I read a scientific journal this week about narcissism and pet owners and I was fascinated by it. It was so true it made me shiver.
Narcissism among pet owners is something I have seen and experienced too many times to count. The author, a scientist who studied the way pet owners talked about their dogs and cats and lizards and fish, how they would lapse into a narcissistic state and speak of their own animals regardless of whether the people listening cared or were attentive.
Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one's own attributes. The term was inspired by the young Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. Ironically, it is not the pet owners who are in love with themselves, the are in love with their dogs and cats, their images always reflected.
It works this way. If your dog dies, I will tell you about my dog dying. If your cat had surgery, I will tell you about my cat having surgery. If your dog is sick, I will tell you every single thing about the latest illness my dog had. To the narcissist, no one else's story is interesting or important. Every bit of animal suffering is worthy of passing on, sometimes for many years.
The curious thing is that the people who own pets are rarely narcissistic about themselves, only their dogs and cats.
This is curious, and I have pondered it for a while. I'm sure I can be quite obnoxious, but I have a dread of boring people, and and am practiced at reading audiences. When heads nod and eyes close, I move along.
Something about a loved pet touches deep emotional chords within us, and we need to express these feelings, especially when triggered. Ours culture does not encourage people to talk about their deep love of our animals, but it needs to come out and often does, sometimes in the form of a spill.
Narcissistic story telling is, I think, our way of working out our complex emotional feelings about them. Our new social media often encourages narcissism, as people believe everyone they meet is a friend who must wish to hear all about them, as friends do.
People who would normally consider it rude to talk endlessly about themselves have no compunction about talking endlessly about their dogs or cats or ferrets, either not noticing or not caring that the listener is yawning, looking at his or her watch, late for a plane, turning blue with cold, or edging to the door.
At such a moment, the narcissist hears only his story, no one else's. The object of the story is just a receptacle.
Someone on the street asked me recently if Lenore, my Lab, was still alive, and before I could even say she wasn't, she launched into a horrific and detailed story of the death of her Lab that was so eternal and graphic I actually interrupted her and said she needed to stop, I had to go.
She followed me to my car, still talking. She still doesn't know that Lenore is dead, or that I didn't wish to hear so much about her poor Lab.
I was out-of-town on a book tour when a reporter who was interviewing me on an NPR radio show thanked me at the end of the hour-long interview, and then told me an endless story – and a boring one – about the games his Golden Retriever likes to play with a neighborhood cat.
The story seemed twice as long as the interview, I could barely stay awake, and I had to finally just walk away. And this from an experienced interviewer whose interviews are notoriously intuitive and sensitive. His very livelihood depends on on reading people instantly and well, but he was stunned – we are good friends – when I told him later that was neither the time nor the place to tell such a story. I was exhausted, drained and distracted, and also clearly late for another interview and in a rush.
He is one of the most perceptive people I know, but he didn't notice that. Without the dog on his mind, he would have.
it is not uncommon for reporters interviewing me to spend more time talking about their dogs and cats than talking to me. This is so familiar an experience that I have trained myself to hold my breath and think of other things – like my work or another interview – until they are done. It used to upset me, but it happens so often I have gotten used to it.
The scientific journal was a relief to me, because it found this narcissistic behavior around pets was very common. I wasn't just me being impatient yet again.
The NPR interviewer is a good person and a wonderful friend, but it was as if I wasn't even in the room.The story had nothing to do with me, and I was not interested in it.
The journal researcher concluded that the mention of dogs and cats often triggers a narcissistic response in animal lovers. If a reporter knows he or she is going to interview me, that might in itself be a trigger, because it is not normal for reporters to talk about themselves to interview subjects, it is generally thought to be unprofessional.
They mean no harm, they have strong emotional feelings about their animals, but they fail to acknowledge or understand them, and when these feelings are triggered. Then they simply come out, independent of the normal cues and signals that guide conversations.
I have seen this phenomenon a thousand times, and the journal report rang true to me. And I am a dog story-teller, so narcissism is something I am quite aware of.
I hate to interrupt people or walk away while they are talking, but I have gotten used to it. Good people, busy and important people seem to fall into a narcissistic state sometimes when it comes to animals, I see it on Facebook all the time. If I mention something about my dogs on the blog, people immediately rush to Facebook to tell me a story about their dogs, and it may or may not be relevant to my own. Mostly, it isn't. My story becomes another opportunity to talk about their dogs or cats.
This has happened to me so frequently that I rarely, if ever, tell anyone a story about my dogs away from my writing. And nobody ever asks me about them, hardly ever.
This is not a rare thing, it happens to me more than once in any given week. Am I being intolerant or impatient? Maybe.
I don't know, I have spent many hours of my life listening to people tell me stories about their dogs and cats, and I don't believe I remember a single one of them.
One woman followed me through an airport terminal telling me an elaborate tail of her cats feuding with one another, the story went from cute to nightmarish and she was laughing and still telling me this story as I walked past the counter and headed down the walkway for the plane. She never noticed I wasn't laughing and wasn't listening.
Thankfully, she was stopped at the gate, she didn't have a boarding pass for my flight. That was a gift.
I write about animals, so I consider myself knowledgeable on the subject of narcissism and pets. I cannot count the times people have stopped me – in the rain, on a bus, walking out the door, on the phone, at a restaurant – and launched into elaborate and circular and almost shockingly long and detailed stories of their dogs and cats, their adventures, their illnesses, their deaths and personality quirks, their bravery and understanding.
They tell me again and again how much they love my books, and how much they meant to me, but it is apparent to me that they either didn't read them at all, or failed to comprehend them or perhaps I failed to write them well. I have written extensively about the emotionalizing of animals and the need for human beings to understand their own feelings if they wish to do right by the dog. Most people have no interest in doing that.
What have I learned about narcissism and pets?
I I have learned not to be an animal Narcissus. I do not tell stories about the death of my dogs to strangers because everyone who loves dogs has lost someone, and everyone has had a struggle or loss as difficult as mine. I do not pass along my sorrow and fear and hard luck to other people, it does not seem right to me.
I am conscious of the time and demeanor of other people, I don't care to give them the chance to be bored, or to take their stories from them before they have even lived. Narcissism is not about listening.
And yes, I have learned to be honest. If I have to go, I have to go. If the story is going on too long or in too much detail, I explain that I have to go, and just leave. If someone tells me their dog died, I do not respond by telling then how my dog died. If someone tells me in eternal detail how their dog got sick, I do not tell them about the many times my dogs get sick. Everyone's dog gets sick, that is life, not a tragedy.
If people want to hear my stories, they are welcome to read them in my books or on my blog. That is the rightful place for them.
Empathy, the work of the noble spirit, calls upon us to listen to the stories of other people, not drown them out with ours. And to protect ourselves from stories we simply do not need or wish to hear. We live in a world where too much information we don't want is continuously raining down on us.
This tit-for-tat pet exchange over misery feels narcissistic to me, like one-upmanship. I say sorry, and move on. I do not mourn or tell stories about dogs who passed on, everyone has it as bad or worse than me. If you love dogs, you will know loss and sorrow.
The human-animal bond is a rich and complex thing, and I believe, as the writer of the journal article found, that narcissism is an almost inevitable a part of it.
I don't expect it to vanish in the minds and habits of others, but I am increasingly conscious of not doing it.