How to tell if you're a 'grief narcissist'
narcissism

How to tell if you’re a ‘grief narcissist’

How many times have you responded to a friend saying, “I’m so sick” with, “Yeah, I’ve got the flu that’s going around”? Or one-upped a friend’s story about their bad date by talking about your five worst dates?

Your mother got a parking fine? You’re still paying off $438 worth of them from last year. Your co-worker’s kids are sick? You’re still wearing your toddler’s spew from three mornings ago. That family friend who strained a ligament at the gym the other day? Don’t worry, because you tore your hamstring two years and seven months prior.

Congratulations: you might be a grief narcissist.

A ‘grief narcissist’, by personal definition, is someone who uses another person’s pain as a platform for their own.

They’re like the understudy in a play that pushes the lead actor out of the spotlight during the final bows, just to claim all the applause without any bit of the effort. They’re Rachel announcing their shock pregnancy at Monica’s wedding on Friends.

It was during a friend’s breakup that Bianka realised what she was doing. (Supplied)

They’re emotional labour avoidants and, occasionally, tragic friends.

And before the hypocrisy shines through the glass house I’m currently residing in, put down the stones, because I have also been a grief narcissist and only realised it when one of my best friends went through a break-up.

Breakups are rough. Whatever your coping strategy is, it comes with the universal turmoil of (temporary) self-doubt and a need to spend all your new-found free time with the people you voluntarily love the most: friends.

Supporting your girlfriends through a breakup is a motor skill we’re (mostly) born with.

You need to listen to their feelings, tastefully insult their ex for temporary gratification, and validate them more than any Lizzo song could. Throw a decent meal or quiet night of self-care in, and you’re doing your part to be a good friend.

So, in the two weeks it took for one of my oldest friends to want to talk about her recent split, I had put on my best proverbial Oprah power suit, ready to dish out armchair advice over a hearty suburban pub feed.

Bianka pictured with two of her friends. (Supplied)

Yet somewhere between the first weekend-size glass of wine and tears pouring out of my best friend’s eyes, I railroaded the whole conversation to be completely about the break-up I’d gone through… nearly an entire year prior.

When she started discussing the patterns of behaviour and the situations that led to the end of her relationship, I was far less inclined to say, “How did that make you feel?” or “You don’t deserve that.”

Instead, I was ready to jump at any opportunity to say, “I’ve been there” or, “happened to me too, hun.” Even now, writing about the experience, I can’t help but dwell in my own sense of self-importance in the situation. I was being a total grief narcissist.

As my friend continued to describe what happened, politely tolerating my slew of self-indulgent sentiments, my contributions to our conversation lost all control. I was completely fixated on sharing my own feelings rather than listening to her fresh ones. 

What’s worse in this situation is that my ex-boyfriend and I are on wonderful terms. I had absolutely nothing bad to say about him. I just wanted to indulge and relate to her pain by sharing the feelings I’d moved past months ago.

‘Grief narcissism is Rachel announcing her shock pregnancy at Monica’s wedding on Friends.’ (Friends, Warner Bros Television)

My positive intention of making her feel at ease and comfortable, though, quickly turned insidious.

Reflecting upon it, I realise this was a pattern of behaviour that extends past the realm of supporting a friend through a breakup. It’s a phenomenon that occurs whenever we thinly veil our desperate desire for attention.

Grief narcissism comes from a kind place, or so I tell myself now, where the grievances of someone’s day can find value in a kind of shared economy of bad feelings. But is there really a comfort in building on someone’s negativity with deaf ears and non-constructive anecdotes?

Relationships Australia psychologist Elisabeth Shaw explains grief narcissism is “a common conversational thing to do.”

“On a basic level, you can feel like you’re validating your friend’s emotions, and comforting them with the knowledge that they’re not alone in what they’re experiencing,” she tells 9Honey.

WATCH: Mel Schilling’s tips for supporting friends through breakups. (Post continues.)

“But it can come across as minimising their pain, rather than validating them.”

In addressing the reasons people fall prey to the pattern of social behaviour, Shaw says there are two typical scenarios: a person doesn’t know what to say, or a person who hasn’t completely moved past their own situation.

“Most people aren’t very skilled in being there for others. Sharing a personal experience can make you feel like you’ve got something to contribute.”

To combat the habit, Shaw believes in “self-correcting” by highlighting “the moment you hear yourself about you rather than your friend.”

“[Saying] ‘Look I don’t what to say to you, but I just wanted to let you know I get it’ is a way to make them know you’re empathetic, but also focused on them,” she suggests.

You can contact Elizabeth Shaw via her email address: elisabeths@ransw.org.au

Share your story by sending an email to 9Honey@nine.com.au.

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