In recent years, narcissism has become a super hot topic of public debate, especially where millennials and social media are concerned. From innocuous vanity and self-promotion, all the way to the pathological personality disorder, narcissism can take many different forms, along a wide spectrum. But somehow it feels like the more pathological aspects are suddenly everywhere; like some kind of social epidemic. In spiritual circles, a vicious narcissist is part of nearly everyone’s story of pain and awakening. There are tons and tons of articles, books, podcasts, and abuse recovery programs popping up all over the place. (In the event you’re not up on all the details, this is a great article on all the different aspects of the condition. And this is a painfully accurate description of what happens to children who grow up with narcissistic parents/caretakers.).
I’ve been around narcissists my entire life. Some of whom are severely pathological. I know them as family members, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, and even clients. It took a long time for me to realize that I was a victim of their classic form of abuse. Unbeknownst to me, for years and years, I became the perfect sort of co-dependent puzzle piece matching their horrendous behaviors. If there was a narcissist in a 5 mile radius, I was sure to find him. (It’s my special gift). It appears that my lot in this life is learning how to love them (always at a safe distance), while learning how to love myself more.
It takes a lot of courage and painful introspection to recognize what’s really happening when you are in a relationship with a narcissist. Their psychological patterning, and the insidious way they operate, can make anyone begin to question her own sanity. Slowly and very slyly (such that you don’t even realize what’s happening until it’s too late) they manage to rob you of every shred of self-worth you may have ever had. What’s even worse is if it’s a family member who participated in your upbringing; their warped ideas and gaslighting can really screw up your sense of what’s real and true at a fundamental level.
So once you’ve figured out that you are in such a relationship, you are instructed to leave immediately and cut all ties with the abuser. The standard instruction for victims of narcissistic abuse is “no contact.” In reality, it’s never that simple. More often than not, this person is a family member or a spouse, from whom you can’t just walk away. There may be children involved. There may be a business, or property, or a career at stake. And on an emotional level, the very thing that brought you into the dynamic with this person, can keep you deeply and inextricably connected to them. Intense feelings of fear, shame, guilt, and worthlessness can feel suffocating. Most victims are not empowered or strong enough to just up and leave, physically or emotionally.
“So then what?” you think to yourself. “Let’s try therapy.” The problem is there doesn’t seem to be any treatment for the more severe forms of narcissism; not that you could ever convince a narcissist that he needs treatment anyway. Additionally, most therapists refuse to work with narcissists, believing that the narcissist has no genuine intention to change or heal. (He will just use the therapy sessions to manipulate you and the therapist for his own psychological gain).
This picture looks really bleak. The truth is, it is. I don’t have a catch-all solution. These situations are always very difficult, unique, and delicate. I think telling a victim to just up and leave, when they feel stuck and powerless, can be insensitive and ineffective. It takes a lot of self-love to break that kind of relationship. There are tools and therapies that can help alleviate some of the damage in the interim (I especially like the work of Ross Rosenberg who has some great videos on youtube).
In an ideal world, what narcissists really need is unconditional love. They need someone with tons and tons of unconditional love, and super strong boundaries, to essentially re-parent them. So aside from the fact that they won’t ever seek help and don’t really want to change, the next problem is that they can be so abusive, exploitative, and hurtful at times, that nearly everyone in their lives leaves them at some point. No self-loving person would ever stick around for any of their abusive behaviors. And trying to change or help someone who doesn’t recognize that they need help is a recipe for disaster. The martyrs among us try and try, only to get nowhere.
What I’d like to add to this discussion however, is something that isn’t often advocated – that is compassion. First, of course, for the victims of narcissistic abuse who may not be able to leave, but then also for the narcissists.
Part of what I was intuitively given in my training, is a deep understanding of how narcissism operates. I was shown where it comes from and why. I was shown the structure of the ego that manifests as narcissistic personality disorder. But most importantly, for a few minutes, through an energetic connection, I was given the unbelievable somatic experience of the intense shame that narcissists feel inside when triggered.
It is the worst (the worst!) feeling in the world. Believe me, I’ve felt some pretty awful things, and this caliber of shame is unbearable. I felt it in every bone, in every limb, in every cell of my body. In those few minutes, it hurt so much that I wanted only to die.
This experience was given to me as part of my own healing work; so that I could really have compassion for their lot in life. The truth is, if I carried this kind of shame, and if I believed (like they often do) that other people are to blame for triggering it, I would be just as abusive, just as violent, just as exploitative. I would do anything possible to avoid feeling that horrendous emotional pain ever again. I think anyone would.
It is easy these days to label someone a narcissist, blame them for everything, and push them away. It’s much harder to reckon with your own pain, find the aspects of yourself that allowed this person into your life, set strong boundaries, do your own healing work, and then look upon them with compassion.
While on the outside they appear terribly selfish, haughty, arrogant, and unfeeling. Inside, they are like terrified little children, trapped in tremendous inescapable suffering. Labeling them as bad or evil only exacerbates the problem.
I’m not suggesting that we keep abusive people in our lives. Nor am I suggesting that we allow ourselves to be mistreated, or that we fail to hold others accountable for their actions. I’m only inviting you to include compassion and understanding of their suffering, as part of your own healing and self-love practice.
It is something you do for yourself, not for them. From a spiritual perspective, narcissists come into your life for a reason. They aren’t an accident. They aren’t a random evil misfortune; or a bad judgment call on your part. They come to awaken you. They are the shadow, the contrast, and the greatest teachers life can possibly offer you.
Holding them as bad, evil, or scary in our minds creates internal fear and negative energies. They become a threat that you need protection from; an enemy that you need to be vigilant about. This is not a healthy mindset for you; it doesn’t promote healing.
Instead, holding them in compassion, understanding that despite their external appearance they are in fact suffering, allows us to forgive them in our minds and come to a place of peace within. This isn’t easy. It’s not about bypassing our pain or jumping prematurely to forgiveness. It is a slow and difficult practice. But then, when we have done our own healing work, from a place of peace, we can make whatever decisions, or carry out whatever actions, are necessary in a given situation.
A portion of this quote was making its way around the internet for a while. It seems appropriate to close this post with it here. It’s from Common Prayers: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.
Peace is not just about the absence of conflict; it’s also about the presence of justice. … A counterfeit peace exists when people are pacified or distracted or so beat up and tired of fighting that all seems calm. But true peace does not exist until there is justice, restoration, forgiveness. Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.