Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

LeBron James to Cleveland: "I'm Coming Home."

How Can LeBron’s “taking his talents” back to Cleveland not be endearing?

If there’s such a thing as a city's "psyche,” then Cleveland’s just got a boost beyond anything than their Indians’ winning the World Series back in (gasp!) 1948. The only possible exception I can think of is the hallowed day that the Cavaliers, lucky enough in 2003 to win the rights to the #1 draft pick, chose the already celebrated high school superstar LeBron James. So how can a single individual have such a monumental effect on so many people?—as though all of Cleveland’s citizenry just won an Olympic gold medal?

The reason is rather simple. The drive to identify with winners represents an essential aspect of human nature. For to vicariously experience yourself as triumphant, victorious, and superior to others, is hugely ego-inflating. You genuinely feel better about yourself when you can ally or affiliate yourself with someone deemed extraordinary. Such a common—yet creative—“merger” can’t help but make you feel special yourself. And just as no one feels particularly good about getting a grade of “C” in a class (unless they were expecting a “D” or “F”!), virtually everyone experiences euphoria when they learn they’ve “aced” the course.

We might describe all this in terms of narcissism. It seems universal that as long as we’re saddled with an ego, we’ll be afflicted with the need to separate ourselves from others. And in a way that makes us feel above them. Such a phenomenon can, of course, operate in negative ways as well. That is, when we’re no longer able to positively identify with our chosen hero, ’cause they’ve taken themselves away from us, our ego suffers a major hit. And this is exactly what happened to Cleveland fans—and, in a sense, the entire city of Cleveland—when, in 2010, LeBron (in “The Decision”) elected to “take his talents to South Beach.”

As someone who has written many posts for Psychology Today on the subject of narcissism, and who also spent eight pivotal years of his life in Cleveland, I must confess that, in a weird sort of way, I myself felt vindicated by the “King’s,” well, re-decision to return home and re-connect to the city that had so adored him.

When LeBron first left, I actually published a two-part post (click here and here) entitled “Le Bron James: The Making of a Narcissist.” In the 1st part, I described how well LeBron’s behaviors fit those of the classic narcissist; in the 2nd part, I focused on how the external forces on such a young, super-talented individual could be seen as “driving” him toward such unhealthy self-love. Which is to say I didn’t really blame either LeBron or the City for the dynamic that ultimately would compel him to betray Cleveland’s devotion to him and move to another city—and join Miami Heat's other star players—to virtually guarantee himself the championship rings he  so coveted.

Still, though I wouldn’t deny that LeBron James’ personality still harbors narcissistic traits, I’m now more than ready to excuse him for them. After all, it might be said that between his laudable work ethic and his illustrious performance on the court, he's earned the right to a (not-really-exaggerated) sense of superiority. And, as taken from the first-person piece on Sports Illustrated’s web site, his present-day remarks do display a certain humility—and an empathy I hadn’t seen in his speech earlier. So consider his words:

“To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough. The letter from Dan Gilbert [the team’s owner, who publicly lambasted him after his “Decision”], the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned—seeing all that was hard for them. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, ‘OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.’ But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge? [and how can anyone not admire and respect such a candid, almost embarrassed, admission?]

“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys.

. . . . .

"In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.

"I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home."

What I like most about what LeBron says here is that, though he hardly downplays his own renown, his words are totally absent the arrogance and grandiosity that seemed so flagrant when he left the city of Cleveland, and his idolizing fans, a few years ago. This is a man who has grown and matured—and who isn’t so much “into” himself that he can’t recognize his hurting the feelings of others.

Which is why I needed—and so much wanted—to write a sequel to my much more critical piece on him when I, too, experienced a certain betrayal in his deserting Cleveland for “greener pastures.”

Note 1: If the perspective of this piece “spoke” to you, and you believe it might to others as well, I hope you’ll share its link with them. Additionally, if you’d like to review other posts I’ve done for PT, click here.

Note 2: Lastly, to check out the various posts I’ve published on the subject of narcissism, here are all the titles and links:

“The Vampire’s Bite: Victims of Narcissists Speak Out,”

“9 Enlightening Quotes on Narcissists—and Why,"

 “6 Signs of Narcissism You May Not Know About,”

 “The Narcissist’s Dilemma: They Can Dish It Out, But . . . “,

 “Narcissism: Why It’s So Rampant in Politics,”

“Our Egos: Do They Need Strengthening—or Shrinking,”

"LeBron James: The Making of a Narcissist" (Parts 1 & 2), and

 "Reality as a Horror Movie: The Case of the Deadly Sweat Lodge" (Parts 1 & 2—centering on James Arthur Ray).

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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