A few months ago I was working with one of my coaching clients, who was having trouble with all kinds of relationships. He was having difficulties with his intimate partner as well as with other people in his life. It seemed like my client had difficulty in empathizing with other people, and was more concerned with his own feelings. In an effort to understand him better and to be of greater service, I went on my Kindle to look for a book about narcissistic personality.
Turns out, there are plenty of books like that, but here is the strange thing. Every single one of them is written as self-help books of how to deal with…protect yourself from…create boundaries with…a narcissist. I could not find a single book on Amazon that was actually designed for people who recognize narcissistic tendencies in themselves and who would like to heal them.
Isn’t that strange? There are a gazillion books about how to deal with depression, or addiction, or grieving, but nothing on how to deal with narcissism in yourself. There are also all kinds of support groups for these same challenges, but I am curious, have you ever heard of a support group for recovering narcissists? I wonder why that is…do you think perhaps that there would be no market for it, or narcissists are too full of their own opinions and too busy defending themselves about being right to be interested in self-improvement? Anyway, I ended up buying three of those books and diving in. Lo and behold, to my horror, I discovered that this was not just relevant in helping me to coach my client. I was learning things about unconscious patterns to be found in that fella I see in the mirror every morning when I brush my teeth. I also realized that narcissistic tendencies (not to be confused with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, which is much more extreme) often go along with people writing books, becoming teachers, and developing a social media presence.
Think about it. If you go back to high school in your mind, all the empathetic people become caregivers, the shy people become academics, the highly creative people become painters or musicians. The narcissistic people, the ones who really enjoy a lot of attention and prefer to sound off their own theories about everything rather than take curiosity in other people, it is those people are going to instinctively look for career opportunities that allow them to fulfill their dreams of getting as much attention as possible.
Narcissism is often misunderstood. Culturally, we think of narcissistic people as the perpetrators, the ones who cause suffering to others, whereas empathetic or co-dependent people are the ones who suffer as a result, but narcissistic tendencies can also be a cause of suffering. It is not an easy place to live. First, it easily destroys relationships, so narcissists do not always have long-term nurturing people they can rely upon. They may remarry many times in their life. Narcissists also have a very low level of trust in being carried by a group or by the bigger force that takes care of all of us. A narcissist feels I have to do it myself, I have to strive to stand out. If I do not continuously struggle for attention, I will quickly be ignored and forgotten.
That is a sad and arid valley to live in all alone.
Having realized some narcissistic leanings in myself and seeing these same leanings in many of my clients (many of them are extraordinarily brilliant and make huge contributions), as well as having noticed the dearth of useful support for people who would like to heal themselves of these tendencies, I am offering you a couple of tips here today.
1. Remember The Fundamental Question
Most narcissists engage in communication and action involving other people driven by the question of “How can I feel better?” If I talk more loudly…if I make people laugh more…if I dominate the conversation…if I create an audience for myself…I am going to feel good. At least that is the idea, but it ends up being a superficial form of feeling good. If you recognize narcissistic tendencies in yourself and you would like to relax the contraction around them, you can simply keep this question present in your mind as often as possible: “How would I like the other person to feel? What experience would I like to create for this other person?”
Now, of course, a narcissist is only going to be willing to think of a question like that initially from a position of self-interest. That is how narcissists are, but there is nothing wrong with that as long as we move in the direction we want. It is fairly easy for a narcissistic person to understand that if I keep this question alive, “how would I like the other person to feel, what experience would I like to create for them,” the result will be deeper, longer lasting, and more nourishing relationships. The “what is in it for me” question has just been expanded to a 10 or 20-year timeframe instead of focusing on immediate gratification.
2. Any Form Of Prayer
There are lots of ways to pray, but almost any form of prayer will antidote narcissistic feelings. One simple prayer that I love, which Chameli and I use at night often before we go to sleep, is to say “thank you.”
Thank you for this delicious marriage.
Thank you for this lovely house in which we live.
Thank you for the furry cats who sleep on our bed.
Thank you for the lovely food in our kitchen.
Thank you for the garden.
You can keep saying thank you like this for as long as you want, you will never run out. When you say thank you, it restores that feeling of trust and the recognition that you are carried by a force bigger than yourself. It relaxes the striving to get more. You realize that you are really loved and taken care of, there is nothing missing.
The other great prayer that will instinctively revert narcissism is the perennial prayer that we find in any culture and tradition: “Thy will be done.” I love the Arabic innsh’allah, which means “God be willing.” If you repeat this frequently: handing everything over to the will of God, it will over time generate the feeling of trust and relaxation.
So there you have it: not so difficult. Although many narcissistic people do not particularly want to introspect or improve themselves (because they tend to think they are already better than everybody else) the perfect window to turn to practices like this is when things go wrong: when relationships break down, when there is loneliness, or a feeling of emptiness. If you notice any echos of narcissism in yourself, which most of us can find without having to look too deeply, I would love to hear from you if you have time to try out these simple practices.