I have been moved to write this piece as an antidote to articles of that have titles like: “Ten ways to know if you are dating a Narcissist”; “14 Toxic Behaviours of The Narcissist”; or worse: “7 Ways to Outsmart a Narcissist”. Reading these have, admittedly, been helpful to me at different parts of my journey. Yet there is a real need for a resource that moves beyond the kind of paradigm implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the kind of article I’m thinking of. The paradigm of “us” and “them”, where “they” - the narcissist - are judged as meeting the criteria of this “unhealable” pathology, permenently labeled “a Narcissist” and are then condemned and rejected. This is a completely understandable position in many situations, especially in the early stages of awakening to and recovering from narcissistic abuse, where the primary need may be for healthy self-protection and strong boundaries, including distance from narcissistic behaviours, dynamics, and the people engaged in them. Yet this phase of healing is at the beginning, not the end of the journey.
Firstly, almost all of us have narcissistic traits. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a spectrum disorder, and while most of us can identify to some extent with some of the criteria of NPD, I’ve seen sources estimating percentages of the general population with NPD at between 1-6%. The criteria include a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), a constant need for admiration, entitled and interpersonally exploitative behaviour, a sense of specialness and arrogant self-importance and a lack of empathy, and is diagnosed when at least 5 of 9 criteria are met. Whether or not the focal point of your current manifestation of narcissism is someone with NPD or not, is not terribly important from an everyday perspective, because the impact that narcissistic behaviour can have on us can be significant whether the person inflicting it is diagnosably disordered or not. And as I said, we all have some degree of narcissism, ranging from healthy and adaptive, to extremely disordered. Here I am mostly using the term as an adjective to describe (narcissistic) traits, behaviours, defences, and wounds, that have particular patterns and shapes to them, collectively I’ll refer to these as (small ‘n’) narcissism.
The idea that some people are “Narcissists” with a capital-N is problematically polarised. In fact, it is symptomatic of narcissism to think in black and white terms. So rather than file people into these two categories, “narcissists” and “non-narcissists” we would do better to simply wonder where on the spectrum each person might be at a particular time. And I say “at a particular time” because I also see this as fluid. Someone may have periods where is it benign or dormant, as well as a phase where narcissistic defences are amplified, especially during a crisis period. If we think of a narcissistic defence as a particular set of strategies one can adopt in response to internal emotional pain, then someone may be locked into only these defences all of the time, or may lean into them only in certain areas of life, or in response to certain triggers. People can have different areas of life in which it dominates, while it could be absent in another area of life. For example, Fred may be a narcissistic boss, but co-dependant in his relationship. Jane may behave kindly and generously in her friendships but narcissistically with her children.
While it is currently thought by many that NPD is not curable, narcissistic wounds more generally are. And the narcissistic behaviour that steps from them most certainly are. An overwhelmingly large number of us would benefit from taking stock of our own narcissism, and yet we are put off from doing so because we incorrectly believe that it is unhealable, that it is unforgivable and shameful, and that we would be rejected and condemned for revealing it. If someone is sure to be labelled, rejected, and condemned for owning narcissism, there is no way that this healing can happen. It will strengthen the underlying disfunction, because the original wound would be triggered by this, leading to an even stronger defence being necessary. When someone feels safe in the knowledge that being honest about this with themselves and others will not lead to complete rejection, it becomes possible that this could happen.
Therefore, I think we all have a responsibility to make this enquiry. We will serve the world, our community, and everyone we are in relationship with, if we can hold a space for compassion and non-judgement, and a hope for healing, for the narcissistic traits in all of us. This is because it will enable this enquiry to take place, to become less polarised, and to become less misunderstood and stigmatised.
A proviso: In not judging or condemning a person, we do not have to condone their behaviour. It is important to make this distinction very clear! I can be compassionate towards someone, while firmly rejecting their abusive words or actions. If you are in an abusive situation, it is important to get out of it, and first make sure you are safe and healthy before anything else. There is no service to yourself or your abuser if you allow abuse to happen. You can be compassionate from afar, and possibly, not until after you have allowed yourself to grieve fully, feeling the anger and blame and judgements before they can be released. Do not judge yourself for not occupying a position of compassion, if that is not where you are. Trust your own process, and hold a prayer that compassion can come.
If someone feels that owning their narcissism is safe, then this can happen. It won’t happen until then. But the best way to ensure that another person feels safe with their own pain, is to be safe with yours. People can feel that. If you are running from the same pain in you, they will unconsciously receive the message that you will run from it in them. So they will keep running too! It’s exhausting. Let’s all stop running. The message is clear - look into the mirror. The world is your mirror, so if you are seeing narcissism, that is because it has a lesson for you. If you can witness narcissism without being triggered, victimised, abused, without condemning, judging, rejecting, withdrawing, then you will most likely be able to hold this same energy within you, in a space of acceptance, love, and compassion. If you can witness the narcissistic traits within you and hold them with love and compassion, then you will be in a position to see them clearly outside of you and be neither attracted to it, nor reactive to it. That means it is healed. If you are still triggered, then the best way (and the only thing you have control over anyway) is to dive into your inner world, find the root of narcissism in yourself, and hold it with as much acceptance, love and compassion as you can. The mirror of more extreme narcissism in others is a pointer in the direction of our own internal unhealed aspects that lead to our own narcissistic traits.
