The issue is that victim energy is everywhere – we have permission to say to ourselves, ‘poor me, isn’t it awful’, but when you complain to a friend, the worst thing they can do is say, ‘I’m sorry, yes, you were treated terribly’, because it changes nothing. There is no power in it…and without [power] there is no possibility to change.” According to Van Dyken, only by taking responsibility for your actions and choices, and acting towards modifying one’s behavior can there truly be change: “Understanding [these myths] isn’t enough; you can understand why smoking is bad for you, but it’s still killing you unless you stop…you have to change the behavior in order to get beyond what’s happening to you.” Treating ourselves as if we are victims of our circumstances is one way we keep ourselves trapped into these five myths and the certain patterns of behavior that come with them, and further root ourselves in unhealthy, codependent relationships.
If, upon reading these five myths, you feel as though you identify, Van Dyken gives good advice: In order to start breaking free of the thought patterns trapped within these myths, start small by just being honest with yourself and with others. Say ‘no’ to something you don’t want to do. “Don’t question your wisdom” and trust in your feelings. “As we heal,” Van Dyken notes, “we lose our faith in Everyday Narcissism’s lies, myths, and false promises. We replace it with faith in something genuine and true: full engagement with life itself.”