Narcissus and the Narrow Path

Narcissus – The Ego Image of Ourselves

Do you know the story of Narcissus? Such a tragedy of a young man, who looked into a pool of water, seeing his image for the first time and found it so mesmerisingly beautiful that he could never bear to look away and died looking at his own reflection. Needless to say, in the world of selfies, it provides a stark warning to us! Its real meaning though is deeper and profoundly challenging.

I have written on this blog a few times about the enneagram and the power it holds in causing us to confront our root issues. In truth, each of us has an ego that we protect and project to the world around us. It is the image of ourselves that we want others to see, the things we would like others to believe of us. But it is only a narcissistic projection, a fake image that we portray, perhaps the image of ourselves that we are in love with or would, perhaps, like others to love. Our life’s work is to own up to the ego we have created and instead become our true selves, which enables us to become a gift to others. This is our deepest, spiritual healing.
My ego projection is that of a Type 7. I project to those around me that I am an enthusiast, an activator, a visionary, full of fresh and new thinking. I am fun and fun loving, I am an activator, a leader and generous. I so easily love this image of myself and what others think and say about me. But truthfully, I am and do those things because I am, for the most part, avoiding pain. There is, if you like, an inner child or shadow, I am trying to protect. A child who didn’t feel content and did not like pain I encountered early in life. So, in order not to feel that pain, I bury my true emotions and project to the world that “I am ok”. I may not be, but I want you to think that I am. And truthfully, I most likely think that I am ok, because I am a “head type” and so I process things very rationally. In any given moment it is often hard for me to know what I actually feel, because I bury my true emotions so that they do not overwhelm me and I do not have to feel any pain. And if you don’t ask me what I’m feeling I don’t have the language to tell you and even if you do, it will take me an enormous amount of energy and courage to really feel whatever it is that I am feeling. And so, in order to bury that pain further I encounter my root sin, which for a Type 7 is gluttony.

This gluttony does not have to be for food, though in my case it often is – I do love food! But it is also a gluttony for fresh or exciting or stimulating experiences – living life to the max. It can lead to such a rushing and business, so that life is never boring and I do not have to be still too long enough to encounter anything particularly negative. This can easily lead to addictive tendencies e.g. to social media, to creating a fantasy world or to always moving onto the next new thing, leaving those around me feeling caught up in the whirlwind or a bit used, abused and taken for granted, whilst the ‘Andy Show’ rolls on through town.

So, what do I do about my narcissistic ego projection that I want the world to believe of me and that I rather love? Well, I can stay as I am. I can continue to let everyone know that “I’m ok”; or I can fall over The Stumbling Stone and receive the invitation to accept just how overwhelmed I feel sometimes; that there is a deep dissatisfaction within me that drives my gluttonous behaviour to cover over my pain. And as difficult as it may be, there is no other salvation for me, no other way to find the simplicity and contentment I long for and to become the gift I can be. Does it mean if I accept that invitation that all my struggles stop, that my ego will die and that my sin will no longer trouble me? Well….yes and no!

There is a death of the ego, but it keeps rearing it’s ugly head and so needs a daily death and some days it dies more than others. And when I’m running from pain and feeling overwhelmed, gluttony of one sort or another will too easily take hold. But always in my path is The Stumbling Stone, inviting me, instead, to walk the narrow path, the path less trodden, the path less looked for because it means walking through a narrow gate in which the ego, I love too much is stripped off me. What I so easily forget is just how heavy and tiring that old ego is. To have it removed with surgical precision and find a way to walk that is so much lighter and less burdensome is pure joy. No more pretence, no more projection, just me, as I am, loved at the very core of my being.

