The Myth of Specialness (by Dr Sarah Sarkis)

The Myth of Specialness

What do I mean by the Myth of Specialness? Isn’t everyone special in his or her own right? It’s true.  We are all special on a certain level. Everyone has a unique temperament and personality they bring to the world.  This is what and how you impart your own unique set of influences and dynamics on the world around you. 

There are parts of your personality that are uniquely yours and not shared with any other person.  Even identical twins that share exact DNA replicas are unique and distinct from each other.  They will have their own personalities and will have vastly different interpretations of the world around and within them. We all bring our own unique temperament to each moment of time. How you choose to leverage your personality and influence the world around you is also unique.  We are all capable of influencing and imparting change on our world, both internally and externally.  We can leverage our unique personality traits to influence and shape our reality in ways that will run the gamut from positive to nefarious, if we so choose (Think Madoff. He leveraged his personality to impart significant change in our global society.  But it wasn’t used for good). 

But even this, by the very nature of the fact that we all have this power, makes it not so special after all, right? If everyone has this ability, even though each person’s expression of this power will be unique, then the power isn’t statistically speaking “special” any more.  Special denotes rare and from a scientific standpoint that translates to a statistical term referred to as outliers. The data points that occur the least frequently in any given bell curve. 

Here’s the thing though, the vast majority of us fall within the bell curve.  What’s happened as a result of our emphasis on specialness as the basis for why our experiences, feelings and/or thoughts are so rare and unlike what others think, feel, and experience is that our shared sense of humanity ends up being less accessible to us. We have ended up more isolated and alone in our experiences. Epic proportions of isolation, loneliness, and disconnection are reported in my office on a daily basis. This myth of specialness is the root cause of a lot of the clinical dynamics that unfold in my office, including entitlement, grandiosity, emotional disconnectedness, social isolation and alienation, nearly all the various forms of “isms” and many more. 

Let’s start with the obvious expression of specialness, the one that everyone probably thinks about when they think about this dynamic. 

Entitlement. We all know these people.  We watch them orbit in the world with a style of behavior that screams tend to me, look at me, treat me special because that is what I deserve.  We see it in pop culture and on TV shows like TMZ and the fables and folklore of stars that wouldn’t let a waitress look them in the eye or required all the green M& M to be removed from the bag before consumption.  These pop culture sound bites reflect the extreme expression of entitlement and a belief that he/she is so special, so uniquely rare that the typical rules of humanity do not apply.  Often entitlement is directly paired with affluence and power.  It is true that in our society, the wealthier you are, the more power you tend to have, and the more bullshit other people will put up with in order to orbit within your sphere. This pairing of affluence, power and entitlement is a perfect storm of events that often yields more extreme expressions of this myth of specialness.  That is why they rise to the level of folklore.  In this expression, the entitlement ends up impacting their ability to access empathy, that developmental achievement that allows us to feel what others feel. Empathy is distinct from sympathy. With empathy you can feel what others feel. With sympathy you may feel bad for what others feel, but you aren’t necessarily able to feel what it must be like for them to feel that way.  Specialness is born from an environment that emphasized the child’s uniqueness to the exclusion of also highlighting the importance of our shared human sameness, those core elements of being human, that we all share: We all bleed.  We all feel pain.  We all fall in love.  We all face death. Ours. And those we love.  This specialness myth reflects a segment of the population who have been told, shown, and modeled that their uniqueness is what gives them power; it’s the currency they leverage to influence the world in ways that suit their needs. The silent mantra they echo is, “I am different and unique and special and therefore I deserve a certain type of treatment.” This form of specialness is always riding shotgun with entitlement as its partner in crime.  When I feel this type of character structure in my practice I know that soon enough pathologic entitlement will surface as an equally powerful dynamic. Both men and women express this form of specialness but in very different ways.  That discussion is beyond the scope of this blog, but within the therapeutic setting this distinction bears out important information for us about the way gender influences the trajectory of our development and how that manifests at the societal level. 

