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Narcissism gets a bad rap: On empathy and narcissism

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

Spike in Domestic Violence (DV) Accompanies Pandemic Shelter-at-Home

The conversation on Spotify (above) is different content – a conversation, not the book review in line below – so to get the complete picture, the reader/listener will want to plan on engaging with both contributions. However, both are significant contributions to what to do about the confronting matter of intimate partner violence (domestic violence) in our communities. 

This is a republishing with light editing of a book review from May 19, 2019 on Rachel Louise Snyder’s important work on domestic violence (DV). Difficult situations are further breaking down and becoming intolerable under the stresses of the pandemic. 

The short version? Actionable recommendations include the Danger Assessment and the Fatality Review Board (FRB). Police and DV interveners are now being trained to perform a Danger Assessment (Jacquelyn Campbell’s innovation). For example, when the perpetrator strangles the would-be survivor that indicates an increasing risk of homicide. Strangulation often is the next to last abuse by a perpetrator before a homicide. The correlation is strong, very strong. Strangulation is a much more significant marker than, say, a punch or kick that the abuser will escalate to lethal violence. Strangulation dramatically increases the chances of domestic violence homicide (p. 66). No easy answers here, but the details follow on how to interrupt the unfolding tragedy. 

The title of Rachel Louise Snyder’s eye-opening, powerful, page-turner of a book, No Visible Bruises, refers to strangulation [No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019: 309 pp, $28(US)].

Some sixty percent of domestic violence (DV) victims are strangled at some point during an abusive relationship (p. 65).  Turns out that only some 15% of the victims

Cover Art: No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder - a picture of cracked plaster - not only of an enraged fist but of a damaged, fragmented self (?)

Cover Art: No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder – a picture of cracked plaster – not only of an enraged fist but of a damaged, fragmented self

in one study had injuries visible enough to photograph for the police report (p. 66).

Most strangulation injuries are internal – hence, the title. 

Since 2012 when I completed the 40-hour training in Understanding Domestic Violence (DV) at the community organization ApnaGhar, several important innovations have occurred. Snyder presents the reader with these, including the distinctions of (1) a Fatality Review Board for Domestic Violence; (2) initiatives to provide treatment for the abusers; (3) the Danger Assessment (which leads back to the role of strangulation).

Lack of oxygen to the brain can cause micro-strokes, vision and hearing problems, seizures, ringing ears, memory loss, headaches, blacking out, traumatic brain injury (TBI) (p. 69). As the victim in near death due to strangulation – but so far there would only be red marks around the neck – the nerves in the brain stem lose control over sphincter muscles. So the urination and defecation were not mere signs of fear. They were evidence that the victim was near death (p. 67).  

Such victims have poor recall of the event. They may not even be aware that they lost consciousness. In being incoherent in her talk, the victim is not being difficult or drunk. The victim is fighting the consequences of a life-threatening event and may not know it at the moment. Here police training will make a difference. 

Even medical professionals may overlook the signs of serious injury by strangulation unless they are altered to the circumstance of the visit to the emergency room. Fact: DV victims are NOT routinely screened for strangulation or brain injury in the emergency room. They are discharged without CT scans or MRIs. The assaults and injuries are not formalized and abusers are prosecuted under lesser charges, say, misdemeanors rather than felonies.

“What researchers have learned from combat soldiers and football players and car accident victims is only now making its way into the domestic violence community: that the poor recall, the recanting, the changing details, along with other markers, like anxiety, hypervigilance, and headaches, can all be signs of TBI” (p. 70).

Now the ultimate confronting fact: Strangulation often is the next to last abuse by a perpetrator before a homicide. The correlation is strong, very strong. Strangulation is a much more significant marker than, say, a punch or kick that the abuser will escalate to lethal violence. Strangulation dramatically increases the chances of domestic violence homicide (p. 66).

This leads directly to an important innovation in the struggle against DV, the Danger Assessment. Jacquelyn Campbell has quantified the Danger Assessment, which is especially effective when combined with a timeline of incident. In addition, to strangulation high risk factors in any combination that portend a potential homicide include: gun ownership, substance abuse, extreme jealousy, threats to kill, forced sex, isolation from friends and family, a child from a different biological parent in the home, an abuser’s threat of suicide or violence during pregnancy, threats to children, destruction of property, and a victim’s attempt to leave anytime within the prior year. Chronic unemployment was the sole economic factor (p. 65). None of these cause DV; but they make a bad situation worse – much worse – and add to the risk of a fatal outcome.

