I am many things: a male, of average height, overweight, blue-eyed, American of Italian, Irish and English heritage, left-handed, a son, a brother, a father, widowed, single, graying, Caucasian, an independent, a Red Sox fan, a Rhode Islander living in Texas, middle class. But what about the labels we assign to ourselves or fear to have assigned to us?
For example, a narcissist. How does one tell if they are a narcissist? Or guilty of self-conceit? Narcissus was, of course, the character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and was transformed into the flower bearing his name. Epictetus wrote in his Discourses II, 17 that, “What is the first business of one who practices philosophy? To get rid of self-conceit. For it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.”
On the one hand, these labels are usually assigned by those on the outside. One hardly ever hears of someone calling themselves narcissistic or self-centered. As Sophocles said, “The only crime is pride.” These are usually byproducts of what others see in us and say behind our back. We are usually not aware that people consider us narcissistic because it is others saying it to others. Further, if one is so self-centered, one usually does not take into account the opinions of others, should they be known.
On the other hand, it was Dostoyevsky who wrote in Notes from Underground that “Can a man of perception respect himself at all?” This leads us to believe that there is no amount of perception that can be achieved by man which would allow him to be narcissistic. So, therefore, if one is self-aware he is incapable of self-conceit.
The goal, therefore, is to have self-awareness (perception) and ignore what others say about us. If we lead our life in self-awareness and humility, we can never become narcissistic. As Ralph Ellison wrote in Invisible Man, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”