Mindfulness: An Antidote to Narcissism

The experts in the area of narcissism inform us that narcissism is not a single state but is a spectrum ranging from exhibiting narcissistic tendencies to having a narcissistic personality disorder.   They remind us that we all have narcissistic traits to a greater or lesser degree – shaped by the prevailing culture, our neurological/psychological makeup and/or the experience of being in a relationship with a narcissist (in a personal or work situation).  Whatever way you look at it, we have influences that can engender narcissistic behaviour on our part – the culture of individualism, entitlement and materialistic values is a seedbed for narcissism.

How can mindfulness help to reduce narcissism in our lives?

Experts in the area of narcissism and its impacts on psychological welfare identify a range of mindfulness meditations that can assist us to reduce narcissism in our own behaviour and to cope with the negative impacts of relationships (both work and personal) with people who are high on the narcissism spectrum.

  • Challenging self-stories – our negative self-stories can be compounded by experiencing the impact of a narcissist either in a personal or a work relationship.  The narcissist sets out to prove their superiority by diminishing other people and their achievements, by projecting their own weaknesses onto others and by criticising others relentlessly and sometimes publicly.  Their words and actions attack our self-esteem and sense of self-worth.  This aggressive behaviour is driven by a deep sense of vulnerability and a highly fragile ego.  The danger for us is that we can perpetuate this aggressive behaviour in our own lives through our acquired deep sense of unworthiness and fragility – we can become narcissistic ourselves by trying to protect our increasingly fragile egos.  Mindfulness meditation, focused on surfacing our negative self-stories and their origins, can help us to achieve a more balanced view of ourselves and our self-worth.
  • Cultivating healthy confidence – to offset deficit thinking and craving for attention.  Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, maintains that early childhood experiences, compounded by a relationship with a narcissistic person (either a boss or intimate partner), can undermine our sense of self-worth  He suggests that we can rebuild our self-esteem and self-confidence by being fully mindful of positive experiences – embedding them not only in our brain but also our body.  This involves paying attention to a positive experience, enriching it with feeling and bodily awareness and taking the time to absorb it so that it becomes part of our neural pathways.  Some of the positive experiences that can be the focus of mindful attention are being appreciated or cared for; experiencing at a very deep level our common humanity and interconnectedness; forgiving ourselves by “letting go” of criticism; or recognising our own knowledge, skills and competence.
  • Developing sympathetic joy to overcome envy and “I’m better than” thinking or acting – these attempts to establish “superiority’ reflect a central trait of the narcissist.  Bonnie Duran, a Professor of Social Work and Public Health, employs the Buddhist framework of “conceit” to explain the behaviour of a narcissist.  In Buddhist terms, conceit can be reflected in different forms – equality conceit (I’m as good as}, inferiority conceit (I’m worse than) and superiority conceit (I’m better than).  She maintains that narcissism is the extreme form of superiority conceit and that people who have experienced narcissism in their relationships can often display inferiority conceit.  While narcissists exhibit behaviour designed to demonstrate and/or gain superiority, we are each capable of exhibiting a need to prove we are “better than”.  Bonnie recommends meditation practices such as loving kindness (extending to ourselves as well as to others who have injured us), sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity, to deal with narcissism in our lives.  Sympathetic joy meditation helps us to recognise the envy that underpins the need to appear superior and to replace this with appreciation for the success of others.
  • Enhancing self-awareness through meditation – a way to counter narcissistic bosses, partners and parents.  Sandy Hotchkiss, clinical social worker and psychologist, is the author of the book, Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism.  She describes workplaces as arenas of power where bosses carve out their piece of turf.  Sandy stresses the need for self-knowledge as well as an understanding of narcissism and its impacts on psychological welfare.  Experience of a relationship with a narcissistic person (boss, parent or partner) can lead to a distorted self-perception through their manipulation, shaming, projection and exploitation.  Sandy recommends mindfulness and mindfulness practices to deepen self-knowledge to counter this self-distortion.   In this way, we can learn to identify our triggers, discover our habituated responses and develop self-management strategies to reduce the psychological harm we have suffered.
  • Meditating on the “need to please” – this neediness can arise from the abuse suffered at the hands of a narcissistic person.   Terri Cole, psychotherapist and expert in dealing with narcissistic relationships, maintains that psychological harm experienced as a child of a narcissistic parent leaves a person open to traumatic experiences when engaging in intimate relationships, especially with a narcissist.  Terri suggests that the childhood experiences of being the “scapegoat” can be reflected in later behaviour in taking on the role of “key enabler” through the disease to please.  She stresses the need to establish boundaries and develop true self-love.  To this end, Terri provides a series of meditations, a Boundary Bootcamp, a video channel and podcasts.
  • Meditations for dealing with trauma from an intimate relationship with a narcissistRhonda Freeman, a clinical neuropsychologist and creator of neuroinstincts.com, experienced an intimate relationship with someone who suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder. She suffered trauma as a result and after leaving the relationship, she researched why it was so hard to leave despite the psychological abuse.  She set about to research and practise ways to heal herself from the resultant post-traumatic stress.  Her experiences healing herself and the related research are captured in the resources on her website, her video channel and her online course, Caring for the Brain After Psychopathic & Narcissistic Abuse.  Rhonda explains that the narcissist abuser engages in three key strategies that can have an enduring negative effect on the brain of the abused – idealize, devalue, discard.  She reinforces the value of addressing the psychological harm by engaging in self-compassion meditation, meditation for shame and mindful walking in nature.  While she recommends developing mindfulness, she suggests that this process should be supported by other activities such as developing healthy bonding through social contacts, cultivating creativity through music, art or journaling and engaging in purposeful movement (e.g. yoga and dance).

