Narcissists_It Takes One to Know One

Narcissists_It Takes One to Know One

I talk through the uncomfortable, often painful truth that an overt narcissist can only succeed in using his/her tools of manipulation and gaslighting when in the presence of someone with their own unconscious narcissistic wound, often someone with some level of covert narcissism. If this relationship has lasted long term, then both parties are in a state of narcissistic functioning. This does not, in any way, blame people who have no option for navigating out of a situation controlled by an abuser.

Episode Transcript:

Hi, everybody. Good afternoon. This one is going to meander a little, and I'm probably going to get myself in trouble. But I will try to use myself and my own foibles as an example of how this is true. So let me say first that I mean no offense by this. I'm just sort of exploring human dynamics and how things work together. So the statement that I'm avoiding is the insight that essentially narcissists or these people that are much vilified, and there are tons and tons of articles about this, some of them pretty good, some of them really just sort of way to hate other people and accuse other people of being selfish. But essentially a narcissist is someone who was wounded badly enough at a young enough age that they've sort of frozen somewhere between two and four years of age emotionally, and it makes them extremely self-interested. To the point that they're not really capable of imagining that anyone would behave in any other way. They don't really get what empathy is. They can fake it, and they can even try and intend to fake it. But the reason people get really frustrated with overt narcissist is because no matter how they try, you can always tell that underneath it all, everything they do is really self-serving. If they're nice to you, they're trying to elicit some kind of response, or they're trying to position you in some way such that they benefit from the social connection, or they're just trying to elicit care from you. If they're mean to you, they're usually doing it to try to demonstrate to someone else their power, their social positioning. So no matter how they interact, if you really get under the hood, people can begin to see that this person is entirely self-interested. And narcissists by definition are unable to empathize with others. And an overt narcissist or a toxic narcissist is one who, as they've grown up, has become somewhat aware of their skill and aware of the fact that other people can be manipulated. And they're smart enough to get pretty good at manipulating other people. And so then the toxic narcissist or maybe the personality disorder noted in the DSM, it's the sort of person who does this maliciously. Some people assert that is a toxic narcissist that in fact he manipulates people and takes pleasure in it. I don't know him personally. That seems to appear that way sometimes. But a toxic or a really overt narcissist is one who doesn't even pretend that they're being nice to people. They admit that they're manipulating people. They think it's funny that they still get away with it. But most people who get accused of being a narcissist are people who are not entirely aware. And if you can really pin them down and talk them through it, they will at some point demonstrate through word or deed that they're not really sure what empathy is. And they kind of believe that everybody's manipulating. And that no matter how elegantly someone may care for someone else or may do something that looks selfless, that in the end, that person really did it for the same reason the narcissist did it, is because it's self-serving. When pushed to it, they are the people who will say, well, you did it because it makes you feel good. And they'll interpret everything as this narcissistic self-serving way of doing things. So There are people we call narcissists. Many times it's unfair. We're all self-interested quite often, and should be. However, the statement that I'm going to make that I think makes people uncomfortable, but it's taken me many years of being a therapist, but also look at my own behavior and having been a victim of narcissists overt and sometimes covert is that the only way a narcissist succeeds in setting up a long-term relationship to you and then using you and abusing you and treating you in a way that over the long period you slowly are sort of broken down, become more confused, and you believe in yourself less. This process that people call narcissistic abuse. And here's, again, I keep waiting to say it because I know that it's going to piss a lot of people off and hurt people's feelings. But the only reason that works is because we have our own narcissistic wound that we're unaware of. And that we also position ourselves to be the center of the universe. And we also are making everything about ourselves, but we're doing it as what might be called a covert narcissist. What is a covert narcissist? A covert narcissist is someone who seems very empathetic, and they will deeply bond with you, and they will mourn your struggles and your pain. And they are full of struggles and pain. And they're not that shiny, arrogant form of overt narcissism. They are this form of narcissism in which slowly over a long period of time, you begin to realize that it seems like they have no intention to heal. They're constantly about how much pain they're in. Furthermore, they're constantly on about, and they will bond with you and be deeply empathetic, but it's always a sort of turn you around and make you empathetic to their situation. And so a covert narcissist is someone who makes everything about them with them centered as the victim. They're always the victim. They're always struggling. Furthermore, they're always sad. Furthermore, they're always depressed. Furthermore, they're