by Wendy Keller, blogger, mother, workshop leader
There’s a tendency among some people who are suffering to fall into a pattern of what I call “unconscious narcissism”. That’s what happens when long after your traumatic event, you’re acting as if your life is still the preferred topic of conversation for other people.
Signs that someone has a case of “Unconscious Narcissism”:
1. On the phone, 90% of the time is spent talking about their life, their problems, their situation – and little to no time is spent asking the other person about their life. All humans like stories, but if the conversation is all one-sided, it’s boring or even distressing for the other person.
2. When the Unconscious Narcissist is with another person, they focus on everything but the person right in front of them or on fiddling with objects. They are so wound up in retelling their story, or complaining, that the audience member is interchangeable. It’s like they go into a trance.
3. The only time they seem to remember to ask about you, your life and your well-being is in the last few seconds of the interaction, as an afterthought.
You may be an Unconscious Narcissist or you may know one.
When someone is in an active trauma state, talking about the situation is normal and healthy behavior. Your friends and family want to be there for you, to listen, support, comfort you. Depending on what has happened to you/is happening to you, the trauma state might last for a long time. That’s completely acceptable.
But if, for instance, your divorce was final a year ago and your entire monologue is always about the people you’ve been dating for the last six months, you might have a case of “unconscious narcissism”.
If you were in a car accident but your health is stabilized now (as good as it is going to get at this point), and all you can talk about is your medical details, you might have a case of “unconscious narcissism”.
If you lost your job and haven’t found another and are still angry at the economy, your former employer, the leader of your country, etc. and still spend your conversations talking about this topic, you might have a case of “unconscious narcissism”.
How do you accurately diagnose yourself or someone you are trying to support?
Pay attention! Listen to the conversation. Does the other person talk mostly about themselves, milking you for every last drop of sympathy, empathy, support and encouragement? Do you do that to other people?
If you are taking or giving advice, pay attention. Do you ever take it, if you are the one who is at risk of this “disease”? If you are giving it, does the suffering person do anything to actually help themselves? I knew a young man who often asked for sympathy over his problems with the IRS and his staggering credit card debt. Yet most of his conversations were liberally sprinkled with stories about big, expensive electronics he wanted or had just purchased. My advice to him was not heeded, although each time I suggested he look at the situation rationally he agreed with me…and did nothing. Eventually, I stopped listening. And he paid off his debts, grew up mentally and got serious about his responsibilities.
Do you leave a conversation wondering in the back of your mind if you talked too much? Or do you leave a conversation with someone thinking, “I’m glad that’s over” and try to avoid picking up the phone/meeting them in public in the future?
How to Cure Unconscious Narcissism:
Simple! Before a social event, decide in advance to ask questions about the other person/people as early as possible in the conversation. (This is also the cure to shyness!)
Put a note to yourself next to your phone that simply has these two letters: “UN?” If anyone else sees it, they will think you’re expecting a call from the United Nations! But you will know it is asking you if you are participating in Unconscious Narcissism – as a beleaguered listener or as a transmitter of the disease.
If someone suffering from unconscious narcissism is using you as their “sympathy machine”, decide whether it’s time to gently unplug.
If you notice that you are hogging all the attention in the room, instantly start asking questions about the other person.
If you have a strong need for ongoing support, sympathy or feel lost and overwhelmed, consider seeing someone who is paid to listen to one-sided conversations, such as clergy or therapists.
The Benefits of the Cure:
It’s my supposition that many people who do this kind of self-absorbed communication are really lonely inside. They may be around people constantly and still feel this way. No one can fill the hole inside by sucking energy from other people!
Ironically, the number of people who enjoy being around this person will increase when the unconscious narcissism stops. Friendships require a give-and-take, like all relationships. I suspect most people who do this are literally unconscious – unaware – that they are doing it. Or that they are seen as tiresome and inappropriate. They may have developed a bad habit when a trauma did occur in their lives, and forgot to move on.
A healthy social life is grown by a concern for other people, a heart-to-heart connection with the closest friends, and gaiety with the “second string” of people. There’s a time and a place for monologues about your life and troubles. Weigh the benefits against the costs when choosing how to interact with others.
I invite you to take a free copy of my eBook. It’s my gift of love to you.
(Or get a free copy to give to someone you care about)