"I Ego You"
Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Content warning: Physical, Emotional, and Psychological Violence*
You can listen to the audio recording of this on YouTube or Soundcloud.
I was meandering on YouTube as one tends to do, and stumbled across an older episode of Iyanla: Fix My Life hosted by Black African American lawyer and New Thought spiritual leader Iyanla Vanzant. In this particular segment, Ms. Vanzant was counseling a mother-daughter duo.
The younger lady appeared distraught, as most participants on the show tend to do. The daughter was hurt. She expressed grief and resentment toward her mother who she claimed had slapped her on numerous occasions as a child, something her other siblings were never subjected to. As she lamented over her personal history, Iyanla sat in as a mediator, offering support and advice for both parties.
The young woman’s story was familiar. But the differences in kind were jarring. What I perceived to be an excessive amount of pain being expressed. What a waste of resources. All of this commotion over a slap? Is she doing this for attention, and if so, how entitled and spoiled? Hadn’t we all grown up in physically abusive households? Haven’t we all experienced much worse? What made her so special? I was completely beside myself.
If she had been physically beaten with stainless-steel appliances, wooden utensils, leather belts, raggedy coat hangers, or any other inanimate objects in reach during a beating, then she could lay claim to real betrayal. These were the stories of physical abuse I was used to.
I like so many, had grown up knowing the difference between a spanking and a beating; discipline and punishment. It was clear she had not. I was confused by how as an adult, she had yet to overcome childhood slapping. How weak I remembered thinking.
Simply put, I was affected and offensive. My visceral reaction startled me. I could not contain whatever was rushing to me. It was as if her anger and rage had lunged at me through the laptop. Bitterness wrapped tightly with envy, which flooded the room.
So many of us have been told to get over our abuse, yet there she was, this daughter of a slapping mother, getting attention so freely given. And with the added opportunity to make sense of her Black femme body as a victim, and over a slap!
I could not imagine.
The opportunity to sit down and discuss such matters with a trained professional came off as privileged. My only framework was one of being met with silence and dismissal. Disdain and contempt were all I knew and therefore, all I had to offer her.
In retrospect, my reaction was insensitive and immature; violent and even ableist and sanist. Rather than interrogating my own feelings, I attacked her character. I used my own traumatic experiences an as excuse to justify my lack of empathy. My internal wounds were bubbling over, so I did to her what I had learned to do to myself, and what others had done to me: dismiss and negate, ridicule, and name-calling. I took the segment personally and made it about me when in actuality, it had nothing to do with me at all. An example of when I can not show up for others because I simply do not know-how. Or if I do, unconsciously or subconsciously still struggle to. This was not the first time. Let me share a story, as storytellers tend to do.
I am highly sensitive and live with sciatica, depression and anxiety. In 2013 my body began to call my attention like never before. It did this through painful feeling-sensations. Everything got on my nerves (pun intended).
My nervous system was overactive, a state of entropy that felt unbearable. I was hyper-sensitive to everything, including the subtlest energetic shifts in my environment. Negative emotions stuck to and accumulated on and near me, and often. An intensity I had no language for, let alone able to make sense of. I felt traumas bending and reaching toward me from across other times, mainly the past, but sometimes from the future.
My physical body began to hurt. The internal division ran vertical, the separation from head to toe. All the pain ran down my left side. The attack was as Beyoncé sings, “to the left, to the left.”
I had reoccurring pain in my left knee due to a partial tear to my ACL during my more limber days of varsity and club rugby. My pelvis would clench tight and often. With it came burning in my shoulders and low back, what felt like the bluest part of a candle. Pain cascaded down my leg like a waterfall. The tension continued into my left ankle and foot, where my first tattoo reads priceless. It did not stop there. It ventured further down toward my toes as if approaching its finale. A confusing climax that left my pinkie toe feeling sticky. Making my already flat-footed feet feel webbed like a duck.
I was coming undone at a time when social movements were rising. As women and girls, and Black and Brown lives protested, so too did my left side. Collective defiance echoed loudly in my body; the contagion, palpable.
In some spiritual communities, it is said that the left side of the body is feminine, and the right, masculine. This is similar to the Taoist concept of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) in Eastern traditions. How this naturalized gendering of energy came to be is still unclear to me. Regardless, I got sucked into the seductive trappings and cultural appropriation that laces New-Age spirituality. Risking Cartesian dualism, I decided to explore the idea of my body housing both feminine and masculine energies. If all my psycho-somatic symptoms were located on the left side, what did it mean to have pain expressed only through the feminine? And the unresponsive and uninvolved right side, what did this tell me about the masculine within me. I was a feminist being called to contend with everyday sexism and misogyny absorbed within. I was caught up in identifying how my body, this house, my home, had compartmentalized pain in similar ways that ran parallel to the world. (See also, Eve Ensler's Ted Talk on this topic).
