Posts Tagged ‘self’

Those of you who are not on Facebook can ignore this post and luxuriate in your non-dysfunctional psychological maturity and in your general being-at-ease-with-yourself-and-your-neighbour-and-your-world-ness.

For the rest of us, the hard question is: how often do we fiddle around on our Facebook page, not through an uncomplicated desire to share and communicate, but because we are subconsciously desperate to put ourselves at the centre of everyone else’s attention, to receive some kind of social networking version of approval, to be liked, and if not at least to be noticed?

Put more simply: is Facebook making us more narcissistic? Or – because we don’t know what is the cause and what is the effect – is our increasing narcissism finding a ready-made outlet in Facebook and other forms of social media?

Narcissus falling in love with his own image. Detail from a painting by John Waterhouse.

Damien Pearse writes about some recent research on the links between narcissism and social networking.

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.

People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.

The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.

The latest study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found that narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site’s public walls and changed their profile pictures more often.

Researchers concentrated on the two socially disruptive forms of narcissism: ‘grandiose exhibitionism’ (self-absorption, vanity, superiority, exhibitionistic tendencies, a need to be constantly at the centre of attention), and ‘entitlement/exploitativeness’ (which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”).

Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, said young people in Britain were becoming increasingly narcissistic and Facebook provided a platform for the disorder.

“The way that children are being educated is focussing more and more on the importance of self esteem – on how you are seen in the eyes of others. This method of teaching has been imported from the US and is ‘all about me’.

“Facebook provides a platform for people to self-promote by changing profile pictures and showing how many hundreds of friends you have. I know of some who have more than 1,000.”

Dr Viv Vignoles, senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, said there was “clear evidence” from studies in America that college students were becoming increasingly narcissistic.

But he added: “Whether the same is true of non-college students or of young people in other countries, such as the UK, remains an open question, as far as I know.

“Without understanding the causes underlying the historical change in US college students, we do not know whether these causes are factors that are relatively specific to American culture, such as the political focus on increasing self-esteem in the late 80s and early 90s or whether they are factors that are more general, for example new technologies such as mobile phones and Facebook.”

What is cause and what is effect?

Vignoles said the correlational nature of the latest study meant it was difficult to be certain whether individual differences in narcissism led to certain patterns of Facebook behaviour, whether patterns of Facebook behaviour led to individual differences in narcissism, or a bit of both.

But don’t worry – it’s not all negative. This is just one study, and the researchers are not denying that there are real benefits of social networking.

Christopher Carpenter, who ran the study, said: “In general, the ‘dark side’ of Facebook requires more research in order to better understand Facebook’s socially beneficial and harmful aspects in order to enhance the former and curtail the latter.

“If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.”

I suppose the most narcissistic response to this article would be to terminate your Facebook account in a blaze of online soul-searching and self-publicity, a final fire-storm of frantic pre-termination reflections, posts, de-tagging and emotional farewells. But that leaves you with a problem: what will you do to feed the narcissism tomorrow?

(And do you notice how silent I am on the links between Facebook narcissism and blogging narcissism! Perhaps that needs another post…)


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I finally saw The Artist at the weekend. It’s great fun – I came out smiling. But I wouldn’t say it’s a great film. The two central characters are just not interesting enough to carry the film. I’m not sure if this is intentional. Maybe they are symbols of all the silent-movie characters who had to emote and over-act and gesticulate, but couldn’t reveal any emotional depth. I think it’s probably just a weakness in the screenplay: the lead male, especially, was basically a spoilt teenager; and the resolution [minor plot spoiler coming up…] was just him getting his toys back. I’m not complaining, just reflecting!

But the psychological experience of watching a silent film for the first time in years was interesting. I was more detached as an observer. I was more aware of my own experience of watching the film, as if there was a kind of veil between me and the situation on the screen in front of me. I was less caught up in the imaginary reality of the story, but enjoying it just as much.

