We can presume cultural and social narratives such as individualism and neoliberalism are the source of so-called narcissism — an inflationary term to explain arrogance, a sense of superiority, demand for control and negative evaluation of others. We may get the impression we surround ourselves by people acting entitled, self-centred, seeking power, success and significance. Narcissism per definition is the pursuit of gratification fromvanity oregotistic admiration of one’s idealised self-image and attributes. The term originated fromGreek mythology, where the youngNarcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. Neoliberalism is a term for different social and economic ideas to transfer control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. It tends towards free-market capitalism and individual responsibility and away from government spending, regulation, and public ownership.
Most don’t see narcissistic behaviours acting out desires of being better, more and recognised — far past reasonable utility. A counter-strategy assumes a sense of not being or having enough, an underlying sense and fear of being average, or not being significant or lovable. Cynicism, criticism, arrogance or coolness are emotional carapaces – converted into “guns” they suggest being an effective defence mechanism to cover our own insecurities and to hurt the ones that show vulnerability and trigger our own discomfort. For instance, when you point out to yourself that someone else is dumb, you imply you yourself are smart, and this gives you an enjoyable feeling. Emotional carapaces have downsides, though. The inability and avoidance to find, tolerate and seek negative emotions is of its own confinement.
Human connections are the reason we are in this world — our interconnectedness is part of the very meaning of life. Brené Brown, who is a researcher exploring the concepts of vulnerability and shame states that to connect, we have to embrace our vulnerability and allow ourselves to show. It’s not to experience comfortableness or vulnerability, it means to acknowledge who you are and that you cannot control and predict the behaviour of other people or what lies ahead. Likewise, it requires a positive measure of awareness of cultural narratives and personal unconsciousness patterns influencing the ways of our perception, belief systems and behaviour. Above all, we should ask for courage to be imperfect and a willingness to liberate the person you think you should be, to be the person you are.
The current crisis makes the myth more obvious a society based on individualism, for instance, the need of being independent and pursuing personal freedom — can not flourish and be sustainable. Growing up, we are often taught an over-inflated value of independence, to be self-contained, with a chief value placed on not needing others for emotional support. We hung up on a damaging idea of self-reliance as we base our identities on narratives, the stories we are telling ourselves. As human beings, we too dispose ourselves to adopt narratives based on groups we belong to.
Now, in the ongoing isolation situation, we might realise even more loneliness and disconnection can be harmful to us. As valuable as having a sense of independence and self-reliance is, this can impede us being able to connect with others in meaningful ways and might prevent us from being interdependent. An interdependent person recognises the value of vulnerability, even though it causes feelings of weakness and unworthiness, but still has the courage to show themselves without a need to hide their vulnerability. Interdependence is different to codependency – the tendency to rely on others for the sense of self and well-being. Interdependence as a precondition for inter-connectedness involves a balance of self and others with relationships, recognising that being present and meeting each other’s emotional needs in meaningful ways is important.
Neoliberalism has taught us responsibility for ourselves because individualism has taught us seeking for more. By basing both concepts on a culture of lack when the constant thought of not being able to rely on someone else, not being enough or not receiving enough recognition, self-expression, experience, money, love or freedom causes a constant evaluation and comparison with others and is self-destructive. This is because we measure our lives, partnerships and careers with cultural ideas that influence us and do not align to our own values.
The antidote to lack is not exuberance – these antonyms are two sides of a coin. The restorative the pandemic might offer to us is the appreciation and nourishment of what we already have – within us and with others.
Essay by Florence Jimenez Otto, published on NSNS May 2020