About three years ago I started a writers’ group in the North Shore of Sydney. Now to those who don’t know the Sydney area, these suburbs are defined by old money and private schools with Anglican roots. The type of wealth found on these parts is conservative, grounded and stays within the traditional Anglo-Saxon lifestyle aka North Shore snobs.
To combat the snobbery I saw around me and even within my own household (yes, my partner is an Anglo-Saxon North Shore type), I started a ragtag writers’ group of other North Shore misfits.
The north shore neighbourhoods are bland to the Turkish-American untrained eye of a relatively new observer like myself. I wanted the writers’ group to be inclusive of every writer with a narrative outside of the Anglo-Saxon private school borne and bred.
The group attracted seven regulars who’d come to every monthly meeting. They did not submit writing regularly. This was OK until we decided to publish an anthology. Somehow, the idea of getting their name on a book, and see the book in print got these amateur writers submitting but failing to meet deadlines and frusrating the heck out of the editor, also a group member and myself who wanted to keep pushing forward.
We did end up publishing the book and putting together a launch. Everything took longer, I mean way longer than I imagined. I thought I was working with the biggest bunch of narcissists on the planet.
When the book materialised everyone was happy — for a while. Then the demands for a book launch started. Those narcissists!
To be clear, they weren’t paying me. We split the costs for the self-publishing of the book and some so-called writers objected to paying their own way. How had I found myself among such narcissists? Could they be worse than the so-called North Shore snobs? At least the snobs didn’t try to squeeze work out of me when I was in the birthing suite trying to get my first borne out onto the world.
I spent something like 60 hours coordinating between the editor and publisher and paying out of pocket because some people simply did not feel they should pay to be self-published.
After this disastrous experience, I washed my hands of the group and decided never to work with narcissists ever again.
Then I came across the Rumi quote:
“Many of the faults you see in others, dear reader, are your own nature reflected in them.”
I looked up “narcissist” and turns out pathological narcissism only affects 1% of the population.
“It’s a common misconception that they love themselves. They may actually dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit — usually even to themselves. Instead, it’s projected outward in their disdain for and criticism of others. They’re too afraid to look at themselves, because they believe the truth would be devastating.”
The people in my writers’ group weren’t overly critical of others or seemed to exhibit self-hatred or any outwardly antisocial behaviour.
And given the rarity of narcissim in the population, the probability of all of them ending up in my writers’ group or in my own family or even household, I realised, was next to nil.
So why did I feel I was surrounded by narcissists? It was, as Rumi suggested in all his wisdom, my nature reflected in them. I was all too willing to self-sacrifice to do the work, which I wasn’t even being paid for and hence people demanded more and more out of me. I’d never established my boundaries.
Clear communication from the beginning of the project would have eliminated all of this unpleasantness. Also, putting my foot down that if we were a writers’ group people who didn’t write would be off the group would have eliminated the ones who weren’t interested in writing but merely the glory of seeing their names on a book.
The reason it took us more than two years to put out an anthology with thirteen short stories was simply that I didn’t know how to take control of these writers’ meetings. I wasted my most valuable resource, when I could’ve been writing.
Thankfully, last week I attended a session run by Rich Brophy of Tricky Jigsaw, an agency that specialises in innovation workshops to find out about getting value out of workshop attendees so that progress can be made.
What I found the most valuable was Rich’s (who has a background in stand-up comedy) identification of the five worst people road blocks within workshops and how to neutralise them.
Important Note: These people aren’t necessarily narcissists. They are wanting to contribute and don’t know how to do it in a way that pushes the plot forward.
· The “experienced” one: Doesn’t need to read instructions. Will take it from here. Neutralise him by reflecting on the value of different approaches
· The deep diver: Has an uncanny knock of being able to “unpack” ever little detail and won’t stop until the whole group is having an existential crisis. Neutralise him by asking, “if we had to come up with a solution, what would we do?”
· The detailer: Bamboozles to win favour. Neutralise by setting the standard yourself of what’s too basic, just right or too detailed. Failing this, set an alarm so everyone gets a set amount of time to speak.
· The human nerve: Happy to chat but can’t decide to save his life. Neutralise by driving them to make a “hypothetical” decision.
· The devil’s advocate: Pulls the handbrake on productive conversations with negative viewpoints and confuses “killing conversations” with “valuable feedback”. Neutralise with “we can worry about the limitations once we have a good idea of what we’re doing”.
Next time you throw your hands up in the air thinking you’re surrounded by narcissists, stop and consider how rare true narcissists are and categorise the situation, act accordingly and you’ll see that you can move forward.