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How to be human: how can I stop making everything about me?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Dear Leah,

I'm 18 years of age and a college student. My name is Ben.

In the previous issue of How To Be Human, you identified the issue of a guy who cheated on his girlfriend as it being all about him. My case is, as I feel, very much similar to that.

Recently, a team of students at college, where I was a project manager, were presenting our progress. We failed miserably, and while all of my groupmates took it quite stoically, I was devastated. Most of the points our tutor criticized were points I introduced over the course of the project, and as we went with the development, nobody objected. I imagined our progress presentation to be a moment of glory. I couldn't have been more confident in our — well, who am I kidding — in MY work being just flawless, so it's easy to imagine how much that hurt. After that, I asked some people who I knew wouldn't sugar-coat the truth about whether I was such an imposing person or had any other social troubles, and, based on the feedback I got, here are the problems I have:

First off, I'm a conversational narcissist. I keep changing the subject of conversations so that I can get a chance to monologue about a topic I'm interested in. I withhold "active listening" responses from a person (e.g. nodding, offering prompts like "uh-uh" and "yeah," asking questions) so that their topic dies out and I can "naturally" take the floor. A guy I talked to mentioned how I managed to piss off a whole company of people he invited me to hang out with by not shutting up about my life experiences (me being just 18 and everyone else there being older, you can imagine how miserable that must have looked). He said it was a sigh of relief when I had to leave — and, as I recall in that particular situation, the reason I excused myself was that the floor was constantly empty, which I took for people not being social. (The thought of me being the issue didn't even cross my mind.) Now, I guess I was so off-putting people didn't even have any desire to converse.

Moreover, I'm extremely stubborn. In my particular case, not just "determined to do something" — more like, "persuaded that my chosen course of action is optimal and / or close to such." It's not that I just blandly dismiss everyone's counterarguments. No, some part of me does run (or, as I now feel, pretends to run) some evaluation of what other people say I should be doing, and almost every time it comes up with the fact that their methods are either flawed or unsuitable to my (definitely unique and special!) situation. And, just like with the example from the beginning, I seem to be expecting some surreal success from following those methods. It hurts really, really hard each time those fail.

Finally, sometimes I'm behaving like I would do anything for attention. I would find a (sometimes quite hamfisted) way to bring up my recent successes in a study or, say, working out, expecting for the other person to compliment me, be impressed in some way, or produce an emotional response. While the previous two issues have been a little more covert, I've been aware of this one for quite some time. But as recent feedback has shown, my attempts to stop it were seriously insufficient. Sometimes it is just so hard to overcome the desire to blurt a "Fuck, can't believe I passed my damn midterm!" out, expecting a question about score, which would let me fire out how it was an "A+ grade, but it wasn't that hard really, and you know, sometimes it's just simple enough..." and so on.

So my question is — Leah, are there any particular techniques, tricks or ways of thinking you could recommend to overcome those problems? I know the most obvious answer is "Well, just don't do it" — which I'm trying to, but those familiar habits have been with me for way too long for me to even control them. I do all this automatically, or experience a very strong compel to. Please help me, I really want to change into a normal, sociable person people wouldn't be disgusted with, but I have almost no idea how to proceed,

Ben.

P.S. And how do I track my progress as I go by the advice you give me? The only way I could get people to tell me I had problems was by just asking them face-forward, and, given my overconfidence, I can't trust myself to evaluate how well I am doing.

Hey Ben,

I love your letter. I love your letter so much and for so many reasons I don’t even know if I’ll get to all of them in this column.

Before we go any farther, I want to give you a little honest pep talk. I know, what would a hyper-confident narcissist need a pep talk for, right? It’s just going to boost your ego. Except you know what, Ben? I don’t think you’re hyper-confident at all. I think you’re very insecure. And that’s okay, because a lot of us are, and many of us don’t handle it well at all. The good news for you is that you are hyper-aware of what’s happening, and you’re not making any excuses for yourself. You’re also 18. The combination of these things puts you at such an advantage, you have no idea. Imagine it’s 30 years down the road and you’ve ignored this part of yourself for the entire time, only to have to hear you’ve spent nearly half a century alienating people — and now you have to try and untangle decades and decades of bad habits. Even scarier, right?

I know how scary it can be. Once upon a time, when I was in the throes of a bad breakup, a friend of mine who was also friends with my ex said something to me I’ve never forgotten. She had listened to me patiently for weeks and had shared at least a few containers of fries while I drove around crying, until one day she couldn’t take it anymore. "You always need to be in the emotional spotlight," she said. "You don’t make room for anyone else."

