I’ve promised to write a second part to my post about the difference between narcissists and abusers. But I decided that first I need to explain a number of key concepts regarding severe self-centeredness, also called “narcissism” or “personality disorder.” So that’s what I’m exploring today.
I’m not writing here about abusive men. I’m writing about problems you may have observed in various people whom you’ve cared about – or been targeted by – over the course of your life, not just partners.
I’m also not writing about self-involvement. There are people who show little interest in talking about anything but themselves, who go on endlessly about their own issues, and who are incapable of doing focused listening to anyone else. That’s a completely different problem from the one I’m addressing.
In fact, the self-centered person is often an unusually good listener, and can come off as deeply caring and sensitive. This ability is part of what makes them so destructive, as we’ll see.
I’ll begin by describing the essential nature of self-centeredness as it looks from the outside. The self-centered person tends to have good overall skills at perspective-taking; they can make you feel super understood, like they really “get it” about life experience that you share with them. This is an individual who, therefore, can often make you feel exceptionally loved and understood; you may find the person almost magical to be around — at least at first.
But the person does have one huge perspective-taking problem: they can’t take your perspective about them, even if they can take your perspective on everything else. They can’t see how they look through your eyes, or how you experience them, especially at times when they are being selfish or insulting or aggressive or dictatorial. This is often the only place where they have a serious perspective-taking deficit; but in this one key area their inability to do perspective-taking is severe, long-term, and highly toxic.
This is not a skill that they’re missing because no one taught it to them; it’s a skill they’re missing because they have a huge block to learning it and simply can’t do it. By the time we’re in our mid-twenties (or so), we’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn to see ourselves through other people’s eyes. If someone hasn’t gotten it by then, they’re not going to get it. I’ll say more about this further down.
When a severely self-centered person behaves destructively – when they do something mean or selfish or demeaning – you simply will not succeed at getting them to look at what they’ve done. At times it may start to seem like you’re getting through, but it will dissolve before long. And this will happen over and over again; you’ll keep feeling like you’re on the brink of a breakthrough that disappears after a few days or weeks. Or you keep having the same breakthrough with the person over and over again, which means it isn’t really happening.
An additional wrinkle is that the person sometimes can take responsibility for smaller things they’ve done wrong, and be quite apologetic about those things. But the bigger and more serious their destructive behavior has been, the less they’re able to look at it. So the most serious acts – in other words, the ones that the person most needs to face up to – are exactly the ones that the person absolutely will not be able to confront.
When you call a self-centered person out on something they’ve done, they act hurt and they insist that you’re being unfair to them. They’ll insist that you don’t recognize their good intentions, and that you’re misinterpreting what happened.
The next step is that they say the problem actually resides in how you view them. Your unfairly negative opinion about them is why you think they’ve treated you badly. (And you’re likely to find yourself defending your view of them, feeling that you have to say, “No, I don’t see you the way you’re saying I do.” In the process, they’ve successfully diverted the discussion away from having to examine their actions.)
When you assert a boundary with a self-centered person, you get a similar response to what you get when you raise a grievance with them. Let’s say you tell them that you need more space, or that you need them to stay out of certain aspects of your business, or that you need privacy in certain physical or emotional areas (“don’t be in my room, don’t touch me there, don’t analyze me” etc.).. The self-centered person responds as though your assertion of the boundary were an unfair and mean act toward them, no matter how appropriately you raised it. They’ll tend, for example, to make future comments suggesting that they somehow are your victim because of the boundary you set. They’ll say things like, “I feel like I have to be so careful around you now because of what a big deal you made about that thing I said to you,” casting you as a hypersensitive person. Similar insults will continue to get you back for having set the boundary.
When the self-centered person talks to other people about the times they’ve treated you badly – and how upset you are about those times – they dramatically minimize what they did. They insist that you misinterpreted their actions, and that you’re someone who reads all kinds of bad intentions into well-meaning things they said or did. They portray you as being unwilling to see that they never meant any harm, that you’re just attached to your negative view of them. (This will be true even with respect to behavior where no reasonable person could deny that the intent was to hurt.)
But they sound so believable, and so hurt, as they tell people about how you’ve misunderstood them, that everyone’s heart just melts for them. And that enables them do a lot more damage.
And because of the pattern I just described, the self-centered person has tremendous potential to harm or even destroy relationships among other people.
Let’s say that a self-centered person is part of your friendship network. She (or he) does something mean to you, and you’re mad and hurt about it; and you speak up about what she did, confronting her. Her secret response is to start working on other people in your friendship group, behind the scenes, going into all the above stuff about how you misinterpret things, and you’re out to find fault with her, and so forth. Your friends start to feel really bad for her – especially because she may have already gotten them feeling bad about how mean or unfair other people have been to her over the years. Your friends start to look at you with the attitude that you’re the one being mean to her, because you’re supposedly making such unfair accusations about her. They imply that you’re the one who lacks compassion, because you don’t buy the person’s distortions and rationalizations (and because “you’re not willing to look at your part in what happened”). Reality has just gotten turned on its head.
And these people start to be her ambassadors, trying to “get you to see” that you take things the wrong way and blow them all out of proportion. You respond, of course, by trying to get people to look at what actually happened; but to them that just confirms her claim that you stubbornly hold onto your negative interpretations.
In this manner, big rifts are sown in your friendship network over time; and you’re starting to have to pull away from people because they just don’t get what she’s done to you. They, in turn, settle into defining you as the problem, which allows them to maintain that almost magical-feeling connection they have with the self-centered person. (Someday it will be their turn to be the person’s target, but they’re likely to deny and excuse the behavior when it happens; otherwise they’d have to face up to their own mistakes in how they were toward you.)
