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Narcissism Revisited

A conversation about narcissism and self-esteem

Copyright © 2008, Paul LutusMessage Page

Enablers |  The Takers of the World |  Not Just a Theory |  The Hunt for Mr. Right |  Conclusion

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This e-mail exchange with a reader grew long enough to justify a separate page.

I am enjoying your article "On Being Perfect". You are lucky you have only encountered them [narcissists] online.

Unfortunately, that isn't true — see below for how I handled a narcissist I encountered in real life.

I have had an intimate relationship with one. I feel astounded that I have survived. I have seen tv footage of Charles Manson and David Koresh and they are identical to the man I dated. Are they all made of the same dna? I have had to give up being the person I was in order to survive. So, in a way I did not survive. I am, quite literally someone else now.

There are alternatives to this sacrifice of personal integrity. Please read on.

My best friend was destroyed by a narcissist who set himself up as a sort of mini-cult leader. My best friend hung himself. I often felt that I should hang myself because it was the only way I could work out to kill the narcissist: They are like a virus - they have no home of their own - so they move into yours and then kick the house down.

I have to tell you something, one adult to another — narcissists aren't your fault, and they aren't a disease you're personally responsible for curing. Your primary adult responsibility is to get away from narcissists and build your own personal, healthy life, based on your own freely chosen standards and tastes.


When I get a post like yours (and I get plenty), one that assumes some kind of personal responsibility for (or influence over) narcissists, I have to conclude that the writer was exposed to one or more malignant narcissists when they were young, at a time when they believed everything was created by them (a mental state called "magical thinking").

This kind of early exposure creates two problems. The first is that the child thinks the narcissist is the child's fault — and this is a belief narcissists do all they can to encourage (to a narcissist, everything that happens is someone else's fault). The supreme irony in a situation like this is that an adult narcissist, permanently stuck in an infantile stage of personal development, telegraphs to any children in his environment that their temporary narcissistic outlook is the normal behavior of adults, including the idea that the child has supernatural mental powers. This sometimes cements in the child a behavior that would otherwise be a transitional phase of personal development. Tragically, this may set the child off on a lifelong pattern of "helping" other narcissists.

The second problem is a failure to review childish beliefs as an adult. Now that you are an adult, you can and should review everything you've come to believe — you can apply mature thinking processes to what until now have been childish fantasies, like the idea that you created the world around you by magic mental power, or (as you have said) that you could kill the narcissist by killing yourself.

This may sound self-evident, but as an adult, your primary responsibility is to yourself and your personal goals. Any connection you forge with other people must be based on mutual benefit and the non-negotiable priority that your well-being and equilibrium comes first. An adult who tries to hold you personally responsible for his happiness may be a parasitic, malignant narcissist intent on exploiting your impulse to give narcissists what they want.

A "narcissistic enabler" is a particular personality type that is thought to be shaped in childhood, by the interaction between a narcissist and a dependent child who doesn't have the personal skills or power to escape from the situation, and who copes by giving the narcissist what he wants. This can become a lifelong pattern, one that is so malignant and powerful that the enabler slowly realizes he cannot live without a narcissist to enable, even though he openly holds narcissists in contempt.

When you say, "I often felt that I should hang myself because it was the only way I could work out to kill the narcissist", this is an example of magical thinking — to repeat, you need to realize that the narcissist is not your fault, he is separate from you, and you cannot help him or hurt him by destroying yourself. The sense of control between a narcissist and an enabler is completely illusory — the narcissist is not in control of his own behavior, and you are certainly not in control, no matter how many times the narcissist claims to be positively influenced by you. In short, the only likely outcome in an ongoing relationship between a narcissist and an enabler is to make the narcissist worse, more parasitic.

In the mainstream world, in reality, the goal of personal development is to break off from parents, from childhood, and to become an independent adult. Being independent doesn't mean surrounding oneself with proxies for one's parents, maintaining the status quo while pretending to be an adult. Being independent means replacing all externally imposed rules and standards with internal ones that are appropriate to the unique person you are.

The Takers of the World

You can easily detect narcissists, including the everyday non-malignant kind, by how they process personal interactions. To a normal person, anything you do for them is a gift, and they will normally thank you for it, and possibly think of a way to reciprocate in kind. To a narcissist, by contrast, anything you do is part of an instant obligation you have to him, it isn't good enough, and you have a permanent responsibility to try harder to please him. Your efforts will always turn out to be inadequate, but the narcissist will generously let you try again. And again.

Everything in adult life is a transaction, and some are more balanced than others. Let's take our conversation as an example. You've written me and described your personal experiences with narcissists. I didn't deserve your post, but I intend to make the best use of it by including it in my Website (without your name, of course) so that other people can share your experience and my response, in the hope that they will personally grow.

