What do personal responsibility and narcissism have in common?

To say that we are each personally responsible for our lives and how we lead them is an attractive notion which makes sense and can enable people to take charge of their lives and make changes that make a difference. The term personal responsibility was and is a useful term in personal and professional development since it encourages a sense of ownership. It is a way out of dysfunctionality. Yet today the word has crept into the worlds of politics and business, which for some is a puzzle when they experience their leaders as very far from being personally responsible. Some such leaders are often described as narcissistic, self-obsessed and failing to lead for the common good. One might experience the narcissist in one’s personal life, as for example inauthentic and false, maybe a pathological liar and potentially dominating one’s world in a harmful way. It might be useful therefore to ask what is the link between these two traits, responsibility and narcissism?

To fight the pandemic, we are now being enjoined to “take responsibility”. It is said, for example, that it is down to everyone to be aware and act responsibly as restrictions are lifted. The use of the term “personal responsibility” in social policy is not new, one example being that people need to take responsibility to manage their affairs to avoid falling into or being stuck in unemployment or poverty. Yet originally the term was used in quite a different situation, that of personal growth.

Personal responsibility as a tool of “third force” psychology

The “third force” psychology, that emerged in the 1960’s as a challenge to psychoanalytic and behavioural theory, such as humanistic, existential and transpersonal psychology, used as a key tool the idea that we are each responsible for our lives and needed to consciously use this responsibility to become aware of what was going on in our lives and choose to make changes. It has had a profound impact and is widely used today, particularly in the English-speaking world.

As pandemic restrictions are being lifted today however, the emphasis on personal responsibility as a tool of public policy to fight the pandemic is an interesting one. To Johnson’s libertarian tendency, and responding to pressure from his own right wing, it is a matter of saying that each person is responsible for their behaviour in how they manage their conduct. The difficulty with this approach, now widely used amongst certain politicians and leaders, is that it ignores the behaviour of others who might be less enlightened and more selfish, and the mediating role of government.

It ignores the idea that in a society, the existence of which was denied by Mrs Thatcher, an earlier Prime Minister in the 1980s much admired on the Right, there is also another person at almost every step, the “you”, and there is also the group or a “we”. The approach denies the possibility that we are all connected at some level, much though many seek to deny it. People are impacted by others and impact others. This can be observed on a daily basis in how people interact, such as the infectious power of laughter.

To hand over responsibility for managing the pandemic, an ideological decision, leaving it as “everyone for him/herself”, may work, and it may cause a lot of suffering amongst those least able to help themselves. Experts in behavioural psychology for example have been questioning this approach, arguing that people also have a responsibility to others as well as ourselves. This is natural. There is a function in humans, for example, of care and compassion. Thus we often feel motivated to help others, or come to their assistance when they are in difficulty. Fritz Perls, the founder of the humanistic-existential therapy Gestalt, spoke of “response-ability” to emphasise the term. It’s like we respond to our inner candle flame and the prompts within that urge us to rise above the “sweaty little ego” and reach for our altruistic self. We are therefore both responsible to ourselves as in individual responsibility but there is also social responsibility. “No man”, wrote John Donne in the 17th Century, “is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.

Unless of course you are a self-obsessed narcissist

Narcissism and boomeritis

Many observers suggest that in social terms narcissism is widespread, the “me, me, me”, self-absorption. But what is a narcissist?

In psychology it is often described as an excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance. Words to describe a narcissist include self-centred, selfishness, self-importance, having a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy or compassion, a need for admiration, vanity, conceit, egotism. Psychologists can use the term as a disorder, where in personal growth terms the self has been unable to develop beyond being psychologically like a small child and acquire an awareness of others and care and concern for them.

Such characteristics have become quite widespread in the era since the 1960s, and some suggest it is to be particularly found in the “boomer” generation that emerged in the protest movement of that era. A US philosopher Ken Wilber uses the term “boomeritis” to describe the powerful individualism of these people, the “I do my thing, you do yours”, or “nobody tells me what to do”. Such people have a strong rebellious and reformist tendency, the “fight the system” outlook, them against the world, a resistance to rules and roles. Wilber says that there is a powerful streak of narcissism here, often concealed from awareness and, while often espousing high ideals of one form or another, really belongs in development terms to an earlier stage of growth which supports an egocentric stance and denies anything universal or the responsibilities inherent in personal growth. Such people can retain an intense subjectivism which for them is a stuck phase, almost impossible to let go of.

