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The Flip Side of Narcissism

We’ve all heard about the narcissistic epidemic. Students feel entitled to A’s, and if they don’t get them, the teacher may hear from their parents about it. At sporting events, we wear giant foam fingers claiming We’re # 1. Because who wants to be #2? Our selfies must be cropped and filtered to show us in our best light. Our houses must be bigger and better than our neighbors. Our salaries must be higher.

And these are just examples of culturally acceptable narcissism. The next level is the narcissistic personality. You know, that person who brags about their kids, their accomplishments, their possessions to no end. They may even point out how much better they are than you–if not to your face, then at least behind your back. And if you have something that they don’t, they’ll be sure to criticize it and devalue it to make themselves feel better about not having it.

Do these people have abnormally high self-esteem? Not in my experience. People who feel good about themselves don’t feel the need to prove how great they are. And they prefer to make other people feel good about themselves rather than tear someone else down. People who feel worthwhile are content to be average–no better, no worse than anyone else.

On the flip side of believing that one is exceptionally good is the belief that they are exceptionally bad. Undeserving of the things that other people are entitled to. They have to get an A, or be #1, because anything less than perfect is failing. They can’t have problems, or go to therapy. They can’t look bad, grow old, or be wrong. They cannot be human. If you point out their humanity, they may become rageful and attack. Or feel unbearable shame. Sometimes you can feel how fragile they are underneath, so you don’t poke holes in their argument because you can sense that they might fall apart.

While it may seem that narcissists suffer from excessive self-love, the reality is that they don’t believe they are lovable. Hence, the need to be perfect. The best. Enviable. Only then can they believe that other people might want to be around them. But because no one is be perfect, the need to accomplish and impress is endless. There is never enough proof that they are worthy of love.

And even when they come close to their goal of seeming perfect, this does not make other people love them. Or sometimes even like them. They are hard to listen to in casual conversation. Hard to be friends with because they have to compete with you. Hard to be in a relationship with because you can never convince them that you love them. Sure, they may draw you in initially with their charisma, but once you get to know them, you can feel how endless their need for admiration and affirmation is. A bottomless pit that you can never fill, no matter how much you try to convince them that they are enough.

I’ve been in so many relationships with narcissistic people that I’ve become an expert on this subject. I have been made to feel not good enough. I’ve been made to earn people’s love. And I am not without my own narcissistic traits. I know I have made other people feel the same way. But I’m trying to change that. I consider myself a narcissist in recovery, because like people in 12 step programs, I believe it’s something that I can never be cured of completely.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in this post and also aspire to be OK with being you. How does one go about doing that, you might ask. Well, it’s not easy, but it begins with self-love. Self-compassion. You remind yourself repeatedly that you are OK exactly as you are–despite every flaw, every mistake, every failure. You don’t have anything to prove. You don’t have to deserve to be loved. You can accept yourself exactly as you are.

Sometimes when I tell clients this in session, they cry. I am guessing that’s because they’ve never heard anyone tell them that they are OK, just as they are. You can’t make other people tell you this, but you can say it to yourself. If I can learn to accept myself, so can you, because we are ultimately all the same. All trying to figure out how to do this being human thing. So I see who you really are, underneath all that narcissism, and I know that you are enough, just as you are.

Survivor

Last month I asked my readers on Facebook what 3 things they would bring with them if they had to spend a month in the woods. I was very happy with the level of participation and impressed by how survivor-oriented most of the answers were. Originally, when my friend and I played this game, my answers were Tony Bennett, Roger Federer, and a helicopter. Since I assume none of us can operate a helicopter, I should have probably picked a pilot for one of them. But I’m obviously not that survivor-oriented.

In case you have been waiting in suspense for the results, here they are! The top 3 answers were:

  1. Something to start a fire with
  2. Some kind of sharp tool
  3. Water/water filter

So if you picked these 3, congratulations on your practicality! You could potentially win a survivor contest.

The 3 least survivor-oriented responses, other than mine, were:

  1. A pod that functions as a house with electricity
  2. lip gloss
  3. soccer ball

Good luck to those of you who picked one of those items. You will probably be the first contestant to get kicked out of the woods. Or perhaps that was your goal?

