January 5, 2012

Someone hurt you. Or so it feels. Why? They didn’t mean to. What they said/did had nothing to do with you. Yet it hurts all the same.

Welcome to narcissistic injury. To paraphrase Epicurus, we—the narcissistically inclined—live in an unwalled city. Everything is a threat to the fragile self. Illusions, accomplishments, these are not defenses. Not when you’ve got the special, sensitive antennae trained to receive (and create) the signals that challenge your precarious balancing act.

They hang out with somebody else, it means they don’t want to hang out with you. They don’t ask how you were feeling, it’s because you don’t matter. They do something you don’t like, it’s because they know you don’t like it and did it anyway. And these are the straightforward, almost-logical kinds of slights. From there it descends into hopelessly opaque list of unrelated and seemingly banal events with one commonality: a twisted, selfish interpretation that it somehow said something about me (and how woefully awry things went from that faulty premise)

It is a miserable way to live, whatever the degree of your affliction. Deep down this is all a fear about  existence. And to have trivial events make you feel as though you do not exist, is a constant and unavoidable source of aggravation (torture). That’s the consequence of trying to determine your identity through external things—making it possible for it to be challenged by the things that other people say or do, no matter how unrelated to you they actually are. So go the risks of allowing your identity to be anything but secure and intrinsic (to say nothing of delusions of grandiosity).

The solution, well, I don’t know if there is one. But it seems to get better with therapy—rigorous, introspective and committed therapy. It is possible to rewire the brain, but it takes a lot of work. For me, practicing a different take on empathy has been helpful (or at least, humbling). To realize that other people have as much to wrongly interpret from your actions as you do from theirs. And that there is a feedback loop between these worldviews. So too, with contemptuous expressions. The less you puff, the less there is to pop.

Aware of all this, you must do your best to just stop, and take things as they are. Remind yourself: this doesn’t say anything about me—because external things cannot—and, even if it literally did, I don’t have to let it bother me. I don’t need to hear it, let alone agree with it. It has nothing to do with my identity, my existence or anything foolish like that. Because narcissistic injury is by definition a self-injury. Figure out why you feel the need to inflict it.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

37 responses to Self-Injury

  1. What works for me is that when I start worrying about what others are thinking, I just focus more on my work. If I wear myself down doing what matters, I don’t have the energy (or the time) to worry about things that don’t.

  2. Absolutely right, and this is well worth the effort to learn to avoid (narcissistic injury). Just curious – in some cases the perceived attitude towards you from someone else might actually be directed at you. Odds of a best friend of 12 years actually ditching you on purpose? Not likely. But odds of a recent friend whom you dont have a strong tie to ignoring feelings/ditching/purposely doing something that you dont like, well, that can (and does) happen fairly often. Maybe you had them pegged wrong. The question then –

    Is there a mechanism you use to gauge whether you should pay some attention to the situation causing the injury, or take it more seriously, instead of brushing it off as something that wasn’t directed at you.

    • But that’s the point: it doesn’t matter. Taking someone ditching you. To a normal person, this is a social faux pas or inconsiderate behavior. To the narcissist, this is an issue of identity. They do not believe themselves to be the person that could ever be chosen over something else and thus, for someone to act that way towards them, is to challenge their very vision of themselves.

      • Without getting to deep into the injury of the psyche, which I agree is self-imposed, the concept of ‘the other’ as it relates to anyone is best covered by reading Camus. The ‘self’ is defined by the ‘other’, but unlike Camus, I believe that it is my self-image reflected by the ‘other’ that leads me to feel sad for myself, or boring, or annoying, etc.

        The feedback loop is never broken, and avoiding narcissism is impossible, as we can only know ourselves, and our reflections off other people. The best we can do, create a positive, powerful mental image of ourselves. But that can make life a little boring. According to Bret Easton Ellis,one of the best things a writer can have is a healthy amount of self-loathing.

        • It may be true that we can only know ourselves. But the willingness to accept uncertainty allows us to weight our focus outward. Narcissism is the condition of self-absorption. Whether or not one’s self-image is inflated or deflated misses the point.

      • Ahhh I see, I didn’t frame my question correctly. I was referring to the idea of keeping people around that better your life and weeding out those that waste your time with false promises and shady behavior (those you can’t count on). The narcissist would (I guess eventually) either replace everyone, since he takes everything personally, or continue keeping everyone around because, well, that’s his nature. Your solution in this post outlines how to solve the problem inward, which is great, but still leaves us with the outward issue. My question should have been, how do you identify people who are ACTUALLY negative and don’t care about you (to cut them out of your life) if you condition yourself to not take their actions seriously. I understand that one, as a person, will be better off your way, but on some level it’s still good to identify those that are wasting your time, even if they aren’t wasting as much of it as they would have had you been taking everything to heart.

