Is It Narcissism? Or Is It Drowning?

I regularly see memes on social media decrying the narcissist. Call it a gut reaction, but I genuinely believe that those who share such memes do so for the same reason most, if not all, who share memes do so – because they hold deep personal meaning to the person who posted them. I am willing to bet that if you ask anyone who shares memes calling out the narcissist if they feel they have ever been in the grips of a narcissist to whom they gave themselves, that all would say yes if they were being honest.

But is it narcissism that bedevils these targets of publicly shared gripes? Let’s look at the definition of the word. According to (no less credible than any other online source), narcissism means ‘inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity; self-centeredness; smugness; egocentrism.’ Ratcheting up my own self-awareness, it is not at all difficult for me to see how I could have the propensity to show up for others at times as a world-class narcissist based on such a definition.

I have been called out for being a bit obsessive with my physical appearance at times, and I have often been lost in my own world, seemingly oblivious to the needs of others, as if my situational awareness had become utterly impotent. But why? Am I self-centered? Am I smug? I am confident that anyone who has ever known me well would never say I was smug. I often am complimented on the kindness I show others, including strangers.

This essay is not about defending narcissism. Instead, this essay explores what else might be going on when someone exhibits behaviors conventionally described as narcissistic. For starters, people who are labeled…er, ‘diagnosed’…with ADHD (me among them my entire life) who have difficulty holding focus will often appear aloof and in their own world, which can seem like a complete lack of consideration for others.

What about self-love? Even under penalty of death for untruthfulness, I will bear witness to the fact that I hold more loathing for myself than love. I know I am not alone in my plight. I have lived my life completely ashamed of myself and full of self-loathing devoid of worthiness in acceptance and belonging.

The scatter-brained ADHDer aside, what I believe is likely going on is emotional drowning. When someone is in the throes of drowning, they are in a state of absolute panic for their life. They will flail their arms and legs wildly, trying to hold on to anything upon which they can push down to get themselves above the water line for air so they can breathe. That often happens when someone is drowning emotionally – and I posit that no one is immune from feeling this way at times, no matter how brief or infrequent.

The person wishing to save the apparent narcissist will feel pulled down and stepped on. Simple physics instructs us that the force applied is a force of equal force in the opposite direction. We know this from Newton’s third law of motion. While we are not speaking of mass on mass here but rather emotion on emotion, the same principle applies as the lifesaver feels pulled down, stepped on, and disrespected. This analogy holds further true when neither party is particularly good at swimming. Just like it takes extraordinary strength and skill from training to save someone from drowning without allowing themselves to become submerged by the desperate flailing of limbs of the person drowning, it takes extraordinary emotional strength and skill, also from training and practice, to save someone from emotional drowning without allowing ourselves to feel stepped on dragged down.

I will reiterate that I am not defending narcissism. There are indeed people who unabashedly hold themselves above others and truly see themselves as entitled to the praise of others. Perhaps it is these individuals who are caught up in the most ferocious of emotional riptides. Nor am I suggesting we should not try to save the narcissist from their riptides. I am merely inviting us to consider that we are best to keep our own emotional resolve in as tip top shape as possible so that when we are pulled down by the narcissist we wish to save, we can keep ourselves above the water line and not wind up drowning during the attempts to rescue those we love.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.