What’s the link with personal responsibility?

So what is the link between narcissism and personal responsibility? Essentially it is something being urged on another, the “it is your problem”, but not taken for oneself since one does not accept rules and boundaries for oneself. Real personal responsibility is where someone takes ownership of an issue and basically says, “yes this is my stuff and I accept that I need to deal with it and will do so or am doing so”. A dysfunctional use of the term is where someone urges another to “take responsibility” as a deflection from ownership of an issue themselves. Contained in this is an inauthenticity. In relationship issues, one partner will blame the other, “it’s your problem”, and fail or refuse to accept that the issue is co-created. Indeed they may deflect the issue or project it on to the other. In organisations, it’s where someone is blamed where in fact it is a group matter. It can mean an abdication of responsibility.

The narcissist is an excessive inflation of the self where there is a refusal to take real ownership. To accept that they have an issue would threaten the false self that they exert great energy to try to preserve. That is why when the narcissist finally has a reckoning, if they ever do, it can be a huge crisis and they may feel everything is falling apart. Thus instead one may observe chaos around them.

Today’s world is in part an outgrowth of this tendency and arguably one should see that the attribution of personal responsibility can at times be a false attribution that does not serve people.

 

You can read more about the lack of accountability in narcissists on this link.

There’s so much fear around at the moment and people are pessimistic

People say that there’s so much fear around at the moment and people are sad and pessimistic about the future. Events, issues and personal circumstances combine to give a negative outlook on life. In fact we can get completely absorbed in it. Is this how things are? Need they be?

Early spring sunrise - fear around
Early spring sunrise

I’ve been struck how people are saying that everything seems really miserable at the moment. Maybe it’s the weather, repeated bouts of very cold spells when we’re weary with winter, even as spring is in the offing. For many, national and world events are troubling and there seems so much conflict and anger around. People seem so divided from one another and antagonistic. Then, others have illness or difficulty in their personal lives too, and there’s a lot of unwelcome change. It’s as if the world’s conspiring to dump a whole load of negativity on us all at once.

What also happens is that we get absorbed in it. Almost without noticing, it becomes the norm. We live in it. That’s how life is. Then our work on ourselves, our focus on what uplifts us, fades into the background. Faith recedes. It can almost feel like a personality change. “God, I’ve become so grumpy!” one said the other day. I wondered what God thought about that.

Notice what you focus on

When life gets like this, and it does, it’s important to notice that it’s got like this, such as being absorbed in lots of fear around you. Not to beat ourselves up, just notice. It’s the most powerful thing to do.

Where we place our mind, what we focus on, is what is, in awareness terms. That’s what we get. So we see around us, and experience more of, what we focus on. Such is the power of the mind, for better or for worse.

It’s not who we really are, much though it seems otherwise. It all an illusion, maya. And, what ever it is, “this too shall pass”. Things move on, and we can move on.

One big point in personal and spiritual development is to build an awareness of our inner truth of who we really as spiritual beings. Then we have more to hold on to during times of negativity, which do happen, since we are human after all!

So, once we’re aware that we’re absorbed in negativity, like focusing on all this fear around the place, just pause and be still. Be mindful. Breathe in, breathe out and let go. Just let that moment be there, when you can notice that there is so much more, that we are so much more, than whatever we are habitually being caught up in.

Even in the midst of stuff going on, whatever that is, trust that within you there is so much more, that you are so much more, than whatever our ego self is doing right now.

Maybe make a commitment to spend just a few moments each day when you do this. Meditate if you can, but you can just have a little pause. It’s a reminder, a re-minder.

And spring is coming. New awakenings!

Acceptance gives you true freedom

Acceptance of your situation can feel like the opposite of what you want but its power lies in it being a paradox

We can encounter situations in life where our customary response is to dig our heels in, fight like mad for what we want and think we can by our efforts triumph in the end – and yet frustratingly get nowhere. Acceptance of the situation can feel like surrender, giving up, “giving in”, and somehow losing in another of life’s struggles. Nobody wants to be a “loser”: feel the shame of that! Yet true acceptance is not about this. It is about letting go, embracing what is, and allowing the universe to bring you what you truly need.

