Does self-confidence turn into narcissism?

Be bold, we have all told ourselves.  Stand up for yourself.  Find your voice.  Confidence is an attractive quality, in love and politics and literature and finance.   Confident people capture our heart.   But does it ever become too much?

Yes.  We all know somebody full of charisma who dominates conversations, speaking with limitless authority about wine, or religion, or parenting, or baseball.  When they speak, people listen.  Some people seem to know that they are a star.  You are their support, in a special relationship that sometimes asks a lot.  Sometimes these strong personalities are your boss, or virtuoso, or lover.  We watch them on videos, ordain them, and elect them to public office.  They seem to radiate confidence.

Is there such a thing as too much self confidence?  When does an abundance of boldness, which seems to reflect awareness of one’s gifts, cross over into the darker trait of narcissism?

Harvard Business School wants to know.  HBR Blog recently posted on Narcissism: The Difference Between High Achievers and Leaders.  They want to know who to trust with leadership roles.  They have noticed that while narcissists have star quality, they can’t sustain it for long.

Of course they want to be able to tell the difference between contagious confidence and narcissism.  Confidence inspires others to grow equally strong; narcissism invites admiration, and courting of followers.  Narcissism is characterized by feeling special, powerful, apart, and not a team player.

Here at home, we want to be able recognize it too.  Narcissism is a personality disorder, with its own diagnostic code in the DSM-IV.  People who display it are bright and interesting, and know it.  They fascinate us, and make us feel special by their attention; but their interest in us quickly wanes. Relationships are intense, but don’t go very deep.  Narcissists demand recognition and respect, and often genuinely deserve it.  But they underestimate our contribution, and neglect our feelings.

Boldness alone doesn’t tell us who is self-confident, and who is narcissistic.  Both kinds of people are strong, capable, gifted.  Both hope to be seen in a positive light.  We have worked hard, to recognize our unique value, and to advocate effectively for ourselves.

We have made self-esteem a core value of our culture, the holy grail of emotional wellbeing.  Cultivating it has become not just a goal of therapy, but the focus of a vast self-help industry, and a key component of the nurture of small children.  Is there such a thing as an overdose?  When does genuine, healthy confidence turn into toxic narcissism?  What I think: never.

Narcissists lack confidence.  They are skillful at coaxing – or demanding — constant flattery, or attention, or accommodation, or reassurance from others.  A confident person always welcomes recognition, but does not crave it.

Confident people, notes HBR, are able to mentor others, and invest in the success of the group, because they are not anxious about losing their identity or their voice, if others succeed.  Collaboration is possible when people know who they are, even when in the shadows.  A narcissist is never able to get there.  Leadership requires the capacity to serve, and the willingness.

Narcissists lack spiritual generosity.  They are preoccupied not just with their own excellence, but being better than other people.  We are complicit in teaching people to think this way, of course.  We have the custom of measuring ourselves against others, to know where we stand in the universe.  How many Facebook friends?  How high a performance ranking?  How high is the pyramid on which you sit?  This may be necessary for career success, but it is not a path to self esteem.

Confidence evolves as we make a thousand mistakes, and find the path that works for us.  Businesses, if they want to cultivate it, will have to nurture people differently, rewarding generosity and collaboration, and creating an environment where it is safe to make intelligent mistakes.

The people we take into our personal lives can show both confidence and empathy, which eludes the narcissist.  Healthy, confident people can afford to care as deeply for our own growth as for their own. We can choose companions who notice our gifts, and genuinely care what we think.  Confident people can take turns at being in charge.  We all have the capacity to guide and to be guided, somewhere on this life journey: the selection of restaurants or reading materials, ways of organizing space or interpreting the news, or ways of lifting our spirits.  Confident people know that we are interdependent.

There is room in the sky for a multitude of stars.

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Healing from PTSD: your therapist may be a golden retriever

We learn a lot about ourselves in wartime.

As a community, we find it easier to respond to physical wounds than emotional ones.  Ironic, isn’t it?  Life provides most of us with trauma and loss, sooner or later.  Respite from suffering is the only humane response.

Privately, we understand about emotional anguish, and we want it gone.   Publicly, however, stigma is alive and well.  People will endure incredible suffering and not seek help, because they are afraid of what others will say, even if the emotional wounds occurred in war- ravaged Afghanistan.

We politely overlook the emotional wounds of the 20 percent of veterans who return with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), so as to not embarrass them.  They say they are fine, and we want to believe it.

