As we begin taking a lot of these questions apart, one of the problems we run into often is how to define goodness or good behavior.
For lots of people who grew up around narcissists and bullies, the definition of goodness, of good behavior, is “not like them.” It doesn’t have any actual substance on its own; it’s just opposite to however the narcissist is… Whatever you do, don’t be like “that.” For some people that means don’t be confrontational, or don’t be aggressive, or don’t be a bully, or don’t hurt other people gratuitously, or don’t be selfish… You can even hear some adults say this in spiritual circles sometimes; they say that narcissists show us how not to be. However they are is bad, and that’s that.
This idea, “not like them,” becomes one of the deeply buried unconscious rules governing our personality. I don’t think I need to tell you that that by itself causes lots of problems, limits, and polarizations in the personality. But it specifically creates lots of problems when we talk about integrating the shadow aspects (spoiler alert: the shadow aspects are “just like them!”). Every which way you aren’t allowed to be creates your shadow. That shadow then wreaks all kinds of havoc in your life until you start wrestling with it.
We can start roughly around this question – what does being good mean; specifically how should one behave, when faced with an evil person?
Our unconscious default answers are often found in the modeling provided by the “other parent.” If the other parent enabled the narcissist, then they taught us the same kinds of behaviors, and subjected us to censure and disapproval when we didn’t behave in their submissive and diminished-self image. Perhaps they even punished us for mimicking how the narcissist behaves. This of course formed many of our conditioned rules about dealing with narcissists.
To now break out of that box and become assertive or confrontational, to talk back, to not submit, to respond with anger, to not be agreeable, to bring conflict or hostility out into the open rather than squashing it, to stand up for yourself, to speak your real feelings, can create tremendous guilt or shame if it conflicts with what being a “good” person means. But a strong self-respecting self, one that can stand up for herself and others, is part of psychological and spiritual health, and part of character-development.
Here is a useful exploration of some of the various dynamics by Patrick Teahan LICSW. They are always helpful to learn, understand, and find within if they are relevant. They inform so many of the standards and concepts governing our lives, that sometimes they have the effect of keeping authenticity silent. (Or even keeping other people’s authenticity silent…).
Here is another video from Dr. Ramani titled: When narcissism meets authenticity.
It explores the question of how an “authentic” person handles a narcissist. I think it’s really exploring a kind of ideal standard – what is the ideal way to be? what does the “most” authentic person do? what are we aiming for or seeking to emulate here? If how we learned to behave isn’t authentic, then how should one behave?
Those are extremely important questions. And I think you’ll find that only your own feelings can direct the answers, which will change over time. We aren’t trying to set new standards, but rather listening to how the feelings guide us in each particular instance.
For a large part of my adult life, maybe a decade or two, I also held the position Dr. Ramani describes – that the authentic person, the wisest person, is the person who rises above it and doesn’t engage. To me, keeping the peace and being the bigger person was the pinnacle of how one ought to handle these situations. If a narcissist became too disrespectful, too noxious, I would quietly remove myself from the situation and go do something else. The endless fighting with them leads nowhere, so why bother, right? That’s the rationale, behind all of this. And it’s generally right and true.
Then I was shown quite starkly two problems.
One is that it’s a kind of luxury of avoidance. Meaning, if you have the luxury to walk away, if the narcissist is not in a position of power over you, if he doesn’t hold something important in his hands, then it’s a fine position to take. A kind of glorified gray rock – elegant, gracious, agreeable, but without submission to them. But if you are confronted with a contentious situation in which you are powerless, in which you don’t have a choice but to deal with them, but to fight for what matters to you, this position is untenable. When a thing really really matters to you, and they have the power in the dynamic, this doesn’t work. You have to be a lot more strategic, a lot more engaged, though not necessarily combative. Instead, something like manipulative flattery can go a long way here, if you can stomach it, but that’s not authentic. Sometimes, having worked through lots of the emotional material, being more forceful or assertive is the ideal path. Again, it depends on the circumstance and a person’s own lessons in any given situation.
Second, there is a cowardice and a defeatism that lurks inside the elegant gray rock position. It tries to be the “bigger person,” but it masks a weakness underneath, that is afraid to fight, afraid to confront, afraid to lose its cool, afraid to reveal its anger and lose control when in combat with evil, afraid to lose generally, afraid to look foolish or powerless, afraid because it knows it will be defeated. It’s a kind of pride that looks on the surface like wisdom and serenity. It isn’t. (It’s a false moral superiority, masking fear).
So then I spent the last several years in active combat with them, not taking the high road, but getting down on the ground and dirty in the fight. (Not too dirty, but not anything I’m proud of, mostly because I’m so bad at it.). It’s an important thing to discover and own in the latter stages of work. I’d say that the more authentic you get, the more strength you have to open yourself up to what they have to offer in terms of reflection and growth. When you have mastered the elegant gray rock, then it’s time to get down on the ground and learn how to fight (and lose) in order to illuminate all of whats hiding in the shadow. Maybe after you’ve mastered this you go back to the elegant gray rock, though I’m not so sure…
I’ve already shared with you my view in a previous post – that in a more mature spiritual practice, taking a conscious combative approach can be a very rich area of work, growth, and exploration.
It’s important to keep in mind that there aren’t any perfect rules about this, not really. It depends on where you are in your own work. It depends what kinds of fears or pains are coming up organically for purification. It depends on the specific circumstances the situation brings. I think the better way to think about it is to remove the ideal role models, remove the old conditioning, and instead allow different kinds of standards to govern at different points along the way.
There is a helpful articulation of the value of spontaneity in Osho’s Zen Card Exhaustion. Here’s what it has to say:
“A man who lives through conscience* becomes hard. A man who lives through consciousness remains soft. Why? – because a man who has some ideas about how to live, naturally becomes hard. He has continuously to carry his character** around himself. That character is like an armor; his protection, his security; his whole life is invested in that character. And he always reacts to situations through the character, not directly. If you ask him a question, his answer is ready-made. That is the sign of a hard person – he is dull, stupid, mechanical. He may be a good computer, but he is not a man. You do something and he reacts in a well-established way. His reaction is predictable; he is a robot. The real man acts spontaneously. If you ask him a question, your question gets a response, not a reaction. He opens his heart to your question, exposes himself to your question, responds to it…”
*Here conscience is refering to the inner standards of how one should be, how one ought to behave.
** Character here means his persona, the self-image or self-concept he has about who he is and how he wants others to see him; the character he plays when dealing with other people, not character in the sense of integrity or virtue, as we normally use that word.