Friday, 16 January 2009

Signs of a Narcisstic Society - When Spirituality Becomes Overwhelming

I don't read very much, for reasons that I don't feel like reporting here. However, when I do walk around in the large Academic Bookstore renowned for its variety of foreign publications, I can't help but notice that most foreign books are American. I won't go into the issue of fiction, because all I know is that the situation is a bit different. If I have time and energy when I'm in this bookstore, I check out the self-help and spirituality sections, and see books from America or books that have hit the best seller lists in America and have therefore been translated. Luckily, there is quite a bit of non-fictional Swedish literature imported for the Swedish-speaking population in Finland, and these are usually available in the libraries too. Even though all these American books are proficient enough and sometimes interesting, I can't help wonder what foreign thoughts pass unnoticed by the rest of the world simply because they don't catch on in a way that would help them become translated for us to read?

Most people educated in the human sciences would agree that narcissism is very much a sign of the times. In a child like way, people want to have the things they covet at once. Society is also highly competitive. Actually it all seems paradoxical. On the one hand people are very concerned with their individual selves and devour self-help books, on the other they yearn for more wholesome relationships and really love following fictional as well as real therapy sessions that deal with relationship issues in books and on TV. Of course, what they really want is not so much to become more altruistic than to have the love and attention that they crave. Surely it doesn't take much brains to realize that. On the other hand I admit that most people carry deep scars and that all this is probably part of the healing process. I just hope that we'll start to see signs of deeper compassion within a reasonable amount of time... this state of being, which is most likely intermediary, is painful to be part of. In the midst of everything there are a zillion voices that try and direct you towards the idea of unconditional love. While that's a very beautiful idea, I am not sure people in general are ready to open up to that just yet, in a real and full sense. My guess would be that only a tiny percentage can identify with that high an ideal in a true sense. On the contrary there's the danger that it creates undue pressure on people who are in a particular phase that they need to go through in their own time, at their own pace.

I saw a blog post today on a Chinese expression here. The expression apparently goes: "Do not remove the fly from your friend's forehead with an ax". Pretty nice, huh. That's exactly how I feel when people come onto me very strong with their belief systems and want me to do this or that. I feel that I have to run away from the ax!

The internet makes it oh so much easier to spread a belief system and people don't hesitate to use this medium in order to try and persuade others to follow their path. This is the thing that concerns me. Especially the American society is very marked by religion and alternative forms of spirituality, as well as a highly assertive and competitive way of communicating. I don't think anyone would deny that it's the real paradise for the growth of methods of self-help as well as the spreading of these ideas through books in a language that so many can read.

Take for instance the book on adult children to alcoholic parents (Janet Geringer Woitiz). Turns out, that this book was originally a best seller in the States and therefore translated into Swedish. Now I won't say it isn't an okay book for those who are still very unaware of the patterns inherited from their dysfunctional childhood. I recognized the very self-confident and assertive style as being translated from American even before I knew it was indeed an American book. Of course, self-help books are notably assertive in order to give the impression of real scientific research. I find it worrying, that there were many imperative statements and not that many sentences containing the word "probably". For instance, the impression was that if you received ambiguous messages as a child then you are very likely a proficient liar to date. Oh, rewind a bit - I just noticed on checking this out that there is one tiny paragraph stating that some children go against the pattern of lying that they learned at home. Well, truth to say I didn't feel there was much room in the book for a different point of view or reality. I personally received confusing messages as a child but I find it almost impossible to lie unless I truly have to. One should maybe also keep in mind that I am of a culture where honesty is a virtue by which Finns are reknowned abroad. I admit we could use a little more self-confidence though, but it's coming... If we try and apply all the presumptions about a culture's behaviour onto another, we run into trouble. It is tricky in the case of American culture because the more you are exposed to it, the more you might believe that you can identify with it. It's my own first hand experience that there are subtle differences that can be critical enough. I hasten to add, that I do have first hand knowledge of many of the good things about the USA as well! I do however wonder how Americans feel about the fact (and this I heard as a fact) that virtually no literature is being imported into their country from abroad?

