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Narcissism gets a bad rap: On empathy and narcissism

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Narcissism has gotten a bad name. “Narcissism” has become a euphemism – a polite description – for a variety of integrity outages and bad behaviors. These extend from antisocial, psychopathic actions through bullying and domestic violence all the way to bipolar spectrum disorders or moral insanity. “Narcissism” has become the label of choice when an individual is behaving like a jerk. 

In the face of narcissism’s bad name, I am not here to give narcissism a good name,  but rather I suggest the matter is more nuanced than that presented in the popular psychology press today. Like Mark Anthony commenting on Julius Caesar in his funeral oration after Caesar’s assassination, I come not to praise narcissism but to bury it – and to differentiate narcissism from more serious forms of bad behavior with which it is confused. This article suggests that if a person behaves in an anti-social, bullying, boundary violating or other problematic way described above, then narcissism is the least of the worries. 

Whip-sawed as the narcissist is between arrogant grandiosity and vulnerable idealization, the authentic narcissist will reliably provide a positive developmental response to empathy. However, if repeatedly providing empathy to the alleged narcissist just gets you more manipulations, bullying, integrity outages, and broken agreements, then you may really be dealing with an anti-social person and personality, moral insanity, psychopathy, or undefined lack of integrity, in which case, empathy will not work. Neither will compassion. Limit setting is the order of the day. Fill out the police report and get the order of protection. 

The truth of narcissism is that people need and use other people to regulate their emotions. When Elvis sang “I wanna be – your teddy bear” (Elvis Presley, that is), he was bearing witness to the truth that we use other people to sooth our distressed selves, provide emotional calming when we are upset, and give us the empathy we need to fell good about ourselves. 

“I wanna be your teddy bear” means “I wanna give you the empathy, recognition, acknowledge that you need to feel good about yourself.” If the other person subsequently does not respond to you as a whole person, then that is surely a disappointment but the shortcoming is not necessarily in anything you did. The other person did not keep their commitment. 

People want people who respond to them as a whole person. People want people who appreciate who they are as a possibility. People need that sort of thing. People are vulnerable to the promise of such satisfaction because it feels good when it actually shows up.  

Of course, the big ifs contained in such a proposal are that the other person is capable of providing such empathy; the other person is reciprocally acknowledged as being someone from whom empathy is worth receiving, and then the other actually behaves in a way that is understanding and receptive. 

If the other person expresses hostility, withholds acknowledgement, does not honor his or her word, perpetrates micro aggressions (“narcissistic slights”), manipulates in subtle and overt ways, or behaves in a controlling or dominating way, behaves like a bully, then is that narcissism? It might be – but it might also be a lack of integrity (dishonesty), anti-social personality behavior, criminality, boundary violations, and abuse. It might or might not be narcissism – but it is definitely behaving like a jerk [just to use a neutral, non vulgar term].

The person who survives such an encounter or relationship with the alleged psychopath in narcissistic sheep’s clothing then has two problems. The first problem is that the individual has been deceived, manipulated, or cheated. The second problem is that he or she blames himself. 

Narcissists are supposed to be excessively self-involved, self-centered, self indulgent. To succeed in life, most people need to have a dose of healthy self confidence. By a show of hands, who reading this article lacks a strong sense of self-interest? Get some help with that. Okay – that’s narcissism, but not pathological narcissism.

When I read the latest denunciation of narcissism in the pop psychology magazine, I wonder where are all of these people who are not self-involved, self-centered, self-interested, looking out for “number one”? 

I go to social media where self-expression is trending. My take-away? Freedom of speech and self expression are flourishing – no one is listening! Is such lack of listening narcissism? Perhaps. But more likely is not lack of listening rather just lack of listening? Lack of commitment of expanding listening skills, inclusiveness, and lack of community?

So suppose the popular press is all mixed up about narcissism. What does the disentangling of this mess look like? 

People who are described as narcissists have [some] people skills. Even if one’s empathy is incomplete and defective at times, most people crave an empathic response and are able to provide one, at least on a good day. The challenge is that the narcissist’s empathy breaks down in emotional contagion, conformity, lack of perspective taking, and messages getting lost in translation. 