I was recently talking with someone about the physical pain they were in, a result of a severe back problem that seemingly wouldn’t go away. Rather the reverse, it looked it was there permanently and they might have to face living the rest of their life in pain, discomfort and restriction. This can be seriously hard to contemplate, especially if you have lived a lot of your life thinking the world’s your oyster and you can have anything you want. You can come down with a really hard bump if you suddenly realise that that isn’t so and that things are much more finite and limited than that. We think we’re immortal, and it can hurt when we discover that, in the material sense at least, we aren’t.

Acceptance of the situation

In this conversation, as I heard all the efforts that were being fruitlessly made to tackle the problem, I was suddenly struck that maybe what this person needed to do was accept the situation.

Now, you might think that this would have meant “giving in” and no longer working to bring about change. Surely what people should do is get into a positive mindset, challenge the situation and harness mind, body and spirit in the healing process? There is of course merit in this: look for example at how people have recovered at some level from back injuries that might otherwise have left them permanently disabled. However, one difficulty with focusing on the problem is that one can create more of the problem. According to the Law of Attraction, you draw to you more of what you focus on. So it depends on your approach. Getting the balance right is crucial.

To accept your situation is to embrace it and let go of it. It’s a paradox, almost like a contradiction. In accepting and letting go, we release ourselves of any attachment to the problem. It just is, like life.

It might be hard of course. Back pain can be pure hell. There could be lots to let go of, and grieving to be done for what we’re letting go of. When we let go and accept, we’re no longer resisting. “What we resist, persists”. Now, we truly allow it to be.

Here lies freedom. All sorts of possibilities can now come in.

In the case of our back problem, we might for example relax. With the release of tension the body can more easily re-adjust and potentially more easily allow the healing that’s needed. Some new possibility for a way of being can now come in that was being kept away by the resistance, for example by living life in a calmer, more stress-free way. Maybe there’s a learning there that was needed and can now be completed, for example allowing oneself to receive support from others rather than thinking one has to do it all oneself. Thus life can henceforth be lived at a new level of contentment that was previously excluded.

What do you need to accept that you are currently resisting?

To let go of control is to allow life to happen as we intend

“Get back control” seems to be a mantra for our times, except that it can seem frustratingly difficult to achieve, especially where it’s in the gift of others. Yet the more we try to assert control, the more we don’t ultimately get what we really want.

I often used to hear business people tell me how important it was for them to have control, whether it was over others, a system or process, or the direction in which things were headed. To lack control was to be at the mercy of others or the system. and to be tossed about amidst a sea of uncertainty. People feel they have lost control to remote, alien and malign forces and that the world is no longer what it was. The sense of community and collaboration seems to have been replaced by a doctrine of “every man for himself”. Others are deciding things without consulting them and taking account of their interests.

Control is an illusion

To have control can however be an illusion. The universe operates as one and seeks for balance. When things are out of balance, the tendency is to restore balance. Thus humankind thinks it can control nature, until it hits back with massive destructive force: “I told you so”. Climate change is ironically a sign of nature’s re-assertion. How hard it is to remember that we need to go with the flow, not push against it. If we push against it, we get back what we put out, which is more obstacle and resistance.

“When we let go of control, we are in control”. This is a different way of seeing things. To surrender intentionally is not giving up. It is allowing things to be. Rather than being “nowhere”, directionless, out of control, we allow nature flow to occur, be “now here”, in the present, where our intention draws to us that which we need, and life happens in accordance with our plan for it. Control is replaced by a state of allowing things to be, guided by our intention. Thus we are aligned with the creative force of the universe.

Life can be so much easier when we allow it to be.

In the present, we don’t know what is going to happen. We have intention, but we are also surrendered. Hard though that can be for very many people in today’s highly goal-focused, driven and stressed existence, it is where we let go of ego, and be in what medieval mystics referred to as the “Cloud of Unknowing“.

It might be that we need to let go of what we are attached to, what we want. To fervently want is to be attached to desire. Then we push it away from us. We get what we put out, which is wanting. Surrendered to our Cloud of Unknowing, we can instead allow what we need to come to us, trusting in the process.

In today’s world, very many people are very anxious and fearful of the future, and think bad things are going to happen. This is exactly when it is time to step back, be aware of what is happening, re-connect with our core of Who We Are, be in the state of Being and surrender to the process, remember our intention and allow what we truly need to be revealed to us.

Life is so much easier when we let it happen.