This dynamic is regrettably common in friendship networks, families, and organizations. The powerful ability of self-centered people to be persuasive, and to sow divisions, can rip caring communities apart. And the person who was the specific target of the mistreatment can be left so hurt, defined as the problem by the very people who should have been allies.
I’ll consider doing a full post about this issue alone – the sowing of divisions. The short version, for now, is that many people confuse enabling with compassion, and they aren’t the same thing at all. I’m in favor of being compassionate toward self-centered people; they are deeply wounded individuals. But I don’t believe in enabling them to keep harming others. When everyone does the whole thing about, “Oh, you need to see that s/he means well, s/he is just feeling hurt but isn’t expressing it well, etc. etc.,” they claim they’re just showing compassion, but actually they’re enabling the self-centered person to continue tearing pieces out of people’s lives and destroying loving networks. And they’re failing to show adequate compassion for the person who was the target of the mistreatment.
It’s urgent for the public to grasp how persuasive and appealing self-centered people are; to start taking proper responsibility for looking carefully into what happened, instead of just buying the denial story; and to stop abandoning the person who is speaking out about the mistreatment.
Next I’ll explain the root causes of severe self-centeredness. This in turn will help make sense of a couple of other important dynamics.
The level of self-centeredness I’m writing about results from severe psychological attack that begins in the early years of life. The child is treated as if he or she were rotten to the core, and inherently so. A key adult, or multiple adults, see the child as a kind of revolting presence on the earth, almost like a cancer that needs to be excised. For the child to be viewed in this way is excruciatingly painful to him or her, and ultimately is devastating; the child’s sense of self simply crumbles from being exposed to so much contempt at this level of intensity.
So, in order to be able to move forward and go on with life, the child invents an imaginary self. The imaginary self is perfect; that pretend person is loving, kind, generous to a fault, and absolutely above reproach. The imaginary self is simply incapable of any mean or selfish thought or action; it couldn’t possibly ever happen.
Over time, the child gradually convinces himself or herself that this imaginary person is who they really are. They have replaced their destroyed sense of self with this imaginary one, and from now on will live rooted in this false self.
This maneuver allows them to survive their childhood and continue to exist on the planet. But it also makes them incapable of looking at their own actions. When someone criticizes them, they feel deeply wounded, back in that place where they were hated as a young child; and they feel like, “How could you say these terrible things about me, when I am such a deeply loving and endlessly generous person who would never desire to hurt anyone.” They’re living in something of a delusion.
For us to be able to look squarely at bad things we’ve done – which is a miserable experience for any of us – we have to have some level of underlying sense of self. Otherwise, we would feel that owning what we did would mean accepting that we’re rotten to the core.
This is how it feels to the self-centered person: either I didn’t do what you’re saying I did, or I’m rotten to the core.
So of course the answer has to be that they didn’t do it, or that there was some way in which you made them do it.
In order to face up to our past actions, we also have to be able to acknowledge that we, like everyone else, have selfish desires, have times when we get the urge to hurt someone verbally, have times when we get bossy and stop listening to other people, and so forth. But the self-centered person has to deny that any such (universal) impulses exist within them, so they can’t properly own their past destructive acts.
I learned some of this background from a book called Narcissism: The Denial of the True Self by Alexander Lowen. The first twenty or so pages of it made powerful sense to me; it all just clicked and I suddenly could picture what happens to these kids, and why the long-term effects play out as they do. (Unfortunately, the rest of the book wandered off into ideas that I didn’t find very insightful or helpful. But the opening part was spot-on.)
The term “narcissism” is misleading, however. Narcissus was a mythological character who fell in love with his own reflection, and the term implies someone who adores himself or herself. But the narcissist’s self-admiration is paper-thin; we’re talking about people who positively hate themselves below the surface – because they were treated with such hatred so early in life. That’s why they need constant admiration and attention from other people. And that’s also related to why self-centered people tend to be such chronic (and defensive) violators of boundaries; they can’t really grasp what a sense of self would look like, and therefore why it would need — and insist upon — boundaries.
I don’t care for the term “personality disordered” either, partly because I can’t figure out what the hell those words mean and partly because it makes no mention of the wounds that caused the problem. I don’t even much like the term “self-centered.” The real issue is that the person was the victim of early and horrible psychological attack, and their self was destroyed. It’s simply not there, except in shattered pieces. We needed to come up with a term that captures that.
Finally: I’m sorry to say that modern society knows very little about how to help someone put a self back together that has been pulverized to that extent. Compassion doesn’t help – not by itself, that is – and enabling just makes the problem worse. Therapy doesn’t succeed, because you have to have some kind of self to work with in order to grow; plus you have to be motivated to work on your issues and the self-centered person doesn’t believe they have any serious issues.
They believe the problem resides in other people; specifically, it resides in all those people who are unfairly accusing them of stuff.
The one intervention that shows some promise is Dialectical Behavior Therapy. DBT is an intensive twice-weekly approach (one individual session and one group session) which mixes compassion with a realistic understanding of how deep and toxic the problem really is, avoiding denial and enabling. But you still face the challenge of how to get someone into such an intensive program when they don’t believe they have a problem. It’s usually impossible to do.
I hope that what I’ve written here will not only be helpful in itself but will also make it easier to understand the points I’ll be making in my next post, when I return to the question of abusers vs. narcissists.
None of the photos are related to the content – I just chose images that I find soothing, to counter the difficulty of the subject I’m writing about.
Lundy’s new suspense novel takes on the anti-mother bias and corruption driving the family courts today. A young journalist sets out to investigate the disappearance of a mother and her daughter, and she stumbles into a dark world of intimidation, profiteering, and legal abuse — and finds herself in danger.