My narcissism showed up early, like many of us, I suppose. I remember telling my mother when I was in kindergarten to save all my papers because someday I will be “great” and those papers will be important. We lived in Wiesbaden, Germany then. It was the early 60s and we were all innocent without understanding what that meant.
We didn’t have American television, only radio and a single movie house – the Taunus Theater – down next to the Afex, the military abbreviation for the Air Force Exchange, a kind of shopping mall. On Saturdays, children owned that theater. Tickets were only 15 cents and we could stay all day, eating popcorn, watching cartoons, the serial matinee, and the same movie over and over. Out of self-preservation, adults stayed away, leaving us our loudness, laughter, popcorn and Good and Plenty.
I remember once going to the movie alone, probably a weekday summer morning with nothing better to do. I was about seven and I sat there in the darkness and imagined myself more special than anyone else. I thought, “I am a prince and they don’t know it. They just think I’m a kid but I’m a prince in disguise.”
All my life I have protected my ego with such thoughts. “What if I am special? What if I have a special purpose?” I took comfort in my secret when the rejections came. And there were plenty of them. Kids are cruel. And so are adults. Hurt people hurt people. Somehow we bounce. We survive and carry on, sometimes soothing our emotional bruising with our silent egotism.
On the other hand, there is that shame too, the voices of self-hatred. Instead of being especially good or amazing, what if I am really nothing? What if how I feel sometimes is how it really is?
I once gave a talk in front of about 100 people. I had prepared well and had carefully crafted a clear message. I could tell I had them. The audience was with me. They were engaged, responsive and grateful. All except for one. One woman who scowled throughout my talk. I forgot about everyone but her. I kept coming back to her, hoping to win her over like a fisherman straining to pull in my prize, persuading her with pithy phrases, and timely jokes and witty words of wisdom, thick and heavy with profound meaning.
Nothing worked. Afterward, as the audience applauded, I stood there a defeated man. No matter how many people stood in line to thank me, it did not matter. I drove back to my office, closed my door, slumped in my chair and wept. I took this stranger’s rejection so personally, I believed I had no value and even no reason to live.
Our egos are sneaky little suckers. Until we figure out their game, they can take us on a roller coaster of emotion, raising us up one day and crashing us down on another.
In my work with my clients, I have learned I am not the only one who struggles with these thoughts. There is the world and there is our view of the world. Who I am and who I think I am are often two different films. One may have nothing to do with the other.
The truth is, each of us is special. No one is worthless. If we are alive, we possess that spark of light, no matter how obscure it seems. I am special and so are you. But what does that mean?
The problem, I think, is the judgmental mind. Whatever we consider to be our self is a concept built with words, the tools our brains use to make sense of our experience. Our inner language thicket becomes so dense, we get stuck. Every second, another judgment, another critical thought, another rigid rule that hems us in and holds us fast.
Until we step back and see our judging and the harm it does, it’s in charge. Its lies become our truth. The secret, I have come to understand, is self-forgetting. Whether I am busy loving or hating myself, I am still sitting in that dark theater in my little brain focused on me.
On the other hand, I am at my best, when it is no longer about me. When I am with others, I want to be with them, not neurotically worried about what they think of me. The more I sit in judgment of what I imagine they are judging, the more disconnected I am from them and me.
Instead, I am willing to fail; willing to be rejected; willing to have pain. It isn’t personal. The movies in our heads are not real. Out here where we meet and connect with and see each other’s true selves is what really matters. This is the real show. This is where love happens — between and among us — when we forget our fears and focus on one another with empathy and compassion, concerning ourselves with what is good and true in our shared experience.
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.