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.

Need, expectation and jealousy are the three love destroyers

The three love-killers need, expectation and jealousy are a powerful trio which both singlely and all together can wreck relationships with others. Sometimes they are obvious, at other times subtle and insiduous, and we may not consciously know that we have shifted into one or more of these states. The challenge in self awareness is to recognise when they are present and “get off it” and let them go.

It can be sometimes very difficult to disentangle need, expectation and jealousy from love but they can cut across the clear, simple, unconditional caring for another and poison it entirely.

Need and neediness

Need can include wanting from another as if one’s happiness and even survival depends on it. “I must have this in order to feel OK”. So it brings in things like deficit need, an unsatisfied emotional need that festers inside and won’t go away despite what others might do. In fact whatever they might do is “not enough” and there is this sense of there “not being enough”. Need can get very clingy, or others might feel they are being sucked dry emotionally. People might want to push a needy person away. Need might show itself as “What I want” in a forceful or underhand way rather than a clear self-expression without attachment. Another way is to be very focused on getting one’s own needs met, often without much regard for others except as to manipulate to get the desired result.

Expectation

Expectation can be similar, as all three of these are variations on egoic desire. So, to expect things of others is to place conditions or standards on their behaviour, another person’s standards rather than their own. It’s rife in business of course, but we’re looking at emotional expectation here. There’s an expectation that people will show up in a particular way, and meet another’s needs. Again there’s a dependence on another’s behaviour for one to feel OK. If you are at the receiving end, you might feel you are always dancing to another’s tune, and your needs aren’t getting much of a look in.

Jealousy

Jealousy can be more of an angry emotion, if emotion is the right word. For example they might have what you want. There’s perhaps the sense you don’t match up to them and you resent it. You might think they are “better” than you, or have more than you, or have higher status, or are more successful, or are more beautiful, or have the “better” partner, or are richer, etc. It is aimed at the other person and can get very nasty. Love jealousy of course is a particularly strong example, when someone you fancy fancies another, or you think they do. The classic story of love jealousy is Shakespeare’s Othello, where the successful general Othello is poisoned by his so-called faithful servant Iago into believing that his innocent and beloved Desdemona is unfaithful: “Beware the green-eyed monster, that doth mock the meat it feeds on”, Iago cynically warned.

Love is absent, though we may not know it

With all three, need, expectation and jealousy, love has got distorted, even to the extent that love might be entirely missing. One might think it is about love, but these feelings are quite different. They can of course destroy relationships.

It can be usefull to reflect on what we can take responsibility for, what we are creating, and what we can potentially choose to let go, so as to connect once again with the pure simplicity of love for its own sake. And to remember, you and another are One.

Need and want can be very destructive ego strategies

Two of the most powerful self-limiting strategies must be that of need and want, especially when fuelled by a sense of lack, of “not enough”. After all they are thoughts that not only fuel much of our economics and politics at the macro level but also, at the micro level, for some it drives the need to meet every-day needs in order to survive, and for others to satisfy the seemingly insatiable hunger for more and more of the material trappings of life. It is so pervasive that we don’t think of questioning it, but instead we assume it to be part of us, who we are.

To get a sense of how destructive wanting can be, it can be useful to write down all things that you want. The fantasy of winning the lottery is one such example: can’t we all do that big time, filling our thoughts with the splurge of materialism? Also we might be imagining that we will also be happy, despite all the evidence that materialism doesn’t bring happiness. Then there’s the emotional lack that we can get into, wanting love, a relationship, to be valued and appreciated, that others care. Thus we can get into all that’s missing in our lives. Money usually comes up at some point, wanting more than you’ve currently got, there never being “enough”, always a sense of insufficiency.

Unfortunately the cycle of lack is such that satisfaction of need tends to set up another desire after a while and we go throughthe loop once again.

Desire is a trap for the seeker

No wonder masters tell us that desire is one of the most deadly and destructive forces to the spiritual seeker and to those interested in their self development. Wanting creeps up on us, subtly, unseen, despite maybe a successful bout of meditation, learning, insights and understandings. Most common is how people come back off their spiritual “high”, back down to earth, to the “realworld” as people put it, to their everyday needs, such as the need to earn money, only to be hit by that old devil called desire.

In the Bible, when a rich man asked Jesus what is needed for eternal life, he was enjoined to give all he has to the poor and follow him. But, we are told, the rich man was sad, because he had much wealth. The material will easily get in the way of our higher aspirations. It is so powerful. And this thought powers much of our current functioning, at all levels.

Being attached to desire, to unmet need and want, it is said, is the source of much of the world’s unhappiness.

