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Narcissists are no more evil than empaths are magical creatures.
Both empathic and narcissistic dysfunction are trauma adaptations.
Once upon a time, I identified as an empath. I am sensitive. I can sometimes feel other people’s feelings. This is not a superpower. It is the result of severe nervous system deregulation due to exposure to repeating and violent trauma.
Overly-empathic abilities are how we’ve learned to survive in households and environments that were largely unpredictable—parents who were prone to bursts of volatility or caregivers who would register as “toxic” on the “narcissistic scale.”
Not all narcissism is bad. We need some in order to interface with life effectively.
As I see it, the narcissistic scale extends from toxic-weak to toxic-strong, including healthy-weak and healthy-strong within those distinctions.
A person with a strong, healthy ego will likely express narcissism as being interdependent yet inclusive and will have developed a sense of self-worth and value. They will be capable of empathy and have good boundaries. A person who features strongly toxic will lack empathy, have an aggrandized sense of self that usually hides low self-worth, and will often show signs of either direct or covert aggression.
Most people fall somewhere between weak-healthy and weak-toxic, with the outliers being strong, healthy, or toxic. Someone inclined toward strong, toxic narcissism is the type who would wind up with an NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) diagnosis.
Suppose someone was raised around a person who features on the strong, toxic end of the spectrum and who did receive an NPD diagnosis. What does all of this mean for them? It means that this human was nested in narcissism from the time they were a small child.
Personally, I dealt with my own specific struggles within close family systems—I was also brought up in a bonafide doomsday cult.
I developed a heightened sense of empathy to determine the level of safety in any situation that I was going to be engaging in. I needed to be able to tell the energetic climate of the house I was about to enter. I needed to be able to tell what the emotional state of the adults around me was. I needed extrasensory perception to survive. And many of us do.
As a young child, I felt physically and emotionally abandoned. Financially, my parents were strapped when I was a toddler; I went to live with a relative for a while. Though I was not neglected—the loss of my mother was not something that my child’s mind was able to cognate.
Gabor Maté speaks about how it is not only a traumatic event that leaves a lasting impression upon us; it is whether or not we are supported in understanding what has happened.
No one ever explained to me what had actually happened the night after we all survived the alleged armageddon that was set to occur, according to Church Universal and Triumphant, during the winter of 1990. The only attempt I ever heard was that the community had averted this disaster with their decrees or, what you might understand as, thoughts and prayers. This type of magical thinking sounded preposterous to my then nine-year-old mind. My trust in the adults around me was broken at that moment.
I bring this doomsday story up as context for my environmental trauma, which I feel also led to my hypersensitivity. There was nowhere that was safe. I relied on my friends, a close-knit circle, and nature for my stability. As a fallback method for creating stability, I also tried to make sure that I was tending to the adults around me as best as possible.
It is not uncommon for a child who is emphatically dysfunctional to feel they need to care for their caregivers in order to get needs met. This method of inter-relating will often lead them, later in life, to choosing partners who are, themselves, emotionally unavailable, addicted, or in some other way—need their care. This is how they validate their worthiness.
Though outwardly narcissists often seem well put together, inside, they are lacking substance and self-connection and see the empath’s endeavors to care for them as a sign of weakness to be exploited. Simultaneously they crave this vulnerability as it is usually shut down by them.
I learned how to do this early in life—learned how to be the good little mother my brothers needed. I learned how to put others ahead of myself. I learned all about the psycho-emotional bond that occurs in a narcissistically dysfunctional environment. It is the same energy and attitude that is pervasive in cult mentality. And I was saturated in it.
It was only natural, later in life, to choose a partner who lied, cheated, and used drugs. It was what I had trained for; it lets me use all my own well-developed, empathetic skill sets to survive. It was what I had always known.
Often the empath, in this dynamic, will attempt to emotionally process the narcissist, predetermining needs and feelings. Only we cannot actually process another person’s pain, so what we wind up doing is becoming the passive party to their outwardly controlling behavior. This will often also lead to fawning or people-pleasing.
A determining factor in any relationship is how we hold, express, and navigate our boundaries. With an emphatically and narcissistically dysfunctional dynamic, the expression of the individual and shared boundaries is complimentary—not healthy.
An empath will typically have collapsed boundaries. The outer world is always encroaching on them, as they often did not get to develop the necessary psychological structures for holding themselves in childhood. A narcissist will have hardened boundaries as, in childhood, they were usually rewarded for their outward accomplishments and so developed a facade that effectively cuts them off from their internal world.
The lush vulnerability of the empath is appealing to the narcissist because they are cut off from their own feelings. The often cool exterior of a narcissist is appealing to the empath because it reminds them of their need for distinction.
We—empath or narcissist—choose this dynamic, not consciously, but because it mimics what is familiar. We crave the thing that we, ourselves, are missing. We hope to find that quality that we so needed in the bonds with our caregivers in our lovers, partners, and friends.
How do we break this cycle? We need to take full accountability for our part.
One of the toughest questions that we can learn to ask ourselves is: what am I getting out of this dynamic?
When we can see, feel, and hold our needs in the way we want others to hold them—with deep reverence for ourselves—then we can begin to change.