I recently returned from my usual Spring retreat in Wales. The subject was everyday narcissism; not the pathological narcissism that is scarily prevalent in the world these days, but the narcissism that expresses itself in the need that we all have to shore up our images in our daily lives. If you want to find someone without an outer covering that they choose to show the world, you need to look at a very small child. You will not find here any of the machinations, subtle or unsubtle, that the rest of us employ in order to feel ok about ourselves. In a small child you find innocence, love, a range of emotions that are freely expressed, and a delightful spontaneity that all too soon disappears under the outward manifestations of the need to be liked, approved of and seen.
It's like we walk around with lots of post-it notes on us, so that people can know who we are - there's our work in life, our marital status, where we live, and who with. Then there are the ways we behave that are designed to mask what's really going on for us - like those smiles we smile when we don't feel like smiling, saying 'fine' to the question 'how are you?' when we are anything but fine, pretending we feel confident when actually we are nervous, acting interested when we’re bored, bigging ourselves up when we feel small.
When exploring these things, shining a light on them over several days, your hold on the image you like to project can become pretty shaky. You become closely acquainted with the gap between who you want to be on the outside and how you actually feel on the inside and it becomes all too clear what a sham the whole thing is.
And when you are a bit shaky it is very easy for insecurities to creep in. You look around you and suddenly other people seem more attractive, more confident, funnier, more accomplished than you. You look at one of these people and think, why can’t I be more like them?
Towards the end of our retreats we have a bonfire and we all gather around singing and telling stories. It is always the same few who lead these activities, accomplished, delightful individuals with enviable self-assurance, who teach us songs, tell funny stories, clown around. Why can’t I be one of these people? I started to ask myself. I should be leading the singing, telling stories, clowning around. And then there was a young woman, recently joined, whom I’d befriended. A small childlike figure with a beautiful face and a dynamo personality, she laughs and bubbles, she bounces around in her baggy trousers that sit charmingly on her tiny hips, a sloppy joe jumper on top and a beanie hat pulled down over her head. She manages to look cute and cool all at the same time. Why can’t I be like her? comes the voice. It made me feel absolutely rubbish.
The next day I was in a small teacher-led group and one of our number, a sweet young man with a gentle and nervous disposition, talked of his own particular difficulties in being dissatisfied with who he was, always comparing himself to people he would prefer to be like. The teacher talked with him a while and then she said,
‘ You know, Nick, you have only one job in life.. and that is to be the very best Nick you can be.’
There are moments in life when you are in exactly the right place at exactly the right time for words like these to land, explode in your consciousness and change things forever. For me it was like the heavens had opened and some angel had appeared to tell me the secret of life. All I had to do was be the very best me that I could be.
As this began to sink in I turned my attention to the supercool young woman I had aspired to be and I did a little reality check. I thought for a moment about what would need to happen for me to embody the various characteristics that I coveted in this young woman, and a moment was all that was really needed for me to see how absurd it all was. Apart from the 180 degree turn it would take to turn a quiet and thoughtful introvert into a bouncy and expressive extravert, there was the little matter of the inches that would have to come off my legs, and the layers that would have to be shaved off my bone structure in order to become this little urchin. Not to mention the years that would need to come off my age.
I laughed and turned my attention back towards myself and started to notice who I was, the gifts and the qualities that I had been given, and it struck me how much more enjoyable and do-able it was for me to be me, rather than her.
1. What parts of you are you regularly dissatisfied with, and what characteristics in others would you prefer to have?
2. How does that make you feel about yourself?
3. How does that make you feel about them?
4. What were you given when the gifts and personalities were handed out? What do these things enable to you to be and do in your life that gives you pleasure and satisfaction?
Enjoy being yourself this week. And next week. And the week after...