Having spent my life dealing with both a narcissistic mother and my own resultant narcissistic traits, I have come to believe narcissism is highly misunderstood, even in the therapeutic community.
This is the first of a three-part series. In this article, I will give a general overview of narcissism; where it comes from, what I believe it is and why I am so intimately familiar with it. In the second article, I will discuss 10 red flags of narcissism and in the last article I will discuss how to deal with a narcissist in a wide range of contexts.
My mother suffers from a number of very severe and interrelated mental and behavioral health conditions, most of which I believe spring from the main root of Histrionic Personality Disorder. Like most people that have some branch off of or variation on Borderline Personality Disorder, she also has a number of conditions, such as bulimia, Bipolar Disorder and pathological lying. Because so many of these issues are behavioral, it should come as no surprise that I have also spent much of my life struggling with them, both in my relationship with her as well as in myself.
My father died when I was 18 months old and my mom disappeared soon after. I spent the next 10 years in foster homes before being sent back to live with my mom, who took off again when I was 16. I’ve been on my own since then, which is probably for the best. Since most of the labels I now have for both her conditions and my own are recent, and most children weren’t sent to therapy when I was growing up, I had to learn to navigate life with her without any indication that none of my interactions with her were normal.
We also didn’t live near any family, so I spent those years completely enmeshed with a mother who had neither the ability nor the willingness to recognize or maintain any boundaries. Not that I, or anyone else, had yet even heard of boundaries. I had no one to help me understand or recognize the very malignant nature of my mother. To top it all off, I am also an extreme empath, which makes me a magnet for what are sometimes known as emotional vampires. I was definitely fed off of emotionally by my mother.
It turns out that whatever is normalized for us in childhood is what we will seek out as adults. Our parents and well-meaning friends and family will tell us parents love us, so however they treat us molds and shapes our concepts around what it means to love or be loved. If our parents hit us and tell us they love us, we will seek out relationships in which people hit us, because our brains have stored away the idea that someone hitting us means they love us. If our parents were emotionally distant, we will seek out relationships with those who are emotionally distant, because that’s what we think relationships are supposed to look like.
It’s not too surprising then, that not only did I spend much of my adult life in the same orbit as narcissists, but also developed my own narcissistic habits and tendencies. I think narcissists are far more common in our culture than we recognize, so chances are good I would have ended up around narcissists anyway, with or without my mother.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum, however, so it is entirely possible for a narcissist themselves to be victimized by a more extreme narcissist, while simultaneously victimizing someone else. Years of struggling with both my mother’s behaviors and my own, has given me a chance to see and recognize narcissistic behaviors for what they are, which also gives me insight that I think may be of use to others.
It is important to understand that narcissists are drawn to positions of power, and there is no power on earth like the power of God. Since we have long viewed clergy and religious leaders as being the human representatives of God on earth, religious leadership draws narcissists like moths to a flame. Baptist and non-denominational churches are particularly attractive to narcissists thanks to their complete lack of oversight by a larger governing body. This means that in most of these types of churches, either the pastor or the head of the elder board will essentially be God.
Counterintuitively, narcissists are also drawn to non-profit, charitable and other service work because they enjoy the assumptions people automatically make about those who do that kind of work. This allows them to be viewed as charitable or saintly without actually having to be charitable or saintly. Since narcissists are control freaks who are drawn to positions of power, they are also excellent at achieving them. Chances are very good that most of us will have a narcissistic boss at some point in our lives. While you can’t necessarily avoid narcissists, there are ways you can protect yourself from becoming their victim.
When it comes to churches, charities or other organizations you might seek to be a part of, it’s very important to try and find out first if the organization is run by a narcissist. The culture of any organization is almost always created by its leader, who may or may not be the person with the highest title. You don’t necessarily have to determine who the actual leader is to test the narcissistic level of the organization. In fact, many narcissists will hide themselves behind someone whose strings they are pulling. This allows them to have power and control without ever having to face any consequences for their actions or decisions.
Narcissists are the easiest to spot individually, so if you are considering dating or becoming friends with someone, there are ways you can test their narcissism level before you get invested. Narcissists can be incredibly dangerous and literally rip your life apart, so it’s very important to determine as quickly as possible whether any person you might have dealings with is a narcissist. Also keep in mind, narcissists can spend years in therapy without ever changing anything and can actually become more dangerous as a result of therapy.
