The Narcissism Epidemic

The term, ‘narcissist,’ has often been thrown around to explain the behavioural inclinations of people who project an air of grandiosity, have a pervasive need for admiration, and show a distinct lack of empathy. In Brene Brown’s, ‘Daring Greatly,’ she defines narcissism in an altogether different way. She argues that narcissism is wholly linked to shame, and is a result of us living in a society where people fear being considered, ‘normal.’ People fear never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, and to cultivate a sense of purpose. We live in an age when children grow up on a steady diet of reality television, celebrity culture and unsupervised social media, which has taught many to believe they’re only as good as the amount of Facebook or Instagram followers on their page. There is so much more to ourselves than acceptance from outsiders, but this is how we measure our worth.

We are not surrounded by narcissists. We are surrounded by people who have learnt to base their worth on popularity and admiration from sources outside of ourselves. There is a fear of being ordinary, and that fear forces people to use grandiosity, entitlement and attention-seeking as a balm to protect themselves, and project a wholly inaccurate image. This ultimately causes more pain and suffering in the long term, but it is a short-term solution to feelings of vulnerability and shame. Perhaps it is time that we all sat down and questioned how our thoughts, actions and emotions relate to us feeling vulnerable and needing a strong sense of worthiness? What are the messages that define our culture, and how does culture influence our behaviours?

The Psychology of Psychopathy

“Violent psychopath” (21,700). “Psychopathic serial killer” (14,700). “Psychopathic murderer” (12,500). “Deranged psychopath” (1,050). We have all heard these phrases before, and the number of Google searches following them in parenthesis attests to their circulation in popular culture. We are fascinated by them, and yet each phrase embodies a widespread misconception regarding the psychopathic personality. But why are we so fascinated by them? What draws us to their study? In my opinion, it is the superficially charming nature and heightened intellect of psychopaths. It is also their ability to put emotions aside and act entirely without them. It’s undeniably fascinating, and equally as terrifying.

We associate the word, ‘psychopathy,’ with figures of extreme violence and manipulation, such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. However, we are also likely to encounter psychopaths working in normal functioning environments, including hospitals, where they are performing incredibly high pressure procedures without breaking a sweat. In Kevin Dutton’s fascinating book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, he describes one of the greatest and most successful neurosurgeons as ‘ruthlessly cool,’ and ‘incredibly focused under pressure.’ The surgeon freely admits that he has no compassion for those he works on, because compassion is distracting in a room where every second counts. He talks about turning into a ‘cold, heartless machine, who is totally at one with the scalpel, drill and saw,’ because emotion has no place when he is cheating death. The words are disconcerting, but they make perfect sense. There are benefits to being a psychopath, which is quite difficult to comprehend. However, as Kevin Dutton eloquently states, the psychopathic arsonist who sets fire to your house is also more likely to be the hero who braves the flames to seek out your loved ones in a parallel universe. Psychopaths are very capable of putting emotions aside to do what is necessary.

Claims like these are hard to believe, but they are true. Psychopaths are fearless, confident, ruthless and focused. These specific characteristics are certainly sought after for certain job positions, and recent studies have found that we are more likely to encounter psychopaths in the operating theatre, on the trading floor, and in a courtroom legal battle. Psychopathic talents can be advantageous, which is quite unsettling to consider. When harnessed to suitable situations, such as the hospital operating theatre, the psychopath becomes a truly valuable member of society. Unfortunately, our experiences of psychopathy are nearly always defined by what we have seen in popular culture. The term, ‘psychopath,’ is more likely to conjure images of Hannibal Lecter in our mind, rather than the somewhat terrifying but necessary brain surgeon who saves lives on a daily basis whilst detaching entirely from emotions and empathy.

Am I the only person in the world who wishes I could turn off my emotions at times? I certainly wouldn’t do it permanently, but the complexity concerning the psychopathetic condition is definitely thought-provoking.

The Science of Introversion. Pt.1

The science of introversion and extroversion has always fascinated me. Why are certain people entirely capable of public speaking and acts of confident socialising whilst others are not? Is it a result of our cerebral conditioning? Is it linked to the theory of nature vs. nurture in our childhoods? Both of my parents are loud, outspoken types, so why the difference in our genetic make-up? How can our personalities be so vastly dissimilar?

