Self-esteem is terrific. Self-esteem run hysterically riot is not. Martha Beck shows you how to deal with the Me! Me! Me! person in your life. (The ego you save may be your own.)
Esteem is a warm, accepting quality, and directing it toward oneself is a fine thing. However, not all aspects of human behavior merit this cozy welcome. Positive-thinking guides rarely draw the distinction between healthy self-acceptance and the malignant narcissism characteristic of tyrants who dominate relationships and households, if not entire nations. Think of someone in your life who seems to have an abundance of self-satisfaction. Now think about the way you feel after an interaction with this person. If you feel warm, nourished, and valued, you've probably encountered someone with healthy self-esteem. But if the conversation leaves you feeling ashamed, confused, self-doubting, or invisible, break out the red flags. It's highly likely you're dealing with a narcissist. Asian philosophy might call narcissism the "near enemy" of real self-esteem; something that looks like the genuine article but has opposite results. Learning to spot narcissists and deal with their destructive behavior can save you the world of hurt that awaits anyone who mistakes the near enemy for a friend.
How to Tell Healthy Self-Esteem from Narcissism
Try this: Go to the person in your life who reeks of self-esteem and ask, "In what ways do you think you need to grow or change?" If the person is psychologically healthy, the list will be as long as your leg. That's because real self-esteem is based on finding areas where we can improve ourselves and honestly working to overcome problems. Healthy people know that they are always a work in progress. Narcissists, on the other hand, will tell you they have nothing to change. They're unwilling to acknowledge their unfinished nature, because admitting imperfection is intolerable for them. This means they never correct mistakes or broaden their horizons, and whatever pain they feel festers indefinitely. Narcissists often live in anguish while refusing to accept that their own behavior has anything to do with their discontent.
Molly, as I'll call her, sought my services because she felt unfulfilled. However, bewilderingly, she also told me that her life was absolutely perfect. She wanted me to fix her pain but avoid the slightest suggestion that she herself should change anything. When I did recommend change, Molly became intensely anxious and defensive, almost hostile. She threw a mild version of the tantrum psychologists call a narcissistic rage, an explosive reaction to the idea that the narcissist might be less than perfect. Narcissistic rage may take the form of shouting, crying, whining, lying, or stomping out of the room—which is what Molly eventually did, to my immense relief.
The intensity of a narcissistic rage reveals not self-esteem but an underlying fear of being thought unworthy and bad. To deal with narcissists, it helps to understand that they generally detest themselves at some level. They've fully incorporated the values of some highly judgmental social system (a family, a religion, a community), where love is given or withheld based on external criteria. (If you're beautiful, thin, and smart, you'll be loved; if you're a fat, ugly grade-school dropout, forget it.) People who are socialized this way become addicted to status markers the way junkies are addicted to intoxicants; they crave praise because it's the closest they ever get to unconditional love. The following thoughts may help you avoid this booby trap.
Riding the Self-Esteem Roller Coaster
The problem with depending on external success is that it makes you terribly vulnerable to failure. If you rely on youthful beauty, growing old is a living annihilation. If brains are your ticket to self-acceptance, one whack on the head could demolish your entire excuse for being. The cycle of good and bad fortune is like the rise and fall of a roller coaster: What goes up inevitably comes down. The narcissist's objective is to stay at the high points of the roller coaster all the time. This is impossible. Real self-esteem comes from being able to enjoy the whole loopy ride.
I remember visiting my friend Steve, a political cartoonist, as he happily perused some hate mail that would have sent me into hiding for, oh, a year or two. When I asked him how he stayed so calm, Steve said, "Well, these letters are basically right. My last cartoon was pretty mean-spirited." A little later I noticed a beautiful crystal sculpture on the coffee table and asked Steve what it was. "That?" he said, in exactly the same mild voice he'd just used to criticize his work. "That's my Pulitzer Prize." Steve was riding the roller coaster of shame and adulation without being caught up in either its highs or its lows—and he was enjoying it immensely.
This is possible only if we have a point of reference that lies beyond the roller coaster. Imagine yourself as a loving mother watching your child ride the roller coaster from a safe spot on the ground. Do you notice when the child is going up and when she's going down? Of course! Does your love for her vary depending on which way the roller coaster is headed? Of course not! Adopting this benevolent attitude toward your own skittish, childish little ego is a fairly straightforward process, though not always an easy one. In Robert Frost's words,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.
The "something like a star" that can stay our minds is our awareness that every person, including ourselves, is infinitely—and therefore equally—precious.
Next: How to connect with your ego
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