In my quest to better understand how I (repeatedly) got to be on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse, I have read several books that indicate there are many common traits evident in the victims of narcissists, not only among the narcissists themselves.
In Alice Miller’s book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child”, I first read about some interesting commonalities between narcissists and their victims, as well. According to the author, these common points are (from the book’s second section, “Depression and Grandiosity: Two Related Forms of Denial”):
• A false self that has led to the loss of the potential true self
• A fragility of self-esteem because of a lack of confidence in one’s own feelings and wishes
• Denial of rejected feelings
• A preponderance of exploitative relationships
• An enormous fear of loss of love and therefore a great readiness to conform
• Split-off aggression
• A readiness to feel shame and guilt
So, in keeping with the idea of “different sides of the same coin”, my understanding is this: in a narcissistic family system, a child is likely to fall into one or the other of two camps, narcissism or codependency, both as different coping mechanisms for the same dysfunctional relational dynamic. Either general subset of behavior can develop within an individual raised in a narcissistic household, depending on that person’s inborn temperament, exposure to abuse, and other mitigating factors.
The most common trait referenced in victims, according to most of the books I’ve read, is empathy – and usually a high degree of it. In “New Age” parlance, an “empath” is someone who is extraordinarily sensitive to the emotions of others. This site does a pretty good job of describing this: http://www.drjudithorloff.com/Free-Articles/emotional-empath-EF.htm
Much of what I have read about narcissists also cites common traits. Narcissists and psychopaths (it has been said that all psychopaths are narcissists, but that not all narcissists are psychopaths) are known for their uncanny ability to recognize vulnerabilities in others – vulnerabilities they do not hesitate to exploit. Just how one of these individuals spots “prey” is an oft researched phenomenon.
So, what’s the difference between being extraordinarily sensitive to people’s emotions, and being highly attuned to their vulnerabilities? In my opinion, it’s basically different wording for the same phenomenon. Both narcissists and empaths see things in others that the average individual often misses, and a person’s emotional health or attitude toward their environment is the key to their vulnerabilities. The differentiating factor is what each of these individuals does with this knowledge of another person’s inner landscape.
I was talking to a friend recently, and like me, she had been raised in a narcissistic family system. She mentioned to me that she was very much an empath; she could read people’s emotions very accurately. (I am the same way.) My best friend is also highly empathic, and she, too, grew up in a narcissistic household. All of us are in different professions, but one thing our jobs have in common is that we all directly help people, each in our own way. And we are all people-pleasers with a history of really fucked up, variably abusive relationships.
This got me thinking. Maybe most empaths (psychics) don’t really have supernatural abilities after all… Could it be that they are the psychological equivalent of professional ballet dancers, simply with psychological training from a very tender age rather than physical training? Could it be that these empaths originally developed the ability to read people in order to survive nasty childhoods? Seems plausible to me. At the other end of the spectrum, maybe many super narcissistic psychopaths developed the same skills under similar circumstances, but cope by trying to be more powerful than those who overpowered them.
But while this thought leaves me feeling a fleeting sense of compassion for the garden-variety narcissist, I have to remember the trap of the familiar. Maybe narcissists and empaths are drawn to each other because the relationship dynamic is “comfortable” to both; a giver and a taker instead of two healthy people with healthy boundaries, and able to both give and receive. These are polarized and volatile relationships, not homogenous, undramatic ones.
I’ll take a boring, undramatic relationship any day. Thank goodness for my non-narcissistic husband.