It’s not working.  Sadly, this year, 50% more violent deaths in military service are caused by suicide, than from physical injuries.  We know about PTSD, but we are more comfortable talking about medicine than about the wounded human spirit.

What helps, anyway?  Unlike depression, there is no pill to treat PTSD.  Therapy is not available to everyone who needs it, even if they were willing to give it a try.  Therapy for PTSD  takes time, too; people have to learn to trust all over again, to tolerate their emotions, and to discern all over again, when they are truly safe.  It’s complicated.

In the meantime, people with PTSD need immediate relief; they need to be drawn to the present moment, putting aside their demons for a while, knowing that they are fully accepted just as they are.  What if their families are traumatized too?   Who is capable of providing a connection beyond words, buying some time for the process of therapy to work?  Dogs, as it turns out.

Dogs just love us.  They connect with us on a deep and mutual level, without many conditions.  The relationship itself is healing.   Traumatized veterans who may return to find urban life overwhelming, are able to receive comfort from a dog.  The New York Times recently shared one such story, of a Naval veteran who served in Iraq, her golden retriever, and her slow, incremental healing process.  There are many such stories.  Fortunately, there is no stigma involved in accepting the love of a dog.

But nothing is simple, in this scientific era.  Research must be done.  The VA is conducting a 3 year study on the clinical effectiveness of dogs in helping persons with PTSD.   The service dogs they study have been trained to maneuver their humans through crowds, turn lights on and off, and to awaken a sleeping veteran who is having nightmares.  There is a complex application process to qualify for a VA service dog, and there is a shortage.  It is a humane response.

But it may overlook the point.  The healing of the human spirit happens in relationship with one another.  Human to human, and human to dog, or bird, or horse.   The healing of trauma may not, for most people, require somebody to turn on the light, so much as somebody to be there in the dark, ready with love, and always glad to listen without judging.

In counseling, a traumatized person can gradually discover how to let go of anger and shame, that they could not prevent the terrible events they witnessed, and how to live with their memories.  In the meantime, animals connect with us, one being to another, regardless of how effective or lucid we feel.  They just love us, and evoke love.  Rediscovering the capacity to give love, is itself good medicine.

Community groups are emerging around the country, to help facilitate the healing of PTSD by matching veterans with service dogs.  One such group is called Dog Bless You, and it is using social media creatively.  For every thousand “likes” on its Facebook page, Dog Bless You donates a dog to a veteran with PTSD.   The photographs on their page are warm and wonderful.

Trauma is not, at its heart, a mental illness, but a predictable response of a human heart, to something it was not designed to endure.  The mental health professions have some useful tools, to help those with PTSD gain insight, and to calm their responses to it.  In the meantime, it is ingenious that the community is rising up to offer sufferers something so deeply therapeutic.  A warm furry presence.  Timeless moments of acceptance.   Unconditional love.

What could be bad?

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How to cope with poor listeners, especially the ones you care about

Listening is harder than it looks.  Perhaps you’ve shared from the heart, offered your best prepared argument, bravely expressed your deepest conviction – and life proceeded as if you had never spoken.  We feel empty when we are not heard.  When life imitates Kafka, how do you cope?

We give loved ones a nudge.  Maybe you are not as good a multitasker as you think.  It does not feel good, we might say, to be assured that the ballgame in progress will not interfere with your hearing me as fully as your interest requires.

Sometimes conversations go awry because people do not grasp that a conversation is taking place.  Conversation implies mutual interest.  When the interest is not mutual, we call it something else: a lecture, perhaps, or a scolding, or a performance.  When we sit down together over coffee, or respond to one another’s incoming messages, we open ourselves to one another, assuming the other person reciprocates our interest in what they have to say.  When our thoughts are overlooked, or our words come back twisted, we are likely to be frustrated, hurt, and angry.  Listening is a form of respect, and when it goes wrong, we take it to heart.

Community gatherings are invitations to mutual listening about a shared concern.  When listening in a group setting fails, it is often because people think they are objective listeners, when they are not.  Nobody is.  We all have filters, and easily tune out anything we hear that sounds “wrong”: too different, too much like what grandma used to say, too bold, too touchy-feely, too academic, too ethnic, too political.  Listening, within a community, happens when we feel empathy for the others in the room, when we sense a common bond.  That sense of connectedness can be ephemeral; when a speaker seems too much like an Outsider, the impulse to listen vanishes like footprints in the mist.

