Also, check out these other top five articles on narcissism:
The Secret Language of Narcissists: How Abusers Manipulate their Victims.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…30 Traits of a Narcissist.
When the Narcissist is the Parent.
A Narcissist & an Empath Walk Into a Bar: Understanding the Dynamic of Abuse.
How to Break Up with a Narcissist.
With the global concern about the narcissist in the White House, we are hearing a lot about this tyrannical personality type.
President Trump’s relentless Twitter bigotry and outrageous focus on his own grandiosity are easy to characterise as narcissism, but what about the remaining six percent of the population estimated to be narcissists?
Are we all so easy to spot?
My friends look at me in disbelief when I reveal myself as a narcissist. “You are one of the most caring, generous people we know,” they say. They even ridicule my claim to narcissism as if it were cute and eccentric.
And wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of gushing response fit for a true narcissist? “I’m just really good at it,” I tell them. That’s when they start to look slightly frightened. But I don’t actually see myself as a danger to others—no more than anyone else anyway.
I sit with my baby daughter in a moment of sublimely tender intimacy as she begins to cry, and I squash my face against hers, her hot tears streaming down my cheek. I place my hand on her back and feel her heart pounding furiously, her small frame shaking with the intensity of this emotional release.
“I know, I’m so sorry it hurts this much,” I say as she surrenders to the heartbreak, gasping and howling like a wounded animal. I’m right there with her, and in this moment, she feels like I get her more than most people in her life.
This is a standard Tuesday for me. It’s one of many moments of meaningful, emotional intensity that punctuate my week. You’ll find me on the phone at midnight reassuring a frantic new mother about breastfeeding, baby screaming in the background. Another night with a labouring mama, I’m gazing into oxytocin-lidded, wildly dilated eyes as though nothing else exists.
Today I’m listening to my fierce six-year-old throwing a rabid tantrum, getting clawed as I miss grabbing her little attacking hand, unflinchingly available to anchor her piercing screams. Or perhaps it’s a profound moment of attunement with one of my listening partners as we charter newly discovered depths of intimacy and hit some new revelation, shivering with delight.
I have made all this my normal. My day to day.
I am a recovering “altruistic narcissist.” I feel okay about myself when I’m certain I’m doing something meaningful, helping others, touching people profoundly, making a difference. Only I’m not sure how altruistic it really is. The alternative is that I feel worthless. I get off on intensity. It’s in those moments I know I’m connected and alive.
I am the most sophisticated kind of narcissist you’ll come across, because I’m really good at caring, or seeming to care, which provides a huge decoy for being labelled a narcissist. As a facilitator of work with birth, breastfeeding, parenting, and intimacy, my role is one of the warmest and most sensitive. People feel really safe with me. I have become very skilled at helping people feel really understood and like I’m completely there for them. And, yet, I’m not sure that’s the entire truth. I have learned how to play a role that allows me to gain much outward approval and therefore I am able to approve of myself.
So when someone is feeling so “felt” by me, it’s not because I feel you, not in the empathic sense anyway. Empathy is actually not something that comes naturally to me. For many years, I really struggled to understand the feelings of others. Empath friends of mine literally feel others’ emotions in their body—this never happens for me. It’s more that I am practiced at guessing how you feel using my skills and intuition. It’s a clever tool to master as a narcissist, because who doesn’t love someone who listens really well? And that voracious need for love has driven me to excel in this.
And yet “narcissist” has become such a dirty word. Those guys are toxic; you’re supposed to cut them right out of your life, right? I think a lot of the information widely available on narcissism is hugely misguided. I’m no expert in psychology, but I do know narcissism from the inside—from being one—and I want to dispel some common myths:
Narcissists are not self-obsessed.
We’re actually just really busy with a lot of hurty feelings, which leave no space for anyone else. We care very much about you—it’s just there’s such a lot of noise going on over here that it takes all our attention. We probably don’t realise it’s feelings that drive our behaviours and reactions, as we’ve driven it all into the unconscious to feel safe: we’re basically in survival mode.
We’re not bad people.
We are not deliberately manipulative. We are not trying to hurt or use anyone. This may be really hard to believe if you’ve been burned by an interaction with a narcissist, but stay with me. All of us have been wounded through the colourful experience of being a human, and this creates gnarls and twists in our personality. Narcissism is just another way that hurt has gone in. One that produced characteristics that aren’t culturally acceptable, but is, in fact, just as innocent as the dysfunctional pattern of, say, codependency or the empath role.
When we behave in ways that seem hurtful, disrespectful, or self-centred, it is due to a heavy layer of shame and fear that clouds our ability to think well and be vulnerable. We have no idea how much we are hurting you. It is not intentional. It is not premeditated. Like I said, we’re in survival mode, cosseted in a thick blanket of delusion. We don’t have the self-awareness to know what we are really feeling or why; we’re just acting out on this unconscious, festering pain.