How had I internalized a patriarchal imprint as toxic and problematic as patriarchy itself. Arrogant and self-absorbed; mean-spirited and bullyish at times, my multiplicities meant that I was messy. How I was living was sometimes awful. I was unpleasant to be around while claiming to be positive and on a spiritual path. I could never find fault in my own wrongdoing.
Internalized oppression's of all kinds meant that I was at times anti-Black and anti-Brown, anti-Indigenous, and anti-African, even though I am a Black African (Ghanaian) woman. Strict religious upbringing meant that I had bought into homo/bi/queer/and transphobic programming, even as a queer woman. Deep-seated messaging about fat and disabled people, Jewish and Muslim folks, as well as mad and neurodivergent people jumped out in the grossest of ways. How I hated myself showed up in my inability to meet others where they were. I was jealous of others and gossiped incessantly. Seeing other women flourish somehow caused me pain and reminded me of my failures.
I struggled with being accountable to those I had hurt. And was sometimes too prideful to apologize. Trying to smash patriarchy outside of me was difficult because I could always decode a level of hypocrisy in my own well-intentioned pursuits. I was doing that thing I do, where I appear narcissistic, and in psychologically and emotionally abusive ways that have resulted in conflict and separation in the past.
In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5) published in 2013, The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as: “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts” (658).
In order to be diagnosed with clinical NPD the APA requires that individuals exhibit five or more of these nine criteria: 1) grandiose sense of self-importance; 2) preoccupation with fantasies of power and success; 3) that one believes that they are special and unique and should therefore be catered to as such; 4) a need for excessive admiration; 5) unreasonable entitlement; 6) tendency to exploit and take advantage of others; 7) lack of empathy; 8) a tendency to be envious of others; and 9) arrogance.
Of course, it needs to be noted that additional conditions are required in order to diagnose clinical NPD. Contrary to popular belief the majority of people we call narcissists are actually not clinically narcissistic. According to the APA, prevalence rates for NPD range from 0% to 6.2% of those sampled. The APA is very clear about any personality disorder needing to “deviate markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture.” Herein lies my cultural critique of NPD. If any of these five traits (or more) are required for a clinical diagnosis, but in North America, it is culturally acceptable to exhibit all nine of these traits, can any one of us be said to “deviate markedly from the expectations of the culture?” While these conditions may be “abnormal” under a different set of cultural circumstances and different environments, they are actually totally normal given our North American cultural context.
Narcissists are literally a thing right now in our culture. The term appears everywhere I turn: in popular media, social media, self-help communities, and in psychological and spiritual communities such as those in Twin Flame communities, all of which I studied and paid close attention to for research and personal purposes. Narcissism has become such a catchphrase that we sometimes forget that NPD is an actual medical condition that some in our population live with. We often equate bad behavior associated with it, with mental illness, when the pair are mutually exclusive. Conflating the two can result in discrimination, stigmatization, and sanism against the disorder, as well as for those living with it. For this reason, it is important to contextualize narcissism by framing it as socio-cultural or political. (See others like Ann Cvetkovich who contextualizes depression as socio-cultural and political).
If I was narcissistic in my tendencies, I wasn’t alone. Any entitled, arrogant, and egotistical preoccupations with power and success, any lack of empathy rooted in envy and pettiness- these traits did not make me an anomaly. Unfortunately, on my worst days, I was in good company. Which is why I find approaching narcissism through a socio-cultural lens more useful.
According to Black cultural critic bell hooks, narcissism is neither purely medical nor located solely in the individual mind-body. In All About Love (2000) hooks shares that a culture of narcissism is obsessed with power and domination that threaten love. Instead, we vie for a sense of personal safety, resulting in weaponization of love, which builds into power struggles and control dynamics. Cultures of narcissism confuse care and abuse as synonymous with love. bell hooks even suggests that in cultures of narcissism, fear triumphs, lying is rewarded, and deception is a socially acceptable norm. It is perfectly normal, even preferable (and profitable) to exploit, undermine, and manipulate others.
bell hooks writes, “competition rooted in dehumanizing practices of shaming, of sadomasochistic rituals of power, preclude communalism and stand in the way of community” (130). What we find instead is individualism, lovelessness, lack of trust for one another, and power imbalances run amuck. Empathy is viewed as naivety and weakness; emotional distancing and emotional unavailability, common.
