by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LPC
If you have been on the internet in the last decade you have probably observed the increasing frenzy of posts and articles about avoiding Narcissists. Ten years ago, I had never even heard the term “narcissist”. Now, just about daily, I run across memes and articles and videos, all promoting messages of warnings regarding narcissistic individuals. Narcissistic individuals are individuals who seemingly have a complete inability to empathize with others, or relate to another’s experience. Because of this, any form of complaint, criticism, or even appeal to change from others, ignites a fury of defensiveness and accusations directed outward. This often leaves the other person – who anticipated that like themselves, these individuals could hear another person’s words, understand why they were feeling what they were feeling, experience some level of empathy, and respond with compassion – in a state of disbelief. This just isn’t the case with individuals who have high levels of narcissism.
What is Underneath Narcissism?
Experts on narcissism believe that buried underneath the narcissist’s arrogant and superior facade, and at the core of their relational disparities, is really an underdeveloped ability to experience shame. These individuals seemingly cannot integrate failures and successes, abilities and shortcomings, good and bad, because they expect and demand perfection of themselves and simply cannot tolerate anything less. Likely due to their childhood environments and caregiver responses to their early failures or mistakes, there is an ingrained sense of pressure to be flawless. Because of this, great emphasis is put on “performing” perfectly in all areas of life, including relationships. Due to this expectation, a complaint or even suggested accusation from another person, brings about a frantic effort to displace the extreme discomfort that such a suggestion brings about in them. This typically results in an immediate and aggressive attempt to disprove or invalidate the other person’s argument, even if this means lying, twisting reality, changing facts, declaring every fault they see in the other person, and so on. They will literally do anything to avoid ownership of imperfection of any sort and so they simply cannot hear you. With the primary goal of the narcissist to avoid shame, there just simply is no room for honesty or vulnerability.
What is the Opposite of Narcissism?
Due to several significant relationships with narcissists in my own life, I have spent a great deal of time trying to understand the heart and minds of narcissists. As an eternal optimist and believer that all things can heal in the right relationship, it has been hard work for me to let go of attempting to “fix” narcissists. It just simply is not going to happen (at least not without a substantial internal motivation to change). If the primary motivator in someone is to avoid shame at all cost, then you are simply never going to be heard or validated by these individuals. They are simply never going to be vulnerable, empathetic, or truthful. One lesson,
“If the primary motivator in someone is to avoid shame at all cost, then you are simply never going to be heard or validated by these individuals. They are simply never going to be vulnerable, empathetic, or truthful.”
however, that my personal observations and interactions have taught me, is that not being a narcissist doesn’t get us off the hook for being guilty of being dishonest ourselves. Often, those of us who find ourselves in relationship after relationship with narcissists hold our own dishonest priority, and that is to never be needy. Often, we have come from backgrounds or families where the message, spoken or not, was that to care for others and to take up as little emotional space as possible, to be helpers and supporters, was the role that was most favorable to others. In order to get connection and approval, we perhaps learned early on that by meeting other people’s needs we could feel valuable and connected. Perhaps, calming, supporting, and nurturing others made up for what others in our lives were not doing and so engaging in this role served to make our environment more safe or stable and gave us a solid identity to feel good about. It also, undoubtedly, left us underdeveloped in practicing vulnerability and certainly left us unskilled at asking for help ourselves.
“Perhaps, calming, supporting, and nurturing others made up for what others in our lives were not doing and so engaging in this role served to make our environment more safe or stable and gave us a solid identity to feel good about. It also, undoubtedly, left us underdeveloped in practicing vulnerability and certainly left us unskilled at asking for help ourselves.”
It is likely that if you came from a background like that, you not only feel comfortable in the care-giver role as an adult, but you also pride yourself on being the reliable one, the strong one, the supportive one in relationships. It is quite likely that most, if not all of your relationships, are with someone who is distinctly opposite of you. If you consider yourself a person who is a giver, supporter, un-needy and strong, then you are very likely in relationship with many individuals who quite frankly fall on the opposite side of the spectrum: takers, unsupportive, emotionally exhausting, and constantly depending on you to support their egos. Perhaps reading articles about narcissism and avoiding narcissists has helped you to identify and name those people in your life who you experience as toxic and impossible, but I wonder if it has helped you to own the parts of yourself that are to blame for repeatedly landing you in the very relationships that you so desperately want to avoid. I would be willing to bet that just like me, you considered yourself the “good one” in each relationship, and the narcissists the “bad ones”. This type of thinking, however accurate it may be in many respects, just isn’t helpful, at least not in my experience. Although hurting and depriving others certainly seems more sinister than hurting and depriving ourselves, one has to wonder if one brokenness can indeed be more broken than another.
