the blog

He Really Doesn’t Know

stylish man model standing on sandy coast near sea

The popular view of the narcissist is that he is pompous and in love with himself. He is thought to be abusive by nature and irredeemable, with one study even concluding that he is both aware of and happy to be as he is. 

But this view is fundamentally flawed. There is an entire class of narcissists who are self deprecating and don’t talk themselves up. They rely on negative grandiosity and talk other people down. They do think they’re better than most, in fact, they HAVE to be, which means that by definition they can’t know what they are. If they understood, they would try to change. 

The thing about narcissism is that it is completely misunderstood. Understandably; it doesn’t lend itself to much sympathy, so it’s never probed and these people are never known. Even living among them as I have, and loving so many, it’s impossible to deny that they are toxic. The abuse is subtle, mostly they just force you into compromising situations repeatedly until it sometimes looks like you’re the one carrying out the abuse (except that literally every person alive has the same reaction to their behavior, meaning your reaction is NOT the abuse, but the effect of it) and they are genuinely completely unaware that they are hurting you.

Underlying the entire disorder is a “theory of mind” deficit which makes these people so notoriously sociopathic and resistant to change. They are incapable of understanding their own minds fully, let alone yours, and this lack of comprehension seems callous because you don’t know that they don’t know what you’re upset about. You can say it a million times and they may still genuinely not understand, which for us is unfathomable.

This lack of understanding makes them appear callous, but when they’re put face to face with suffering, they respond with empathy like everyone else. And if you are incredibly skilled at identifying all of the subtle abuses and characterizing them in a way that the narcissist can understand–using his own terms, usually– you can make him see himself. Maybe you can make him see a little bit of you.

Then comes remorse. Real remorse, just like you and I feel. But what do you do with a remorseful monster? Just how plastic is our self-awareness? 

Part of being moral in a relationship with a narcissist is never backing down while never fully standing up. I can’t perpetuate the abuse, despite the temptation to. I can’t act out. The only thing I’m allowed to do is hold up a mirror, and never preemptively, for imposing my thoughts about someone on that person almost always constitutes abuse. Only while it’s happening can I demonstrate, without bias, that it is happening.

It works, to a degree. I’m still wrestling with the complexities of the role I’m unfortunately forced to play, but it works when I get it right. It’s not a quick fix, we’re building up his self reflection muscles and they are very, very weak  starting out. Deficient, remember. But a little at a time, he’s showing real change. 

Brian, I want you to go away and make my life simpler. I do care about you, I no longer want to be with you, however. I’m trying to be better toward you, but it is difficult to learn how when you are so awful to me, and when your particular brand of awfulness is so agitating because of my history with it. I’ll never leave you hanging, even if you feel like I do, sometimes tough love is necessary because of your disposition. A coming part of your rehabilitation will require you to get the fuck out of my crib, and I may have to push you. You’re welcome for everything.

As an aside: If I know this, why can’t I show the same grace to my mother? There is a level of detachment required of anyone who would extend this type of forgiveness to a toxic person. Such is not possible in the child-parent dynamic. I am built to depend on her for my very existence. Mother-wounds cut too deeply, relating to her as I am learning to relate to Brian runs too high a risk for bleeding out.

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