It’s worth remembering that empaths or codependents are not exactly the pristine characters they are made out to be in most articles on narcissism either. It just happens that the way hurt went in for them left a dysfunction that is much more socially and culturally acceptable. Their behaviours can be cloying, suffocating, and, at worst, entirely controlling and restrictive. Many of us have experienced trauma and developed a compensatory fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. We are all doing our best given the hurts life dealt us, and we can all be off-track and harmful to others.
“Love bombing” isn’t a calculated tactic to gain leverage; we genuinely adore you. It feels so good to be near you and, for a while, the pain stops. I don’t believe in “narcissistic supply.” What feels more accurate is that we so thirst for connection that we respond full pelt to your love. There comes a point that the level of intimacy makes it impossible to continue masking our hurt and, completely overwhelmed, we begin to act out on that. Any subsequent shutting off, abandonment, or “stonewalling” is simply due to it being too uncomfortable to feel those feelings.
“Gaslighting” is born from sheer desperation. We’re so desperate to be right (because at some point we learned that being wrong equated with something very threatening, known as “narcissistic injury”), that we desperately scrabble, firing out irrational arguments, denying the truth (just as much to ourselves as we do to you).
Our arguments may be void of any logic, because, when our limbic system (the emotional centre of the brain), picks up the threat of not being right or accepted, it enters a state of emotional emergency and impairs the function of the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain associated with logic and reason). Essentially, you are arguing with our feelings rather than our thinking. A lot of what we say might be absolute nonsense even to us.
We don’t mean what we say when we attack you. I know how disturbing it is when a narcissist, previously so magnanimously affectionate toward you, suddenly takes you apart. I used to be viscously critical of those closest to me. I don’t even know why I did it. I guess I just wasn’t feeling good about myself, and it was more comfortable to project it outwardly. If you are ever distressed by the vile words that come from a narcissist’s mouth, just remember it’s because the words we say to ourselves are even more brutal. Constant vitriol and belittling are our baseline experience of ourselves. That level of cruelty is so normal in here that we are completely desensitised. That’s why it’s not so shocking for us as it is for you.
I do not believe that narcissism is fundamentally unhealable, as is usually claimed. I know this because I have healed a lot of my own narcissism. I used to be utterly unable to say sorry, because I was frozen by such shame and terror of having done something wrong that I couldn’t even admit to myself if I had acted out of line. So I would project a level of denial around the situation to keep myself safe.
I remember once opening the fridge and a jar of honey fell out and smashed on the floor, making an impossibly sticky mess, full of lethal shards. Before I could even think, I had roared my ex-husband’s name, irrationally blaming him even though he was on a different floor of the house! I couldn’t forgive that I had wasted a new jar of raw honey and having being bellowed at multiple times as a child for being clumsy, I had internalised a lot of shame.
Likewise, I would spew lies in order to win arguments and stubbornly maintain them, to the point where I forgot what was actually true. As I have therapeutically offloaded chunks of hurt from my early life, I have developed a more loving inner voice and discovered permission to make mistakes and to let others see my fallibility. I can say sorry and really mean it now.
By definition, narcissism is a tricky thing to recover from as its foundation is denial. However, I’m not going to let my tendency toward superiority let me believe that I am the only narcissist who has managed to lift some of these layers of denial, hurt, and fear! If I have done this, I know many others have too. I strongly believe all hurts are recoverable with enough resources, and I know many experts disagree. Granted, in my case, I’m only a “hybrid narcissist” with both the “fight” and “fawn” trauma patterns (see Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD for more on this), so I also tend toward codependent behaviour, which arguably makes for an easier recovery. Yet I maintain that all hurt is redeemable. And I agree that most often in our society, in more extreme cases of narcissism, there is unlikely to be adequate or appropriate resources available.
If you are an empath, chances are you also have a strong narcissistic streak too. We tend to take on these patterns through coping mechanisms from childhood so that a child of a narcissistic parent will adopt the empath role. But what you have to remember is that your role model is a narcissist, so you probably internalised some of these behaviours yourself too. You might find you play different roles in different dynamics in your life. That’s what I have found anyway; I was a total narcissist with my ex-husband, yet I find myself in a victimised, codependent role with other narcissists.
Now I just want to make sure I’m really clear that just because we’re essentially innocent (as all humans are), this doesn’t negate our responsibility for our actions or how hurtful they might be. And we all get to set limits around this stuff. A reasonable limit might be, “I won’t let you speak to me like that,” or it might be, “I can’t keep you in my life because the way you behave is hurting me.” I’m not condoning hurtful behaviour here, just trying to reframe it. I haven’t met a human who (driven by their own trauma) doesn’t act in freaky, unacceptable ways that hurt others sometimes. It is a given that we’ll all do this. Instead of demonising it, let’s all dollop on a hefty portion of compassion for ourselves. We’re all doing our best here. I’ll leave you with my favourite quote on this matter by the wonderful spiritual teacher Ram Dass:
“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.”
Author: Roma Kitty Norriss
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