A group of scientists at Harvard have dedicated themselves to investigating how the framework for our personalities is developed from birth. Jerome Kagan, an eighty-year old developmental psychologist, has devoted his career to analysing the emotional and cognitive development of children. In one particular study, he followed children from infancy through to adolescence, and documented their physiologies and personalities along the way. In 1989, Kagan and his team gathered five hundred four-month-old infants, and predicted that they would be able to tell who would become an introvert or extrovert based on a forty-five minute survey. This may seem like an audacious claim, but the results were astounding.

Kagan exposed the infant to a carefully chosen set of new experiences. The infants heard tape-recorded voices and balloons popping, and were surrounded by colourful mobile devices. They had incredibly varying reactions to the new stimuli. Approx. 20% cried loudly and pumped their arms and legs wildly. This group was named, ‘the high reactive.’ Around 40% of the infants remained quiet and placid, and only pumped their arms and legs occasionally. This group was named, ‘the low reactive.’ The remaining 40% fell between these two extremes. In an incredibly shocking prediction, Kagan predicted that ‘the high reactive’ group would grow into quiet teenagers. He was correct too.

When the infants were two, four, seven and eleven years old, the children returned to Kagan’s lab for follow-up testing. At the age of two, the children were exposed to a lady wearing a gas mask and a lab coat, a man dressed as a clown, and a radio controlled robot. At seven, they were encouraged to play with children that they had not previously met. At eleven, an unfamiliar adult interviewed them about their personal lives. Kagan’s team studied how these children reacted to these strange scenarios. They noted their body language, and recorded how often they laughed, talked and smiled. He also measured their heart rates, finger temperatures, blood pressure, and other properties linked to the central nervous system.

Many of the children turned out exactly as Kagan had predicted.  The high reactive infants developed serious and careful personalities. The low reactive infants were more likely to become relaxed and confident types. Kagan’s study is not without flaw, and some may question the ethics behind such studies, but it is clear that stimuli presented during infancy can predict a later personality type, or create it entirely. It is an interesting case for debate, and one that provides a potential insight into how our personality types are developed.  I’ve always been a firm believer that our childhood experiences provide the foundations for our lives in adulthood, and this study conveys that it definitely has psychological consequences.

Social Flexibility: When Should You Act More Extroverted Than You Really Are?

People have a variety of social selves that they choose to project to the world. I have encountered many extroverted people who are secretly introverts. They project a booming and energetic sense of self in certain social situations, but they retreat in private and seek more solitary pursuits. People often describe me as ‘extroverted,’ but they couldn’t be further from the truth. I might appear confident in public, and be able to talk to anyone at all, but it has always been a secret struggle of mine. I prefer one-on-one conversations and encounters, and I often disappear to share quiet dialogues at parties. When I’m forced to spend too much out in public, or at social events, I can literally feel myself becoming unwell, and I need days alone to recharge my batteries. Outwardly however, people assume that I love socialising and am never nervous of people. The truth couldn’t be any more different.

It is my belief that we are very capable of flexibility when it comes to our extroverted and introverted sides. Our projected selves shift depending on the social situation, and it could be argued that we are all a mix of both extrovert and introvert. There are a group of psychologists known as Situationists, and they believe that the words we use to describe one another – shy, aggressive, agreeable, conscientious – are incredibly misleading. They state that there is no ‘core’ self; there are only various selves. This idea was introduced by a man called Walter Mischel, who believed that situational factors predicted the behaviour of people. For example, a normally introverted lecturer could become extroverted when faced with a large auditorium of people. As a species, we must be flexible with our social selves. I would describe myself as flexible socially, because I can be both the life and soul of the party, but also desire to remain indoors in isolated locations and devote myself to the silent and solitary pursuit of writing.  I also understand that being the confident talker means that I am exhausted afterwards, and need time to recharge before I’m able to socialise again. It is simply the way that I am.

