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"Breaking the Cycle: How to Understand and Heal from Narcissism"



First of all, there is no such thing as a 'narcissist'. Narcissism is a psychological pathology that people can suffer from as a result of psychological wounding. People are not pathologies. People are people, and we suffer from pathologies. Similarly, the term 'narcissistic trait' is also inaccurate because it also suggests that narcissistic behaviour is endemic to who a person is, and this isn't true.


This is really important, because one of the blocks that prevent people with narcissistic behaviours from finding healing is pejorative labels like 'narcissist'. Someone with narcissistic behaviours is deeply wounded, and facing that wounding is already hard enough without being labelled and vilified for it. If we wish to see less narcissistic behaviour in the world, we need to create a culture that meets it with compassion and love, not judgment and condemnation (which is, ironically, a narcissistic response).


Having said that, narcissistic behaviour is incredibly damaging to other people, and as someone who has experienced that directly and seen the impact of it on thousands of my clients, I do understand how much anger and disgust there is towards it, and that shouldn't be denied. What I ask of you the reader is that you direct your anger and disgust towards the condition which is toxic, not the person who has been toxified by it. Hurt people, hurt people.


So please try to see narcissism as you would alcoholism, which most people now recognise as an affliction and not an expression of someone's intrinsic character. If you can manage that you become a beacon of light in the darkness of narcissistic hell, and believe me, it is hell for the person who is suffering from it. Lets explore how and why this happens.


The Narcissistic Wound


Narcissism creates narcissism. Most people who are displaying narcissistic behaviours have suffered early childhood emotional neglect, typically from an aloof self-preoccupied parent. This means that they did not receive the empathic emotional attunement that is required of a child to experience a sense of safety and love, and to develop a fundamental sense of their own self-worth, which can be described as the deeply held belief that I am intrinsically loveable, without having to perform for it.


If a child is neglected or abused it will not blame the parent or parents that are doing this, it cannot afford to as it is utterly dependent on them for its survival. So that child will blame itself and take on the belief that there is something, or maybe many things, wrong with it. The metaphor I often use with clients is that your self-worth bucket has a hole in the bottom, so no amount of love or esteem can ever fill it up, until the hole is fixed.


A self-worth wound is a hot mess of intolerable pain, roiling with overwhelming terror, annihilating shame, despair, guilt, rage, self-loathing and overwhelming grief. Even worse than the intensity of these feelings is that they are unresolvable, because they are driven by a constant belief in worthlessness. Unless that belief can be resolved, the pain cannot end. The only way to survive is to escape with a defence mechanism.


There are two types of defences most people use to deal with a self-worth wound. One is a 'neurotic defence', which is essentially a submission to the negative self-worth belief that leads to trying to get love by being obedient, appeasing and pleasing to others. In other words, "if I give you enough love then maybe you will finally give me the love I need to feel OK about myself".


The Narcissistic Defence


The second way is to create a narcissistic defence which is trying to deny and defy the negative self-worth wound by proving themselves to be loveable. We can think of this as trying to use esteem, which is the positive regard of others, to fill the self-worth bucket. While ever we are being admired, desired or valued by others we can have a temporary feeling of being worthy, but once the positive attention stops the bucket quickly empties again through the hole in the bottom.


This is what people mean when they talk about 'narcissistic supply'. While ever the narcissistically wounded person is being applauded they feel better, but it never lasts long, and they will develop a tolerance for their current supply that makes it less and less effective. This often leads to what is called the 'narcissistic discard' of the person who was just yesterday the revered source of their self-esteem.


They will usually need ever larger and fresher sources of supply to attain that same feeling. In this way, it becomes an addiction. The narcissistically wounded person simple must have more, or they must face the inner hell that is torturing them. So narcissism is really nothing more than an attempt to compensate for the crippling insecurity within by using the drug of other people's positive regard.


