Narcissists appropriate self-help to serve themselves.
Without an emotional bond or valuing of community, they twist well-meaning advice to the narcissist’s advantage. Distort it. Re-interpret it from a self-centered perspective that confuses people who are not pathological narcissists.
You Create Your Own Reality
For instance, cognitive therapy. The suggestion that the thoughts in our heads can be managed is an important part of 'healing'. Paying attention to the messages we are telling ourselves interrupts unhealthy thoughts diminishing the quality of our lives. How often do we ‘catch’ fleeting criticisms before reacting emotionally to the thought? Or perhaps, define ourselves by negative thoughts that have nothing to do with reality? Like the day I noticed a recurrent thought drifting from one ear and out the other: “You are so incompetent”. This thought was the culprit to feeling powerless, hopeless, and despairing. The funny thing is, I didn’t even realize this thought was running rip-shod through my brain triggering emotions that were then interpreted as verification of the thought I never realized preceded a mild depression.
If you’ve never struggled with feeling good about yourself, you may not understand what I just described. For those who were raised by or lived with narcissists who maintain their high self-esteem by lowering the self-esteem of others, we pick up on their criticisms without realizing it. Pretty soon, we are obsessing on a ‘thought’, such as this backhanded compliment:
“I really value what you’re doing with your life,” the narcissist will say and then add the insult: “Even if other people don’t.”
And we think to ourselves, “I am so incompetent!”
Learning how to interrupt self-destructive loops was a profound lesson for me. It was like being gifted with a road map to reality including signposts at every fork in the road. I started following the path that led to an integrated woman, not a woman without limits, nor a woman who was perfect; but a woman whose self-perceptions aligned with her behavior: one whose perception of self and actual capabilities were in sync. The challenge was coordinating true capabilities with my perceptions by paying attention to any thoughts contradicting what was true about myself. If you love community and have close relationships with people, they will tell you who you are---or at least reflect what is true about yourself.
If you are in relationship with a narcissist, it’s imperative that you create relationships with people who are NOT narcissists.
Incompetent is what I feared to be true but incompetent I am not. That thought first needed recognition and then it needed challenging. Thank you, Dr. Beck. I created my own reality by changing negative thoughts that restricted the development of a healthy self-esteem.
Keep the Focus on Yourself
Then I attended Alanon to help me cope with familial problems demanding parenting skills far beyond my parent’s examples. Alanon taught me a simple phrase that turned my head around and got my life in order again: “Keep the focus on yourself.”
That’s all they had to say and everything fell into place. It was as if a street lamp had automatically turned on in my brain. My parenting skills improved, my despair diminished, and my self-efficacy increased because keeping the focus on myself empowered me to let people make their own choices. Even a good mother can’t control children into better behavior. They have to do that for themselves.
“Keep the focus on yourself” was my guiding light. But “Keeping the focus on myself” did not become the path to justified self-centeredness. That’s because I am not a pathological narcissist. Empathy, emotional bonds, values, principles, respect for community and my role as a parent balanced the suggestion to focus on myself. Teaching an empathic person to ‘focus on him or herself’ is a gentle reminder to be responsible for your impact on other people. It is a gentle path towards ending inappropriate enmeshment.
Telling a narcissist to ‘focus on him or herself’ justifies self-centeredness and selfishness as the Right Path---even the path to enlightenment. But of course, we know narcissists distort reality, pervert values and principles to suit themselves, lack emotional bonding to others, and perceive themselves as superior beings. So if they begin focusing on themselves even more than they already do, it won’t be long before they disregard the harm they’re causing others and calling it what it ain’t: self-actualization.
They say, “I am ONLY focusing on myself! Isn’t that what YOU do?”
Telling a narcissist to pay attention to the thoughts in his or her head and change them to a more positive message is all they need to inflate their superiority. Which narcissists do quite naturally, you know. “I am the best and smartest person in the world. I should be President of the Universe.” Well, they are keeping the focus on themselves, aren’t they? And they are changing any thoughts they have about incompetence into a more positive perspective, right?
If you have dealt with a narcissist, then you already know how confusing it can be when the narcissist takes “OUR” medicine, too.
Keeping the focus on myself was like swallowing an antibiotic for a contagious illness. Changing the thoughts in my head was like an inoculation preventing me from breaking out in depression and low self-esteem. However, I already had the ability to bond, empathize, see myself as fairly average, and was blessed with a good-enough conscience. (even my ‘conscience’ needed tweaking after a fairly restrictive childhood, though). What I did not have was pathological narcissism twisting reality to fit egotistical desires alleviating me of responsibility for my impact on others. What I did not have was a disconnect from society and from my True Self.
