A number of site visitors took issue with one of my recent posts, largely because of the way I used the word narcissist. Most people use it as a synonym for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, so it’s understandable that those visitors heard me calling Ellen a bad name. But I use narcissistic in a descriptive sense to cover a wide range of behaviors, not all of them pathological; an Everyday Narcissist such as Ellen is in no way the same thing as a person who suffers from NPD.
In order to make this distinction clear, I’m going to describe another Everyday Narcisisist — me. Shortly after my return to North Carolina, I went for my first piano lesson after the long summer break. I’ve been studying with my teacher Pei Fen for more than four years; my oldest son William studied with her for two years before that, so I’ve known her for six or seven years now. She’s a friend as well as my teacher. In addition to the playing and instruction that goes on during our lessons, we also catch up and talk about our personal lives. I had a lot to tell her about my time in Colorado.
Reading between the lines in my posts, you might have gathered that I had a difficult summer. In addition to a highly stressful trip to Chicago for William’s graduation, I also endured an upsetting family emergency; the weather was lousy (meaning we didn’t get to enjoy the hiking as much as we usually do); we had too many house guests (it stretched my emotional resources to be a gracious host, though they were all loved and welcome); plus I was worried about Will’s state of mind following graduation. Since Pei Fen has known Will since he was 15 years old, I told her all about his graduation and my concerns. I talked about the bad weather and the parade of houseguests and my family emergency. I went on at length. I didn’t realize it beforehand, but I think I was looking forward to sharing my experience with her, unburdening myself in a way.
We turned to the music and I was about halfway through the opening theme in my Chopin piece when I realized with a feeling of shame that I hadn’t asked Pei Fen about her own summer. I’d been so hungry for a friendly ear that my own needs crowded out my interest in her experience. I stopped playing and told her, “I was so self-absorbed that I didn’t even ask about you. I’m really sorry.” It turns out she’d had a serious wrist injury, which meant the cancellation of her summer concerts, and she was deeply anxious about her upcoming visit to an eminent wrist surgeon at Duke.
My point in telling this embarrassing story about myself is that, at times, we are all narcissistic. Whenever we’re deeply stressed, emotionally thin or deeply needy, that experience may overpower the empathy we display under normal circumstances. On occasion I, too, can be an Everyday Narcissist — someone so caught up (albeit temporarily) in his own experience that he did not empathize. Some people are so constantly caught up in their internal struggles that they are never able to empathize, but that would be much further along the spectrum toward Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
So let’s return now to Ellen. With a little imagination, it’s not hard to understand what might have driven her narcissistic, insensitive behavior. She works as a hostess at an expensive restaurant, located in one of the most affluent cities in the world. Even with the additional income she earns from training and lessons, she still needs to take on the occasional odd-job to make ends meet. She’s 40 years old and probably single, trying to build a new life in an unfamiliar place.
When I think back on the sky-high prices in those Aspen shops – Prada, Gucci, Van Cleef & Arpel, Fendi – I wonder how it would feel to be barely scraping by while surrounded by such incredible wealth, to work in a restaurant whose menu lists wines that run as high as $24,000 a bottle, to hold a job seating millionaires and celebrities who probably spend the equivalent of your entire year’s wages on a one-week ski trip. It might make you feel small and insignificant. You might want to tell your story to strangers, to attract some attention in order to feel that you actually do matter. No doubt Ellen’s ego could use a small boost from time to time.
She clearly felt proud of the fact that she trained horses; even if my friend never disclosed his connection to Olympic riders, his mention of those Grand Prix jumpers might have made her feel diminished; she had to move on quickly, lest his experience eclipse her own. If she acknowledged his birthday, it might shift badly needed attention away from her own story. For reasons that aren’t too difficult to imagine, this hostess at an Aspen restaurant probably needed to compensate for some doubts about her own worth, monopolizing conversation in order to boost her self-esteem.
With her friends or family members, she probably doesn’t behave this way. If she were more secure in her new life, less anxious about her status, she might have shown more tact and wished my friend a happy birthday. I think we can all put ourselves in Ellen’s shoes and imagine how easily we, too, could have become an Everyday Narcissist like her.
In other words, from time to time we’re all narcissists.