Image: Sarah Graf
Self-care is having a moment. There are few magazines that have never published the word, and the term has been hashtagged more than 4 million times on Instagram. While there is nothing wrong with a little self-love, there are problems that can arise if the attitude of “me” gets taken too far. Echo spoke with Dr. Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist and author of Prescriptions without Pills and The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage to learn more about the intersection of self-care and self-obsession.
You said via email that your view of narcissism is different from those of your colleagues — what is your definition of narcissism?
It’s much more common than you may think. I see narcissism at the core as a listening disorder. Think about little kids — to what extent do you expect them to take into account what’s going on with you when they want something? They don’t. It doesn’t matter what is going on, they want what they want when they want it. That’s narcissism. Another example is, because of the listening deficit, narcissists get angry when someone expresses a viewpoint that’s different than theirs. That’s a little scary because if you look at our whole country right now, in political discussions, there’s far too much narcissism — I’m right, you’re wrong. That’s why people on both sides of the aisle in Congress are no longer able to have productive, reliable dialogue. And then the goal becomes to put down the other side in order to win rather than to find good solutions for the country.
Do you believe that self-care can turn into self-obsession? Can you see it turning into a toxic mindset?
There was a singing group back in the ‘70s that sang the phrase, “What is it that I am, what is it I’m a part of.” Emotional maturation is the ability to simultaneously be aware of who you are and what you feel and what others feel. Mental health is the ability to love and work. What is love? Love is basically listening, the ability to really tune into another person. So if all the loving energy is going to oneself and the attention is just to oneself, that becomes a narcissistic lifestyle. With the lower rate of marriage and way more people living as singles, people aren’t maturing into being able to have stable partnerships. Partnerships take the skill set of being able to see things from another person’s point of view, and your point of view and then come out with plans of action that are good for both of you.
So it’s just about striking that balance then?
Yes, learning how to take into account both sides. You can call it balance but I think of it more as integrating both your desires and my desires, your views and my views. Now I do think that the hyper focus in high school on getting into college and building a strong resume can make people a little “me” focused. When you get to college, it can be very challenging, and in order to get all the schoolwork done and still have time for activities and some social life and even sleep, people become at risk also for too much me, me, me.
I assume there are even some people who realize they’re sort of narcissistic and they don’t really care, so how is a narcissistic person’s life affected by this attitude?
A lot of studies say happiness and physical health both have higher odds of happening with a stable marriage that accordions in and out so there’s plenty of me and also lots of we. In order to build that you have to get past being a toddler emotionally and be able to not be all about me. If what people want is to get married and have a mutually supportive marriage and have children that grow up learning the language of sharing they would need to get past their narcissistic tendencies. Fortunately, that’s doable. If they really listen to understand and find what makes sense in what others say instead of listening like a litigator, then their life can turn around and they can mature.
What if someone doesn’t aspire to marry or have kids, can other areas of their life be affected by narcissism?
One of the single best predictors of career success is social skills, the ability to listen and integrate other people’s points of views with your own point of view. Social skills aren’t just being charming. It’s about much more, like can you have good dialogue, can you make decisions in a win-win way as opposed to a dominant way? People who have those skills act very well in their work.