Category Archives: Psychology and Philosophy

Overcoming Narcissism

Whenever people suggests they “deserve” to be treated better, an interesting question to ask is: “What are you basing that on?” If we look at how they treat others and it does not measure up, perhaps they deserve to be treated no better than their worst behavior toward others? If their expectations for respect are based on accomplishments that do not exist, then such respect cannot be deserved without commensurate achievement. If their expectations are based on their innate worth as human beings, regardless of their diligence or lack thereof, then we should be dealing with an issue of human rights. More often however, we are dealing with a symptom of narcissism (namely, an unearned sense of entitlement).

Moving forward, I would like to discredit the just-world hypothesis and its manifestations, such as karma and destiny. There is no empirical evidence that people get what they deserve at a universal level. I also propose that it is empowering to believe that people who unfairly hurt you are not bringing “bad karma” upon themselves, nor are they any more likely to experience hardships in their lives, except to the extent their behavior endangers their property, relationships, or freedom, or the extent to which you seek justice against them. The reason this is more empowering than believing they will “get what’s coming to them” is because it is closer to the truth. The truth does not have to be encouraging to be empowering. Discarding your belief in fairness allows you to recognize that regardless of your wishes, nothing good will come without continuous, definitive action by you.

I would also like to instill the belief that past events are the best predictor of future events. If you expect to be successful in the future, ask yourself what you are basing that belief on? Nearly 100% of the time, looking at a person’s actions in the past year is an excellent predictor of their future accomplishments. Your stated goals and intentions are meaningless. Everyone is very “busy,” and it is very easy to say that you are going to write a book without writing anything, that you love travel without going anywhere, and that you are a visionary without having produced any fruits. It is far harder to accurately assess your track record and acknowledge that reaching your aspirations will require fundamental changes in the habits and behaviors that govern your life. Without fundamental changes, you cannot expect dramatic improvements.

Although this is seemingly unrelated, Pual Arden’s quote, “it’s better to regret what you have done than what you haven’t,” is often wrong. You can interview anyone who regrets committing a murder, having an affair, or making a bad investment to see evidence of this. As an impetus to overcome fear and pursue your truest desires, this belief is wanting at best. I find it is far more motivating to look at trailblazers in your desired field who do not allow sociocultural disapproval to inhibit their lives. Become envious—even jealous—of them, and let your competitive instinct drive you to become better and faster than them. I find this strategy to be far more effective than worrying about hypothetical future regrets.

Overcoming narcissism does not necessarily require “settling” for something less, nor eliminating your love of power and adulation. An alternate route is to prioritize actual achievement rather than the illusion of achievement. Then, you can enjoy admiration as a byproduct of your accomplishments, and avoid descending into madness. It is very important to do what you love for intrinsic reasons rather than for prestige and authority. Only then will you have the motivation to work continuously despite many years of being unnoticed.

A great predictor of what you love to do is what you have loved doing. If you have spent the past year watching TV shows, despite professing a love for writing, perhaps you should become really good at watching TV shows and teach other people how to notice details and predict the plot of new episodes of their favorite TV shows? If you say you want to do something but never get around to doing it, despite having available time and resources, what does this say about you? That you are a pretender, misguided, deranged, or a lout? Perhaps you should immediately cease telling yourself and others of your aspirations, until you take even one small action to bring them to pass?

Who am I to point out flaws, to criticize, or even to make suggestions if my life is not in order? Do not make the mistake of believing that you should only listen to people who are shining examples of success. It is not—nor has it ever been—about me. Good ideas can come from anywhere. People are entitled to care nothing about you and everything about what you can do for them. To say that you “deserve” better is a misnomer. You have no rights. Whatever you have is a gift. People who say they “deserve” better are like spoiled children who cannot understand they have already been given parents who are far more generous and permissive than average.

Life is a gift. Friendship and politeness are gifts. A gift cannot be earned. A gift cannot be an exchange of value. A gift cannot be deserved. A gift can be withdrawn at any time. Value and treat gifts accordingly, and you will be better able to see the truth about yourself and others. Paradoxically, you will also be more forgiving, because it is easy to be angry at someone for betraying your expectations, but far more difficult to be angry at someone for being true to him- or herself.