It made me realise that in a normal cinema experience, it’s as if I am inside the world being portrayed in the film – lost in it. But in this silent experience, it was as if the film was in my head, and I was conscious of myself watching it, and of the film becoming a part of me – but not taking over. Put it another way, I didn’t lose my self-consciousness; or my ‘consciousness-of-self’ as the French put it (because they don’t have the reflexive use of ‘self’). Interesting.

What did you think of the film?

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Do you cry in public? Do you cry in front of The X Factor or Downton Abbey when the emotion gets just a bit too overwhelming?

Remember that Hilary Clinton’s fight-back in the 2008 Primaries came, not when she started fighting, but when she started crying about how difficult things were in a downtown diner. And three of the Republican candidates choked up in front of millions of viewers at a recent debate in Iowa:

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former pizza executive Herman Cain both choked up and fought back tears. Santorum got misty-eyed when he talked about the struggles facing his young daughter Isabella, who was born with the genetic disorder Trisomy 18, which results in main-organ malfunctions. Cain, on the other hand, choked up about being diagnosed with cancer. Forum moderator Frank Luntz said: “I feel like Dr. Phil.”

William Leith explains how the return of public emotion is a return to the social norm, and the stiff upper lip is just a recent blip.

Interestingly, we haven’t always felt the need to stay in control. The   academic historian Thomas Dixon, who has studied the history of crying,   tells me that the 18th and 19th centuries were very “tear-soaked” – crying   in public, particularly at the theatre, and particularly in the cheap seats,   was no big deal. Emoting was linked to popular culture – and also to   religion. There used to be lots of weeping when people found God, and when   they repented their sins. Then came the era of the “stiff upper lip”, an age   of stoicism engendered by Empire, the Victorian public schools, and muscular Christianity.

The fashion for keeping your emotions bottled up lasted about 100 years.   “Since the Seventies,” says Dixon, “we’ve been returning to something like   normality.” In other words, normality is about losing control.

I asked Adam Curtis why television is so busy creating these tear-jerking   moments. There are various reasons, he said. One is that we are hungry for   authenticity; in a highly mechanised world, in which we are often confronted   with things that are fake, or are copies of other things, we seek the   genuine. And the emotion that causes you to cry seems to come from far   inside yourself. When you cry, it feels very personal. It feels as if the   person crying is the real you.

“In this age,” Curtis says, “individual feeling is the most important thing   for us. What we neglect to think is that these feelings are part of a wider   social system. Your feelings are as much from outside you as inside you.” In   other words, if a skilled television producer knows how to short-circuit our   brains, if he can locate the neural back alley that leads directly to our   amygdala, he can make us lose control for a moment. Is that right? “The   great myth of our time is that what we feel comes totally from within us,”   Curtis says. “It’s shaped by outside forces.”

So what were these outside forces? In the second half of the last century, we   were stepping out of the shadow of totalitarianism, and wanted to celebrate   the self. At the cutting edge, there were talk-ins and hug-ins and love-ins.   After this, the culture at large began to celebrate open displays of   emotion. Footballers hugged and kissed each other when they scored. The   air-punch began its journey towards universal acceptability.

One by one, the old citadels of restraint toppled and fell. We began to see   cricketers hugging each other, politicians punching the air when they won,   and crying on television when they were skewered by a personal question.   Gazza cried. Maradona cried. Margaret Thatcher cried. The Australian prime   minister Bob Hawke cried. Peter Mandelson cried. Bill Clinton raised a   finger to the corner of his eye, several times. Diana cried. Diana died.   Blair, making the announcement outside the church in Sedgefield, seemed to   be holding back tears. There was a catch in his voice. Anything less would   have seemed inappropriate.

Then came the public outpouring. More recently, millions of Apple fans mourned   the passing of Steve Jobs with similarly religious fervour. Candle-lit   vigils were held outside Apple stores; wreaths and half-eaten apples were   placed, and iPhones laid on the ground like virtual eternal flames.