You can see where this is going. First responders, police, medical professionals, family, friends need to ask the tough questions – perform the assessment and have a safety plan ready to implement to get the potential victim out of immediate danger. Hence, the need for Snyder’s important book and its hard-hitting writing and reporting to be better known at all levels of the community.

Snyder reports on a second important innovation in the struggle against DV: the Fatality Review Board (FRB) for DV Homicide. Air travel has become significantly safer thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration commitment to investigate independently every airplane crash. The idea is to find out what sequence of things went wrong without finger pointing. No blame, no shame. The idea is to perform an evidence-based assessment of all aspects of the system – human, administrative, mechanical, procedural.

In a breakdown big enough to cause loss of life, multiple errors, anomalies, and exceptions are likely to have occurred in the system. Rarely is there is single cause of a disaster big enough to cause loss of life. “If systems were more efficient, people less siloed in their offices and tasks, maybe we could reduce the intimate partner homicide rate in the same way the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] had made aviation so much safer” (p. 85). The Fatality Review Board is born.

For example, the authorities knew the perpetrator. They had visited the home multiple times. The abuser was released from detention without notifying the potential victim. An order of protection was denied due to a paperwork error, or, if granted, the police could not read the raggedy document that the woman was required to have on her person at all times. The prosecutor was unaware of a parallel complaint by the victim’s mother because it was filed in the same docket and dismissed when the victim recanted in the hope of placating the abuser and saving her own life.

For example, multiple touch points occur at which victims and perpetrators interact with social services, healthcare facilities, community organizations, the veteran’s administration, law enforcement, and the clergy. The FRB is tasked with determining how the fatal outcome could have been avoided.

Chase down all the accidental judgments, missed cues, and blind spots. Talk to everyone able to talk. Gather all the data. Someone knew something, had actionable information that was not acted upon. Formulate recommendations to avoid repeating the mistakes.

That means building formal lines of permissioned communication between administrative siloes. For example, there as a restraining order against the abuser but it was in another state and the local authorities did not know about it.

In the age of the Internet there needs to be a central clearing database that preserves such data. Or, for instance, the shooter had no criminal record, but the victim had expressed fear for her life to the local pastor at church based on his statements. Who can he (or she) call? Who can intervene with a safety plan?

No one single factor can be singled out as causing the fatality; instead a series of relatively small mistakes, missed opportunities, and failed communications. The FRB looks for points where system actors could have intervened and didn’t or could have intervened differently (p. 86). Today more than forty states now have fatality review teams. Though the violence continues, this is progress.

Snyder makes an important contribution in clarifying why the victim does not run leave the abuser and the abusive relationship. Why does she return to the abuser, or recant her testimony in the police report, frustrating the attempt of the prosecution to get a conviction?

Though every situation is unique, Snyder builds a compelling narrative that often the victim is trying to save her own life. The system works much slower than a determined abuser, and the victim knows it. In short, the abuser knows how to work the system; and all-too-often the victim cannot rely on the system to protect her when she most needs protection. In addition, her judgment may be impaired due to being called every name in the book and slapped, punched, or strangled.  

As the abuser senses he is losing power and the victim is getting ready to leave, the risk of violence to regain control escalates. The abuser is strangling her, escalating to deadly violence, and yet he is charged with a misdemeanor. He will be out on $500 bail in 24 hours – buying a gun and gasoline to burn down the house after killing her and the children. In fear for her life, the victim is makes up a story about love to try to placate the abuser – she is recanting to try to buy time – while she accumulates enough cash or school credits to escape and have a life. The victim recants her narrative in the police report and says she loves him because she wants to live.

A third major strong point of Snyder’s work is her report on interventions available for abusers. Incarcerating an abuser to protect the community is necessary. But that does not mean the abuser does not need treatment. He does. Absent treatment, jail just makes the abuser worse. The entire middle section of the book is devoted to the dynamics of perpetrator treatment.

