Narcissism and Compassion

In recent years, narcissism has become a super hot topic of public conversation, 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 traumatic story involving at least one vicious malignant narcissist is part of nearly everyone’s history 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 personality disorder. 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. There was no name for it when I was growing up, so in my childhood mind these were just very dangerous people, people who would hurt me, destabilize me, ridicule me, etc. Some of the people I’ve know are severely pathological, so much so that it’s quite shocking what I consider to be normal. I know them as family members, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, and even clients. I know them so well, so strong is my visceral reaction to them, that I can pretty much pick them out across a room. It took a long time for me to find the right resources and information, but once I did, I immediately recognized that I was a victim of their classic form of abuse.

Unbeknownst to me, for years and years living in close relational proximity to really cruel and sadistic people, I became the perfect sort of co-dependent puzzle piece matching their horrendous behaviors. There is no other way than the mold and contort oneself around them; it’s usually a matter of survival, even if you are an adult. If there was a narcissist in a 5 mile radius, I am sure to find him. (It’s my special gift.). It appears that my lot in this life is learning how to love and forgive them (always at a safe distance), while learning how to love myself more. It’s really hard and not fun. 

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. They destroy everything – your sense of self, your sense of reality, your life, your work, your relationships, your finances. They are like a whirlwind tornado that blows into your life and wreaks absolute havoc, decimating everything in its wake.

What’s even worse is if it’s a family member who participated in your upbringing; their warped values and consistent gaslighting can really screw up your sense of what’s real and true at a fundamental level. They get you to mistrust your own perceptions, your own authentic feelings, so completely, that you end up putting all of yourself in their very sick hands. They whole-heartedly convince you that you only exist to serve them, to cater to their needs, and you are not allowed to have any needs or wants of your own. They make it so that there is no space for you to exist psychologically as a separate person, which damages the very fragile psyche of a child in unimaginable ways. It can takes years and years of difficult healing work to untangle that mess, even once you become aware of what’s happened.

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. (This has softened somewhat over the years, to “get a safety plan, then leave immediately,” but still get out and away as quickly as possible). The standard instruction for victims of narcissistic abuse is “no contact,” no matter what you feel, no matter what they do or say, cut off all contact and do not engage ever again.

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. Thinking about separation from them can feel excruciating, threatening your very sense of existence. Most victims are not empowered or strong enough to just up and leave, physically or emotionally. (Spiritually, these relationships operate on a much deeper and more significant level – particular energies bringing and holding these relationships in place – but that is a separate matter entirely.)

“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. If he agrees to go with you to therapy, it will only be for the purpose of manipulating the therapist and causing you (potentially both you and the therapist) further harm. This is why many therapists refuse to work with narcissists, believing that the narcissist has no genuine intention to change or heal. It takes an almost impossible sort of inner courage, strength, and stamina to confront a narcissist, call out his behavior, and then withstand the barrage of denials, insults, and destructive character attacks in response (sometimes it can escalate to serious retaliatory harm). Most therapists are not equipped to deal with that, or the liability or implications of that. And usually no benefit comes from confronting the narcissist anyway, as they don’t internalize nor learn anything from the experience.  

This picture looks really bleak. The truth is, it is. I don’t have any good news here. 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, and endure the pain of the separation process. 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), but it’s a long and difficult road no matter what. 

In an ideal world, what narcissists really need is unconditional love. They need someone with tons and tons of fierce unconditional love, and super strong boundaries, to essentially re-parent them. Their armoring and weapons need to be made ineffective, and the inner child within them (the true self) needs to be healed and recalibrated back into the body. It’s a gruesome and very painful process for all involved, made more difficult by the fact that most of them don’t want to heal. They have no intrinsic desire to stop being as they are. (Frankly, they get away with nearly everything they do, everyone fears them and fears standing up to them, so what would be the incentive to change? They get to live life mostly on their terms, terrorizing and dominating nearly everyone they meet.)

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. This doesn’t bother them very much. In truth, no self-loving person (those capable of the kind of unconditional love needed here) 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 (especially for the children of narcissistic parents), but then also for the narcissists themselves. 

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 dominating and 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 our own pain, find the aspects of ourselves that allowed this person into our lives, learn how to set strong boundaries, do our 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, and leaving it there, only exacerbates the problem. Discernment is very very important, but we have to use it as part of our work, not use it as a tool of division.

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, forgiveness, and self-love practice. These are things we must do for ourselves, not for them.

From a spiritual perspective, narcissists come into our lives for a reason. They aren’t an accident. They aren’t a random evil misfortune; or a bad judgment call on our part. They come to awaken us. They are the shadow, the contrast, the catalysts for transformation, the bearers of darkness, and the greatest teachers life can possibly offer.

Holding them as bad, evil, or scary in our minds creates internal fear and negative energies. We hold ourselves as good and totally innocent victims, and them as the wholly bad “other” over there. They become a threat that you need protection from; an enemy that you need to be vigilant about. This is not a healthy mindset; it doesn’t promote healing, it promotes grudge-holding and stewing in the past, feeding our own victim stories.

Instead, moving through the pain they caused, using it for healing and growth, then holding them in compassion, and arriving at forgiveness, understanding that despite their external appearance they are in fact suffering, allows us 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. We can hold them accountable in a way that is just and fair, and rooted in wisdom, rather than driven by our own hatred and vengeance. This is of course important for ourselves, for our own souls, regardless of whether they experience remorse or not. 

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.