Most people want to look good and avoid looking bad, and narcissists are especially prone to doing that. Most people are committed to being right and, while we theoretically acknowledge we might be wrong, few people actually behave that way. Most behave like “know it alls,” especially in areas about which they literally know nothing. Narcissists are especially prone to that too. So we are all narcissists now? 

The differentiator is that the narcissist ends up feeling like a fake, experiencing an empty (not melancholic) depression, even in the face of authentic accomplishments.

Even when the narcissist actually performs and wins the gold ring, he (or she) still feels like a fake. There is a kind of empty depression, lack of energy, lack of vitality. This lack of aliveness may cause the narcissist arrogant, cold, haughty withdrawal or acting out using substances of abuse or sexual misadventures. In spite of actual accomplishments, the narcissist may feel that life is passing him by. A pervasive sense of lack of aliveness, vitality, or apathy dominates the narcissist’s emotional life. 

The one thing that narcissism is not confused with is autism spectrum disorders. The narcissistic has access to empathy, values it, “gets” it, craves it, even if the narcissist’s empathy is distorted and incomplete. I speculate that the psychopath is good at faking empathy, like an empathy parrot, prior to his perpetrations, whereas the narcissist is just not very good at it. He may seem to be faking empathy, but that is his clumsy effort to get it right, which is not working. 

It seems as though the narcissist has an exaggerated self worth and, if in a position of authority, has the power to enforce his or her distorted view on others. The narcissist shares his suffering in a bad way by causing pain and suffering to the people in his environment. When such a person has authority, the result indeed can be dysfunction behavior, which is hard to distinguish from bullying. 

As with most forms of bad behavior, the optimal first response is to set a limit to the bad behavior by pushing back, calling it out, expressing concern, or using humor to deflect: such behavior (bullying, bad language, physical or financial abuse,  etc.) is unacceptable. “That doesn’t work for me.” “Stop it.” Without establishing a context of safety and security, we do not have a set up for success in which empathy can make a difference. Few people are in a position to up and quit their job. No easy answers here. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, then document, call for backup, and escalate to the authorities, including a call to 911 or a police report as applicable. 

At this point, the narcissist may get the idea, “Hey maybe I need someone to talk to – professionally.” 

While every case is different, no one size fits all, and all the usual disclaimers apply, the intervention with the narcissist often consists in a conversation for possibility. Talk to the person. Give him or her a good listening, and she what shows up. The person’s experiences as a child of tender age show deficiencies in the areas of empathic response, opportunities for emotional regulation, or distress tolerance. This is no excuse for bad behavior; never will be; however, it can point to transformation if the person is open and willing. 

The narcissistic encapsulates his true self into a cocoon, hiding behind a fake self, in order to preserve the hope of aliveness and vitality if an empathic environment were ever to show up. If, in a context of safety for all, the narcissist is encouraged to lay back and to take a look at the precursors, triggers, and behaviors that he experiences as narcissistic insults and injuries causing him to break down or act out, then something starts to shift. They did not get enough empathy, did not get feedback on their own empathic responses (or lack thereof), got empathy but the responses were distorted or flat out crazy (causing the above-cited retreat into the emotional cocoon). 

If the intervention gets off to a good start and the narcissist has a therapeutic response – that is, he feels better and stabilizes – then the work consists of trying to provide empathy, restoring understanding when empathy breaks down, restoring communication when communications break down, and restarting the development of positive personality traits such as empathy, humor, creativity that got lost in the narcissist’s deficient environment coming up. 

The bottom line? Like most human beings, those with significant narcissistic tendencies and behaviors are susceptible of improvement. Sometimes there is no way to know for sure except to attempt the intervention in a context of safety and security. Unlike more serious forms of bad behavior exemplified by anti-social personality disorder, significant bullying, or boundary violating behaviors in which people get hurt, many narcissists are sufficiently in touch with their feelings and cravings for empathy that they will respond positively to an intervention in a context of safety and empathy. 

Bibliography

Heinz Kohut, (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press. 

Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator), (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pears Press.

Go to all A Rumor of Empathy podcast(s) by Lou Agosta on Audible by clicking here: [https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Rumor-of-Empathy-Podcast/B08K58LM19]

Okay, I have read enough. I want to get Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, a light-hearted look at empathy, containing some two dozen illustrations by artist Alex Zonis and including the one minute empathy training plus numerous tips and techniques for taking your empathy to the next level: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project


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