You might check for yourself how much of your day is taken up with various aspects of want and need. Again, as with all self awareness, it is to catch yourself being caught up in it, being wrapped up in your ego. Then the real task is to let go of it, and to keep doing so each time it reoccurs.

Being in survival mode is ego

For our ego watch today we’ll take the whole survival mentality, since this is where people can so easily go when faced with economic challenge and hardship. It’s become really salient with climate change.

After all, it’s so easy, although that’s not how we’d like to see it! You read all sorts of scary headlines about the economy, share or stock prices, house prices, flooding, forest fires, or whatever, and the heart starts beating fast, you go cold, a terror gets a hold, and in a panic you start thinking of all sorts of cataclysmic scenarios. Or you feel like getting out. Or you freeze, and can’t think at all. All well-known stress responses.

The ego is all about survival, keeping us safe. This is our false identification, who we think we are. So, with these sorts of scenarios, it can kick in very fast, a knee-jerk response, seemingly spontaneous, with a feeling response to go with it, all good indicators of the ego at work. Years ago Maslow developed a whole model of this, a “hierarchy of needs” that put physical survival at the bottom and self-actualisation at the top. It won’t surprise you to notice that, while we’re feeling good we’re probably nearer the top, but when the ego kicks in with our scenario we flip back down to the bottom! This is very frustrating to those on a personal development path, since it seems all our efforts have been spoiled.

Well, it hasn’t. This is all part of the personal and spiritual journey and why we need to develop and maintain a personal development or a spiritual practice. The power of Awareness is to spot when the ego is at work and to interrupt it and then to use technique to manage the mind and bring yourself back to your centred state. And keep doing it, whatever occurs. Don’t make yourself wrong or think you’ve failed if your ego management strategy seems not to have worked. That’s how things seem at the moment. They can change, and so we focus, stay on purpose and work to shift our state.

This is all the more important when fear has kicked in and we’re in survival mode. This is not who we are. Time to work on it.

Being who you really are

Do you “know who you really are”? Do you know what “being who you really are” is? Unless you are an enlightened guru, deep spiritual teacher, leading psychotherapist, or major philosopher, for example, you might, if you were honest, struggle with the answer. And honesty is partly what it’s about.

To use the now well-known words “Being who you really are” is to open up a multi-layered question around what we mean by the phrase and, when it is contemplated, we may not get any clear, definitive answer. It serves us better to simply ask it as a question as a process of enquiry, to help us know and understand ourselves better.

Honesty, openness and authenticity

When we talk about honesty and consistency, we also get into transparency; “who you say you are” is who you really are. They should in theory all go together. But that might be assuming people know who they really are, which very many people probably don’t – if they were honest, that is. This raises the question of authenticity.

I think some can “do” the open bit really well, some find it really hard and others think they are doing it when they aren’t. Now they might be doing a good job at disguise. And then they might honestly think they are being real, when they aren’t. They just don’t know it.

This is where self awareness work is so incredibly useful, especially when you also get feedback from others. I used to do a really good job at disguise, thinking I had to “be” a certain person that worked in the world. After a while I wasn’t aware I was being like that. Until someone on a seminar told me that she knew me but actually she didn’t really know me. That was a shock, but it set me off on a journey to find the real me. And learn to be transparent in communicating that “me”.

One of the major developmental shifts people can make is into the authentic zone. You might have to shift some baggage out of the way in the process, but when people really hear what’s really there for you, they really “get” you. It can be a process of peeling away layers of the onion skin. This will vary from person to person, but you’d need to know more about what goes on inside, how your body feels in different situations, how you are feeling in those situations, and what thoughts come to mind.

This is self-awareness training, learning to monitor your on-going process, and catch those patterns that don’t serve you. The point of authenticity is to learn to be able to resonate with your own internal process. And be willing to be with others from that space. So that you are truly being real. It sounds scary and people think it will get them into all sorts of messes. And this is the point. We so often do this stuff because our ego, which is there to look after us and ensure we survive, is probably busy saying, “Hey, watch out! Don’t go there. It’s scary. It’s dangerous. You’ll get trouble. People will laugh at you, ridicule you, get angry with you, not like you.”

Often it’s the last one that really hurts, the fear of not being liked. So we cover up and behave differently.

Narcissism is inauthentic

An extreme form of inauthenticity masquerading as authenticity is narcissism, the false self. Donald Trump is probably the best-known example of a narcissist. Essentially, a narcissist has created a false identity and seeks to get positive endorsement of that false self from others. It is a construct to avoid a gaping hole inside that they are terrified of encountering, because that would threaten their whole identity.

