I watched ‘Wonder’ based on the novel by the same name on a plane; then I binge-watched season two of ‘Working Moms’ on Netflix to overcome my jetlag. Oddly, they stacked up nicely with a book I’m re-reading called ‘Ways of Seeing’, by John Berger.
They link Narcissism, defense mechanisms and the common desire to “fit” in. As it turns out, how we perceive ourselves and those around us, are connected by an invisible string that extends from our ego all the way to how we navigate the world.
They reminded me that when I was 14, a grown-up who was meant to be insightful and guiding, told me I seem like someone with a signaling issue. Apparently “I transmit but I don’t receive”. At the time, I was caught off guard and felt really hurt by the comment. But now I see it differently. Shortly after, someone else, a much closer grown-up, accused me of being selfish, and it stung. Again, at the time it upset me but what it means to me now has also changed.
Can you hear me Major Tom
This is not to say what I thought then was wrong and how I interpret it now is right. It’s just all a note of how subjective everything is, and how perspective shifts as our positioning in life changes. My perspective on how good and bad manifest themselves differently with people and how these manifestations are seldom insights to who those people really are, and that they are rather reflections of their own innermost struggles, shifted as adulthood/maturity and parenthood kicked in.
But back to being 14. I was mortified at the thought that I may be as vile as I thought I was being told I that I was, and, I began to wonder if it’s true and how I can morph myself into someone “better”.
See, at the time, as a young teenager (basically a kid), I seldom responded to adults the way they expected and had a clear mind about who I was very attuned to how I felt and what I thought. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind and I had clear boundaries that made authority figures of any age very uncomfortable. Some found it bemusing (usually people my age who wanted a challenge) and others saw it to mean that I needed to be shown who’s boss (basically adults who wanted obedience).
It was hard being that way. I was constantly challenged and I had to keep talking to myself, checking in and making sure I knew what I was saying or doing. Of course, most of the time I didn’t have a clue.
But I was motivated by my intentions and guided by what I now know to be my intuition. I may have been a frustrated self-asserting if-slightly-aggressive single-minded girl, but I was striving to be true and authentic – shouldn’t that be all that matters?
Nice is the worst thing to be
As I got older and there were a lot more things I needed to invest my emotions fight against or fighting for, I began to feel weary of always having my voice strained and fists up (mostly proverbially but at times it was literal too). Being sassy and pretending not to care what people think of you is exhausting when you’re also raging with hormones, working through a myriad of issues, and trying to figure out what you wanted to study, what you wanted to do and who you wanted to be.
I grew tired of always arguing with everyone. As my confidence wavered so did my priorities, and, I started to bend to the ways of the world. The outcome felt weirdly good. Basically, after my early twenties, I became “nicer” and as time went by, the more amicable, palpable, I was, the easier things seemed. I felt “liked”. I guess people tend to like you more when you are softer around the edges and when you stay out of their blind spot.
But being “nice” is problematic. In fact, being nice isn’t “being” anything at all. Being kind or considerate or thoughtful are far more impactful and sincere ways to connect with others. To be nice simply means to be diplomatic; and while that is a good skill to learn, it doesn’t do anything for meaningfulness and authenticity. And it kind of kills your soul.
Narcissus and Pygmalion
According to Dr. Nicole LePera aka my IG go-to guru Narcissism is “a survival state resulting from the severe emotional trauma that manifests as the inability to see another.” That is not to say that she is right – but reading that felt right to me.
When we learned the story of Narcissus in Arabic class in the 11th grade, I remember feeling bad for him, that he would be so taken by something as trivial as beauty, let alone that it turns out to be his own, that he dedicates all his precious time to it.
It was around then that I also read Ovid’s Metamorphoses based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and it left me with the exact same melancholy. How sad is it that a sculptor would fall in love with a statue he himself carved.
Those tales must have resonated with me for a reason. Of course, in class, I shrugged them off as more reading material we could do without.
I see now that being “liked” for being “nice” as a young adult was my way of compensating for the guilt I had for being liked because I was seen as “cute” or “pretty” before then. There was attention given and compliments paid about my appearance and I became conscious of that when I was around 12.
This is by no means a complaint. I’m well aware that it’s a first-world problem: Boohoo to me for getting attention. Of course, I fully know that most of the people paying the compliments were doing so generously and kindly and it was very sweet. Still, there was a palpable problem.
I know how it sounds. But the truth is that the value of and the importance of physical appearance can be problematic. It can be stifling even when it isn’t intended to be. Depending on the person’s vulnerability, it is flattering at best, addictive at worst.
I was receiving attention – positive attention, for something I wasn’t accountable for. So, for a long time this validation I was receiving felt remote and removed from me so the unsolicited attention was confusing. I had no control over the things that people would comment on: “being pretty” was not something I couldn’t take credit for, so I had no way of valuing it except in the way that positive attention made me feel: good. And I wanted more of that feeling.
As I scurried away from childhood and into my early teens, I began to place weight on the value of being physically attractive because it was providing me with positive reinforcement at the same time that most of what I thought, felt and only sometimes said, seemed far less popular or appealing.
