The King and I: Living with the Self-Centred
Scenario 1: Your partner comes home from work, flops down onto the sofa and, in an exasperated voice, he sets off on a series of complaints about how tired he is and how nobody at the office seems to respect his invaluable contribution to the organisation. “They just don’t get it – too stupid, I guess”, he declares with a contemptuous smirk and a loud sigh of resignation. You rush over to the drinks cabinet and pour him a glass of his favourite Pinot Noir. Without raising his eyes, he grabs the glass from your hand, takes a big swig, and continues his tirade. Holding your breath, you perch on the arm of his sofa, gently stroking his arm, trying to placate him. You are dog tired yourself, but you know better than to say anything. Scenario 2: You’re so wound up, you can feel a migraine coming on. It’s Monday morning and you really really don’t feel like facing your boss, but you’re going to have to anyway, because you have to hand in that report she demanded at closing time on Friday. You’ve been working on it all week-end. You hardly had time for family. She doesn’t give you enough time or notice when she tells you to do something, and then she always manages to find fault with it. You wouldn’t mind, but she seems to get away with doing the absolute minimum herself! What’s more, no matter how politely you address her, she still treats you like a bad smell has just wafted into the room..... Scenario 3: Your girlfriend’s demanding attitude is really getting you down. It’s like walking on egg-shells, and it really doesn’t take much for her to throw a tantrum. For her, only the best will do. She spends all your savings on designer clothes and accessories and still complains about not having anything to wear. She’s only happy when you’re telling her how beautiful she looks and how wonderful she is at being creative. Truth is, you’re the one who always ends up running around doing things for her. And even then, she expects more from you. What about me? Do any of the above scenarios sound familiar to you? If so, you’re not alone. The world is full of self-absorbed people. And for every self-absorbed person, there is someone who is willing to play a subordinate role in the relationship, be it personal or professional. If you’re OK with playing second fiddle to someone in your life, no need to read on. But if you’re not happy with the present arrangement, you may want to look into how to go about changing it. First, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does he/she keep make demeaning remarks, making you feel small and inadequate, ‘not good enough’?
- When faced with this person, are you experiencing anxiety, faster breathing, a dry mouth or increased heart rate?
- Is he/she demanding? Distrustful? A perfectionistic snob?
- Does he/she constantly demand approval?
- Does he/she always expect you to do most, if not all, of the work, with never a ‘thank you’?
- Does he/she never own up to getting something wrong, with never a ‘sorry’?
If you have answered ‘yes’ to most of the above, you could be dealing with someone with strong narcissistic traits. This type of person can be very difficult to cope with, and you may need to reach out for professional help in order to understand and develop new ways of relating with them. It’s important to note that narcissism appears along a spectrum from healthy at one end, to dangerously maladaptive at the other, and you should be prepared to walk away if there is serious abuse. Typically, the upbringing and other childhood factors of the self-absorbed have had a deleterious effect on how they relate in adulthood. Notably, they are lacking in empathy, and they often hide their faults and fears of rejection behind a mask of grandiose entitlement. Ironically, your relationship with this type of person may be re-activating your own early childhood memories of self-sacrifice and subjugation, thus creating a mutually created emotional roller-coaster. So how can psychotherapy help you? First of all, get support. You can talk to a parent, a friend, anyone with whom you can air your frustrations, feelings of anxiety, despair, and sense of failure. With a trained psychotherapist, you can focus on what is actually happening in the relationship. Together, you can work on finding an internal advocate, to build your self-support, find your own voice, your own truth. You can practice how to communicate more effectively with your self-absorbed ‘other’, and how to express how he/she makes you feel. You will discover that you are no longer a powerless child, but rather a capable adult who can take a stand. You have rights too. There has to be reciprocity for any relationship to work. Nobody’s perfect, and we must all take responsibility for our mistakes. You will discover that being empathetic is not enough. You also need to state your rules, with awareness and with compassion.