Without listening, relationships quickly stagnate.  Listening is replaced by the hearer’s unexamined beliefs about what their partner, or everybody else in the room, or the church, or the nation, is thinking.  Listening is replaced by projection of the hearer’s hopes and fears onto other people.  The speaker’s words may stir his feelings about something significant, but people become little more than memes in the hearer’s picture of the world.  People who hear without listening do not realize they are doing this.  They just think they are right.

Failure to listen does damage.   When somebody fails to listen to us, we feel isolated and devalued.  Polite protest may go unnoticed, or it may be minimized, characterized as needy or presumptuous.  If a relationship really is mutual in the first place, and worth preserving, it may require something more.

A jolt of healthy anger.

If they are not listening, and content to not listen, we can be angry with our loved ones, our friends or our church, without losing civility.  Anger scares us, and for good reason;  people say hurtful things in anger that they later regret.  Diffuse, unreflective anger poisons public debate, making it emotionally risky to talk about religion or politics.  We reject emotional violence; we have tried sending ourselves to “anger management” training, hoping to control a force that we have seen run amok.  We seek inner transformation, hoping that through spiritual practice, we might become so benign and generous that we are never really angry.  Maybe just a little annoyed.  What good could it possibly do, to listen to anger?

Anger tells us that the normal routine is causing unforeseen hurt, which is ongoing, invisible and inaudible to the people who need to know, because they are not listening.

If our lives are connected, we are vulnerable to one another.  If somebody I care about, or a group I care about, fails to listen, our relationship is diminished.  Of course I am angry.  What else could I be?  Anger is only toxic if you swallow it.

Once our loved ones realize that something is missing, change becomes possible.  How well do we really know one another, and care for the fulfillment of one another’s hopes?  Want to fix that?

Listening requires humility; our picture of the world must be subject to revision.   Then again, that sounds very much like the life plan of someone who is willing to grow.

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Zen in a noisy workplace

Sit with this paradox: where is the calm center of the chaos that is your work day?  If you can find it, you may find your greatest capacity for the work, while holding onto your wits.

This kind of language is no longer limited to the yoga studio or the temple.   Something fascinating is happening, when the pursuit of deep peace shows up in Forbes Magazine, in a piece called 5 Yogic Tips to Tackle Stress.  Corporate culture may value the ability to remain calm under pressure, and to focus; but if the 1% take heed, they are about to discover that contemplative practice is more than a relaxation technique.

The workplace is a community of sorts, with a complex web of relationships.  Many things go wrong.  People interrupt one another, make arbitrary decisions, promote themselves and fail to help one another.  People feel anxious, powerless, and unappreciated.  People talk behind your back, text message compulsively while talking to you, and use their backyard barbecue voices when you are trying to think.  The workplace is emotional chaos.

Finding the place of quiet at work isn’t easy.  Ironically, the technology that allows us to maintain internet access while on an African safari, also provides smartphone apps with the sounds of Tibetan temple bells, evoking places so quiet that you can hear the chirp of crickets, and the rush of fresh water over pebbles.  These are designed to help us find peace without leaving the office.

We must learn to listen, all over again.

The Zen mind listens to anxiety, and lets most of it go.  Where we pridefully busy our minds with multimedia stimulation, it seeks to gently focus on one thing at a time.  Zen discipline involves basic things like breathing, which of course happens all day without our awareness; the intent is to do it mindfully.  If we listen, and do each small thing mindfully, and let go of distractions, we find harmony where frantic activity used to be.  There is something humbling in thinking of the myriad of things that populate our anxious, achievement-oriented minds, as distractions.

The Daily Mind blog writes about how to use your work as a meditation tool.  If all day long we are meditative about our small choices at work, we slowly create harmony within ourselves, letting go of whatever does not belong.  We remind ourselves of what brought us here, of why we are doing the work in the first place.  We remember our priorities.  As we become peaceful, we gradually release the toxic influences of other people. When we sense we are not at risk of being wounded, we can afford to be more tolerant of those co-workers who remain thoughtless, anxious, or needy, or who have completely lost their way.  The Zen mind becomes compassionate, in other words.

It will be fascinating to see how this process of becoming compassionate evolves, if Zen practice takes root in the mahogany paneled boardrooms of Wall Street.  It will be fascinating to see how each of our workplaces evolve, when we release the small irritations of life in work community, and unearth the true injustices that call us to action.

