On Separating Differentiation and Narcissism, and Un-Separating Individuality and Community

In this post, I want to share a few thoughts that have been developing in my mind over the past couple years (and probably a long time before that too). These thoughts—connected to our social-emotional development and our ongoing understanding of ourselves and our relationship to others—aren’t necessarily in a “finished product” form. They’re in process, and I plan to share more in the future (in one form or another).

Here’s a note that might help you share what you want to share too: I find that sharing thoughts as they are in process allows me to actually share, since the reality is that finished products don’t always happen or finished products end up taking on a significantly different shapes than expected. Plus, it seems to me that more of life is “in process” than it is finished, so why not simply accept that reality and roll with it?

Okay, on to the stuff I actually want to talk about…

Main thought: Our relationships would be a whole lot healthier (which would make our world healthier) if we took more time—in our education, development, conversations—to know the difference between differentiation and narcissism.

Differentiation: You can be you. You don’t have to agree. Even in your close relationships, you can do things differently than another and choose to do different things. You might even choose to do things separately from a partner / friend when you know you just don’t enjoy the way they do something. In my view, this is simply healthy differentiation: not trying to force conformity in all things. I’ve observed all kinds of relationships suffer from a belief that differentiation is only a threat (and therefore not allowed). In turn, the relationship is always limited, because full honesty is unavailable (and, if those involved are honest, full honesty is not even desired). But if you want healthy differentiation, honesty is required.

Not Narcissism: All of this said, I want to equally EMPHASIZE that healthy differentiation doesn’t mean you get to forget about listening to others in your life, especially those who are close to you (whether close in this season or from built trust). Healthy differentiation doesn’t mean that the only thing that matters is how you are (or are not) pleased in any given scenario, activity, or conversation. Differentiation DOES NOT mean narcissism—being so internally consumed that you cannot, or are unwilling to, listen to others, see from a different perspective, consider an alternative, or simply put: to be truly present in interpersonal relationships—as part of the relationship, not as the only one who creates the relationship or the only one who is affected by the relationship. We can extend this idea to our relationship to the world more broadly. When a person, organization, or group assumes “the only one” posture, relationships are not only limited, but are essentially impossible. And when relationships are impossible, we have lost our greatest gift. We have lost.

In short: ”I am me, you are you” AND “I want to hear you” are not incompatible. You don’t have to force your partner / friend to be you. You don’t have to be forced to be someone you’re not. AND you have the choice to appreciate their perspective as you consider your own. Differentiation without narcissism also means you have the choice to open yourself to change, to thinking differently, to doing different things. It also means that you recognize that relationships are co-created. Then, together, you have choices—to think differently about the relationship, to redefine, to consider alternatives for what doesn’t work. Choice and recognition are present because you are in a real relationship.

Key conclusion: If we are unwilling to understand this difference (and let that understanding change us), we will continue to feed narcissism (in use and others) that feeds loneliness that feeds violence that feeds separation.

Where healthy differentiation actually leads (if not to narcissism):

I strongly believe healthy individuality supports healthy community, and that the opposite is also true. I often find myself driving toward this idea in my research, writing, conversations, and personal development. Healthy differentiation doesn’t lead us apart; it brings us together in honest relationships.

On Fear: I know many people are hesitant to consider the importance of differentiation and individuality. I also find that when there is a strong hesitation here, fear is not far off. After all, it’s hard to process: “You want to do something differently than I would do” or “You think differently than I do.” These kinds of thoughts are easily connected to: “We might not have a relationship anymore.” The truth, though, is that real relationship, relationship not governed by fear, requires an acceptance of difference AND change. When we are willing to say, “You and I are different and will also change,” then we are able to be in relationships with an open hand, rather than a closed fist. We can then invite each other to the dance, the in and out, the together and separate, the picture that is ever-changing, the movement that cannot be put into a box and trapped.

Side note: Directly related to everything I’m saying is the idea of rupture and repair. To have healthy relationships, we have to allow for rupture, which is risky. But if we aren’t equipped to know how to repair when rupture happens, it’s only natural for us to do anything we can to keep rupture from happening.

On Conviction: I have also found some pushback in these conversations because it is assumed this philosophy leaves no room for conviction. But why does our passionate conviction necessitate closed ears and hearts? If, in our conviction, we are closed off, we should at least at least wonder about the source of our conviction. Perhaps fear had a bigger role to play than we’d care to admit. I don’t say this to belittle our experiences of fear, only to question those experiences. Do they have the right to dictate our every move in life?

Continued: Of course, there are reasons we have always huddled as humans—whether around ideas, preferences, beliefs, or even personalities. We need this natural “huddling” for community and common language with those around us. And naturally, within these groups, we will, and should, have real conviction. Conviction is an important part of human experience. The way we live is guided by our understanding of truth—our conviction. The problem is when a person or group assumes the posture of being the only one with a perspective. This posture (narcissism, whether individual or communal) is often easily evidenced by a lot of repetition accompanied by telling others to be quiet—subtly or explicitly.

The Work:

My belief is that we would all benefit by un-separating individuality and community—and helping rising generations do the same. But for these two to work together, we have to put in a little more work. There are, after all, reasons we settle for unspoken tension, underlying pressure, and ongoing disappointment within relationships and communities, instead of fully and honestly sharing ourselves.

To be honest, to say how/when/where togetherness (in whatever ways togetherness has been defined) works and how/when/where it doesn’t—that’s hard. To acknowledge when we are the ones creating the same unhealthy patterns in our relationships (because of our narcissism) and when someone else is creating an unhealthy pattern in us (while we ignore our need for differentiation)—that’s hard. To remember that one-way blame doesn’t work here, that we are individuals and we are also in community—that’s hard.

This is hard work AND this is important work, work that affects every day of our lives. Work that, I believe, leads to more peace, better connection, and truer freedom.

It’s worth it.

About John J Mannion

John Mannion is a writer, with endless curiosity and a mission to empower entrepreneurs and small business owners. At any given time, you might find John at a coffee shop with a mug in hand, next to a fireplace with a dog or cat nearby, or laughing with his wife.