I am not special.
When I was a child, the message from my parents was clear: Take care of yourself. We don’t want to do it. You are not special. And so I became an adult very early in life, full of determination to be self-sufficient and self-determined.
At forty-five, a disordered person took an interest in me. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, at the least. Diagnosed, I believe. Malignant narcissist? Sociopath? Possibly. She admitted that she had no conscience, was sadistic, and had a penchant for the chase. Either way, the terms are blurry and it doesn’t really matter.
We will meet the disordered. That’s unavoidable. Estimates of those without conscience and empathy range from 1 in 100 (Checkley) to 1 in 25 (Stout). And if you get close to one, you will suffer. These are relationships of inevitable harm.
This morning, I woke up with an analogy on my mind. Call it the story of my thrall. Analogies are good for the soul. They quiet the confusion. We call it cognitive dissonance, but it’s really all just a terrible and awesome mind storm.
When I met Jane, I had been in the driver’s seat of my figurative car since I was a young girl. That can happen when parents require a child to take care of herself. For the most part, I drove pretty well. But I was tired of being in the driver’s seat. I was tired of making my own choices, and having to make decisions- where to go, what to do, who to be, how to be. I didn’t know this before I met Jane. I could not have verbalized it then. I could not have said out loud to myself “I’m tired of driving the car”. But, in hindsight, I was.
And Jane came along. She may have well said these exact words to me, many of them she did: ‘I’m here now. I understand you. I’m just like you. I’m perfect for you. I’m special, and you’re special too. I know what’s best for you. I know what you need. I can give you what you need. Just stick with me, and I will show you. I’m your answer. I can drive the car for you’.
And because I was tired of driving the car, I said yes.
I took the passenger seat. And for an all-too-brief second in time, I felt bliss. Actual bliss. I felt special. Do you know how being a passenger in a car feels different than driving it? You can put your head back. You can close your eyes. You can relax. You can let your mind wander. You can even look at the scenery.
But in reality, I had allowed a very messed up person to take the driver’s seat. And it wasn’t blissful, and I couldn’t relax, and my mind didn’t wander and the scenery was not pretty. As I sat in the passenger seat, what did I really feel? Sexual frustration. Jealousy. Resentment. Fear. Anger. And at the end, hatred. That was my scenery.
She’s gone now. And for some time, I’ve been sitting in the passenger seat, the car pulled over on the side of the road, shell-shocked with my eyes seemingly permanently frozen on the dashboard. I don’t want to get back in the driver’s seat. I don’t. I’m afraid. I’m afraid life won’t feel the same again. I’m afraid I won’t feel the same again. I’m afraid I will never be special again. And here’s the thing. I won’t.
Accepting our experience with the disordered is largely about finding the courage to face the truth. We must be willing to choose truth over illusion. The person you loved, whether it be a lover or a friend or a mother, is not who she pretended to be.
The disordered present themselves as special with lovely masks custom-designed for you. They so dearly want to be special. They really are not special, but we believe them. We buy into their grandiosity, and we feel reflected glory. It goes like this: She’s so special. And since she’s picked me, that means I’m special too. And she doesn’t like many people and maybe people don’t like her, but that makes us and me even more special. Reflected glory.
And then shit happens and we learn they are disordered, and they are not the special people they pretended to be. And we feel angry and cheated, and duped. And in this aftermath when they’ve been unmasked, they become larger than life yet again, just in a different way. They become monsters. They’re even special in their monsterness. Except they’re not.
There are so many of them out there, and they all do the same thing: Very simply put, they’re engaged in a lifelong game called Self Esteem at the Expense of Others. They are not monsters, just human beings with a very fucked up sense of self. That’s nothing special, nothing extraordinary, not really.
And lest we think this does not cost them in real suffering, let’s remember this: The disordered are the loneliest people on the planet. Without the capacity for empathy, they are unable to connect, making them unable to attach. It’s a permanent solitude, an eternal loneliness.
For a brief moment, we are the special thing that promises change, the answer to their gnawing emptiness. You see, the mask is not all contrived. It’s not entirely a work of artifice. For a short while, the disordered are as in thrall to us, as we are to them. But their initial adoration of us, their initial ecstatic hope for us can last only briefly, because we cannot give them what they need: a capacity for empathy.
Their essential problem is on the inside. Only their own empathy could relieve them. Only their own empathy could enable them to connect- but they don’t have it, and never will. It’s too late for them; the age for developing empathy has come and gone. Shiny new thing, answer to my emptiness, disappointment…shiny new thing, answer to my emptiness, disappointment…shiny new thing, answer to my emptiness, disappointment. It’s heartbreaking. The disordered do not get off scot-free. Neither do we. In this exchange of energy, this temporary mutual thrall, this momentary leaving of the selves, there are no winners.
Our fundamental task in life is to develop a healthy relationship with our selves, a solid sense of self. It’s not always easy. Some of us succeed; some of us do not.
But there’s another piece of recovery that’s often overlooked. You have to be willing to get in the driver’s seat again. And even though it’s scary and uncomfortable and feels foreign now, because you’ve been so dutifully trained to ignore your self in favor of someone else’s self, you have to become self-driven again.
And again, you must choose truth over illusion. No one can develop a healthy sense of self for you. No one can tell you who to be and how to be, and have it lead you anywhere good. If you martyr yourself for someone else’s self-esteem because you are burning and yearning to be special, you will suffer. If you attempt to live off of another person’s grandiosity because the reflection seems so magical and special, you will suffer.
Remember, accepting our experience with the disordered is largely about finding the courage to face the truth.
By experiencing Jane, I’ve learned something very important about life. It’s this: The bulk of human misery comes from one thing- the need to be special.
T.S. Elliot wrote,
‘Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them…or they do not see it, or they justify it…because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves’.
We all want to think so well of our selves. We want to be viewed as special, and told we’re special, and treated as special, and we behave accordingly. But here’s some truth for you, and it might be a bitter pill to swallow.
You’re not. I’m not.
There are 7 billion+ people on this planet. And hopefully, if humanity doesn’t screw it up, there will be billions and billions more. None of us is special, but life is. Whether you believe in a God or you believe in evolution or both, it is damn remarkable that we exist. If there’s a God who so intelligently designed the human body and spirit, that’s extraordinary! Or if it’s evolution with all its catastrophic stops and starts that brought us to now, that’s extraordinary! Whatever your philosophy, the existence of life is what’s remarkable.
So, avoid the need to be special. And avoid the need to assign specialness to someone else.
Be you, exactly as you are. Just be you, ordinary you. That’s no small feat. That’s something you can be proud of until your dying day. And when it comes to this being you, this living of your self, always choose truth over illusion. Just be you, in all your ordinariness, in the only special thing going, Life.
The question is: Do you have the courage to be ordinary? Do I?