October 15, 2008

Empathy, Attention & Respect

The Boating Party by Mary Cassatt

"Instead, give them your E.A.R.: Your EMPATHY (not sympathy—empathy means you can have similar feelings and frustrations), a little ATTENTION, and RESPECT them for their efforts and positive qualities as a person." ~Bill Eddy

A couple of days ago, I linked an article titled: "Narcissism and the Meltdown"
 written by Bill Eddy. A reader disagreed with his suggestion to give the narcissist Empathy, Attention and Respect during this economic meltdown. The anonymous reader wrote: "So if only the LA woman had given her partner more *empathy* and *understanding* she, her children, and her mother would be alive today…What a ridiculous case of victim blame." ~ excerpted from The High Conflict Institute.

I am not a sympathizer or apologist for MeFirsters of the narcissistic ilk. However, I agree with Bill Eddy about restraining our behavior and controlling our reactions, especially when the narcissist's self-protective defenses are threatened. Bill Eddy was offering reasonable advice considering "The Situation" (our current financial crisis). It never occurred to me that his words might be interpreted as Victim Blaming, so I'd like to explain my interpretation of E.A.R., though it may not align perfectly with his definitions:

Empathize with the narcissist’s ‘condition’: The emptiness, the fear of being unmasked; the rage of their insignificance; the fear of non-existence. Use your imagination by putting yourself in the narcissist’s shoes and better understanding their ‘condition’. Remember: Empathizing does not mean feeling sorry for narcissists; nor does it mean confusing your feelings with theirs. Empathizing with their condition is a way to make sense of their nonsensical defenses.

Pay Attention to ‘The Situation’. You can listen to narcissists concerns, complaints and worries and most likely, that’s all they want you to do anyway. Don’t ignore, deny or otherwise dismiss precarious circumstances. Be attentive to signs their defenses might be dissembling. If you aren’t paying attention to the narcissist or to the subtle changes in your relationship, you may be missing important signs that could actually save your life.

Respect the Disorder. You don’t have to respect the narcissist as a person but please, respect the pathology of this disorder and its power to distort the narcissist’s perceptions of reality. YOU can quickly become a target for the narcissist’s projected rage if you are deemed to be a threat to their self-image. There is nothing threatened narcissists won't do to protect themselves. You cannot predict their Tipping Point if you do not respect this disorder as being more powerful, more protective, and more seductive than yourself.

I’ll be the first to admit how gratifying it can be watching an arrogant narcissist fall overboard. Most of us wanted to shove their arrogant butts out of the boat ourselves. When we finally have an opportunity to push ‘em over the edge, it’s hard resisting impulses to expose their hubris and pride. But please remember: the continuum from malignant narcissism to 'narcissistic traits' is fairly broad. The fact that it is so broad makes it difficult if not impossible, to determine the degree of pathology. If you are the one making the diagnosis, you’ll probably doubt yourself and give the benefit of your doubt to the narcissist---a mistake that could be deadly.

The truth is that you do not know, nor do I, how pathological someone may be. Perhaps inflicting a narcissistic injury would be satisfying but ask yourself first, “Is it worth dying for?”

If you've read NPD criteria in the DSM-IV, if you’ve learned about psychopathy and sociopaths, then please don't bet your life on how far up or down that continuum the narcissist might be. Even psychologists make grievous errors predicting a narcissist’s potential to harm others. We read about tragedies in the news all the time. A person with narcissistic traits suddenly becomes a murderer as if there were neither rhyme nor reason to their rage. But I think there is: Humiliation. Fear of annihilation, irrational fears based on distorted perceptions.

We know the ‘false self’ the narcissist is protecting is nothing but a confabulation of lies, but the narcissist doesn’t know that. To him or her, that False Self is the only self they know. What you may experience as a ‘humbling’ of your ego defenses, the narcissist experiences as a matter of life and death.

My first priority and hopefully yours is the same: Staying Alive. Breathing. Living one more day to make good friends, to share our lives, to keep on blogging about narcissists.

Understand the narcissistic disorder. Learn everything you can to protect yourself from ignorance. Pathological narcissism is a serious disorder that should never be dismissed as benign.

You can’t know for sure.

Maybe it all depends on The Situation.

Part Two Here: Empathy, Attention & Respect II




  1. Hi CZ, Storm here.

    Interesting post. I reacted quite similarly to that unknown reader [it wasn't me] who commented about victim bashing on the HCI site. I saw the HCI post as enabling the abuser, though, rather than as direct victim bashing.

    I ain't agoin' to enable another abuser voluntarily as long as I live. Can't empathize with someone who gets their ticket punched by causing others pain. Don't want to attend to abusive people, and can't respect them for their efforts and positive qualities because I want to reserve my respect for the efforts and positive qualities of decent people instead. Life's too short to waste any more goodness on these parasites.

