Is our belief in being “special” harming our mental health?
This post also appeared on the New Existentialists, here.
Kirk Schneider (2008), an existential psychologist, writes that people in the current Western, post-modem culture have fallen into a dangerous game of "either-or:" either they see themselves in a reductionist, mechanistic way, a cog in the interconnected global machine, or they see themselves as omnipotent heroes of the post-modern age, so special and so powerful that they "should" be able to control everything within and without themselves. Both views can be dangerous: to yourself, to your mental health, but also to the world around you, including your loved ones and all the others that you cannot or will not bring yourself to love or care about. Take the idea of being special. By "special," I mean that sense that you are not just a unique individual, but that you are even more - above others somehow, destined for something greater, perhaps luckier or more talented or just more. You are definitely not average in any way; you are smarter, wittier, stronger; you are "special.” As a clinician, I have sat across from a number of people who have shared with me, with great pain in their eyes, that they think they are special, or perhaps that they used to think so.
Sometimes the person sitting in front of me has a hard time explain what this “special” idea means to them. Sometimes, their ideas are specific and very clear: A hero. Protector. A superman or superwoman. Typically, in such therapeutic encounters, the admission of being special is followed by sorrow or disappointment. The person sitting with me had come to believe that eventually he or she will stand out from the crowd, be popular, or famous, or admired, or at least go on to do great things for humanity, things that instill a sense of peaceful pride and personal strength. Perhaps this idea came from their childhood, as a fantasy that children, beings with little power in society, might entertain, or a film watched and wanted to emulate, or their parents' messages. Often, the person cannot remember the source of this idea. All they now know is that brutal reality has had a clash with this cherished conviction of one's distinction. They reason that they are supposed to feel special, unique, powerful, but they do not.
Like most people, these individuals are plagued by existential anxiety, fear of uncertain future, and a sense of loneliness. Perhaps more so than others, they fear obscurity because they equate it with meaninglessness. Often, there is a puzzled look in their eyes as they tell me they cannot understand why their life has not come together the way they expected. Where does such a belief come from indeed? The belief that one is entitled to a special destiny, to more than others? They may have heard encouragements of a healthy narcissism from their parents, and certainly the media in the Western culture encourages the idea that you and I are always entitled to something more and better – a better face, a better body, better friends, a better “you,” that if you don’t get enough “likes” on facebook for a picture, there is something wrong with it. However, parents and the media are all part of the collective culture, and we cannot single them out for blame while taking no responsibility for ourselves. Any culture is made of individuals who make a million decisions every day, often unconsciously, to support or reject such ideas within the culture.
Why is it so worrisome, you might ask, that some individuals feel that the world has let them down? Aren’t these people just a small portion of us, the ones with the really distorted ideas of the world and incontrovertible "mental illness?" No. These people are you and I. What their experience shows is a presence of a larger, societal problem: a shift well-documented in the psychological literature, a shift towards greater narcissism. “Narcissism” sounds so awful, doesn't it? Surely it does not apply to you? Yet it is a trait that most, if not all, people possess, just in different amount and with variations in quality. Denying that we possess any measure of narcissism would be a denial of the human instincts of self-protection, including and especially the preservation of one's sense of self-esteem and self-image. So no, it's not just the person who averages one hundred selfie posts per day who has narcissistic traits. It’s all of us. Possessing a measure of narcissistic traits and organizing your entire life and beliefs around narcissistic ideas are different things, however.
Believing that you are unique or that you have unusual talents (like a picture I saw on Imgur recently of a woman doing a hand stand while holding and aiming a bow with her toes – that is impressive!) is not necessarily harmful, especially if it empowers you to challenge yourself, explore new areas of living, and take responsibility for your life. It may move you to decrease that elusive gap between what you see as your current self and your ideal self.
On the other hand, grasping onto the belief that somehow others will recognize how special you are, and will admire you, or not even admire – but even see you as you see yourself: a hero; a protector; a nurturer...this will often lead to disappointment because you set up expectations of things you cannot control: what others think of you and how they relate to you. Then, if you are not getting the recognition that you think you deserve, it can be very disempowering and lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. “I know I am special, but the world is a terrible place because no one else can see this,” is a thought that might come to live in your mind and leak poison and hostility into your interactions with others, unbeknownst to you. It can impair your capacity to accept reality – that sometimes, and often, people will not see you the way you see yourself; it can cut into your ability to be flexible and spontaneous, especially when doubts and resentments creep into the way you relate to yourself and others; and, last but not least, it can set you up for a path of helplessness and depression or a path where the only thing you have left that is meaningful in your life is instant gratification, and delaying that becomes synonymous with an aimless life. Your sense of meaning and purpose may come to depend on external things once again, if not people, then alcohol, sugar, ultra-consumer lifestyle, over-exercise, and so on.
When I sit down with someone who feels terribly disappointed with their destiny not measuring up to their expectations of greatness, there are a few things I typically try to facilitate. We might examine where these ideas come from and whether the source of the ideas is as reputable as the person originally thought. We might work on acceptance of reality, despite its painful qualities. We might explore what this idea of “special” means and how the person may have singularly hinged their self-worth on being able to attain this “special” status, while minimizing many talents and admirable qualities in themselves. As much as the person is interested and able, I try to facilitate an environment from which they can move forward to re-create the meaning of being special in a way that promotes wellness, balanced self-image, and a realistic outlook.
But then I leave the session and someone in my life perhaps does not do something that I asked, and I, too, experience disappointment and irritation. Right after all this lofty and deep existential exploration, I, too, fall into the trap of “specialness.” This is my humanity. This is our humanity. As Zen teachings of D.T. Suzuki suggest, I will not be able to avoid this trap, but I learn to notice faster when I am in it, and try to orient myself towards acceptance of reality as it is, because I have no special certificate to say that reality should be the way I want it to be.
Sources: Schneider, K. J. (2008). Existential-integrative psychotherapy: Guideposts to the core of practice. New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Photograph by A. Sotskova, taken at ROMP 2014, presented by Suddenly Dance Theatre.