Introspection versus Narcissism

The difference between introspection and narcissism was raised in a recent New York Times article. It was a fascinating piece, in part I think, because of the contrary connotations the words evoke. As a whole, we think of introspection as a positive trait. A worthwhile quality that we value in ourselves and others. Narcissism? Not so much.

As a personal historian who helps people write their life stories, I frequently run into potential clients who fear seeming narcissistic. They like the idea of looking back on their lives, reviewing the path they took, and imparting important lessons learned to their children and grandchildren. But appearing to have “an exaggerated sense of self-importance” (as defined by Websters)? No, that, they most certainly don’t want.

David Brooks, the Times writer, presented this simple question: “How do you succeed in being introspective without being self-absorbed?”

The answer, amazingly, was quite simple: distance.

Writes Brooks: “The self is something that can be seen more accurately from a distance than from close up. The more you can yank yourself away from your own intimacy with yourself, the more reliable your self-awareness is likely to be.”

And the way to create this distance? After much research, Brooks discovered three tactics:

·         Time: When you write about an event after some time has passed, you are better able to “place a broader perspective on things.”

·         Language: We are much better at advising others than advising ourselves. When we write, we take a step back, we gain perspective. In a way, we approach the writing process as if we are discussing a third person.

·         Narrative: The article references two approaches to life review: “archeologists” and “literary critics.” The archeologist is a master of “studying each feeling and trying to dig deep into the unconscious.” The literary critic, meanwhile, puts “each incident in the perspective of a longer life story.” Literary critics, Brooks explains, are better able to see the big picture.

Brooks concludes perfectly: “Maturity is moving from the close-up to the landscape, focusing less on your own supposed strengths and weaknesses and more on the sea of empathy in which you swim, which is the medium necessary for understanding others, one’s self, and survival.”

The article was both recipe and advertisement for my business. Writing a life story has nothing to do with narcissism. It’s about growth and generosity.

And yes, introspection too.