"When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose."
- Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
I’d never thought of myself as a narcissist before
While I fight a daily battle to beat the selfishness beast into submission, I do care a lot about the people around me. I know right down to my toes that the most satisfying life is one that is lived in the service of others. Hell, that’s probably why I’m in this content strategy business in the first place: to create things that matter, make people’s lives easier, and just make the web a better place for everyone.
So why all this fuss?
Well, sometimes I worry quite a bit about what other people think.
Growing up as a half-Mexican homeschooled kid in a small southern town, sometimes it felt like everyone thought I was weird. Even my well-meaning extended family members would question my mother’s decision not to put us in regular school. I would listen as they told her in concerned tones that my siblings and I would never get a complete education should she continue to teach us at home—that we would end up in some way or another, lacking.
On the outside, I got really good at "defending myself," taking on Moby Dick at the tender age of ten and even memorizing all the Greek and Latin roots of English words to dazzle questioning grownups at dinner parties.
But on the inside, I did all of this because I thought I had something to prove and wondered deep down if maybe they were right.
As an adult, I’m deeply thankful for my mother’s decision and dedication to my education. The whole homeschooling stigma is a thing of the past, but boy, did that habit of self-doubt prove a lot harder to lick.
Little-kid habits, grown-up problems
These days, my childhood honed habits manifest themselves a little more like this:
I pour over every detail of my work and want so badly for everything I touch to be perfect. To be better. To be a shining example of all that I so deeply admire. Because of this, I see the work of smart people around me and think mine will never measure up.
The truth is, underneath all that insecurity and desire to hide my work until it is polished to perfection is that same old need to win the approval of others. Clearly, this is nothing new, but the way I’ve come to understand it is new to me.
My pastor, Brian Kruckenberg, recently asked a series of questions designed to reveal the “cornerstone” of your life. He explained that the foundation of one’s life, or that which you build everything else upon, can be revealed in the answers to three simple questions:
What do you think about the most?
Where do you invest the majority of your time?
What do you spend most of your money on?
These are not easy questions. It takes time to unravel root intentions.
One morning, as I stood in front of the mirror brushing my teeth, I tried to answer them honestly. As I started to recount all the idle moments of my mind, the time that is truly my own when my thoughts are free to drift where they please, it struck me—I spend an awful lot of time just thinking about...well, me.
All that worrying about if I’m good enough and whether or not people approve of what I say and do is really just a form of narcissism masquerading as insecurity.
This realization was crushing. How could I have squandered so much time and energy?
On selfishness, self-esteem, and being judgmental
I thought of my co-workers and my clients, and all of the times I’d cheated them out the service and support they deserved because I was too worried about protecting my ego from their opinions should they think I was wrong. The times that I had tried so hard to defend myself against some imaginary threat that never existed outside of my head.
“It took me a long time to learn that my self-consciousness is a signal that I’m doing something I think you’ll frown upon [judging]. And I think you’ll frown upon it because it’s something I’ve frowned upon.”
The magnitude of what this had meant to my life, and my work, started to sink in.
Thankfully, after the feeling of disappointment had washed over me for what felt like a million minutes, it started to give way to something less icky—something more like excitement. No, I'm not excited to discover my judgmental, narcissist douche-bag tendencies; I’m excited over what becomes possible when I start to shift that energy outward.
On being vulnerable, and being free to love myself and others
We’ve all heard that worrying about what other people think robs us of our energy and focus—and most of all—our impact. Yes, I too knew this to be true.
But somehow, for the first time in my life, I can clearly see how my choices connect to the consequences that I used to think were just there by default. I was not born to be insecure and overly critical. These are ways that I can choose, or not choose to be. This is both terrifying and liberating all at the same time.
Admittedly, I don’t think I can change all of my negative habits overnight. It will be a lifelong journey. That’s okay, because I like a challenging adventure.
“Putting our least polished selves out there for our peers to see—admitting, without shame, that we struggled through rough patches and that not everything turned out exactly the way we’d hoped—won’t expose us as impostors. Instead, it’ll make our work feel that much more real—and, in turn, that much easier for others to be inspired by.”
And isn’t that what we all want in the first place? To inspire people? To do something that makes a difference in the world? I know I do.
Besides all that, by beginning to shift the focus off of me, I am freeing up space to put others first. Truly first. That focus can shift back to the people I’m actually creating solutions for. Rightly so, because they deserve no less.
No, I don’t have a three-point plan to achieve this or any sage words of advice to give. I’m going to be learning to love myself and others more fully as I go along.
But I am committed to doing the hard work it will take to get there.
And I can promise you this: when it gets tempting to let my own crippling insecurities come crashing down and bring everything to a halt—it’s going to be a lot harder to let them stop me. I don’t have any more excuses to hide behind, and the ugly, purpose-robbing blob of narcissism that self-doubt really is, now lies exposed before me.
Sure, I realize this doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and save the world. But with every organization I help to align business goals with user needs, every wireframe I touch, and every interaction I design, I’ll do my part to make the web just a bit better with more efficacy than I did before.
For my friends and family, and my co-workers and all the people I design things for, I hope this will make all the difference.