• Austen Hayes

Dose #22: The Narcissist's Way To Self Preservation - Divide And Rule

"Divide and rule, the politician cries. Unite and lead, is the watchword of the wise."

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Narcissist: a word familiar in the field of psychiatry, now used easily to describe the critical boss, the self-centered mate, the superficial friend and the tyrant. It's a well-studied, mystifying personality said to be on the rise as regard for others declines.

The word is so popular even the least self-centered client will ask, "Am I a narcissist?" There is such a thing as healthy inner confidence - a positive personal regard guided by humility, balanced by consideration and reverence for life beyond the self.

Narcissism is not healthy. It looks like confidence, but isn't. It's a wild game of self-praise and feigned superiority designed to mask an easily threatened, fragile psyche. Terrified of being outed as inadequate, the narcissist hides behind edited versions of the self, applauding those who join in fantasies of personal eminence, destroying those who will not. Such pretense will only prevail when threat is weakened or removed, when distance is drawn between the narcissist and the perceived 'enemy'.

The secure are not afraid. They understand the cost of separation and the advantages of harmony. The self-assured aren't boastful or demanding or noisy. The confident have nothing to prove and no wish to destroy. On the contrary - leaving things better than they were when they found them - would be their sentiment.


As with every personality disorder, symptoms vary person-to-person. Still, it's generally agreed the narcissist will exhibit attention-seeking behaviours, and believing themselves better than others, entitled to all they desire, exceptions should be made when the rules of conduct and fair play get in their way. With little choice but to listen to non-stop blathering about how they're loved, what they've done, what they possess, and who they know, the glaze in your eyes is taken for admiration - self-involvement leaves no room for self-awareness.


When you tell the narcissist you've lost a loved one, don't be surprised if they begin talking about a loss of their own. A loss that will top yours...described in superlatives, it will be worse, bigger, more painful, more special, more spiritual - more something. Even in pain, there is competition.


And if you happen to fall in love with a narcissist - the man or woman who tells you how amazing you are - soul mate, love of their life...once you've been seduced physically and emotionally - prepare for the beginning of the end. If not the end of the relationship (if you're willing to stay), at least the end of kindness and generosity. The language of the narcissist should be translated with care; the word "forever" is likely to mean, "until I don't care anymore", and the words, "I'm sorry" are missing from the lexicon. Reassurance for what troubles you will come in the form of a suggestion that you 'embrace it' and 'move on'. Comfort is not exactly a strong suit.


The accomplished, beautiful child of the narcissist is presented with pride, while the under-performing, anxious child may be relegated to the shadows - hidden from view with the overweight spouse. Extensions of the self rather than persons unto their own right, an offspring's value is measured by how well or poorly they shape and influence public impressions of the self-promoting parent.


For the egotist, the pendulum of feeling and mood will swing often and wide - good/bad, amazing/useless, adoration/contempt - extremes without a middle. You'll see little responsibility for what goes wrong, credit greedily assumed for all that goes well. And, if you've been on the receiving end of a narcissist's sudden need to cast you aside, you may remember the shiver that ran down your spine when you discovered just how icy the chill of a compassionless heart can be.

These are the popular understandings of narcissism, the things we all observe or experience. But, there's another characteristic, hardly mentioned, perhaps more dangerous than all others combined - the need for the narcissist to promote division and discord - the need to separate us from each other.


We, the people - the kind, the disinterested, the caring, the elderly, the young, rich and poor, gruff and polite, whether on the radio, in Congressional hearings, on the street, on Facebook - we're in over our heads in open warfare with each other. Two strangers interviewed on NPR described their ongoing twitter fight, arguing their point with foul and demeaning language, each "compelled" to "get the last word", to "take down the enemy". Have you heard the word 'hate' lately? How about 'idiot', 'stupid', or 'low life'?


"Divide et impera" - a strategic play used for centuries by narcissistic leaders to control subjects with differing views, to weaken through suspicion and segregation, leaving them defenseless and unaware. As long as we fight each other, when mistrust and hatred are encouraged, we have less power and pose no threat to the one who divides. The divider doesn't care for either side...we're mere tools to be used for the benefit of what the divider cherishes most and is desperate to preserve - the self - the frightened little self.


Every therapist knows the narcissist is the least likely person to change. Change depends upon a willingness to study the self - flaws and all - something the narcissist is too afraid to do. Change requires something the narcissist does not have - courage.


But we can change. We can begin by talking - and listening. We can decide how it is we wish to respond to what we're told. Let's think for ourselves - step away from the noise - go inside to ask what is right. What is good? What is fair? What is loving? Who do I want to be? Am I living that? If the answer is 'no', then why not?


In the late 1930's author John Steinbeck wrote of the contrasts he observed as a child between his life of safety and privilege and the lives of the poor migrant families living rootless lives moving from farm to farm in search of sustenance. His words are fitting for these times when the need for an awakening to the idea of inclusion, not separation, is what will restore the heart of this beautiful land of many stories - "Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love."

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