Reflection

Mindfulness meditation, in its many forms, can help us to redress the negative psychological impacts of a relationship with a narcissist, become aware of our own narcissistic tendencies and develop enhanced self-awareness and improved self-management.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better understand the forces shaping the behaviour of a narcissist, and our own behaviour, and be able to extend loving kindness to them and ourselves.  As we reflect on our own narcissistic tendencies, we can begin to offer compassion and sympathetic joy to others.

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Image by Devanath from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Turning From Envy to Valuing the Success of Others

Johann Hari, in his  book Lost Connections, discusses various ways to achieve reconnection to other people, to meaningful work and to meaningful values.  In looking at ways to reconnect with others he maintains that the challenge is to overcome self-addiction (what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “myself as the center of the universe”), and transition to valuing the success of others (what Johann calls “sympathetic joy”).  To illustrate this transition, he tells the story of his friend Rachel who was consumed by envy – a divisive emotion that is socially constructed.

Envy – a socially constructed emotion

Rachel was able to describe how she experienced disappointment, sadness and depression when others succeeded at the expense of her own self-evaluation.  She explained that she had become driven by society’s values that encouraged comparison, competition and materialistic values – a society that was based on the assumption that if others achieved power or success there was less to go around for herself (a “zero-sum” perspective).

She lacked happiness and joy in her life because she always came up lacking when comparing herself with others – whether the basis of comparison was financial or professional success, the quality of her home or car or her level of visibility/perceived credentials.  This led increasingly to disconnection from others, in part because she could not express appreciation for their achievements and distanced herself to reduce her envy.

In Johann’s book, Rachel describes how she was able to turn from envy to valuing the success of others – how she was able to progressively experience and express “sympathetic joy”.

Developing sympathetic joy through loving-kindness meditation

Rachel explains how she turned to loving-kindness meditation as a pathway to overcome the pressure of society’s expectations and her socially constructed envy.  Overcoming addiction to self was a slow journey, but as she began to express positive emotions towards others when they “succeeded”, she was able to release the stranglehold of society’s expectations embed in her sense of self.

There are various forms of loving-kindness meditation and the form Rachel described entailed the following steps:

  • You picture yourself being successful in some arena of activity and allow the resultant joy to flow through you – experiencing it holistically in mind, body and emotion
  • You then visualise someone you love succeeding in some endeavour, and again open yourself fully to the resultant joy
  • You progressively focus on success and joy in relation to someone you don’t know well or are not close to, then someone you dislike and lastly someone for whom you have a strong dislike.

This loving-kindness meditation – expressing happiness for the success of others – eventually erodes envy and replaces it with appreciation, valuing others and experiencing real joy (that is no longer solely dependent on your own success but also embraces the success of others).

Reflection

We can move from envy to sympathetic joy as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation and reflection.  As the neuroscientists continually reminds us, “we become what we focus on” – if we focus on valuing the success of others (in whatever arena) we will experience joy, if we continue to envy the success of others, we will become consumed by envy and resentment and become disconnected from others.  Sympathetic joy is a pathway to personal happiness, whereas envy leads to sadness, depression and despair because our self-evaluation is based on distorted comparison with others.

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Image by Eric Michelat from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Being Disconnected from Meaningful Values Leads to Depression

In previous posts I highlighted the relationship between depression and being disconnected from what is meaningful in terms of work and in terms of relationships with other people.  In this post, I want to draw further on the work of Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, by focusing on the loss of connection to meaningful values.

Being disconnected from meaningful values

In Chapter 8 of his book (pp. 91-105), Johann identifies a third social factor contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety – disconnection from meaningful values.  In this section, he draws heavily on the ground-breaking research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser who explored in depth how our cultural values contribute to the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s Western society. 

Tim was motivated in his search for meaningful values through the music of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and his own independent inquiry into the nature of authenticity while studying at Vanderbilt University, a learning institution committed to curiosity.  Tim was curious about the reason why there was such an increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety in today’s world.  He spent more than 25 years researching and working with colleagues to find the answers.

Tim drew on the work of philosophers and research by others that established that the stronger a person focuses on materialistic values (such as wanting more money and possessions and wanting to be viewed highly by others), the more likely they are to experience depression.  He conducted his own experiments as well and learned that those who gave priority to materialistic values experienced less joy and lived a poorer quality of life than those who primarily pursued meaningful values.  Johann describes Tim’s research projects in detail in his book, Lost Connections.