        Either way, thanks for the reply.

  3. Hey Ryan,

    There’s a nice parallel in your post with a section in The War of Art, and since I know you’re familiar with the book I thought it would be worth pointing out:.

    You said “That’s the consequence of trying to determine your identity through external things—making it possible for it to be challenged by the things that other people say or do, no matter how unrelated to you they actually are.”

    Steven Pressfield wrote: “Most of us define ourselves hierarchically [as you said, through external things] and don’t even know it. Drink this beer, get this job, look this way and everyone will love you…An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking order will…evaluate his happiness/success/achievement by his rank within the hierarchy, feeling most satisfied when he’s high and most miserable when he’s low. The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake.”

    • I don’t disagree with this, and I love that Pressfield quote. However, I am speaking about something a bit different in this post. I’m speaking about personality and emotional problems, not The Resistance.

      • Right, I thought it was interesting that both Resistance, or aspects of it, and narcissistic injury stem from relying on external events for validation, and in the case of narcissistic injury not just from the events but also from our perception of these events. To take your example, if someone doesn’t hang out with you instead of thinking they might have a legitimate reason, remembering the times you had to cancel plans yourself, and letting it pass, the narcissist takes it personally – an issue of perception, not the event. Still, by working towards a more territorial definition of ourselves we avoid this entirely, since we don’t let external events affect or define us. Now if it were only as easy to feel as it is to type…

        • Yeah, it’s important to stress that this is much more than just an issue of “awareness.” In a likelihood this has deep roots in your personality and from your childhood. This is a frozen cognitive pattern–an adaptive strategy–and it takes a lot more than knowing and typing about it to fix,

  4. Americans have forgotten how to be spiritual. The sad reality is the best spiritual curriculum most Americans will ever run into is Alcoholics Anonymous.

  5. The vast majority of readers see how valuable the posts are and don’t feel the need to comment. I want to say something for those who have doubts.

    Before reading this blog, I didn’t realize the extent to which narcissism blinds people. This hurt me because I went into situations assuming that my superiors were inherently mature. Now, with this information, not only do I understand myself better–I understand the people around me better, be them partners or rivals. Situations that before would have turned on me, I can now anticipate ahead of time and preempt. This has opened a new appreciation for the politics of social relationships.

    The experience of reading this blog has also validated something that is almost too good to be true: reading books is a worthwhile activity, at least looking at how much reading Ryan does. I previously saw reading books, even nonfiction, as something of an indulgence.

    The blog has given me permission to run for the sake of running.

    The blog has shown the face of a marketer associated with three brands I have independently consumed: American Apparel, Robert Greene, Tim Ferriss.

    Ryan, in response to my asking, gave me an idea for a trade that did well in the market (not related to his employers). He did so more by asking the right questions than by prescribing any answers. Although these blog posts sound prescriptive, ultimately they are inquisitive, asking us to test them and see for ourselves.

    A study came out recently that said trust is built by consistently fulfilling one’s promises. One doesn’t have to be trustworthy to build trust; one simply has to be consistent in meeting expectations. This blog sets high expectations for itself, yet in post after post, Ryan lives up to them, and earns the trust of his readers.

    • “I previously saw reading books, even nonfiction, as something of an indulgence.”

      Really, reading nonfiction as indulgence?? So which were the things that were ok to do? (just sincere curiosity)

      • Acquiring skills in something more condensed, like math, science, or language.

        • Wow men, now i feel worse for playing videogames occasionally x).

          • Nothing wrong with indulging, the problem Ryan is highlighting is that people often don’t realize the extent to which the actions they take are in fact indulgences.

  6. This is one of three blogs I consistently follow. Although I’m ashamed to admit it, I opened my day up doing exactly what Ryan is writing NOT to do. A relationship with a woman I have been dating ended and I was absolutely letting it affect my morning and state of mind. I was letting this happen with the full knowledge that the break up was really 80 to 90% my fault due to some of my own past actions!

    Reading this blog this morning was a slap in the face that I really needed. And this is probably the third post Ryan has had that has made me feel this way. Thank you Ryan.

