Today, Feeling Unimportant, and Trying that on for Size

A completely different take on what it means to be unimportant.
A completely different take on what it means to be unimportant.

Today is not a good day.

It is one of those days when nothing in particular is going wrong and it feels terrible anyway. I feel terrible. Just, you know, because I’m me and I’m alive and that’s how being alive feels today.

Specifically, I feel useless, unimportant, and irrelevant. Beside the very point of life.

And sometimes, when I feel particularly bad, I try the thoughts that are making me feel so bad on for side. So what if this is true? What does that mean? How does that actually feel?

Because I know where it’s coming from. It’s an old sense about myself, derived from being treated as if I really were beside point, and deserved no consideration, respect, or care. And I could simply be used.

I know there are some people who grow up with abuse and come out of it feeling that the world is fair, and conclude that they must be bad people to be treated that way. I didn’t though. I grew up feeling the world is not fair. It is capricious and arbitrary. And I am not important enough to be protected from its capriciousness.

And the end result is not that I don’t feel deserving of anything at all.

But it’s all part of this sense of unimportance. That I’m sitting with now. And playing with for a while. Because I have decided it doesn’t matter that much what I think. And so I am not afraid of what I think, and this frees me up to simply play with those thoughts. (There is a method to this madness.)

Because, see, people with a grandiose sense of themselves–which most people who harm children have–harm those they see as lacking their special status. Average is their worst enemy. Average is the worst kind of character flaw. Average triggers their rage. Not being grossly defective, although they may make it sound that way. Just average.

Which is handy, actually, because it makes most of the world a fair target.

Of course, I’m really not quite average. I would not fall close to the median of most measures. So there’s a bit of problem there. But let’s keep going with this anyway.

Because I am still basically unimportant. I matter profoundly to one or two other people. And I matter some to several others. But to the great majority of the 8 billion people on the planet, I matter not at all.

My life or death make almost no difference.

There. How does that feel?

Actually (and feel free to listen in to this little conversation I’m having with myself) it feels fine. It feels rather fine. It feels like I can do whatever I want. Which isn’t quite true. I am not so unimportant that I can stop paying the bills and still have the lights come on when I flip a switch.

The electric company would eventually notice it was time to cut me off.

So I’m not quite that unimportant. But close enough.

No, being unimportant is okay. It does not need to hurt. The flaw is in thinking what being unimportant means: that other, important people have the power and the right to harm me.

They don’t. Because they aren’t very important either and have no more right to harm others than I do.

What do you think of that?

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Motor Empathy

We don't copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it's about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.
We don’t copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it’s about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.

There are actually three systems that work together to help us understand how others are thinking and feeling and that allow us to relate to each other as social beings. The third one, which I haven’t really mentioned up until now, is motor empathy.

Motor empathy is the reason you find yourself looking in the same direction a stranger suddenly turns toward. It is the reason you tend to cross your arms if your conversational partner is crossing hers.

It is probably also the reason my cat smiles after more than a decade of my smiling at her.

Motor empathy is also called mirroring. We do it unconsciously for the most part, although life coaches and job interview tips might advocated doing it on purpose. Mirroring the actions of others makes us likable. It is an advertisement of your success as a social human being. It says you are skilled at understanding how others feel. It says you care about other people. It says you share your toys and play nicely in the schoolyard.

To some extent this may really be true, because motor empathy may be the precursor of affective (emotional) empathy. And you need affective empathy to develop real concern for other people. Cognitive empathy alone doesn’t seem to do it.

It works like this. Someone smiles at you. you smile back. The smile makes you feel happy, and consequently you understand that people who are smiling are happy.

The Russian doll model (that I don't totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.
The Russian doll model (that I don’t totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.

So motor empathy may be the mode of transmission for contagious emotions. You mimic the expression and the expression creates the emotion that goes with it.

But it’s not entirely clear. Autistic people have great difficulty with motor empathy. However, we don’t know whether they have difficulty with affective empathy. They may not. The jury on that is still very much out.

Even if it is, good motor empathy as an indicator for other kinds of empathy only works for some people–most people, in fact, but not everyone.