Why can we turn certain personality traits on? How can an introvert behave as an extrovert at certain times, and not others? There is a theory amongst psychologists called the Free Trait Theory. These people believe that fixed traits and free traits almost certainly coexist. According to this theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits, but we can and do act out of character for situations such as work, or in the pursuit of something that we particularly enjoy. For example, an introverted athlete may display extreme aggression and passion when pursuing their sport. They have adapted their personality traits to achieve something that means a lot to them. This might seem slightly deceptive, but we are simply doing what we have been psychologically programed to do. Yes, we may pretend to be extroverts at times, and such inauthenticity can be morally ambiguous, but if it’s in pursuit of something that we love? Or something we are working towards? Social flexibility can indeed be the answer.

Is ‘clique’ behaviour an evolutionary weakness?

Most of us have experienced some form of social ‘clique’ in our lifetime. These groups consist of people who share similar interests and bond over them, such as the football team at school, the cheerleaders at college, or the ‘ladies-who-lunch-together’ in the office. They can be quite intimidating and cruel towards outsiders too. Despite the emotional effect such groups can have on individuals, there has been very little study into the science behind them. This blog entry will seek to investigate the science behind the ‘clique’ mentality, and introduce the idea that this behaviour is actually an evolutionary weakness.

The science of clique behaviour is fascinating to consider. Since the beginning of time, human beings have felt a natural affinity towards each other, and have clubbed together in order to survive. Groups of hunters were far more adept at finding food than lone huntsman, and groups of warriors were more able to protect their families from harm. Groups of people would travel together, and fight against outsider groups who may seek to steal provisions from them. Outsiders were a real threat, and therefore the targets for violence. This theory may seem difficult to apply to modern day situations, but it isn’t as far-fetched as you’d think. Sociologists argue that people form cliques because they need to feel a sense of belonging in order to survive in a world ruled by social interactions. Many academics argue that this need is equally as crucial as food and shelter, and stems back to our ancestors who survived in clans, or in a herd mentality. Lone outsiders were unlikely to survive in the wilderness, and are still viewed with suspicion and dislike in the modern day.  If a person doesn’t gravitate towards a certain group, or ‘clique,’ then they become a target for gossip, hearsay and bullying.

Being an outsider is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve never felt a sense of belonging to any particular social group, and that’s always been a difficult burden to bear. I never engaged in office politics, because I had no idea how to, and I was bullied continuously at school. I didn’t fit the ‘mould’ of other workers or pupils either, so was often left out when people went for ‘drinks’ after work or sleepovers at the weekend. This can leave a person feeling humiliated, and it absolutely crushes self-esteem. However, I have started to see that being an outsider is actually an advantage. Outsiders are more capable of being objective, and less social commitments result is far less stress. I am quite glad that I don’t feel obligated to go out with a certain group of people on a weekend, or have to deal with the stresses of trying to belong. I pride myself on being an outsider, and I would urge other people to do the same. Cliques are an outdated method of survival, and there is far more power and pride to be had in being an independent and lone entity in this day and age.

The Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum

Our lives and experiences are vastly shaped by our personality types. The introvert-extrovert spectrum has been widely recognised as the two polar opposites of the human personality, and is often used as a defining feature when describing people in particular situations. In my experience, the loudly spoken and buoyant personality will always gain certain opportunities that the quiet, cerebral type does not. A shy and quiet child is often viewed as an enigma to teachers, and therefore is more easily overlooked and targeted for a lack of contribution in school reports. The loud and boisterous child holds the room’s attention, and is often more liked by his or her class. The latter grows in popularity, and the former easily blends into the background. Why is this? Why is introversion viewed as a second class personality that cannot be valued in our society?

The answer is simple. Scientific studies have revealed that talkative people are viewed as smarter, more attractive and conforming to a universal standard of psychological expectation. Fast talkers are considered more competent and likeable, and yet there is no correlation between speech velocity and intellect. As adults, we are expected to work in offices without walls, and to be at the beck and call of bosses who value ‘people skills’ above everything else, but I have never been wired that way. It is more difficult for an introvert to promote themselves in modern society, and they need to work harder for recognition, because quietness does not sell. It does not turn heads. Introverts however, have strong social skills, but they devote their energies to reflection rather than voice velocity and attention grabbing. They listen more than they talk. They think before they speak, and they feel more comfortable expressing themselves in writing rather than conversation. The word ‘introvert’ is not a synonym for social recluse, or hermit, but rather for a person that avoids the overstimulating and chaotic, and finds comfortable expression in more understated mediums.

