While I’m certainly not a professional, I’ve dealt with my share of narcissism throughout my life. Unfortunately, many people have endured far worse than what I’ve experienced, and some have been damaged beyond repair. Whatever we can do to help others toward the light in the darkness can mean the difference between their giving up and holding on.
My primary theory is that malignant narcissism is at the heart of the world’s dysfunction. I’m convinced that we’re dealing with the chaos of the world’s trauma, shame, and pain. It’s the gift that keeps on giving—with the worst possible repercussions, and it spreads through the universe like a poison. I believe this suffering, which leads to more suffering, is a cycle we can break with recognition, empathy, and a genuine desire to change.
So, I write this from the heart.
THE NARCISSISTS AMONG US
As you likely already know, narcissistic abusers can be parents, lovers, siblings, friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, co-workers, employers, teachers, etc. Many of us are unwittingly drawn to them because of their familiarity. Awareness of malignant narcissism is critical since we have long-term contact with some of these people, which can amount to significant damage.
Reading and participating in narcissistic abuse recovery groups has taught me that there’s a difference between people with full-blown NPD and those who get “fleas” from narcissistic abuse—the latter having acquired the narcissistic abuser’s strategies and behaviors to cope and survive. There’s a spectrum, I believe, with varying degrees of impact. Some narcissistic abuse survivors don’t seem to exhibit any of the behavior they were subjected to, while others appear to have inherited every trace of it.
In short, while experiencing narcissistic abuse, we’re often dealing with a person’s trauma response to the abuse that they themselves experienced. Victims of narcissistic abuse can become so defensive that they, too, can become hurtful.
There was a time in my own life when despite the general empathy I had for others, my privileges made someone else’s struggle unrelatable to me. I took for granted that I had a good job and a career and that in my recovery from substance abuse, I wasn’t struggling. Relapse was not a temptation, let alone a threat. Many would say, well, you worked for those things. Yeah, I did, but the fact that I was able to shouldn’t have blinded me to the reality that it was hard and damn near impossible for those who didn’t have the advantages I had while growing up. My expectations of others at the time were unrealistically high, and I didn’t understand it when people fell short of meeting them.
I mentioned empathy a couple of times now because that’s an essential factor here. Empathy is what sets the recovering victim apart from a hopelessly disordered narcissist because it is empathy that makes us want to do better and play fair. We’re eventually willing to relinquish the narcissistic “payoffs” because we care about others. In my experience, I’ve found that as long as we have empathy for ourselves and others, we can rise above many of the character defects that burden us and make us a burden to others.
And to be fair, I’m not sure I’ve ever dealt with anyone who had a total lack of empathy, but they’re out there, and they’re dangerous.
In my view, most narcissistic abusers do what they do out of insecurity, fear, and habit, and they can be oblivious to what’s causing them to act as they do.
These narcissists are ashamed of who they are, so they manufacture an image of who they want to be. That’s where the obsession with one’s self-image develops—and whatever the narcissist stands for becomes part of that façade. It becomes necessary for them to buy into and sell their superiority because, in the narcissist’s conscious or subconscious mind, there is no in-between when it comes to superiority and inferiority. Equal isn’t an option, and they don’t want anyone to see them as inferior. Damage control becomes a survival strategy and an automatic response to any threat to the ideology that comforts and, quite frankly, saves them.
In terms of fear, I think one thing narcissistic abusers often derive from their experiences is that there’s not enough of what’s good to go around, which may even be the case in their family environment. They then take that fear out into the world, believing, again—perhaps only subconsciously—that there’s a limited amount of love, attention, money, success, fame, and so on, no matter where they go. More for you means less for them; therefore, everything becomes a competition. With this mindset, it is difficult for them to genuinely support others and easy to fear that those “others” might succeed at their expense. You want them to root for you, but they’re more likely to sabotage you with discouragement and disinterest.
Perceived threats to a narcissistic abuser can be enviable traits, such as someone else’s popularity and influence, or even unenviable traits, such as an illness or disorder that another person may have to endure. People begin to pay more attention to the afflicted or popular ones, which can trigger an alarm for the narcissist. It compels them to redirect the attention they’re not getting so that the focus is back on them.