Here are some items that I thought would have gotten more votes:

  1. Phone (cheating, but still…)
  2. Alcohol
  3. Suitcase/backpack, etc.

I may get kicked out of the woods, but I think of myself as a survivor in other ways. In fact, because I am trying to win the Perfect Attendance Award at work, I’ve realized that a lot of the things that I do that I thought were kind of crazy are really ways to improve my mental toughness. If you read my blog, you already know a lot of them–play tennis matches while injured/depressed/throwing up, knit dresses, try to make impossible relationships work. But here are some other things I do:

  1. Pretend that, if I’m going to have to talk to someone and it’s going to be really painful–let’s say going on a 5 hour trip with someone who will talk nonstop and say offensive things, for example–I try to pretend I’m a POW and will myself to withstand whatever torture awaits me.
  2. Whenever I’m stuck somewhere–in traffic, in line at Walmart, etc.–I try to imagine being trapped in an elevator, waiting to be rescued–which for me is the scariest thing imaginable.
  3. When I have to really concentrate in Minesweeper but I’m starting to fall asleep (which is supposed to be the goal), I will myself to focus because maybe I’m going to be in some situation where I have to make life or death decisions in some compromised mental state.

And I have survived a lot of things. Episodes of major depression. Divorces. Being single. And now I’m trying to survive by providing for my brother and me. Hence, the need for the Perfect Attendance Award. Every day I live with the anxiety of not making it in because of my depression. Nevertheless, I still plan on winning this contest.

Why Try?

ocean with a ladle

So I read that doom and gloom article on the state of the world because of global warming. Since the changes that must occur to save the earth need to happen on a level that I cannot participate in–things at the policymaker level–I wondered whether my obsessive recycling makes a difference. Whether it matters if I recycle the rolls for toilet paper and paper towels. And every receipt and scrap of paper that my to do list is on. One could easily conclude that it’s all pretty hopeless. Or not true. Or irrelevant, since I’ll be dead by then. I don’t even have kids who will have kids who will be affected.

But I believe it’s true. And relevant.

Often people ask me a similar question about therapy. Doesn’t it depress me, working with all these unhappy people? And in my darkest moments, I wonder how much change people are capable of. Not so much my clients. I am narcissistic enough and they are young enough that I feel confident that they can change. But I wonder how much change is possible once you’re middle-aged like me, or older. Is it hopeless at this point? Have all the traumas, the mistakes, and the accumulated stress caused irreparable damage? Like slathering yourself with baby oil all your life rather than sunscreen?

In an article in Men’s Health they say that 50 is the new 20. But maybe they’re just saying that so you’ll keep buying the stuff in their ads.

I go through this cycle of thought many times. What am I doing? Is it worth it? Does it even make a difference to try so hard? It’s like having the goal of being good. Even if you’re earnest about it, it’s hard to feel good enough. Especially if you’re earnest about it, in fact.

So I went on a quest to find out what would be a better goal than trying to be good, and the answers were 1) to be self-aware and 2) to be loving. It’s like that quote about how if you have to choose between being right and being kind, choose kindness. Being good feels like choosing to be right. Being self-aware and loving feels like choosing to be kind.

But I digress. What does this have to do with wondering what good it will do to recycle? Or how much I can really help my loved ones and myself so late in the game?

I guess I treat every decision the same way. I try to choose what makes me feel like a better person, regardless of the result. Regardless of whether it is going to lead to success. Trying to save the earth, myself, and the people I love is choosing to be kind.

Sometimes it feels like trying to empty the ocean one bucket at a time. But I guess being in the water, trying to do something, feels better than standing there on the shore, feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the problem. If it’s a choice between doing something and doing nothing, I choose to do something.

So I keep recycling. I try to stay hopeful about myself, my brother, and my life in general. Because what is the purpose of life, if it isn’t to try?

