For years, psychologist Nancy Van Dyken saw the same patterns in many of her patients—beliefs they hold that were instilled at a very young age and drive their behavior, and not in a good way. She began to define these patterns as "everyday narcissism"—common enough that she wrote a book, Everyday Narcissism: Yours, Mine, and Ours, about her experiences helping patients break free of it and live happier lives.
What is "everyday narcissism?" We asked Van Dyken to explain the concept, why it's so harmful, and why you could be in the grips of it and not even know.
People hear the word "narcissism" and they think self-involved, big ego, using others for personal gain without remorse. "Everyday narcissism" is not that, correct?
Correct. People throw around the word "narcissistic" pretty easily and use it to sort of give a blanket name to many people. However, "everyday narcissism" is a low-grade version, garden-variety form of narcissism which most of us struggle with. Narcissistic personality disorder, a diagnosable mental health disorder, is not what everyday narcissism is about.
What's the difference?
I see everyday narcissism as a set of core beliefs we hold to be true, and that we are first taught under the age of five. They drive our behaviors and thoughts for the rest of our lives. These lies or myths are reinforced everywhere and unfortunately they create a great deal of hardship for a lot of people.
As far as how they differ, think of it this way: It's the difference between someone who struggles with major depression and ends up hospitalized often throughout their lives and those of us who periodically claim we felt blue for the last few days or so. The latter doesn't call for a depression diagnosis, and everyday narcissism is not a diagnosable condition.
You referred to the core beliefs as myths. Can you explain?
Everyday narcissism is based on 5 core beliefs, or lies, that we live by. The first belief is "I have the power and responsibility to control how everybody feels and behaves." The second belief is "I have the power and responsibility to control how I feel and behave." The third belief is "Your needs are more important than mine." The fourth belief is "Social rules are more important than I am." The fifth belief is "I'm not lovable as I am, I must follow all these myths, and maybe then I can become loveable."
They all work together to create a lot of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, and people not trusting or believing in themselves. That's why they're so damaging.
What are some examples of how these beliefs manifest in everyday situations?
A common issue that arises from these beliefs might be having bad boundaries. Or shame. Or you struggle being honest with people, saying no to people. Those are patterns that come out of "EN" and they make life very difficult and painful.
I work with a lot of people on their relationships, with a specialty in abusive relationships, so a common belief for someone who's being abused physically or emotionally is "I can control my partner's anger by doing or saying the right things." If my partner gets angry, then they run through the list of should-haves: I should have gotten dinner on the table at 6, I should've kept the kids quiet. So they take on responsibility for the person's behavior. At work, someone might come up and say can you help me with project A, and because I'm so afraid of not pleasing you—being a pleaser is a sign of everyday narcissism—I say yes because your needs are more important than mine. But I'm buried already with my own projects.
It's easy to see how those behaviors can become ongoing patterns.
Saying no is one of the hardest pieces of homework I give to people. I'd like you to say "no, that won't work for me" three times this week. It might take someone 3 months to learn how to do that.
The important piece to remember is these behaviors can be healed. In my book I provide tools to help change these patterns, and saying no is one of them. If people are consistent with those tools, you can change those patterns that aren't working. So I wrote this book so people could understand the patterns and have, in their hands, a way to change them.
Change is scary for people, especially people stuck in a negative pattern. How do you coach them past that fear?
I say, "feel the fear and do it anyway!" (laughs) Change is scary because we all want to belong; it's a core dynamic for us. We do all these things because our basic drive in life is to belong. If I change how I am and count my needs as high as your needs, maybe you won't like me. That's our biggest fear. That's scary.
And the fact is, what you're afraid of could come true. If you start to have honest relationships, some people might go away. But the people who stick around are the people who really like you. It means you can have real, honest relationships. People deserve an honest dynamic in their relationships, where you can say no and they can say no and no one gets hurt.
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