In short, we can choose our response to the workplace, and choose to regard those who treat us unkindly with compassion they do not earn.  Systems theory predicts that they will have to adjust to changes we bring, in order to maintain the work relationship.  We notice our own emotional responses, and treat ourselves kindly.  If others do not nurture us, we are empowered to nurture ourselves.

Tiny Buddha has blog post entitled Zen business: the Eightfold Path to peace and productivity at work.  When we become mindful of our own inner life, we become mindful of the community as well.  Awkward questions arise: do our own actions in the workplace express the compassion we want for  ourselves and the world?  In multi-tasking, are we participating in each human interaction with a whole heart?  Are we doing the good for the world that we originally intended?  This process of becoming mindful can lead to unexpected places.

In becoming quiet, we come to notice habits of thought that had somehow become automatic: paranoid thoughts,  unkind thoughts, pointless frustration and anger with the annoying habits of others, who are struggling to get their inarticulate needs met.  What we notice, we can let go.  The space left over frees us in unforeseen ways.  What creative inspiration may come, filling the space you have created?

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How to lose yourself, without losing your identity

Is the thought of letting go of your everyday self exhilarating, or comforting, or terrifying?  Yes.  It happens daily, without hesitation, when we drift off into daydreams, cinema, or into sleep.  Choosing consciously to let ourselves go, on the other hand – choosing to lose our self for a while, is another matter, isn’t it?

Sometimes a client will come into my office so completely overwhelmed – perhaps with the hurt of  betrayal, or rejection, or grief, or fear that one of her darkest suspicions may be true – that she can barely breathe.  In a moment like that, the possibility of letting go of suffering for a minute is very welcome.  We want respite.

In a moment like that, we are not usually worried that if we drift off, we may lose our way, and not be able to return to our unfolding drama.  When our lives become a bit too much to bear, we willingly, gladly let go, trusting that our unanswered questions, unfinished work, screaming spouse, unfulfilled hopes, and the conversation  replaying in our head, will be back later.

Choosing to let go, when we are not exhausted or desperate for relief, is different.  We want to know what benefit could possibly come of setting aside the self we have spent years constructing.  We are often so attached to our habits and our assumptions and our relationships that they seem inevitable, as if we would cease to exist if we were not depressed, or angry with ourselves for past mistakes, or compulsive about food, money, love.  Sometimes we become so caught up in our social entanglements, the ok ones and the disturbing ones, that we lose awareness of the universe.  The point of letting go of familiar self is that when we disengage gears, we may encounter fuller possibilities within us.  Perhaps, later, we might re-engage differently. Scary thought.

Letting go of self is a spiritual practice that is, needless to say not in everybody’s repertoire.   Nonetheless, the need for respite from self is real.  When we seek to take a vacation from self, instead we may use other, more familiar means; some of these possibilities can be risky.  Intoxication, for example, is a time-honored way to lose ourselves, though it involves little introspection.  We sometimes numb ourselves from unwelcome emotion, or confuse our impulsive words, spoken under the influence, for freedom from crippling inhibition.

Sometimes we lose ourselves in love.  Have you ever encountered someone who, on finding “the one,” forgets her old friends or her old consuming passions, in order to give herself fully to a relationship?  The intoxication of new love can invite us to forget who we are, for a while.  The risk of this kind of loss of self, though, is that we may lose the qualities that make us unique and interesting.  Intoxicating love can make us more vulnerable than we realized.  Some partners find this an opportunity to replace our wants, goals, and visions with their own.  When we sacrifice our selves, we become only what the relationship makes of us.

Loss of self takes healthy forms, of course.  Letting go of self in a safe setting, allows us to relax into an inner state in which we can risk encountering the deepest desires of our heart, without manipulation.  In that state we can let go of stuff that keeps us stuck, without sacrificing what really matters to us.  Many traditions of meditation practice, though using different techniques, share the intent to help us quiet our thoughts long enough to notice who we truly are, when the drama is paused and the anxiety becomes quiet.

What happens to us when we relax our grip on our self?  We enter a state of being in which the details fade.  We are fully in the present moment, aware only perhaps of the chair, the birds outside, and the sensation of  breathing.  Then even those things go.  Letting go is legitimately scary, because we do not control it.  Appropriate care is wise.  Yet, we do this all the time, when we go to the movies.