Sometimes, narcissistic abusers reject others simply for being different. There are circumstances where a child has mental or physical health issues, and a narcissistic individual will perceive that as shameful because they think it reflects negatively on them, or they see it as a weakness from which they must distance themselves. Sometimes, parents or relatives deny the problem or blame the child rather than support them. To a narcissist, that behavior is an affront to them. The main concern is, What will people think?
That was typical behavior hundreds of years ago—the result of clinical ignorance and/or superstition of the times, but it hasn’t entirely vanished all these years later, despite our society having a better understanding of these issues today.
For a dysfunctional narcissist, everyone in their family and circle of friends must be normal by their standards. Every member of their family or circle must also validate and reinforce whatever they think, say, and do in order to nurture the notion that their perception is always accurate. That’s crucial to them because their deepest fear is, if they are wrong about that, what else are they wrong about? And can they possibly be wrong about everything they believed to be true? They may not be ready to examine any of those possibilities.
Narcissistic abusers withhold support, validation, admiration, attention, and approval from those they perceive as threats or competition or anyone who challenges the reality they’ve constructed. They reject, bully, intimidate, humiliate, and kick perceived enemies when they’re down. These heartbreaking actions can crush a person’s spirit and leave them with paralyzing trauma and fear. Malignant narcissists often demonize someone because they don’t have the same power over that person that they so expertly wield over others.
Character assassination is most definitely in the narcissistic abuser’s wheelhouse, and they excel at it. They rewrite history, spin false narratives, mischaracterize, mock, and blame their chosen targets. There will be people within the narcissist’s social group playing both sides, as well, which becomes a never-ending drama. Too often, people want to be on the side they figure is winning, more popular, or simply more rewarding. They may even fear the narcissist and remain loyal rather than become another target. As victims of narcissistic abuse, we may also feel a sense of loyalty to the abusers, and we may wish to protect them. Denial becomes a method of survival for us, too. It doesn’t help that narcissistic abusers can be charming. We may find them so lovable and irresistible that we’re desperate to be wrong about them.
Nor does it help that none of us are perfect people, unwittingly allowing abusers to bring out the worst in us. When dealing with manipulative behavior, we sometimes make a bad situation worse with our reactions or simply by tripping over our own flaws and insecurities, thus taking the bait. (If I had a dollar for every ridiculous thing I’ve said in those circumstances—well, you get the idea.)
Sadly, too, we often genuinely love a narcissistic abuser and hope we can help them. It’s wise to remember that people who want to recover will do the work required to repair themselves. People who are not aspiring to change may not be willing or ready to examine themselves, acknowledge their mistakes, take responsibility, and begin the process of learning, growing, and healing. If they are not there yet, and you confront their behavior, they’ll likely act as if your question or statement is shocking, offensive, or absurd, and they’ll think you’re the one with the problem. The moment you put them on the defensive, it becomes even more critical to discredit you to themselves and their circle of family and friends.
It won’t matter what you say to them or how kind you are; your words will not move a narcissist who isn’t ready to change. You think you can meet them halfway, but if believing you, understanding you, and finding a way to co-exist peacefully with you doesn’t work with their agenda, they don’t compromise. Even if they care about and respect you, the extent to which they care has to be greater than their need to be perceived in the most flattering light.
The payoff they’ve gotten from selling their narrative is a lot to give up because they’d have to be willing to risk losing the false alter ego they created to survive. It’s easier for them to dehumanize a perceived enemy and rationalize that this person deserves their retaliation, no matter how vicious it is. They can’t afford to put themselves in your place and understand your emotional pain or see how they may be the ones who caused it.
Narcissistic abusers may call you selfish if you end the relationship or leave their group because they don’t realize what they’re asking you to do is tolerate their constant disrespect and abuse. But that’s okay. Those in their corner will agree with them that you’re selfish, and that’s okay, too. Maybe someday, they will be able to see things objectively, but don’t confuse someone you can save with someone you need to save yourself from.
IMPACT, SURVIVAL, AND CHANGE
I mentioned bullying above because bullying is a form of narcissistic abuse and can be debilitating for targets who are deeply connected to their emotions. These people may be strong in most situations, but bullying distorts their self-perception and leads to kindhearted people becoming more sensitive and insecure—often hating themselves. People don’t necessarily realize it when they contribute to the erosion of a child’s self-worth, but kids pay attention to how people treat them, and they get the message loud and clear. Abusers intentionally or unintentionally break our wings so that when we don’t fly, they can say they knew we never would or that we might have succeeded if only we’d listened to them.
