October 22, 2009

There's a Hole in my Bucketing Heart

Rural Courtship by Daniel Ridgeway Knight

"The wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon---a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding." ~Henri J. M. Nouwen

So we meet this handsome devil in a cowboy hat, one arm hanging casually over the fence post, his right boot shyly tucked behind his left as he stares deeply in our downcast eyes. We feel our bosoms swell because our hearts are bucketing like wild stallions penned against their will before the rodeo buzzer sets ‘em free. We daresn’t even question the rising hope that this guy will fill our emptiness. "Finally, finally!" we say to ourselves. "We have met someone who will end our loneliness." We need never feel the despair of isolation again.

We assume falling in love means never having to say, “I’m Lonely”.

Infatuation masks the pain of emptiness with idealized notions of perfect love. But even the best of relationships will be unable to disguise the inner void forever. Maturation demands growing beyond the childish notion that our emptiness can be filled by a ‘perfect other'; that an 'other' person will complete the incomplete self. The gnawing awareness of aloneness begs our attention at midlife---as if we were being granted one last chance to replace our immortal fantasies with a mortal reality: everyone feels lonely sometimes.

I believe healthy relationships reach deep inside the heart, touching unresolved wounds demanding an airing out, a witnessing, a cleansing. As we allow ourselves to feel our pain, our self-awareness grows and we bear witness to the whole of human suffering. Our sympathy for other people lays fertile ground for the spiritual growth of gratitude, love, connection, and yes, forgiveness. Awareness of aloneness matures an infantile heart by accepting separation as a blessed, yet inevitably painful condition. Those who accept their aloneness become even more grateful for the people who choose to be in their lives. We no longer take relationships for granted.

Empty hearts cannot be filled by another human being, so don't pin a vacancy sign on your bosom. That's an open invitation for a narcissist to move in. Before very long at all, a narcissist will come along and take up every inch of space you're willing to give him. Take note: If a narcissist's big foot is firmly planted on your aorta, don't call that full feeling love.

As a kid growing up in a farming community, I was forced to ride my bike for miles to see my dearest friend. I complained to a busy mother one day, “I’m lonely, Mom. I hate living in the country!” She replied, “So what?”

In other words, “Fix it yourself, daughter. Can't you see I'm busy?”

Acute loneliness encouraged me to bond with three sisters and of course, my stupid little brother who wasn’t interested in talking about girl stuff. Feeling guilty about excluding him, my empathy urged inclusion, resistant though he might be to dressing up Barbie dolls or styling plastic hair. I was compelled to sooth my emptiness by seeking relationship with siblings which soothed their aloneness, too. The truth was (and is): I feel my aloneness like an empty hole situated dead-center in the thick of my chest.

I know how it feels to be alone.

My mother, bless her heart, did not acknowledge my complaints as being anybody's responsibility other than mine. I chewed on my misery long enough for this feeling to become the impetus for getting-outside-my-little-self and connecting to an even-bigger-self: family.

As siblings, we commiserated on the insufferable state of our lives, stuck in the middle of nowhere-Idaho with the closest friend more than one mile away as a crow flies…two or three as a bicycle rolls and wasn't it a dullish bore being lonely all the time? The more we commiserated, the less lonely we became. We bonded on confessions of The Country Girl's despair, each of us taking a solemn oath with one hand over our hearts and the other on Mama's Funk & Wagnall's, that we would NEVER grow up to be like Mom, so help us god stick pins in our eyes or let us die under under the whirling blades of daddy's combine we would never be, look, say or do anything like her.

From my experience as a child who grew up to trust and depend on her sisters, it's reasonable to suggest that being conscious of my separate self provided healthy motivation for building relationships, refining social skills, expanding awareness of self and other. The truth is, everyone feels alone from time to time, though not everyone cops to a private desperation making them miserable; such as those reliable machines of perpetual self-reliance: narcissists. Feelings of aloneness trigger narcissistic fears that they will be rejected or abandoned, that they are unworthy, that they will not survive the anguish of separation. The more narcissists fear rejection and isolation, the more likely they are to reject others and isolate themselves.

