Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
September 2015 - Volume 15, No. 9
Narcissists and Empaths
Ever since April 2011, when I wrote my Newsletter “The Narcissist and his Woman” I’ve been struggling to understand the many women (and also some men) who hold so tightly to their abusing partner. To date I’ve received 55 responses online to that (another arrived just a few days ago), and an equal number of private responses.
Three years later, in Apr 2014, I wrote “Responding to the Narcissists’ Women” - an attempt to share what I had learned so far. But it still didn’t reveal the ‘heart’ of what I was looking for.
So it’s time to try again.
Discovering ‘Elephant Journal’
A few months ago I discovered an online writers community named “Elephant Journal” - a lively collection of folks who seem to have the practice of yoga as their common center. Their website, www.elephantjournal.com - has the byline, “Dedicated to the mindful life.”I find that an honest assessment of its content.
That’s where I found an article pairing narcissists with “Empaths” - which seems to be the key I’ve been looking for. On that website, do a homepage search for “narcissist” and the first page alone gives 20 excellent articles. These folks have been doing some great homework on the subject.
I’m using the term as less than it’s full psychological depth, but to designate a highly intuitive person who is very sensitive to the emotions and conditions of other people. Two problems arise. One, the empath is almost helpless to not experience the inner life of others. He or she can’t not come into contact with their inner conflict. Secondly, the empath can become oblivious to the boundary crossed from the self to the other person. This can explain the seeming abandonment of self in relationships. There can be few or no warning signs of this precarious boundary crossing. It can leave one highly vulnerable and at times defenseless.
In the old fairy tales and ‘children’s stories’, this is the orphan or abandoned child who no longer has the caring (i.e. boundary-maintaining) parent for protection against the wicked false (step)parents who would step in to take advantage of their defenselessness and vulnerability and destroy them. Off hand I immediately think of Cinderella, Snow White, Handsel and Gretel, and Rumpelstiltskin.
The essential betrayal
In my April 2011 article, I spelled out my own thesis of the dynamic between the Narcissist and his victim. So far I am still holding to that as a useful map of what I see from time to time in my couple work. The narcissist carries an inner and unconscious wound which he needs filled by the adoration and affirmation of others. His ability to charm others toward this goal is enhanced by his absence of empathy. Having essentially no conscience, he is free to learn to act, yet having no awareness his is only a desperate act. He is not only sincere, he is super sincere. And the empathetic partner also has no awareness of his violating her own boundary of self with his toxic usury. That’s still a pretty raw explanation, but it continues to make more and more sense to me.I’ll continue to ‘test it out’ in the future of my work.
[I’m aware my primary mapping to date generally assumes the narcissist is male and the ‘victim’ is female. That’s what I see in my practice and in the many responses from readers. This could, however, turn out to be a flaw in my mapping. But I proceed here on the basis of my own experience and insight.]
So similar to a healthy bond between loving partners
Even when the victim comes to acknowledge the extent of the narcissist’s betrayal, she is often helpless to disconnect. Such is the toxic bond between their mutual blindness, and especially her deep hunger to give ‘love’.
What I find so tragic is the form of that toxic narcissist/empath bond is so similar to that of a healthy bond between loving partners. In the absence of narcissistic energies, the empath is safe to manage her own caring, especially if she has a partner who has the gift of his own strong boundaries to hold her intact.
A woman wants the desire of her man, and to give herself in love to the one who desires her.
A man wants to desire her and in so doing to please and give support support by which she can feel safe and complete.
This is even in spite of the betrayals life seems to present us. In fact I find that couples wrestling with betrays frequently grow stronger both in themselves and in their relationships. That’s one of the mysteries and joys of my work.
But with the narcissist, the ability to supersede betrayals drives him more into his desperate and empty self. He cannot “know” a partner. He sadly can only serve himself, and ultimately fail at even that.
With the narcissist’s empath, the “loving too much” has to revert to an honoring of personal boundaries, initially at the expense of that full investment in another, that had become only the “fantasy of love.” (Frequently she’ll decide she herself must be the narcissist - so tight is the narcissistic noose.) She must stand alone - which feels like such a defeat and betrayal in itself. And often may mean entering the great vulnerability of poverty and social isolation.