The book in question did have a somewhat simplistic air about it, for instance I would really have thought the author would have raised the question of the perpetual disappointments children with alcoholic parents have to endure and how that marks their entire experience of life and people. It also seemed to make recovery into a piece of cake. For instance, people from a dysfunctional background are often over-conscientious and over-responsible, and therefore burn out very easily. Ok, so you rest a little and get over it, was the solution. Wow, I guess most people can't wait to get back to the rat race! My own experience is that once I burned out and let go of the control and self-discipline, I dived straight into chaos and have not recovered to date. There are a few defining moments like that in my life, and the response has been different each time, but the last one was the most difficult one simply because of my age and history. Now the book denies "normality" as a fact by which confused people can orientate themselves, yet talks about people as if everyone is healthy and normal enough to recover in the expected manner. Deviant people like myself are treated with nonchalance. According to the author, I am not "different" from anyone else, just unique. Well... As it happens I have a condition that can be derived from the dysfunctions in my family, and it greatly affects my ability to perform "like everyone else".

I also read a spiritual view on insomnia and that alone was so depressing that I felt myself sinking into a state of defiance and distress. Apparently, if your deep sleep is disturbed, you cannot make the unconscious spiritual connections that you would otherwise. Mind you, I didn't really understand what was being said so I gather you can interpret it in many ways. Anyway, I got into this highly defensive mode where I felt that all I really care to do is go and hide from the axes. Too many voices, too much peer pressure... Although spirituality is such an integrated part of myself, I was ready to renounce it here and now. At that moment, I really hated my own spirituality, that prevents me from pursuing a more "normal" human life. I considered removing the "spiritual" part in the title of my blog. Someone had also just given me a thousand and one good reasons why I shouldn't covet a companion. It was quite the exposé of what all the famous gurus of today have said. I knew they were probably right but I felt like I had to take one of those axes and chop off a piece of myself in order to become liable for the higher spiritual ranks. "It's too much to ask!" I screamed within. I shrank, felt my heart close and got very anxious. It was like deciding to break up from a romantic relationship. In fact I am also still recovering from the unfortunately long and arduous break up from my previous attempt at a relationship - and yes, the hardest thing to get over is the disappointment. Oh yes, some things would definitely be better chopped off straight away, like amputating a gangreneous leg. I didn't have a clue as what to do next except to stay away from the voices and the axes.

Everyone is trying so hard to sell something or other, be it a new way of reaching spiritual bliss, how to learn a new language in ten days, or how to market your website in the most efficient way. The art of making money and becoming a success is definitely on top of the list of best selling services. When I meet people on the internet, I often wonder what they are going to try to sell me next. I think it's a shame that this "thing" has to be in the way of human interaction. Those who have read my previous blogs know that every once in a while I encounter people who try to convert me to their way of looking at things. These are people who are into the feel good movement and who get very nasty once someone pushes the right buttons so that all the denied aspects of their selves push through the gates. I recently witnessed the absolutely most outrageous and uninhibited outburst of all times on one forum where I had mistakenly opened up just a little. It didn't make much sense but it was clear that I was the target. I am not saying that there wasn't any learning or meaning in this for me, I'm just saying that it's pretty amazing what you sometimes have to take just because someone cannot bear the way you are. I am truly tired of this whole spiritual surgery that attempts to get you on a real guilt-trip. This reminds me that in the book I mentioned earlier it was also absolutely imperative that as a child in a dysfunctional family you must have blamed yourself and thought that everyone would have been better off without you. This makes me laugh. I have absolutely no conception of ever having thought such thoughts as a child. It's like when people are assuming that you must have been so sad when your parents divorced. Hell I wasn't! And I sure am not taken to guilt-tripping either.

In fact I really resent that New Age systems especially seem to want people to take the burden of all their own experiences as if all they have to blame are themselves. My hunch is, that we are dealing with a dichotomy of extremes within society, in which you have self-blame on the one hand and victimhood on the other. I think people are subconsconsciously trying to deal with these issues - on a large scale at that - and are therefore prone to projecting it onto anything that moves. This should be resolved when the intermediary is found. It's really good to look at the reasons why you have been drawn into a situation and what part you're playing in it. But there has got to be some rhyme and reason. Common sense, you know. Remember that one?

