Narcissism versus Authenticity

There are a lot of posts on facebook about “not caring” what other people think about you. Predominantly I see these posts as being supportive and healthy ( I will explain why a bit later), but someone made a comment which made me question my point of view. The comment was something along the lines of “isn’t this a bit narcissistic?” and I though “Hmm, interesting point”.

Now I’m not any kind of psychologist, I have studied psychology and counselling, but I would describe myself predominantly as a sociologist, so my understanding of narcissism is pretty much that of an amateur. As I understand it, a narcissist is a person who is vain and obsessed with themselves, they are cut off from other people and totally self indulgent. They really don’t care what other people think about them, in a totally unhealthy way.

But, it is equally unhealthy for people to be totally dependent on other people for approval. As a child we are preprogrammed to seek our parent’s approval and love, it’s a survival trait, parents who don’t approve of, or love, us are going to make our childhood rotten. So we will make almost any compromise to get that approval. The trouble is that as children our understanding of the world and our parents is not very well developed, it can’t be, we don’t have any experience.

Some parents are so damaged themselves that they cannot approve and their understanding of “love” is a bitter and twisted thing. Someone who has never experienced unconditional love is always going to struggle to feel, and show, unconditional love for someone else. This is the root of many of these facebook posts. Trying to give people the strength to resist the pressures to seek approval from others because they never managed to get that approval from their parents.

We are all under enormous pressure to conform. What we are supposed to conform to is an interesting conundrum. What many people don’t realise is that we are pressured to conform to different expectations, in different circumstances, at different times. It’s a trick even a contortionist couldn’t manage.

Once we have realised that we cannot twist ourselves into knots just to please other people, we then have to try to work out who we “really” are. We have to find the authentic being.

This is something of a struggle, there are many theorists who believe that we wear different masks when dealing with different people and the authentic person is hidden behind those many masks. To paraphrase Shrek people are like onions they have many layers. This is true to a point, but is overly simplistic and misleading. There are certainly things that we will only reveal to people we trust, and different levels of trust mean different levels of self revelation.

But humans are much, much more complex than that. Imagine your personality is a ball of wool (I feel very woolly sometimes), the thread represents different aspects of your beliefs and behaviours. Got it? Now imagine that a kitten has played with that ball of wool. Yes? It’s a tangled mess, some bits have become knotted together, other bits have come lose and don’t look like they really are part of that ball at all. I think that is more like a personality.

I think we use different bits of that tangled mess when we need to, as we deem appropriate. We don’t wear masks, we don’t necessarily reveal everything, we couldn’t if we wanted to. We are seldom not ourselves, even when we are acting. We only understand other people’s behaviour through the lens of our own understanding and experience. Therefore, to a greater extent, we are authentic.

Authentic people are engaged, caring, involved with other people (not too many other people). When we do things that make us uncomfortable, that don’t sit right with us, we are still ourselves, we are just making bad choices and part of us knows that, it is that part of us that is trying to warn us against the choices that we are making. When we start making good choices sometimes they are so unfamiliar that we are afraid they may be bad choices too, but once we get past that fear and relax we can start to be comfortable with ourselves and feel less like a tangled mess and more like a unique work of art.

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