Last week was an absolute whirlwind for me.
Some people left my life; others arrived into it.
Some doors closed; others opened into new opportunities.
I’m still adjusting to all the transitions.
In times of great change like this, I also often find myself re-visiting my sense of purpose. What is this all about, really? Where am I investing my time and energy and how is that going?
As I reflect on these questions, I realize that during quite a few of our community calls last week, questions about trauma bonds, narcissism, and codependency kept arising.
I hear you.
What happens when a deeply empathic person is drawn into a relationship with a more narcissistically organized person?
It’s a shortcut to hell, as a friend of mine recently put it.
These dynamics are exceedingly painful and confusing for anyone, but even more so for those of us who are committed to nonviolent living and dropping enemy images. We feel averse to the dehumanizing use of diagnoses and want to operate out of a profound belief in the goodness of human beings.
The problem is that when we operate out of the naive belief that empathy and compassion can heal anything and everything, we may stay in life-depleting relational dynamics for far too long while believing that we are the problem.
And, if you are truly trying to connect with someone who has a hefty dose of narcissism, they will be more than happy to affirm your (false) perception that you’re the problem and that you’re to blame for the painful dynamics you’re fielding.
If you’ve been studying nonviolence and have developed an allergy to diagnoses and labels, then try to view “narcissism” as a deeply ingrained, unconscious trauma response and set of adaptations and strategies that some people developed in an attempt to survive their childhoods and to keep their sense of self intact.
However, these strategies have very deep, unconscious, and entrenched roots in the psyche of the person, and they’re very difficult for a person to either see or change in themselves.
Empathy will not be enough.
While empathy is necessary, it is simply not sufficient for the deeper changes needed.
For every empathic move, you will also need a boundary-setting move. For every moment of connection, you will also field what we call an “attack on linking,” which is an unconscious pushing of you away. They send mixed messages (without realizing it) and then blame you for misunderstanding them.
It’s like being in relationship with an infant. You begin to orient yourself around their needs at all times. And, the pull for empaths is that empaths actually enjoy nurturing infants and being there for others; it’s intrinsically satisfying for emotionally nurturing people to have someone to nurture.
But here’s the problem:
Remember that infants grow up. They can take in the nurturing and use it to develop through their next developmental stages.
Narcissistically-organized adults, however, did not get those early needs met and had to disavow their vulnerability and disconnect from deeply painful feelings in order to survive. They learned to live with a profound underlying internal disconnection and shut-down, and now they use their intellect, cognitive empathy, and power and control dynamics in their relationships to try to manage and cope.
They sound good, they look good, but when it comes to intimacy and vulnerability, they just don’t feel good.
So how do empaths get trapped in these dynamics? What is our work to do? Why does it get so confusing? How do we get out of it?
Sometimes I tell myself that the narcissists in my life are here to help me know who I really am.
1. Stop confusing control with love.
Empaths who were adultified too early in life are particularly susceptible to some of the insidious power and control dynamics that intensify in these relationships. If you had a need to be overly responsible for others’ feelings and needs in your own family of origin, you may actually find it relieving to have someone else make decisions for you, take control of things, be responsible for things – in the early stages of the relationship.
Narcissists seek out control and power as they try to find security, significance, and safety in their relationships. Any place where you have your own empowerment work to do, you will have a vulnerability to them. They will hook you in all the places where you may still be feeling disempowered, insecure, or needy yourself.
2. When you feel “bad,” it may be data about the relationship, not about your personal issues.
Empathic people often have a high degree of self-awareness and self-responsibility. We are quick to look at our own part in a dynamic, ready to heal ourselves as we go. So when we feel unhappy in a relationship, we tend to ask ourselves what is “ours” and focus on what we can change.
However, when you’re in the reality field of someone with narcissism, those feelings are actually data about the relational field, not about you. If you’re in a relationship and feeling increasingly insecure, lonely, anxious, hypervigilant, angry, and distressed, it may be about them, not you.
3. Pay attention to the function of the communication, not only the content.
Everything that a narcissistic tells you is your fault will have a grain of truth in it. Don’t get confused. For everything they accuse you of, you can probably find an instance or example of it in yourself. Healthy, whole people are made up of both “good” and “bad” parts – that’s normal.
Do you sometimes get critical? Of course, we all do.
Do you sometimes speak unskillfully? Yes, we all do.
