I want to have a nuanced conversation about narcissistic abuse
I’m hesitant to write this article, not because I fear being cancelled, but because I know how it feels to blame yourself for pain inflicted on you by the actions of others, and how that pain can be redoubled in reading anything that might suggest you were at fault. You were not at fault. You are not at fault. If that is what you need most to hear right now, that is completely okay, and it remains true.
If that is all you need to hear, then I don’t recommend reading the rest of this article.
I do not believe there is such a thing as “a narcissist.” I do believe there is such a thing as narcissism. I do not believe in “narcissistic personality disorder,” or any disorder for that matter. I think all neurochemical and behavioral patterns are natural adaptations to experiences. From my perspective, to call one normal and another a disorder is to miss the point. Some patterns create more or less suffering for those who enact or encounter them, and they all play differently within and between people. The truth is nuanced.
Two years ago, I entered my first relationship that I would describe as abusive, with someone many people (myself included) described as a narcissist. I’m hesitant to call my ex-partner “an abuser,” because I don’t think that label accurately sums up the totality of his character. He was a brilliant and complicated person with deep unhealed emotional wounds and very little awareness of how to manage them, or relate to others beyond the reactivity they caused. Living with him and loving him was a tremendously painful experience for me. After I left, it took longer than I want to admit to begin seeing beyond the narratives I’d come to believe about my own worthlessness.
Of course, this hadn’t been my first relationship with narcissistic abuse within it, nor was it the last. The overall pattern of my life has been one of brushing up against all kinds of traumatic situations without my life being defined by any of them. What I mean is, I don’t have any one “thing” I can really say I’ve suffered from more than other things. I have suffered enough to understand how much the powerlessness of traumatic relationships, of all kinds, can blind us to a fuller picture and instill profound emotional reactivity that we believe is reality. I write this essay not to speak for anyone’s experience but my own.
My experience has taught me that trauma has us believing that certain forms in our lives are the cause of our suffering when they aren’t. Forms — our concepts of people or relationships, events, things — these impact and shape our responses, but none of them alone controls it. The same goes for narcissistic abuse.
While some human beings are diagnosed with “narcissistic personality disorder” and some are not, I can say with certainty that every single human being has encountered harm from someone behaving narcissistically, and every single human has behaved narcissistically. At its essence, narcissism is an antidote to the profound isolation and self-loathing of feeling unworthy and separate from the world. It is an antidote like heroin is an antidote to emotional pain.
In my view, narcissism is a form of addiction, and blame is a form of narcissism.
I’ve seen articles from those who have suffered narcissistic abuse begging the world to stop asking them to empathize with their abusers. I understand this need intimately, as it’s one I’ve shared. Against the magnitude of pain I felt — from the relationship I mentioned above and so, so many others where the problems were less obvious — to be asked to feel compassion for my abuser felt like a profound betrayal. Worse than that, it felt like an invalidation of my own innocence.
In empathizing with narcissists, I couldn’t fully blame them and cast them away from my own self-concept. I had to draw them in emotionally, and that creates an inability to see them entirely as at fault. If they were not at fault, then I must be — and that was a thought I could not stomach. This is how the blame game is played.
What I know is that, when the only shred of self-worth you have left comes from knowing you were not at fault for the pain someone inflicted on you, to empathize is unfathomably painful. In order to see yourself correctly as innocent and good, there must be someone to contrast yourself with. If your abuser can be worthy of empathy and care, then what the hell are you worth? What is your pain worth? Why, on top of the injury you suffered, would the world want to tell you to invalidate yourself by forcing yourself to have compassion?
Compassion cannot be forced. It can only be allowed to emerge out of an authentic and intrinsic shift in perspective from victimhood to agency. In the face of buying into narratives of your own villainy, believing in your victimhood is an antidote. It is not false; we are all victims of circumstances over which we have no control. However, its role as the only conceivable antidote to the pain of guilt and shame — that is a false role.
Every single one of us has engaged in narcissistic behavior. It is the natural extension of perceiving yourself as separate from and vulnerable to a world that can harm you. In a world of finding our identities through contrast, we cannot be good unless we are better than someone else. To write a human being entirely off as “a narcissist,” compared to whom we are good and normal — that too is a narcissistic pattern. It is not true healing.
