It’s Not About You

We generally think about narcissism in terms of the neurotic tendency towards vanity, selfishness, unbridled self-love, and admiration. To the extent that this is true, it is only partly true.

We can think about this character profile as the positive (as “+” sign) side of narcissism, where someone identifies as all that is truly good and noble in the world. But there is also the negative (as “-” sign) side of narcissism, where someone finds in themselves all that is unquestionably horrid and despicable in the world. One adds qualities to themselves they do not possess, the other takes away qualities that they do.

Two men are vying for a promotion at a prestigious law firm. Both are highly qualified, productive, well-liked and loyal, both having been there for over ten years (and having started at the same time). At the end of the week when the promotions are announced, as expected, only one of them is the recipient. The successful man walks around the office hi-fiving and loudly proclaiming it was a “no-brainer” to hire someone as brilliant and talented as him. His jocular mood takes a pompous and acidic turn as he turns to the other man tells him he lost out because he was less talented, intelligent, and aspirational. This man, in turn, becomes dejected. He spends the night alone at the office drinking heavily, reminding himself every time he passes a mirror that he truly is the pathetic man he was said to be, and he would have gotten the job if he was more capable, clever, and ambitious.

While we are ready to harbor ill-will towards the first man, we are more reserved in our judgment of the second. However, they are both victims of a similar mentality. Neither man, it seems, creates distance between events and themselves. Both define who they are, absolutely, upon what happens to them. Each man’s identity is so porous, that there is effectively no barrier between what happens to them and how they define themselves. Were the tables turned, it is likely each man would have acted in the same way as the other.

Both men forget, in their own way, that we are not the things that happen to us. To the extent that we allow events to define us, we become second hand people. This is narcissism; being a reflection of what happens around you.

In addition to the dejected lawyer who missed out on the promotion, we could include the unfortunate soul who really thinks ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, blaming themselves entirely for a break up; the man who despite his best attempts, receives a cold shoulder from the beautiful woman at the bar and returns home truly believing he is an ugly troll whom nobody could ever love; and the self-flagellating victim of an unfortunate life who only blames themselves for why things have not turned out so well.

In our self-proclaimed meritocratic society, we are told that anybody can be anything and there are no barriers to self-realisation. While it is an excellent belief-system for the winners, the losers suffer not only loss, but the shame that comes with loss being entirely their fault. We live in a world where success and failure are pinned entirely on the individual. We find it difficult to speak about forces outside ourselves that may influence how things turn out because before a conversation even begins, we act as if they are not there.

The ancients understood how little agency we have. The Romans had Fortuna, the Greeks had Tyche, the Etruscans had Norita, and the early Semites had Gad. These gods served an incredibly important function: they reminded people that life is largely outside of our control and we are often the victims of uncontrollable and unforeseeable forces.

Our secular age has no use for deities. Yet, we should take on the spirit exemplified by the gods of fortune and chance. The next time we blame ourselves entirely for something that has happened, we should start an inner monologue and tell ourselves ‘it is not about you’.

‘It is not about you’ is a reminder that we are not the centre of the universe. We are minor actors on a stage whose edges we cannot even see. While sometimes we may feel like everything is our fault (for better or worse), it is absolutely necessary (for our own wellbeing) to remind ourselves that we are like sailors on an ocean and while we can control the sail, we cannot control the wind.

We should try to catch ourselves next time we feel like saying we are the cause of this misery, the creator of that pain, or architect of the agony; and instead recognise that while we may have played a part, to a large extent, there was only so much we could have done.

Reminding yourself that ‘it is not about you’ is not about being deprecatory, but about being humble; it involves recognising how little control over things you have and in turn, opening up a space where you can see that no matter how bad things might get (a painful breakup, a missed promotion), it is not entirely your fault.

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