Introverts may feel alone in their approach, but they are far from it. In 1955, Rosa Parks stood up for what she believed in when approached with racist segregation laws, and stood firm against confrontation. It would be very easy to assume that she was a bold and outspoken woman, but she was not. When she died in 2005, her obituaries praised her for being ‘timid’ and ‘shy,’ but with the ‘courage of a lion.’ Some of mankind’s greatest achievements and ideas have come from introverts. Van Gogh and T.S. Eliot were famously private souls, and Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were known to be great thinkers who achieved great productivity in solitude. Einstein himself described himself as a ‘horse built for a single harness,’ and Charles Darwin famously stated that a man could be shy but ‘as bold as a hero in battle.’ Introversion is not a curse; it is a powerful personality type that is simply misunderstood in present society.

Meanwhile, in my uterus…

“It’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s just your period. Keep taking ibuprofen,” stated my doctor, as he dismissed my frustrations and concerns about having bled profusely for six months.  I nodded numbly in agreement, and left the doctor’s office without another word. Frankly, I didn’t have the energy to argue. I’d been in debilitating pain for a long time and I could barely get out of bed in the mornings. I was crippled by never-ending backache, and felt weak, disorientated and extremely sick. I described these symptoms to my doctor, who was all too keen to dismiss them. He didn’t take my concerns seriously, and he certainly didn’t suggest that I might have a disease called Endometriosis, which affects 10% of the female population (1). That’s 176 million women worldwide.  That’s a large number of women out there, who suffer in silence.

Six months after fourteen similar disastrous doctors’ appointments, I was admitted to hospital where I received an internal ultrasound and laparoscopy, which led to a formal diagnosis of this disease. I felt a mixture of relief and absolute dread. I was relieved that my symptoms weren’t just in my head, which my doctors had convinced me, but this relief was swiftly followed by trepidation, because I knew there was no known cure. Endometriosis is a complex condition, and every case is different. There is also a distinct lack of accessible information regarding how to live with it. It took a far kinder (and infinitely more patient) doctor to explain that this disorder is caused by a woman’s endometrium, which is otherwise known as the tissue that usually lines the inside of the uterus. A person suffering from endometriosis will have this tissue growing outside of the uterus and elsewhere in the body. During the menstrual cycle, this tissue creates an inflammatory response in the body. It forms painful lesions, scars, and nodules. These can cause a variety of life-changing symptoms – moderate to severe pain, migraines, fatigue, pain during sex, heavy bleeding, and many more.  I knew that I’d made alterations to my life because of this disease, and I wondered how many other women had done the same.

My doctor recommended another laparoscopy, which would be aimed at removing the excess tissue. This is a very popular method of easing the symptoms associated with endometriosis. It isn’t a cure, but there is statistical evidence that it can help in the long term. In a recent study of 176 women who had confirmed endometriosis, 67% of these women noted a lessening of their symptoms after surgery (2). After almost a year of being stuck in bed, and using only ibuprofen to deal with the pain, I told my doctor that I would be a willing participant in this operation. It took two weeks for the hospital to arrange a date, and then I was under the surgeon’s knife. The procedure went without a hitch, but I’d be lying if I said the outcome wasn’t painful. I went home two days later with a stomach that rivalled the size and shape of a good-sized watermelon. I was bloated, sore, and I could barely move. I spent five days in bed, before starting to move around again.

Would I recommend the procedure? I absolutely would. I was far more comfortable for a long time afterwards, and was eventually able to return to work. Unsurprisingly, the lesions returned, and I am always in agony during my menstrual cycle. My doctors still haven’t found a solution to my pain either, although they are more willing to prescribe stronger anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) to try and keep me out of their waiting rooms.  They have recommended hormonal treatment, but as a super sensitive sufferer of anxiety, I declined. It worries me that there isn’t more research going into discovering a cure for this disease, and awareness is fairly rubbish too. As I delve deeper into online communities of the suffering, I’m learning that it can take years to achieve a diagnosis, because the symptoms are simply dismissed. The NHS are also under increasing pressure to see more and more patients within limited timeframes, which results in patients feeling like a number to be ticked off. It almost feels impossible to gain a proper exploration into the symptoms, which was half my battle in the beginning. Awareness has to be key here. There is a still a ridiculous stigma attached to the discussion of the female’s intimate anatomy, but this draconian view needs to be overcome. Doctors must be educated about this debilitating disease that is affecting a huge number of the female population, and be informed about the treatments that are available.  It isn’t good enough to send women home when their symptoms are so severe. Doctors have a duty of care to their patients.