In cultures of narcissism rather than “I love you,” what we sometimes mean is, “I ego you.”
I have never been diagnosed with clinical NPD. I have also never met a single person with clinical NPD. Yet, I am surrounded by those who espouse these tendencies, myself included. The difference is that my empathic and self-reflective nature necessitates that I take any possibility of NPD very seriously, something true narcissists will never do. Admit to it, they will not.
If we place bell hooks’ definition of a culture of narcissism alongside the DSM’s definition, the two overlap. That I lambasted another Black woman for authentically sharing violence pertaining to her lived experience was completely in line with our culture of narcissism. I had completely rationalized my violence as normal. This could be why it felt like a war was being waged on my body. I was overexerting toxic masculinities while still carrying excess emotional baggage and to the point of disability. I was an undiagnosed narcissist over-burdened by over-empathizing. These contradictory experiences occupied the same mind-body. I needed to heal and tend to any internal wounds that got in the way of me showing up for others. This website will feature more on my healing journey, as well as how it connects with my Ph.D. work on shame research. It will document raw and painful accounts of how I came to face all of my many selves, and what this meant for my interpersonal relationships with others. (Spoiler alert: no one likes a problematic narcissist, especially if you are a Black woman).
I needed to heal and solidarity had to be done differently, starting with accountability. This blog post allows me to finally issue a public apology to the various communities I hurt in the process of my coming undone, including many of my own. I need to extend my sincerest apologies to any and all individuals that I offended. I regret so many transgressions made that cannot be taken back. It took over four years of working out my issues offline to finally begin accepting the grave realities of the damage and harm I had caused others. It took canceling myself to assess my thoughts, actions, and behaviors. Getting canceled by others made me realize that the many fractured relationships along the way were mostly my own fault.
It still shames me to admit that my mind-body reads as a manifestation of the attack on the feminine, on women, feminism, and feminists. That these very dynamics I oppose reside in me is horrifying. What this process has taught me is that knowing is not enough. Dr. Laurie Santos over at Yale University calls this the "G.I. Joe Fallacy". I am a trained anti-racism and anti-oppression (ARAO) facilitator and educator, and for well over a decade. I have degrees in global studies, sociology, equity studies, and currently working on one in feminist and gender studies. Still, I could not escape the deep conditioning that threatens us all. White supremacy is no joke. It will destroy us all, white people included.
There are of course complex nuances that shape maladaptive and destructive cycles that are difficult to break, especially so when we are not aware and introspective. Patriarchy is vile, and as bell hooks and others assert, it knows no gender. From religious institutions, the school to prison pipeline, the medical-industrial complex, to unjust political structures- so much goes into shaping our problematic belief systems and practices. Mental illness, trauma, and chronic pain, these challenges should never excuse bad behavior, though they do complicate it.
Deprogramming, unlearning, and rewiring, what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity, it has been painful. Accessing what Black activist and intellectual Angela Davis call, “the state in me” has not been easy. Postcolonial theorist Franz Fanon shared that decolonization would be violent because colonization itself was. I just never realized how much of it would play out on my mind-body. I am far from healed, saved, or transformed, however you define those terms. The healing and integration have hurt too and I sometimes still feel split in half, although my body, this house, my home, was and always will be, whole.
Is your emotional stuff also getting in the way of you showing up for others? Do you identify with any of the nine NPD traits identified by the APA? Have you also been grappling with your own messy nature? What tips and tools have you found helpful? Feel free to share if you so choose.
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Until next time, in solidarity.
Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan
Image Description: A Black girl takes a selfie on someone else's phone and then captures it on her phone, cause narcissism has her like...
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders: Fifth Edition DSM- 5. American Psychiatric Association: Washington, DC.
Davis, Angela. Y. (2015). Angela Davis. Keynote address. Bronson Centre. Ottawa.
Davis, Angela Y. (2003b). Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex. In
(eds.) Alexander, Jacqui M., Albrecht, Lisa., Day, Sharon., and Segrest, Mab. (2003). Sing, Whisper, Shout, Pray: Feminist Visions for a Just World. Edge Work Books: Canada.
Fanon, Frantz. (1965). A Dying Colonialism. Grove Press: New York.
Fanon, Frantz. (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press: New York.
Fanon, Frantz. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press: New York.
hooks, bell. (2000). All About Love: New Visions. Harper Perennial: New York.
Santos, Laurie R. and Gendler, Tamar. (2014). What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement?
Edge. Accessed on May 26, 2020. https://www.edge.org/response-detail/25436