Mental Health & the Myth of Exceptionalism

We generally think of narcissists as those who consider themselves exceptionally talented, beautiful, or perfect beyond reproach. The narcissist, in this formation, believes themselves to be incomparably extraordinary. They are, in their own eyes, what others should aspire to, and those who fail to meet their high standards (which, by definition, only the narcissist can satisfy) deserve criticism and rebuke.

This is, however, a very narrow interpretation of narcissism. Broadened, narcissism can entail the singularity of one’s perfection, but also the singularity of one’s deformity. To put it another way, the other side to narcissism can be described as the exceptionalism of one’s pain. In this dimension of narcissism, we fall prey to the crippling belief that we are the only ones who have ever felt this way, that nobody will ever understand our pain, and that what we are experiencing is so unique, particular, and exclusive that it would be a waste of time to try and communicate it to others.

This flagellating mentality is centripetal, drawing us away from the very thing that would allow us to heal the pain that afflicts us: the company of others. In a way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we believe others will not understand so we keep our pain to ourselves, thereby denying others any chance to discover what is wrong, and thereby using their ignorance as proof that they cannot understand. The curse of thinking ourselves exceptional is that we create the conditions where we must go it alone; Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders alone.

Atlas Holding Up the Celestial Globe, Guercino, 1646

By keeping silent, we compound the pain of mental illness with icy cold isolation, separating ourselves from what would potentially be the best remedy for our toxic exceptionalism: the company of other people.

By opening up, we would find that our friend too has gone through a terrible breakup, the loss of a parent, the revision of self-worth in the face of an academic or business failing, and we might even learn of a problem they have never shared that would put our own problems into perspective.

We are all scarred, bruised, battered and damaged in some way and should not mistake an inability to see pain in others as proof that it is not there. Opening up does not necessarily guarantee we will heal, or we will even feel much better, but it will help put our problems in perspective. We will learn that our suffering is not a curse bestowed exclusively on us, but is the unfortunate lot of human beings. We will also learn a vital lesson that we should draw on for the rest of our lives: we are not exceptional and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We all suffer, but, with the company of kind, caring and compassionate friends, we do not have to suffer alone.

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