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, which was the reason he was seeing me, and he had no more patience for such things. He was politely but forcefully pointing out the hypocrisy in his uncle's criticisms, when his uncle flew into a rage.
Everybody sat in shock, not least John, but what happened next bewildered him. 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, for John should not have irritated his uncle. 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's behaviour is sadly pretty common. If you are reading this you probably recognise his type in your own family. What he displays are narcissistic traits. There are different types and in Victor's case we might conclude he was an overt narcissist. This 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, with humour and joy, 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 began, the understated 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 quite a depressed mood in him. He spoke of a sense of bleakness, of that old feeling of facing coldness and hate in the world. We explored why his uncle's attack might affect him so deeply. We looked at his experience with a similar step-father who also showed strong traits of vindictive narcissism, who had bullied him in the final years before he left home early. John's grandfather had also been a very narcissistic, an abusive alcoholic, and this had sent ripples throughout the family and its following generations. Indeed we were able to discern how the grandfather's abuse flowed into the broader family dynamics, which perhaps manifested at the restaurant. Victor had become like his father to some degree, no doubt through the damage of experiencing him as a child. But 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"). It helped John immensely to clarify all of this.
The main weapons that a narcissistic bully uses are our own qualities, those very ones that we ought to prize in ourselves and others: our empathy, humility, and ability to be playful rather than taking oneself too seriously. Narcissists are able to take advantage of our finer qualities and use them against us because such qualities make us open to others, which means they make us vulnerable. When John confronted his uncle he acted in ignorance of this fact. His action showed the assumption that Victor might listen with reason and empathy, and acknowledge what he did wrong. But this side did not exist in Victor in the way John assumed. If it did, then Victor would not have behaved like a bully in the first place. It was partly John's lack of insight into 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. I always tell people that when dealing with a narcissist who affects you in this way, you have to see them primarily in terms of their psychology. You have to psychologise them. To not do so is to be drawn into one of the main tricks of a narcissist: for we want to be reasonable, humble, to consider the other's view - to act according to the principles of justice and decency - but the narcissist does not play by these rules. They use those values of ours to convince us that the fault lies with us. This is why arguments with narcissists can become so confusing. They are masters of gaslighting.
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 self-protective cynicism, even though this clashed with his more deeply held values which normally nourished his sense of life's meaning.
I encouraged John to take a second look at things. We explored what might have motivated his family's behaviour in terms of those old 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 the insults, John saw that he had also 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. John had been blaming others for something which he had failed to do for himself. His despair lessened and his sense of how to handle Victor future improved.
It was notable, said John, that although Victor threatened him, yet he fled from the room like a coward. “It was pathetic.” At the emotional level the narcissist is stuck in a certain stage of childhood development. Just as some people are intellectually disabled, meaning their development was slowed or ceased at an early stage, so we might say that narcissists are emotionally disabled, quite literally, and this leads also to a moral disablility, for empathy requires emotional maturity. The flashiness of the narcissist, the appearance they maintain through charisma or boasting, and even the talents they actually possess, blind us to the emotional disorder in them.
The typical cause of a narcissm 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 beignly) or abused in childhood by their parent. From out of these conditions the narcissist develops a sense of worthlessness, of being fundamentally unlovable. They suppress this feeling, however, hiding from it through instinctive psychological tricks. So they themselves cannot recognise their own wound, which means they 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 valuable. They are driven.
Narcissists lack real empathy because they are so focused on their own needs, which mask their deep wound. 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 need which, like a young child, and without self-awareness, 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 - and John was able to develop compassion for Victor. John's new form of compassion was very different, however, 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 John, walked through the same emotional world as he. So the perspective which John developed through our discussions amounted to a more genuine form of compassion than his old perspective, because it looked to the real differences within Victor rather than assuming his inner world was the same as John's healthy one. This also enabled John to put his cynicism and despair into context, to reconnect with his better perspective on human nature.
Such wiser compassion also enabled John to gain self-protective approach to his uncle. It did not leave him vulnerable to being drawn into Victor's self-serving perspective. John could see the tricks. So not only was this a wiser compassion, and a healing one, it was a strengthening one 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. That's quite a tragedy for anybody.
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 they 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 the powerful emotions that come, such as hatred toward an abusive narcissist, without reacting with harmful guilt - true compassion encompasses not only the other, but oneself too! The narcissist wants to pass their wound on to others, but we must refuse to swallow their poison.
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 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. Be the better person, in a strong and wise way, and that will lead you forward and out of the narcissist's grip.