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.