John's uncle Victor held a chair in the air like a weapon and shouted that he'd better get out of the way. Victor then stormed out of the restaurant.
John* had been engaged in a friendly debate with his brother at a family gathering. They always went out to eat when their father visited from interstate, usually at Uncle Victor's favourite restaurant where he made himself the centre of attention. Uncle Victor had joined the discussion but quickly shifted from the issue itself, to subtly putting John down. This was Victor's default mode: to get personal with certain family members, under the guise of discussing some general matter. After years of ignoring this John had recently been through a divorce, for which he was seeing me, and had less patience for such things. He was politely but forcefully pointing out the hypocrisy in his uncle's criticisms, when his uncle flew into the rage.
Everybody sat in shock, not least John, but what happened next bewildered him more. His brother chased after his uncle, “To see if he is alright.” Others chided John, claiming that both he and the uncle were to blame for what had happened, and that John ought to quieten down. This incensed John. He exited the restaurant, found his uncle, and confronted him about his behaviour. Victor simply attacked in response - “It's your fault, you got personal with me!” - as though the chronic bully was the innocent party.
Victor displayed what in this trade we refer to as narcissistic traits. In particular he displayed a form of narcissism that is more noticeable because so damaging to relationships. It can be boiled down to three traits:
1) Egotism (shown through boasting, often with unrealistic claims);
2) lack of empathy for others (for example habitual criticism of others to boost their own ego); and
3) explosive, childish rage when they do not get their way or are challenged.
Conversation with Victor always started well, and usually began by talking about things in the world - business, politics and so on. But as soon as John disagreed with Victor on some matter, then the little put downs would begin, implications that John was a fool who knew nothing.
John was already in a low place, and he sank lower after the incident at the restaurant. It triggered a very dark mood in him. He spoke of a powerful sense of bleakness, of overarching coldness and hate in the world. We explored why his uncle's attack might affect John so deeply. We looked at his experience of a narcissistic step-father, who had bullied him in the final years before he left home. John's grandfather had also been an abusive man, a narcissistic alcoholic, although John had experienced little of this directly beyond the man's coldness. But we were able to discern how the grandfather's abuse flowed into the broader family dynamics, which perhaps manifested at the restaurant. What hurt John most was his family's behaviour. It was a classic pattern: the bully is aggressive toward an individual and others, through fear - of harm to themselves, or of confrontation, or a lack of 'peace' - empathise with the bully (“Are you alright?”) and blame the victim (“Don’t make trouble." And, implicitly, "Yes, he attacks you, but you make it bad for the rest of us when you fight back.”).
The main weapons of a narcissistic bully are the very qualities that we ought to prize in ourselves and others: our empathy, humility, and ability to play rather than take oneself too seriously. Narcissists take advantage by using our finer qualities against us. They are able to do so because such qualities leave us vulnerable. When John confronted his uncle he acted in ignorance of this fact. He confronted Victor in the hope of a reasonable, empathic acknowledgement by Victor of what he was doing. That is, John appealed to Victor's better side, which is a fine thing to do with most people. However this side did not exist in Victor in the way John assumed. ( If it did, then would Victor have behaved like a bully in the first place?) It was partly John's lack of insight about Victor's psychology which drove his despair, because in his imagination he invested his Uncle's perspective with too much weight, as though it was a reasonable point of view rather than merely an expression of insecure egotism. This is how narcissists often do their work: we want to be reasonable, humble, to take the other's view on board - to act according to the principles of justice and decency - but the narcissist does not play by these rules. They often become skilled at convincing the other that the fault lies with them. And so the other internalises the narcissist's perspective about themselves. The poison has been self-ingested by the victim.
Alongside such confusion, another element in John's despair was his sense of helplessness. After the experience at the restaurant he felt that certain important things were out of his hands. Not only did confronting his uncle – an assertion of his right to be respected, after years of insults - seem to have no effect, but his family seemed to care more for placating the bully and keeping the peace than they did for defending John. His sense of disempowered hurt transformed into anger. He felt that those he loved did not care enough to see what was happening. That they were more concerned with their comfort, and John extended this perception to the world in general. Still suffering the pain of his recent divorce, his felt fundamentally alone, and that others were either bullies or too weak to stand by him. At moments he considered suicide, though mostly he edged toward a philosophy of self-protective cynicism, even though these clashed with his usual, more deeply held values which normally nourished his sense of life's value.
I encouraged John to take a second look at things. We explored what might have motivated his family's behaviour in terms of those deeper patterns of abuse and avoidance. Although he had always possessed a sense of standing up for the victim, when we attended to these patterns John saw that he was also given in his own way to placating and keeping the peace. He was not much different to his brother and father. Indeed it was their qualities, which John admired in them and valued in himself - their empathy, humility and desire to include everybody - which provided the conditions for Victor's behaviour. Through his being passive all these years in the face of insults, John now felt that he more than anybody else had excused and colluded with Victor's behaviour toward him. This insight transformed his feelings toward his family from hurt and anger to understanding: he was not alone, instead he was loved by flawed people. Loved and let down. As he had let himself down and perhaps let others down. John had been blaming others for something which he had failed to do for himself. His despair lessened.
However a degree of it remained.
