Lion Goodman’s 5-Step plan to get over the addiction of self obsession.
Some men may find they have been labeled as “narcissists” but the word is tricky, because it can be used as a clinical psychopathology, “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” or it can refer to regular, run-of-the-mill, everyday selfishness, also known as egotism. Regardless of the word’s usage, we need a set of simple practices to transform our narcissistic behaviors (which sabotage and damage our relationships) into caring and connecting behaviors. It’s not easy to heal selfishness, but it’s possible.
Almost all of us (men and women alike) exhibit some narcissistic behaviors. We were narcissistically wounded by our parents, because they didn’t know how to love us in a healthy way. They were the products of unhealthy love by their parents, as were their parents before them. It’s time to break this trans-generational chain that we’ve inherited. The pattern can be stopped here.
There is a wide spectrum of selfishness, from self-care and self-focus to self-absorbed and truly egotistical. At the extreme end is narcissism, which is seeing the world from Self-View exclusively. To a narcissist, other people are merely instruments they can use to achieve their desires. Everything is seen from the perspective, “What’s in it for me?” The true narcissist doesn’t care about the impact of their choices on other people.
We are all selfish to some extent. The question is: to what extent? If you have healthy selfishness, you take good care of yourself, making sure that you have what you need to survive and thrive, and you include others as well — your family, your friends, and your community.
You can find out where you are on the spectrum by asking, “Who and what do I care about?”
If the answer is “only myself” or “only my life,” you’re on the deep end of the pool, and there’s a good chance you’ll drown in your own ego. Our culture praises rugged individuals, self-made millionaires, and Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. But the reality of life is that we are ALWAYS in relationship with others, and they count, too.
Children are naturally selfish, but as we mature, we’re supposed to evolve out of it. Growing up means including others’ needs and desires in our decisions and choices. In order to have a great relationship with a romantic (or business) partner, you need to care for them as much or more than you care about yourself. If your partner has called you selfish, complains about how much time you’re away, or how little you pay attention to her (or him), you’ve got some work to do.
Narcissism functions like any addiction, such as drugs or alcohol. What starts out as pleasurable becomes habitual, and then we can’t stop. We feel pleasure when we’re fulfilling our needs and desires — but when we start disregarding the needs and desires of others, it bends toward egotism. Full-blown narcissists typically have fewer friends and loved ones who care about them — because others don’t feel equally cared for. Take a look around. If your self-focus consistently has a negative impact on others, your selfishness could be viewed as an addiction.
Addictions require a recovery plan, such as those provided by 12-Step groups, along with a community of support. It takes time and steady effort to change habitual patterns. Unfortunately, our culture hasn’t yet classified narcissism as an addiction, so we have to begin by healing ourselves. Narcissism has a cause, and a cure. Take steps forward to heal what keeps you separate, alone, and focused on yourself.
You can take the first steps by engaging in awareness practices. If we were advertising a new pharmaceutical, we’d have to say, “Check with your doctor (or your partner) to find out whether being unselfish is right for you…”
Your brain was wired for selfishness over decades, so you can expect it to take time to re-wire your brain’s old patterns. The building blocks are practices you can engage in every day, starting now:
1) Pay Attention to Your Attention
If human attention was a liquid, an instrument could be made to measure its flow and direction. But you don’t need a meter – simply observe where your attention flows. What percentage of your attention flows outward, toward others, and what percent flows inward, to your own thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and interests?
If a lot more of your attention is on yourself in any given period (such as an hour, or a day), you may have some important inner work to do. (If 100% of your attention is on others, you’re also imbalanced — you could be a saint, or be co-dependent.) Your attention should be balanced between focus-on-self and focus-on-others. A good target is 1/3 on yourself, and 2/3 on others.
If you find yourself pretending to listen to the other person, but you’re mostly inside yourself, thinking, analyzing or judging, try pushing your attention out of your own head and into theirs. Focus on what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it, and also where they’re coming from as they talk. Try to achieve 100% of your attention on them, and 0% on yourself (it’s challenging, but possible), even for a few moments. Notice what happens to the quality of the conversation. Practice, practice, and practice some more. It’s a muscle that gets built over time.
2) Care About Your Care
Caring is similar to attention, but it comes from the heart, rather than the mind. Feel your heart for a moment, and ask yourself the question, “Who do I care about?” If your list has only one person on it (Me!), you’re a narcissist, and you probably don’t have any real friends (unless your friends are also narcissists). If your list extends to your spouse, children, family, friends, and colleagues, you measure high on the Caring Quotient. If you want a better life, extend your care to a wider circle.
As an exercise, feel your heart inside your body and the sensations around your heart. Then, extend that feeling outward, toward another person’s heart. Pretend that you have a sensor at the end of this “finger,” and feel what the other person is feeling, inside of their body. We all have this perceptual ability, but it’s gone dormant from lack of use. It might feel weird at first, but keep practicing. Eventually, you’ll be able to keep it “on” for longer periods of time, feeling those around you. (If you’re a man: this is how most women perceive the world.)
Note that you’ll feel others’ pain as well as their joy, which is why most people shut down this perceptual apparatus. When you add love and compassion to your flow of heart-attention, you’ll be able to feel others’ pain without getting caught up in it. Use this technique in your primary relationship, with your kids, and your work colleagues. They will feel cared for, and your relationships will deepen.
3) Put Your Finger on Your Triggers
All of us get triggered from time to time, and we each have default behavior patterns that happen automatically. Anxiety-based personalities tend to escalate, blame, pursue, or manipulate. Avoidance-based personalities tend to disconnect, withdraw and isolate. (For a more detailed explanation and training, visit www.ConfusedAboutLove.com.) If you get easily insulted or annoyed, and you react with anger or nastiness, you have some serious inner work to do. Identify your trigger-type, and learn practices to use in those moments that can bring you back to a peaceful, caring, and connected place.
If you find yourself in reaction a lot of the time, and you want to cultivate more peaceful relationships, begin with mindfulness practices. A great place to start is the book Just One Thing by Dr. Rick Hanson.
4) Reach Out and Touch Someone — Lots of Someones
Happy people have large spheres of connections to other people who they care about. According to numerous studies, the number of social ties one has is a very reliable indicator of happiness.
Expand the number and quality of your connections to others by reaching out to those you know, and spend time with them. Go deep by asking them big questions, such as, “What’s important to you?” Reveal more of who you are, and become willing to be vulnerable and seen. When you nurture your connections with care and attention, you’ll have more love in your life. You’ll slowly wean yourself away from the fixation of self-absorption, and find more than healing — you’ll find true happiness.
Life is hard enough. We need each other to survive and thrive. We are social creatures, and we need to feel connected to others. When the other person’s needs are as important as your own, you’re on your way to healing your narcissism. If your focus is solely on yourself, you’re missing out on the best parts of life.
This is a life-long project. Take it from one who knows: I’m a recovering narcissist myself. I can tell you with authority that the rewards are endless. They include greater love, happiness, and connection. It’s what the narcissist in us really wants, and your constant effort in healing yourself is the only way to be genuinely fulfilled.
Image Credit: atouchofhoney13/Flickr
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