    That being said, I much prefer your construct. Recognize how awful it is to be them, keep a close eye on them, and don't kid yourself for a minute about just how dangerous they are.

    You say it much more nicely, but that's what I boil it down to.

    Thank you for putting a healthy, self-preserving spin on the concept.

    Incidentally, this was just what I needed to read right now. I'm involved in a 'stopping abuse' situation, and I realized today that before I proceed any further, I need to get a background check on the person, and base my next steps on what I learn from it. There WILL be next steps, but they'll be the wisest ones possible based on as much information gathering as possible!

  2. "Recognize how awful it is to be them, keep a close eye on them, and don't kid yourself for a minute about just how dangerous they are."

    ha! How'd ya sum up all those words so succinctly?? That's awesome, Storm...thanks!

    I think what I'm trying to say is that we have to be smart about our choices. I'm definitely NOT saying we should flatter and please the narcissist. It’s imperative for us to insert 'reason' if we are still connected to the narcissist and cannot separate immediately.

    It might be EASY to get into a narcissistic relationship but it's not so easy to Get Out. Our safety has to be a priority, which takes both Guts and Intelligence. Reactionary behavior can be dangerous if we underestimate the narcissist's potential to harm us. Over the years, it’s fairly obvious to me that most people underestimate the narcissist’s potential for violence and overestimate the narcissist’s good will and conscience.

    Bill Eddy deals with Divorce, a statistically dangerous time for partners of Ns. This is where I think he was coming from in his message. Until we are safely away from a narcissist-without-limits, we must use our intelligence to protect ourselves.

    This post was a reminder that we cannot know how a particular narcissist will react to being humiliated. We need to be cautious and we need to be aware that pathological narcissism is beyond self-centeredness and conceit. It’s a destructive disorder though most people would never believe their lives might be in danger.

    Perhaps another post is in order?? I’ll get right on it. Thank you for your feedback…I appreciate people’s comments because it helps me know whether or not I’m saying what I mean to say and being heard the way I hope to be heard.


  3. Hmm.
    I am in the process of divorcing my narcissistic husband after 17 years in a nightmare relationship and far from feeling 'free' as people around me assume, I have a constant nagging feeling of worry because he is not only unpredictable, his bizarre behaviour (game-playing, denial, lies, blaming etc) etc is getting worse and worse. He has never been this bad but in an attempt to stand up to him at last, I have been showing contempt for him and also 'raging back' when he rages.
    I had a premonition a few weeks ago that he will murder me (or try to). I have been told by some family and friends not to be so paranoid and by others to put an extra lock on my door (as if that would stop him).
    After reading this blog and associated articles, I will no longer give in to the temptation to return some of the treatment he has been doling out to be and just keep him away, not respond to him etc. when he contacts me (difficult as we have children).
    Even pretending he does not exist cannot guarantee safety though can it?
    And I fear for my children far more than for myself. They are the ultimate weapon for him - he knows that hurting them will hurt me far more than aiming straight at me alone.

  4. I'm glad you're reading and considering my message, Ex-Mrs. Jekyll-Hyde (love your name! Were we married to the same man??)

    I've been working with people for several years now and questioning advice encouraging them to rage back, to “mirror” the N’s behavior. In some cases, that might be good advice since narcissists become more aggressive when someone is vulnerable. This advice is based on the idea that narcissists are cowards and will back down when confronted with ‘mirrored’ behavior. In my experience, that’s not the case. In other people's sad experience, that hasn’t been the case either.

    Our changed behavior (raging back & defiance) may increase the narcissist’s paranoia and reaffirm faulty perceptions that we are threatening his or her life.

    The thing is, most of us aren't working with a perfect diagnosis. We are making guesses about how pathological someone may be. Even psychologists admit “diagnosis is an art form” and they’ve made mistakes, too. If we are dealing with someone who may be a malignant narcissist or even a sociopath, raging back could escalate the situation beyond our control…or even the N’s ability to control his or her impulsive reactions.

    The fact that narcissists lack internal brakes on their aggression should be a warning to everyone. If the narcissist has been physically abusive, there's an increased possibility of violence.

    We cannot predict with any degree of accuracy, when or if someone is capable of violence. So my advice has been and continues to be, Don't Engage. Don't Up The Ante. This does not mean backing down and giving in, nor does it mean cow-towing to the narcissist. There are ways we can stand firm on our boundaries, but we may need both professional and peer support to do that.

    You wrote: "I will no longer give in to the temptation to return some of the treatment he has been doling out..."

    I did not rage back and I did not behave in unpredictable ways. Doing so reinforces the distorted perceptions that we are aggressive, dangerous, and untrustworthy and that they must protect themselves at all costs.


  5. The sad truth is..........

    It's probably safer NOT to poke the crazy person with a stick.

    (no matter how tempting it may be, or how justified our anger at being mistreated is)


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