Some years ago a book emerged by Robin Norwood - “Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He'll Change” (1986). It had to do with “relationship addiction and recovery.” For me, the title itself, “love too much.” marked the breaking of a spell in our culture whereby “Love” was supposed to be the ultimate mythic healer. (Full disclosure here is that I’ve not read the book, only articles about it.)
One model I considered in seeking to understand the bondage of a woman to an abusive man was addiction.But it never fully felt like the right model or answer. In Norwood’s book, the antidote is to raise a woman’s self-esteem (a memorable buzz-word of the time). But the healing work of the empath is not related to self-esteem, it’s related to boundary matters. To be sure, the narcissist will destroy a partner’s self-esteem. But the greater damage is to the self itself.
Many speak of “co-dependence” as the issue. This is often the pattern, but it doesn’t open the journey to healing. Co-dependence itself is linked to the addiction model.
In my experience, addiction can be conquered primarily in two ways: 1) By sheer power of the will, and 2) by the tightly structured wisdom of co-addict fellowship (such as AA). I don’t work with addiction because as an individual I don’t feel powerful enough to counter the power of the addiction. But in my experience, the power of deep narcissism in an individual is more powerful than any addiction group. Narcissism trumps addiction. Wrestling with it, from either side, has to be an individual journey.
The empath’s healing journey
That’s why the empath’s healing journey is often one of increased loneliness and even further vulnerability. The supportive community needed for this work does not need to be made up of “rescuers” (which by inference makes the empath a “victim”). The narcissist has already co-opted that process.
Remember my comments about the ‘stories’ of abandoned children. Those stories are not meant to rid the world of abandoning parents. Rather they are meant to teach us how to live in a world where there are abandoning parents, where there is betrayal, where there is abuse. At times it can be a dark journey. And the stories (often coming to us from hundreds of years ago) become our soul’s guides and teachers. (We’ve often forgotten how to read the stories this way.)
Yes, it is important when we do have the gift of empathy - that we use it to care for others. That’s often the end of the story. But the middle of each story is the individual’s solitary struggle. I think of the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling through the night with the angel before he is able to finally face his brother whom he had earlier betrayed (Genesis ch 22).
Healing for the Marriage?
The great need today is for those who have ‘been there.’ Remember the name of Bilbo Baggins’ book?“A Hobbit's Tale, or There and Back Again”
It’s parallel to the journey of any human partnership.No marriage is easy, and some are impossible. Some were well-formed from the beginning. Some were wounded from the beginning, and by mutual hard work and loving, eventually emerge strong. Many lack the courage to fight for life, and so just endure “till death.” Some can’t handle certain betrayals, and so collapse. It takes only one partner to break the bond - it’s always a high risk.
The narcissist/empath marriage itself is a tragedy. The narcissist lacks the central ability to form a partnership, the ability to fully care for another. The empath lacks the ability to let go of another, or as Zorba the Greek says - “to dare cut the rope and be free.”
The narcissist’s healing journey (a brief outline)
Many of my male clients, who have narcissistic elements to their personality, read this material and end up feeling cursed and hopeless. Briefly they may go through four stages.
1) Anger or rage that I have betrayed them (as their therapist).
2) Try to deflect all the blame on the partner (a long-standing standard narcissistic trait).
3) Begin to ask “Is there any hope for us?”
4) “Is there any hope for me?” Only in this last stage does any hope begin to emerge.
In this last stage, there is a parallel to addiction. However, the addict can see there are those who have prevailed over their addiction, and enter healing fellowship with them. With the narcissist, my fear is that he cannot see anyone who has prevailed (been ‘healed’). All he can see is a lonely emptiness, which is where the narcissism arose in the first place.
There is much more I could write. My mind is good at making connections. But I hesitate because I feel the need to gain more clinical experience before presenting what could sound like definitive answers. And I know what I have written is still somewhat scattered and obtuse.
I don’t work in a laboratory. Nor do I work within any particular ‘school’ of thought. I seek to travel with my clients where they lead me (which is itself a particular clinical discipline). Much of this work is intuitive - which is easily prone to the (valid) criticism of being “unscientific.”
What I do know is the tremendous amount of suffering out there within domestic relationships involving narcissistic personalities, and those who seemingly cannot disengage (on either side), frequently to their own peril.
I hope this is helpful to some of you, my readers. And for the rest of you, continue always to
The narcissist says,'this is all about me!' The empath says,'yes, it is.'