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.

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.