It doesn’t work for people with personality disorders. They all have perfectly fine motor empathy skills and major gaps in others systems. Borderlines feel what you feel, but cannot make sense of it. Narcissists lack affective empathy. Psychopaths do too. They do not feel what you are feeling, even if they are doing what you are doing.

Motor empathy is a part of what makes us feel connected to others. There are other elements involved, but motor empathy is one of them. That is why you can develop the most intense feeling of connection to a narcissist or psychopath–they can seem so absolutely in synch with you–but still be dropped like a hot potato.

They don’t feel what you are feeling, even when they look like they are. The connection is entirely on your side.

Empathy in Personality Disorders

Russian dolls.
Russian dolls.

One of the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is “lack of empathy.” But what kind? Affective, cognitive, or both?

So I read a study. Granted, I only read one study. You should probably read more before you decide if their findings are valid.

According to K. Ritter and a bunch of other researchers, narcissists have average cognitive empathy. They can see things from your perspective. They can’t always be bothered though.

However, they have impaired affective empathy. When you are distressed, they aren’t also distressed. Which I think probably explains a lot.

The same study looked at empathy in those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). They found what other studies have found about borderlines and empathy. Individuals with BPD have impaired cognitive empathy but average or above-average affective empathy. They feel distressed when you are distressed–maybe even very distressed–but they don’t know why.

Lana Del Rey, Mortality, and Parakeets

I have been listening to Lana Del Rey the last few days. Specifically, this song:

For those of you who have come to see me as a bulwark of intelligence and cultured reason, I hope this does not disappoint. Because, based on her lyrics, Lana does not have a whole lot going on upstairs.

Granted, I am aware that singers don’t generally write their own lyrics, and that all that lines such as, “Sometimes life is not enough and the world gets tough. I don’t know why,” indicate is that her record label thinks that that is the image her target fan based wants to hear.

I am so very sorry.
I am so very sorry.

No, what interests me is not her lack of cortical activity, but the grave and serious way in which she delivers these fatuous bits of supposed wisdom. The very idea that, “We were born to die,” has intense meaning for her, and therefore should for us also.

This is clearly a woman who never had a hamster drop dead on her. Or a bird. That she was bird-sitting. For friends. While they were away.

(I am so sorry, Dick and Joy. And thank you for telling me it was old and would have dropped dead anyway. I still don’t believe you, but it was a nice thing to say.)

This woman has all of her grandparents still living. And great-grandparents. And she doesn’t believe in any previous generations. Because people don’t naturally die. Only her.

That’s grandiosity for you, isn’t it?

The belief that we are so special that even what is most mundane about us is unique.

It reminds me a lot of my mother. She was heartbroken, devastated, destroyed. The rest of us mortals just got our feelings hurt. And we were too sensitive anyway.

My mother believed she owned feelings.

Lana del Rey owns mortality. And some other things too, but I’m thinking here of just one area of her overall oevre. Of that one song. To really get what I mean, you need to watch it, I’m afraid. But this should give you a sense.

She is miming the action of smoking a joint. While singing, “Let’s go get high.” I have never seen anyone take her own drug use so seriously before in my life.born_to_die

Grandiosity.

Grandiosity is contagious. I’m sure that has something to do with mirror neurons. And I could get all scientific about it. But I’ll leave for another post.

Suffice it to say, if you hang out with grandiose people long enough, and eventually you will start to believe that they are pretty special right along with them. You start to think you are special–more special than average, in fact. Unique. On the A-list.

Belief is contagious.

You listen to Lana del Rey long enough (and I have, believe me) and a little of that happens too. If you can relate to her at all, you start to feel you are just as special as she is, or thinks she is. If you have ever felt that mad beating of your own mortality, you feel that you must be pretty special too.

Even though we have all felt it. Even that poor bird.

Neighbors

The neighbors on both sides of me–the ones I share walls with–fancy themselves musicians. I know this because I hear them playing music–one of them frequently, the other one less often.

Let’s call the neighbors on one side Sam and his son Fred (the frequent players) and Archie (the less so one).