As with any disease of mind, body, or spirit, it forces upon us the knowledge that something isn’t working, and pushes us to make the enquiry, and the necessary healthful changes, or else we won’t recover. If we experience the worst effects of narcissism then we are pushed in the direction of locating the source of this disharmony, and to its resolution. This often involves a journey deep into the self, and the commitment to free ourselves from narcissism will illuminate both the light and dark aspects of our being in a way that brings us closer to intimacy with ourselves.
It is not possible to force another person to make this enquiry. There can be an invitation, and a space held for this to be a safe option, but that is all. If someone is unwilling to consider their own narcissism, this must be respected. However, you may need to evaluate what kind of relationship it is safe and healthy for you to have with this person.
If narcissism is showing up in your life in any form that is troubling to you, the best way to shift your reality is to begin an enquiry in to the narcissistic traits within you. This does not mean you are a big ‘N’ Narcissist and having narcissistic traits is not the same thing as having NPD. One gift of narcissism is thus to bring our attention inwards, and illuminate unhealed aspects of our own psyche - if we accept the gift. Finding compassion for our own narcissism is likely the very best first step to alter the damaging dances with narcissistic dynamics in our relationships.
My collection of experiences with narcissism have taught me how to be a healer. The basic principles of healing are nowhere more explicitly obvious than in the case of narcissism. The root is the same - there is a trauma, something overwhelming and unbearable. The body tenses around it, the mind becomes rigid around it, the emotions may be suppressed, repressed, or denied, and part of the soul is frozen in time. The ego then defends against the possibility of this ever happening again - protects against potential future pain. In the case of narcissist defences this is achieved by having a strong outer projection that ensures everyone has the highest opinion of us possible, that our outward presentation is perfect in all of the necessary ways to avoid criticism or rejection, and power-plays and control mechanisms are employed to keep other people lower than us, or feeling the feelings that we are unable to feel.
The healing comes when the light shines upon these places of darkness. The “light” can be healing energy, consciousness, or love. We bring awareness to these dark spots, and we hold them in love, in consciousness, or infuse them with healing energy. They can then be fully felt and experienced - which they could not be the first time they were present. When a feeling is allowed, and fully felt, it naturally passes quite quickly. If you hold awareness even for a short time, on any pain, it will begin to shift and transmute. It first begins to feel as thought there is space around it. Then space opens up within it. You can use your breath to increase this, and breath right into the area of pain, of tension.
Love is big enough to contain anything. Our heart can open and expand to accommodate even the most excruciating emotional pain. When someone has developed narcissistic traits they don’t believe that this is true, for good reason - their own experience does not show this. Once the false belief topples, the experiences that would confirm the truth can be allowed to happen. An experience of unyielding all-encompassing consciousness, or of unconditional love can dissolve narcissistic defences and the belief structures that support it pretty quickly - and yet even just a little drop, one at a time, will cumulatively soften the defences, like hot water on ice, slowly at first and then building.
Often we don’t notice that something is wrong until it literally cannot be ignored. We we don’t take time off work until we are hit with a sickness that floors us, we avoid the doctor until our tumour is the size of a grapefruit… unless we take the subtle hints and signs from our body and mind and take steps to bring balance and harmony back, we will get sicker and sicker until we are forced to do so. Humanity itself has been through a dark age, where the narcissistic tumour is rabid and contagious, and we are now starting to notice! It has been an age of disconnection, rigidity, patriarchy, abuse, violence, rape, control, and domination. You don’t have to look further than Nature herself to see the effects ravaged by this time.
In spiritual awakening on an individual level (a person ‘waking up’) there is often a crisis, a ‘dark night of the soul’, a time of excruciating suffering, that acts as an initiation or a catalyst for the shift in consciousness. This is exemplified famously by the awakening of Ekhart Tolle, who became enlightened quite suddenly after being very depressed. On a collective level, as a race, we have been suffering in our sleep for centuries, and we are now stirring - we are beginning to put our awareness on this pain, rather than continuing to dissociate from it. We are noticing that our planet is in dire need, that our society is sick, and that people are suffering, and we are beginning to do the work to change it. On one level, there is no distinction between inner and outer, self and other, so we change these collective concerns by dealing with them in ourself.
However, at this point in time, at the pinnacle of suffering for many souls, and the bridge between sleeping and waking for many others, with light workers shining on fearlessly, the illness, the pain, and the suffering of these times has been compounded to the highest degree. Those alive now are those who have lived through successive incarnations within a regime that creates and sustains narcissistic wounding and celebrates and rewards the traits of narcissism. It is almost as if the pain and pressure of this compounding process has refined in our current time to create diamond narcissists - these are displaying it so overtly and extremely that we can’t not see it. (Hmm hmm, donaldtrump cough cough).
We are dealing with a grapefruit sized tumour - this can’t be ignored any more. This level of suffering, of absurdity, must cause us to wake up. To snap us out of our daydream, our apathy, and get us paying attention. This is the call. This is the invitation. And this starts within. The ultimate gift of narcissism is its propulsion towards awakening. Its rocket fuel for the soul, which is longing to take us beyond the ego to what is more real. And that is our true nature.
If you are hearing this call, your part it in is simply your own healing, which will intertwine with your own awakening. The best cure for narcissism of all garden varieties is Self Love. And if you are interested in learning more about how to get your Self Love garden blooming, perhaps it would be aligned to read next about my course: Be Beloved, the Self Love Initiation for Empaths.