Usable Insight – Don’t Confuse a Narcissist with Asperger’s Syndrome
Jason Calacanis: “So are hard driving founders narcissists?”
Dr. Mark Goulston: “If anything they’re more like people with features of Asperger’s Syndrome.”
- from “This Week in Startups” and Twist episode 21
Both narcissists and people with Asperger like features are goal minded to a fault, and both can view other people more as functions or vehicles to achieve that goal instead of as people with feelings. However a critical difference between the two is that a narcissist doesn’t care if they hurt you or your feelings (and the truly malignant ones may even take delight in doing so), whereas someone with Asperger’s like features would prefer not to.
My advice to people who live with malignant narcissists is to get out and to those who live with narcissists to demand they get help or else you are going to painfully lonely and making excuses for them to friends, family and you children forever.
However if you live with someone with Asperger like features it’s a little more complicated. For instance even though you may feel how they treat you is meant personally, if what they do is not meant personally, it’s not right for you to take it personally. That means it is neither fair nor reasonable to treat someone who is just not sensitive (i.e. they are not doing it intentionally) as if they were someone who is insensitive (i.e. they are intentionally not sensitive). Instead of reacting and talking at them, be calm and talk to or with them and focus on their specific observable behavior(s) and the effect it has on you and what it causes you to do in response, which you don’t want to do. Furthermore, give them a specific alternative observable behavior to do instead, because in these areas that they are weak, they may not be teachable, but they are often trainable if you speak to them in a respectful way.
If you are the person with Asperger like features you may be dumbfounded since your intention is never to hurt the people you care about, or for that matter to hurt anyone. Rather your intention is just to move projects forward towards the goal you have in mind.
I remember the time an entrepreneur with Asperger like feature brought in his 14 year old daughter at the insistence of his wife, who told him in no uncertain terms, “You need to go see Dr. Goulston, because your daughter can’t stand you.”
When they came in, she clearly didn’t want to be there and pulled into a corner of my L-shaped couch and he said in a mechanical way how much he loved his daughter and would never want to upset her. It was clear by her body language that his analytical way of speaking only reinforced her feelings of anger towards him.
Now since I am a bit on the intuitive side, I imagined the following scenario happening at home (none of which she had told me) and said to her: “What’s it like when he drives you crazy and you scream at him from your room, ‘Get out! Leave me the f— alone!’ And then when he does, you lie down on your bed and ‘flip him off’ aiming your finger at the door you just slammed on him?’”
Apparently my intuition hit a bullseye and she promptly pulled into a fetal position and started sobbing and rocking herself in complete pain. At that point her father looked at her (while she writhed in pain), was bewildered, then looked at me and started to cry. I don’t think he knew what crying was, because he touch his tears and looked at them on his fingers as if they were blood. He then looked at me, trying very hard to comprehend and said: “My little girl is in awful pain and I think I somehow caused it. But I love her and that’s the last thing I would ever want to do.”
That breakthrough was the beginning of not only a different relationship with her daughter, but a different relatedness.
The sad fact of this story is that I don’t think the pain that his daughter was feeling and his confusion about how he was causing it is terribly unique.
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