As I said, one common form of narcissism is structured by three traits. The most sophisticated thinking about narcissism is found in psychoanalysis, but schema therapy, a kind of synthesis of cognitive-behavioural therapy and psychoanalysis, offers a helpful way of picturing it. It speaks of psychological modes which people move in and out of, and specifies three such modes that charaterise narcissism. First there is the self-aggrandiser mode in which the narcissist first boasts, and when that fails then bullies and then rages. Second there is the self-soother mode in which the narcissist gives themselves over to distraction (work, hobbies, addictions etc.). These are both emotional defenses against awareness of the third mode, which is sometimes called the wounded child or, to use psychoanalytic language, the narcissistic wound. It was notable, said John, that although Victor blustered and threatened, yet he seemed to flee from the room like a coward. “It was pathetic.” At their core the narcissist is stuck emotionally in a certain stage of childhood development. Just as some people are intellectually retarded (to use that Latin word which is out of fashion but which is technically kinder and more true than the term disabled - retarded means slowed), so it might be said that narcissists are emotionally retarded, quite literally, and this leads also to a moral retardation - at the emotional and moral level they are six years old, even while other dimensions of their being have developed into adult capacities. We notice these other capacities - and often a narcissist is driven to appear excellent before others - and fail to notice the retardation.
The typical cause of a narcissistic wound involves either 1) being treated by their parents (or care-givers) as defective (as only valuable when succeeding in something which the parent values) or 2) being neglected, even benignly, or abused in childhood by their parent. From out of these developmental conditions the narcissist feels an absolute sense of unworthiness, of being fundamentally unlovable. They suppress this feeling, however, hiding from it through instinctive psychological tricks. They cannot recognise their own wound, and so will never heal from it. Given all this, we can understand why adult narcissists boast so continuously and outrageously, and engage in competitive or deprecating behaviours: they do so in order to feel more valued and so valuable. They do so in response to a wound, a retardation, which they will not recognise.
Narcissists are suffering from a deprivation of love at an earlier time. Their excessive rage reflects the fragility of their sense of worth. And because, as with the first two modes above, their narcissistic personality is essentially one big defense mechanism, an evasion of their fundamental wound or void, therefore they have little to no insight into their own nature. They feel nothing for others because they are so focused on their own needs. The existence of others is perceived only in terms of how it serves or threatens their need for validation. To return to our example at the restaurant, John was never going to be genuinely heard by, or get true acknowledgement from, Victor, and on the contrary Victor genuinely believed that he was the one who was wronged. For Victor was a six year old in a fifty year old's body, raging at an emotional hole which, like a young child, without question he expected those around him to meet.
When I explained these things to John and he understood how it was that his uncle might have come to behave as he did - through wounds which Victor suffered as a child from his abusive father - then John was able to develop compassion for Victor. John's new form of compassion was very different from his old one, by which John and his family excused and colluded with Victor's behaviour. Embedded in that former, less-insightful compassion was the blinkered belief that everybody else felt the same way as he, walked through the same emotional world as he. So the perspective which John developed through our discussions amounted to a more genuine form of cmpassion than his old perspective, because it attended to real differences in the other rather than assuming the other was exactly like oneself. This also enabled John to see through those aspects of human behaviour which had led to him into cynicism and so despair, such that he could reconnect with his better perspective on human nature and life.
Such wiser compassion also enabled John to gain a critical, self-protective perspective on his narcissist uncle. His new form of compassion did not leave him vulnerable to swallowing the narcissist's poison in the way that his earlier compassion had. He could see the narcissist's tricks, and beat him at his psychological wrestling. So not only was this a wiser compassion, and a healing one, it was a strengthening compassion too. As John and I acknowledged, it must be terrible to carry within oneself the lonely terror at the heart of narcissism. John's uncle would never experience the beauty of life as John could. He would never play, relax, or be with others, in the beautiful ways in which John and mature, empathic people can be.
Most narcissists suffered an absence or abuse from the people who mattered most during their childhood. This is tragic, and ought to arouse compassion. But embedded in wise compassion for them is a recognition that the obnoxious and sometimes abusive things narcissists do cannot be excused. A wise compassion understands the psychological wound, but enforces boundaries on behaviour. It protects the self and holds the other to account for their actions. It also accepts feeling powerful emotions such as hate toward an abusive narcissist without reacting to that anger with harmful guilt - true compassion encompasses not only the other, but oneself too! The narcissist wants to pass their void on to others, but we must refuse to swallow their poison. Perhaps then they might be face themselves, if that is possible, and we would have done them a disservice had we saved them the suffering the consequences of their actions, and so from the suffering which led to them to becoming better people.
The danger when dealing with narcissists is that we get drawn into their world of hurt, resentment, fear and isolation. Through his despair John had begun to create a world that looked like the narcissist's: cold, bleak, resentful. During an early session he expressed a desire to understand his uncle's psychology so that he could “push his buttons” and so take revenge on him. We explored the cost of engaging in such action and John felt that this focus might bring more bleakness and coldness into his life, and that the best path was the higher path. I was reminded of the words of the ancient philosopher Socrates: It is better to suffer evil than to do it. These are challenging words, but they are true.
Author: Matthew Bishop
*My counselling is confidential, and so the clients and scenarios in my writing are syntheses of various people and experiences.