The Narcissistic Façade


The term narcissism comes form the Greek fable of narcissus, a beautiful youth who was so admired that one day he looked in a pool of water and fell in love with his own reflection, and became so obsessed with it that he wasted away from hunger and thirst rather than disturbing his self-image in the water. This is a lovely metaphor for becoming obsessed with our own self image, which is really just a fictional story we make up about who we are.


To understand this more we need to understand a bit more about human identity. Our identity can be thought of as the beliefs we have about ourselves, or the story we tell about who we are. I think that every person has the same basic identity structure, which is the beliefs we have about our ability to meet our needs. So for each of our 7 psychological needs, we have a corresponding 'identity need', and for each identity need we have either a positive or negative belief about our ability to meet that need.


If we have a positive and realistic belief, its all good and we will experience positive expectancy (optimism), pleasant feelings, strong motivation and an overall state of calm confidence. If we have a negative belief that we are unable to meet those needs we will experience negative expectancy, anxiety, mood and motivational problems, unpleasant feelings and a general state of unease which is often called 'neuroticism'.


So, think well of yourself and you are likely to feel well and do well. Obviously, someone who is doing narcissistic behaviours is suffering from negative beliefs, and they are trying to compensate for those with false and usually exaggerated positive beliefs. They construct a façade to show to the world to gain esteem, and to hide the inner hell of what they believe their true self to be.


Ironically, it is this inner negative identity that is really the false one, and the outer positive façade that is closer to the truth of who they are, though it's usually an exaggeration of that truth. If only the narcissistic person really believed their own publicity, then they would no longer be narcissistic.


Psychological Need

Identity Need

Positive Belief

Negative Belief

Safety and Security

Self-Efficacy

I am capable and powerful enough to be safe and successful

I am weak, powerless and incompetent to keep myself safe

Love and Belonging

Self-worth

I am loveable and worthy of inclusion

I am worthless, unlovable and deficient

Autonomy and Freedom

Entitlement

I have the right to be me and deserve respect

I have no rights or sense of self

Contribution

Virtue

I am a good person

I am a bad person

Esteem

Self-Esteem

I have value and deserve recognition

I am inadequate and have nothing to give

Growth

Potential

I can create a positive future

I cannot create a positive future

Self-Actualisation

Integrity

I am whole and who I am meant to be

I am broken, defective and corrupt

The 7 Faces of Narcissism


Most people think of narcissism as either grandiose behaviour trying to impress other people and garner admiration, or malignant behaviour that is trying to have power over others through intimidating and demeaning them. I believe these are but two of the seven types of narcissism, which I outline below.


Each type is unconsciously engineered to avoid the emotion that relates to that need, because the negative self-belief makes that emotion incredibly intense and unresolvable. Emotional avoidance is really the core purpose of both the neurotic and narcissistic defence.


Identity Need

Negative Belief

Type Of Narcissism

Narcissistic Belief

Narcissistic Behaviour

Self-Efficacy

I am weak, powerless and incompetent to keep myself safe

Reckless (avoid feeling fear)

I am more powerful, competent and capable than others

Reckless, fearless, ignoring sensible limitations and caution

Self-Worth

I am worthless, unlovable and deficient

Indifferent (avoiding feeling sadness)

I am more loveable, desirable, attractive or worthy than others.

Indifference, low empathy, avoidant attachment, neglectful and dismissive of other people's worth and needs

Entitlement

I have no rights or sense of self

Dominant (cultivate anger to avoid feeling fear)

I am entitled to do and have anything I want regardless of how it impacts others

Controlling, intimidating, careless, dictatorial, imperious, overbearing, rageful

Virtue

I am a bad person

Righteous (avoid feeling guilt)

I am more moral or righteous than others

Morally superior, judgmental, rigid, hypocritical, sanctimonious

Esteem

I am inadequate and have nothing to give

Grandiose (avoid feeling shame)

I have superior knowledge, skills, intelligence or ability

Boastful, grandiose, bombastic, pompous, pretentious, outraged,

Potential

I cannot create a positive future

Special (avoid feeling despair)

