In Snow White, the queen has it all seemingly–privilege, power, wealth, and beauty. She’s just not quite as fair as Snow White. That shouldn’t be a problem, right? Just shrug it off. Take your second place trophy for fairest in the land and go back to your castle. Well, of course, that’s not what happens. The queen can’t shrug it off. Her envy grows, and she comes to see Snow White as an arch enemy who must be destroyed. Though few among us would go quite so far as the queen does, we all understand her actions and discomfort on some level. We understand envy brought on by close proximity and narcissism.
Envy and narcissism can be seen in many feuds between neighbors (and even neighboring states). We can see it in the Hatfields and McCoys (1863–1891), which involved two families of the West Virginia–Kentucky area along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. And we can see it, to some degree, in the feuds in Ireland, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
“Narcissism of small differences” is what Freud called this condition–where envy creeps into your psyche, shows itself through narcissism, and enables you to declare your separateness from another.
As an executive coach, I see narcissism of small differences manifest itself most frequently in business partnerships. Usually it happens after many years of persevering and finally getting out of the trenches. The partners have way more to celebrate now than to bemoan. And yet one (or both) start to think that they’re not quite getting all the credit they deserve, or that they’re the special one who could do without the other. They test these ideas out with friends and family, and maybe they don’t hear a strong enough caution or disagreement, or maybe they tell their version of the story often enough to believe it’s true.
If you’re wondering if you would be better off splitting with your partner and going it alone after experiencing a good deal of success together, beware. Like a narcissist, you may only be looking at your own reflection (not your partner’s presence and contributions). You may not see or remember how important it was to slog side by side until momentum finally became your ally.
The queen’s envy and narcissism became her undoing. And the story is called Snow White because of her goodness and fairness, and because she’s the one we want to remember.
Are you guilty of narcissism of small differences? Can you stop trying to convince yourself that you are special by creating a wedge between you and your partner?