Too often, we view someone who is in therapy as being healthy, since they are clearly aware of their issues and seeking treatment for them. The truth is, however, that going to therapy is like going to see a personal trainer. They can help you understand the work you need to do, but simply going to therapy is not actually doing the work. Going to therapy isn’t going to help you unless you are willing to do the work necessary outside of therapy that it takes to get healthy.
Narcissists, particularly those with Histrionic Personality Disorder, may love therapy, because a therapist is simply a person paid to sit and give them undivided attention while they talk about themselves. Many narcissists would go to therapy 5 days a week if they could, so simply seeing a therapist doesn’t mean a narcissist is becoming any less toxic. Therapy may even make them more dangerous, since it gives them language to hide their own psychosis by accusing others of things they themselves are doing, such as gaslighting and DARVO.
Therapists are used to helping victims recover from trauma and there is no bigger victim than a narcissist. Narcissists are also very adept at emotional manipulation and therapists are often empaths, which is a dangerous combination. It is very possible for a narcissistic patient to begin manipulating their therapist, particularly if they learned how to mask certain aspects of their psychosis and mimic others from previous therapists. Narcissists who spend years in therapy will often have a long line of therapists they have used and discarded.
This is particularly true since narcissists will often have a number of other mental health issues which are far easier to recognize and diagnose than narcissistic disorders. Unfortunately, if or when a therapist recognizes a narcissist for what they are, the narcissist may simply stop seeing that therapist and go find a less aware one. Narcissists, just like anyone else, can spend decades in therapy without ever changing or genuinely facing and addressing their toxic behaviors or issues.
Going to therapy is not doing the work of healing. Doing the work is doing the work.
Although therapy can help a narcissist, I have come to believe it is one of the least effective treatment modalities. It really should come as no surprise that perhaps one of the best therapies for narcissists are self-help books. Narcissism is generally a protective mechanism used to shield some childhood trauma or abuse. Narcissists live in a very carefully constructed reality that protects them from the both the truth of what may have happened to them as well as the truth of who they have become in the wake of it. This also includes what their psychosis led them to do to others.
Over time, it is this second thing that narcissists have to protect themselves most from seeing. If a narcissist was ever to get a good, long, hard look at the damage and pain they have caused others, it would be overwhelming, which is why they have to protect themselves from ever seeing it. Therapy only works if you can actually be honest with your therapist, which many narcissists may be unable to do. With self-help books, however, they don’t have to and self-help books also allow them to “become aware” at their own pace, so they don’t become overwhelmed.
Narcissists have difficulty tolerating anything that makes them question their reality because pulling a single thread could bring the whole thing crashing down on their heads. They also have a very carefully constructed image they present to the world, that they will always fight to maintain. Therefore, when someone else tried to introduce something that threatens their reality, they will fight against it.
Conversely, however, narcissists are very adept at changing their own reality as needed, so they can readily adapt to new information about themselves that they stumble across on their own. There are very strong ties between narcissism and addiction. Because narcissists also generally have impulse control issues, they will often struggle with an addiction of some kind. This is useful, since the other treatment methodology that I think works best for narcissists are recovery groups. A narcissist doesn't have to know they are a narcissist to benefit from the same treatments that help addicts. In fact, many, if not most, addicts are also narcissists.
Recovery groups are not paid service providers that a narcissist can control the way therapists are. They are also people who have exceptionally keen bullshit detectors, since most have spent years dealing with and learning to recognize their own bullshit. They are not hesitant to call it out in others when they see it. It is this brutal honesty - and the ability to engage in it - that I believe is most necessary for dealing with narcissists. If a narcissist feels their reality being threatened, they will fight against it. The kind of radical and somewhat brutal honesty often found in recovery groups can punch a hole in or completely shatter a narcissist’s self-image in a very short time, before they see it coming or have a chance to steel themselves against it.
