Have you noticed how much information you can find “out there” about codependency and narcissism? It’s overwhelming.
And let’s be honest: not all of the content is equally good, true, or helpful.
While I’m delighted to see so many people becoming more and more informed and educated about these painful relational dynamics, there are two super-important dynamics that I just don’t see people talking about enough:
How to assess whether our NVC-style empathy practice is actually a destructive part of an empathic reversal (this week’s topic!)
How to stop yourself from “othering” and forming an enemy image of “the narcissist” or “the perpetrator” or “the abuser,” while still protecting yourself from more harm (which we will discuss in a future post!)
If you were abused or neglected by a parent or another person close to you, you may struggle with a phenomenon known as empathic reversal in your relationships as an adult.
When we’re little, we all instinctively know that we’re dependent on our caregivers/parents for survival. For a child who experiences abuse or neglect, if you didn’t have other more emotionally nourishing options, you didn’t know what was missing, and your focus would have been to see your parents/abusers as normal, protective, and nurturing.
You needed to protect yourself from overwhelming feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and loneliness and the experience of being unsafe and unprotected in the world. These feelings are so intolerable, unbearable, and painful, that they get stored in our unconscious and replaced with internalized beliefs about how relationships work.
You survived and coped by believing that you were wrong and bad, by associating painful interpersonal experiences with love, and by protecting, defending, and nurturing your parents – no matter what.
This role reversal and distorted perception then became wired into our physiology over time, resulting in younger parts of ourselves that continue to have excess empathy for abusive, narcissistic people, while at the same time having a difficult time with extending that same empathy toward ourselves.
Empathic reversal happens when we form a hyper-empathic and boundaryless connection with the perpetrator combined with having insufficient empathy, care, or protective connection with the part of ourselves that is on the receiving end of abuse or neglect.
We find ourselves feeling sorry for them, wanting to understand them, wanting to give them empathy, regulate them, heal them while simultaneously blaming ourselves, examining ourselves, trying to change ourselves, and abandoning ourselves.
It’s not that we “like” mean people or are “attracted” to abusive people. It’s that these young parts of ourselves were never taught how to protect themselves or that they even deserved protection from these painful experiences. They learned instead to orient around the needs of the other person in order to meet needs for safety, connection, and security.
One of the traps you may fall into if you’ve had some of this in your past, is trying to help others to be more relational and empathic. That’s all well and good if they have explicitly asked you for help like this. But if not, keep in mind the reason that this is so tempting is that it takes the focus off of yourself.
Here are some more life-affirming ways to channel your energy instead of into others:
1. Mindfulness Practice
Develop your adult, wise, compassionate witnessing self who can begin to consciously lead you into a new way of relating with yourself and others.
You may want to do some deeper work with buried younger parts in yourself. An intrinsic part of trauma work is reversing this empathic reversal. The first relationship to heal is the one you have with yourself. Find a good therapist, go inward, meet the younger parts inside of you, and become intimately connected to them.
Meet these buried parts in you with compassion and let them emerge from the darkness and into the light of awareness where they can breathe deeply and reclaim their voices. It is only with support, empathy, and gentleness that you will learn that you matter too.
3. Self-Help Reading and Learning
Read books about attachment, trauma, narcissism, and codependency. (Check out some recommended reading here.)
Improve your communication skills around your feelings, needs, wants, desires and boundaries. Learning nonviolent communication, authentic relating practices, and Byron Katie’s “The Work” are all good places to start.
We need to redirect the flow of compassion from those who hurt us, to the young child in ourselves fielding the painful situation to begin with. Let’s connect with and heal that pain from our upbringing so that we can – in non-retaliatory, non-punitive ways – hold perpetrators accountable and help them get their own healing.
And this inner work, by the way, is exactly what prevents us from creating enemy images of narcissists: we stop making excuses for their behaviors, we stop blaming ourselves for the pain welling up in the relationship, and we make a commitment to seeing the situation clearly for what it is.
We learn to give ourselves the compassion and empathy that we so easily extend to others, and we reparent the uncared for parts of ourselves that confuse control with love. We break the cycle of abuse by fundamentally transforming the shame and blame cycle and bringing the feelings into consciousness.
And, I’d love to hear from you … as you take your energy back from “them” and redirected it onto yourself, share with me:
How good are you at your own self-soothing?
How are you doing with sitting with your own feelings and longings?
How are you communicating your needs, wants, and desires with clarity and kindness?
How are you taking care of yourself when your needs aren’t being met?
WANT TO GO DEEPER IN THIS WORK?
Here are a few of my programs that might be of interest to you: