The Princess Bride movie is a masterpiece, in my opinion, and chock full of excellent quotes. This one reminds me very much of what being involved with a narcissist feels like:
Count Rugen: [admiring his torture contraption] Beautiful isn't it? It took me half a lifetime to invent it. I'm sure you've discovered my deep and abiding interest in pain. Presently I'm writing the definitive work on the subject, so I want you to be totally honest with me on how the machine makes you feel. This being our first try, I'll use the lowest setting.
If you’ve ever been involved with a narcissist, you’ll probably find this quote very funny, in a painful sort of way. If this is your intro to narcissism, congrats. Read on.
What’s a Narcissist?
In short, it's a person who is toxically self-centered. For those of you new to the term “narcissist”, I’m not going to go into detail about what it means here. There are plenty of good resources already in existence for that.
One of my long-time favorites is Sam Vaknin, a self-confessed narcissist who describes (albeit long-windedly at times) what it’s like to be a narcissist and to be involved with one. It’s a rabbit hole of epic proportions, so give yourself some time to explore his site at length.
I recently added to my favorites list a blog entry by an adult child of two narcissists who writes about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (among other topics). This entry is one of the best I’ve read on the subject, and contains a list of additional resources at the end.
Why Should Empaths Know About Narcissists?
If you’re an empath and you’ve never tangled with a narcissist, consider yourself very lucky. Most of us have a long, storied history with them. So, why is that? In my opinion, empaths are especially good sources of “narcissistic supply” for a few reasons:
We think narcissists are great. And they are! They tend to present themselves as being physically attractive, charming, successful, smart, warm, caring, and fun. Who wouldn’t want to be around someone like that? It’s only after we get very close and personal with them that we realize these traits are merely an image they’ve crafted to gain attention and approval.
HINT: Take your time when getting involved in a romance, shared living arrangement, or business venture with anyone. Narcissists typically won’t show their true colors until they are firmly convinced of your complete commitment to whatever position they need you to fill in their life. If you have a pattern of being taken in by this type of person, consider telling and showing your prospective partner that you are 100% devoted to him/her well before you actually are, so that you can more coolly evaluate her/his response. Make sure you have well-planned, easy-to-implement exit routes during this period. Also, pay heed to the opinions of the people in your life that treat you well – your friends and valued family members. They can often see the situation more clearly than you can.
They’re “emotionally complex”, and therefore, we find them fascinating. Emotionally-healthy people are simple. They may be deep or shallow, but they are always simple. When they feel sad, they cry. They express their thoughts and feelings directly and clearly. When they feel guilty, they apologize. You don’t have to ask them to treat you with empathy and compassion, because they do it automatically.
Narcissists, on the other hand, do and say things that are in direct conflict with what you know they’re actually feeling. When they feel sad, they may act like the life of the party. They express their feelings in ways that aren’t logical. When they’ve done something wrong, even an international smear campaign complete with video evidence and eyewitnesses wouldn’t be enough to convince them to take responsibility and apologize. And empathy? Compassion? Ha! Good luck with that.
We find this fascinating because it’s a puzzle to be solved. Why are they like this? What goes on in that head of theirs that causes their emotions to come out so scrambled? We can feel their inner pain, so maybe we even get a little self-righteous and believe that we are uniquely suited to helping them out, because we seem to have a better understanding of their internal dramas than they do.
HINT: If you find yourself saying, “I love that this person is so emotionally complex,” RUN. Not every emotionally-complex person is a narcissist, but all emotionally-healthy people are simple, so don’t walk; RUN. Find any reasonable excuse and implement a no-contact protocol immediately. If you do make a mistake and return to speaking terms after a while, repeat after me, “I cannot help this person. This person has nothing but pain to offer me,” and return to no contact by any means necessary.
We mistakenly believe that others are like we are. I’m not sure why people do this, but it’s a thought error almost everyone makes. In the case of empaths, we tend to believe that everyone is sensitive and caring, that people are essentially trustworthy and have our best interests at heart, and that they want to give more than they want to take. Naturally, this gets us into trouble sometimes, leaving us deceived, worn out, and heartbroken.
HINT: While most people really are good and trustworthy, accept that some people aren’t. I know that this may cause you great pain in the depths of your soul, though, so if you can’t or don’t want to, just recognize that it’s a choice you’re making between the temporary, transitory pain of having someone screw you over, and the permanent, existential pain of not believing in people’s fundamental goodness. For me, I think the answer is to keep my eyes open while still accepting my nature of wanting to love and trust, building into my life soft places to fall at those moments when I’ve naively allowed myself to be taken advantage of. Again.
We have a lot to offer. Let’s face it: we empaths can be pretty great to have around. We are excellent listeners, and we truly care about others’ well-being. We see the positive in others and tend to downplay their “opportunities for growth”, believing that people want to grow and will. We tend to be keenly aware of the effect we have on the people with whom we’re interacting, and automatically adjust our behavior to make them more comfortable. Because we feel the pain of others so strongly, we want to help others be happy in any way we can. We tend to be self-reliant, and we take care not to burden others with our problems.
