Monday, February 12, 2007

Compassion for the Narcissist?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder has become synonymous with pejorative vilifying stereotypes that paint everyone diagnosed with it along with others with varying degrees of narcissism as monstrous people without worth. Rarely, in life, is the sum total of any human being with a personality disorder or not that simple or that black and white.

Narcissist Personality Disorder (NPD) is isolating, disenfranchising, painful, and formidable for those diagnosed with it and often those who know them. Distinctions need to be made between those who have NPD because not each and every person with NPD is the same. Even with similar core issues the way in which one’s individual narcissism manifests itself in his or her relationships varies.

There is an irrefutable truth that many who have NPD are abusive. However, not all with NPD are abusive. Amongst those with NPD who are abusive the form and severity that their abuse takes will vary from individual to individual.

Chief among the traits that define Narcissistic Personality Disorder are what is described as a lack of empathy and a lack of compassion – not to be confused with the lack of conscience seen in the most severe form of narcissism within NPD – The Malignant Narcissism Syndrome (Kernberg 1992 – according to “The Handbook of Personality Disorders – Theory and Practice,” edited by Jeffery J. Magnavita - Pg 100) and that is most notably a feature in those diagnosed as having a psychopathic personality known as Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). NPD and APD are not one in the same.

According to Wikipedia “Otto Kernberg described malignant narcissism as a syndrome characterized by a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial features, paranoid traits, and ego-syntonic aggression. Some also may find an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and a sense of importance (grandiosity). … Malignant narcissism is considered part of the spectrum of pathological narcissism, which ranges from the Cleckley's antisocial character (today's psychopath) at the high end of severity, to malignant narcissism, to NPD at the low end.”

Most with NPD struggle to understand the experience of others because they are too involved in their own inner experience. An inner experience that is then projected out onto others in ways that leave others being treated as mere extensions of the narcissist who needs to have reflected back his or her own image of self. When this image of self is reflected back in ways that enhance how the narcissist feels about him/herself, all is well. This, for the narcissist is the experience of the gratification of narcissistic supply.

The person with NPD cannot really see others separately from the way he/she experiences the world from his or her point of view only. Most everything is experienced as being about them, some extension of them, or as thwarting their wants and/or needs

Those with NPD are blinded to the external unfolding experience of others in relation to them. They are lacking in self-awareness, often, of how others experience them. Narcissists live their lives from the inside and do not have a very flexible or evident insight into what the difference is between their image of themselves versus who they really are (as seen and defined by others) and who they hold themselves out to be.

Narcissists, often, tremendously lack insight and awareness into themselves because they cannot see past this created, exaggerated and aggrandized image of self that is incongruent with who they really are and how others experience them. Trying to provide feedback to those with NPD about their actions, or behaviour and so forth can be very frustrating because it is too painful for the narcissist to look behind the reflection of aggrandized self that they must have mirrored back to them in order to psychologically survive. The narcissist’s grandiosity is a defence against profound psychological pain.

The narcissist’s self-focus, along with his or her constant taking as they reel in this much-needed supply that buffs up and sustains their (albeit illusionary) image of grandiose and special self, interferes in this or her ability to share in the mutuality and/or reciprocity needed for healthier relating.

Those with NPD, while often described as stuck on themselves, or as full of themselves, truly are lost to themselves. Unlike those with BPD who have no sense of an actual known self and whose core wound of abandonment results in a lost self – those with NPD experience an emotional arrest at an earlier stage of early childhood development than do those with BPD (Masterson) that results in a image of a self that is held to perfection in a way that excludes the reality of the narcissist’s pain. Anything that contradicts the image of perfection threatens his or her psychological survival and is much too painful and threatening to even acknowledge.

Being on the other side of a narcissist can be very painful and frustrating. Relationships with most with NPD are usually not very satisfying or rewarding, emotionally, for those who are non-personality disordered.

Most people, who have been in, or are in, a relationship with someone with NPD feel very lonely and often invisible. Those who have NPD are not emotionally available and this is one of the most difficult things to come to terms with for others.

It is important to have compassion for those who have NPD. They are not all monsters, nor do they all behave in monstrous ways. If you are in tremendous emotional pain you may need to find ways to emotionally detach whether you stay in the relationship or not.

With healthy emotional detachment, and even when we have to remove ourselves from the abuse of a narcissist, how can we say that we are any different from a narcissist if we do not have empathy and compassion for those diagnosed with NPD?

How can we criticize what those with NPD are not able to share or do, if we ourselves aren’t prepared to share what we are actually capable of?

Having compassion for a narcissist doesn't mean, however, sadly enough in many cases, that we can stay connected to the narcissist or actively share that compassion with the person with NPD. The best we can do is to recognize that not all things that those with NPD do, are done with malice. Those in relationships with those with NPD and/or who have been abused by someone with NPD need to take care of themselves. Having compassion for the narcissist doesn't mean staying in the relationship.

Compassion, like forgiveness, are gifts that you truly give to yourself as much as to anyone with NPD. Actively being aware of both will help you heal and will set you free from any and all painful entanglement with someone with NPD.

A.J. Mahari