I will achieve greatness and special status

Claims or attempts to achieve exceptional, unique and significant accomplishments

Integrity

I am broken, defective and corrupt

Malignant (cultivating disgust to avoid shame)

I am superior and entitled to look down on others

Contemptuous, demeaning, cruel, callous, spiteful, hateful

Narcissistic Projection


Because narcissism is designed to avoid overwhelming painful emotions, especially vulnerable feelings, the person will often project their denied vulnerability onto other people. Having done this they may either reject, neglect and demean those people for 'their' vulnerability or they may try to 'save them' from that vulnerability with displays of help and enablement. Both of these behaviours are designed to keep the other person in a lower position as equality is seen as a threat to their own insecure self-worth.


This will particularly be done to anyone who the person with a narcissistic defence is dependent on, as they loathe the vulnerability of that dependence. This is why so many people with narcissistic behaviours are kind and charming to strangers, who are potential sources of admiration, but often cruel, dismissive or neglectful to those closest to them.


Overt and Covert Narcissism


Its easy to spot an overt form of narcissism because it involves a direct and visible attempt to either be above others or put others below. Overt narcissism uses aggression, intimidation, debasement, threats and dominance to assert control over others, particularly people who might reject or abandon them, and especially anyone who might reveal their insecurity to the world.


What is more difficult to see is what is known as 'covert' or 'vulnerable' narcissism. Covert narcissism uses passive aggressive behaviours, withholding and withdrawal, complaining, demands, expectations, accusations and rejection to establish control over others. Sometimes this is also called 'fragile' or 'victim' narcissism as the person doing it displays vulnerability in order to avoid accountability and manipulate others by exploiting their guilt and empathy.


Both presentations share exaggerated entitlement, self-preoccupation and indifference to other peoples needs and boundaries, its just that covert presentations have an extra layer of defence mechanism in the form of displays of vulnerability, which can make other people feel 'crazy' as it is hard to tell what is real. The person can 'feel' they are being mistreated, but they cannot reconcile that with the display of vulnerability in front of them.


Narcissistic Splitting


Splitting is a term that refers to the tendency of people with personality conditions to go through a cycle of idealising and then devaluing other people. In the idealisation phase the other person is put on a pedestal and cast as the source of love itself and they get 'love bombed'. In the devaluation phase, when the person has failed to live up to this idealisation, they are degraded and judged to be anything from pathetic to evil.


In neurotic conditions such as borderline personality, this cycle can be repetitive and 'hot', meaning that when they devalue the other person it will often be with a rageful attack in response to being triggered into the emotional pain they are trying to avoid. With narcissistic conditions the devaluation is more likely to be 'cold', expressed as either contempt and ridicule (overt) or 'freezing' the other person out with withdrawal and withholding (covert).


Unlike 'hot' splitting which will tend to cycle according to the person's mood, cold splitting usually happens slowly over time as the narcissistic person moves their attention to richer sources of admiration (supply). For the person who is being split from this is an experience of gradual 'ghosting' where they get less and less reciprocity on their love.


The abandoned person usually tries to get it back by giving more, but once they have been devalued it is unlikely to return, unless the narcissistically wounded person needs something from them and comes back with a show of valuing them or an expression of vulnerability to engage their empathy, but it usually won't last long.


So why does this happen? The narcissistic defence is predicated on avoiding the pain of neglect and abandonment, and the best way to accomplish that is to avoid the risk of it by avoiding emotional intimacy. If someone is not connected, they cannot be abandoned. This means they end up giving their partner, and maybe their own children, the same experience they received as children, the neglect of a self-preoccupied person.


Narcissistic Psychopathy


One of the hardest things that people find with a narcissistic defence is the level of emotional psychopathy they encounter. Psychopathy is an inability to feel the emotions of guilt, shame, remorse and sadness. Without these feelings we would all be psychopaths, because they are our natural inhibitive mechanism that makes it painful to do unnecessary harm to others or to fail to make a positive contribution.