  7. I was having dinner with a friend earlier this week and explaining this exact thing to them as something I had been working to change about myself. I need to send this to her as a far better explanation of the issue. Thank you for writing it.

    For any of you dealing with it a bit severely, here’s a few things that have helped me over the last month as I’ve come to terms with it.

    1) A visualization exercise mentioned in The 50th Law. Greene is writing about a book a monk wrote, and in that book the monk is looking at a tombstone and visualizing all the stages of that tombstone’s life. People coming less and less, the tombstone fading, and eventually crumbling and being reclaimed by the land. Embracing the event as trivial and letting it go.

    Basically just giving things context on how insignificant they are. Not just with narcissistic injury, but with any offense. Ask “If this had happened a year ago, would it be weighing on me now?” If you’re holding on to a narcissistic injury from that long ago, ask yourself if it seems disproportionate to be holding something against someone that long.

    2) Seek one of those moments of freedom that have been mentioned here before, the ‘driving in a friend’s car’ or ‘sleep in a hotel room’ sensations. The actual thing doesn’t matter, just find something that gives you a brief healthy sense of escape when you need it. This doesn’t help the root issue, but it helps a lot with keeping you sane.

    Also, The Last Psychiatrist’s recent review of The Descendents helped me connect a lot of the dots in my life.

    I hope some of this helps someone.

  8. This is a great post and not only because I can personally relate to it. I think that a lot of what you talk about on this blog is the “how” that so many people who comment on TheLastPsychiatrist wish Alone would write to solve their narcissism-related problems.

    To me narcissism is focused on “being” (as in being or appearing to be a marketing guru, a good boyfriend, etc.) rather than “doing” (as in doing the work which would make you what you are trying to be). To the narcissist the appearance is the end goal but to those who actually accomplish things the “doing” is the goal and doesn’t matter how it appears. I think a lot of what you write about is about focusing on the “doing” rather than the “being” (the post Missing the Point comes to mind).

    • That’s a good definition of narcissism. A better one may be that the vision of the self (their image) precedes the reality. It is undoubtedly impressive the way that many narcissists are able to create–in the actual world–the vision they have of themselves. The problem is that this image is incredibly fragile and, knowing that it was based on an illusion, deep down inside they doubt what they have built.

  9. Personally, I think a good rule of thumb for avoiding that kind of narcissim is the rule of “make yourself useful, or make yourself scarce.” When useful, you’re not obsessed with the impression you’re making- ideally, you’re too busy to care one way or the other, save for making sure what you’re doing is truly useful; or if scarce, you’re free to follow your own pursuits without much annoyance.
    Ryan, your blog is a tremendous find. I am very impressed with your thoughts and efforts for someone so young. I think sometimes you need a bit more compassion in your worldview- and I suspect that age will give you ample opportunities to develop that.

      • That’s what I was wondering.

        • I think you’re plenty compassionate, Ryan. And you can also check the ip address to see if it jives.

        • Sorry to disappoint. I’m by far much more obscure. We both write. He gets a paycheck. I don’t. My comment on compassion was in reference to your tendancy to pronounce people “losers”. One of the hallmarks of Marcus Aurelius, so far as I understand him is to have a gracious demeanor to those we perceive as “deluded”, and to be kind to those who disappoint. I think that calling people “losers” particpates in a kind of mean spiritedness that has nothing noble about it. That’s only my two cents, and I still don’t get a paycheck.
          But your blog makes me think about things in a fresh way every time I look at it. And for that, you get extremely high praise from me. I’d wager the other David Brooks would like your writing, too.

  10. By the way Ryan, just curious because the blog photo, which i suppose it doesn’t have to be you but, you smoke??

    • Its not and I don’t

      • I see, it seemed to me that it didn’t make any sense with the kind of life you are trying to live. (being with smokers is for me what being with slow drivers is for you (just kidding xP))

  11. Here where i live at is really hard not to get bully around here but i cant let no one here know that im getting bully because they will not do anything about it and this is really not a good thing to do at all eathier. People here olny care about their farm land and no one that move here really matter. I wish that i can do something about this but i cant. Something that i have read about u have inspired me to move in also. I have been thro a tough child life because no one have care about me at all and i hope that there is a person out there that will just understand me too. I have lost both a my parents in my 15 1/2 years of my lif too. It’s have been hard because i always weonder if they are still alive. I think because i dont live with my REAL parents that people can just treat anyway that they want to and it just all in a MEAN way. This really sucks!!

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