Materialistic values pursue extrinsic rewards

Philosophers have identified two different types of human motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation seeks an external reward in the form of money, status, recognition or being liked and admired. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is associated with internal personal rewards that flow from undertaking something for its own sake such as working to make a difference in the world, developing meaningful and supportive relationships, showing compassion towards someone in need or playing an instrument for the sheer joy it brings.  Materialistic values focus on extrinsic rewards and do not add meaning to a person’s life.

Tim engaged 200 people in completing a “mood diary” over a period so that he could establish the outcomes for people who primarily pursued extrinsic goals versus those who pursued intrinsic goals.  He was startled by the results – people who focused on, and achieved, extrinsic goals did not experience any appreciable increase in happiness in their daily life, despite the extraordinary amount of time and energy that they put into pursuing those extrinsic goals (e.g. gaining a promotion, purchasing a new car, buying the latest smart phone).   In contrast, people who pursued, and achieved, their intrinsic goals were “significantly happier” and experienced a decline in depression and anxiety.  These people set goals such as improving the way they related to others and supported those in need.

Johann points out that we all pursue both extrinsic and intrinsic goals and the associated rewards.  However, the challenge is to achieve the right balance – ensuring that materialistic values do not dominate our lives and lead to depression and anxiety.  We are constantly confronted with the choice of whether we pursue an extrinsic goal or an intrinsic one – such as whether we stay longer at work and earn more overtime money or go home to our young family and enhance our relationships with our partner and/or children.

I was recently confronted with such a choice – the choice between an extrinsic goal and an intrinsic one.  I was asked to write a book on action learning and the extrinsic rewards offered were to earn money for the work, receive royalties on an ongoing basis and, in the process, make a name for myself by way of my “legacy”.  The cost for me was to give up writing this blog on mindfulness, as the book would be all-consuming – I would have to give up what I consider to be making a real difference in some people’s lives (including my own) in favour of realising some extrinsic rewards.  I chose to turn down the offer to write the book and to continue to research and write about ways to grow in mindfulness via this blog.  The challenge for me was to put an important intrinsic goal ahead of offered extrinsic rewards.

We can become consumed by materialistic values and the associated extrinsic rewards by spending more and more time and energy in their pursuit, despite their achievement providing less and less satisfaction.  People, for example, chase the next promotion and movement up the ranks and are often prepared to sacrifice their personal values and joy to “get there”.

Western society encourages and reinforces materialistic values

Our consumer society cultivates extrinsic values and advertisers persistently encourage us to have the better car, to look better, to buy eye-catching jewellery, to upgrade our home (in terms of size and/or location) and to attract admiration.  Porsche, for example, in promoting its latest SUV, the E-PACE, describes the new “luxury” vehicle as having “head-turning good looks” – reinforcing the “look-at-me” values of Western society. 

The selfie revolution is another example of our pursuit of “looking good” on social media.  Technologists have pandered to this trend by developing the “selfie drone” which has now morphed into the “dronie” that enables you to focus on your group and yourself and also to back away to highlight your location, thus providing that extra “WOW factor”.  Some selfie drones even let you upload your shots directly to social media – meeting our need for immediacy and convenience. Taking selfies, by itself, does not mean you are pursuing materialistic values – some people use selfies solely for their family album or to share with family connections. The problem comes when taking selfies consumes us and their sole purpose is to establish our (superior) “value” in the eyes of other people.

Each year at Christmas time, there is a rush to have the latest and best toys/games/technologies that are available – what was the benchmark last year is now superseded by something more costly and peer pressure reinforces the “need” for this purchase.  Our children thus become indoctrinated very early into the “must have’ social norms and lose sight of what really makes them happy such as the sheer joy of playing a game with friends in the yard or park.

Our culture drives the desire for extrinsic rewards to the point where our elected officials feel it necessary to misuse their positions of trust to increase their own wealth through corruption.  More than fifty wealthy American parents were recently charged with admissions fraud through a scam designed to get their children admitted to “elite” universities.

Johann points out that multiple studies show that depression and anxiety will be experienced by people who pursue materialistic goals relentlessly – irrespective of their age, social standing or economic means.  He argues that just as junk food creates toxins in our bodies, “junk values” produce “psychological toxins” that invariably lead to depression and anxiety (p.97).

Becoming mindful about our lives and our values

Tim Kasser, in an interview in 2016, encouraged us to reflect on how we spend our time and energy.  He suggested that we look at what we really value and how that is reflected in our life.  He asks us to seriously look at how we act out what we claim to be important in our lives and how well we make time for the things that are important to us.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindfulness practices, we can identify the ways in which our words and actions do not align with the values that provide meaning and happiness in our lives.  We can explore ways to make better use of our time, not to pursue materialistic values, but to pursue intrinsic values that provide lasting satisfaction such as making a difference in the world, being fully in the present moment and connecting meaningfully with others. 

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Image by KarinKarin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.