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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with a adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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