The scariest thing I’ve ever done is confronting the parts of myself which could have turned me into a malignant narcissist.
I’ve talked about this before. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I even understood what clinical narcissism is. I had no idea the term applied to my father. I had no idea that growing up with a narcissistic parent damages children in predictable ways. I had no idea that many of those children turn into narcissists. And I had absolutely no idea that I was in danger of going down the same path.
Confronting that truth was painful and terrifying — and working my way through making changes was even scarier — but seeing the dysfunctional parts of yourself is always painful and terrifying.
I found that social media is the place that exposes many destructive narcissists — and I also found that social media is a dangerous minefield for those of us who are dealing with the fallout from having been raised by narcissists.
Social media is a race to the bottom, both intellectually and emotionally. I’ve thought about this — and written about it — for years now. Something about the medium encourages the most shallow and hostile things to come out of most people. The medium rewards shallow engagement and angry outbursts.
Almost everything we believed about what online connection would bring — back in the optimistic early days of the Internet — has turned out to be mistaken. We have a very expensive and addictive mechanism for exchanging trivial things — some of which can be worthwhile and fun — but the system is virtually useless for more meaningful exchanges at any sort of scale.
It’s depressing to me, but I’m not sure how to live a modern life without these shallow services. There’s a serious structural problem in the technology, but I don’t know how to fix it.
All of that applies to everybody — emotionally healthy and emotionally dysfunctional — but let me tell you why social media is especially dangerous for those of us who were raised under the influence of narcissists.
Social media is all about attention. It’s about the service capturing your attention. In order to capture your attention, it allows users to capture the attention of each other — and people unconsciously end up competing for attention. This isn’t necessarily healthy for anyone, but it’s especially dangerous for narcissists and their victims.
Attention was both a weapon and a reward for those of us raised by narcissists — and we learned to crave it. Attention was withheld from us at times in ways that made us desperate to perform correctly for our narcissists and then we were rewarded with attention when we performed as they wanted.
Social media makes us crave approval in the same way that we used to crave approval from our narcissist. They taught us to seek the “narcissistic supply” which they also sought. In this way, they taught us to crave the things which they also most craved, not the specific outward things, but the root psychological payoffs.
At some point along the way, an emotionally healthy person realizes that some of his reactions and feelings and desires aren’t emotionally normal or healthy. That process started for me in a psychologist’s office when she explained what clinical narcissism is. Then I had to learn how it afflicted my father. Only after that did I start to confront the ways in which some of his issues had been passed along to me.
That’s when things got terrifying.
I had to learn that some of the things I craved were simply because I had been taught to value the wrong things — and social media offers those things which I craved. The attention that comes from social media can be false evidence of love or admiration, so we quickly learn how to “perform” on social media in ways that get us that attention. For me, it became a stressful thing to always have to question my motives for the things I said or did.
Social media is filled with ways for victims of narcissists to be hurt. People can criticize us. They can delete Facebook friendships. They can stop following us on Instagram. They can fail to “like” what we post. They can not care about the words we write or the photos we take. Worst of all, they can completely ignore us.
Every variation on this is a painful reminder of our terrifying fear of not being good enough — the memory of not getting the approval of the narcissist whose attention we sought.
The more you fall into the patterns established by the social media companies, the more you tailor your actions to get the attention you want. Before you know it, you are manipulating an audience just to get the approval you crave — and if you’re self-aware enough, you’re constantly questioning your motives.
By manipulating your “friends” and “followers,” you become addicted to their praise and approval. You are manipulating them to give you the attention you’re addicted to, but you hate them because you need their approval so much. They have ultimate control over you, because they can withhold approval and attention anytime they wish.
This is part of the reason I had to make some serious changes in the way I handled social media about six or eight years ago.
I’ve told you before that vulnerability about my flaws is part of the way I stop myself from manipulating people and this intentional backing away from the manufactured approval of an “adoring” audience was something I had to do in order not to go to a more needy place. This is another of the reasons I had to quit writing about things which did nothing but get me the praise of people who already agreed with me. I needed their praise far too much for me to let it continue.
If I’m going to be needy — and I am at times — I want to need someone who actually loves me, not someone who just sees me as a performer. I’m willing to trust someone with my heart, but I know better than to trust my heart to the fickle rabble who can cheer me and love me today, but abandon me tomorrow.
I have serious reservations about the power which society is broadly giving to social media, but I’m terrified by the effect it has on people such as me — people who were trained to judge their worth by gaining the attention and approval of others.
I’m no longer worried about being the narcissist that my father was. I’ve made a lot of internal changes. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve reflected a lot about past mistakes. Despite all that, I still know that social media is still a dangerous playground for me.
For someone who is vulnerable to the craving for attention which a narcissist instilled, spending too much time on social media is like an alcoholic hanging out in a bar.
If you see someone on social media who is trying too hard for approval — who clearly has a desperate need for your attention and love — try not to judge this person too harshly, even though that might be difficult.
You might well be watching a person who was “programmed” by a narcissist — and who just hasn’t figured out yet that the shallow attention he gets from social media is his or her addiction. The only cure for this addiction to shallow attention is finding a way to fill the need with love and attention which are deeper and more lasting.
The attention a narcissist’s victim seeks is only a substitute for love — and real love is the only thing that will take the place of this ugly addiction.