Artwork: "Crushed Chevrolet", digital photograph by authour, all rights reserved 2008


  1. I enjoy following your journey.

    I expect nothing and love you the way you are. So there is one person you know ; )

    I am honored to have "found" you.



  2. Thank you Richard, that's very sweet of you! I have to admit though that I don't know why you would take an interest if you have figured it all out already... ?? Love, Vivi-Mari

  3. Well, I am still who I am and I love everybody. I never "changed", just expanded into more.

    We connected and am I honored to be with you now.

    We should not deny aspects of ourselves to justify preexisting notions of spirituality, just BE.

    So; I watch "A Chorus Line" and "Gandhi", it does not matter :)

  4. That's cool :-) see you around then!

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  7. such a nice whole-hearted post from you ma'am.

  8. I enjoyed this article because your thoughts honestly help me sort out some of my own during a rather difficult time in my life. I have also read several self-help books, as well as neglected many others forced upon me by well-meaning people. After all that reading, my feelings are very mixed on the whole "self-help" concept--at least what is generally accepted as "good advice" in American circles.

    The main weakness of many such books is that "self-help" essentially becomes a guru's sermonizing and catchphrases, versus helping a person to look inside themselves and find their inner strength by their own methods. The "self" has been removed from "self-help". I realize that Americans are usually afraid of introspection and soul-searching, so they eagerly choose easy formulae which promise wildly exaggerated results in terms of self-esteem, wealth, popularity, relationships--all of those highly valued life goals in American society. One might also call these selfish urges.

    I've taken "self help" in the context of these American books to be a kind of brainwashing you force upon yourself, in the hope that it will do you some good. That is to assume some distant author knows better about your own needs than you. If you ask me, that's a bit crazy. But, as an American you are of course a very busy person who cannot bother with boring self-reflection and needs a quick fix for everything--narcissistic perhaps? Despite their claims, I don't think life is ever easy--especially finding our own inner courage to find your way in life.

    So I can understand the frustration with such books and with people who force their views upon you. Such people make me feel like I'm their "project", and it feels like a one-sided friendship. They will probably never understand that I find my strength by reflection, so I don't explain myself.

    I took a walk today in the woods. Over the course of 10km, I could eventually get clear of all the noise of the city and daily worries and talk to myself. I think it's something spiritual too, but that's hard to put into words. I guess I feel this is all the "self-help" I will ever need.

  9. Vivi-Mari,

    Thank you for offering your insight and honesty.

    As an American, I can say that there are many great and wonderful things about our country that can only be truly understood by being here. There are equally as many unique and wonderful things about all the other countries I have visited which can only be fully understood by those who live there.

    It is also true that we lead the world in narcissism and self aggrandizement. This will likely lead to our eventual downfall as we have lost touch with our spirituality as a nation leaving it to a zealous minority bent on converting the masses to extreme beliefs of all sorts.

    This is not to say that we are not a nation of good people. I can imagine that watching our news coverage from another county would paint a picture that we are all a bunch of self-centered, hate filled bigots.

    The average person here is too burdened trying to fit in to our over achieving mold which when looked at clearly is a road map to failure. I personally work two jobs and will probably die younger than I should from the stress of it all.

    The majority of Americans, like the majority of human beings, fundamentally want the best for everyone.

    Self-help books do well here because we are constantly bombarded with the message that three is something wrong with us and it has to be someone else's fault. The authors and publishers, and drug companies reap the true rewards of this mindset.

    Don't give up on your spirituality. Each of us is here for a reason, and each of us is just as deserving of love as any other. Love yourself first, you deserve it!

    May your journey be blessed.


  10. I hope my comment above was not taken to be anti-American in any way, where I had concerns broaching the subject at all since it may be misconstrued. Yet, as one who worked in publishing for many years, I would guess a sensitive reader of books finds themselves navigating a sea of hyperbole in the "self-help" genre. I agree with the above visitor that over-achieving is a core problem here, a source of much needless disappointment and unhappiness. Many people don't need therapy as much as a reality check of their attitudes/goals.