In the case of compensatory narcissism, the ego constructs a grandiose facade of self as superior and others as inferior. You will know narcissists are hiding behind their pretenses of self-reliance because they expect other people to make them happy. They expect other people to Fill Their Void for Them. They expect other people to do their work, too. No matter how hard we try to 'connect' to the narcissist, we will always fall short of their expectations. Our attempts to help might even be met with righteous indignation that we, emotional weaklings that we are, would presume the narcissist needed anyone or anything. Our compassion is rejected as not-good-enough and eventually, we are judged to be not-good-enough, too.

From my own experience, I have come to believe that when we know ourselves as good-enough, smart enough and gosh darn it, people like us, we won’t be hyper-vigilant to rejection. Sure, we’ll worry about being rejected (who likes it?!), but we won't be overly-anxious. We’ll continuing making friends because we won’t attribute 'meaning' to someone's rejection. If a friend decides s/he don’t like us, well, that’s one less person to worry about feeding at the banquet. Besides, we reserve the right to end friendships with people we don't particularly like, right? Fair's only fair. People end relationships all the time but they don't blame other people for not being "good enough and smart enough" to complete the incomplete narcissist who demands other people fill their inner void with perfect love.

The narcissist expects other people to fill his empty bucket without doing a single thing to plug the hole so he can fetch his own water.

The narcissistic relationship cannot be compared to what we might call 'normal' relationships

You do not end a narcissistic relationship without losing solid ground within yourself, or without enduring the magnification of your fears of abandonment, or concerns about being 'unfit', or unworthy of love. Even if you are holding steady in your self-confidence when the N-relationship is over, the narcissist will throw as many insults your direction as possible, insisting on pressing his thumb on your already bruised ego. To alleviate responsibility for not being able to love others, narcissists are intent to PROVE that 'others' were not lovable. Your self-confidence plummets. This is what happens in the narcissistic relationship, and it is subtle and hard to pin-point. Basically, the narcissistic relationship comes down to this:

YOU are responsible for your aloneness and 
YOU are responsible for the narcissist’s aloneness, too.

Nowhere in this relational trap is the narcissist considered
 defective, unlovable, damaged goods OR responsible.

Just you.
It's all you.

I've written two essays describing the Lone Narcissist and Lonely Others which explain each person’s belief about responsibility and how they have attributed meaning to the feeling of aloneness. Both the narcissist and the non-narcissist are talking about their sadness, their fear of rejection and isolation and yet, they are not talking about the same thing.

The problem is that most people are reluctant to do anything to increase the narcissist’s pain. We empathize with their feelings of aloneness instead. We make a serious mistake based on the assumption that how we cope with aloneness is how all human beings cope with aloneness. We know the terror of isolation and rejection and yet, most people face their fears by being responsible for their own emotional well-being. What I believe is that our feelings of aloneness motivate us to Give More of Ourselves to Others.

It is no surprise narcissists do the opposite: They withdraw, giving even less of themselves to others. They blame people for not being good enough, kind enough, or enough-enough to fill their inner void---plug their broken bucket, embody the perfect love releasing narcissists from the prison of their ego-enforced confinement.

My lack of understanding about narcissists' pathological perceptions of aloneness, went more or less like this: “Fix the hole in your bucket, dear husband. Can't you see I'm busy?”

And he expected another person to fix it for him. Which I realized I could not do because nobody could mend the hole in my own bucket other than myself. I had been through the agonizing healing process and falsely assumed that what had worked for me would work for anyone. I believed every person needed the grace of solitude to work through their fears of aloneness.

