Learning something from narcissists’ obnoxious behavior 

Issue Sept/Oct 2009

Q. On the other hand, there is Fletcher, who quickly rose to partner in his firm and whose name or photo keeps popping up in various prominent positions, but whose real specialty is delegating his work to others. Or George, who is full of himself, wears expensive suits, shows no real interest in people, but attracts a slew of very wealthy clients to his pricey practice. Do other people notice this?

A. But the world is full of people who are, perhaps, overly impressed with themselves and whose concerns focus almost exclusively on themselves (or on others as a reflection of themselves). Such individuals have little empathy and little guilt about exploiting others; they are interested largely in being admired and feel a high degree of generalized entitlement. We are reminded of the old joke about the narcissistic man on a first date: "… but enough about me, what about you? What do you think of me?"

One of life's frustrating ironies is that such individuals, while often unable to succeed in mutual relationships (as opposed to, for example, "trophy wives"), are often very successful in their careers. They seem to broadcast the message: "I'm a winner! You're lucky to have me around!" And people (e.g., clients) tend to "buy" that message. The man you call George, exuding such messages, may elicit thoughts like, "This man is obviously very successful and very skilled at what he does," even though someone like Bill, who does not radiate that kind of self-admiration, actually cares much more about his clients and works harder for them.

But, even if you can't afford George's clothes, car, etc., the quality of your appreciation for Denise and Bill, in itself, shows that in some important interpersonal respects you may well be a more psychologically developed human being. George's version of narcissism is unhealthy, even though he seems so pleased with himself, just as unhealthy as someone who is chronically self-deprecating and self-doubting. (Deep down, many self-centered people who fervently seek admiration actually lack basic self-esteem.)

Nevertheless, we can learn something from those who make their narcissism work for them in the professional sphere, namely, to look at what messages we may be sending to clients. Are we appropriately valuing what we have to offer (even when imperfect) and behaving accordingly? Are we teaching our clients to respect our skills and our time? There is a good chance that they will believe the message they receive. If we can absorb that much from the Fletchers and Georges of the world, then they are giving us something, even if unintentionally.

Yes. Essentially, you are talking about narcissism, in some of its many forms. There is a level of "healthy narcissism" - it is good for us to be able to appreciate our own admirable qualities and to carry positive expectations about our potential impact on work and relationships - which is ideally balanced by qualities such as humility and empathy. Those who achieve such a balance are better able to manage relationships and do reasonably well in their work lives.

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I'd just like to get this off my chest and get your comments on it. A number of us who were in law school at the same time have remained in touch or kept up with one another's careers. I have great respect for people like Denise, who devotes herself to CPCS family cases, puts in more hours than she can bill for even at those paltry rates, and cares more deeply about some of the kids involved than their own parents seem to. Or Bill, who always goes the extra mile for the clients of his small practice, and for his two young associates, but struggles to pay his bills. These are very decent, caring, humble people.