Does that mean you deserved to be abused? Of course not. You know that already. Clearly, what we think we or others “deserve” has nothing to do with anything. It’s a false construct. If we can receive things we don’t deserve, and we plainly can, then perhaps the fault is not with us, but with our concepts of worth and deserving altogether.
To truly heal from narcissism is to stop casting blame. This cannot be forced upon you and be authentically felt. Forgiveness is fully autonomous and authentic, or it isn’t there at all. It is a natural byproduct of a state of emotional freedom from the trauma you suffered in the past. You cannot fake a state of being. You are also not obligated to forgive anyone, and no one is obligated to forgive you. Like compassion, forgiveness can only emerge out of an authentic experience of empathy. Empathy can only emerge out of an authentic experience of learning beyond our reactivity and suturing our wounded self-worth.
I repeat: if it is not authentic, then it isn’t there at all. You cannot force yourself to feel something. Feelings change as a response to changing conditions in your mental and material reality.
Empathy is the ultimate antidote to narcissism. When we empathize with others, we draw them in emotionally and share a perspective with them. We see through their eyes. We are not separate, stranded in a world of contrasts where worth is defined by being above or below another. We are in the same reality as another. In some respects, we are them.
That is the uncomfortable truth of narcissists: we are them. All of us. We all behave narcissistically, from a space of self aggrandizement in the face of a terrifying void of worthlessness. When we cannot be up unless another is down, there are no options but narcissism and worthlessness. By contrast, empathy is the experience of being up because another is up, and down because another is down. Autonomy is choosing when and where you empathize, and when and where you differentiate.
The other uncomfortable truth of narcissists is that they can be good people, too. We can view all of their behavior as carefully crafted ruses to drag others in for abuse, and we can view aspects of their behavior as authentic desires for connection. The question is not, “Which perspective is accurate?” but, “Which perspective helps you heal right now?” Even in the most extreme cases of narcissistic cruelty, that person is still a person. They’ve still been victim and villain and agent and innocent, all in one. So have you. So have we all.
I believe in the positive power of #cancelculture to create the conditions for greater accountability, but I also know it is a misjudgment to write off any human as entirely “bad.” It is also a misjudgment to declare any human to be entirely “good,” because our own conceptions of good and bad are just that — they’re concepts. They’re forms. Forms exist to be broken and transmuted. Reality is what lives within and beneath the interplay between them all.
In healing from patterns of narcissistic abuse, I found they certainly did not begin with this one ex. They did not end there either. There were actions that felt abusive in some moments and not in others. I repeated many of these same patterns, both before and after this relationship. My path to healing from the pain of my abuse had nothing whatsoever to do with my ex, and everything to do with myself: in taking a good hard look at my own beliefs, behaviors and patterns, and developing the consciousness to change them. From there, forgiveness and empathy were as easy as exhaling.
That consciousness and growth, that is where the true healing lives. It does not live in blame. It lives in agency, not in victimhood.
If our goal is to truly heal, then that healing must be grounded in the truth. The truth is that the people who’ve abused me are not wicked hell-demons. No person is. The truth is that I’ve acted in ways others find abusive. Some behaviors that I find normal, others find abusive, and vice versa. The truth is that my own abusive behavior always comes as a reaction to my own pain and trauma. The same is true of everyone.
Against the game of casting blame, there can be no victory. Within its narrow confines, to speak of empathizing with narcissists can only be victim-blaming, and the only alternative is to blame the narcissists. It’s a game of contrasts: victim versus villain, powerless innocent versus powerful abuser. We can forever seek to win the game, and build higher and higher walls to keep out anything that might disrupt our victory within it — or, we can quit the game.
Are you an evil narcissist or an innocent victim? Are you powerless or powerful? Are you in control or out of it? Are you bad or good?
The truth is far simpler than that: you are a person. You are. The concepts and comparisons lay themselves over you to make you appear complex and multifaceted. Within their rules, you are good and bad, powerful and powerless, narcissistic and empathetic, compassionate and cruel. You are all of it, and beneath that, you just are.
None of us is to blame for what happened to us in the past, and we all have the ability to respond in the present towards creating a different future. We cannot heal the past. We can only allow the present to heal us, in service of building a future that won’t have to be healed from.