Sadly, most of us already have an underlying fear that people won’t love us for who we are, which, through suffering from narcissistic abuse, gets distorted into the notion that no one will ever love us—period. That’s often one of the things people fear most in life, a fate worse even than death, and many young people out there are killing themselves for that. They fight to cope with one trauma after another until they reach a breaking point and can’t cope anymore, and then they shut down. The message is I’ve had enough; I can’t do this anymore. I’m out.
Often, when people feel that desperation, getting beyond thoughts of suicide is only the first hurdle. From there, it’s a long haul to reclaim themselves and their capacity to love.
That’s right. Our ability to love genuinely is also affected. We ask ourselves, What’s wrong with me? We can’t fix it or explain it, and we can’t stop it. We sometimes imagine we’re crazy or going crazy. We get completely lost and unsure about many things. Underneath it is a chronic sadness that never really subsides, and shame overwhelms us.
Awareness and acceptance are the first steps to most self-help, and that’s very much the case here. It takes time and requires ongoing self-maintenance, but we are generally more powerful than the obstacles that derail us. In this instance, I’m not talking about chemical imbalances or illnesses beyond anyone’s control; I’m talking about things that are beyond our control simply because we didn’t understand them at the time.
I advocate awareness because it’s easy for people to use our idiosyncrasies against us. Longtime endurance of narcissistic abuse leads us to question our judgment and sometimes acts to prove that the negative assessment of ourselves is correct. We may be attractive, intelligent, talented, or whatever, yet we fear we are inferior and unworthy of love and success because the people we want to love us—the narcissistic abusers—are incapable of genuine love. And if we are the reminder of their shame, they fear us as much as they fear the true selves they’ve buried deep.
We become more understanding as we become more aware. We learn to examine our actions and motives and not fear what we find. Again, we don’t have to be perfect, and none of us are. More important is the desire to recognize and correct hurtful behavior as we move forward.
When we choose to break the cycle, we learn to spot trouble from the get-go and avoid it. Even better, narcissistic abusers will tend to keep their distance because they’ll realize they’re not able to manipulate and control us.
The good news is we are always healing, as individuals, as friends, as a family, as a nation, and as a planet. As part of that process, we continue to expand our consciousness, and we wake up every day one step closer to who we are meant to be—the best person we can be under our everyday circumstances.
This blog contains numerous excerpts from my forthcoming memoir, Grateful to Be Alive.
Grateful to Be Alive:
My Road to Recovery from Addiction
By D.K. Sanz
Do unsettling truths bring harsh judgment? They do, but the price of denial is steep.
D.K. Sanz’s storybegins in the drug-infested New York City streets of Woodside, Queens, during the tumultuous HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 80s and 90s. It offers a glimpse into how a now often-overlooked pandemic impacted Sanz’s nuclear family.
From her earliest days, Sanz was the easily forgotten stranger, always a little out of sync with the rest of the world—a tough but naive kid and aspiring writer. Her triumph over illness and addiction includes amusing anecdotes and nostalgic, heartwarming memories.
Grateful to be Alive delves deep into Sanz’s confessional self-sabotage, self-destruction, and the harrowing downward spiral she almost didn’t survive. Her never-before-told story ranges from recklessness and impudence to empathy, forgiveness, and love.
D.K. Sanz has since published several books, primarily poetry but also a novel, and she continues to work on sequels and an all-new fantasy series. You’ll find some of her poetry at the end of this book.
Whether struggling or not, you will find Grateful to Be Alive is a story of hope, of defying insurmountable odds, finding joy, and a gradual transition toward authenticity and becoming the person Sanz always wanted to be.
First ARC copy review:
“When you begin this book, you will not put it down. You will immediately be drawn into Sanz’s bold narrative of a woman, throughout her life, passing through “every forbidden door,” as she says of herself. It is a book of continual growth through experience, defeat, and triumph. The prose is swift, concise, full of irony, truth, and poise. You will not find a more startling, revealing memoir. Highly, highly recommended.” ~ J.T. Masters
If you are interested in obtaining an ARC copy, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature photo of narcissist shadow image by Thanks for your Likes from Pixabay
Spirit nightmare dream image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay
Blindfolded woman in mirror image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Man in mysterious whisper image by Sam Williams from Pixabay
Dove/hands/peace/freedom image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay