They speak to me.
Some days I feel like a fresh-faced Leonardo Dicaprio standing at the front of the Titanic screaming “I’m The King of the World!”; on other days I’m struck with this sinking feeling, like I’m completely lost, confidence at rock-bottom, everything drowning in a dark cloud of meaninglessness.
This rollercoaster ride betwixt the poles of self-love and self-hatred is inevitable, because we are fundamentally obsessed with our ‘self’ – that is ‘self’ with a small ‘s’.
In the last few years, I have realised ever more deeply that this self-obsession is endemic in our culture.
This is what I call the ‘Narcissism Trap’.
Narcissism is helpfully defined as:
‘love directed towards the image of oneself’
When we love an ‘image’ of our self we are not loving our real Self with a capital ‘S’ (more on this below). When we love an image of our small ‘s’ self, there is a split in our minds, a separation between the one who gives the love, and the one who receives it. This giving and receiving of love is really just a replication of our experience of being parented. Our parents, no matter how loving, would have witheld their love from us at times when we didn’t do what they wanted or expected us to. The bits of us that they withheld love from become the discarded, disowned, shadow parts of our self. We create beliefs about ourself – e.g. When I don’t do what I am told I am not lovable. Our parents also gave us love when we did the things they really wanted us to do. These are the parts of us that we may find easier to love. We create beliefs about our self – when I do what I am told, I am lovable.
Can you begin to see how this dialogue between internalised images of your self runs around in your own mind? The giving and withholding of love that we all suffer from to varying degrees forms the core of the ‘Narcissism Trap’.
On top of this in-built ego-structure, there are parts of this modern Western world we live in that seduce us into the Narcissism Trap with promises of our own potential fabulousness. We are galloping into the ‘selfieverse’ – a new era where digital technology is giving us all platforms to be broadcasters and admirers of our own self-image. If Narcissus had lived in these times, he wouldn’t be looking at his own reflection in the waterpool, he’d be checking himself out on his new Iphone 7. In the original myth, Narcissus has been punished for rudely rejecting the love of the mountain nymph Echo – his punishment is a terminal fascination with the beauty of his own reflection, to the extent that he loses the will to live. He continues to stare at his disembodied reflection until he dies. This phrase is worth repeating for dramatic resonance: He continues to stare at his disembodied reflection until he dies. What a perfect encapsulation of the darker side of narcissism in the digital age.
Recent political events have proven that social media platforms seduce that part of us that only wants to look at our own reflections. This is called the ‘echochamber’ effect. We are all now slowly waking up to the fact that we have been drunk-in-love staring at our own disembodied reflections, whilst the world is aflame. But don’t blame Facebook algorithms – they only feed into an already-present-and-willing part of our psyche. In Adam Curtis’s new documentary, we see footage of an old artificallly intelligent computer called Eliza, that was based on a type of therapy called person-centered therapy. The computer literally just repeats back everything you say, and people report feeling so much better after this interaction, despite the fact its with a robot. This shows that having our self reflected back to us makes us feel secure, and this is a basic premise on which Facebook, Google and other digital platforms are designed. With a world dominated by such narcissistic technology, we shouldn’t be surprised that the most Narcissistic candidate of all time won the recent US elections – Donald Trump is a perfect manifestation of these self-centric times (obligatory Trump reference tick).
- In their book, ‘The Narcissism Epidemic’, Jean Twenge and colleagues look at the data from surveys of millions of people over the last few decades, and conclude that narcissistic personality traits (e.g. self-promotion, inflated sense of own abilities/specialness, materialism, entitlement, desire for uniqueness, treating others like objects) rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present. Since the turn of the century, these traits seem to have risen even faster.
- A 2006 poll asked children in Britain to name “the very best thing in the world.” The most popular answer was “being a celebrity.” “Good looks” and “being rich” rounded out the top three. “God” came in last.
- In a recent psychological study, almost 75 percent of students rated themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago.
The reasons why we are becoming more narcissistic are of course far more complicated than just the ability to take selfies. At the root of the problem, we have been telling ourselves a distorted truth about human nature – namely that we are self-centered at our core (even our genes are Selfish according to some). Our institutions are built on this core idea of the self-interested individual. The modern economy, for example, is built on Adam Smith’s revolutionary idea that if a private, typically selfish individual is given the freedom to pursue his ‘naturally’ self-centered interest – to make more money by selling things to people – this will be better for other selfish individuals, as there will be more jobs and better things for people to enjoy. Egoism = altruism. The same can be said of our education system, where individual achievement is prized, self-esteem lies at the core of most emotional programmes, and there is virtually no space to celebrate or reward collaboration. What kind of subliminal messages do you think these systems give to our children (and to us) about human nature?
Now for the good news…
Human beings are intrinsically altruistic.
Compassion is built-in to our biology.
Charles Darwin – known primarily for his ‘surival of the fittest’ theory of evolution – in fact believed sympathy to be humankind’s strongest quality
. We have ‘mirror neurons’ in our brain which mean when we see another in pain we feel it directly as though the pain were our own. You have a nerve in your body that runs from the bottom of your brain to your stomach that is designed to help you feel calm and compassionate to others. Its called the Vagus Nerve and it carries the love hormone Oxytocin. These altruistic traits are present from the earliest days of our existence.
In a 2007 study, Yale University developmental psychologists found that even six-month-old infants demonstrate an affinity for empathic behavior, preferring simple dolls they have seen helping others over visually similar bullies.
So the ‘Narcissism Trap’ brushes under its red carpet an essential part of our biological inheritance.
NOW is the time for us all to take responsibilty – to cultivate the compassionate, care-giving part of our selves so that we can together counter this trend towards self-centeredness. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for.
How can we do this? How can we avoid the Narcissism trap – break free from the echochamber of our own minds? Here are some of my suggestions, but I hope this article prompts you to consider your own ideas.
- First take this narcisissm test and see how you rate currently.
- Make sure you have at least one critical friend in your life. This isn’t someone who criticises you as a person, but rather someone who is willing to challenge even your most precious assumptions. It can be a teacher, a therapist, or an actual friend. Hint: its not your mum! Follow feeds on social media that you might not normall agree with. They can act like your critical friend too. A good teacher is not someone that answers your questions, but someone who questions your answers.
- Practice deep listening: next time you are in conversation with a friend, family member, or colleague, practice letting go of your own personal agenda and listen with an open heart to what the other person is sharing. This is one the best heart-centered meditations you can practice.
- Read a Novel – In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic.
- Digital Detox: to avoid staring at your disembodied self-reflection as represented by digital devices, take some time each day and ideally one whole day a week to turn off all devices and check in with your self. Dr Sherry Turkle found that when high-school students were sent to ‘device-free’ summer camps, empathy levels went up after only five days. Amazing, but not surprising.
- Practice gratitude: gratitude is the perfect counter-balance to our narcissistic tendencies. When we practice gratitude daily, we focus on what we already have rather than what we deserve to have but don’t.
- Recognise the social connections that make everything possible: no man is an island, no one can exist without the support of others, even if that support is as seemingly distant as the Rwandan farmer who produced the coffee you drank this morning. The Dalai Lama says “we have not done one single thing alone, without the help of a small army of others, and yet we walk around talking about the necessity and supremacy of independence. It’s completely irrational.” By acknolwedging the connections that bind us we engender an authentic humility and appreciation.
- Do something kind for your neighbours – especially if you have any elderly neighbours, offer to help them with their shopping, make them a meal, ask them if they need any help. These kind of actions create real, inclusive community.
- Collaborate – Whatever you are involved in, cultivate a mindset of collaboration. Because of the internet and the digital tools at our disposal it is easier than ever before for an individual to create an online presence, realise their own unique vision, and reach many people. This empowerment is wonderful and potentially democratising, but the dark side is that we are moving towards a world of fragmentation and rampant individualism. In a world where everyone is standing on their own soapbox, we end up standing ‘alone, together’, expecting more from technology than we do from each other, to quote Sherry Turkle’s brilliant book.
- Connect to your Self with a capital ‘S’: remember, the self with a small ‘s’ is the narcissistic one, the one that gives and withdraws love, the one lost in a hall of mirrors, a monologue or echo-chamber in your thinking mind. Connect with your greater Self right now by paying attention to that quiet space at the centre of your chest, the hridaya or spiritual heart. This space is your gateway. In this place there is no monologue, no judgment, no sense of entitlement. There is only Unconditional Love and Infinite Peace. Just try it and you will see.