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Heavy Meddle: Help! I Am Surrounded By Narcissists

Why are people seemingly so desperate to receive attention and so averse to paying attention? (Kevin N. Murphy/flickr)
Why are people seemingly so desperate to receive attention and so averse to paying attention? (Kevin N. Murphy/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

Almost everyone I meet will only talk about themselves. Even when I try to gently shift the conversation, they use the new topic as an opportunity to turn the conversation back to them again. I want to make new friends, but I'm finding this to be a real roadblock. What can I do?

PHOTO

Signed,
It’s Not All About You

Dear INAAY,

You are not alone. I promise you. My wife and I were talking about this just the other day, the manner in which people are so desperate to receive attention and so averse to paying attention. It is my own view that Americans are, as a population, suffering from a widespread form of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Here are a few of the symptoms of NPD:

*Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others

*Expects to be recognized as special, without special accomplishments

*Lacks the ability to empathize with feelings or desires of others

Sound familiar?

Americans were not always this way, at least in such large numbers. There was a time when humility and modesty were viewed as essential American virtues. They were central to what we thought of as “good character.” And there were a number of cultural institutions that reinforced these virtues: religion, strong family bonds, rooted communities.

I don’t mean to idealize these earlier eras, as they were also full of bigotry and sexism and child labor and infectious diseases. But generally speaking people had a greater sense of who they were, where they came from, where they belonged. Modern American life has, to a large degree, stripped us of assurance when it comes to our identities. And the result (in my entirely unprofessional opinion) is that Americans have become more insecure, more needy for affirmation and more self-consumed.

The American ideal is no longer to be regarded as humble and retiring by the other townsfolk. It’s to become a celebrity who is loved or loathed by millions.

As it turns out, these anxieties have turned out to be quite valuable in a capitalist society. They are what drive consumer culture: the fantasy that what we buy and consume and display will somehow broadcast to the world who we are. Not only that, but the folks who run the advertising and mass media rackets long ago figured out that making people feel unsure of their worth and selfhood made them much more ravenous consumers. And thus, we spend a great deal of our time watching the escapades of beautiful talented people (and sometimes shameless, petty exhibitionists).

The American ideal is no longer to be regarded as humble and retiring by the other townsfolk. It’s to become a celebrity who is loved or loathed by millions.

The rise of the Internet and screen addiction didn’t cause our cultural NPD. But it has enabled and accelerated our general levels of self-involvement. After all, most of what we call “social media” is really about trying to be noticed and affirmed by constructing an idealized persona. Deep down, people are really just lonely and atomized and hungry for some kind of connection. But it’s true that social media, at its worst, is a kind of sanctioned solipsism.

I’m sorry to go off on a big rant, INAAY, but you’ve hit one of my rant spots. I’ve been noticing the same neediness you have — not just in other people but in myself.

More bad news: I don’t have any brilliant advice for you, other than to take some obvious measures. If you’re encountering people who are too self-involved, steer clear of them. Seek out some new social settings. Think about joining communities, and undertaking activities, where people are forced to communicate about subjects other than themselves. Maybe that’s doing some kind of service work, or taking a dance class, or going on a retreat to a monastery that enforces silence.

Keep in mind, too, that people often talk about themselves initially because they’re nervous and eager to be known and esteemed. Sometimes this stuff fades as you establish more trust in the strength of a particular relationship.

The truth is, I have a few friends who talk about themselves a great deal and I happen to love spending time with them, because they’re insightful and they tell good stories and because I can see that they’re really struggling with important internal conflicts. It can be a pleasure to listen, to absorb, and to observe. The real deal killer for me is someone who’s self-consumed without being self-aware.

I realize I’m not giving you much to go on here, INAAY. As I say, I wish I had better advice. (If other folks do, please add yours in the comments section!)

In my experience, people who are leading a genuinely examined life tend to find others of their kind. It may not happen immediately, but it will eventually.

Onward, together,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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