Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Your “Iffy” and “Sticky” Self: How to Balance Narcissism and Healthy Self-Esteem

Some weeks ago, Brad Wellen commented on the cover of a recent New Yorker. “(It) depicts NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg staring at himself in the mirror while he munches on Valentine’s Day chocolates as hearts dance around his head. Not exactly the most humble depiction of Mayor Mike, but surprisingly Bloomberg is not at all upset with the narcisstic tone of the caricature. After joining President Obama, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, and the Pope as cover subjects for the New Yorker, Bloomberg was flattered at the thought of the “Bloom in Love” illustration.

‘If I am in that company, boy, I guess I should have a very big smile on my face. I like what I see in the mirror, and I hope everybody here does. I get up in the morning, and I work as hard as I can, and my kids have turned out great. I’m a lucky enough guy to have made a lot of money, and I’m giving it all away and making a big difference.’”

After reading the article, a friend contacted me with this question: How do you balance healthy self-worth with excessive self-absorbed narcissistic behavior?

In third grade I learned a limerick that stuck. “There was a young man from Ideal, who said, ‘Although pain is not real, when the prick of a pin goes into my skin, I dislike what I fancy I feel!’” I think it I remembered it because it so aptly and subtly captures some of the complexities of self and perception.

Like it or not we can subscribe to any philosophy or ideals, we can say our identity is an illusion but when push comes to shove our ego makes itself felt. We’re locked in to a duality. We vacillate between feelings of nothingness on one hand and narcissism on the other – all the while looking for the balance we call “healthy self-esteem” that’s supposed to be somewhere in between.

The duality and struggle is right there in the first two Commandments. At the deepest level, number one informs us not only that G-d exists but that He’s One and indivisible – the only true existence. That doesn’t leave much room for us does it? On the other hand, the second Commandment says, “Don’t worship idols.” The “self” is the ultimate idol. So right there at number two we’re told not to be seduced by our egos. Ironically, by implication that means we are here, we do exist, the ego is way more than a “young man from Ideal.” All of which puts us between a rock and a hard place. How do we navigate those two truths?

According to Judaism the universe is a not a delusion. Not at all. We are here. But we’re here in an iffy kind of way. At any moment, G-d could stop creating us and we’d simply cease to be. Our deepest desire is to be a real, absolute, independent being. We yearn to really exist. And our deepest fear is that we don’t. On the one hand, we’re certainly here. But on the other, our existence could disappear in a flash because our very being is an outgrowth of the will of G-d. The “iffiness” of who we are has us all crazy. Deep down we know the truth and we’re terrified.

My husband is from Russia. He tells me that word on the street was that Brezhnev had surgery to enlarge his chest because he had run out of place for all his medals. Laughable yes, but before you laugh out loud, remember that in a different way we’ve got our own scam going on. Our achievements, profiles and possessions all provide a buffer to our deep existential fear. They give us the false sense that we’re “really here” independently of G-d. The trophies on the shelf, the awards on the wall, the diamonds in the drawer, even the fact that we’re “good guys” (whatever it is we personally use to build self-esteem) are our Brezhnev-badges, our personal way of soothing the terror that we don’t really exist.

So I wouldn’t put “healthy self-worth” on one side of the scale and “excessive self-absorbed narcissistic behavior” on the other. They’re both just points along the spectrum of the ego doing its thing. They both grow out of our need to be a real something. They’re different responses to the existential crisis of iffiness.

What we call self-esteem can be compared to a papier-mâché balloon. It looks substantial but can’t stand up to being banged about. Let’s say you feel good about yourself because you like what you see in the mirror – and for good reason. A la Blumberg you’ve worked hard and made a meaningful contribution. You’re charitable, attentive, committed to social justice. The kids turned out great. Okay. But what if you don’t like what you see in the mirror? Or you’ve had to work a menial nine-to-five job you hated day in and day out for thirty years. What if you’re stingy? And the kids are in trouble!? Does that mean you’re a nothing? Without the diamonds are you then just dust? Or even with them, are you then the “true existence” you aspire to be?!

To develop a truly healthy sense of self, you have to find out who you are without any of it. You have to access the indestructible part of you that has essential value. By that I mean the place in you that is absolutely valuable for no reason other than that you’re created in the image of G-d. Its value has nothing to do with diamonds or even how the kids turned out. It’s a non-utilitarian value that comes by virtue of the fact that you simply exist.

Between you and the utopian bliss you feel when you touch your infinite, absolute value stands a fragile – yet very powerful – ego. To live a fearless and life you have to surrender the ego. However just like when jumping into the swimming pool there’s a moment where you’re neither on the ground nor in the water, so too in surrendering the ego there’s a moment of nothingness. You let go of the ego, the narcissism, even the good guy you’ve always held in healthy esteem – and you have zilch. It feels like death. But that’s the truth. There’s no other way in. You have to die in order to live.

Sure you have an iffy self but you also have a “sticky” one. You sticky self is your essential value which is going nowhere regardless of what’s going on outside of you or within. Find the sticky self. It’s beyond what others – or even you – think of you! From there you’re home free.

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