Beyond Hypocrisy

Identifying hypocrisy in others is a premier way of discrediting them and is a part of the zeitgeist of 21st-century life. Since people tend to produce such an abundance of accessible information on their webpages and networks, it is easy to analyze this information and discover where they have espoused a belief yet expressed contrary actions or statements. Particularly if someone is criticizing you, they can often be discredited not by analyzing their criticism, but by illuminating inconsistencies in their rhetoric and thus demonstrating their moral inferiority, or at least their absence of moral superiority. The implication is that anything they say to criticize or advise others should be ignored, because they cannot even maintain consistency in their personal narrative.

Anonymous attackers cannot be accused of hypocrisy except on the basis of inconsistencies in their attacks. If you know nothing about your critic, there is no canon of literature or Facebook postings to show they are as fallible and hypocritical as they accuse you of being. Privacy grants superiority, because it means you have no past statements or actions to be held accountable to. You can point out the flaws of others without giving them any ammunition. If you are not interested in criticizing others, privacy at least shelters you from others who want to criticize you.

Self-reporting as a Christian is an easy way to be hypocritical. A Christian is one who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ taught his followers to turn the other cheek, to give all that one has to the poor, to love one’s neighbors, and to cut off one’s hand if it causes him or her to sin. Since many people who proclaim to be Christians do not follow his teachings, many Christians are hypocrites. Theoretically, one can call out the hypocrisy of Christians without fear of retribution, because Jesus Christ also said “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” which, more broadly applied as a general principle, means that a Christian should not point out faults in others.

Being labeled a hypocrite has a strong negative connotation in Western culture. It can be compared to schizophrenia without the associated waiver of personal responsibility. It is arguably worse than being labeled a liar, cheater, usurper, or thief. It means that one cannot even practice what they impose on others, nor follow what they espouse as personal or universal principles for authentic living. Because the hypocrite label has become quite powerful, it is much more salient to say “person X is a hypocrite!” than “person X is acting hypocritically.” If someone can be labeled a hypocrite, they are discredited now and forever, but if we admit their act of hypocrisy may be an uncommon or isolated incident among numerous statements and actions, the proclamation is greatly weakened.

Elevating hypocrisy to such heights is unnatural, unethical, dehumanizing, and an impedance to progress. It paradoxically makes people who say nothing, write nothing, and do nothing morally superior to artists, lovers, and creators. One cannot be a hypocrite if one makes no statements to contradict! Demanding that others maintain the same values, perspectives, and beliefs throughout their lifespans—or even among different settings in a single day (i.e. work life versus home life)—is restrictive and unreasonable. Expecting them to issue a plethora of retractions and apologies when their stated beliefs change is ridiculous. Shifts in personal values often occur gradually and without notice. To say that my 2014 self is hypocritical to my 2009 self is likely accurate, but more importantly, a useless criticism. If I have not been hypocritical, I probably should have been trying harder.

I had the idea for writing this essay before doing some searches and found this blog post which quotes The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The author of the blog post (who is incidentally anonymous) concludes hypocrisy is better than “preaching nothing and lacking morality altogether.” While I disagree with this conclusion and see them as equivalent, seeing hypocrisy in this light is a welcome change and may enable people to take bolder risks and accomplish greater things in life.

It is a common belief that people who claim the moral high ground should be held to a higher standard than ordinary people. This allows their hypocrisy to be parroted by people who are just as hypocritical, under the assumption that as a teacher or public figure, they should—to use two clichés—either walk the walk or get off the soapbox. However, what if the opposite is closer to the truth? Since prolific creators have more “baggage” associated with their past work, perhaps they should be given more leeway when compared with people who create very little? It is easy to contradict yourself when you are adding to a large canon of work. Contradiction might be both inevitable and desirable. If we maintain the same beliefs indefinitely and consider this practice virtuous, we deny ourselves the educational opportunities of playing devil’s advocate.

Who has the authority to say what is right and wrong, what is true and false? If we believe in moral absolutism, we might believe truth is universal and can come from anyone—including people who usually lie. If we believe in moral relativism, we might believe truth is changing and the same standard could be true when taught by one person and false when taught by another. This is not to say that absolutism is better than relativism, or to comprehensively distill either perspective. I am trying to say that both have value and both should be used. Homogenizing concepts that appear diametrically opposed is one of the greatest joys in philosophical exploration. However, it is impossible to experience if you are not willing to be a hypocrite.

