Accepting who you are: reconciling reality and optimism.

When you watch a television program, a film, works of fact or fiction, do you tend to be more interested in character, or plot? I tend to be more interested in the former, although a good writer (in my opinion) knows that the two cannot – should not – be separated. I have an insatiable fascination with the way people think, and why people make choices and take the actions that they do – it’s a weird pet interest, but bear with me, and you’ll see why it matters. This interest, combined with a love of dysfunctional comedians, has led me to the book I am currently reading, Narcissism: Denial of the True Self by Alexander Lowen, M.D (I heard a dysfunctional comedian mention it in a podcast. Of course.)

As a laymen I appreciate the lucid way in which Lowen explains this little understood condition of the mind. The term ‘narcissist’ is used often, but seldom truly understood. It is usually employed in regards to someone who is preoccupied with themselves, or showing signs of being excessively vain – being in love with their own image, and craving recognition from others for this image. This is, I discovered, a rather superficial understanding of what this condition is. 

The basic disturbance in the narcissistic personality is acting without feeling. Feeling is a bodily function, not a mental process. Narcissists can have highly developed mental processes, but suppressed – even absent – feelings. Lowen discusses a client who, in an extreme case, admitted to having no feelings. The man assessed his effectiveness as a human being exclusively in terms of his ‘performance’ in various aspects of his life: as an employee, for example, and even as a sexual partner (which he also approached as a servicemen, entirely without feeling). He had sought Lowen’s help as a result of his emotionally dissatisfied girlfriend, who felt there was something missing from the relationship. The man admitted, though, that if she decided to leave him, he would feel nothing of it.

This is a pretty grim state to live in. In fact it isn’t living at all. 

In addition to a deficiency in feeling, Otto Kernberg (quoted in the book) said that narcissists “present various combinations of intense ambitiousness, grandiose fantasies, feelings of inferiority and overdependence on external admiration and acclaim”. Conscious or unconscious exploitative tendencies and ruthlessness toward others are also hallmark behaviours. Essentially, narcissists get hung up on their image – and, importantly, this image is what they imagine themselves to be – an idealisation. It is not their true self, and does not actually match their true self. Rather than functioning in terms of the actual self-image, they deny it to themselves, do not look at themselves. Part of this true self is the body, the feelings. The man described above had obviously completely lost touch with his true self, to the point where he regarded his body like a machine, a thing to use.  Lowen identifies 5 types of narcissism, including borderline personality and the phallic-narcissistic character. 

Of course, as I was reading this book yesterday my mind wandered, and wondered: what would cause a person to want to disassociate their mind from their true self? Being chronically uncomfortable with the reality of one’s life is certainly one of those things that would cause someone to essentially divorce them self. Although I have a habit of self-diagnosing myself with EVERYTHING after reading material of a medical or psychological nature, I’m pretty feeling oriented. Moreover I think I have a pretty strong grasp these days of my true self, and see my body and my life as it is: a little achy, messed up, but a work in progress. 

My disability is pretty grounding. The trajectory of my life has been unusual because of deteriorating health and illness.  I haven’t been able to work for large stretches of my life. I have made choices that were unwise in the long run, but which were inevitable, given the frame of mind I was in when I made those choices. The impact on my life of depression (that I now know is inherited) right up to today is difficult to quantify or even think about – it has had more of an adverse effect than perhaps anything else. All of these factors and more have contributed to a financial situation that is less secure than I perhaps would like it to be, which, coupled with disability, certainly delineates quite clearly what is and is not possible. At times, it is a very lonely existence. I do not, however, see my situation as bleak. In so many ways I know I am lucky. I have more physical ability and health than many, and I still have certain ‘dreams’ for my life, which I am working to realise. 

So what happens when you find yourself in a situation that you may feel tempted to disassociate yourself from? What happens to your dreams, your ideals, when reality sets in? I believe the KEY is this: a shift from desire to intent. Working within the confines of reality, and your abilities and limitations, to achieve dreams that are framed in terms of intent, not outcome. Using my own example, I intend to write, and to continually improve as a writer. I intend to write about things that move me, that I care about, and that may be useful or relevant and maybe even entertaining to other people. Whether this will ever be my primary career remains to be seen. I have no control over how what I intend to write will be received – I regard it as crazy to desire to dream of earning this or winning that, particularly in this context. So my dream is merely to write it, to draw it out of myself in a way that hopefully resonates, and to just put it out there with warm intentions. 

Last year a visiting out of town friend suggested we go see the creepy, uncomfortable, yet ultimately compassionate documentary ‘Catfish’ [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]. The film’s authenticity has been questioned, but even if fake, it is a well constructed, gripping tale. New York based photographer Nev Shulman starts receiving paintings from an eight-year-old child prodigy artist named Abby, in rural Michigan. They become Facebook friends, and soon after Nev is ‘friended’ by Abby’s mother Angela, her husband Vince, and Abby’s attractive older half sister Megan – a veterinary technician, dancer, and songwriter who lives in Gladstone, Michigan. Eventually, Nev starts having an ‘online relationship’ with Megan (phone calls and Facebook). She sends him mp3s of her songs, but Nev discovers they are all ripped off YouTube videos. Later he finds more evidence of deception. 

Nev’s brother Ariel, the documentarian, urges Nev to continue the relationship for the sake of the documentary. The brothers and a friend eventually go to Michigan to find the truth, and discover that while Abby is a real girl, she is not a painter, nor the one who sent the paintings. Her mother, Angela, who looks nothing like her Facebook profile, is. She had been posing as Abby, as Vince (who had no knowledge of what was happening) and even Megan, whose photo was fake. The phone conversations Nev had had were all with Angela, who was also the full-time caregiver of Vince’s intellectually disabled twin sons. How Nev reacts to the situation is admirable, though. When Angela eventually confesses how she deceived him, he patiently listens. It is clear Angela is desperately unhappy with her life. As they talk it through, Angela comes to realise that all these personae were fragments of herself, fragments she felt she’d lost because of the choices she had made – although she loved her husband and family, the choice to become the full-time caregiver of her step sons had left her with deep longing for some other life. 

I think it can be really hard, if you had a strong image/ideal of what your life would be that you were really attached to, to find yourself in an unsatisfying situation, a reality that may be completely at odds with what in your heart you wanted.  To see other people with things you wish you had, when you live in a culture that is bombarding you with images of idealised lifestyles, idealised bodies, idealised (and idolised) abilities. But the only healthy solution, as Angela finally (thank goodness) discovered in the film, is accepting reality and the present moment. Continuously. Once she did this, she was able to start affecting positive changes within her reality. She eventually started selling her art under her real name, and reclaiming all the parts of herself she had thought she had lost – parts she had externalised in the characters ‘Abby’ and ‘Megan’ she created. I found my abject horror turn into compassion for Angela, as she started to get on with her REAL life. 

So…what is the moral of this post? If you find yourself faced with a difficult reality, instead of trying to escape, try the following:

Accept what is… today. Your true feelings, your thoughts, your reality.

And intend to do/create [insert activity here] … today

Make the most of a difficult situation. Don’t obsess about the past or the future. Focus on connecting to the now. It’s perhaps the best way to reconcile optimism with reality, and accept who you really are.

Believe me when I say that I understand that living in the moment when the moment is filled with pain can be really, really tough. When I make the mistake of appraising my past I see there has been far more pain than pleasure – and I have the worry lines and premature aging to prove it. During a down phase of depression I worry that the future will only hold more of the same. But I still know – and experience, on my finest, most spiritual days – that accepting and focusing on what is, NOW, is the only way to open yourself up to real joy, and the only way to freedom. 

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