I see this exchange as an opportunity to help people escape from narcissism — their own and that of others. You have helped the process by writing me, and I intend to help the process by writing some more, and I will then publish the result. My hope is that people will read the result and move a bit toward independence — spiritual, personal independence.

Do you see what I'm saying? You can help people achieve personal freedom by sharing your experiences. I can do that too, but you aren't obligated to me in any way, because I regard your participation in this process as a gift to me and to the world.

I may be able to help you in a small way by writing this response, but you certainly don't owe me anything, because you've already contributed more than enough to this process, and besides, you and I haven't chosen to enter into a relationship of mutual obligation. According to the Symmetry Principle, such a relationship must always be a conscious choice, mutually agreed to, based on a realistic expectation of mutual benefit.

With normal people, your sincere efforts are not an obligation but a gift, and on average your contributions make things better. Normal people do what they can to keep things balanced, by giving as much as they get. Over time normal people develop an instinctive sense of balance, a sense that their relationships are based on equal and mutual advantage.

Contrast this with a narcissist. To a narcissist, even if you and he have never met, you are already responsible for his expectations, and if you should bump into each other, the collision is your fault and you will pay, and then pay some more. You are inadequate, he is perfect, your sole responsibility is to support his perfection, but nothing you do can possibly erase his disappointment in your efforts.

The basic truth about narcissists is that their behavior doesn't work (it doesn't get them into balance with other people, and it eventually destroys them), but they don't care. They never understand the Symmetry Principle, and they cannot escape the trap they've set for themselves. More to the point, you can't help them escape — they won't let you.

Given the dramatic contrast between normal people and narcissists, how is it possible for people to attach themselves to narcissists again and again? Well, that's easy to explain — the relationship between a narcissist and an enabler is intense and perpetual, such that everything else may come to seem boring. Some people are so moved by the intensity of the relationship between a narcissist and an enabler that they assign it the label "True Love". What constitutes true love will always be a matter of opinion, but as I see it, true love must allow both parties to breathe freely, even to stand apart at times.

Not Just a Theory

Above I promised I would reveal how I handled my real-world encounter with a clinical narcissist. The full story appears here but I wanted to show its connection with creative responses to narcissism. It's the story of a narcissistic housewife of the most malignant variety, who took her children on a guided tour of hell by terrorizing them in diverse ingenious ways, then submitting them for psychological treatment. In a parent-child situation like this, for legal reasons there is very little an outsider can do until the children grow up and emancipate themselves, but because this woman insisted on getting me involved in her life, I ended up doing all I could to minimize the harm she was doing.

Notwithstanding her blinding level of narcissism, eventually this woman realized I wasn't going to become one of her enablers or acolytes, at which point she switched into a weird, schizoid posture in which, desperate for control and self-justification, she simultaneously insisted that she loved me, that I was a beneficial influence on her children, that I shouldn't leave, but that everyday physical contact was actually molestation.

Obviously, once she dropped the M-word into casual conversation, I was gone. Until then I had underestimated her pathology, but at that point I realized her irrationality combined with narcissism made her a dangerous person.

My departure began a drama, played out between she and her son, who saw some value in my friendship and who argued, both with she and I, for its resumption. As time passed, as her relations with her son deteriorated, she tried to prevail while honoring the narcissist's highest priority (get her way while avoiding any personal responsibility), so she decided to make a public accusation, the nature of which I will leave to my readers' imaginations.

I archive personal e-mails as a matter of policy, in this case they told a story diametrically opposed to this woman's accusation, and I used these and her history of mental instability to make short work of her in a civil courtroom. It then came out that she had falsely accused another man in similar circumstances, and I realized she would very likely repeat the behavior. So in the public interest I posted a fictionalized account of our interactions on the Web, primarily to describe the behavior of people like her, to warn people about the risk posed by narcissists, but also for its value as an apt counterpoint.

How was it a counterpoint? Well, this woman presented a work of fiction as though it were truth in a courtroom, so, consistent with the Symmetry Principle, I presented a work of truth as though it were fiction on the Web. In a long list of excellent reasons for posting my article was my realization that this woman, like most narcissists, had never experienced her own behavior from another, and I was more than willing to hold up a metaphorical mirror and let her see herself as others see her.

But, being a narcissist, possessed of an obtuseness that must be experienced to be believed, she never got it. When she sanctimoniously objected to my article in a later courtroom hearing, the judge quickly established that it was a work of fiction and named no living person, at which point I think he understood exactly what I had done and why (the same judge had rejected her earlier fictional accusation out of hand). Then, aware that any concessions to her would only encourage further frivolous legal actions, he gave her nothing and closed the hearing.

