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.

Posted in Divorce, Loneliness, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

“The Shoudda’s,” “Awfulizing,” and Distorted Perspective

Lonely trails can lead to beautiful places.  I've photoshopped this segment of a photo I took on a hike some years ago on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

Lonely trails can lead to beautiful places. I’ve photoshopped this segment of a photo I took on a hike some years ago on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

In dealing with my own experience of loneliness, I’ve been conducting an ongoing effort to nurture new friendships and create a bit of community for myself since I moved to Birmingham on the heels of my divorce. So, instead of slinking off to lunch by myself the other day, I decided to walk through the Department of Pastoral Care here at UAB Hospital looking for someone to go to lunch with me. The first guy I asked had already eaten. The second guy had an appointment. A third was out on a call and all I met was an empty office. No one else was around, so I went slinking off to lunch by myself. With shoulders sagging, feeling profoundly sorry for myself, I found myself thinking, “See there! All those folks have a solid set of friends and acquaintances. They have their circles already established and there’s no way I can create that here in this town. Dang, I just don’t belong.”

Fortunately, I was also thinking about writing this blog post, so I remembered one of the points I was going to make. Loneliness distorts perspective and a distorted perspective makes all kinds of illogical connections between unrelated, simultaneous events. Calm, unemotional logic reveals the fact that my chaplain colleagues had previous appointments because they’re busy chaplains, NOT that I don’t belong. The emotional energy of loneliness, creeping up on me in an unguarded moment, however, fused lines of reasoning. I actually rendered a self-deprecating assessment based on no evidence.

I admit it’s not easy. Loneliness carries with it an oppressive emotional cloud, which is why I’ve used the metaphor of a “beast” to describe it. Nevertheless, I’ve found that it actually lessens that emotional energy if I can just engage a tiny bit of my reason and discipline my thoughts a bit. Here are a few things that have helped me tame this loneliness beast, just bit.

First, avoid “awfulizing.” In monitoring my thought process, I put a red flag beside any thought that uses terms like “never” or “always” or “no one” or “everybody,” etc. “My God, it’ll be like this for the rest of my life.” Or, “This’ll never end.” Or, “No one loves me.” When I examine these statements, I find that none of them, particularly that last one, is inevitably true, though falling into a “poor-me” attitude can become rather tedious socially. Saying something like, “the rest of my life,” would require an ability to foresee the future which no human possesses. And the thought I had about not belonging is really dumb. I was hired for this job on the merits of my skills, training, and experience – a profound affirmation of my belonging. Such “awfulizing” statements need to be seen for what they actually are: verbal expressions of negative emotional energy which distort perspective on reality. The very next day, four of us chaplains went to lunch together.

Second, beware “shouldda.” When I hear myself say any sentence that begins with the expression, “I should’ve,” I wag a finger at myself. For instance, since arriving in Birmingham I’ve found myself thinking a few times, “I should’ve taken more time to consider my options” before moving out of town. When I get into that game, there’s really no winning, because the phrase “I should’ve” is an unverifiable proposition. I can only assess the results of the life I’ve actually lived, not an imagined alternative. When I banish “I should’ve” from my thoughts, settle down and reflect on it, consult the journal entries I made while weighing my options at the time, I remember how much sense the decision made when I made it and how the prospects of working at UAB excited me. When I quit playing the “shouldda game,” confidence grows, and I feel more like a winner. I even gain the ability to laugh at myself. You see, the truth is if I’d decided not to take advantage of the opportunity to move to Birmingham, I guarantee you I would’ve been saying as I sat around in my lonely apartment in Richmond, “I should’ve taken that opportunity to move to Birmingham.” Loneliness tends to accuse the self of being less than it is and does that in one way by distorting memory. The emotional energy of loneliness feeds on self-recrimination and can only survive in its destructive work by obscuring contrary evidence and positing no-win scenarios.

Third, be intentionally reflective. To switch metaphors, loneliness can fog your thinking, and when you’re in the middle of a fog, you need to slow down. I have noticed that I tend to look for ways to run from my loneliness. I’ve discovered that it’s better to resist that impulse and make some space for reflection. I’ll read some meditative or devotional literature which helps me pay attention to myself. And I make a regular practice of journaling. When I respond that way, I discover resilience growing. In fact, I highly recommend the discipline of journaling. As I wrote in my book The Species with a Call: How We Find Purpose for Our Lives through the Power of What We Love, “Something transcendent happens in journaling. As I record my thoughts, I have to use language to express them. The process of using language forces me to organize my thoughts. In the process of organizing my thoughts, I come to understand better the feelings that arise from my thoughts. As I’ve written about my circumstances and then reread what I’ve written, I’m able to identify the inadequacies in my thinking. Inevitably, I’m able to generate alternatives and remember other factors in my life which depression often obscures. That writing process frequently yields new hopefulness.”

So, don’t go running from your loneliness. It really is an opportunity to grow deeper.  And when you do emerge from the worst of your loneliness, you’ll have new depths to share with all your new friends – and your old ones.

Posted in Divorce, Loneliness, Uncategorized | 8 Comments