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You're Not a Failure, You're a Narcissist

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Recently, a high school teacher surprised a group of high school graduates with his now famous “you’re not special” speech. Watch it here:

[Or read it here, if you're somewhere that you can't watch video.]

If you’re jaded and hateful (like me), you probably took some pleasure at him calling out the Me First generation for their entitlement and self-absorption. If you looked a bit more closely, though, you noted that he specifically points out that it is YOU who is not special, as opposed to WE. This allows for the millions of people who comprise his audience to step back and call bullshit for being unfairly cherry picked from an entire planet of narcissists (which is fair, as it’s remarkably easy to point your finger outward while not including yourself in the group). But if you looked even deeper, you recognized that this wasn’t just an opportunity to put the self-indulgent in their place. It was also a call to the self-denigrating to rise up and take a seat with the rest of the world.

Over the years, I’ve seen a fair amount of students and professionals in my practice who suffered from Imposter Syndrome. Although not a formal diagnostic category, this an issue usually associated with relatively or even highly successful people. They tend to do well at their schooling or jobs but actually have a fragile sense of self-esteem. This fragility isn’t readily noted, however, because of their overall competence. But, should something go poorly, such as a weak test score or complaint from a superior, they view themselves as not up to snuff with their peers (i.e., an imposter), and a global sense of inferiority is perceived. Challenging this mindset is often met with resistance, even in the face of data that supports their abilities.

Many of these individuals are actually quite clever at creating their own circuitous logic as to how their achievements and successes can be written off as luck or due to the incompetence of others.* But here is the problem: when you single yourself out from your peers as a dysfunctional mess, when you strike down the people who admitted you/hired you as fools and idiots, when you selectively abstract events to support your depressive conclusion and ignore facts to the contrary, you’re just as guilty as the self-entitled masses who do nothing and expect praise and accolades. You’re being a Reverse Narcissist, believing incredible (albeit negative) things about yourself and those around you.

The high school teacher is correct: you are not special. Probably never have been, likely never will be. But that is the case in both directions. It means you are not a loser and are worthy of a spot at the table. And unless you can show real, hard data over a variety of platforms – and I’m talking every paper, class, meeting, exam, brief, job placement, etc. over a consistent and extended period of time – then you owe it to yourself to stop engaging in this notion that you are somehow unworthy of whatever it is you’ve done to this point. Look at the Me Firsts around you who erroneously believe they are special and realize you are actually dancing with the same philosophy.

Heed the teacher’s words and recognize that people are more alike than different. Tolstoy famously wrote in Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This might make the unhappy seem special, that they're all unhappy little snowflakes. But they're not. They're unhappy unique snowflakes in a blizzard of other unhappy, similarly unique snowflakes.

That means you have more in common with your peers – the ones who are so smart and talented and better than you at their jobs or their schooling – than that which is divergent. You’re not an imposter. Imposters are special people. And there are so ridiculously few of those it’s remarkably unlikely that you are one of them. Instead, it’s much more plausible that you’re one of the pack, just like me and the person to your right and left. Embrace it: you might be inadequate, but no more than the rest of us.

* You’d think that such a skill would actually sink in as contradictory to being an imposter, but that’s neither here nor there for our purposes. ^

[Read more from Dr. Rob]


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