I know it’s going to be a long fight, but I’m in it for the long haul, so wish we luck! If you are a woman who is suffering in silence, please reach out to your doctors, health professionals and friends. It’s not something that should be endured alone, nor should it be brushed beneath the carpet.

https://www.endometriosis-uk.org

  • (1) Rogers PA, D’Hooghe TM, Fazleabas A, et al. Priorities for endometriosis research: recommendations from an international consensus workshop. Reprod Sci 2009;16(4): 335-46.
  • (2) Morris, KA. Living Well with Endometriosis. William Morrow 2006: 97

Sorry, but can we stop saying ‘sorry’?

According to studies, British women apologise up to eight times a day. We apologise for being unable to attend social engagements, and for putting our health and careers first. We apologise for disagreeing with people, to avoid causing offense, and we apologise for the way we look and feel. We are apologising for our choices, every day, and it needs to stop. We don’t need to be the ‘yes’ girls all the time, and we don’t need to justify that either. We’re women, and the choices we make are our own. The mere concept of apologising for something that isn’t your fault, or hasn’t caused any wrongdoing is bloody ridiculous. It’s very British too.

There is a good explanation for our apologies too. Women are socialised from an early age to focus on relationships and nurturing. Any sign of strength can be off-putting, so we’re conditioned to soften communication that can be construed as assertive or aggressive. We undermine our decisions and choices by apologising for them, because we don’t want to seem aggressive or antagonistic, but we need to start taking charge of our decisions, and not apologising for them. Men put their careers first every single day, and they don’t apologise for it, so why should we? Emotional and financial independence is something to be proud of. It doesn’t warrant an apology. People should not be offended by your success. My point is that we can follow our heart’s callings and that’s ok. Do you think Hilary Clinton apologised for becoming the First Lady of the United States? I don’t think she did. She worked hard for it. She earned it.

There are too many pressures on women in this day and age. We are expected to reach certain milestones in a specified timeframe, but those pressures are not ok. Why shouldn’t we wait until we’re ready to have babies? Is it wrong if we don’t want babies at all? Should we all dress and act a certain way, for fear of causing offense? Should we hold back on our careers because there’s a man involved? Absolutely not. I’ve recently realised how often I use the word ‘sorry,’ and it’s a little embarrassing. I’m not taking credit where credit is due, and why not? Am I afraid of upsetting someone for the way I look, act and feel? Should my achievements be apologised for? No they shouldn’t.

In essence, we need to stand by our decisions, and believe firmly in them. It isn’t wrong to be in control of your own life. We should believe in ourselves. You won’t do any good by pretending to be anything less than you are. Let’s stop doing ourselves a disservice.

