On Chewing Mental Cud: Loneliness and Your Narcissism

At first blush, this might not make sense. How in the world does loneliness increase narcissism? If you’re lonely, don’t you long to connect with other people, not be consumed with yourself?  Well, stick with me here as I consider five points:

  • Good Ol’ Narcissus
  • The Downward Spiral of Inner Gazing
  • Chewing the Mental Cud
  • Rewriting the Myth of Narcissus
  • Tossing a Pebble in the Pool
Caravaggio's depiction of Narcissus.  He doesn't look all that Greek to me, but it's still a nice rendering, I think.

Caravaggio’s depiction of Narcissus. He doesn’t look all that Greek to me, but it’s still a nice rendering, I think.

Recall the ancient story which gives rise to the term “narcissism.” In the tale of the relatively minor Greek god, Narcissus, immobilization strikes him when he becomes fascinated with his own reflection in a still pool. He eventually falls into the pool and drowns. There are other versions of the tale, but none of them pan out well for Narcissus. So, when I say that loneliness increases narcissism, I’m not talking about becoming more selfish, or developing a desire to go it alone. Here’s what I’ve noticed.

The Downward Spiral of Inner Gazing. Loneliness can get very painful. When the pain gets intense, all I can think about is the pain I’m feeling. In another version of distorting perspective, when I’m feeling that pain, and all I’m thinking about is my pain, it becomes a sort of negative feedback loop. I feel the loneliness, then the subsequent grief. Then I feel sorry for myself in my grief, which increases the physically felt dark spot in the pit of my stomach, which leads me to think that it’ll be like this forever, that no one likes me, and that everyone’s abandoned me. I start thinking that I’ve made all kinds of mistakes, including the one that led to these circumstances, and why couldn’t I have been smarter, etc., etc., etc. You see how often “me, myself, and I” appear in that downward spiral of inward gazing?

It’s like a window stuck shut. The air in the room of Myself can get real stale.

I happened on these Big Horn sheep while hiking in Colorado a couple of years ago.  I didn't know that they qualify as "ruminants."  They're my cousins in more ways than I knew!

I happened on these Big Horn sheep while hiking in Colorado a couple of years ago. I didn’t know that they qualify as “ruminants.” They’re my cousins in more ways than I knew!

Chewing the Mental Cud: Or look at it this way. You know that when you’re lonely, you can spend a lot of time ruminating, stuck in your own thought processes. The word rumination comes from the same word often used to describe cattle. Cows, along with goats, yak, sheep, and deer, are “ruminants.” All these animals have multiple part digestive systems. When they swallow whatever they graze, after it’s initially chewed, it undergoes biochemical processes in one of four or so digestive compartments. Then the slightly altered morsel comes back up into the mouth where the animal chews on it some more, then swallows it again. After they repeat this process a number of times, a slight alteration becomes a radically different alteration and what ends up in the mouth looks nothing like what originally entered. You wouldn’t mind handling grass, but even though the cow, herself, seems to be pretty comfortable with it, you probably don’t want to handle a cow’s cud.

And so it is with our narcissism. Loneliness often applies a multi-part psychological digestive system. We take in a thought, chew on it mentally for a while, and send it into our subconscious where all of our insecurities and faulty self-assessments work on it. Later, we bring the thought up again and think on it some more. After several runs through our closed-system rumination, our thoughts bear little resemblance to the situation we first encountered. We might even grow to think that these ruminations are correct and normative, but to someone who hasn’t been chewing that particular psychological cud, our thought processes appear rather yucky.

Any failure to consider other points of view which would interrupt our ruminations constitutes self-absorption. Like in the ancient story, when all we do is stare at our own reflection, chances increase that we’ll fall into that reflection and drown, so to speak.

"The Metamorphosis of Narcissus" by Salvador Dali.  That's what I'm looking for - a metamorphosis!

“The Metamorphosis of Narcissus” by Salvador Dali. That’s what I’m looking for – a metamorphosis!

Rewrite the Myth of Narcissus: So . . . the answer lies in rewriting the myth of Narcissus. It doesn’t take much, just a little plot twist. In my rewritten myth, handsome Narcissus sits by the pool of still water gazing at his reflection, but a mischievous zephyr passes by and, unnoticed by the preoccupied little godlet, decides to play a quick prank. The zephyr picks up a stone and tosses it into the pool. The splash shoots water into Narcissus’ face, destroys the reflection in the pool, and snaps him out of his self-absorption. Narcissus stands up, looks around, and goes on his way.

Toss a Pebble in the Pool:  When loneliness closes in on you, toss a pebble in the pool. Engage a healthy measure of skepticism toward your own self-assessment and despite how you feel, assume other people would like to have you join them. Quit chewing that psychological cud and spit it out. I tried this, myself.

Over the 25 or so years of my pastoral career, I never had to worry about invitations to join people to celebrate various occasions. Christmas, birthdays, Thanksgiving, Easter, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and that great mother of all party days, Super Bowl Sunday, were always replete with invitations. After moving to Birmingham and beginning my work at UAB, I wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen. So, I had a choice (still have it): I could sit and lament the fact that no one is calling me, become absorbed in feeling sorry for myself, and sink deeper into a negative funk chewing on crappy thoughts. OR – I could toss a pebble in the pool. It felt just a little strange, but I approached some folks from my church after worship and said, “Y’all watching the game tonight?” (It was Super Bowl Sunday.)

“Yes,” one said, “Though we don’t care who wins.”

“Well,” I said, “I really don’t care who wins, either, but I invited myself to come over and watch it with y’all, and I accepted.”

They burst out laughing. “Please come by!”

It felt weird for me to take that approach, and a residue of reticence remained with me.   But after sharing some good food, good wine, laughing over some lame jokes (mostly my groan-worthy puns), making fun of inane football commentary, and learning some history about my friends, we discovered that we’d forged some new connections.

So, facing loneliness sometimes involves tossing a pebble in the pool. More on that next week.

About Drexel Rayford

Drexel has been senior pastor of four churches in Kentucky and Virginia, a psychiatric ward chaplain, denominational bureaucrat, and an erstwhile indie singer/songwriter/story-teller and seeker of authentic human vocation. Currently, Drexel is working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center in the capacity of The Support Team Network manager, a hospital-based community partnership aimed at nurturing healing communities for discharged patients. He loves kayaking, road cycling, hiking, and all kinds of photography, but he loves his wife Vicki and his daughter Melissa more. He got a Ph.D. in the Psychology of Religion mainly because he had a lot of self-examination to do.
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4 Responses to On Chewing Mental Cud: Loneliness and Your Narcissism

  1. Greg Wissinger says:

    Drexel, I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts. Incredibly insightful. I’m sorry I missed the October Gathering of Silence retreat but I hope we can connect another time. Keep up the good work!

    • Drexel Rayford says:

      Hey Greg! I, too, missed the October Gathering, which grieved me. I plan to be there this year, though. Hopefully, we’ll connect at some point in the not-too-distant future. And thank you for the good words about the blog!

  2. Lynn Treas says:

    I especially like the Narcissus comparison. I was self-absorbed to the point of almost falling into this drowning pool myself. Thinking about you and will be doubly-thinking about you this weekend. Your insight, ETC, will help get you through this ordeal.

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