But there’s a second style of specialness that is harder to detect because it is less blatant.  In this presentation the person doesn’t exhibit entitlement as the primary mode of expression.  Instead they are mired in the more morose aspect of the emotional spectrum, such as martyrdom and the “woe-is-me” dynamic.  In this style the person transfers the sense of specialness towards their suffering and believes that they alone have been wronged, wounded, and pained in ways that other, less special people simply could not understand.  They become isolated and disconnected from others by the very sense of specialness that was supposed to make them feel superior.  In this style, the people are often very resistant to any effort to empathize with their pain.  For example, if I reflect in reaction to a patient’s extreme grief over the death of a loved one, “I can really relate to that sense of loss.  I am very sorry,” these patients will often reply with why their suffering is unique (and usually that is code for worse) from whatever sense of loss I might have felt throughout my journey.  They can not absorb the support and empathy of the people around them because they are imprisoned in the myth of specialness, where it is only them, uniquely and to the exclusion of all other human mammals that could identify with their experience.  This person too will ultimately end up feeling more disconnected and dis-integrated from the people in their lives. This expression of the myth of specialness rides shotgun with grievance collecting as its partner in crime.  Where there is one, there is always the other. This sense of being wronged (and collecting grievances) allows the person to place responsibility externally and thus yields an extreme sense of dis-empowerment, as the person believes they can’t assert influence over their life.    

In the first expression of the myth of specialness, the person is left with less access to their own sense of empathy for others.  But in this latter style, they are unable to absorb the empathy of others.  Each, in their own unique ways, is imprisoned by the very sense of specialness that once served to protect them from the truer reality: As a species, we are all rather typical.  And that’s not a bad thing either. I don’t seek to be provocative, I assure you.  But we are “all more human than otherwise” (Lacan). Sure, the injuries change.  The narrative fluctuates.  The clinical presentation shifts from person to person, but down underneath the surface, we are all pretty similar.  The stuff that matters when it comes to the business of being human, it’s all pretty standard stock.  We are born.  We require connection to survive.  We break. We heal. We wound.  We are wounded.  We heal again. We die. Rinse and repeat. 

What I have found helpful therapeutically is to encourage people to observe if they manifest this myth of specialness. Stay attune for magical thinking patterns, such as “that’ll never happen to me because” statements (insert the magical thinking belief “because I am special…”). Observe how you react when things don’t go your way.  What is your truest instinct? Do you brush up against entitlement, that sense that you are owed something simply because you exist? Do these feelings sometimes make it hard for you to feel empathy for your fellow human?  Or, conversely, ponder how you orbit around others when you don’t feel good about yourself or your place in life.  Do you consistently insinuate that your suffering is uniquely burdensome in distinction from how others may experience pain? Is it hard for you to feel held and maintain authentic connection when you are wounded or hurt or grieving?  Does this inability to absorb others empathy leave you feeling isolated and disconnected? If it does, I urge you to be curious about this dynamic in your life.

If you’re in therapy, I’d encourage you to bring these observations to your therapist and begin to explore the inter-generational patterns of attachment that may have contributed to the development of this dynamic. Additionally, we know now so much more about neuro-plasticity and how to promote neuro-biological changes from the emerging science studying mindfulness, gratitude, and other ways that being still and observant influence our central nervous system.  Explore the role of these forms of change in your own developmental trajectory and begin to implement these practices into your daily routine. Remember that therapeutic change and personal growth does not often come in grand “ah-ha” moments.  The “ah-ha” moments are what we would call insight.  Insight informs us of where we need to implement change.  But change, at a neuro-biological level, happens first when we wrestle with stillness.  Become still, reflective, and curious about this dynamic in your life. Observe your interior world using the tools I have discussed in other blogs, including therapy, mindfulness, and meditation.


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Sarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at Dr SarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

4 Comments

Andressa Andrade

Thank you for such a mind-opening article, Dr. Sarkis! I had never stopped to think of “specialness” this way. I have been reflecting a lot about it, about how publicity and marketing promote this sense of specialness in our society. But I had never thought of those negative “side-effects”, as per say. You just gave me a lot to think about. Thank you!

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Jennifer

This is a wonderful article!! I especially like the part about how people can be mired in their own “woe is me” quagmire and are completely immune to the mindless behaviour they assert towards others. This is nicely worded because it is gentle; not smack in the face reality – most people would feel wounded if the information is presented in an alternate method.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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