always traumatized. The few moments that they're happy are so fragile, and it takes a while to suss it out, but you begin to realize that some people are really clinging to their pain and suffering. It's not that they haven't suffered, and it's not that they're not in pain. And sometimes these people have had horrific childhoods or horrific lives with severe violent rape or horrible torment as children. So it's not that they haven't suffered. It's that that suffering ultimately backed them into this personality style where they get value out of being a victim, they don't believe in anything else. And the only pleasure they have in life is being able to talk to people about how difficult their life is and about how much pain they're in. So they become deeply invested in their own suffering. Their suffering is real, but they become deeply invested in it. And you begin to realize this person at an unconscious level has no intention of breaking free. So this is the little more extreme version of this. So I want you to be really aware that I'm talking about something in the black and white because it makes it easier to see. But if you've done either of these things, and we all have, this doesn't mean that you're a horrible person or that I'm saying that you're a horrible person or that everything's your fault if you were ever victimized by an overt narcissist. I'm saying it extremely so that you can see it and then apply it to yourself. So in the interest of owning my own stuff, I'll tell you a couple of the experiences that I've had in which I began to realize that narcissists had taken advantage of me, but they had taken advantage of me because I had these pretentious, half victim, half morally superior perceptions about myself that came from my own wounding and my own trauma that I had not gotten over. And as long as those were present and alive, these narcissists instinctively knew how to say things to me and knew how to interact with me in a way that I felt trapped and didn't know how to respond and then got sort of like beaten up a little by narcissists. And all of these cases were early in my career as a therapist. One of the cases was someone who had a terrible childhood and was badly, badly traumatized, had been in a state of trauma or depression for many, many decades and had been through many therapists and basically came in saying, I don't think therapy works, but you seem like you know a lot, and I'm willing to give it a chance. So already it's a setup. It's a setup because I'm being offered this honored position as a therapist, as the therapist who can solve this problem that other therapists couldn't. Right. And so if you're a new therapist, and you're still lacking confidence and unsure of yourself, you know, for me also being a bit competitive in that way, it was like, Oh, Oh, well you're willing to take it. Oh, yeah. Like we're going to do this. What that means is ultimately I was going to push myself past. Realistic clinical limits in order to prove that I could succeed where other therapists could not. And the only reason that happened is because I was still struggling with some low self-esteem and some lack of confidence in myself as a therapist. I had also been raised by someone with strong narcissistic tendencies. And so this sort of accessed some little boy pain in there where it's like, I wanted to do well, and I wanted to prove that I could do this. So I gave it my best shot and I pushed and I pushed, but ultimately I kept getting trapped between. Things would go really well, and we'd have this amazing session, and it would seem like healing was happening. And then this client would come back really, furious. Every time we'd have a good session. Client would come back, walk in and be like, yeah, I'm not trying to disrespect you, but this doesn't work. And you say this or that. And, you know, I don't know why we're doing this, and I'm not. And so there was a bit of diplomacy, but it was essentially just saying, look, I think this is BS. And a therapist with a healthy professional self-esteem in that situation with more experience would have been very direct and very honest and said, oh, wow, like if it's not working for you or if you think it's not working for you, I think you should choose your way out of it. Like I can make referrals if you want to try a different therapist, or you can quit, but I certainly don't want to sit here and try to talk you into something that's not working for you. What I did is I would, again, pitch the modality that I use, which is attachment-focused EMDR, EMDR, trauma resiliency model, these things that have been studied and tested, and there's a lot of scientific backing that I really believed in, and I believed in my own abilities. But what I was doing was setting myself up to put this person in a position to go to now make me responsible for his or her healing. Like somehow I'm some exalted powerful being who knows something that this person doesn't know, and I'm going to put this healing on you, and you're going to be healed, and I'm going to succeed. And these other therapists didn't, et cetera, et cetera. And this person behaved, kept pushing the boundaries. It would be a little more insulting and a little more controlling as time went on. Now, from that client's perspective, they probably just wanted out. But they didn't feel entitled. They didn't have the confidence to be like, I mean, no disrespect. I don't think this is working for me. I think I'm going to move on. They wanted me to be responsible, and I wanted them to be responsible. So you see that there's this reciprocal relationship And slowly over time, I was becoming more and more uncomfortable and more anxious in the situation where even when we did well and there'd be a session where there seemed to be a lot of healing and the body calmed down, nervous system