Do you sometimes get fed up with things? Yes, of course, we all do.
And, in a healthy relationship people talk about their “stuff,” love each other through it, and use it to build bridges and increase their sense of shared humanity with each other. These even become points of playful affection and warm humor as we love each other through our imperfections.
Narcissists however will use instances of you being a normal human against you. They dismiss and devalue anything that isn’t up to their idealized image and standards, and they will try to help you improve yourself.
Don’t look at the content of what they tell you about yourself (it will likely be true and based on something). Look instead at when and how they bring it up and how they use it against you in the relationship. Look at the function of the accusation, not the content of it.
I realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg on the subject.
I haven’t even started talking about trauma bonds, reactive abuse, baiting, narcissistic supply, entitlement, grandiosity, gaslighting, projection, love bombing, being a grey rock, intimacy avoidance, the hall of mirrors, and more.
So let me just say this:
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, get help.
Focus on your own growth, development, and well-being.
Ground yourself in your own goodness.
Remember who you really are.
You may feel a pull to understand them. That’s part of the dynamic (the focus on them). Pull your energy back and start asking yourself these questions:
Why am I pulled into this and what parts of me need healing?
What parts of me are settling for this?
What parts of me feel like I deserve this?
Where am I feeling afraid to set boundaries and what will support me in doing that more?
And, I’d love to hear from you. Where do you get hooked or trapped in these patterns? What feels particularly confusing to you? Leave a comment below.
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I just watched a video yesterday that talked about when you start to "figure out" the narcissist and they can sense it. How they might then ask questions like "What is it that I do that upsets you?" – seeming like maybe they are finally interested in self growth. But it really is just one more ploy to ensnare you and get you to believe that they honestly care. The statement that was made in this video was "A narcissist that sees a therapist becomes a better narcissist" – mainly because they’ve now learned additional language they can use to manipulate. THAT one stung! But so true….. Thank you for speaking to this Yvette!
Thanks so much Yvette,
I love every word of this. Brilliant. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and video watching, along with many discussions with various therapists on this topic as I seek to deal with the Trump phenomena (and others like him) and his followers. You did a phenomenal (a great word to describe a great challenge!) job encapsulating all of the best thinking and adding your own powerful and poignant insights from such a human and wise place. Thank you.
Please consider widely publishing this because it both names the challenges, explains how it functions and then gives some first steps for addressing it.
Of course, you did leave open a big door to a whole lot more that I’m sure others share my interest in hearing more about.
With Gratitude as Always,
Hmm. My fear is that I am the narcissist! How do you prevent yourself being on that side of equation? How do develop awareness if you’re acting that out unconsciously ?
Thanks for your introspection! By saying this you are already on the path of discovery. Your sharing gives me hope. The book “You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play” by Vivian Paley has contributed to my understanding of how power over dynamics are unchecked in most elementary schools.
Wow. This hits home in so many ways. It’s as though you just described the last twenty years of my relationship. It’s refreshing and hopeful to see the dynamic described with such clarity. I appreciate the generosity this extends toward narcissism but even more important, the empowerment it offers empaths. More please!
Thank you for sharing this! Boy did it hit home on SO many levels. Also makes me feel like a sane person who happened to get sucked in by a narcissist. I did learn a lot. Eager to read more on the subject!
Hi Yvette, and thank you for coming out with this message at this particular time. I am very clear at this point that I am married to a narcissist and his behavior is quite classic. What convinced me was his behavior at a family event last summer and it was so extreme that I started googling Narcissism and hitting the bookstores to find reading material so I could find a clearer understanding of it and find tools for my own self care. I know what it is and I know it is created in childhood and is deeply engrained. My job is to gain better skills, find tools to help create boundaries to keep myself safe. I believe that I am an empath but don’t believe I am co-dépendant. And I know I have a lot to learn! We do have separate space we live in (he at the cabin and me in town) but the two often intertwine and trouble can always be lurking around any corner and raise it’s ugly head at the most unsuspecting time. I do know that I need help and am looking at possibilities with the consideration also of limited finances being on a fixed income.
I particularly appreciate your concise explanation of narcissism here, the how and why of it’s origin etc. And want to thank you for what you do.
I hope to learn more and find “tools” to manage my world going forward.
I am married to a narcissist and feel trapped. I eat to cope 🙁 I am really starting to understand it all and it is deeply discouraging.