I met Sam last week for the first time, but he must have lived there for months without my realizing that the place had ever changed hands. (It’s that kind of a building. It isn’t unfriendly, but years go by and I don’t see people. It’s just how it is.)

Sam said, “I hope our playing isn’t too loud.”

They play violin and piano. I have no idea who plays what, but I enjoy having my own personal concert hall, even if they are only practicing. It’s still music. And I can’t tell the difference between their practicing and a performance. There aren’t noticeable mistakes. They don’t play the same bridge 500 times. It’s just music. Beautiful music. And often the perfect thing to accompany writing a post in my bathrobe with a perfect cup of coffee while I gaze occasionally out the window at my perfect view. That kind of thing.

Now, let’s talk about Archie. He’s lived in his place for probably six years. He has never once in that time said anything about being too loud. People leave notes on his door asking him to turn his speakers down after midnight. He does for a while. And then “forgets” it seems.

Archie can’t carry a tune in a bucket. My grandmother, who blamed pesticides for ruining her hearty, country voice, sang better than he does. She was awful. He’s worse. What he’s got are a pair of lungs. And not a musical bone in his body. I am often tempted to scream through the walls, “Stop torturing your cat!” Knowing full well he doesn’t have a cat. That that horrible yowling sound is him. I fantasize about leaving notes on his door asking him to sing when he’s cleaned out his ears. I ponder looking up the number for a singing instructor and slipping that under his door with the penciled suggestion, “Maybe this will help you with your problem.”

Or just making a recording. And giving him that.

If I sang like Archie, I wouldn’t even sing in the shower. But he sings in his own livingroom. Shamelessly. At 2 am. The fact that you can hear him yodeling on merrily all the way down the hall doesn’t phase him. He has no clue.

Archie plays keyboards as well. Also at 2 am. Usually the same 3 bars of 2 songs. Mercifully, this has mostly stopped. It’s more musical than the singing–his keyboard can tune itself. But it is the same 3 bars. Of the same 2 songs. Relentlessly. For 30 minutes. Until he gets bored.

It’s horrible in its own unique way.

What stands out to me is how the neighbor who is least considerate also has no apparent ability to distinguish between music and noise. He is just pleased with himself for being able to play notes in a sequence, or to be loud. He has no idea that music takes a bit more than that. Like the notes should be pleasing. And have both a pattern and variety.

There seem to be two forces at work in his thinking: entitlement and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

A study from researchers at the University of Otago suggests students who have an excessive belief in their entitlement tend to do worse on some exams compared to those who don’t. Mainly, because their entitlement is de-motivating. Success should be handed to them. They shouldn’t really need to study too much.

Just so, Archie thinks. He shouldn’t need to actually listen to his own singing in a critical way, and adjust his pitch and tonality accordingly to create a more deliberate sound. He just opens his mouth and bellows.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias that causes people who are really bad at something to exaggerate their abilities in that area. When we have little knowledge of performance standards, we don’t realize when we don’t meet them. Instruction seems to help us overcome this effect. Singing lessons might really help Archie, if he were willing to do a little work, and if he didn’t feel too entitled to instant success to work.

But he probably does.

A Distorted Sense of Rights

If narcissists believe they have rights society never agreed to, then how did that happen? (As I wrote about in Rights You Don’t Have.)

Mainstream psychologists theorize that unhealthy degrees of narcissism develop to protect a “fragile” ego. I don’t really know what is meant by a “fragile” ego. I am less and less sure what an ego is as time goes by. It’s one of those words we seem to use to describe something we don’t really understand but need a word for, and it also seems to mean different things to different people but is rarely precisely defined. We go around using the same word thinking we are speaking the same language, but maybe we aren’t.

Anyway, I don’t buy it. Like an atheist who is simply not convinced by the evidence that there is a God, I am not convinced that there are egos, or that they can be fragile, or that we really know what we mean when we talk about them. I think we’re faking it.

There are some other things I don’t buy either.

