How to Write About Yourself (Without Being a Narcissist)

Help others learn from your experience.

Todd Brison
Feb 19 · 5 min read

When the dream starts, I am giving my grandmother’s eulogy.

We aren’t in a church. Instead, we stand in my Uncle’s kitchen, and the coffin is serving as the island. Her body looks odd there. I speak for a while, recounting the things I loved about my grandmother. A few minutes in, my cousin whispers something to my brother, and they both snicker. Then my dad laughs.

Now my whole family is laughing at me. I am pouring out my emotions and nobody cares.

I wake up with tears on my face. The pillow is soaked. I have to pee.

Over the toilet, I reflect on the dream: “Yeah, it makes sense that they laughed. I paused too long after ‘we’ll never forget her.’ Next funeral I’ll do better.”

The other day, a reader asked: “How can I make sure I’m not writing self-gratifying, narcissistic drivel?”

First, understand every writer is at least a little bit of a narcissist. You are not an exception to this rule.

Each writer believes others should be aware of what is going on in her head. Imagine the hubris this requires! When I sat down to write this post, I decided the best way to begin was by telling you a random dream. It’s an interesting story. It’s a weird story. And it’s a lot more fun to read than the standard: “It can be hard to write about yourself… blah blah blah.”

People can learn a lot about themselves by hearing your stories. Instead of hiding your stories, embrace them. Ironically, embracing your inner narcissist is the first cure to narcissistic writing.

Here are 6 more:

The more you read, the more you realize how small your view of the world really is.

My friend Michael Thompson once lost a quarter of a million dollars in an agonizing betrayal. I thought “damn, I wish I could lose that much money.”

My other friend Brian Pennie went through a crippling heroin addiction for 15 years. I thought “shoot, I knew I should have picked up a substance abuse issue in my teens.”

My other, other friend (I forgot I had this many friends) Declan Wilson has the enormous task of keeping 2 humans alive as a stay-at-home dad. I thought “Ah, maybe I’d be a better writer if I stepped on more Legos.”

My fourth friend is not a friend at all because we have never met and also because she is dead. Her name is Marina Keegan. Marina wrote 3,000 words a day at Yale, and then died in a car crash. Her teachers posthumously released a book of her work that made me cry on nearly every page. I thought “How am I supposed to have work this meaningful if I can’t arrange for an early death?”

Read a lot. Accept there are stories you will never be able to tell

The third cure for writing like a narcissist must be administered after the second. Reading helps you understand you don’t have cool stories like everyone else. So what do you have?

I have not died in a car crash, but I have lost a grandmother. This has inspired many posts. I have not created children, but I spent that time watching a lot of movies. This gives me time to pull out lessons from film that others don’t. I have not recovered from a heroine addiction, but I do navigate life as an introvert.

Because of that, I learned how to have better conversations. I haven’t watched $250,000 slip through my fingers, but I have figured out the flaw in chasing followers online. For this reason, I talk about the benefits of gathering humans instead.

You have authority to write about what you’ve experienced. Do that.

A narcissistic personal story can only matter to you and your friends. A personal story that leads to a global lesson matters to… well, everyone on the globe.

The story of my grandmother has to do with random dates, meaningless faces, and disconnected events. On their own, these details mean little to anyone outside my family. When I connect them to a global theme, like the subtle beauty of loss, anyone can read and learn, even if they don’t know who “Ms. Anne” is.

As you write, ask yourself: What is the bigger picture of my experience? Am I assuming others may go through a similar trial? Did I review my work through the eyes of a potential reader?

By default, it is not narcissism when you hope others can learn from your experience.

Only a narcissist would believe whatever pours out of his fingers is pure gold on the first try. Your first draft is probably pure narcissism. It takes at least three drafts to reach a palatable work of writing.

I thought the initial version of this post was perfect. A second and third look showed pointless repetition, poor spacing, and unclear lessons. Nothing punctures the inflated head of a narcissist like the sharp pen of an editor.

Have you ever watched a movie that just didn’t feel right? Why does this happen? Often, it’s because the writers make a lead character too perfect. A hero of a story needs flaws in order to be interesting. This is why nobody would watch a movie where Wonder Woman wins every fight.

A narcissist will never reveal his flaws to the outside world. This is why a narcissist’s writing is not interesting.

A narcissist will lie — “I have all the answers!” A narcissist will exaggerate— “Nobody can tell you the secrets I have learned!” A narcissist will delude herself — “We never argued!” A narcissist will refuse nuance — “The only way to win at life is…”

Truth cancels out narcissism. Look at every sentence. Ask yourself: “is this true?” Sadly, this may be the least common question asked by writers today.

It can be tempting to think you aren’t a real writer. The voice in your head probably talks all the time about how whatever you have to say is narcissistic, self-gratifying drivel.

But the truth is, it doesn’t matter what that voice says. You have the right to tell your own story. By refusing to do so, you become the very narcissist you feel. You stare at the perfect reflection of your experiences instead of jumping into the mud.

In order to paint a complete picture of humanity, we need every voice, every story to be heard.

It’s time to tell yours.

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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Todd Brison

Written by

Bestselling author. Seen on TIME, Inc., CBNC, and in my kitchen doing dishes. Infinite Ideas eBook:

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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