I started to think about how I looked, how I can look better, and began to suspect that the way people saw me had a direct relationship to the leveraging power I had in my school/community. It didn’t sit well with me and I didn’t try to exploit it; but, the connection was becoming obvious.
So as the world around me got complicated and I struggled to find my voice and was wearisome of always trying; I finally relied on more superficial things to get me ahead or mostly, just to get me by. I wasn’t aware of it at first, but, by the time I went to university, the consciousness felt like creeping self-realization that was dawning on me. And it was a little bit horrifying to admit.
It was sad in many ways. It filled me with guilt, disillusion, confusing and most of all – insecurity. The more I realized I needed others to validate me the more I hated myself for it, and, the more I realized I needed to start finding out who I really was again. I just wanted to stop caring what people thought me physically and just go back to feeling judged for who I really am at least.
To be honest, I always kind of knew that who I really would never be the most palpable and that the real work lies in having the boundaries, values, and self-worth to have healthy relationships with others. More importantly, with myself.
This brings us back to the way this long whinge began: being told my emotional transmitter is broken and that I’m selfish and that’s bad.
Peeling off labels
Other people, grown-up people, pass their values and perspective onto youngsters; and for me, it left me feeling attacked, exposed and vulnerable. So I hid.
First I hid behind the superficial facade of how I looked; then behind a more nuanced facade of how I acted. I couldn’t stop worrying about my reflection: a Narcissist. For the longest time, I felt like a closet self-hating one.
But recently, I’ve reverted to stepping out and preemptively proclaiming I am one. Being one means I am very good at recognizing it in others too and there are more of us than we ‘d like to admit.
Whether my responses to Narcissus or Pygmalion were sympathy, or even empathy (by way or having related to them personally), doesn’t really matter anymore to me. What matters is that they’re a manifestation of something that resonated with me; something that grew from being a self-assured child to a self-conscious teen, then, slowly, a very self-critical adult. It’s about what it takes for someone who was one way to get bent y into to be the other way.
Stop telling girls to smile
It explains why all the current parenting advise sirens warnings not to keep commenting on your children’s (especially daughter’s) appearance; not to sing the praises of every accomplishment your children achieve and to take a step back from the binary approach to naughty and nice.
I even finally get why there is a whole campaign asking the world to stop asking girls to smile. It’s infuriating to be asked to make things more comfortable for everyone around, namely the males around.
These cautionary advisories all warn against placing value on what others think of us. To do them means to reward someone for something they inherently have and not something they choose to nurture. They put pressure on children not to fail and therefore not to learn, and, sometimes not to bother trying. And finally, they place all the weight on meriting behavior – rather than understanding the cause of that affectation: mean girls are hurting too you know!
As a grown-ass woman who often wallows in self-punishment (and at times still the equal harsh blow onto others as well), it is becoming abundantly clear that a lot of time and work is needed to stop judging and completely accepting our younger selves in order to embrace our older, worse for wear, versions. In order to come into our own – and to actually feel we own our shit – we need to love and forgive who and how we were. In doing so we unshed the scabs (yuk) of past injuries and heal the scarring of our old egos.
It has taken me years to feel WORTHY, just for being me, regardless of what I look like or how my appearance has changed or aged. Most days I still don’t. I don’t think I am alone in this.
We are constantly being shown that to deserve love, we need to look a certain way, or act a certain way, and whether we admit it or not, we do pass on these imprints of self-value and worth to the next generation.
They SEE, they know
My daughters, who are just over four and six years old, ask me every morning why I put on makeup (those who know me know I put a little). Every evening they ask me why I put on serums and creams (Gua-Sha and whether retinol or not to retinol anyone?) I used to hide my routines from them, but as they get bigger they roam freely and come in to chat while I get ready for work (OK they see me apply makeup in the car to work) or when I am getting ready for bed. And honestly? I try to fudge the truth. But they call bullshit when they hear it.
“Who are you trying to impress anyway?” asks one. “You don’t want to just look exactly as yourself?” wonders the other.
“I don’t need to impress anyone but myself. I like looking the away that I do. This is to look after my skin (mucking up that concealers are vitamins) and to have a bit of fun (besides lipstick, honestly, getting ready every day is no fun at all).” Its half baked truths so they roll their eyes and leave me to it.
What I don’t dare to tell them because it’s far more complicated; is that while truly, how I look to others has finally come to mean less and less to me over the decades, still, how I am seen, heard and understood by others is the tricky one that I am still working hard daily to brush off.
Something tells me I’m not alone. So if you’re nearly middle-aged like me and owning up to your imperfections as you attempt to heal your ego and put up healthy boundaries, I hope you know you can always come to this spot to find someone who’s scarping worse than you are.
But if this rings zero truths to you – and that’s awesome – while you are free to judge all you want, please do have the common courtesy to leave your criticism at the door, because as you’ve read, I’m trying something new here.
A recovering self-proclaimed Narcissist