Thursday, January 2, 2014

My New Year's Resolution: Love Yourself -- But Don't Go Overboard!

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall..."
"The Picture of Dorian Gray"
In the early '90s, my first boyfriend, Derek, told me a story that I can still recall to this day, possibly because it was a story that involved me. He had been out a few nights earlier with Angela, an older (to me at the time) woman in her late 30s who was also Derek's best female friend. You might know the type: She tolerates but secretly resents her gay BFF's new guy, especially if she's single, praying to the devil that the romance will be short-lived because misery sure loves herself six feet or more of company. When their conversation turned to me, he mentioned that I love dogs.

"He loves dogs?" she responded, using what I imagined must have have been an "Of course, he loves dogs" condescending tone, emphasizing the word "dogs" as if loving them was the craziest thing in the world. You might recognize the tone: It was the one favored by hipster New Yorkers on the Lower East Side circa 1992-1995, the ones who ran around in mismatched vintage clothing and Birkenstocks. The girls often wore bouncy Jo Reynolds (from Melrose Place)-style bobs, a lone concession to '90s modernity, while both genders dragged their sullen dispositions and deadpan expressions (poker faces before Lady Gaga turned the concept into the subject of a hit song) around town, on rare happy occasions, grinning because smiling -- and laughing, unless it was ironically -- was so bourgeoisie.

I could hear Angela pausing just long enough to indicate that it was a rhetorical question with a punchline to follow: "Oh," she continued, "that sounds a little narcissistic."

Hmm..., I wondered after Derek finished. Dog lover equals narcissist. That was news to me. And why did he feel the need to share this story with me? Was he concurring with a suspicion that I'd already raised -- Did he think that his pretentious girlfriend was slamming me because she was secretly in love with him? -- or was he indirectly trying to tell me that he agreed with her? He'd heard my sob story about how I always wanted a pet puppy as a kid, but I had to make do with the stuffed pooches that my mother gave me because my father was allergic to the real thing. Was he now using my childhood tragedy against me?

To this day, I'm still not sure what loving dogs has to do with one's level of self-involvement (Did someone suggest this to Diane Lane's character in Must Love Dogs, which, incidentally, I recently saw for the first time on South African TV?), but while Angela may have caught the wrong train, she was probably in the vicinity of the right destination, though at the time I was loathe to admit it.

At 23, I liked to think of myself as being a noble young man, a Sidney Poitier movie character-in-training, someone who had a lot to learn but one who possessed the tools necessary to approach greatness: courage, determination, persistence, independence and a few sad childhood stories. I was never just thinking about myself. I thought about other people all the time -- how could I be a narcissist?

Of course, 20 years later, I realize how ridiculous that all sounds. Most kids think they are, in the words of Oprah Winfrey when she once offered a portrait of the mogul as a young woman, "destined for greatness." That probably goes double for true narcissists. When I was thinking about someone else back then, it generally didn't have anything to do with altruism. I was wondering what they were thinking about me. Even if I did something charitable, out of the kindness of my good, great big heart, I was also doing it because I didn't want the recipient to think anything bad about me.

I wasn't looking for love, but I wanted to be liked, which, despite my actions, was a rather passive aspiration because it didn't require me to feel anything in return. My "people pleasing" (an Oprah-ism that a therapist applied to me when I was in my mid-30s) was all about me. If that didn't make me full-on narcissistic, it certainly qualified me for some of the generally accepted synonyms for it: self-centered, self-absorbed, egocentric....

My how times have changed. I no longer spend an inordinate amount of time wringing my hands over what other people think about me, and I certainly don't engage in acts of kindness unless it's coming from a sincere place. At my age, ain't nobody got time for that, running yourself ragged trying to please everyone just so they will like you. Please.

But I still love dogs, possibly even more so than I did at 23, though I've still yet to own one. My dog love has less to do with the fact that dogs are loyal, dependent and, unlike cats, prone to showering you with affection than with their general adorableness. They're a lot like babies ("It's so cute, like a dog," Derek once said when he caught me cooing over a newborn), but if you're lucky, they won't grow up to disobey and disappoint you. Yes, I think dogs are awesome. But despite Angela's implications all those years ago, that has nothing to do with my narcissistic tendencies.

Even if I were to transfer my pet affection to cats, I'd still have many of the building blocks of narcissism. All writers (in fact, all artists) do, especially ones who write about themselves. Though it doesn't require the same level of vanity as modelling (a profession that requires expending far more energy than I've ever been willing to devote to obsessing over myself, looking in the mirror and posing for photos, which might have been the first clue that I was never the textbook narcissist that Angela suggested I was), writing demands a certain amount of solitude and self-examination.

If you don't exactly love yourself and you want to write effectively in the first person, you'd better at least be somewhat comfortable being with the person you're writing about. And of course, you care what other people think. Sometimes I wonder why on earth anyone would want to read anything I write about myself (and if you're reading this, thanks for caring). That's the side of me that's prone to self-deprecation, the side that co-exists uneasily with the side that's given to bouts of narcissism, which, in turn, is the side that makes me just self-involved enough to hope that people will not only read what I write but that they'll "like" it, too, (and leave comments, nice ones -- hint hint).

