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Narcissism 101

Heaven knows we have all seen them—the ones who simply cannot pass a mirror—or, for that matter, a storefront plate-glass window—without admiring their own reflection, often accompanied by a perfection-enhancing brush of the hair with the hand. And they like what they see.

For them the gym’s wall-to-wall landscape of vanity-feeding mirrors is nirvana. The rest of us, sweating and straining, work our butts off to live up to the promise of the future we see reflected on the gym walls, as yet just beyond our reach, like the proverbial carrot on a stick. And that glimpse is enough to keep us going.

“We bodybuilders are all narcissists,” stated a beginning trainee with whom I was having lunch. The rest of the nonbodybuilding world would strongly agree—because that is the way they view us. Is it true though? Are all bodybuilders narcissists? And if we are, is that all bad?

The answer depends on just how narcissistic a person might be. First, though, let’s clarify what narcissist means, because just catching your own eye in a mirror does not make you one.

True narcissism is a serious personality disorder. The traits that define narcissists include the belief that they are perfect, expectations of special treatment because they see themselves as special, arrogance, the exploitation of others without any regard for their feelings or concerns and—this is a biggie—the belief that others exist to serve the narcissist’s needs or they may as well not exist at all (witness Kurt Cobain’s oft-quoted remark, “I don’t care what you think unless it’s about me.”). To top off that list, at least 15 different types of narcissism have been identified. Whew! So clearly we are not talking about a little vanity here and there.

Most of us everyday amateur psychiatrists define narcissist as it was thought of for centuries before modern psychology came on the scene: Someone who is exceedingly vain, self-centered, fascinated with himself and controlling—the guy who always knows better than you how to do everything. We all know a few of those—both in the gym and out—they specialize in getting on our last nerve.

According to psychologist Christopher Barry, Ph.D., “Narcissistic people are great at first impressions—they’re likable and personable, and that take-charge attitude works in their favor. But people can take that aggressive personality for only so long before they get tired of you.” (Details, August 2013)

But wait! The “experts” also tell us that almost everyone has several of those traits to some degree (labeled “healthy narcissism”). To make things even more confusing, most so-called high achievers display many narcissistic traits on their way to the top. Indeed, the strong drive of narcissists and their desire to lead can be highly beneficial. Maybe the best approach is to recognize that we all have these tendencies. So, as you are standing in front of the dumbbell rack deciding which to pick up, how do you deal with yours?

The answer is the same one many successful people employ in dealing with their narcissistic leanings—they have learned how to balance them with reality. Because, if you’re standing at the dumbbell rack and you let your narcissistic tendencies get the better of you, you will pick up the heaviest weight, since it suits your ego and is more impressive to those around you. Never mind that you can’t perform lateral raises properly with that weight. We’ve all seen “ego trainers” like that in the gym, humping up the heaviest weight they can grab while giving a virtual seminar on how not to perform an exercise.

Yes, it is important to believe in yourself in any endeavor, and bodybuilding is no different. If, however, you fail to distinguish between healthy confidence and an unrealistic belief that you are special, you may just hobble away from a set of overly heavy squats with a newly injured knee. Sorry, but you are just muscle, flesh and bone like the rest of us—your body’s cells do not agree that you are special.

In terms of achieving your best physique, can indulging your narcissistic tendencies hold you back in other ways? You bet. Here’s a news flash: Effective bodybuilding is one of the most remorselessly honest pursuits—you must be brutally self-critical in your assessment of yourself.

What’s more, to critique your own physique effectively, you must  seriously evaluate the input of others. High-level narcissists tend to value their own opinion while dismissing everyone else’s. They will ignore good advice from friends, trainers and fellow gym rats. When a well-intentioned “bud” (or a contest judge) says, “Dude, your arms are looking too big compared to your shoulders,” it just may be time to do fewer sets for arms and a few more for delts.

That said, there is a time to value your own opinion over everybody else’s—just not every time.

Narcissistic behavior is also linked to the stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2012 University of Michigan study. As physique athletes we work hard to control and manipulate hormones to maintain a metabolic environment conducive to muscle building and fat burning. Having a lot of cortisol creates just the opposite situation. In fact, so-called high-level narcissistic behavior has been shown to be detrimental to your health as well as personal relationships.

Susan Konrath, a psychologist involved in the Michigain study, states, “Narcissistic men may be paying a high price in terms of their physical health, in addition to the psychological cost to their relationships.” So, our physiques and our friendships will benefit from reining in any unhealthful narcissistic inclinations.

As bodybuilders we talk a lot about the importance of the mind/muscle connection. Who knew that one of the most effective ways of optimizing it was to take a simple piece of advice: Get over yourself?

—Tony DiCosta


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