The Giving-Taking Spectrum
If there is one relationship spectrum that I think would benefit us all to understand, and is at the core of many of our failures to land healthy relationships, it would be the spectrum of giving and taking. We all need things in relationships and life, to be happy and to be secure and to experience intimacy, and we all go about getting those things in various ways, often subconsciously. Imagine that on the far right side of the spectrum of giving and taking was the narcissist, with an inability to identify vulnerable feelings, always demanding and manipulating others to gain support and validation and connection, often in very unhealthy and controlling ways. Likewise, imagine that on the far left side of the spectrum were all of the individuals who grew up in homes where their feelings were never named, their needs never explicitly addressed, individuals whose primary identity was to not be needy but to instead help, support, and nurture others. These individuals primarily get their needs for connection and attention met by giving to others, and not surprisingly, like their narcissistic counterparts, are also quite ill-equipped at identifying and labeling their vulnerable feelings and asking for others to meet their needs. In the long run, this type of chronic giving results in frustration, burnout, anxiety, and quite possibly depression.
If the giving-taking spectrum is what we really seek to understand, and we can honestly evaluate and place ourselves on it, then is it fair to see one end or the other as good or as bad? From my perspective, there really is not a difference. The reality of personal growth and change is that we can only change our relationship patterns by changing ourselves. Owning our pasts, our understanding of ourselves and others, and moving towards the middle of the spectrum, seems to me to be the only real path towards gaining the connections and intimacy that we long for. Improving our self-awareness, our emotional vocabulary, and our willingness to be vulnerable is really the only path towards healthy connection and intimacy. If we
“Improving our self-awareness, our emotional vocabulary, and our willingness to be vulnerable is really the only path towards healthy connection and intimacy.”
can level the playing field with those around us, become observers and encouragers of ourselves and others, there is a chance that we can all move a little closer to the middle of the spectrum. Instead of labeling each other good or bad, we can instead focus on clarifying what we won’t accept in our lives, to limit this with clear and strong boundaries, to improve our ability to say “no” to takers in our lives. Likewise, we can learn to be clear about what we are happy and willing to give to others, and what we, ourselves, desire and need from others. If we can accomplish these things for ourselves, we can find other people who are capable of doing the same work and we can increasingly balance the spectrum of giving and taking in our lives and experience what most of us want most: connection and intimacy.
Which Direction Do You Need to Move and How Do You Get There?
If you find yourself to be on the far right side of the spectrum and feel that defensiveness and justification has become your default posture in relationships, perhaps now is the time to develop your vulnerable side. Taking steps to get in touch with your vulnerable feelings, like sadness or loneliness or feelings of failure, can help you to connect with others rather than push them away. Sharing your feelings and learning to ask those around you for what you need could help you to find connection and intimacy. The acceptance and forgiveness that you experience in these relationships can then foster growth in your ability to reconcile imperfection in yourself and others with healthy and realistic expectations. In addition to practicing respectfully asking for what you need from others, also practice respecting the boundaries of others, especially when they say, “no”.
If you are far to the left on the spectrum, identifying your feelings may also take some practice. Getting to the core of your vulnerable feelings and risking putting them out on the table with those you love could allow you to experience being the receiver of comfort and support rather than always being the giver. Practice asking for what you need and desire from the people who are emotionally safe in your life and continually challenge yourself to step out of the role of caregiver. Practice saying, “no”, when you realize that you are motivated by your caregiving tendencies alone. Set boundaries early and often in relationships and be willing to quickly respond if there are signs that you and your boundaries aren’t being respected. Getting to a place where you are willing to lose connection as a result of making boundaries and protecting yourself might be the hardest work that you do in your life. Pay attention to your own feelings and, if you are trying to get your own needs met by taking care of others, come up with more honest ways to ask for connection. Getting your needs met in authentic and vulnerable ways may just change your whole perspective on what give and take can look like in relationships.
For more on relationships and receiving validation from others, see Validation: The Walls Before Us.
For more information on heeding warnings in relationships, see Heeding Warnings.
For more information on schema and the impact of schema on relationship patterns, see Schema: Don’t Be a Puppet at the Mercy of Your Past and Enmeshment and Boundaries.