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How to Love a Narcissist
How to love a narcissist: Sounds like a contradiction, right? A narcissist, by definition, is so absorbed in himself that he is unable to love someone else. Therefore, all the love you give him just gets sucked up into that vast pit that is him – and you never get anything back.
That’s what I always thought. And the most obvious thing here is that every therapist would agree with me. Short of the Anti-Social Personality Disorder, they’d all agree that a narcissist is just about incurable. Sites devoted to healing – where the site owner believes in healing – say nothing about how to cure a narcissist.
I hadn’t given this particular malady special attention. I believe that it is possible for most people to heal from whatever ails them, so why leave narcissism out?
But then I had an enlightening conversation. A friend of mine was mentioning her narcissistic mother. This mother had emotionally tortured my friend growing up and now she keeps a psychological distance although they are in touch sometimes during the week – by text. My friend’s son was at his grandmother’s and my friend’s mother commented on how happy her grandson seemed since he got into the college of his choice. “But,” her mother started to say, "it's so expensive. And it's so far away," and continued a litany of objections. “I don’t know what to do with my mother,” my friend concluded.
“Tell her to be happy for her grandson,” I said.
My friend didn’t see what value that statement had, and it was at that point, in explaining why this was a very powerful statement for her mother to hear, that I figured out narcissism.
“You see,” I told her, “narcissists got that way because they did not learn as children to care about what other people thought. Their worlds are very small: Themselves. But we learn who we are and if we are okay from interacting with others. After all, if you learned how to play a difficult piece on the piano and no one heard it, what good would it be? If you could make a jump shot across the court and sink the basketball and no one saw it, what satisfaction would you get?
“True, people do practice all alone, but they’re getting ready for their audience. And it is no different with all that we do in life. Others around us reflect who we are, how good we are, how close we are to our goals, and how valuable we are as people. Without others, we are self-referential, living in a very tiny world consisting of just us.
“That’s why narcissists can’t give love. They have no clue how to read other people; they have no clue how to get joy from other people; they have no clue how to feel better because of the opinions of other people. They are narcissists because they started out all alone and they are stuck there, all alone.
When you tell your mother to enjoy her grandson, you’re giving her permission to be happy. You're telling her that there is joy in happiness for another person. Narcissists are not happy. How can they be, when they’re all alone? In one statement, you're telling her to enjoy happiness and to enjoy that happiness because of another person.”
My friend told me she thought that turned things on their head and then we got off the phone.
I had surprised myself, too. I didn’t realize where I was going until I got there. But the idea made so much sense.
It explains why narcissists hurt others: We stop ourselves before we hurt others because the capacity for empathy was inbred in us since childhood. Children are taught, “Don’t hit Johnny; you wouldn’t like it if he hit you.” And little Benny learns an important lesson. But the narcissist was never taught that.
It explains why your tears when your narcissist hurts you don’t move him (or her): When Johnny starts to cry, mom tells little Benny, “See now Johnny is crying! You made him feel bad.” And little Benny learns that someone else’s tears are signs of pain and Benny understands what that pain feels like. But the narcissist was never taught that, either.
It explains the big walls that the narcissist has built up around himself, too: He knows he lives in a world alone. The outside is a total unknown. And the unknown is scary. Better to protect it and protect himself.
It explains why the narcissist is very angry: He knows there’s something that everyone else has that he doesn’t have. He knows others are happy with this thing, whatever it is, that he is missing, and he knows at some level that he was sorely deprived as a child to have grown up without it. Sorely deprived.
It explains why the narcissist marries even though he doesn’t know how to connect: He’s missing something, so maybe he can “get” it from his spouse. But he doesn’t know what it is, how to get it, or why the state of marriage should impart it to him. There is a part of him that hopefully expects it from his spouse. Of course, his spouse is unaware of his extreme deprivation. There is no earthly way his spouse could fill up his empty bucket. So he is even angrier than he was at first. She’s happy! Why can’t I be?
And finally, it tells me, therapist that I am, what to do about it.
It begins with getting behind the narcissist’s walls. That’s not so hard for me: Be a good listener; be empathetic. And back there where the narcissist is vulnerable, I start to show him how to enjoy being reached out to.
It always must start with the healing. The narcissist cannot reach out until he understands in his core what it means to be reached out to. Until he enjoys that, until he feels nourished by it, he can’t reciprocate.
Partners of narcissists must learn to be patient and strong to get through this. Therapy helps. It facilitates healing and strengthening. It gets a person through this long period when the narcissist is for the first time learning the joy of receiving before he learns the joy of giving.
See this also explains why all the nice things you’ve done all this time did not work to teach your narcissistic partner to give back: He (or she) wasn’t even aware of receiving something, let alone how to value and enjoy it or use it to nourish his impoverished soul.