Every so often in life, someone says something that cuts right to the center of you. It’s easy in those moments to get mad and defensive, and it’s easier still to let that be your only reaction. "Fuck them," you think. "How dare they." But if you are willing — and more importantly, if you are ready — you will shuffle back to think about whether they might have a point, after you’re done feeling wounded and indignant.

In my friend’s case, she did have a point. I was a good friend in some ways, but in others I wasn’t. There were times I would get so wrapped up in my drama I’d forget to take a break from it or peer outside of it to talk about anything else. I’d be so focused on me that it wouldn’t occur to me everyone else had their own lives and problems.

Realizing this felt awful. Truly, intensely awful. I immediately did the thing we all do when confronted with our own selfishness, which is selfishly think for a while about how bad I felt about having been a crummy friend. Then I decided to start working on this part of me. Years later I still work on it. Sometimes I feel like I’m good, sometimes I fall back into old habits, and sometimes I worry I’ve overcorrected too much — like I worry so much about making room for other people I forget how to make room for myself. Work in progress!

So yeah, this is one reason I love your letter so much. Because even though what’s going on with you is bigger, I know where you are, at least a little bit. And that means I know you’re in a better place that you realize, which probably sounds like bullshit given your current mindset. Plus I know this important fact: no matter how much everyone else is reading your letter thinking "I know someone like this!! UGH, what a nightmare," I bet you twenty bucks every single one of them could stand to hear a little bit about how they too could be better friends.

So do I have any methods you could try? I do, but I don’t think some tips and tricks can change everything for you. This is the kind of thing a therapist can help you with, and perhaps even a course of group therapy. The latter could be valuable to practice interacting with and receiving feedback from other people, so you learn to engage differently and also learn to feel comfortable with yourself, even when the focus is on someone else.

I think you need to work on whatever drives you to need public approbation so much that you feel like you can’t control yourself, whatever makes you want to be right all the time because being wrong would be devastating to your sense of self. I mean, of course you think your metrics and models are the only correct ones. Of course you’re overconfident in your abilities and perspective. You're protecting your very fragile ego. Look how much it gutted you when your contribution to the project was criticized. It’s hard to accept you’re imperfect. Because for a lot of us, being imperfect means somehow we’re not lovable.

There’s that part of you that needs to be right and is unable to acknowledge other people’s experiences, perspectives, and more. Is this narcissism? It sure might be! Can you fix it? I don’t know but I think you can learn different habits over time to enable you to circumvent it and to really engage with other people. Not just with the "uh huh" and "yeah" prompts of casual conversation, and not even just with the ability to accept their suggestions and methods might lead to better results than your own. I think you can learn to ask people questions — in fact, to ask them enough questions the conversation leaves little room to talk about yourself. It will make them feel good, and you’ll also start to learn more about the people you want to be friends with. If you do this, you’ll be able to start engaging with their feelings too, and that will help open up additional levels of trust and closeness.

Let me tell you about a different breakup. I dated someone once who seemed like he was interested in what I had to say and how I felt. But it wasn’t until months after we broke up that I realized: He was always most interested in what I had to say when it was about him. In fact, much of the time when I would talk about my feelings, he would skip over most of it and focus on the part that was about him, or at least the part that got me to put his feelings into words so he could feel better. When I finally realized this is how he is, it made me so sad for him. He’s like a weird combination of me ten years ago and you now. He’s always in the center of his emotional spotlight and he always wants to find a way to talk about himself. I wonder if he’ll ever see this about himself, and if he’ll ever be able to really get close to someone else emotionally.

Unlike that guy, you have a good grasp on what’s happening with you. In fact, despite your consistent need for approval, you have successfully dealt with the toughest, realest criticism in the world: Criticism about YOU. Most people would crumble if someone said to them what this acquaintance said to you. I want you to stop and acknowledge how very open and strong you have to be in order to hear this as deeply as you have. Maybe more open than you give yourself credit for in all this.

The feedback was a gift at the right time: Something inside you was ready to hear it. You know what you’re doing, and you’re trying to understand why as well. Having someone help you understand that will be helpful. You can start to recognize and examine behaviors in the moment. What am I feeling? Why do I feel like I can’t stop myself? The more you recognize those patterns, the better you’ll be able to approach the situation differently. You will start asking questions about the other person that in no way bring the conversation back to you. You will learn to read social cues better and to respect them. Having a therapist and hopefully a group will give you a reference point. As you slowly develop real friendships, you'll feel more comfortable saying to someone "hey, if I do this, can you let me know? It would really help." I think this way you’ll develop real confidence in yourself.

This isn’t just about tips and tricks. This is about correcting course. It might take time, but as you open yourself up to other people’s experiences and feelings and lives, it will show you a real confidence I don’t think you even know you have.

Lx