In Search of Truth I: Hubris and Narcissism
There is a second type of narcissism which is somewhat less obvious and parallels Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman’s (1994) description of the narcissistic family. This second type is the closet or “quiet” narcissism to which many of us might candidly admit. At some level, we envy the accolades received by other people. We are uncomfortable being on the sidelines at events where other people are the focus of attention. We smolder a bit, though soon dismiss our resentment and join the celebration. This too is a form of narcissism and it can serve as a barrier to effective leadership. At these moments, we quiet narcissists can learn much about ourselves and our own leadership challenges. Like Don Quixote, we must face our own reality.
An expert is often a quiet narcissist. They don’t believe that they are “full of themselves” but are instead carefully and compassionately offering the “truth” about a virus or other health challenge. They quietly are resentful, like many of us, about being ignored and they hone their skills at being persuasive in a calming manner. And we assist them in this endeavor (setting aside our own quiet narcissism). The issue grows even more complex at this point. Why do we set aside our own needs on behalf of the needs of the narcissistic expert? Why do we remain silent while someone else is taking charge or espousing a specific expert-based policy?
Narcissism is usually framed as a defect of the individual personality—an overwhelming and ultimately-debilitating obsession with one’s self—a deadly fixation on one’s reflection in the pond (to borrow from the Greek myth). Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman have taken a step forward in suggesting that narcissism is something more than an individual characteristic. It is grown and nourished in a narcissistic family system that places the needs and interests of the parents ahead of the needs and interests of the children. Rather than the parents being primarily responsible for the happiness (even welfare) of their children, the children are responsible for the parents’ happiness and welfare. In this family system, the children are there for the parents’ sake rather than the other way around. While the family system was originally created (supposedly) for protection of the children (since like few other animals the human child is born virtually helpless), the tables are turned in the narcissistic family. Parents are expecting (even demanding) that their children protect them—protecting the parents’ self-esteem, credibility, authority, and so forth.