The Daily Grind

daily grind

Sometimes I wonder if other people have to will themselves to get through the day like I do. I know it’s not compassionate to compare myself to other people, but sometimes that’s what I do. Like, when my brother and I were living in a one bedroom apartment and we had even less personal space than we did before we moved out of my 1000 sq ft patio home, I told myself that it’s not as bad as being a refugee fleeing to another country from an oppressive government. They probably have to sleep outside somewhere with people all around them. So suck it up!

Or when I have to come home from work and go by the grocery store and cook dinner and do the dishes and do my light therapy and stretch and then start my nightly routine, I feel like a single parent. Because before my brother lived with me, I wouldn’t cook dinner because it requires meal planning, going to the grocery store, cooking, and dishes. I would just fall asleep from exhaustion when I got home and wake up at midnight and get ready for bed.

So then I’ll be like, well it’s not as bad as being a single parent. Think about what that would be like. You think this is bad? People struggle way more than you do!

Or when I have to wake up in the morning and have a full schedule of clients ahead of me today and every day, knowing that I have no vacation or sick days to take and I have to be perfect, I tell myself to think about that guy from the Coast soap commercial from the 70’s. He could barely get out of bed. It wasn’t until he showered with new deodorant Coast, which brings you back to life, that he was able to face his day with enthusiasm. Other people struggle to get out of bed. So get up!

And then at some point I catch myself and remind myself that these are not compassionate ways to motivate myself. My mental illness is real. There are people who have my conditions and can’t hold a job, don’t make it into work, and can’t perform adequately when they do. I read recently that, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) depression is the 2nd most common cause of disability in the world. (Heart disease is the first.)

So then I do my compassionate mantras. What you’re doing really is hard. You’re juggling a lot of things. You’re doing the best that you can. Am I really? Yes, of course you are. You always do.

This semester, instead of running scared at the thought of getting sick when I don’t have any days off, I’m trying to use my inner warrior approach. I checked my balance yesterday, thinking that I had at least 2 days of leave, but I have none. And I panicked.

But then I thought, you know what? I got the perfect attendance award once in 6th grade. I didn’t know until 15 years later after I had to go to my high school to get proof of my existence after my purse got stolen on the way to a UVA bowl game (which is a blog for another day). It was still in my file, unclaimed. Clearly I had missed the day they were giving out awards, but still. I didn’t think I had ever gotten perfect attendance.

So instead of running scared, I have decided to think of it as a challenge. Like the kinds of challenges I always do, but this time it’s not just for kicks. It’s for real. I have to make it in. So I’ve added the Perfect Attendance Award to my New Year’s Resolutions, in addition to letting go. At least for this semester. Enough time to build up some days. I can do it! Warrior! RAAH! (That’s my warrior cry.)

My boyfriend thinks that’s unrealistic. I’m working on some other ideas, but so far this is the best one I’ve come up with. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Old School or New School?

record player2

Did you know that record stereos and Polaroid cameras are making a comeback? I’m assuming they are meant to appeal to my generation, although my niece’s 10 year old friend got a Polaroid camera for Christmas. It definitely makes me nostalgic for my teenage years, when I would hang out in my room listening to my record albums for hours. I have considered buying one, since I still have all my old albums, many of which are so obscure you can’t even find them on iTunes. But I’m sure the sound isn’t as good, and it takes up a lot more room than my phone does, which has thousands of songs on it.

The same is true with pictures. I don’t have photo albums anymore because it’s a pain to get pictures developed. And you have to pay for them. Much easier just to have photos on your devices and scroll through them. I have my phone with me at all times, so it’s much easier to show someone a picture that way, rather than inviting them to my house and having them look through my albums.

My sister-in-law bought me the Michelle Obama book for Christmas, but I had just bought it on Kindle the week before. She asked me whether I preferred books or Kindle. I love holding books in my hand, flipping through the pages, seeing them on my shelf. I liked going to Barnes and Noble and seeing tables stacked and organized by type of book. And I liked the free cookie from Starbucks that I got after my purchase. Well, it was buy one get one free so it was more like half off.

However, my eyesight is not what it used to be, so I have to wear reading glasses. And if I accidentally take my contacts out too early, I have to do this goofy thing where I put my reading glasses on top of my regular glasses, which isn’t very stable. On Kindle, I can just increase the font. I can also look up words, highlight passages, and type comments. In a book, I just dog-ear one corner of the page, so it’s pretty hard to go back and find a quote. But I buy both, so I am middle school on books.

