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27 OCTOBER 2011
Mark of a narcissist: Inability to say sorry and thank you
by Judith Ancer

It's not just about manners, or being seen to be polite. The capacity to feel and express genuine gratitude is a hallmark of psychological maturity and health.

In fact, an inability to say thank you, along with extreme difficulties saying sorry, is considered typical of people with narcissistic personalities.

And any of you who've had to live or work with a narcissist will know all about the difficulties of dealing with people who are excessively self-absorbed and self-centred.

Because narcissists cannot tolerate their own ordinariness or human vulnerability, they deny these feelings and act as if they can meet all their own needs.

If they don't need anything from anyone else, they never need to say "thank you" for anything.

In contrast, consider these stories:

On the letters page of last week's Sunday Times, Jeanette de Klerk-Luttig wrote in about having recently marked essays by grade 6 pupils on the topic "My favourite teacher".

One of the children had written: "My dance teacher has taught me not only to dance with my arms and feet, but with my heart and soul as well."

An English teacher I know said: "I taught a grade 8 student who was very quiet. She was a loner and had a terrible scar down the left side of her face.

"Although she said almost nothing in class, except for monosyllabic responses to questions, she would always watch me closely and nod when I made some point or other.

"I always felt I should have done more for her, because she seemed to be a person in need. But at the end of the year she approached me and handed me a note. The note thanked me for giving her hope and for accepting her."

Two different teachers, two different pupils, two powerful and inspiring demonstrations of genuine gratitude.

Gratitude is not just saying thank you. It's telling others that they have made some small or big difference to your life.

In the "rah-rah, yes you can" world in which we live, there is a tendency to play up our own genius and to understate the contributions of others to our successes.

Many great people recognise these contributions.

When Isaac Newton, the English physicist, said that his triumphs came from standing upon the shoulders of giants, he was merely quoting an idea that pre-dated him and to which many others have since referred.

Publicly acknowledging that others have helped us is a fine and noble act, one we should teach our children from an early age.

There are few things more odious than a youngster growing up with an inflated sense of his own ability, blithely taking credit for all good things.

Such a person is deluding himself and is not well equipped to collaborate with others in work and life.

So to avoid raising an ingrate who behaves like a narcissist:

  • Teach your children from an early age to say thank you;
  • Help them think about what they are grateful for and why. Thanksgiving family rituals can help model to children how to acknowledge others and express thankfulness;
  • Insist that presents are acknowledged with a phone call, a card or a personal word - even an e-mail;
  • When your children succeed, praise them ... but also encourage them to think about who helped. Young children are egotists, but gradually they learn to notice other's efforts;
  • Show appreciation yourself for those who help you, and thank your children whenever the opportunity arises;
  • When giving thank-you or end-of-year teacher gifts, remember that the personal touch is more valuable than a pricey but generic gift or printed card. Nobody feels special when they get the same box of chocolates as everyone else, or the same formulaic printed thank-you note; and
  • A word is more precious than a gift. "Give me a hand-written card over a silver wine stopper every time," says one teacher. "I revisit the cards occasionally, whereas the stopper disappears into a drawer somewhere. The card shows thought, care and effort."

All of these suggestions emphasise the importance of being mindful of gratitude, but also the importance of doing something about it.

Thinking about how much someone has meant to you or assisted you means so much more when it is given voice - in words or in deed. It's never a bad idea to spread the thanks.

Useful resources:

Sunday Times
The Sunday Times is South Africa's biggest-selling national newspaper. Includes Sunday Times Magazine, Lifestyle, Business Times and Metro sections. Visit our website.

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