I bring this up because of a current trend in our society that concerns me. It’s the idea that we create our own reality and I can’t help but wonder if this distortion of cognitive therapy has occurred because, as usual, silver-tongued narcissists are turning it into a narcissistic melody and an enviable income. Their tempting song, just like the one the Pied Piper used to lure people off a cliff, leads otherwise normal people into destructive and selfish behavior. They will suffer. The Pied Pier won't.
The mistake we make (or I made) is the assumption that all human beings are emotionally connected, that all human beings value family, respect the roles they strive to live up to, that they live by communal principals and a code of ethics limiting the harm they do to others in service of the ‘self’; and the assumption that all people respected one another’s freedom to live in a safe society protecting us from one another’s selfishness.
I assumed, in other words, that deeply embedded values and principles were the platform from which everyone defined their individuality while at the same time, respecting our inextricable connection to one another. This is not the case of course but without knowledge about human pathology, my assumptions were never questioned.
So when a narcissist insists he or she is only focusing on themselves, it’s easy to be misled into believing they are replicating what we are striving to learn.
It is easy to make the mistake of perceiving narcissist’s behavior as ‘normal’ because we do not understand that narcissists are incapable of thinking of others at the same time they are thinking of themselves.
Narcissists do not value community.
Narcissists lack empathy. Or better yet, "Narcissists use empathy in service of the self."
Narcissists esteem themselves as superior to others, entitled to serve themselves at anyone’s expense.
Narcissists are exploitative. People are the means to their ends. We are disposable, replaceable and objectified. Our suffering is dismissed as irrelevant---a mere stepping stone to the narcissist's goal of self-actualization. We should be so grateful to be of service in the narcissist's Quest for Self.
This is unfathomable to the empathic person who struggles to balance self and other.
Keeping the focus on myself did not justify narcissism. What it did was counter unrealistic expectations that I bear responsibility for other people’s decisions. What it did was stop me from projecting, criticizing, controlling, and blaming other people because they weren’t acting the way I wanted them to act in order to feel good about myself as a mother. Keeping the focus on myself was gifting my children with the right to live their lives according to their own values, not mine.
What happened of course is that they began focusing on themselves and changing retaliatory self-destructive behavior. They were freed to make their own life decisions because they were responsible for their own lives (and consequences). When Mom was no longer there take the blame, they could only blame themselves. And voila, they got their lives in order. But they are not pathological narcissists.
These two ideas: “keeping the focus on yourself” and “creating your own reality” are like handing out selfishness steroids to narcissists.
The problem in our guru-led society today is that narcissists appropriate other people’s truth and manipulate it to a pathological distortion of reality. They appear to be the epitome of perfection. They appear to emulate values and principles most people ‘feel’ in their hearts but can’t articulate in words. Narcissists use language to their advantage--building on our false assumption that all human beings are invested in community and personal responsibility. That all human beings believe in the principle of doing no harm to others.
We may not know that an idealized guru is nothing but a common selfish bastard. When they ‘out’ themselves with irresponsible behavior that is touted to be self-actualization or ‘enlightenment’, we are susceptible to defending our perceptions of the guru. We rationalize and minimize their behavior. We deny that their behavior is indication of sociopathy: using other people to sustain their need to control and dominate reality, validating callous exploitation.
We might even be vulnerable enough to emulate their behavior as the path to our enlightenment, too. In a tragic and short-sighted manner, we normalize pathological behavior.
What we are reluctant to do is challenge the narcissist for having misled us. For having appropriated our truth and perverted it through a self-centered and pathological filter. We trust the guru beyond all reasonable doubt because nobody likes admitting they were duped, abused, disrespected, manipulated, or conned.
We give narcissistic gurus the benefit of our doubt and believe me, they are banking on it.
Remember, it is not what narcissists say that matters, it’s what they DO.
It is not who narcissists tell us they are, it is what they DO that defines their character.
If their heart's desire is control and domination, they will eventually manifest their grandiose destiny. Believe what you see and trust what you know in your heart is the antithesis of self-actualization or enlightenment.
It is not what narcissists say, it’s what they DO.
Whirled Musings, "D/s, I Love you", published January 21, 2010. A special thank you to my favorite Cyber Snark, Cosmic Connie.