calmed down, some real insights seemed to pop up. Every single time, this type of client will come back furious. Um, a bit insulting, dismissive, um, putting down the results that happened so far. I got caught in this, in this process of like tracking and going, well, this is, this is what I've seen. I'm not trying to pep talk you, but you were in this place in the beginning, and we did this work, and you made these advances. The these, you know, this progression has been healthy, and I've seen these things, and you've said these things. And so you have made progress. But essentially what was happening was my lack of professional confidence, my lack of experience, but also some of my personal childhood wounds that are not completely healed. I had someone in front of me that had a certain physical appearance and a certain way of talking and a certain arrogance that poked my childhood wounds and made me want to win, made me want to succeed, made me want to prove that what I did had value and was effective and was worthy and that I was skilled, blah, blah, blah. Now, here's the part you have to be super careful with. That's not what I'm saying on top. I'm a skilled therapist, and I'm verbally skilled. So I was presenting everything in a very even neutral tone because I had been well-trained, and I knew that you should never get invested, and you should never offer investment to the client because then that will get played. And that's not even healthy. You don't want to send the message to the client that you're some end all be all to their healing. They do the healing. They do the work. But if you listen to things that I was saying, I was making it about me. Now people who get wounded by narcissists, we don't like to admit that, okay, if it's a one-off or if you're trapped in a job with the narcissistic boss, and you don't have any options, you can't get out. There are times that you're trapped, and you can really struggle and interacting with the narcissist can really hurt you and create damage. But in a case like mine where I had a choice, I didn't need this person. I didn't need that income. I had plenty of people in my practice. The only reason it went on as long as it did, and I took the damage I did is because I was making it about me. Now, the thing we don't like to admit when we say, oh, yeah, I get it. I was making it about me is that's a form of narcissism. I was bringing my needs. It might've been buried. It might've been really diplomatic, but it might've been really quiet. But I was bringing my needs to that work. And then the client was successfully poking those buttons and succeeding and saying things that were mildly dismissive, mildly insulting, would interrupt me. And I let all of that go because I kept telling myself, well, you know, this is a really wounded person, and I'm repairing attachment, and I'm being the safe place, blah, blah, blah. And you might say, really, how is that narcissistic? I was not giving that person basic human respect. I was setting myself up in this morally superior position where I'm the person who knows how to behave, and I'm the person who's behaving correctly, and I'm providing this environment, et cetera, et cetera. But if you really respect someone as an equal, What would have been appropriate would have been too kindly and respectfully address the behavior and to say, you know, you have every right to leave our work if it doesn't work for you or to say, hey, , the way you approach doesn't work or even to give me feedback that like the way you do this doesn't work. I don't really like and that's a therapist job to hear that and to work with it and to make referrals if this is not the appropriate place. But my job was to say with human respect and respect for that person is to say, you know, like after we get some good work, there's this pattern where you come back, and you're pretty dismissive and even a little condescending and insulting. And it's my job to sit and to make space. But I do think something's going on here. And I do need a little more from you. I need a little more honesty if this is not working for you. And I need to be really, really clear that this work is on you. I can show you the ways that it worked for many people, but you might be a person that that doesn't work for. There's no modality. That's the end. All be all for any person. And even therapy is not the end. All be all. You might be somebody who needs to talk to your clergy. You might be somebody who needs to work it out on your own. Furthermore, you might be somebody that just time works for. So my failure was that I got into my own fears and anxieties, which are about me, That's the narcissism. I had enough of an energy making it about me and not clinically addressing what I was seeing in front of me. So I missed these cues of like, there's a pattern going on here that I should talk to this person. I'm their therapist. I should talk to them respectfully and say, hey, I see this pattern and I see this behavior that doesn't really work in therapy, or it doesn't work for me. And I need to talk about changing that if we're going to work together, which is a basic respect for another equal. But instead, I simultaneously placed myself as a victim of this person's behavior while assuming this morally superior position in which I'm a therapist who's going to provide space for this person to behave this way without even identifying it for that person to look at and to think about. Now, if I identified it and that person behaved really badly and got angry at me, well, then you are at a toxic level of personality disorder. And if that's not your thing, and it's not mine, I don't do personality disorders, the extreme versions, then it's your job as a therapist to move them on. So I hope you got from that and my own sharing that I don't mean to insult anyone who's