Are you disillusioned with life?

Has life not turned out as you thought it would? Has it dawned on you that things have not worked out as you had hoped? There can come a time when our hopes and dreams for life don’t materialise. We feel disappointed or disillusioned. Then we can get downhearted, depressed, cynical, cease to believe in what is possible, lose our faith, and give up on life.

Life’s disillusionments

Being disillusioned can occur at any stage. Perhaps you have had a dream of how you want your life to unfold. Maybe you have had career plans. Then you’ve had a desire for your ideal partner, have pictured where you’d be living and what you’d be doing. Perhaps you had a sense of how you’d be. It could be that when you started out, life seemed exciting, full of expectations. When you thought of the future, you’d have a thrill of excitement. Things were going to be really good.

Then life comes along, with its way of throwing up challenges. The job wasn’t what you had wanted. You had difficulties getting the career project off the ground. Your partner wasn’t quite who you’d longed for. The relationship proved rocky. You didn’t end up where you wanted. Money has been a constant challenge. Maybe you have had health problems. It could be that you didn’t get that ideal family and home. Perhaps some big crisis came along which spoilt all those plans.

We can attribute life’s difficulties to all sorts of things, other people, events, our own mistakes, our upbringing, our education, or flaws in our character. The list is endless. In fact we can get into a blame outlook about this, and give others, ourselves, God or life itself a hard time.

Your thoughts about your life are crucial

It is crucial, as an awareness skill, to notice that you have this thought about your life. I say awareness, since this view about our life can get habitual and ingrained, such that we don’t notice this underlying thought. I call these root thoughts, underpinning but often not seen.

The skill is to catch ourselves doing this. It might not be a thought in the obvious sense, but maybe a sense or feeling that we don’t articulate as such, until we do some self-enquiry, and become aware that this is going on.

Then you can notice that this is what you think about your life.

When you become aware, you then potentially have the tools in your hands to challenge and change.

Because it doesn’t have to be like this.

What you think about your life is what occurs. You are at cause.

Become your own creative force

When we lose our faith in life, and cease to proactively choose what we want, and believe in the outcome, then we start to be at the effect of it. It happens differently. If we have negative thoughts, we get negative outcomes.

Thus we need to do our own inner exploration, get what we’re thinking at a root level, understand what we need to let go of, and then let go and create new purpose and set new intentions. When we truly let go and intend healthily, if I can use that word in a non-medical sense, life happens and it’s OK. It happens because we have let go, of need and expectations, and are no longer attached to our illusions. Thus to be disillusioned is instead to be dis-illusioned, without illusion, maya, a construct of the ego. We can then be who we truly are.

I coach people who have got stuck on their path in life. Contact me

Where are you going?

When we’re stuck and “down in the dumps” it’s an important question, what’s the point of all this, where are we going? Apart from the stock, usually religious, “answers” which are other people’s ideas anyway but which you get invited to believe in and which you’re perhaps struggling with, otherwise you wouldn’t be asking…and (huge, deep breath!), what’s your idea of where you are going?

That’s more pertinent, since it draws it in to you, and away from the abstract and other people’s perceptions and closer to home and your goals, plans, intentions, dreams and purpose.

Crises of faith test our resolve, and can expose our gaps and our lack of thought to what we’re creating individually and where we’re going. Upheavals and change have this effect, to lead us to question what it’s all about, and to create new meaning. Existentialists would say that that is what we do with life. It has, they say, no purpose or meaning except that which we choose for it. So it’s down to us.

This was powerfully tested by Viktor Frankl, as described in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning. He was a survivor of Auschwitz and he describes in his book how he learned that a fundamental task of humans was to choose and make meaning. When, faced with the enormous privations they encountered, they ceased to do that in the camp, and gave up, they died.

That still might not deal with the crisis of faith. As St John of the Cross found, we can go through Dark Nights of the Soul, which can severely test us but have a healing benefit, since we can purge our ego and resolve long-standing obstacles to our growth. The point is to be able to see beyond the immediate to the bigger picture. Hence it helps to know where you’re going.

It also tests us to manage the mind and to teach us to “get off” the thinking pattern which is pulling us down. Which means you need to know what that is all about. Hence the vital importance of practicing awareness and witnessing, and finding these things out.

The art is one of exercising choice, to shift from anxiety about where you are going, to one of intention, purpose and action.