    I also see the problems that have hit America have visited other shores too. I know many Europeans who are suffering because of a similar mentality towards over-achievement and consumerism.

    However, my point here was simple understanding with the original author's frustrations. While I largely agree with others here, I feel that saying "everyone has your best interests in mind" is a platitude that ignores something very concrete about our society. I've lost count of the people who think there are better, smarter, more "spiritual", or successful than me and therefore want to force their advice on me, while ignoring who I really am. I have no illusions that these people simply do not care enough to back off for a moment and actually listen. It's hard to care to be heard when you don't like to shout above the noise in a room.

    I only share this hear because I sensed a similar view by the author. Cheers.

  11. It's very late but I really want to address these magnificent comments as soon as possible. First I thought to do each one separately, but here we go. I address you separately but it's really for both of you because of the intercrossing topics:

    Marin_explorer: Reading your reactions was really refreshing and in my view, spot on. Couldn't have said it better myself, lol... Why hide what is obviuosly not working in society on the whole and in some countries in particular? I am not very patriotic myself so I guess to me it's self-evident that we can be critical towards certain things in our environment. I have plenty to say about Finland I guess I have, too, though mostly in the book I'm working on (if I ever get that far...). As a disadvantaged person I've seen and heard so much that gives away all the bs that people feed you either because they think you are a second rate citizen or just because they believe they own authority. I just don't know what to do about it, but I try my best (e.g. the radio talk I've mentioned earlier, in a separate blog). As for self-help, I think that at times it helps if you actually disagree and it activates your brain to see what you really think. To just consume them because it's the easiest way is of course a bit crazy. It's unfortunately true that Americans are quite pushy (just look at a book cover and there's the ph.d or MD as a "must" so that you'll sell better), but the rest of the world is certainly having trouble too. In a way, when you have an interest in all cultures you also get overwhelmed. Doesn't mean one is better than another. It's just a matter of the two sides of a coin and what your own preferences are. I find America especially challenging - maybe for myself personally but surely we all know what impact it has on the whole rest of the world. So therefore it's on my mind a lot. I didn't perceive of your comments as anti-anything, just realistic and perceptive. Good for you!! I REALLY enjoy hearing your points of view, for an insider you're doing a damn good job! You could write a blog about all that but I do hope you'll continue to comment.

    The Buddhist conservative: I thought your comment was eloquent and intelligent as well. As it happens, I have visited America, it was only the allowed three months (that sucks!) but I was in close contact with the reality of how easily a person can slide down the social ladder and become bankrupt. This person in question is also struggling very hard to regain balance and survive - even just to get new glasses is apparently a big issue. Or was at the time anyway. With national health care here in Finland we are somewhat protected but it doesn't mean we get much anyway. We are not really that spoilt. So in fact, what I like to explore if I can is the many facets of that culture, but I don't want for anyone to think that I hate the place. I enjoyed many things over there, especially the ease with which people talked to strangers in the streets and other places. I really need that as I tend to be too shy and the silence in this society makes me nervous. I do think there are very strong dichotomies at play though, in the US, and that concerns me. Very strong positive tendencies mixed with some sordid forces. I feel that no one has perceived my writing as hateful and for that I'm happy. I also don't think that Americans are in the least hateful,well not the majority anyway. It think at worst a bit ethnocentric which can be a bit hard to deal with for a European who has been to many countries from a young age (most Finns have). I've also noticed that men often think that it's a piece of cake to get a woman over to live with them in the US, lol, nothing could be trickier considering all the rules and regulations. So my own experience has been that I wasn't given enough time in the US to get to know someone that I was thinking to have a relationship with; in fact I was very controlled from above. However in retrospect I can see that it wasn't meant to be. Now I just suffer the consequences of my gullibility (me?! gullibe?!) and some of my frustration may show in some posts.

