Introspection & narcissism

In August 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks wrote about the differences, if any, between narcissism and introspection. His opinion column explored whether self-questioning and rumination might lead to self-centeredness rather than self-discovery; he begins the column with the concept of the personal journal or diary and whether that practice has value or not. (Certainly there are other methods of introspection, but for a literate society it is writing that first comes to mind).

Citing research from several psychological studies, Brooks states:

We are better self-perceivers if we can create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves — rather than trying to unpack constituent parts.

Interestingly, this suggestion more or less jibes with the multiple-levels-of-self version of consciousness as theorized by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.

Writing as a means to recover from trauma or to “make sense of the world” seems most effective when the writer puts some reflective distance between experience and feeling (see The Writing Cure), although James Pennebaker’s research argues that even immediate expressive writing can help psyches and bodies to heal. Brooks outlines three ways, different from the microscopic introspection of the narcissistic diary-entry, that self-reflection can develop into something other than self-absorption.

One of them is narrative, which makes perfect sense to me–human beings are story-makers. In fact, all three approaches to introspection Brooks mentions find expression in poetry, storytelling, fiction-writing, creative nonfiction, and in good journalism.

Creating our narratives from a reflective “step away” from intense analysis helps human beings to navigate the inner and the outer worlds.

I’m seeing this approach in action with my college freshmen this semester. More on that in a later post.

3 comments on “Introspection & narcissism

  1. KM Huber says:

    Writing has always provided me “distance” from whatever is happening in my life, much like Joan Didion’s “I write to find out what I am thinking.” As I age, I seem to write less about life situations–if at all for my journal entries are few–my interest seems to lie in larger questions, which sometimes become drafts. Frankly, I suspect that is just an aspect of growing older. From time to time, I will laugh at the obvious narcissism in a piece of writing but then just getting it down on paper provided distance. Thanks, Ann!


    • Perhaps we write about life situations, and our wrestling with them, when we are younger because we have not had experience yet in how to make our way through the world of human relationships.
      As we get older, we may not need to examine every personal detail so minutely. As you know, I work with young people–and they often seem terribly narcissistic to me. Then I remind myself that they have much less experience under their belts, and they are still discovering their place in the world…and how small and humble that place actually is.
      It takes awhile!


  2. […] One method of defining who that self is, what selfhood entails, is through dissent. The two-year-old who shouts “No!” establishes the foundation for the later process of expressing selfhood through making oneself distinct from others–sometimes through disagreement. As I guide my latest freshman class through the understanding of argument as reasoned discourse in an academic environment, one of my purposes is to encourage them to feel free to disagree as long as they can support their reasons for doing so. To accomplish that task, sometimes they have to learn how to “step back” from themselves a bit (see my last post). […]


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