Is it just me or is it seemingly impossible to get along with narcissists? Of course if you caught my betrothed after one of our spats, she’d say I’m a self-centered sad sack.
I’m three-quarters the way through Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and I can’t help but make connections between it and Whybrow’s American Mania.
Don’t know if I’ve ever been so conflicted about one person. There are at least three Steve Jobs—1) the counter-cultural Zen Buddhist, exquisite designer, artist-philosopher, modern Stoic, vegan; 2) the focused, driven, scarily perfectionist, extremely mercurial, control-freak, business genius; and 3) the sometimes cruel, heartless, empathy impaired human being.
Readers of the bio are probably most interested in Jobs 2, but I find the human nature/human being story far more interesting.
I need to finish the book and think some more about it before reconciling my schizophrenic thoughts. For now I can say Jobs 3, the uncaring, mean, empathy impaired knucklehead often repulses me. Which brings to mind Whybrow’s insights on empathy. He writes, “. . . the experience of intimacy and the stability of the attachments one has in early years ultimately shape our capacity to understand the feelings of others. Human empathy is largely a learned behavior, much as is language. . .”
So we’re not hardwired to care about others? Whybrow says empathic understanding results from “social anchors” or a “. . . wellspring of healthy families and the nurturance of supportive, economically viable communities. . .” In other words, immerse young children in caring families, schools, religious and civic organizations and they will follow the caring adults’ lead and end up empathetic young adults.
Could the fact that Jobs was adopted have compromised the stability of his attachments so much that he never “learned empathy” in the way he learned English? I wouldn’t think so because he was months old when adopted and his adopted parents were stable, supportive, and loving.
After deciding not to marry Jobs, one of the two women he was closest to in his life found a psychiatric manual, read about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and concluded that Jobs embodied all of the symptoms. (Here’s hoping Betrothed never stumbles upon that.) She said, “It fits so well and explained so much of what we had strugled with, that I realized expecting him to be nicer or less self-centered was like expecting a blind man to see.” “I think the issue is empathy,” she added, “the capacity for empathy is lacking.”
I’m clueless as to the root causes of Jobs’s lack of empathy, but the larger, more important takeaway is that empathy is learned. Whybrow convincingly argues that empathy results from a “wellspring of healthy families and nurturance of supportive, economically viable communities.” Sadly, some families aren’t sufficiently healthy, nurturing, supportive, or economically stable enough to pass on empathetic understanding to the young in their charge.
If expecting narcissists to someday be nicer or less self-centered is like expecting blind people to someday see, the best way to cope with them is to stop expecting them to return personal interest and care with similar curiosity and kindness. Far easier said then done.
- Narcissus admiring himself shortly before his first triathlon