In the “defending a fragile self” view of narcissism, the “real” self is vulnerable, frightened, ashamed. It is a false self that acts like king of the world—not the real one. And yet I cannot see any definite evidence of a “real” self existing. I certainly can’t see any evidence for an anguished “real” self  that couldn’t also be used to support a different viewpoint. Again I am unconvinced.

And I realize that pits me against generations of well-read, well-respected people who see narcissism in this way. I’m sure many of them know a lot more about who wrote what and wrote what about whom than I do.

But I won’t be dissuaded from considering an alternate explanation. Growth requires considering other possibilities. It requires considering other ideas, even if they may not be right. This is my idea. At the end of this, you can tell me what you think about it. And maybe we’ll see one day if I turn out to be right. It’s okay if I don’t. It is the act of considering new ideas that leads to growth—not spending your time considering only right ideas.

So, my idea. I think narcissism is more about a distorted sense of rights, and a misreading of the social contract. Part of the reason I think this is that narcissism tends to arise both in people who have been abused and in those who have been over-indulged.  What’s the common denominator? A distorted sense of rights on the part of the parent.

An abusive parent believes he has too many rights—including the right to harm the child—and that the child has too few. An indulgent parent may believe he has too few rights—including the right to discipline or restrict the child—and that the child has too many.

They are both distorted. More importantly, they don’t match up with the social contract the child will need to follow in order to have rewarding relationships or to function well at work or in daily living as an adult. He may be able to function if he can see that he will be punished for exercising his distorted sense of rights and if he has good impulse control, but he’ll be unhappy. He’ll be indignant and angry. He’ll probably die at 50 of a heart attack from all that suppressed rage.

If he has poor impulse control, he may not be able to function at all. He may spend a great deal of time in prison, or he may end up alone and living on the streets, unable to find and keep a job or to support himself.

In other words, narcissists suffer. They cause others to suffer and they suffer. Deeply, no matter how unnecessarily.

Now, you might think the abused child would settle for always assuming he has too few rights. But there are several different meanings you can take from having your rights routinely violated. One of them is the idea that you have no rights. Other people have rights, but you don’t. I did that. I don’t recommend it.

You can also come to believe that there are really two categories of people in the world: People with too many rights and people who have too few. And all you may need to join that first group is to demand them. If that is the meaning you take from being abused, all you need to do is wait until you are big enough to begin to demand your rights. Grow up, and you can switch categories.

Some narcissists also seem to believe there are other criteria you need to meet in order to join that first group. Perhaps they believe you need to be physically attractive enough, you need to follow certain fashion trends, or belong to the right church. Maybe you need to have the right career, the right income, or the right car. Perhaps they think you need to become an expert on something. They will usually decide that they do. They may do the actual work of getting to that place, or they simply imagine they do.

But there is nothing more irritating than the narcissist who thinks you need to be extremely knowledgeable to make the A-list. He will usually know nothing much more than the next person, but he will go on endlessly about it as if what he knows is worth gold.

And there is nothing more frightening than the narcissist who thinks what you need to do is be defend yourself, demand your rights, and make sure you don’t ever get pushed around. This narcissist will beat his spouse and bully his classmates, his employees and his children.

Because key to maintaining that status as one of the lucky, superior few in the top echelon of the narcissists’ world is that there not be too many in that category. And they should certainly meet the right criteria. So, if you need to belong to the right church to be in the group, it should be an exclusive church. If you need to be smart, it’s important to the narcissist that only a small number of approved people be smart enough.

That may be one reason narcissists spend a lot of time verbally abusing those around them. They may be trying to hurt your feelings. Or they may just be trying to prove that, unlike them, you are on the B-list. And the proof of this lies in the very fact of their abusing abusing you. Because if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be abused. It’s circular logic, I know, but that’s how some people think–in circles.

Having grown up in a religion that humbly called itself the “truth” and met in groups of perhaps a hundred (in an area with a relatively large number of members) this is all starting to make sense to me—given that I had parents with strong narcissistic traits. They met the criteria. They were on the A-list. They had extra rights.

I know I have not come to any particular point in this post. I apologize for that. But I’m just wondering about some things here. I promise to get a point at some time in the future. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after. I’ll do my best.

