The Narcissism of Expectations

The Narcissism of Expectations April 17, 2018

An eighteenth-century illustration of Faust and Mephistopheles. Public Domain.

How short our span!
If you once realized how brief,
you would refrain
from causing any beast or man
the smallest grief, the slightest pain.
Angelus Silesius

These lines from Silesius have got me thinking, thinking about something that seems to come and go from my life. It’s a kind of constant disappointment. “Why did he have to react like that?” “Why couldn’t she treat me the way I needed to be treated on such a bad day?” “I know I would’ve done the right thing.” With such ideas in my head, I myself often end up seeming bitter or mean. I then feel bad about being that way. The cycle goes on and on.

I hope I’m not alone in these words and actions that seem so familiar. I find it so easy to become engrossed in my expectations. In my mind, there are often right and wrong ways to treat others, and when people don’t embody those, I end up stewing in anger and bitterness. Here, I don’t mean things like treating the poor unjustly or other moral transgressions; I mean the minutiae of everyday life.

What I’m talking about is wondering why someone had to make that offhand comment or bring up “that topic” today. What I’ve got in mind is that moment when you just wish a friend would shut up or when you don’t understand why that car had to cut you off on today of all days.

These are daily annoyances. They’re easy to justify getting a little upset over to ourselves. “I’m right to be in this mood, because x, y, and z have happened.” “I don’t want to be upset, but how can I not be?” They tend to start small, but build one on another until we’re paralyzed, melancholic.

What we might not recognize, is that this is a sort of narcissism, as odd as that might sound. These reactions—and I am quite guilty of having them—find their root in the expectation that others ought to act as we would or should. We hold others to standards to which we rarely actually hold ourselves. Have we never cut somebody off? Have we never belabored a topic others find uninteresting or annoying? On top of that, why should we expect others to, say, find what we like fascinating, or to be in any less of a rush than we ourselves are? And, if we haven’t done these things (and who hasn’t?) what right do we have to expect everyone to do things exactly as we do? Is it not better—from the Christian perspective—to be patient and forgiving? Is this not better for us and for others?

The point is that we assume others should act exactly as we do, with no regard for their own ways of thinking, lives, and emotions. This is a sort of insidious vanity, one of which I am very guilty.

My post is not some endorsement of bad behavior. If a person constantly says unabashedly-mean things, or if a person always cuts people off while driving, you can infer from the pattern that they ought to be working on themselves (and who shouldn’t be?). Rather, it’s a way of re-emphasizing patience as a part of our lives, and even more than patience, it teaches us humility. We are not to put ourselves first; we know this. But beyond this Christian truism (difficult as it may be) is our responsibility not to assume that the only correct way to be is to be as we are. In other words, humility means avoiding narcissism in what we expect of other people; it means loving them enough to recognize that what we would do in a given situation is not necessarily what is right, and that even if we’re “right” that everyone’s mistakes are not ours to remember in bitterness and melancholy.

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