Do I think this will dissuade her from future misbehaviors? No, not really. Studies of people who make false accusations show they are rarely swayed by public exposure or sanctions. But that wasn't the principal reason for my article — people who read it come to understand that such people exist and they have no hesitation in lying about the vilest things, under oath in a court of law, even when they are about to be contradicted by their own prior written words.

This woman's real victims are her children, who I believe will survive by learning narcissist coping skills. I had done my best, at one point saving her son's life during a dangerous outing I had objected to, but nothing made any difference to her behavior — when I was in her presence, however loony it may sound, I was guilty of everything. For example, I saved her son by grabbing him as he fell during a climb. Thanks, but ... grabbing is touching, touching is bad, you're guilty. The perfect image of malignant narcissism is a mother who, on seeing her child saved from a dangerous fall, accuses the rescuer of inappropriate touching.

When I wasn't there, someone else became the guilty party, like the man she had accused before, or her son. Not surprisingly, by the time I left, the majority of family members had expressed suicidal sentiments within my hearing (except her, of course), and all were in therapy. This is how narcissism works, and the condition is regarded as incurable.

This is just an example of how normal people react when confronted by narcissists — you proceed with the hope the other person understands the symmetrical nature of human relations (things tend to balance out over time), but you don't dwell on the failures, instead, after a sincere effort, you move on. You do not get trapped in the narcissist's web.

The Hunt for Mr. Right

So being a narcissistic enabler is a losing proposition. What are the alternatives? Well, as your first priority you could develop a healthy relationship with yourself. I hear a lot of talk from women about meeting "Mr. Right", but I have to say something that really should be obvious — "Mr. Right" is a myth.

This doesn't mean there aren't any compatible partners out there, but it means one shouldn't invest a lot of energy in the fantasy that meeting a particular person will solve the basic problem of life. And if you do meet such a person, any worthwhile relationship that develops won't be you, won't be him, but will be something distinct from either person separately, which only serves to confirm that "Mr. Right" is a myth.

As to the "basic problem of life", in my opinion it is to create a healthy, productive relationship with yourself, or with nature, another way to say the same thing. Some may object that this sounds like a rationalization for not having that perfect one-on-one relationship everyone seems focused on, but I personally think that exclusive focus is dangerous, for these reasons:
  • If you don't develop a solid relationship with yourself as your first priority, you won't be able to meet your own needs, and this will make you utterly dependent on others. This could result in an unhealthy focus on finding that perfect other, and might produce a complete personal collapse if that essential relationship doesn't work out, as in the examples of your friend's suicide and your own story.

  • If you do craft a solid relationship with yourself, so that you can confidently meet your own needs, any relationship you consider having will be ranked secondary in importance (as it should be). Because you will want, but not need, the company of others, this will allow you to exercise reasonable caution in choosing friends and lovers, with the understanding that they are optional parts of a full personal life.

  • If we spend all our time trying to find the perfect relationship, we will end up missing most of life's experiences, because — this may come as a shock — life is not summed up by our personal relationships. There is a rich, rewarding world of experience that lies outside our personal lives.

Mama bear's unhappy cubs


I have a rich life, and I wouldn't give up my freedom to experience nature for any relationship I've ever had — not one. And no one I have ever met was able or willing to share the kinds of adventures I have, including sailing a boat around the world alone or spending my summers with bears in Alaska.

Think about the people you personally find interesting, intriguing, fascinating — people who have adventures, who write books and stories. I venture to guess each of them is interesting in inverse proportion to how much time they're willing to invest in a hunt for the perfect domestic partner.

A few years ago as I sat by a salmon stream in Alaska, a mama bear came by, sniffed me over, decided I was all right, and left her cubs in my care so she could go fishing and not have to worry about her cubs. I was honored and pleased beyond words (although the cubs weren't so happy about the whole deal). Now multiply that experience a thousand times, and try to imagine why I would give that up for a relationship with anyone I have ever met.

I am not saying we should give up relationships — not at all. The point is to have relationships that don't require you to give up your life. Your life, your goals, your happiness, must come first. And if your only goal is to have a relationship, something is seriously wrong.

An old friend, a mental health professional, describes narcissists as "the takers of the world." I've always thought that was a great description, but the reality is more complex, because takers (narcissists) and givers (enablers) make each other possible (which is why they are called "codependents"). Don't be a taker, but don't be a blind giver either (meaning someone who gives without restraint or judgment). Instead, be someone who is willing to give, but who understands symmetry.


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