I really love the idea of writing by hand. In theory. Putting a pen to paper makes whatever you’re writing more meaningful. Last year when I read my old journals, seeing my handwriting gave me a better sense of what I was like at that point in time. It’s as though some of my personality got communicated through my script.

But all I ever write these days is my signature, and I usually just make a bunch of squiggly lines, because the merchants don’t check to see if you signature matches the one on the back of the card anymore. And I have a long name. I’ve tried to write journal entries by hand, but I can’t go more than a paragraph before my handwriting deteriorates. After a while, I can’t write in straight line. My script gets bigger, loopier, and finally completely illegible. It was impressive to see how small and straight I could write in my journal for pages and pages of entries without a single hand cramp. I’m definitely new school with writing. It’s much easier just to type everything.

I went shopping with my niece after Christmas. It was a great day, and it made me happy that Sadie said it was the best day of her life–so far–because we ate brunch and dinner at her favorite places, she found almost everything she was looking for, we got a pedicure, went to the bookstore, ate a buy one get one free cookie.

But I hated the crowds. People sometimes shout profanities at me in the parking lot because I’m not looking where I’m going when I’m driving. I hated standing in the checkout line. I refused to give my phone number to the salespeople, and sometimes they were downright pissed off about it. Apparently it threw off their script of talking me into getting a rewards card, where I could get cash back someday after I bought a lot more merchandise. Much easier to just buy it online. Especially if they have free shipping and returns. So I’m new school on shopping.

Actually, after writing all this, it looks like I’m new school in general.

How about you? Are you old school or new school?

Good and Evil, Part 3

devil and angel2

One of the things I love about my niece Sadie is that she believes that people are basically good. During our annual Christmas Eve dinner, we had an interesting conversation about Santa’s naughty list. Sadie believes that everyone deserves a gift because even if they are being bad at the moment, they have good in them, and that goodness can manifest itself at some point in the future. Although that’s not exactly how she said it.

I agreed with her that we are all capable of good, but reminded her that we are also capable of evil, and on a moment to moment basis, people have to choose between the two all the time. And once you cross that line and choose evil, it becomes easier to do so the next time around.

I was once more optimistic about the inherent goodness of people, but I have become less so, particularly in the last few years. Opinions about current events have become so polarized that it’s hard to distinguish good from evil. It seems so clear from each side’s perspective. How can they not tell the difference? How can their moral compass be so off? Maybe if I post a bunch of stuff on social media showing them how wrong they are they’ll eventually come to their senses.

I have wrestled with this question all my life, because I really want to be good. I don’t want to delude myself into thinking I’m doing good when I’m doing harm. I don’t want to make excuses to justify my behavior. But does being earnest make you see things more clearly? I try hard to see the other side’s perspective, try to understand how their idea of right can seem so wrong to me, but I can’t reconcile the discrepancy at times. Perhaps no one can be certain of their rightness.

Even messages that are supposed to be about kindness, gratitude, and acceptance–things that are meant to be said gently, lovingly–are sometimes shouted out like commands. Be kind, damn you! Be grateful, you selfish #&%@! Be more accepting like me, you terrible person!

Well, that’s how I hear them, at least. And I believe in the importance of kindness, gratitude, and acceptance. But it’s all in how you say something, isn’t it? It matters whether something comes from a place of love or judgment. It’s hard to take good advice that is not dispensed with compassion.

I do believe that it’s possible to bring out the basic goodness in people, but not by telling them what to do. If you want someone to be compassionate, show compassion. If you want them to be grateful, tell them how grateful you are for them. And if you want them to be accepting, let them know that you accept who they are, even if they feel differently. Goodness will not come about by telling people what to do. It has to be demonstrated by our own choices.

And ultimately, I do believe what Sadie said about Santa Claus, but for a slightly different reason. Every child gets a gift, not because they earned it by being good, but because someone loves them, regardless of whether they have been naughty or nice. And ultimately, it is love that transforms us.

