In a world where we worship celebrities, where selfie-culture is the norm and where social media becomes a tool to craft the ‘perfect’ image of ourselves, it is crucial to remember that narcissism is more than a label for the self-absorbed; it is a devastating dynamic which plays out in all kinds of relationships and social structures. For the narcissist, having the attention of others is about more than gaining an ego boost. Behind the polished persona of a narcissist is a darker truth which becomes lost in a flurry of drama, manipulation and mind games. To truly understand narcissism and innoculate yourself from its effects, you must first become intimate with this dark truth and understand how it plays out in your relationships. You must learn what makes a narcissist tick.
What makes the narcissist tick
The majority of humans are willingly influenced by their emotions. Some more than others. Empathy allows us to feel the plight of another person and to want to help them. Shame regulates our grandiosity and reminds us that we’re not gods who need everyone to bow down to us, but rather that we are humans with flaws who need to get along and who are in need of constant improvement and adjustment. Guilt forces us to reflect on our wrong actions and make amends. These feelings can be painful, but they are also good. They help us maintain healthy relationships, to coexist and to create a better world.
Narcissists don’t give a shit about any of that. They couldn’t care less about your feelings. As far as they are concerned, feelings are not about creating a harmonious society or fostering fulfilling relationships – they are a way to control you. Gas-lighting, triangulation and hoovering are the subtle and often not so subtle techniques that narcissists use to control their targets through emotions. Saying a certain thing in a certain way can set off the emotions of their target and cause them to react. Narcissists are well aware of this. Tactics, however, crucial as they are to understand, are focused on what the narcissist does. What we need first to understand, is what the narcissist is;
Narcissists are shameless.
This is the defining trait of narcissism. A narcissist has little to no capacity for empathy or shame. Some people claim that narcissists have no capacity for shame at all, others that they have disowned their shame from an early age in exchange for a grandiose, false self. Either way, narcissists are shameless. Because they don’t feel shame, their sense of grandiosity runs riot unchecked. Also, in order to be shameless all the time, they need people to feed their grandiosity. This need follows on from their defining trait; a narcissist lives out their grandiosity by subjugating and objectifying other people.
Shamelessness is the most subtle thing about a narcissist and the most difficult to see. It is also at the core of a narcissist and what makes them so deadly to our well-being. By being shameless, the narcissist does not have to self-reflect. By being shameless, the narcissist does not have to admit to their limitations and humanity. It creates an impenetrable shield. They don’t have to admit to being wrong, they don’t have to admit to not being good enough, they don’t have to apologise and they sure as hell don’t have to give others the higher ground.
Being in the presence of someone who is shameless automatically reflects all shame back onto you. By putting on an aura of godliness, it instantly causes the person in the narcissist’s presence to feel inferior in comparison. When you are in the presence of a person who shows healthy shame, you feel warm and a sense of camaraderie and equality. When you are in the presence of a narcissist, more often than not, you feel like crap. Being raised by a narcissist or being in a relationship with a narcissist is like being under the hot sun all day. They reflect all shame back onto you just by being around you.
It can be easy to miss this if you spent long periods of time in the presence of narcissists. They don’t even have to do anything overtly. It’s not just about catching their manipulative behaviour; it’s about being aware of how they make you feel. There’s something off about it and it goes on just below your conscious awareness. It’s like being in emotional purgatory. You are constantly waiting to be let in, to experience the joy of being in a satisfying relationship, but the narcissist keeps you at arm’s length. This is the core of a relationship with a narcissist; it all begins with this. They’re like slippery fish. Nothing sticks to them. It all gets reflected back to you. By being shameless, the narcissist forces the other person to carry the shame – to feel inferior.
If the person feels it continuously and for long enough, they will eventually internalise it. It will become entwined with their personality and will exist as a constant shadow over a person’s entire experience. Feeling anger for long periods of time makes a person become an angry person. Being depressed for long periods of time makes a person become a depressive person. Being exposed to shame for long periods of time makes a person believe that they are flawed to the bone. What John Bradshaw calls ‘toxic shame’ is what makes shamelessness in a relationship the most dangerous, even before any overt abuse takes place.
This shame reflecting manifests in many ways. The narcissist will:
- Use condescending stares/eye rolling.
- Snicker and laugh at your weaknesses, or even perceive subjectively the things you do as wrong.
- Give little to no importance to what you say.
- Inflate themselves through story. They are often great storytellers and always the protagonist of their own tale.
- Refuse to reinforce what you share or show appreciation.
- Not allow you to set boundaries. They pile on the pressure until you accept their agenda.
- Refuse to go along with your plans or allow you to influence them. The relationship is generally lopsided.
- Compare you to others in an unfair and subjective way.
Note that all of the above are designed to create the illusion that you are of lower status and the narcissist is of higher status.
In a healthy relationship, the shame is shared and cancelled out. It is subconsciously communicated that we are both human, we both make mistakes, and neither person is better than the other. We are equal. Whether it was intended or not, anything contrary to this, by definition, is shaming. For example, if a person explains to a friend that they embarrassed themselves showing off in front of someone attractive, the friend might share a story of something similar that happened to them in an act of acceptance and solidarity. Mutual shame becomes a shared experience which enhances the relationship.
If you share the same story with a narcissist, they might snicker and laugh at you and then talk about how attractive their last conquest was. They are completely fixated on maintaining their sense of grandiosity, even when it hurts others. They don’t care that the privilege of being ‘better’, often in a petty way, means somebody else must feel like ‘less’. The more they do this in a relationship, the deeper the other person sinks into shame, which crushes their self-esteem and well-being.
Shattering the myth of the narcissist
The battle to overcome narcissistic abuse begins by accepting that the imbalance you have been experiencing between yourself and the narcissist is abusive and is not what relationships are about. Your sense of self-worth has been compromised, and it happened because the other person was not playing by the rules. You didn’t have common respect, a shared shame, warmth, understanding, and empathy. You tried to play a game of basketball with someone who, instead of bouncing the ball correctly, watching their fouls and respecting the rules, kicked you in the shins then sprinted off and scored the basket. You need to accept that despite this unacceptable style of play, you didn’t know better, and continued to respect the rules and play while being walked all over. Now you need to break out of the illusion and see it for what it is; a fabrication and a myth. It is a lie.
The truth is that:
- The narcissist is not better than you
- You are not incompetent
- You do not need a person of alleged higher power to navigate through life
This is a myth which they created, and which they made you believe because you were vulnerable. As a child you were vulnerable. When in a relationship and your self-esteem is compromised, you are vulnerable. Being love-starved makes you vulnerable. Relationships, by their very definition, mean being vulnerable. Narcissists take advantage of this.
The battle begins when you shatter this myth and blow it out of the water. You are not worthless and weak. You were coerced into playing with someone who did not respect the rules of the game. Simple as that.
To better understand the dynamics of narcissism and to learn more about the 7 practices for narcissistic abuse recovery, check out How To Kill A Narcissist.