    In general, there is a tendency in this world to either put all one's faith in a religion in an external way or find a more esoteric path that could be New Age or Buddhist or whatever that's become popular since the 60s. Trouble is, that some of the problems are traded in for new ones. People are still struggling with their egos - well at best they are actually struggling. This is all over the world, but in America the indoctrination that you have to be successful, rich, fulfill all your dreams etc makes people more apt to preaching in a self-confident manner. It's not always informed and the worst part is that a lot of dark aspects of life are being denied. I personally believe in embracing them and trying to stay real. I worry that some Americans get very high on "positive thinking" but when you poke a little the balloon bursts and you've got a mess all over the place - and a scapegoat needs to be found.

    Anyway, I must go to sleep... but thank you once again for a thought provoking and totally respectful discussion!

  12. And yes, I have noticed the immense pressure that is being put on ordinary people to be succesful, fit the norm, have an insurance, plus all the material things... This is not a good trend at all and I wonder about all the illness that this is causing in all Western (and soon Asian) societies.

  13. Thank you Rendell for you comment as well! Much appreciated!

  14. Vivi-Mari,
    Thank you for your kind, encouraging words. I enjoy chatting with people who have a similar take on things. And good idea--I could explore these ideas further in my own blog. :-)

  15. It is wonderful to participate in discussions such as these. I did not take offense to anything that was written although I may have sounded a bit defensive. I have just pondered at times what someone from another country would think from seeing our own media bash us so badly at times.

    Personally I believe that most so called self help books are a monument to the ego of the author who has achieved some degree of academic or professional achievement and want to show the world that they have figured out the secret to happiness. I prefer reading inspirational authors who don't profess to have unlocked the mystery of life.

    Life is never perfect and it is always perfect. We are always exactly where we are. My Buddhist journey is one of acceptance rather than an identification with a belief system. I am too cynical to think we can achieve a new age through wishing for it.

    I am grateful to have crossed paths with all of you.

  16. I really enjoy talking to all of you guys who have showed up here on this page! I'm so happy to get intelligent comments and probably also that I sense that we feel similarly about these things. It would be great to go further and think what could one actually do, but that might just be too overwhelming at this point in time... I guess we just have to keep sharing while we try and find our own way of working things out. I think that when I posted this blog I got something off my chest, and that the comments also helped me release a lot of the pressure I've felt from all the spiritual people who profess only to positive thinking. I admit that I'm a bit cynical too (according to my American ex-friend, that's a typical European trait...), but I don't want to become too bitter and negative. I find that the more of all the New Age stuff such as The Secret and The Law of Attraction that is being pushed onto me online, the more defensive and negative I get. When it comes to self-help books, at least you can discard them (I really haven't read very many in my life) but when you talk to people online things come up that you can't always avoid. My path has always also been more Buddhist than anything, and a path of acceptance rather than pushing. I guess for me personally it's time for re-evaluation of some sort. The woman who yelled at me on one spiritual site apologized, but not to me! She sought absolution from the administrator. That really ticked me off bad time, but having decided to stay away from those sites has actually made me feel more at ease. This kind of on/off is typical of my journey. Let's see where it gets me. I don't know what to do about my spiritual side as yet, since removing it proved pretty difficult... :-/. At any rate I think it's better not to get sucked into all the 2012 talk which tends to put a lot of pressure on people and make many lull themselves into some false self-image as being more evolved than they really are (or at least at a different point on THEIR path). Hope to see you all again and much love to you all! Vivi-Mari

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  18. You got a very rich knowledge about this Ms. Vivi-Mari. I'm glad I found your blog for my erudition from you.

  19. - A foto ilustra mas as palavras dão um fiferente contorno ao assunto, refletir é o que nos permite seu post, parabéns e obrigado pel aoportunidade.
    Lembranças do Brasil

  20. I was browsing the blogosphere in search of intelligent life and I stopped to say hello!
    I’m also looking to find some friends.

    Love, peace and prosperity!

  21. Thank you Raphnix, Eduardo and Buddha!
    Raphnix: Thanks, that's kind of you!
    Eduardo: Unfortunately I am not able to dechiffer the portuguese! I think you're saying something about the image.
    Buddha: thanks; and me too!