been victimized by a sociopath, which is different from just narcissism. Narcissism, there's a lot of sociopathy, a lack of ability to empathize. But a true sociopath, however that happens, maybe it's even born, maybe there's something wrong with the wiring, just seems incapable of feeling what other people feel or feeling for other people. So other people are just purely playthings. A narcissist cares, but their emotional state is so immature and undeveloped that they just don't have the ability. They want the ability, and they want to feel connected to other people. And so you can see many levels of this. Emotional immaturity is a kind of narcissism. And I had some emotional immaturity as a therapist in that I was bringing stuff in. So I don't mean to insult anybody or to pathologize anyone who's truly been a victim of a sociopath or an extreme narcissist, but as to say, I mean this to be helpful that if you're in a long-term relationship with a narcissist, and you're not literally financially trapped, or trapped in a job because you have five kids, and you just can't leave this job, but your boss is a narcissist or your coworker is a narcissist. There are situations people can't do anything about it. But if you've had this blind spot and two years later you realize that person was never going to be decent with me. That person was never going to play fair, was never going to be reciprocal, was not going to offer me the respect. That I was offering them, the truth is you're probably not offering them respect. It might be really, really subtle, but you're bringing some wound that they're able to play on. And the wound that you're bringing and putting into the mix is your form of narcissism, which is probably more covert. In my case, it was very covert because I'm very good at sort of like hiding maybe judgment or my positioning because I know what neutral language sounds like. I know what neutral reciprocal relationships look like. So I know how to behave that way even if something's happening. So it was very quiet. I think another therapist in the room probably would have been able to suss that out within a couple of months and say, hey, , I think some personal stuff's getting caught up in here. So a pretty complex situation, but let me review it again and let me be super, super clear because I don't want to hurt people that are in process of recovering from narcissistic abuse. That's a real thing. There are narcissists who are at a toxic level, personality disorder, who are cruel, unsympathetic, very, very manipulative. And if you're trapped in a situation with them, they can do a lot of damage to you psychologically, emotionally over long periods of time. And some people are trapped by circumstance and there's a lot of damage there. I don't want to pretend that everyone has the option to do their own work and figure out what they're bringing to the table. But what I'm saying, and I mean this to help you and I, is that if we are in a situation that we can escape, and we are in a long-term relationship with someone who abuses us or sabotages or slowly the relationship becomes more negative, and we feel less comfortable, and it starts wearing on us. The only reason that person is capable of doing that, whether they're doing it consciously or unconsciously, is because we're bringing our own wounded content and exposing it and making it available to the narcissist to play on. If you don't bring that, and you see someone making comments or saying inappropriate things or being insulting or being manipulative, and you're just like, yeah, I don't, I don't think that's the way that's going to go. I don't appreciate that. I'm just going to move on. There's nothing the narcissist can do. Like there's nowhere for them to get traction. So in my experiences with this, as I learned. Narcissists got traction with me because there was some mild to medium wounding still present in me, and I was putting that in the mix. And I had a blind spot, which meant that I didn't see that I was also positioning the person, and I was taking this morally superior position, this sort of covert narcissism where I'm simultaneously being wounded and this other person's kind of bad person because they're doing that. But at the same time, I'm morally superior because I'm the better person, et cetera, et cetera. So if you're in a relationship and someone's doing damage to you, and you are assuming this position of morally superior, and you're really making space for them, that's a kind of covert narcissism. You're not helping anybody. You're not helping you. Furthermore, you're not helping the other person. Furthermore, you're not respecting the other person. Respect for the other person means looking at them and very kindly but directly and honestly saying, The way you behave is unacceptable. You're insulting, you're condescending, you cut me off, or you X, Y, or Z, and I'm simply not comfortable with it. And if you can work with it, that would be great. If you can't, I'm going to move on. That's the only thing that you can do. If you're not doing that, then there is some narcissistic wound that you have that's covertly being put in the mix that the narcissist is able to play on to keep you present. And your blindness to your own wound is what allows you to sit there and play mind games with yourself and think that there's any reason to continue in that dynamic. So that is the message. It's a really complex one. Again, there are people who are truly being victimized by narcissists. Just because you've been victimized does not mean that automatically that you have narcissism to work on. But it is one dynamic of which people are unaware. All right, guys. So great to see you. Have a good afternoon. I'll see you next time. Take care.

Meet your hosts:

Jon Sorensen


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