We are living in the age of narcissism. People are very self-absorbed, “me first”, and seek positive reinforcement from others, such as admiration, to bolster their self-image. They may act as if they are being authentic, but they don’t really, truly, know what that is.

To truly know who you are requires a profound shift. Honesty can be the way but it requires self awarenes, including knowledge of the different parts of ourself.

Once you learn to shift your ego out of the way and be authentic, you can take it to another level still, and this is where it gets really interesting – that is, if you are interested!

This is where you can then learn to connect with your candle flame within, who you really are at a fundamental level of your Being, where truth really resides, where pure joy lives and where there is lasting peace and contentment. Then you are being authentic with your Beingness.

Being unattached to the outcome

Do you find you can’t let go of what you want and keep on at it even when all the signs are that it probably won’t work. This is where one gets “attached” to an outcome. It’s all too familiar and often doesn’t serve us. Instead we can benefit from being unattached instead.

For example, have you ever found you’ve wanted someone else to do something for you and despite your efforts he or she persists in not doing what you ask? You think you’ve made your request pretty plain but what you get back is not what you wanted. Let’s assume the process relies on the other person’s cooperation for things to get done. You push harder and somehow it still doesn’t happen as you want. It seems as though everything, and particularly this person, is conspiring to prevent you getting what you want. Let’s say the day has come to an end and you leave your workplace with the matter incomplete. But in yourself, you are still fuming from what has seemed like your inability to get a result, what we call “being on it”, caught up in a drama. Do you get this in your life?

I have certainly done. In fact it’s got so sophisticated that I can be pretty sure that if I continue pushing, things will continue to jam up and nothing works. It’s like I’m working in an old paradigm that’s past its sell-by date and therefore pointless to continue to try to operate.

One thing that’s powerful of course is to become aware of what is happening, and what I’m doing here, let go and “get off it”, ie. let go of the drama. The beauty of this is that very probably everything then works out.

Being attached

However, there’s another related concept that I also use here, and that is “attachment”. While I am caught up in some drama like the one described above, I am being attached to it. To let go, or even more powerfully, not to get caught up in it in the first place, is to practice being unattached, known as “non-attachment”. Non-attachment is related to the concept of the Witness. While I am in the space of the Witness in relation to happens in my life, I am not emotionally engaged in what happens. I am not wrapped up in my ego and my egoic patterns which I learned eons ago. I am unattached. You can learn this through the practice of mindfulness.

When we are caught up in something, we are acting outside of awareness. It is unconscious, a knee-jerk response. We are wrapped up in it and we won’t see what’s really going on, such as that we are emotionally caught up, maybe feeling angry in this example, won’t take the bigger perspective, won’t see it from another angle, won’t see it from the other person’s point of view, etc. It’s as though, to use an old image, a vinyl record has got stuck in a groove and keeps repeating. We are very probably doing just that, repeating an old-established way of feeling, thinking and acting. This is the ego at work. To enable us to survive, as we saw it, we learned to react in certain ways. This is the ego, ahamkara, and the identification or attachment of one’s ego or limited personality. However, whatever we learned when we were still throwing the toys out of the pram in a tantrum now doesn’t serve us in adulthood, or as we grow psychologically and spiritually. The old creative adjustment that we made back then to the circumstances of life as we perceived them at that point is no longer serving us today. The trouble is, getting it. The seductiveness of the ego is to bring us back into old patterns, to ensure our perceived survival.

In attachment, what is happening is that, almost perversely, we keep on with the pattern. Something happens like my example of someone not doing what you want, and you dig in, get engaged and get “on it”. You are holding on to the pattern, belief, attitude or whatever. You’re attached to it. And, lo and behold, the universe, under the Law of Attraction, gives you more of what you are thinking. So you get more of it.

Being unattached

To practice non-attachment is to be in the Witness, to choose not to engage. You notice what is happening, you may even witness your own response, but you exercise your will, you take responsibility, you choose to not allow your mind to go down its familiar route and you breathe out the emotions that you sense in the background. You keep mental clarity. You hold no expectations about what is to happen. You may intend a certain result. But you are not attached to it. There is freedom here, even for something else to occur, maybe even better that the one you might have got engaged about. You can allow life to flow and to trust that what you really need comes to you.

When we are attached, we are afraid it won’t come to us. In the ego state, we live out of fear, fundamentally that we won’t get what we want, most of all of which is love.

Non-attachment, being unattached to the outcome in particular, is a hard practice to follow in the West, given our environment of desire, expectations, orientation to action and getting the results we think we need and our seemingly heavy involvement with many others thinking the same. But it can be done, even in the thick of things. It only takes awareness and a shift of perspective. That needs to be learned and practiced, developing mental clarity, nothing more.