The narcissistic defence either reduces or eliminates these feelings in two ways. The first is that these feelings have become so overwhelmingly intense as a result of the narcissistic wound that the person will do almost anything to avoid them, including repression, rationalisation, blame shifting and straight out emotional avoidance though disembodiment and overthinking.


The second reason is that the narcissistic defence is a rejection of vulnerable emotions, and this is accomplished by a person turning their emotion of disgust against themselves. Disgust is a very important feeling that gives us discernment by letting us know that there is something toxic in our environment and motivating us to move away from it or, if needed, destroy it.


To accomplish this, disgust creates emotional detachment by naturally repressing our empathy, shame, guilt, fear, sadness and despair (vulnerable and inhibitive emotions) to enable us to act with lethal force against a lethal threat. This makes us temporary psychopaths.


However, if a child decides that there is something toxic about themselves, their disgust gets focused on getting rid of that part of themselves. In the case of overt narcissism that will be their vulnerable feelings and with covert narcissism that will be their assertive emotions (anger and disgust) as well, which creates that crazy making façade of seeming like a really nice person, who is almost entirely self-preoccupied.


Unfortunately, a narcissistic defence can make that psychopathy into a permanent state, not because the person is maliciously inclined but because they can no longer feel these emotions. They genuinely do not experience the emotional impact of their actions on others, and can therefore be oblivious to what is wrong with their behaviour.


If challenged on this or held accountable for it, they may become quite genuinely confused, or defensively decide that this is an illegitimate attack that is designed to disempower them, and react accordingly. In short, they can never be wrong.


Healing from Narcissism


I am often asked if narcissism can be healed. The answer is "yes it can", but it doesn't happen very often. This is because healing from narcissism requires the person to first recognise and admit to their own errors, transgressions, failures and vulnerabilities. Basically, all the things that the narcissistic defence is trying to hide, deny and avoid.


Narcissism is predicated on the rule of 'it's not safe to be vulnerable', but healing it requires the person to do just that, and you cannot heal someone who won't turn up to therapy.


The small percentage of people who do heal from this usually only do so when they have experienced almost total narcissistic collapse. This usually means they have lost their partner and their kids won't talk to them. They may have lost their job or their business and their health, appearance and wealth may have become severely degraded by all of their efforts to seek validation and admiration from others.


Maybe even their dog won't have anything more to do with them. Just like a country music song. Either that or they get old and become invisible to the people that they relied on for supply of positive regard.


Usually the pain of their failure or misery has to get bigger than the fear of their inner emotional hell-scape. In others words, its only when there is no more external supply that they can use to avoid their internal deficits that they will turn inwards.


This by the way is no different to any other pathology, personality disorder or addiction. No one gives up their defence mechanism until they absolutely have to. Its just that the narcissistic defence is so impenetrable and their drug of choice (esteem) is so readily available.


But yes it can be healed if the person is willing to face themselves in the mirror and have the improbable courage to experience the intense feelings that they have been so desperately avoiding. Now, these feelings don't need to be experienced for very long if the negative beliefs that are causing them are resolved, but until a person has experienced that healing these feelings will usually look like a black hole that is trying to destroy them.


What really does not help is the modern conversation where it has become trendy to throw around the term 'narcissist' with careless impunity and condemning righteousness (again, this is a narcissistic act). This so completely muddies the water that people fail to see that narcissism is a pathology that needs healing, not who someone is.


People are people. Pathologies are the problem. Narcissism is a wound made by the absence of love, and only love can heal it, but only love that knows what it is doing and has good boundaries too, and only when the person has chosen healing.


Until that moment the best thing we can do is protect ourselves against these behaviours and let people experience the consequences of their own actions, or we are enabling them to avoid their pain. This is hard to do however if we are traumatically bonded with a person with a narcissistic defence, and we are not dealing with our defence mechanisms, but that is another blog.







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