Author’s note: Before I begin, I’d like to point out that there is a difference between Narcissistic Personality Disorder and narcissistic traits. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a rare condition that can only be diagnosed by a registered psychologist. For this reason, when I refer to narcissism or narcissists I am largely referring to people who display a high amount and degree of narcissistic traits.
I’ve noticed a lot of talk around the relationship between empaths and narcissists, and how this relationship is often detrimental to empaths.
Speaking as someone who is highly empathic, these kind of condemning viewpoints are tempting. They appeal to our sense of boundaries that have been violated, provide a sense of affirmation and can help us identify abuse in our lives. However, it seems like too often narcissism is painted as one-dimensionally “evil” and this can be a disservice to everyone involved.
It’s common for those of us who identify as HSPs and/or empaths to attract narcissists—and I speak here from some sad and painful experiences. However, I’ve found that this encounter between the empath and narcissist is so common because narcissists have a huge lesson to teach empaths about our own narcissistic qualities and give us insight into the state of our self-worth.
My own encounter with someone with highly narcissistic tendencies took me into a deep place of confusion and self-doubt. On the surface s/he appeared to be so charming, smart, and polite—s/he always knew the perfect way to act and the perfect thing to say.
I would increasingly leave our encounters feeling that something was deeply wrong, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
Being highly sensitive and highly empathic, my own tendency was to give this person the benefit of the doubt. I allowed these kind of uncomfortable encounters to occur over and over again until finally it just seemed too late. I felt trapped and manipulated by all the “perfect” words and “perfect” behaviour.
In between the perfect lines, I could feel that this person was not genuine. S/he simply knew what to say and do to get me to do what s/he wanted me to do, and I was the care-free empath willing to go along with everything—up until I wasn’t. The moment I started disagreeing or trying to go my own way I would face emotionally abusive attacks.
These were so subtle that I wasn’t even sure they were happening. I began to doubt my own sanity.
Eventually, the pressure became too much.
I was not accustomed to being in abusive relationships, and as I looked around at all my other friends and loved ones, I realized this was the only person in my life making me feel so sh*tty about myself.
It was clearly them, not me. While I cared deeply about this person, I decided to end the relationship. I knew it was the right thing to do, but my emotional turmoil and confusion lasted for some time. I could literally feel inside how much this person hated me. I could hear his/her voice in my head arguing ever so eloquently about how wrong I was and how I was the hurtful one in the relationship.
And it was hard to argue back.
Maybe s/he was right? Maybe I was the a**hole in this situation?
Eventually, it seemed like the only way I could move out of this miserable space was to fight back. Around this time I learned more about myself as an empath and started reading a lot of the literature out there about empaths and narcissists. It was clear to me that I had had an encounter with a person with highly narcissistic tendencies.
At first it felt like a huge relief to see myself as the “good empath” and see my friend as the “evil narcissist.”
But eventually this feeling of satisfaction faded, and I was left with residual feelings of judgement, anger and resentment that didn’t feel good and simply didn’t serve me. Part of my problem was that I wasn’t allowing myself some of the narcissistic qualities I saw in my “friend” that would have helped me stand up to him/her in the first place. Instead of feeling entitled to trust and take ownership of my own feelings that something was not right, I doubted my instincts that were there all along.
And then I came to a new realization: rather than labelling ourselves and each other as narcissists or empaths, we might look at both experiences as two extremes of a spectrum.
A spectrum allows us to understand ourselves and each other in unity rather than in separation and duality. Almost all of us fall into narcissistic tendencies at some point, and there are healthy expressions of narcissism and less healthy expressions. If we write this off as inherently “evil,” we can inadvertently turn away from expressions of narcissism that are healthy and necessary in our lives.
An empath encountering an abusive narcissist often comes face to face with her own abilities to create boundaries and be assertive. Qualities like authority, self-sufficiency, vanity and entitlement are traits of narcissism, but all are also necessary in order to engage in compassionate and respectful self-love.
Instead of focussing on whether a partner “is a narcissist” or not, we can look at which qualities and behaviours are appropriate in which contexts and in what amounts to be healthy. The key is to find the right balance. When we find the right balance in ourselves, we will be able to better recognize those who may have an unhealthy imbalance and steer clear if need be.
So if you find yourself tempted to believe that narcissists are evil (and trust me, I have been here—it can be a necessary stage to go through for the sake self-preservation, but it’s not a great place to stay in for a prolonged time), ask yourself what narcissistic qualities could you use more of that perhaps you are judging and denying yourself?
Do I need more authority in order to learn how to assert myself more effectively?
Do I need more pride as part of creating and enforcing healthy personal boundaries?
Or perhaps I could use a little more vanity in order to allow more self-love into my life?
I suggest taking this narcissism quiz on PsychCentral to better understand your relationship to narcissistic qualities. Understanding that I needed some narcissistic qualities in order to be a healthy individual radically changed my outlook on my past experiences with narcissists.
I found that the traits I rated low on were the ones that I found most hurtful and offensive in my relationship with my “friend.” These were also the traits I realized I could better develop in myself. By doing so, I brought more balance into my life, and started to heal and find forgiveness for myself and the narcissist that touched my life.
Once I learned to embrace my own narcissistic traits in a healthy balance I found it easier to let go of past hurts, release judgement for standing up for myself and move forward more joyfully in my journey in self-care and love.*
*Please note that forgiveness does not require reconnecting or being in a relationship with anyone that has been hurtful or abusive towards you.
Author: Joanna Perkins
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Anais Gómez-C at Flickr