A while back, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert and Brene Brown in conversation (online obviously, from the warmth of my kitchen, through my laptop). Elizabeth Gilbert said something that really jumped out at me.
She talked about the narcissism of depression.
I rarely think of depression as narcissistic.
Elizabeth Gilbert went on to say depression is narcissistic because sufferers think they are special. (Stay with me)
They think they are so special that they do not need compassion. So special that they do not need to offer themselves self-care. So special that they do not need looking after.
One of the reasons I got into the bother I ended up in, was because I had not been taught to listen to myself, to what I needed, to what I craved. I didn’t know that offering myself empathy and kindness was important.
I didn’t know it was a thing.
I knew about others. I knew about being compassionate towards people I met. To friends and neighbours and strangers. But I didn’t think I needed, no, I didn’t think I deserved, the same affection and warmth extended by me, towards me.
And this is a kind of arrogance, a kind of narcissism.
To think I was too strong or capable to require self-compassion. To think I was too robust to need tenderness, or gentleness, or grace. To think I was too capable to need kindness.
The expectation I had of myself, that I had to be okay, about everything, all the time, was misplaced. And this misapprehension fooled me into thinking I had to be superhuman. I thought self-reliance was a basic requirement, that everyone else managed it and I was letting myself (and everyone else) down by allowing or acknowledging any weakness, by needing any help.
And of course, once you are diagnosed and floundering in wave after wave of uncertainty, and your ability to deal with every-day life comes crashing down, you don’t know how to be kind yourself, or what you need – what your brain and body are crying out for.
We are taught lots of different skills as we grow and mature, but how to unpick what you think and feel is rarely one of them. We haven’t learnt to listen to ourselves, how to respond to our inner voice. We don’t know the language.
And because we don’t understand, we have silenced our interior life. We have shut it away and got on with life in the best way we know how.
(Or at least, I had).
We are taught positivity, and shown that a happy face is the one the world wants to see. We are taught to hunker down, to persevere, to keep going regardless. We are taught to avoid anything that looks like self-pity, or neediness, to (as far as possible) be independent, not to need anyone else.
We need, as John O’ Donohue brilliantly puts it, ‘a pedagogy of the interior’.
We need to take the time it takes to get to know ourselves properly. What Madeleine L’Engle calls our ontological selves, our very ‘being’, our isness: the essential truth of who we are.
I have learnt.
I am learning.
I think it is a process that will continue to unfold for my whole life.
I have listened.
I am listening.
Not to end up stuck atrophying through indecision or introspection.
But to be alert, to be aware, of who I am.
Who I was created to be.
And the only way to do that is to be kind to myself. To recognise that this may take some time. To remember it is those who I know love me that I am most likely to listen to, therefore I must learn to love myself.
To take it slow. To sit down and have a cup of tea. To seek things that I like. To spend time doing things that I enjoy, with people who make me feel good. To treat myself as I would treat my best friend. To act with love for myself and generosity, forgiving and not continually berating myself.
To quieten, to free myself of the endless activity, and to listen.
*Cartoon by Michael Leunig, taken from https://www.newphilosopher.com/articles/the-cartoon-philosopher-13-questions-with-michael-leunig/