HINT: Recognize that narcissists need you to provide for them, to cater to their whims and infantile emotional needs, with little to no reciprocity when you need something from them. And then, just don’t do that. An emotionally-healthy person will make plans with you in advance and show up on time, will give you gifts you actually want at appropriate gift-giving opportunities, will listen to you for the purpose of supporting you rather than dismissing you or gathering ammunition to use against you later, will introduce you to the other people in his/her life, will make an effort to care for you when you ask them for help, will give unselfishly during physically-intimate moments, and will respect your need for a reasonable amount of personal time and space.
We’re pre-conditioned to accept less than we deserve. In a lot of cases, the development of extreme empathy is a survival adaptation as a result of a chaotic family environment during our brain’s development. These types of environments normalize bad treatment to the point that we don’t understand what real love looks and feels like. Because our “normal” filter – that knee-jerk reaction that other people seem to have that alerts them to a personal boundary violation – is so poorly developed, we often rationalize or explain away poor behavior through over-empathizing with the narcissist in our lives. They believe in what they’re saying and doing, and because we feel what they’re feeling so viscerally, we believe it too (even though their behavior is completely out of line).
HINT: If you’re a “narcissist magnet”, it’s time to do some work on self-esteem and personal boundaries. You are allowed to be both good and bad just as much as other people. It’s time to feel good about saying what you think and feel, and to ask for what you want and need. Demand reciprocity from all of your relationships – friends, family, lovers, co-workers, etc. Commit to being the most important person in your life.
What if YOU’RE the narcissist?
Why is this always the question that the victim of a narcissist asks? I’m not sure. Maybe we’re so horrified by what we’ve experienced that we’re terrified we could be like that too and just not know. Everyone says it and I believe it also: if you’re worried about being a narcissist, you’re not one. Extreme narcissists tend to think that the problem is with everyone else, never them. Milder, more self-aware narcissists tend to recognize that there’s something terribly wrong with them, but they don’t care enough about the impact they’re having on others to get professional help with the dark swamp of pain that lives inside them. So, if you care about how much you might be hurting others, you’re not a narcissist. End of story.
But you’re still worried. Let me help you, if I can. In my experience with narcissists, there are really two very good ways to know if you are one:
A family member, roommate, lover, or close friend has accused you of being selfish or self-centered. Here’s the deal with this... Emotionally-healthy selfish people (they do exist; I know a few) are pretty straightforward from the very beginning about their level of selfishness. They know they’re selfish, they own it, they have no problem with it. The people in their lives know to expect selfishness, and are usually not overly upset when the straightforwardly-selfish person acts in accordance with how they’ve already defined themselves, because it’s congruent. One doesn’t bother telling these people they’re selfish, because they clearly already know and don’t care.
Narcissists, on the other hand, truly believe that they are altruistic and benevolent, and they expect everyone else to believe it too. They are, therefore, shocked that someone would believe them to be otherwise, and an accusation of selfishness usually bothers them intensely. How dare someone not believe in their image of perfection?!?!
Someone in your life has implemented a no-contact protocol with you in a way that left you shocked and bewildered by their behavior. While there is some variation in the way that romantic relationships typically end, narcissists commonly have family members, roommates, and/or friends cease speaking to them for reasons that are unfathomable to the narcissist. It’s more than just allowing distance to occur naturally, too. From what I’ve observed, these people usually exit the life of the narcissist in a fashion that seems to the narcissist to be quite dramatic (but is in reality just the natural expression of the departing party’s emotional overwhelm upon realizing what kind of person they’re dealing with).
Westley: Where am I?
The Albino: [raspy voice] The Pit of Despair! Don't even think...
The Albino: ... don't even think about trying to escape. The chains are far too thick. Don't dream of being rescued, either; the only way in is secret. Only the Prince, the Count, and I know how to get in and out.
Westley: So I'm here till I die?
The Albino: Until they kill you, yeah.
Westley: Then why bother curing me?
The Albino: Well, the Prince and Count always insist on everyone being healthy before they're broken.
Westley: So it's to be torture?
The Albino: [nods enthusiastically]
Westley: I can cope with torture.
The Albino: [shakes head enthusiastically]
Westley: Don't believe me?
The Albino: You survived the Fire Swamp, so you must be very brave, but no one withstands The Machine.
Take care of yourselves, my dears.
P.S. I recognize that this is a sensitive topic. I'm obviously not a trained mental health professional, and am therefore not qualified to diagnose or treat mental health conditions of any kind, including Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The foregoing narrative is merely my opinion, based on my personal experience and research. Feel free to disagree with me - I'm certainly not an expert on this subject - but please ensure that your comments are thoughtful and respectful.