Introspection Part 10, Avoiding Narcissism
Having spent the last several months writing about “going inside yourself” (introspection), it occurs to me that I should take a breather and answer the question, “is there such a thing as too much introspection?”
I want to say “no” because introspection is so much a part of my life as a therapist and a person in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction and I see its benefits every day all around me. The truth is, I do think it is possible and not healthy to be overly focused on yourself. Self-focus is especially problematic when it excludes a person’s ability to focus on others and on the external world, which is when we move from introspection to “narcissism.” Before getting into a broader discussion of the dangers of narcissism, I do want to say that becoming more introspective, to almost any degree, is not the same thing as narcissism. Narcissism is a way of seeing the world, not just yourself. Narcissism, in the extreme, means believing “everything is about me, and only me, all the time.” There is no reason introspection has to lead to narcissism, but someone who tends toward narcissism would be well-cautioned against allowing introspection to further that tendency.
In Greek Mythology, Narcissus was a hunter well known for his beautiful looks. He was considered “proud,” in the sense that he disdained those who loved him. Nemesis (one of the Greek gods) noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died.
You have likely read or otherwise know about the psychological ramifications of narcissistic personality disorder, which is characterized by: “persistent grandiosity, excessive need for admiration, and a personal disdain and lack of empathy for other people.” In other words, when a person suffers from narcissistic personality disorder they might quite literally be unable to see things from another person’s perspective because they are so locked into their own perspective. When I have known people in my personal life who had strong narcissistic tendencies, I have wanted to tell them, “I exist in the real world, as a separate and distinct being, not as an extension of you” because they seemed to have great difficulty or didn’t seem to have the capacity to recognize that my perspectives and needs were not the same as theirs.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association—and used by most mental health care practitioners for diagnosing their clients and patients—lists the following symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, emphasizing that the symptoms typically without the commensurate qualities or accomplishments and the symptoms create a significant impairment to living a normal healthy life (paraphrasing here):
- Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people;
- Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.;
- Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions;
- Needing continual admiration from others;
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others;
- Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain;
- Unwilling to empathize with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people;
- Intensely envious of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them; and
- Pompous and arrogant demeanor.
Obviously, these are not the kind of symptoms I want anyone striving for with introspection. In fact, most of us exhibit some or many of these symptoms at various points in our lives. To the extent we do, introspection will help us recognize them within ourselves and in our behavior toward others, so we can minimize or eliminate them as part of our way of being in the world.
I had a client some time ago, we will call him Aaron, whose mother exhibited many of these behaviors and was just very self-centered (everything had to be about her) during his childhood and adult life. We were discussing his general disdain for people in groups and how it negatively affected his outlook whenever Aaron was in public, and even often when he was at work. As we parsed through his emotional reactions and the reasons for them when he was in public, he suddenly exclaimed, “I see narcissists” (referring back to the movie, The Sixth Sense, when the little boy says “I see dead people.”) We later referred back to his exclamation somewhat jokingly when he caught himself projecting his mother’s extreme level and frequency of narcissism to other people who might not have had the kind of issues his mother had, but had displayed similar traits. I tried to show him over time that we all, Aaron included, act with narcissistic motives and tendencies, and this is normal and can even be healthy and necessary, up to a point. Aaron’s exclamation, “I see narcissists,” is a way of saying he suffered from a kind of hypervigilance (see my blog post, “Hypervigilance” for more information) directly related to narcissistic behaviors, which makes sense in light of his childhood experiences with his mother.
Despite the dangers of narcissism, it begins as an essential tool of survival. Think of a baby. Total narcissist. She cries with the full expectation that someone will come to meet her needs immediately, you might even say with a strong sense of entitlement, often becoming more agitated and angry as time passes by without bringing to her whatever it is she thinks she needs in that exact moment. And we, as parents and caregivers, rush to meet her needs, of course, with little care for what we may need at the moment. And the baby certainly gives no thought to our needs—is in fact incapable of giving any thought to our needs. Without this level of complete self-absorption, babies would not survive. Without some level of self-centeredness, we as adults would go through our lives forgoing our most basic needs, which we often do, for various reasons: conflict avoidance, shame, low self-worth, we don’t want to “impose.” So, even in adulthood, some level of narcissism is healthy and necessary for us to have what we want and need in our lives.
Is the answer to narcissism less focus on the self? Yes and no. It’s a balance. I advocate a very high level of focus on the self, for all of the reasons cited in these posts about introspection (and all over my website and other writings). Yet, focus on the self need not ever come at the expense or to the exclusion of focus on others; friends, co-workers, strangers, and even animals. Introspection should be balanced with “transcendence,” which I describe in a chapter with that same name in Firewalking on Jupiter, by which I mean simply to move out from and beyond yourself. Introspection is looking and moving inward. Transcendence goes in the other direction: looking and moving outward. The capacity to do both, often, and sometimes at the same time, can give you the flexibility to interact with others and with the world that is adaptable to your needs, the needs of others, and even just the beauty of being in and with nature, music, art, or the person lying next to you in bed. Imagine yourself at the edge of “you.” You have inside of you all of your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, attitudes, desires, goals. Outside of you there are people, nature, food, activities, work, finances, the necessities of daily life and the ups and downs of various circumstances. You stand on a line right at the edge of both, just within yourself, aware of both whatever is happening within you and aware of whatever is happening outside of you, travelling within and outside of yourself to engage with whatever is most important at the moment. This is the balance of introspection and transcendence.
The answer to narcissism is not less introspection, but more, although with different motivations at different times. Use introspection to know yourself, what you want and need and figuring out how and from whom you can most appropriately meet those wants and needs. That’s the first step. Yes, it is self-centered, so far, but it isn’t narcissistic yet, because it leaves open the possibility that you will also be able and willing to entertain and meet the needs of others, while also meeting your own needs. That’s the second step. Listen to others, often. Then use introspection to find out what others might want or need from you, and how they will be effected by your asking them to meet your needs. What will change for them if you do ask, and they agree, to meet your wants and needs. And what have you learned by listening to them about what they might want and need from you—are you willing to meet their needs too?
Now we are back to “intersubjectivity” as described in Introspection Part 7. Intersubjectivity is not the opposite of narcissism. It is a counterpoint, a check on narcissism. By practicing both introspection, focused on self-awareness, and intersubjectivity, you will be able to explore and obtain your wants and needs while avoiding the pitfalls of self-absorption—which involves allowing your focus on yourself to come at the expense of others. With intersubjectivity as part of introspection, you will demand from yourself, as well I hope from others, that you always consider both your needs and theirs, never just one or the other. And then, when you’ve decided on your own which needs you think are most important (starting with yours, but not always yours), you will be able to improve things for yourself, while also having the chance to improve circumstances for others. In the end, a balanced practice of introspection, transcendence and intersubjectivity can help you improve all of your relationships, while ensuring that a high level of introspection does not lead to narcissism.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.