I used to want to be placed onto a pedestal as a hero.
That might not be too surprising. After all, our culture is filled with tales of grandiose heroism that invite people — especially young men — to insert themselves into the stories as the hero. So what’s the big deal that I used to have a burning desire to be a hero?
It’s hard to explain and the full story isn’t pleasant. In fact, there are parts of the story I’m not yet ready to tell publicly. The time will come when I’ll talk about the ways that my life has been affected by the influence of narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. Expect a book when the time is right. Until then, here’s what I’m ready to say.
After I moved recently, I started unpacking boxes and going through papers that hadn’t been touched in decades — some since my teen-age years. The things I found were fascinating and they forced me to see early evidence of emotional problems that I eventually had to deal with in counseling.
One of the most fascinating troves of notes and papers consisted of things I wrote over a three-year period starting when I was 13 years old. They dealt with my first serious crush on a girl.
One of the things I’d forgotten was that I’d written a number of stories about that girl and me. I’m not sure what the typical 13- or 14-year-old boy writes about the girl he is smitten by, but my stories were the stuff of grandiose fantasy. They were all set in a future time when I was capable of saving the world — and the girl — in one way or another.
There was a science fiction tale that started with the future version of this girl sad because I was presumed dead. The spaceship I commanded was missing and presumed destroyed. Sometime while we had been gone from the planet, something terrible had happened on Earth and an evil, tyrannical government had taken over the world. The story ends with me making a dramatic return to Earth with my ship. I somehow took over all the radio transmissions on the planet and announced that we had returned to save them. (Exactly how I was going to accomplish that is unclear.)
The girl swooned. I was obviously wonderful and heroic. I was here to save her.
In another story, I was a U.S. senator who was running for president of the United States. I don’t remember what I did to save the world in that story. Maybe just getting elected president — which I was clearly about to do — was enough to impress the girl and make her love and adore me.
I could go on — because there were others — but just these examples are embarrassing enough.
I had a serious need for others to see me as a hero who was there to rescue them. I clearly believed that becoming a conquering hero would be enough to get someone to love me. It didn’t occur to me that someone might love me because of who and what I was. I thought I needed to earn love by rescuing people — and especially this girl.
I carried this desire for attention with me for years, to one extent or another. I kept believing that by amassing a collection of accomplishments, I would be loved, understood and valued. I thought this in big ways and small ways.
For instance, here’s one of the tiny ways that is burned into my memory. At the end of my sophomore year of high school, the newspaper sponsor called me to her room one afternoon and asked if I would like to join the school newspaper staff the following year. I had never had the slightest interest in journalism, but I remember standing in front of Montae Cain’s desk that day and thinking, “Why not? It’s another picture in the yearbook.”
I struggled in life over the years to figure out what I wanted to do. I was fortunate enough to have the ability to do whatever interested me, but I developed an unconscious pattern of choosing whatever I thought would be most impressive to others. I completely lost touch with what I wanted or enjoyed. I honestly didn’t know what I liked or what was natural to me. I wanted people to be impressed and I wanted them to see me as someone with the ability to rescue them and the rest of the world.
I craved adulation, admiration, approval, attention, applause — all in place of real love and understanding.
My ex-wife had an insight years ago that now fits into the things I eventually figured out about myself. We talked frequently about what I should do with my life. It frustrated me that I didn’t know what I really enjoyed doing. I only knew what I enjoyed having done — and what I enjoyed receiving praise for.
In one of our discussions about the subject, my ex-wife remarked that whatever I did in the future, it would always have to be something that took the “applause factor” into account. That phrase immediately made sense to me. I needed applause. I needed people to see what I was doing. I needed them to put me on a pedestal as special. And I needed to be able to believe my grandiose fantasies of being special — because that would somehow earn other people’s love.
I needed to be able to save people. Then they would love me and approve of me. If I got enough of this applause, maybe the gnawing craving for more approval would finally go away. I was terrified of being placed on a pedestal — of the need to live up to that impossible position — but I needed it, too. And I hated needing it.
Is it any wonder that I gravitated over the years to worlds full of people trying to save others? I almost went into the ministry. I spent years working in politics. And I spent many more years working in media. All of those fields are full of narcissists who are seeking to save the world by creating grandiose fantasies about themselves, so those worlds felt familiar to me.
I wanted to save the world. I really did. I thought I was somehow special enough to do it. But I didn’t start finding myself — and becoming capable of more love and empathy — until I learned to change my way of thinking.
Today, I don’t have any desire to save or fix the world. I can barely even change myself. I’d like to change a little corner of the world for myself and for my future family — to make it a safe and free place where we can live in peace — but I’ve given up the delusion that others are going to listen to me (or should listen to me) and suddenly find salvation in my amazing leadership.
Ironically, I’m better equipped to rescue others — in the emotional or psychological sense — than I was when I was so eager to win their approval. I don’t believe I can “fix” anybody, but I’m finally detached enough to safely nudge other people in the right directions at times, partly by using my own mistakes as examples of things not to do.
I still need love and understanding. I have a strong need to be valued by someone who I respect. But I don’t want to be president to do it. I don’t want to save the world. I don’t want to build a big company that would bore me to run. I don’t need to be on a pedestal above others and receive their worship.
I just want someone who I value to know who I am and to choose me — because of who I am and who we are together, not for what I’ve done or for what others praise me for.
I’ve had to let go of a lot of dysfunctional beliefs and dysfunctional needs in myself. I will probably always carry some of the craving with me, because very old programming tapes are hard to kill. I’ve been working and reading and studying about this for the last decade. The changes I’ve had to make have been scary, but I’m slowly becoming who I need to be.
Like a recovering alcoholic who will always deal with bouts of craving for his drug, I will always deal with bouts of craving for what is sometimes called “narcissistic supply.” But I don’t have to allow it to turn me into a narcissist.
This feels like an incomplete and stream-of-consciousness piece that never quite makes the point I want to make. That frustrates me. So I’ll just say this.
I don’t like some of the ways in which I was psychologically shaped. I don’t like some of the things that were created in me as a result. But with the help of a very good psychologist, I figured out what I was on the way to becoming. I changed a lot of things about myself — and I still have more that I want to change.
I no longer want to rescue anybody, at least not as a way to gain approval. I no longer believe I’m special and destined for greatness. I’m finally happy with the reality of being who I am.
I just want a woman who happens to love and understand what I happen to be — and that might be the toughest part of all. Only time will tell.