We are all egoistic to some extent and anyway, egoism is a rather relative concept. It is generally understood as reaping benefits without taking into account the welfare of other people. On the other hand, assertiveness is the art of speaking in a neutral way that does not offend anyone. Narcissism, in turn, is an absolute love for oneself, with a possible lack of empathy. If these three concepts were to be graded, narcissism would be the highest degree. What do these three things have in common? Is it possible to live with a narcissist?
The origin of this term can be found in a Greek myth about a young boy called Narcissus, who after seeing his reflection in the water surface for the first time, fell in love with himself. At first, he was unaware of whom the object of his adoration is, but when it became clear to him, he died of regret, having realised that the only person he loved was himself.
A narcissist is primarily characterised by excessive self-confidence, arrogance, lack of empathy and lack of self-criticism as well as fear of not being accepted by their environment. ‘A large proportion of narcissists are bodybuilders,’ says Natalia Sobańska, who works at the gym. ‘Strict diets and intense workouts, sometimes supplemented with steroids, lead to the situation where bodybuilders do not see anyone else outside of themselves. They are preoccupied with their appearance, trying to bring to perfection every centimetre of their bodies.’ Narcissists often do not realise that they are such people. They think of their behaviour as natural and feel no remorse regarding their personalities. They are not concerned about the feelings of the people around them or the fact that they hurt their loved ones. When they are trying to achieve a certain goal, they can be charming. They make their partners dependent on them and they expect their attention at every call, but they are unlikely to reciprocate it. Sometimes they manage to help with something as they are goal-oriented individuals. Just like Alina’s ex-husband, who renovated her bathroom after they got divorced, although when they were married, he did not want to listen about her problems. He demanded compliments on a regular basis and for several years in a row, he spent 6 months per year working abroad, leaving her alone with small children despite the fact that she was also working. He was very surprised when she filed for divorce.
Men with narcissistic tendencies are unable to live in society and form families. ‘I always have to remind my partner Konrad of our anniversaries’ says 40-year-old Anna. ‘We rarely celebrate them. On the most recent one, he went with his mother to visit their family and after his return we had an argument. Once, he broke up with me two days before Christmas and as soon as in January, he tried to get me back. It took him a year, but in the end I came back to him because he went back to being really charming and witty. He brought flowers without any special occasion and told me sweet things. He proposed to me and put on my finger a lovely – but so small that it was almost invisible – ring. After a month he left without saying a word when he got upset by my children’s argument. He looked very contrite when he came back after a few months and for a few weeks, he was very tender. Both of us are embarrassed to break up again because how many times can we break up and get back together again?’ However, Ania is seriously considering it. How can one tolerate constant criticism from their partner, their lectures on what can and what cannot be said in a group of people, for example their urging to avoid the topic of her sons whom she misses greatly? Konrad expects her to spend every minute of her free time with him – but only if he wishes it. On the last St. Andrew’s Day, he disappeared for 3 days. There was a rehearsal of a dance group in which he had danced when he was a student and he did not take her with him, even though he was supposed to do so. He just changed his mind. They did not speak to each other for a week, but Anna gave him one more chance. Last Saturday, he did not answer his phone even though they were supposed to meet in a cinema. He went to visit his 25-year-old godson on his birthday, but did not invite her because his ex-wife’s family was there. The next day, on the spur of the moment, he went skiing. He came back in the evening, sure that they would celebrate New Year’s Eve together. Well, this time he was wrong.
For years, it has been seen as something negative. It comes from Latin, where it means ‘an attitude characterised by caring only for one’s own pleasures and benefits’ and it does not evoke any positive connotations. It is severely condemned by the Church because one of the commandments says: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There’s clearly a contradiction. But what does egoism really mean? Each one of us has some moral values. Some of them are less restrictive than others, but still fall within the morality pyramid. We often feel the need to take good care of ourselves. This is when we use our moral hierarchy, which is often contrary to egoism. The decisions we make during our lives are often emotional or made on the spur of the moment. These decisions are dominated by selfishness. It is a natural feature of each of us. It has been deep inside every one of us since birth. Over the years, it becomes concealed by effusive prejudices and upbringing. In our thoughts, we often reconstruct situations in which we would make decisions governed by our reputation and manners instead of egoism. We can imagine an outcome where egoism would win. At that moment, we are carefree because in the end we could be ourselves and not pretend. But why do we not act in harmony with ourselves in real life? Such behaviour causes many side effects, such as stress, depression, ulcers, malaise or even headaches. In life we should first of all be guided by egoism instead of trying to make others happy by all means necessary. Otherwise, despite keeping up appearances, we will never experience inner harmony.
