For a change, I want to write about something that has deeply interested me for a long time. It’s related to the content of this blog, even though it isn’t about my own therapeutic journey. It’s not something everyone agrees with me about either, but I think it’s an issue worthy of more attention than it gets.
DISCLAIMER: Do not EVER attempt to “fix” a narcissist yourself. Leave that to the professionals. Please! You will not only be disappointed if you think you can cure one, you will get badly burned too.
The Highly Sensitive Child and the connection with NPD.
Most mental health experts and writers about NPD agree that narcissists started life as very, very sensitive children. Not all highly sensitive children become narcissists, of course. Some grow up to be empaths or just highly sensitive adults who are nevertheless emotionally healthy people who truly love themselves. Because they love themselves, emotionally healthy HSPs and empaths can return that love to others.
Highly sensitive or even empathic children who were abused or neglected early in life, emotionally abused by their caregivers also don’t always develop NPD. Some become Borderlines instead, or acquire some other personality disorder or C-PTSD. These other disorders still allow a person some small contact with their True Self and their emotions. They don’t become COMPLETELY dissociated from them. Children who go on to develop NPD become completely dissociated from emotions and their real selves and in extreme cases have lost the ability to feel anything at all, except rage (when threatened) and puffed up with pride and ego (when narcissistic supply is abundant).
No other defense mechanism except NPD allows people such thorough protection from having to feel. People with NPD have no natural emotional defenses at all, which is why such a complete defense mechanism and the replacement of the real self for a false one is necessary. Becoming a narcissist isn’t a conscious choice; it usually happens too early for it to be that. It happens because for these ultra-sensitive children, life just hurts so much and the pain is so unbearable that it’s the only way that life can be rendered bearable. Being exposed or having to confront their hurt and pain is so terrifying to a narcissist because they don’t have the natural mechanisms to be able to process it except by denying it exists at all (which means their false self is merely a stand-in for the real self–and is why it will die without constant feeding off of others).
I do think it’s possible for a narcissist to be healed (not merely treated). Just because they weren’t born with natural emotional coping mechanisms and had to acquire a False Self to survive, doesn’t mean these skills can’t be learned. Learning healthy emotional coping skills is basically what Mindfulness is (and is what I have been working on in healing from my BPD/C-PTSD). I was taught (and use) DBT skills; but CBT is similar and often used for narcissists and people with other disorders. Part of the problem is that narcissists were never given these tools by their emotionally abusive parents so were never able to internalize them. Being highly sensitive meant that things got to them more than most children–-life hurt more. That isn’t to say life wasn’t incredibly painful for those of us with BPD or C-PTSD instead–but our ability to get through life without turning to narcissism was possible because we did have at least some rudimentary natural coping skills. Although we may be highly sensitive, we were actually born a bit less so.
My NPD mother as a child.
My mother comes to mind. I wrote before about a photo I saw of her at the age of two, years before she became a narcissist. I remember the deep sadness in her big blue eyes, and I remember relatives telling me how sensitive and even empathic she was as a child. She was always feeding kittens and bringing home small animals and birds who had been injured, nursing them back to health. She gave away her things to neighbor children who had less than she did (this was during the Depression and her family was struggling too). She cried easily. She was able to pick up on the feelings of other family members without being told, and learned to keep herself quiet and out of the way. Her mother, suffering from clinical depression, was unable to take care of the house or family, and resented my mother’s physical beauty. She became her father’s golden child, not only because of her beauty but also because she took care of him, the house, and his other children. Her mother, now bedridden, grew to despise her own daughter because she was unable to give her husband and family the things my mother was able to give when she was only about 10 or 11 years old. I think (though I was never told) that she was sexually abused. She left home and married when she was fifteen, but by now, she had already transformed into the somatic narcissist she remains today. Even so, my father often commented on how easily hurt and sensitive my mother always was. The tragic thing is that all that high sensitivity–which was used in an empathic, giving manner when she was a small child and might have been used in beautiful ways as an adult–was eventually directed to no one else but herself. Being a loving, giving, empathic person proved to be too painful for my mother so she stopped being able to love or care about anyone’s feelings but her own.
Combining mindfulness skills and deep therapy is the key to healing.
If a narcissist can get to the point of allowing themselves to feel their pain–-through skillful psychodynamic therapy with a very empathic therapist (of course this requires both insight into their disorder AND willingness to change) and also learn mindfulness skills through some kind of behavioral therapy like CBT (even DBT has been said to work for some NPD’s) they can learn to process the painful feelings that arise in therapy and eventually release them. Only a highly empathic and patient therapist would be able to get a narcissist to dare risk exposing their real feelings. Once they can do this–and then learn to work through these feelings in conjunction with CBT or some other behavioral therapy–I think it’s possible a narcissist can become a non-narcissist.
Of course, most narcissists are so “comfortable” with their narcissism they have no desire to change (or even any insight into their disorder). The False Self they present to the world has gotten them all kinds of creature comforts and the admiration of others so it’s understandable they may not think they have a problem. But I remember reading an NPD forum where there were several diagnosed narcissists who did NOT want to be narcissists anymore. They felt that their lives were empty and hollow, and they wanted to be able to feel and give real love. They were also consumed with guilt over the ways they had treated others. (Most narcissists who are not malignant do have a conscience–they just lack empathy). You can’t regret the things you’ve missed out on if if you’re walking around wearing a mask all the time and feeding off others to keep it propped up.
Getting to that point is very, very difficult but I think if it can be done, the rewards of being able to feel real love and empathy for the first time, the freedom of not being dependent on others to provide narcissistic supply, and to be able to truly love yourself (not just the mask you want others to see) for the first time — I think these things far surpass only knowing the pleasures of admiration, material success, and worldly achievements.
A word about God and prayer.
Because I have atheist readers and readers of many faiths, I hesitate to talk to much here about religion, but I think narcissism is a spiritual illness as much as a psychological one. Personally, I think prayer is important in healing (though not absolutely necessary if the therapist is especially empathetic or spiritual). I’m not talking here about organized religion (which is all too often toxic and abusive–though it doesn’t have to be), but the recognition there is a greater consciousness than yourself, a God or Higher Power who you can turn to and take comfort in when your emotions become too painful to bear. Allowing oneself to be able to trust enough to be able to emotionally surrender to an intangible God may be the hardest thing a narcissist ever does. An empathetic therapist who regards the patient as a spiritual being first can help a narcissist begin to trust enough to let go of some of their defenses.