Narcissism has taken centre-stage in the past couple of years, appearing in psych articles and newsfeeds more than any other personality problem (with the exception of sociopathy). Investigations into things like “When your boss is a narcissist” and “What’s it like to date a narcissist?” are shared and chronicled as much as anything else remotely medical. Which all makes sense; narcissists can be giant assholes, and we’re naturally curious about the mental mechanics behind asshole behaviour. I’m reading a book at the moment that makes a strong case for differentiating between assholes and narcissists (literally called Assholes: A Theory), but only in the sense that you can be an asshole and not be a narcissist; most narcissists are still assholes.
The thing about narcissism, is that it’s so heavily defined by a lack of empathy and regard for the feelings of others that the other traits within the definition often go unchecked when uncoupled from the rest. There’s obviously a strong correlation between ego and a lack of empathy in most cases, ergo the pervasiveness of NPD, but I think most of us intuit there to be another group separate from the personality disorder: those who are simply up themselves. Vain individuals self-enamoured to the point of it defocusing and inhibiting the very traits and talent they’re enamoured by. We all know one (or dozens), and as teenagers, most of us probably went through a period of it ourselves.
I don’t think this group has had as much attention as it should have. It’s fair enough to assume that a problem benign to the outside world and invisible to the person with it has less broader social imperative, though. It’s not pervasive, just repulsive. It also tends to be non-persistent. By virtue of it’s benign nature, pronounced vanity tends to promote immediate feedback from close friends more than most faux pas do; an important cog in the necessary filtration of bullshit from our personalities. The vanity itself may be irrational or rational in nature (but always rationalised), but it always looks the same: conceited, self-indulged, self-aggrandised. Sometimes arrogant, sometimes disinterested, and at the far end of the spectrum, when it escalates to egomania, always a spectacle.
The pervasion of vanity is mostly internal. Self-indulgence denotes self-focus, in turn denoting a division of focus between self and whatever task is at hand. When the egotistical person does anything, they’re self-consciously aware (or disillusioned) of their own prowess at doing it (especially if there’s any to begin with). The moment said prowess is perceived in motion, the egotistical person becomes conscious to it, fragmenting their focus and slowing their cognitive momentum to a halt. It becomes self-defeating behaviour, and it can be triggered by everything from genuine accomplishment, to excessive drug use, to false feedback, to trauma.
For someone vain to be more congenial and socially egalitarian, I think the change needs to be at the atomic level. It isn’t enough to simply mask feelings of self-enamouration; to feign modesty when you really think you’re king shit: these feelings have to be eradicated to the core. They’re nothing more than weedy vines wrapped around a person’s personality, that choke the organic growth of abilities through experience.
Inflated ego is all about unnecessary advocacy, whether to ourselves or to the outside world. It’s often correlated with a low self-esteem (in pretty much the exact same way ‘small dog barking syndrome’ exists) but it can be seen in people of all varied levels of mental and emotional stability. Correlations in the data exist, but point is, vanity’s up in our grill constantly, from all kinds of different people.
To transition from an unhealthy level of egotism to a regular sense and response around merit isn’t difficult in theory—it’s simply not thinking some things after all—but like any meaningful personal growth, the practical application can be pretty cumbersome at first. It primarily requires one thing: plain old curiosity. That’s the hook; the force propelling our interest and attention towards stuff existing outside of ourselves. Self-awareness of having a problem is also paramount, but it’s penultimate in importance to curiosity: without feeling curious about the world and other people, there’s little left for a pure and undivided attention to be drawn to. Thoughts can compound and potentially lead our minds into mild-psychosis. We need to find something else in the universe more interesting than ourselves.
Key to marshalling this kind of change within a person is a developed sense of moment-to-moment mindfulness. To pull out a weedy thinking pattern, being objective and observant, and non-reactive about our emotions, is the first step; the point when a second thought starts appearing in succession that makes an observation about the first. “Looks like I’m getting irrational and anxious, better slow down…” etc. We’ve all had them; being mindful is just having them all of the time. It’s an entire cognitive faculty unto itself, but unlike most others, has an extremely high uptake for growth and development. Meditation—the right kind—is tailored to building mindfulness with the precision of a heat-seeking missile, and with the effectiveness of training a muscle group at the gym. It’s literally a work-out for the mind, and functions as a crucial tool in the journey from vanity to humility.
At the Inception level of egotistical thinking—where the idea that we’re a special person exists—change is also key. Being genuinely curious involves subtracting the human value scale and beginning to see other people as equal vessels of experience to our own, by not even considering them as equal or otherwise to begin with. And besides, I’m pretty sure there’s no philosophical argument for being special that doesn’t, in some way, imply that all people are special. Calling anything special immediately implies a spectrum of qualification, and no matter how mild the ‘specialness’ of a person is, they will always be, in some way, special relative to the rest of the population. It’s such an insanely subjective word, the very lack of special in a person could in itself be special enough to make them special.
I think ‘special’ applies better to acts of character than character itself. We’re a fundamentally communal species, that functions on the back of our performance as people. Who we are makes no difference: it’s what we do that matters (which you’ve probably read and heard enough times for it to be physically imprinted on your hippocampus). There’s no point getting wasted all day thinking we can do something; a hundred million other people won’t have any hesitation in surpassing our tangible achievements when we falter. Thinking we’re special not only has zero value, but it also stifles our thirst for betterment by making us excessively satisfied—enamoured—with our present selves, rendering us partly impotent to the allure of achieving goals and supporting other people.
Vipassana meditation teaches us to let go of ego entirely. It translates to, “to see things as they really are”; it’s pure mindfulness meditation, Buddhist-influenced but secular, that focuses the attention on unregulated breathing and isolated body sensations irrespective of sensations elsewhere on the body, even hardcore physical pain. It trains balance in the mind by giving it the tools to avoid the natural impulse to reaction, by teaching it to observe thoughts and emotions rather than jump at them. When committed to and practiced with discipline, it makes a person selfless, clearer-minded, more centred and balanced, relaxed, compassionate, focused and purpose-driven. It’s easily the best practical remedy for problems of vanity, and even if these things tend to get better on their own over time (in most cases), taking control of it and becoming the person we want to be—someone, at least, who doesn’t have their head up their ass—through nothing more than our own grit and determination, makes the change infinitely more likely to remain.
Today’s blog was written by a guy who’s booked in for another 10 day Vipassana course, starting in a couple of weeks.