Falling Apart

I learned something about myself in 2018. I learned that I am not a superhero. I can’t do it all.

I mean, I knew that. I knew that I had reached my limit and I was going to fall apart, but I had kept it all together for so long, you know? I figured it was like knitting some complicated dress pattern. Or winning a tennis match after driving 10 hours and being injured. Just another crazy challenge that I could push myself through. But this time I met my match.

The past two and a half years have been tough for my brother and me. This was not intended to be a long-term living arrangement. I decided to get a new place at my therapist’s suggestion. It would at least give us more personal space–literally a wall between us–which was one small thing I could control.

And it is nice, the new place. But it caused 6 months of additional stress before I could benefit from it. Selling my old place. Moving out and running out of storage space. (How could I get so much stuff into 1000 sq feet?) Staying in a really expensive apartment for several weeks. Not knowing when I was going to have my new place. Changing my address multiple times. Trying to fit all my stuff in my new place. Which should have been easier with double the square footage, but for some reason it wasn’t.

The other thing I took on this year is that online therapy job, in anticipation of the added expense of buying a new place. Even though I can barely see all the clients in my primary job. Plus, it’s really hard to make a connection with someone who you don’t get to interact with face to face. So much of what heals in therapy is what happens when you literally sit with someone, being fully present to their pain, rather than the words themselves. In online therapy, all you have is words.

Plus, you know when someone doesn’t like you, because you get multiple emails telling you the person is transferring. They can even write a terrible review about you. Or file a complaint. And then you have to have a video conference with an expert who specializes in helping you be a less sucky online therapist. Fortunately, the last 2 things didn’t happen. But I did have people transfer. And thank goodness, because what was I thinking, taking all those new people?

Last semester had been particularly stressful at my primary job because one of my colleagues had to be out for the beginning of the term, so things filled up a few weeks earlier than usual. I usually fall apart some time around Thanksgiving, no matter how hard I try to practice self-care, but usually I can bounce back after a mental health day. So when I first fell apart, not surprising. After the second day, I started panicking a little. After the 3rd day, I knew I was in trouble.

I ended up taking an extended leave, and it’s the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time. I probably should have done it 10 years ago but didn’t because it felt like admitting defeat. An extreme version of retiring from a match. So I just sucked it up, even though I knew I wasn’t doing a great job.

This time I had no choice, because unlike in previous depressive episodes, I couldn’t think. I felt like I had a concussion. I couldn’t remember words, and had a hard time even having a conversation. If I had to make a decision, I would get overwhelmed. Even reading made me anxious, because it activated my brain. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to handle my job, so I accepted defeat.

Having this time to focus solely on self-care (and moving) made me realize how long I had been operating under duress. Some of it was beyond my control, but some of it I put on myself. I push myself relentlessly. I’ve gotten a lot better since practicing self-compassion, but my Drill Sergeant is still active, bossing me around every chance it gets. I was only able to stand up to it because it felt like life or death.

Today is my first day back, and I’m glad I’m the only person here so that I can just catch up on the things I have put on the back burner for the past 6 weeks. I’m feeling pretty good but I still don’t know how much stress I can tolerate, so I’m hoping I can slowly ease my way into the crazy schedule that awaits me.

But I have to do things differently. So this year, my New Year’s Resolution is to let go of as much as possible. Moving has taught me that. A lot of what I had been holding onto went into the trash or to Goodwill. I even gave up plants that I’ve had for over 20 years, because the idea of carrying them up 3 flights of stairs to the one bedroom apartment that my brother and I were going to share didn’t seem worth the effort. When you have to carry all of your belongings around with you, you to learn to let go of material possessions pretty quickly.

I’m going to let go in other ways, too. No more captaining multiple teams because they desperately need another captain. I’m cutting back on the number of people I try to save that are not a part of my job. I’m going to stop beating myself up about working out, sleeping abnormally, and being unlike other people in general. Any thought that causes me distress I will put aside. I will only do what I have to do, because that will still be plenty.

This year, rather than choosing some challenge that pushes me to the limit, I’m going to choose me.