This is not to say I blame myself for being short on patience, like my mother was with me. In truth, I was ignorant about the narcissist's inability to heal feelings of aloneness by trusting other people, by attaching, by transcending the boundaries of individual separateness, by giving more of himself, not less. My experience of aloneness embraced suffering as insight to the human condition. My aloneness became an invitation to deepen relationships.

I didn’t know, I could not know the impenetrable facade of narcissists' self reliance, masking paralyzing fears of isolation that lead to relying on others to fill their inner void while lying to themselves about dependence. In other words, narcissists cut-off awareness of loneliness to maintain their false image of independence; i.e.: they need no one but themselves. Or so they lie.

Cherish your strength to be intimately aware of your 'aloneness'. Cherish your resilience to seek affiliation. Cherish your isolation as the antecedent to joyful communion. Cherish your responsibility to bind your wounds, to bear other's wounds, to accept your brokenness not as evidence of imperfection, but as testament of your humanity. 

Henry and Eliza
"There's a hole in the bucket"
A narcissistic relationship??

With Odetta (Odetta Holmes), Harry Belfonte performed this traditional folk song on May 2, 1960 in Carnegie Hall. This version appeared on his album, "Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall".



  1. This statement hit me between the eyes today. Thank you for sharing it.

    "In the case of compensatory narcissism, the ego constructs a grandiose facade of self as superior and others as inferior. You will know narcissists are hiding behind their pretenses of self-reliance because they expect other people to make them happy. They expect other people to Fill Their Void for Them. They expect other people to do their work, too. No matter how hard we try to 'connect' to the narcissist, we will always fall short of their expectations. Our attempts to help might even be met with righteous indignation that we, emotional weaklings that we are, would presume the narcissist needed anyone or anything. Our compassion is rejected as not-good-enough and eventually, we are judged to be not-good-enough, too."

  2. Very insightful post--
    And very true!!

  3. Okay -- so you are brilliant. But then, we know that!

    Love this line: We assume falling in love means never having to say, “I’m Lonely”.

    Thanks CZ. Thought-provoking. Insightful and true.


  4. Wow CZBZ,

    Your description of loneliness spills over with truth upon truth that I have to go back to this article in order to digest it piece by piece. The vacancy sign is right on, yet hard to translate into everyday life. I had to ask myself some hard questions about what that looks like in my life. Do I want to hang around a certain person for too much time to the point of losing my own time alone? Is this new person so promising that I want to let go of everything that is self-renewing, self-reflective, self-nurturing? I suppose my vacancy sign is one end of the extreme. The other is total isolation and disappointment. I learned from my N father an unhealthy trait even though I swore never to be like him. Thank you for sharing the truth about how loneliness is meant to spur us to connect and interact with others while being acutely aware that others are not the filler.

    Many thankyous,

  5. This is the first article here that's made me rather angry. Not everyone who isolates is a narcissist, or is grandiose. Some of us had very poor social role models and never learned adequqte social skills. I'm in therapy right now to try to correct this, as it is my responsibility to get better. However, not everyone had siblings conviniently nearby or extended family who ever bothered to visit. I learned soon enough my attempts to reach out to others wasn't working, so it seemed reasonable to stop until a remedy could be found. You'll probably say "yeah, so what?" to all this. You're a great writer. I enjoy reading your articles. That's all.

  6. Dear Anonymous,

    Of course not everyone who isolates is a narcissist OR is grandiose. I'm not writing about 'everybody'.

    People can learn new behaviors and change their thinking, especially if they're doing what you're doing: therapy and self-help.

    You will never ever hear me saying "Yeah, so what?" to anyone who is making the effort to be a better person (however 'better' is measured by that person).

    And truly, I am sorry you didn't have the role models you needed but wow, it's impressive that you are taking responsibility for 'change'. Too many people get stuck in Blame and don't move on to the next step: personal responsibility.

    Thanks for the compliment about my writing. I hope whatever gets written is worth the time it takes to read it. Especially since I tend to be long-winded!



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