In this age of Facebook status updates, I'm pretty sure most people can relate, even non-writers. Aren't status updates basically just a way of focusing the attention on yourself, even if your update is about someone else? Don't we all just want to be "liked"? In a way, Facebook has brought out narcissistic qualities in so many of us. I joined it at the beginning of 2008, about four months before I started blogging. I'm not sure if I would have had the courage to start writing about myself had I not gotten that initial practice on Facebook.

Around the same time, my friend Cara who used to live three stories below me in Buenos Aires, told me, half-jokingly, that she sometimes worried that maybe she enjoys her own company a little bit too much. I actually was never concerned about my own joy in solitude until she mentioned hers. After all, I always thought, can you really love being by yourself too much? Wasn't the absence of the fear of being alone something we all should aspire to?

The view from the top of The 6
In the years since Cara made her casual remark, I've tried not to over-analyze my enjoyment of my "me" time and just go with it. But sometimes it's hard to when people are constantly making you feel like there's something wrong with a party of one. That happened to me yesterday at a New Year's Eve afternoon barbecue. I arrived at 3pm, and after three hours of excellent company and breathtaking views from the roof of The 6 building in Cape Town, I was ready to retreat back to my preferred state of solitude.

"Why are you leaving?" "Do you have plans tonight?" "What are you going to do?"

The questions were being served more quickly than I was able to volley back responses. I even may have ducked to avoid getting slammed too hard by a few of them. I didn't know how to tell the people looking at me with complete bewilderment that I had no plans and no agenda. It was 6pm, and I couldn't say what I'd be doing at 6.30pm. I just wanted to be alone, Greta Garbo-style. Hadn't I lived through enough New Year's Eves to earn the right to sit this one out? In the end, I said something about being tired and wanting to get home before the madness began. In my head, my excuse sounded as lame to me as my New Year's Eve plans must have sounded to them.

"So you're just going to go home to be alone?... Why?... That's so sad.... Don't you want to be around people?" Langton, one of the barbecue guests, with whom I'd spent much of my time there engrossed in light but quite enjoyable banter about under-appreciated '90s R&B stars (Toni Braxton, to be specific), was looking at me with that same mix of shock and horror that he'd given me when I told him that I didn't care for Toni's latest single. He couldn't believe it: He actually felt sorry for me. (I wondered what he would have thought if I'd told him that I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day all alone, too.) Or was it just that he wanted me to stick around?

During the entire walk home, I wondered if I should turn around and go back to the party just to prove to everyone there that I wasn't so pathetic. But I would have been doing it just so they'd see me in a more positive light, not as the pathetic guy who was leaving a roomful of friends to spend New Year's Eve in isolation. I'm pretty sure I walked out with my head held high and posture erect, but I imagined that they saw a defeated-looking guy, head bowed and shoulders slumped forward, liming out the door. I didn't want them to think of me like that. And of course, they were thinking about me, right? Uh oh, was I reverting to my old narcissistic ways?

It depends on how you look at it. If you do a Google search of "narcissist," you'll come up with a number of different definitions, marked by varying degrees of negativity. The Free Online Dictionary defines it as "an excessive love or admiration of oneself," while the Urban Dictionary says that a narcissist "is always right and has the urge to make you feel less than him/her."

"Vanity," according to an article I found on Suite 101 is an obsession with one's appearance. It's not a synonym but rather an element of narcissism, which is derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful but clearly not-to-smart man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool not realizing that he was looking at himself. He was so enamored by what he saw that he didn't even notice the mountain nymph Echo pining for him. Devastated, poor Echo wasted away to nothing but her echo. What did it say about me and my alleged youthful narcissism that when I read that Greek myth as a kid, I always identified more with Echo than Narcissus? I've never been particularly given to unrequited love, but her pining at least made sense.

Was it because I couldn't imagine how anyone could see their own reflection, think it's someone else's and promptly fall in love with it? That's not only love at first sight; it's love without conversation, not even an opening line. It's narcissism at its most deluded, possibly along the lines of what Psychology Today refers to in its entry for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is marked by "arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people and a need for admiration."

Well, I've never been one to turn away a little admiration, but none of that other stuff has ever applied to me -- at least I hope it hasn't. I might seek admiration from others (don't we all?), but as one of the most insecure people on the planet (and some might say insecurity is at the root of both vanity and narcissism, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree), I certainly don't sit around admiring myself. I don't even like taking pictures of myself. I only found out what a "selfie" is two days ago.

I've been in Cape Town for seven weeks and two days, and of all the photos I've taken since my arrival, I'm not in a single one of them. I only just noticed that someone at the barbecue, unbeknownst to me, took two shots of me using my camera yesterday. They're the only photographic proof I have that I'm actually in Cape Town, and both are far too hideous to share.

Me, through Derek's camera's eye
I'm sure that Derek's friend, the one who thinks if you love dogs you must be a narcissist, would have found some negative spin to put on my camera shyness, probably while looking at Derek's stack of holiday photos from our summer of 1993 European vacation in Spain and the south of France. I'm not sure if she ever even saw those photos, but Derek told me that his family mentioned that he didn't take any pictures of the sights, only of me. I was flattered, but who wouldn't be? It's not like I told him what to aim at before shooting.

But then, how do I explain this: Of all the things Derek ever said to me, the one I remember best is the "I adore you" that he once uttered in the throes of afterglow? He said it; I didn't. But who was/am I to disagree?
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