At Southwestern College, in the first year of classes, the instructors and the curriculum invite us to look deeply at ourselves. We are invited to become more aware of both inner sources of strength and unconscious patterns that may not be serving us. I just finished my first year, and I’m very grateful to have had this opportunity for self-inquiry. I’m sure it will make me a better therapist, and it’s already had a positive impact on me as a person (at least that’s what my wife Emilah says!)
Last winter I took Addiction Assessment and Treatment with Jason Holley. This has been one of my favorite classes; I enjoyed the depth and breadth of our class conversations and the energy that Jason brought to the class. He invited us each to choose a habit to abstain from for several weeks, so we could have an experience of what this can be like for clients in recovery. In Applied Theories of Human Development the previous quarter, I had identified narcissism as a problematic personality pattern of mine—so for my abstinence project, I decided to abstain from narcissistic behaviors. Below is an excerpt a class paper in which I describe this experience.
My Abstinence Project
For my abstinence project, I set an intention to notice and abstain from “narcissistic behaviors”: habitual ways I prop up my self-esteem by devaluing others and idealizing myself. Over the course of my project, I noticed several types of narcissistic behaviors I tend to engage in: “defensive punning”, narcissistic communication, and holding myself “above” others.
In the past, I had noticed some ambivalence about my habit of making puns; I wanted to explore what this was about, so at the start of my project, I set an intention to abstain from punning. Halfway through my project, I recognized an important distinction in how I use puns: defensive vs. non-defensive punning. In defensive punning, when I’m feeling left out, I seek to relieve anxiety by giving others word puzzles to solve (thereby drawing attention to myself); whereas non-defensive punning is simply playful silliness that does not serve a narcissistic function. With this clarity, I revised my goal from abstaining from all punning to abstaining from defensive punning.
Last quarter, I had a revelation about how I have often engaged in narcissistic communication—saying things that either devalue others or idealize myself, in subtle ways, usually unconsciously and unintentionally. I realized how much damage this habit has been doing to my relationships. Of all the narcissistic habits I’m aware of, this is the one I’m most ashamed of. During my abstinence project, I set an intention to be especially mindful of what I say and how. I only caught myself putting someone down once: when joking with my wife one night, I used some humor that devalued her (pointing out a perceived inadequacy). The joke felt somewhat odd at the time, but I didn’t catch the narcissistic aspect of it until the following morning, at which point I apologized to her.
Recently I have noticed that in group situations, I often take an internal stance in which I hold myself “above” others; I believe this has been a long-time habit for me. This quarter, as part of my abstinence project, I experimented with letting go of this stance and giving myself permission to be “ordinary”. I discovered that when I do this, my body relaxes, and it gets easier both to empathize with others around me and to feel a sense of energetic connection with them. This has been the most subtle aspect of my abstinence project; it has taken some time to learn to discern when I’m holding myself above others and when I’m not. For instance, early in the project, sometimes I would notice that I wasn’t feeling energetically connected with those around me, and I interpreted this to me that I must be holding myself above them. Later, with the help of a classmate, I discerned that these are two separate issues; sometimes, even when I’m not holding myself above others around me, I may choose not to connect deeply with them energetically—I now view this as a legitimate (non-narcissistic) stance.
Addictions Vs. Defense Mechanisms
Gabor Maté suggests that addiction involves compulsive engagement with a behavior, impaired control of the behavior, persistence of the behavior despite evidence of harm, and craving for the behavior (2010, pp. 136–137). To me, each of the four components of this definition implies that an addict is consciously aware of the addictive behaviors he engages in. In other words, based on Maté’s definition, addictive behaviors may be somewhat involuntary, but they’re not unconscious.
Each of the narcissistic behaviors that I have discussed had an unconscious aspect initially; either the behavior itself was unconscious (that is, I didn’t know I was doing it), or its narcissistic aspect was unconscious (that is, I knew I was doing the behavior, but I didn’t see its narcissistic aspects). To the extent that my behaviors were unconscious, the addiction model doesn’t quite seem to fit; it seems to make more sense to consider such unconscious behaviors to be defense mechanisms rather than addictions.
All in all, I found my abstinence project to be a powerful personal growth experience. I plan to continue the process of watching for manifestations of narcissism in my life and letting go of narcissistic behaviors as I become aware of them. I’m also curious to discover additional types of defense mechanisms I may be engaging in.
Maté, G. (2010). In the realm of hungry ghosts: close encounters with addiction. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books.