It is only when that happens that a narcissist may get real about seeking treatment and invest deeply in their own healing. I believe therapy works far better after a narcissist has had this breakthrough than before and may not work at all until then. If a therapist can help them have this breakthrough, great, but I think it’s harder for a therapist to achieve than a recovery group. If a therapist tries to use the same bluntness regularly found in recovery groups, they may simply push a narcissist away and send them to a new therapist.
Once a narcissist has had this breakthrough, they may not continue going to a recovery group but that doesn’t mean they will stop growing or healing. The same radical honesty that got them to this point may, in some cases, become detrimental beyond it. This is where self-help books may work best because it allows a recovering narcissist to absorb new information about themselves at their own pace. It can be shattering for a narcissist to recognize what they may have done to others over the years, so it’s important to just let them reckon with their past as they are able.
I believe there is no greater tool for recovery than the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps allow narcissists to simultaneously face and deal with both what was done to them as well as what they may have done to others at a pace they can manage - a pace they set for themselves. Narcissists are almost always both victims and perpetrators, and it is important to deal with both aspects simultaneously.
Too often when narcissists go to therapy, they present themselves as victims. Although they generally are victims, they are almost always abusers as well. Focusing only on the ways in which they were abused can create a desire for revenge, which they may frame as “seeking justice.” Their desire for justice or revenge, however, can keep them stuck and hinder their own healing. Focusing on both how they were abused and how they were an abuser, however, creates a balance that can keep them moving forward.
When they see, face and recognize that they did to others many of the same things their abuser did to them, it allows them to stay focused on their own healing. At some point, they may still face and accuse their abuser, but they will be in a much better position to do so as a result of their own healing. Too often, victims seek justice or revenge because they think that will bring healing, but it won’t. Healing brings healing. Once they are healed themselves, they will be in a much better place to pursue justice and likely have much less of a desire for revenge.
My insight on this matter largely comes from my own experience as well as recognizing the common paths of others that I now recognize as being narcissists. In many cases, narcissists may never recognize they are actually narcissists but rather end up addressing their narcissism in the course of overcoming another addiction. I myself never went to therapy because it somehow just never “felt” right to me and because of an abusive experience with a “Christian counselor” in my 20’s.
There is no doubt there is a great deal of misogyny in patriarchal cultures and one thing that I knew I struggled with was a disconnect between who I knew myself to be and who I was taught God wanted me to be in churches and religious environments. Somehow I instinctively knew I had spent most of my life having religious leaders (who were all men, of course) trying to turn me into something they wanted me to be that I knew was just not true to who I really was. This whole process started for me when someone “broke through my false reality” in the early 2000’s but it was 2005 when I started to realized just how broken I was and how desperately I needed help.
At that time, trauma informed therapy was not really a thing yet, nor was there an understanding of religious abuse that we have today. Although I did not feel I could trust a religious counselor, my faith was still very important to me and I didn’t want to see someone who would dismiss it either. I felt caught between two worlds. Had I gone to therapy, however, I’m not sure a therapist would really have pressed down in the way I needed on my own abusiveness. In addition, I feel fairly strongly that had I gone to a therapist I would have been diagnosed as bipolar.
Although I definitely had a lot of bipolar traits and characteristics, I believe the bipolar traits are the result of the demands of narcissism, rather than being a standalone issue. I think if I had been diagnosed and treated as bipolar, we never would have gotten down to the real underlying issue. Even worse, I might have spent years struggling on bipolar medications, which would have masked the deeper issues. Given my history, it is very easy to see and understand how I had been traumatized and abused, but maybe not so much how I too had become an abuser.
The truth is, it wasn’t even until very recently that I even recognized I too was a narcissist. What I did recognize was that I had the same issues as an addict even though I didn’t have a specific addiction that I could point to, with the possible exception of maybe food addiction. I started my journey by going to some open AA meetings, but because I was not actually an alcoholic, it was not a good fit. I also tried going to Alanon and although that felt like a better fit, it was still not a great fit because I was also not in a relationship with an alcoholic.
What did help me, however, were the books and materials I received there. They hit home with me even if the groups themselves did not. That set me on a journey to try and find materials that maybe fit my situation a bit better. One book I probably found more helpful than any other was Facing Love Addiction by Pia Mellody. Although I was not in a relationship with anyone and had not been for years, I also recognized the traits and characteristics of codependency that are commonly addressed in Alanon.