Four Tips To Help You Finish Your Novel

1) Schedule your writing time, and protect it with your life. There are 24 hours in a day, and those hours can be spent however you choose. During my college years, I would get up at 5am to get some writing in before classes, and then stay up late writing too. It wasn’t entirely healthy, but it taught me a lesson. I wanted to write, so I made the time to do it. I’m an adult now (or so I’m told), and so I schedule responsibly instead. I get up at a reasonable time, put the coffee on and sit down to write. I write from 9am-4pm. I work office hours, and my body and my muse finally seem in tune to that pattern. I’m also incredibly protective over that time. I turn the phone and television off, and if people invite me out for lunch? I politely decline. The problem is, non-writers don’t understand the process, nor the importance of your writing time. They think you have all the time in the world because you work from home, but that isn’t the case at all. You must treat your writing like a job, even if it isn’t yet. Make sure you turn up. 2) Set goals. There is no point in saying you’ll write that book or screenplay by January next year. That isn’t how it works. You must set yourself achievable goals, and by achievable goals, I mean word targets. I set myself the writing target of 2000 words a day. I don’t always reach that target, but that is what I’m working towards. On a bad day, I’ll only churn out 1000 words, but on a good day? I’ve been known to get 4000 words done. The point is, it’s all progress. Do the maths. 2000 or 1000 words a day x 365 days = a rather sizeable novel. 3) Write. Write. Write. Don’t wait for your muse. I’ve read many different writing blogs and spoken to numerous writers over the years, and all admit that their muse is unreliable. It’s a myth that writers are suddenly absorbed in a moment of sheer inspiration. They force themselves to sit down in the chair every morning, and they get to work. Inspiration will follow. Ideas will emerge, but this is still a job, remember? Creativity is only a fraction of it. Hard work is the rest. 4) Believe in yourself. I have battled with anxiety and self-doubt for many years, and it can be completely destructive. Don’t compare yourself to other writers, because it’s unrealistic. Your voice is unique, and chances are you’re writing something unique too. If you sound like your favourite author, then you aren’t using your voice, and that’s a damn shame. Believe in your voice, and believe in your work. You can do this.

Confessions

‘Men make mess,’ my Great Grandma used to say. ‘They come to you when everything is tidy. They mess everything up, and then they leave again.’

They were strong words to say to an eleven year old girl, and finally, thirteen years later, I think I understand what she meant. The ‘mess’ she was referring to was not the domestic image of unwashed dishes that I had previously assumed. She meant an emotional mess, and being in the shadow of your former ‘tidy’ self. She was referring to the great and sometimes painful process of falling in love, and what happens when it’s over.

My Great Grandma had always been a strong woman. She drove a tank during World War II, and did supply runs in armoured trucks over live minefields. She met my great grandfather during a raid, and she took great delight in telling us how he talked far too much. He was a skinny fellow, she said, who wore shabby shoes, and he was lucky he didn’t get his toes blown off. She said it was love at first sight, and when my Grandma fell pregnant, she came home to England and began building a home for her new family. She chose a quiet little village in Surrey, where the most exciting occurrence was Sunday Mass. It was a million miles away from war. It was perfect.

Sadly, my Grandma never saw her lover again. She explained to everyone that he had died in action, and that his body had never been recovered. When we asked her how, her eyes would gloss over and grow distant. She didn’t want to talk about it, and no-one pressured my Grandma into doing anything. This woman was a soldier.

It always made me sad to think of her, alone with a child. She was a resilient woman, who prided herself on being able to handle anything life threw at her. Rather than cry in front of people, and feel sorry for herself, she got on with life. She juggled three jobs at once. She was a nurse during the day, a barmaid during the night and a milkman in the middle of the night. People who knew her said she hardly slept at all. She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. She moved on, and gave my Grandad the best childhood imaginable.

When my Grandad was twenty-five years old, he died in a car accident. I remember sitting with my Great Grandma at the time, eating stew and watching her do the crossword. She didn’t react to the phone-call. She put the receiver down and shuffled back into the kitchen, putting all the plates away and starting the washing up. No-one really understood what was going on, and although everyone offered her support, she merely shrugged it off. At the funeral, she sat in the front row in silence, fingering the embroidered daisies on her dress. She cried one single tear, and it dribbled down her wrinkled skin silently. She spoke to no-one.

To say that my Grandma suffered a great loss is an understatement. She lost the man she loved and she outlived her son. I would spend most weekends with her, and she taught me everything she knew. We’d plant potatoes together, knit little blankets and do the crosswords. She told me to work hard in life, and always be mindful of other people. She said I had to go to school, because school would give me a life. She was the smartest person in the world, and I did everything she said. There were times when I grew bored and restless, but then I remembered her wise words and carried on.

My Grandma passed away last year, and she made a shocking confession on her deathbed. My Great Grandad hadn’t died in the war. He had already been married, but had failed to mention it until after she fell pregnant. He returned home to his wife and three children, and my Grandma never saw him again. Most people would have crumbled, but she coped. She accepted that she would never have her lover in her life, and so she focused on bringing up my Grandad alone. Maybe my Grandad should have been given the chance to find his father? When my Mum asked her this, my Grandma simply smiled and said, ‘It would have made a terrible mess.’