The Breach You Can’t Patch: Cold comfort for the victims of narcissists

If you’re not here courtesy of my Twitter, you’re likely here as part of a tab-frenzy of research into something you suspect or have recently come to accept: That someone close to you – commonly a partner or a parent – is a clinically-defined narcissist. They wound you, they manipulate you, and they only seem to care that you’re hurt when it’s explicitly convenient to them. Their kind words, when they come at all, are numerous but always ring false.When you falter in validating them, they turn on you. It’s a terrible, disorienting situation you don’t experience with other people. In a long term relationship, or with a parent or guardian, it can be stifling and isolating. I have, pulled from my own experience with a narcissistic mother, a few comforting points.

First, you have to understand that a narcissist doesn’t experience the world in the same way that an average person does. Their capacity for empathy is severely hampered. They don’t experience the acute discomfort at seeing others hurt that non-narcissists do, and as a result will not shy away from hurting people if it means a net gain for the narcissist. A narcissist will lie to, belittle, and degrade her partner or child without reservation provided it yields the desired results. You might be noticing a pattern, and it’s simple: For a narcissist, more so than for anyone else, all relationships function on a cost and reward basis. I’ve told people before that any kind behavior from my mother meant that she wanted something from me, and it’s true. A narcissist may not always want money or anything material, but he’s always looking for his next hit of the attention and entertainment and adulation that people with more papers on their wall than me call ‘narcissistic supply.’ Why?

Well, to segue into my next point, because narcissists are in many ways empty people. They may have an inflated self image, but it’s impossible for them to sustain on their own. What one could easily mistake for self esteem gone out of control is more like an absence of self esteem. The narcissist’s inflated self is false, a grandiose mask over a face they believe (often rightly) is unlovably hideous. The narcissist needs upkeep, he needs reassurance. He will lie, grandly, to inflate your perception of him, and jerk you around to make sure you never feel you’re good enough to leave him. Because he needs you. Alone, the narcissist cannot supply himself. It’s a deficiency, like their deficiency in empathy. The difference is that this deficiency causes the narcissist discomfort, so she will do anything to deaden that discomfort. This is the breach you cannot patch.

The narcissist leaks, hemorrhages self worth. Her black hole self esteem drives her to manipulate and harm others in the interest of validating herself and securing the loyalty of others. What’s worse, her stunted empathy means that she only registers the reward – the alleviation of the misery caused by her absent self esteem – and not the risk to another person’s safety or happiness. Since she can’t reach outside her own skull and feel for you, your discomfort is irrelevant outside of its relation to her satisfaction. She is unlikely to learn that badgering, belittling, baiting, and beating someone into doing what you want is wrong. The infrastructure needed to make that connection just isn’t there.

I know. That’s a real drag to think about, especially if the narcissist in your life is a parent. To be robbed of the unconditional love of a mother or father, however you lose it, is a tragedy. That you must admit to yourself that you’ll never have it is another tragedy, but it’s necessary. You can’t fix anyone, least of all a narcissist. They do not process love, they disregard and punish criticism, and they generally find their way of doing things to be very favorable. If you stay, they win. If they drive you away, you’re replaceable. As long as they can keep a supply, they’re as satisfied as an empty person can be. As such, a narcissist will not take the necessary first step of acknowledging their faulty behaviors and seeking targeted professional help. You cannot help them, and as far as they’re concerned they don’t need to help themselves. When assessing your relationship, consider it’s wildly unlikely to get any better. If anything, it gets worse with time as the narcissist whittles away his connections through terrible behavior he can’t see the fault in and bears down harder on those who stay close.

A narcissist is not necessarily dangerous – kept at arm’s length. Though narcissists hate this, it’s sometimes a viable option. But consider it carefully, with great skepticism. Narcissists may not universally or even generally be monsters, but the very nature of their disorder makes it difficult for them to conceptualize other people as more than objects. Without functioning empathy, doing that is just… hard. If you can’t feel for another person’s pain or envision their inner life, you’re kind of stuck in that baby stage of seeing them as extensions of yourself or objects to collect and arrange. And that can definitely make them dangerous. Imagine all the hurt you could do to someone just in the process of making your life easier if you didn’t see them as a person.

So take heart, narcissist-sufferer. There’s nothing you can do to fix this, but it isn’t your place to fix it and it isn’t your fault. The life of a narcissist is objectively miserable, but they often can’t tell why. You may be in pain now – and will be for some time, because this is hard – but you’re taking a step your narcissist will sidestep at every chance: Recognizing that there’s a severe, pathological imbalance in your relationship and something drastic needs to change. I recommend getting the Hell away.