I am a narcissist. How could I not be? I was born after 1980, raised by boomers and spent my formative adolescence in upper-middle class suburbia throughout the booming 90’s. I can do anything I want to do. I can be anyone I want to be. I. AM. SPECIAL. Success and satisfaction are my birth right. My primary compass for decision making is ‘whatever makes me happy’, and shit, if I am not downright excellent at that. Gold Star.
But my over identification with myself is not all that unique, I am not lonely as a narcissist, I have company with nearly every last person in this western, individualized culture. Hell, we inspire each other’s narcissism, celebrating our glorious and ingenious talent through emulation, envy and competition, encouraging one another’s self-interest through what we value as success. Let us simply notice what we’re paying attention to throughout the day. Our own survival…our own wants and likes and dislikes, how what is happening affects us or doesn’t. How about all the ways in which we want the world to organize around us, or the ways we need to contort ourselves to fit into this world to get what we want, where we want, who we want. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for individuality and the importance of the unique needs and expressions of each individual being honoured. This is an important part of our evolution. But come on! We’re a bit ridiculous aren’t we?
In this interview between George Carlin and John Stewart, Carlin speaks to the evolution of drug use and creativity, the pain to pleasure ratio shifting over time. Same goes for our individual-centered focus, which is at first rather necessary in the evolution of consciousness, important for individuals to identify with something other than the tribe, the family, the role within the whole of their culture. Here we get to really groove with a special kind of innovation and opportunity. Capitalism. The American dream. The Gen Y’s belief that they will in fact be millionaires by the age of 19. This is rich territory for the unique expression of individuality by the individual, for the individual. Here the lean on accomplishment and pleasure is high. My wants, my goals, my shine. The desire for self-gratification is easily filled as the route is direct. In a consumer culture, this looks like entertainment and consumption, self-expression for the sake of oneself. The uniqueness of the individual is celebrated and awed by others. That which makes you stand out as extraordinary makes you worth looking up to, which both calls to and inspires the stirring self-interest of others to move out of roles or obligations to a collective and start to do something for themselves for once, thank-you-very-much.
But like anything, this soon becomes a beast. A whole made of parts interested only in themselves breeds an allergy to cooperation and renders cohesion between individual greatness and regard for others near impossible.
What fulfills today becomes hallow tomorrow. And so we find the insatiable arising. This becomes an addiction to growth because where are and who we are, is no longer satisfying. What is deeply holy about this impulse is that this move towards more, towards dissatisfaction, is the very impulse that urges us to evolve, that slays complacency. But this impulse when focused purely on myself and my needs and my interests and my self-expression for my sake and my good feelings and my own fulfillment quickly puts me on a wheel where I am chasing that which fills me, distracts me and soothes me. No longer is my me-focused way of being in the world an expression of evolving culture, but rather a pathology, a growing cancer chowing down on the resources around for my own fulfillment. In this place, we, however subtly or unconsciously, feel the sickness that we are when we enact the fallacy that we are separate from this whole system of humanity as the Earth. Here we become addicted to the perpetuation of our own narcissism by trying to fill ourselves through even more self-interested means.
When discussing these themes with friend and editor, Sarah O. recently, she said “I am a narcissist in my thoughts, but not in my heart.” This struck me deeply. I can feel that within myself. On the one hand I’m tossing hyperbole around in this article since much of my behaviour extends beyond myself and is about others, my sense of care for my fellow human is massive and for the most part, I am able to hold a pretty expansive view. So as far as narcissists go, I don’t really identify as one. And yet, and yet, that’s kind of the joke isn’t it? We’re just not a society who’s really working together as a whole and while I feel within the depths of my being a boundless embrace of this collective living breathing planet as one being, in my day to day, I get pretty caught up in my scheduled hours and relationship exchanges and visions for my future and my ultimately inconsequential inconveniences that I call problems.
Do you feel responsible for the world’s problems? If not, why not? Whose problems are our problems? Feeling the ripple of the All that is connected, relating to what’s happening as My problem can absolutely feel overwhelming. But who else? In this bricolage, I explore a simple chain of care and our capacity to offer care out to others, which is one way to be in service of this world and dig out of our narcissism a little. All the while being honest, compassionate and accepting of where we actually are and that each of us only has so much capacity.
I see a lot of this to do with survival. If we are struggling to just survive, it’s difficult to expand our view beyond ourselves and our survival and have intention or action move towards the whole. At difference periods in our lives, we’re more or less gripped by survival and this seems to happen at any level of affluence. That impulse that tells us we don’t know where our next meal is coming from or that a very wild and dangerous animal is chasing us- for those of us who are privileged, it’s just not real. And yet that survival instinct is there, as our fear of death, and projects itself upon our first world problems. So we relate to missing a deadline or paying the phone bill or having a button pop off a two hundred dollar blouse as ‘I’m going to die if I don’t take care of this’. All the while, the issues that really will affect our long term survival as a species are either just too big or too complex or too far off in the distance that they’re not as important as that half-caff-soy-Americano-misto that will totally make this afternoon more pleasurable.
While I don’t think that shaming or criticizing ourselves into being more collectively minded is at all helpful, I do think that gently and consistently bringing awareness to our own narcissistic tendencies may free us up a little to move elsewhere.
Let us begin to wake up to the pain of our own self-interest, to the truth that much of our attention is on our own survival and personal gain and fueled primarily by impulses completely unconscious to us. Let us be honest about our failure to truly move forward as a cohesive whole and accept that this is due to our deep identification with separation. Let us begin to close the gaps in separation from wherever we’re currently at, whether that’s hanging out in a state of non-duality or saying hello to a stranger, giving up an indulgence or offering a hand, taking an uncharacteristic interest in local politics or turning off your phone when you’re playing with your kid.
As any good narcissist would, I like to continually look for ways to make myself better. So, here are a few simple practices that may help us bring more awareness to the collective that is always here and expand our attention beyond ourselves.
- Look in the mirror a maximum of once per day.
- When speaking to someone, look for the sorrow in their eyes. Let yourself feel it.
- When you feel like an f-up or a failure and feel really tender and vulnerable about it, share it with someone younger and more insecure than you.
- Move throughout the city looking for opportunities to help others, perhaps by offering change, directions, carrying groceries or opening doors.
- Notice, when helping someone, if the good feelings are inflating your ego and you’re getting all self-congratulatory about it. Then forgive yourself for that.
- When in a confined space such as an elevator or bus, try to feel the breath as it comes in and goes out of the people around you. See how many people's inhale and exhale you can match at once.
- Allow others to contribute to you; it’ll help move them out of their self-focus.
- Take better care of your health. You’ll be more available for others. Or the cause.
- Hug people. Stay there for a while. Maybe even until it gets a little awkward. Let connection get real enough to be awkward.
- Shout from the rooftop… “I am a narcissist!” Because that’ll get your neighbours talking, and we really should be talking to our neighbours.