To move beyond hypocrisy, we must minimize the stigmas and taboos associated with it. Being hypocritical must be seen as no worse than being angry, forgetful, misinformed, or human. Only then will artists have the freedom to operate without being heckled by a type of criticism that has been given too much power for far too long.

The Dark Side of Service to Others (Part 1)

Helping others is generally a good thing, but depending on the situation can be a bad thing for one or both parties involved. It can be a bad thing when it robs the other person of an opportunity for personal growth. For example, answering a question or telling a person how to do something can rob them of the opportunity to discover and learn themselves, or can reinforce them in a pattern of getting others to do their work for them.

For this post, I will define the dark side of service to others as actions of sacrifice for others that are worse than doing nothing. These are things that harm both parties (lose-lose situations), or things that benefit one party but come at an overly high cost to the other party (wasted potential).

An archetypical lose-lose act of service is giving money to a beggar who is an alcoholic or drug addict. It is a lose-lose situation because the giver has forfeited the opportunity to use the money for something else, and the receiver would be better off not having the money at all, given his or her addiction. The stereotypical solution to the situation is to offer the beggar food instead of money, to which the beggar will often decline.

While the above situation is well known, I want this post to be a starting point for evaluating acts of service you give or receive that are actually holding you back. Many of these services do not have to be abandoned, but can be modified to be beneficial to both parties. Others need to be discarded, because they cannot be reformed given their parameters. While choosing how to serve is a subjective, personal choice, there are some objective guidelines we can apply to judge others’ acts of service as being useful or useless.

There are a few other easy examples I will eliminate before proceeding to grayer areas. Service to strangers and fair-weather friends can be dark if it is pursued over service to family and close friends. Helping people who do not appreciate your help or chronically complain is ill-advised. Acts of service that are useful to others but take up too much of your time and energy may waste potential. Service that is done for narcissistic reasons may be a net loss.

Often, an act of service can be good or bad depending on how it is carried out. Helping a friend with math homework or an essay can easily be good or bad, depending on whether you are helping him or her think critically, or simply doing the work for him or her. This is similar to the parable about giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to fish. There are several reasons why giving the fish (or answers) may seem more appealing. One is that it is easier and takes less time. Another is it fosters dependence on the helper, which can make him or her feel needed and useful. A third reason is the receiver may request or demand it, because he or she refuses or claims to be unable to learn how to fish. All of these reasons can encourage helplessness and discourage self-actualization. A far more useful tutor is one who facilitates the learning process, rather than eliminating it.

Service that is done with expectations, reservations, or resentment is poisoned from the start. If there are expectations, they should be outwardly articulated. It is not productive to volunteer to help someone, expect to be compensated, receive nothing, and then feel resent for not receiving something you specifically asked not to receive. Conversely, while you may feel pressure from your sense of conscientiousness, the person who has volunteered to help you should not pressure you to help him or her in return. If anything, the helper should encourage you to pay it forward by helping someone else, which can go on to create a chain of service and goodwill. While the first person in such a chain gives without receiving, he or she arguably benefits the most, if you subscribe to the belief that it is better to give than receive.

Service to others has a real opportunity cost. You could be using such time, money, mental, and physical effort to work on your own interests, or to develop your talents and goals. If the service you are providing is not helping you to grow, any surplus may be nullified, because the meager benefit to the recipient may pale in comparison to the losses you incur. Time is precious, and time now is more valuable than time in the future, because the degrees of freedom available to you inevitably decline as years pass by. If mastery of a subject or discipline takes 10 years, how many 10-year periods do you have left? Are you using your years to develop your talents or to serve as a butler for others?

Certainly, teaching is the best way to learn. Thus, service to others is a powerful tool for realizing your own potential. However, if such service is mundane, has no teaching opportunities, and does not come close to employing your full ability, you may be better off not doing it, particularly if you have more pressing interests to pursue.

In part 2, I will talk more about situations where serving others is undesirable. There is also the possibility that I will not write part 2 at all. Regardless, there is a lot more I could write about this.