On Pessimism

Pessimism I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been focused on my book about narcissism, plus I just completed another article for The Atlantic, which you can find here. It’s about bullying as a kind of narcissistic behavior, linking the Richie Incognito story with the suicide of Rebecca Sedgwick and further thoughts on Lance Armstrong. Anyway, I’ve now emerged from my research-and-proposal-writing cocoon; it feels good returning to the “outside” world!

So in my practice, I’ve lately been thinking about pessimism as a character trait. Selena, the client I described in my post about the importance of joy in psychotherapy, tends to be very pessimistic about her future. She believes that she blew her opportunity to launch a career right after college and that nobody will want to hire her now because newly-minted college graduates will be applying for the same positions. Not long after she graduated, Selena was fired from a job that didn’t particularly suit her, and she found the experience painfully humiliating. Most of us would feel the same way, but Selena has had a hard time recovering and moving on. She feels that getting fired has “tainted” her. Pessimism about her future keeps her immobilized.

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Another Everyday Narcissist — Me

Painful WristA number of site visitors took issue with one of my recent posts, largely because of the way I used the word narcissist. Most people use it as a synonym for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, so it’s understandable that those visitors heard me calling Ellen a bad name. But I use narcissistic in a descriptive sense to cover a wide range of behaviors, not all of them pathological; an Everyday Narcissist such as Ellen is in no way the same thing as a person who suffers from NPD.

In order to make this distinction clear, I’m going to describe another Everyday Narcisisist — me. Shortly after my return to North Carolina, I went for my first piano lesson after the long summer break. I’ve been studying with my teacher Pei Fen for more than four years; my oldest son William studied with her for two years before that, so I’ve known her for six or seven years now. She’s a friend as well as my teacher. In addition to the playing and instruction that goes on during our lessons, we also catch up and talk about our personal lives. I had a lot to tell her about my time in Colorado.

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The Everyday Narcissist Revisited

JumperDuring the first year or so after I launched this site, my post about narcissistic behavior and the lost art of conversation was always a reader favorite. One of mine, too. I thought of it this past weekend when we were dining at a restaurant here in Colorado to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday. Passing by our table, the hostess overheard mention of North Carolina. A Raleigh native, she stopped by a few minutes later to introduce herself. Here is what I learned about this woman during our conversation, all without the prompting of a single question. Let’s call her Ellen, a quite attractive blond who recently turned 40.

Ellen had married as a freshman in college and gave birth to three children during each of the following years. She and her husband separated when the youngest was three and Ellen subsequently reared those three kids alone, without his emotional or financial support. During all that time, she vowed that once the youngest had left home, she would leave North Carolina and make an entirely new life for herself somewhere out west. Two years ago when the third child finally went off to college, she packed up and moved to Colorado in order to start anew. Now she works as a hostess in a tony restaurant and gives riding lessons during the day.

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Respecting Your Personal Limitations

StressFirst of all, I’d like to thank those of you who visit the site often enough to have noted my absence this past month and written to me with concern. It has been a trying time, in part because of unexpected challenges that have come along but also because I haven’t taken care of myself as well as I should.

In Don Nathanson’s excellent book Shame and Pride, he describes himself as “the driven sort of personality that must ignore or disavow exhaustion in order to conclude what we declare to be the ‘more important’ business of the day.” I recognize myself in this description. As I was working on Cinderella, I felt driven to complete and release it before relocating to Colorado for the summer, imposing an entirely artificial deadline upon myself. At the same time, I was finishing up a proposal for my book on shame, in the hope that I could interest a good agent in taking me on. I also wanted to finish that project before Colorado, although there was no particular reason why I needed to wrap it up in May rather than July. Like Nathanson, I continually made “the decision to trade the comfort of sleep for the work of writing.” By the end of May, I had completed and released Cinderella, finalized my book proposal and driven myself into a state of exhaustion.

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Envy for Your Children

Evil Queen
The familiar plot of Cinderella gave me the opportunity to write about shame and narcissism, themes not traditionally addressed by other iterations of this classic fairy tale. Snow White, my current project, allows me to write about the experience of envy and jealousy, usually the most prominent feature of every version of the story: the envy felt by the Wicked Queen for Snow White’s youth and beauty, obviously experienced as a narcissistic injury or threat. As in the original version of the fairy tale, before the Brothers Grimm altered the story to make it more emotionally acceptable to their audience, the Queen in my story will be Snow White’s biological mother. What kind of woman would feel so envious of her own child that she wants to destroy her? Rather than a monochromatic “evil” queen, I’m trying to envision a fully dimensional character and what might drive her.

The envy parents sometimes feel for their children has been on my mind of late, not only because I’m writing about it in Snow White but also because I’m feeling it. This envy is not the poisonous, destructive kind of hatred parents sometimes feel for their kids, but one that mingles with pride and genuine happiness for my children’s success. It’s a wistful kind of regret: I wish I could have had that, too. My oldest graduates this weekend from a top university and, at 22, will step into a fascinating job with an excellent company. My second son, only 19, attends college in London and will be spending his summer as an intern in Paris. Neither one has had to take out student loans or work their way through college — all thanks to the education trust established by their maternal grandparents. Oh my, these are fortunate boys!

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