We always take a risk when we lose ourselves.  The benefit is that we are likely find more of ourselves, the parts formerly obscured by suffering, anxiety, and habits of thought that no longer fit.   We awaken from the journey inward, to reclaim the questions that seem important, the eternal love of chocolate, and the people who nurture our spirit.  Moments in which we lose our self have healing potential, offering fresh questions, though rarely easy answers.  Then, neither does therapy, if we do it right.

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Introverts make noise: how to find our place in a world built for extroverts

Suddenly it’s ok be an introvert.  This is welcome news; American culture has not always been so tolerant. Preferring quiet reflection to social banter has, for decades, been seen as personal eccentricity, if not a sign of social anxiety or indifference to others.   Extroverts, who represent perhaps 70% of the population, have dominated our celebrity-focused culture.  But recently, the personality trait of introversion has received fresh attention, because, surprise, it turns out to benefit society.

Extroversion is the social norm, describing the habits of people who like to chat, tailgate, and to think out loud, animated by a posse of collaborators.  Introversion, the habit of going inward for inspiration, and sheltering from noise, had been pathologized.  Introverts need to go hike in the woods to replenish the energy expended in having a rich social life.  There is much mutual misunderstanding.  Being an oddball introvert doesn’t imply loneliness or depression, though feeling like an outsider much of the time can send you down that road.  Truthfully, pure introverts and extroverts are rare; most people secretly harbor elements of both traits.

It turns out that social bias favoring extroverts has cost society heavily, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

The bias against introverts starts in childhood classrooms where group projects are emphasized over solo work, in which introverted kids excel, and emotional nurture is provided at mandatory pep rallies.  Introverted kids conform as best they can, sacrificing their distinctiveness in the hope of fitting in.  In adult life, quiet employees, just like quiet schoolkids in the classroom, are often overlooked in the workplace, and so are their gifts.  American society needs to value its introverts differently, says Cain, who was recently interviewed on National Public Radio “Quiet, Please” (January 30), as well as “The Fortunes of Solitude” (February 7).  Last week, Time Magazine’s cover story was “The Upside of Being an Introvert”.

It’s always refreshing to hear that your personality type, while nonconforming, is no longer a problem, but even, in fact, fascinating to others.  Society’s unexpressed apology is accepted.  Introverted people do enjoy being included in the social world.  Their love of quiet is not due to coldness or fear of rejection; it’s just that for them, home is their complex inner life.

For introverts, reclaiming personal power requires finding a second home in the world of extroverted people, while remaining faithful to the love of Gregorian chant.  Introverts’ native eccentricity brings fresh perspective.   But even if the larger culture becomes more hospitable to introverts for its own sake, introverts must also reach out, to become better understood.  Instead of faking extroversion, those of us who love solitude in the midst of daily life, can express our authentic traits more boldly.  Here are some possibilities.

1)  Be visible.  Introverts tend to be less attention seeking than extroverts, and may humbly accept marginal roles. Instead, bring your unique viewpoint into daylight.   Introverts in positions of leadership, as it turns out, tend to use attention differently; introverts tend to empower others, rather than dominate by strength of personality.  Hello, Zuckerberg.  Becoming more visible, and audible, can express the introvert’s focus on the work itself, rather than the person who gets credit.  Think about Gandhi.

2) Set clear boundaries.  Deal with noise intrusion in a way that makes clear that your request for quiet is for something you value; it is not rejection of others.  Communication must be clear, with neighbors whose talk spills into your work space.  There are times to not be silent.

3) Take more risks.  The strength of introverts in listening well, and thinking carefully before speaking, can sometimes become a liability.  We prefer to perfect our thoughts before speaking.  If we can tolerate imperfection, we can share a bit more readily with our extroverted associates.

4)  Repeat yourself.   Interrupt, in a friendly way, if you are not heard.  Communication styles of introverts and extroverts are very different.   Attention drifts to louder voices, and shifts rapidly as extroverts revise their thoughts aloud.  Louder is not necessarily more valuable.  Your contribution is worth repeating.

5) Pause the action as needed.  Your need for quiet is legitimate, and as essential to your wellbeing as is the need for conversation and exchange of ideas.   The value of solitude is difficult to explain, though others may be drawn to yours.  Do not accept unfair characterizations, such as that introverts, by being quiet, are not contributing, or self absorbed, or thinking too much.  Do not allow others to define you.

The introverts around you may offer surprising gifts, when they feel worthy of notice.  The introvert lurking within you may, as well.  Curious to discover it?  You may wish to try an online personality test for introversion/extroversion here.

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