Rights You Don’t Have

Mike (not his real name) was sitting in the front office, talking to his 8th grade history teacher. It was a heated conversation, a contentious conversation. The conversation went something like this.

“Yes, but I needed it.”

“So, you just took it. Even though it didn’t belong to you. And even though you hadn’t asked.”

“Cuz I needed it.”

Taking something without asking is usually called stealing. It is against the law. As a society, we have decided that you do not have the right to take someone else’s stuff. Even if you think you need it. You may like it that way or not like it that way, but that’s the agreement.

Mike didn’t like it that way. He hadn’t agreed to anything. Mike believed he did have the right to take something from someone else. He didn’t believe anyone else had the right to take something from him, but he did think he had the right to take something from someone else. If he thought he needed.

Mike isn’t a thief. He’s just on his way toward growing up to be a narcissist. He believes he has rights society in general does not agree that he has.

Kids sometimes get confused. So maybe Mike was just being a kid. But I see this kind of behavior over and over–not just in kids, but in adults. People who believe they have rights others haven’t agreed they have. Special rights. And I don’t mean gay rights, or transgender rights, or some other kind of rights some politicians will say are special rights.

I mean the right to take someone else’s stuff. Or to go to the front of the line. Or to not pay your bills. Those rights. Rights that would lead to total anarchy if we shifted our ideas around about them.

I was in what you might euphemistically call a bad relationship for a long time. Nine years to be exact. We spent a lot of time in couples counseling trying to fix things. We talked a lot about boundaries, about where one of us began and the other ended. I got that. I didn’t feel confused about who she was or really who I was or that we weren’t the same person.

But I didn’t understand what my rights were. I assumed I didn’t have rights I actually do have. And she assumed she had rights she didn’t. It could have worked out perfectly, except that she kept stealing things from me: my time, my dignity, my safety, my well-being, my comfort, my mojo. And I let her. Because I didn’t understand it was theft. I thought people were allowed to do that. I just couldn’t figure out why she kept wanting to.

It seemed mean. Why would you keep wanting to do something mean? Aside from the idea that you don’t care that it’s mean or that it hurts someone else, you do it because you think you have the right to.

It doesn’t usually bother us too much if we do something that hurts someone else as long as we feel it’s within our rights. Mostly, we think they should probably just deal with it and move on. Eating a healthy diet when I know others are hungry doesn’t really bother me, although I might be able to help if I gave my grocery money away. But I feel entitled to eat. So I do.

Narcissists, generally, believe they have rights no one else has agreed to. When you complain about it, they mostly seem to think you should suck it up and deal.

The following is a list of rights some of them may believe they have:

1) The right to be comfortable–to not be inconvenienced, feel pain, or have unpleasant emotions.

2) The right to be entertained. Constantly. Boredom is a clear violation of their rights. This goes back to #1.

3) The right to attention, admiration, and uninterrupted positive regard–both from themselves and from others. They should not ever need to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or like a failure–although the rest of us do from time to time. This goes back to right #1.

4) The right to have what they want when they want it–without working for it, asking for it, waiting their turn for it, or sharing it.

5) The right to exact revenge.

Understanding this has provided me with immense clarity for why my mother in particular behaved the way she did with me when I was growing up. You see, what is most remarkable about my memories of being physically abused by her is her well-articulated sense that she was being victimized in some way. She might be hitting me over the head with a chair, but she seemed to believe she was the one being hurt. Now, I understand.

I may have violated her right to be comfortable. If my behavior cast doubt on her parenting skills, and she found herself feeling an uncomfortable emotion about it–say guilt, or shame–then I was clearly violating her right to be comfortable. If I was busy playing by myself, I might be violating either her right to be entertained or her right to continuous positive regard.

Obviously, she would be upset. Anyone who believed their rights were being so terribly infringed upon would be. And she had the right to exact revenge. So she would.

It’s a warped way of looking things, but that view makes my world growing up make sense. Absolute sense. In a way that nothing else has.

I grew up with a distorted view of what my rights and the rights of others were. I had no rights, and others had far too many.

Did you?