What we call “love” is actually a desire for intimacy. Although we often think of sex and intimacy as being synonymous, nothing could be further from the truth. It is entirely possible to have sex without intimacy and intimacy without sex. In fact, I think “sex addiction” is actually based in this same unfulfilled desire for intimacy. Because we view sex and intimacy as being the same thing it’s easy to see how one might pursue sexual intimacy as a way of meeting your need for intimacy, yet chronically remain unfilled because it’s not actually sex you are looking for but intimacy and sex does not automatically result in intimacy.
The chemical concoction your body creates during sex can create a false sense of intimacy in the short term but it doesn’t last, which is what creates the “addiction;” the chronic need to pursue something you are desperate for but just can’t quite seem to find. Intimacy has been sometimes defined as “into me you see.” It is the ability to be totally honest, open and vulnerable with someone in order to be completely seen and known, which narcissists absolutely cannot do.
Therefore, I think it is fair to say that narcissists are desperate for intimacy. Ironically, narcissists will often demand total transparency and radical vulnerability from others, which stems from their need to control. Our ability to feel intimacy, however, comes from our ability to be open and honest with others, which a narcissist cannot do. Therefore, they remain chronically hungry and desperate for intimacy in a way that essentially creates an addiction.
Ironically, their need for love or intimacy is also often what created their narcissism in the first place. Remember that intimacy is not sex, nor is it inherently sexual. We can feel completely seen and known by someone we are neither sexually attracted to and have no desire to have sex with. Healthy parent/ child relationships are not sexual, but they are (or at least should be) intimate. Close friendships can also be intimate without being sexual.
When children are abandoned, abused or raised by an emotionally distant parent, guardian or caretaker, they will often create a persona that they believe will cause the abusive parent to stop being abusive or gain them the love of the emotional distant parent. Narcissism is often planted in the idea of “faking it till you make it” - only once you start faking it, it becomes harder and harder to stop. Particularly if faking it brings positive results, which it often will. Those positive results rarely last long, so the narcissist has to just keep making the persona bigger and bigger to achieve positive results, but keeping up a fake persona is also exhausting - and expensive.
The more a narcissist gets their needs temporarily filled by their persona, the more desperate they are to keep it up. Eventually, they have to begin to steal from others to maintain it, either emotionally or financially. If their persona is one of being financially generous, they may date, marry or mate with someone wealthy or steal or embezzle money. If their persona is one of a charitable caretake or giver, they will find someone from whom they can steal emotional energy to meet the ravenous demands of their persona.
In some cases, their persona can even bring them fame or fortune by itself. They may have mastered the art of appearing successful, which, ironically, actually brings them success. It becomes a trap, however, because they believe their persona brought them success (which it may well have) but then they can’t escape the persona on which their success depends. They may have mastered the “clown persona,” which makes everyone laugh and keeps them happy, but they also don’t know how to take it off. They become trapped in their persona. This is likely what happens to many famous comedians, which also explain why alcohol and drug addiction run rampant in such “happy” circles.
Narcissism is a desperate attempt to fill a black hole of longing.
Eventually their persona becomes their reality and the longer they live in it, the more desperate they become to maintain it. Their persona is what brings them the attention and affection they crave but it isn’t real love or intimacy, so it will always leave them wanting. In their mind, however, being “real” with someone is the surest way to lose even the small amount of affection and attention their persona brings them. To be real, however, is also to face all of the people they have broken and shattered in order to feed their persona, which is devastating enough.
In my next article, I will talk about the 10 big red flags of narcissism and how to conduct some pretty simple tests to determine just how narcissistic someone might be. Keep in mind, narcissism exist on a spectrum from mildly narcissistic to malevolently narcissistic. In addition, narcissists create narcissistic environments, so it can be difficult to determine is someone is actually a narcissist or just conditioned by one.
You most likely won't be able to avoid your regular, general narcissist, but it would be in your best interest to avoid malevolent narcissists at all costs if possible. If you can’t avoid them, it is in your best interest to know how to spot them and how to best protect yourself from them. In the third article in this series, I will discuss how to deal with a narcissist in a number of different contexts.