At another level I found Snyder’s deep insight to be an extension of Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion circa 1959 that woman is not a mere womb. The enlightened man adds to de Beauvoir’s statement (which is notquoted by Snyder): man is not mere testosterone. In both cases, biology is important, but biology is not destiny. I repeat: biology is not destiny. Some men have not been properly socialized and need to get in touch with and transform their inner uncivilized cave man.

The recovery programs in jails on which Snyder reports sound rather like “boot camp” to me. The emphasis is on “tough love.” This is a function of the close association, if not identification, of masculinity with violence.

 In some communities, violence is how masculinity gets expressed. This extends from “big boys don’t cry” and if he hits you, hit him back all the way to a misogynistic gangster mentality that uses devaluing language to describe woman as basically existing for the sadistic sexual satisfaction of men. It may also be common (and justified!?) in a military context. As near as I can figure – and this is an oversimplification – the treatment groups are given lessons in cognitive or dialectical behavioral therapy: skills in emotional regulation, distress tolerance, self-soothing, and interpersonal negotiations.   

For those perpetrators, not incarcerated or suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (along with their victims), but rather brought up in relative privilege or affluence, Snyder has less to say. While the poverty, crime, and substance abuse of the inner city can intensify DV, DV is an equal opportunity plague, occurring in affluent neighborhoods too. Only here we are dealing with “snakes in suits” – think: Harvey Weinstein or Bill Crosby (“date rape” drugs) [granted, these individuals were sexual predators, not necessarily DV perpetrators]; perpetrators who are quite sophisticated in using the system to isolate and disempower their victims financially, legally, emotionally as well as physically (violently). This is an incompleteness rather than a flaw in an otherwise compressive study. Another chapter – or book – may usefully be written about DV scenarios among the rich and famous – or at least affluent. DV lives there too.

On a personal note, when I started reading this book, I knew it was not for the faint of heart. I said to myself: “Ouch! This is like the ‘ketchup scene’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” At the end of Hamlet, the entire family gets killed. To deal with something as disturbing (and hope inspiring) as Snyder’s book, I had to go to Shakespeare. 

Indeed Hamlet begins with domestic violence. Hamlet’s uncle kills his own brother, Hamlet’s father, to seize the throne by marrying Hamlet’s mother. The latter is not technically DV, but a boundary violation. (This is the original Game of Thrones if there ever was one.) In turn, Hamlet perpetuates verbal and emotional abuse, whether fake insanity or genuine narcissistic rage, against his fiancé, Ophelia. Hurt people, hurt people. Sensitive soul that Ophelia is, she commits suicide. Ophelia’s brother then seeks revenge. Hamlet kills her brother as the brother simultaneously kills Hamlet with a rapier tipped with a deadly poison. The mother drinks the poisoned goblet, intended for Hamlet, and the uncle is run through by Hamlet – also with the poisoned rapier.  The point? 

Horatio’s provides a summary at the backend of Hamlet which also forms a review of Snyder’s work: “So shall you hear – Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts – Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, – Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, – And, in this upshot, purposes mistook, – Fall’n on the inventor’s heads. All this can I truly deliver.” Just so.

All too often the events seemed to me to unfold like a Greek tragedy – or in this case a Shakespearian one. You already know the outcome. The suspense is enormous. You want to jump up on the stage and shout, “Don’t open the door – therein lies perdition!” But everything the actors do to try to avoid the tragic outcome seems to advance the action step-by-step in the direction of its fulfillment.

Snyder provides a compelling narrative – and actionable interventions – on how to interrupt the seeming inevitability of a tragic final scene and create the possibility of survival and even, dare one hope, flourishing.

Further Reading

Wilson, K. J. (1996 [2006]). When Violence Begins at Home: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Ending Domestic Abuse, 2ndEdition. Alameda, CA: Hunter House (Publishers Group West).

Websdale, Neil. (1999). Understanding Domestic Homicide. Northeastern University Press.

Campbell, Jacquelyn et al. (2003). “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study. American Journal of Public Health93, no. 7 (July 2003).

Agosta, Lou. (2012). A Rumor of Empathy at Apna Ghar, the Videohttps://tinyurl.com/y4yolree [on camera interview with Serena Low, former executive director of Apna Ghar about the struggle against DV]

Agosta, Lou. (2015). Chapter Four: Treatment of Domestic Violence inA Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative and Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

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