No matter who you are, you too have an ego that you are projecting to the world. Your life’s work is to recognise that ego and choose which path you will walk. For a Type 2 you project that you are loving and helpful. For a Type 3 you project that you are successful and outstanding. For a Type 4 you project that you are sensitive and special. For a Type 5 you project that you are perceptive. For a Type 6 you project that you are reliable, a loyal skeptic. For a Type 7, like me you project that you are enthusiastic. For a Type 8 you project that you are strong. For a Type 9 you project that you are peaceful. For a Type 1, you project that you are honest, hardworking and orderly. The invitation to each of us to fall out of love with our ego and become our true self. Then we can say, like God, I am who I am.

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Authentic, Loving Leadership

Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of spending some time on a leadership programme with the NHS Leadership Academy. One of the things it has helped me to do is talk more openly and honestly about what is important to me, what shapes me, what makes me – me! I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the word ‘authenticity’ and how I can be true to my deeply held values, no matter where I find myself, or whose company I may be in.

 

I did most of my ‘growing up’ at University with an incredible set of friends, who have remained at the core of my life. One of our founding principles as a bunch of mates was that we would not do fear or shame, but that we would be honest and open with each other about whatever we were going through. I found myself being able to talk about stuff that had been bottled up for years and making me feel rubbish about myself and as I did so, I found I was loved, not for what I did or performed but for who I was – just me, as me.

 

This kind of open and honest vulnerability sits as one of my core values in leadership because I believe it keeps me humble and permissions others to open up also. For some, there is a fear that if you show weakness, others may turn it against you – but that is a voice of fear that I personally will not succumb to. The depth of relationship that we form in any team is determined by our own ability to open up and show our true colours. I believe that being honest about where we are failing or weak allows others to be honest too and it makes us more human, builds connection and allows us to build team with real integrity.

 

Personally, I am continually influenced and changed by that man, Jesus. In the Gospel of John, we are told that any time anyone questioned his identity, his legitimacy or his authority, his answer was simple: I am, who I am. For us to be authentic, we need to know who we are, so that whoever we are with, we remain true to our core values. Throughout our life’s journey we are continually challenged to decide which way we will walk. Will we walk the easy way of life, in which we allow our ‘ego’ to remain in tact and have people see a projection of ourselves? Or will we choose the more difficult but life-giving way, of letting our ego be stripped back, so that our true self can be seen?

 

What I have witnessed over the last few years, is that leadership can rob people of their humanity. The structures we work within can end up dehumanising us, as the ego becomes puffed up and we find ourselves protecting the image we have projected. As we climb the ladder of responsibility, we can begin to modify our behaviours and as we do so, we begin to subtly let go of our core values. Perhaps we forget where we came from, or we feel the need to protect our position. Perhaps, we’ve never dealt with our own sense of entitlement or the privilege of our background which helped to propel us into positions of influence in the first place. Perhaps we never really confronted our own shadow and have carried on building our own ego project, which somehow permissions us to act in very unhealed ways.  Perhaps we get proud and lose the humility to accept that we don’t know the answer to many of the questions thrown at us, but instead of opening up the conversation towards a collaborative process, we lock down the control and increase the demands on our teams. Whatever the reason, hierarchy so easily dehumanises us, unless we work really hard to subvert it.

 

There is a real art to leading in the midst of complexity, due to the interplay of mechanistic structures and the living systems of which we are a part. The ability to resist the the demanding expectations of the behavioural norms of the machine, whilst ensuring the job gets done and setting a culture of kindness, openness, trust, honour, joy and dare I say it, love, takes bravery, time and audacity. All too often, especially at a regional and national level, I am seeing that people seem to forget who they are and begin to behave in ways that lack authenticity, treating those who were their peers, only a few months previously with disdain. I tire of seeing people talk down their noses at others, or gather people into a room to shout at them, as if this is an effective means of communication. When we see it, we must call it out. We must subvert it before submitting to it. Only by doing so, will we expose it for the phony, imperial nonsense that it is and find a way through to a kinder, more human way of leading. As my great friend, Roger Mitchell says, “Love is the purpose of everything.” A great question for leaders is, “How much love am I loosing here?” If the answer is, “not a lot!”, then maybe think about why on earth you are leading and how you might do it a whole lot more authentically!

 

 

 

 

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