“Believe in yourself – be big!”
“But don’t hurt anybody in the process – be nice!”
Many of us believe both of these supposed truths to be true. But if we actually try to live our lives according to these two conflicting messages, we will go crazy. Are we supposed to expand, or contract? Are we supposed to break those eggs to make that omelet, or are we supposed to nurture those eggs into little hatchlings? These incongruous messages indicate a sideways avoidance of something essential in us that we clearly find hard to accept. We want to be respected for our excellence, and we want to be connected to and liked by other people.
For example, this article on Steve Jobs epitomizes our curiously fraught relationship to these incompatible notions. According to The Atlantic, it’s great that Steve Jobs created some of the most influential technological devices of the last 50 years, many of which are in your pocket right now, but…maybe those accomplishments are forever tarnished because he was not a great father and he parked his Mercedes in a handicapped spot. This article reminds us that the value of our life accomplishments will be affirmed or negated based on whether or not we are nice.
As I hear it, in essence Steve Jobs may have been too narcissistic for us to accept his accomplishments, impressive as they may be. We love his computerized devices, and we recognize that it took a visionary and exacting approach to create these devices. And yet, when it comes down to it, we don’t like what that visionary approach actually entails.
Here are the mixed signals, implicit in this tear-down of Steve Jobs, that we get from contemporary mainstream culture about how to be:
- Be BIG! Believe in yourself, especially when no one else will. Against all odds. Fight the odds. Be creative. Buck trends. Do it your way. Make it perfect. Work yourself to the bone. Get obsessed. Do it right. Put your mind to it. Don’t let the skeptics drag you down. Just do it. [Or else we won’t write articles about you.]
- Be nice. Sacrifice time and energy for other people. The more time you spend with your kids, the better. Put other people’s needs first. Don’t get caught up in your ambitions. Never get angry. Don’t inconvenience anyone. Easy on the bling. And did we mention, spend more time with your kids? Spend more time with your kids. More. A greater volume of time. With the kids. [Or else we’ll judge you.]
If we’re being honest, we have to agree that these two approaches to life are at least somewhat incompatible. If you believe in yourself against all odds and you get obsessed and so forth, your singular focus will probably cause someone to feel hurt or neglected at some point in your journey. We are in a double bind, and this problem is rooted in our conflictual relationship to the universal narcissism that we all have to work out within ourselves, like it or not. This negotiation happens underground, because most of us are scared to admit that these needs exist at all. We all long to expand, to be recognized for our innate value, and to be rewarded for our hard work. We all value the opinions that others have of us, and our self-esteem improves when important people respect us. Our self-esteem is our narcissistic equilibrium, and the satisfactions that grow our self-esteem are essentially narcissistic. These satisfactions involve expanding ourselves to achieve unique goals, being rewarded for those goals, and thereby being respected in the eyes of others.
And while we all intuitively understand that the way we feel about ourselves matters and that it’s important to maintain a reasonably high self-esteem, we are also very conflicted about how we get there. We are terrified of being seen as narcissistic – which is a fundamentally narcissistic concern – and so we disown these fundamental needs. We locate them in notoriously driven people like Steve Jobs, Madonna, and LeBron James, while we simultaneously worry about being seen as too big for our britches, getting a swollen head, being full of hot air, going on an ego trip – the idiomatic clichés go on and on. We worry that too much self-expansion might make others feel worse about themselves, and we worry that we might be judged for that.
Our fears of being seen as narcissistic often inhibit us from squeezing the very things out of life that would make us feel better about ourselves. Many of us deny that we do, in fact, need things from ourselves and from other people in order to regulate our self-esteem, and we walk around feeling depleted and simultaneously powerless to ask for anything more, for fear of appearing entitled.
In order to expand to our full potential, we have to accept and honor our narcissistic needs and vulnerability so that we can attend to those needs in a constructive way. Only then can we begin to find realistic and pleasurable ways to expand, to increase, to fill out, to be big. If we deny these needs, we also preclude the possibility of ever meeting these needs, and we either develop pathologically narcissistic character (worst option), or we don’t allow ourselves to expand, always feeling a bit depleted and diminished as a result (better option, but still not great).
If you’re feeling like you never get what you really want, and yet you find yourself envying and resenting other people who seem to be getting everything they want, you may need some navigational help. Never getting what you want may be a way of avoiding judgments, as we all tend to judge harshly the people who know what they want and know how to get it – kind of like we want to do to Steve Jobs. These kinds of judgments help us deny our sometimes painful need to expand, but acknowledging that need will inevitably help us find more satisfying ways to achieve our full potential.