Displaying our emotions, just like hiding them, seems to be contagious. Right   now, we’re all going through a weepy phase. And who knows — in another few   decades’ time, we might be back to the stiff upper lip.

Fashions move fast these days. One question remains. Is it healthier to hide   our emotions, or to display them? Decades of research have come down on the   side of display. But the tide may be turning. A survey conducted on   Americans about the trauma of 9/11 has tentatively suggested that keeping   your feelings bottled up might not be so bad. At least, those participants   who chose not to discuss their feelings right after the attacks   seemed to fare better, mentally and physically, over the next two years,   than those who had responded openly about how 9/11 had affected them. The jury is out.

At seminary it was suggested that there was a place for ‘appropriate self-disclosure’ in your ministry as a priest. I have found that phrase very helpful over the years. As priests and public figures, our personalities and feelings are not meant to be completely hidden; but nor are they meant to get in the way of our ministry, or in the way of others meeting Christ. The word ‘appropriate’ is so important. We are human – but part of being human is knowing what to share with others and when to do that.

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Charles Guignon has written a lovely book called On Being Authentic. He draws on a number of philosophers and historians, and on examples from contemporary culture, to tell the story of where our modern notions of ‘being authentic’ and ‘being true to oneself’ really come from.

Broadly speaking, according to Guignon, we have seen three types of ‘self’ in the West. In pre-modern times, in the classical and medieval worlds, we had ‘the extended self’. Here, what makes me ‘me’ is that I belong to something bigger than me, something that comes before me, and extends beyond me. I don’t choose or define this larger whole – it defines me. As Guignon writes:

My identity is tied into the wider context of the world, with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come. Such an experience of the self carries with it a strong sense of belongingness, a feeling that one is part of a larger whole [p18].

It reflects the interwovenness of all reality. I am part of an overarching whole, a cosmic scheme. The meaning of my life is very clear, and it is not at all up to me. There is lots of identity and belonging; but very little freedom.

In modern times, over the last four or five centuries, the idea of individuality and subjectivity has become more prominent. I am a subject with my own experiences, feelings, desires and opinions. I relate to the outside world of course, but that relationship is partly determined by my own decisions about how to construe that relationship.

The key term here is ‘autonomy’, so that the modern self is not so much ‘extended’ as ‘nuclear’ or ‘punctiliar’ – meaning I am the centre, the nucleus, of my own world, and not just the periphery of a socially constructed world. I still have an identity, but it’s one that I have helped to create through my personal choices.

In a post-modern culture, according to Guignon’s summary, the very notion of the stable self or subject has been called into question. Human identity is fluid and contextual. We now have different selves and limited powers of choice. There is no stable centre to the self but multiple centres with different perspectives. We have different masks, different roles, different potentialities. Some we are responsible for and in control of, some not. We absorb the values and visions of others without acknowledging the process.

The nuclear or punctiliar self of modernity gives rise to the fragmented or decentred self of post-modernity.  There is at once a radical freedom, even to go beyond who you are and recreate yourself; and a radical impotence, because you never have the secure foundation of a self from which to move or make a decision.

This is all very familiar to philosophers, but Guignon is a good teacher, and he writes with great insight and wit. And what I find so interesting about today’s Western culture, at least in Britain, is that it is one huge pile up of conflicting notions of the self. It’s not actually post-modern. It’s pre-modern and modern and post-modern all at the same time (and maybe some people would say that this a very definition of post-modernism!). We are longing to belong, and to be true to our inner selves, and to set off in radically new directions – all at the same time. No wonder we are confused!

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Very rarely does an advert on a billboard make me stop and think. This one did.

In case you can’t see the image well, the poster reads:

You are not stuck in traffic.

You are traffic.

Well, I was driving along the A41 at 50 mph, so I didn’t stop. But the mental processes were interrupted for a moment, and I found myself thinking about all the times that I distance myself from the people or events around me, treating them as ‘other’, when they are really me, and I am them.

Traffic jam in Bangkok


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