Assertiveness, the art of saying no
For many years this topic has been quite fashionable. ‘Learn how to say NO,’ ‘How to say no and not offend anyone,’ ‘10 commandments of assertiveness’ are just several of the headlines of articles on assertiveness in glossy magazines. What is it really? In psychology, it is known as ‘the ability to express one’s thoughts, feelings and views within one’s own boundaries and with respect for the boundaries of others.’ Assertiveness should be associated primarily with self-respect. It is an art of saying no in a considerate manner, which does not violate anyone’s freedom of speech. Women in particular are unlikely to be assertive. Agnieszka has been very emotional ever since she was a child. She carefully avoids offending anyone. Despite the fact that she often helps others by agreeing to their requests and is very popular, she does not feel satisfied with herself. ‘I can’t accept compliments and I always agree to things I do not want to do, but I do not like making others unhappy’ she says. Because self-esteem is low, she agrees to many things just so that other people like her. That is how the circle closes.
Thanks to assertiveness, we can control the events in our lives. Many situations would have taken a completely different course if it had not been for assertiveness. It contributes to the preservation of healthy interpersonal relations. This is a kind of 21st century sacrum. A cure for all internal conflicts. Assertiveness itself is contradictory to the sin of the modern world, i.e. conformism. Susceptibility to the influence of other people, adapting to them and conforming to the group are only some of the features of conformism. In order to learn how to be assertive, you must first of all ask yourself what do you really expect from life? Are you fulfilled? Always try to think about yourself when you make decisions. You will know that you acted in an assertive manner when you feel relieved and proud of yourself. Give it a try! It is not as difficult as you think.
If we wanted to make a comparison of assertiveness and egoism, one could conclude that assertiveness is a derivative of egoism. This does not mean that they are the same. Assertiveness itself is a milder and more subtle version of egoism. It is an art of firm but careful setting of one’s boundaries, while respecting other people. On the other hand, egoism also means firmly setting one’s boundaries, but with less regard for the good of other people. In business discussions, we can often get the impression that assertiveness gets confused with egoism and vice versa. In 2014, a short survey was carried out as a part of a study. Each question presented a situation and a response of a person to this situation. The examined people had to name the grounds of these situations. 57% of them mistook egoism for assertiveness. This means that despite many lectures on assertiveness and the trend to be assertive, we are still critical of setting boundaries. As Poles, who always had to fight for our territory, we want to be kind and good for others, regardless of the fact that we harm ourselves with such an attitude. When we are assertive, we take care of our mental health and personal balance, whereas with egoism our own success and social position are the most important for us. Many successful people speak highly about egoism. They present it as something that enabled them to achieve their success step by step. Egoism first of all helped them in difficult situations where they were on the verge of a breakdown. Had it not been for it, they would have given up then and their careers would not have evolved further. Assertiveness may be useful in our everyday life. Children are the best example of this. In difficult situations, they are often guided by assertiveness. They do not want to offend anyone, they just want the best for themselves. They do not yet feel the pressure of the people who surround them. When we think about children, we consider assertiveness to be quite sweet and trivial. Only with time, when a person grows up and becomes responsible for their behaviour, this sweet assertiveness disappears and simply becomes some kind of evil egoism.
Narcissism is a combination of assertiveness and egoism. It is the worst form of caring about our own image and ourselves. If you look for any advantages of this type of personality, you can find one – the likeliness of professional success. These people have no scruples about sacrificing their loved ones for their own alleged success.
To sum up, we can say that, to some extent, each of us is selfish deep inside. Over time, as a result of the influence of others on us, this egoism is either transformed into assertiveness or completely removed. Social media, on the other hand, urge us to make selfish choices and admit that our own good is the most important. Narcissism is socially condemned and it is considered to be a product of consumerism. Taking into account opinions of different people and guided by assertiveness we should decide what is really best for us. We have only one life and it is not worth testing egoism, assertiveness or narcissism theories on it. We are simply supposed to feel good and experience life in such a way so that at the end we are able to assert that it was worth it!
Martyna Urban, Beata Sekuła