As common (but not as tasty) as peanut butter and chocolate is the unhealthy bond between narcissists and empaths.
Narcissists are those people who are arrogant, lack empathy, and are ultimately self-serving. They manipulate to get what they want—not necessarily intentionally. Under this thick veil of ego is a very wounded person. However, the nature of the narcissist is to project blame while avoiding responsibility. As a result, they can be extremely destructive to empaths.
Empaths are sensitive people who feel the feelings of others and ultimately want others to feel loved, healthy, and good. They often mistake the feelings of others for their own feelings and struggle to put appropriate boundaries in place. The nature of the empath is to sometimes take too much personal responsibility in conflict situations. As a result, when they are relating to someone with narcissistic traits, they can end up taking responsibility in ways that are unhealthy.
It is challenging for the empath to see the relationship with the narcissist clearly. And the narcissist will be endlessly trying to make themselves look good, as well as to get the endless appreciation and love they so desperately desire.
The result is that the empath will begin to doubt themselves and their intentions. They will become imbalanced, and as a result, they will often act in ways that they are not proud of. The longer this continues, the more the narcissist will blame the empath for what is happening and the more the empath will believe that what they are doing is wrong, losing their center and their health in the process.
The following is from Bill Eddy’s article “How to Spot a Narcissist.” He shows how you can most easily spot a narcissist. While many writers have described the characteristics of a narcissist, he does so in a way that is accessible and clarifying.
The following are several hints you may pick up from a narcissist early on, using the WEB Method.
Watch for both extremely positive and extremely negative words, about you or others.
EXTREMELY POSITIVE (SEDUCTIVE) WORDS include: I love you, you’re so wonderful! I’ve never met someone as great as you are! You’re so much better than all the others. You’re the center of my life! I will give you everything you deserve. No one has treated you as good as I will treat you. The person you were with before was a real loser. I have this great idea that will make me really famous someday. Let me tell you about it. (Notice that much of this is very comparative—that’s a warning sign that you will compare negatively later on.)
EXTREMELY NEGATIVE (DISPARAGING) WORDS include: That person over there is a real loser. Let me tell you about him (or her). The people that rejected my great idea are some of the stupidest people I have ever met. They don’t know brilliance when it’s staring them in the face. My boss is really treating me unfairly. I’m thinking of going over his head and getting him fired. I can’t wait until everyone sees him being walked out of the office for good! He’ll be totally humiliated. (Notice the thrill of superiority and lack of empathy, even if the other person is a lousy boss.)
WORDS THAT SHOW LACK OF EMPATHY OR INTEREST: The following happens a lot with narcissists. If you tell the person about a bad experience or vulnerability that you have, their response will often begin with: Well, let me tell you what happened to me once! There’s often no recognition of your concern—or even your existence, sometimes. They lose interest quickly, once they think they have you.
VICTIM WORDS: Narcissists perpetually see themselves as superior, but also perpetually as victims. When they are exposed as not being so superior after all, they suffer what is often called “a narcissistic injury.” Maybe they were turned down for a job promotion in favor of someone else. After such an “injury,” they will become obsessed with proving how bad the other person is and how wonderful they are. They may go on a long rant: It’s so unfair what they did/said/are. I will show them! They’re punishing me for being better than they will ever be!
Now pay attention to your own emotions. How do you feel around the person?
FEEL TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE? This person is so nice to you, you feel extremely loved and flattered. You may have a euphoric feeling. He/she almost seems too good to be true. That’s a warning sign, because people who intensely and endlessly flatter you are often not who they seem. Their charm for you is a warning sign. Sometimes, they are simply charming and not a narcissist. But sometimes it means you are being seduced in the moment with lovely words by a narcissist, who will say them soon to the next person or organization they meet. They like winning more than having.
FEEL STUPID AND INADEQUATE? Some narcissists are so busy puffing themselves up that they don’t realize that they are putting you down in the process—it’s so automatic for them. You may not even notice it consciously at first, but soon you may be filled with self-doubt. I wonder what he/she thinks of me? I’m not really that smart, talented, attractive after all. I’m certainly not in his/her league, am I?
FEEL LIKE YOU CAN’T BREATHE? It’s common for narcissists to “suck up all the oxygen in the room.” Other people start feeling like they can’t breathe, because they can’t get a word in. Whatever someone else says, the conversation gets steered back to the narcissist somehow.
Notice what they do, more than what they say. Narcissists have lots of words to distract from and make up for their insensitive behavior. People constantly confront narcissists and constantly are frustrated. Rather than reflecting on their past behavior, narcissists defend it and attack you for criticizing them. (“How dare you, after all I’ve done for you!”) So just become aware of their behavior and ignore their words excusing or distracting from it.
For example: Instead of saying: “Why were you late?!” You could say: “I’d prefer if you would let me know ahead of time if you’re going to be late, so I can make other plans.” Then, just leave it at that and notice if they fulfill or ignore your request. If they try to fulfill your request, that’s a good sign. But if there’s an unchanging pattern of disregard for you and your requests, then you may consider ending that relationship, since you’re not going to change that person. If you feel taken for granted, remember that narcissists like winning relationships, not having relationships. He/she may be on to the next conquest.
TARGETS OF BLAME: If a narcissist also has a high-conflict personality, that means that they will look for a Target of Blame when something goes wrong for them. They may intensely blame you for something minor or nonexistent or done by someone else (perhaps even by themselves, which is called “projection”). When they mess up, they often look for someone close by to blame. “It’s all your fault that I didn’t get that promotion! You should have spoken to the boss like I asked you to. Now what are you going to do about it!!”
As with all of the high-conflict personalities, they tend to blame people in close relationships with them (girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, kids, parents, close friends, close neighbors, etc.) or people in authority positions (supervisors, business owners, police, government agencies, etc.). They often get stuck in a cycle of attacking a Target of Blame and defending themselves, rather than getting any work done or paying attention to their family: such as making angry phone calls, writing long email rants or engaging in social media meltdowns.
Notice if they have ever done something that 90% of people would never do (“The 90% Rule”). Something that you would never do. If so, regardless of their excuses, it usually means there’s a pattern of high-conflict behavior under the surface which would support such extreme behavior. For narcissists, this often includes humiliating a partner or child in public, sabotaging a co-worker or verbally attacking a colleague or employee in a meeting for something the narcissist actually did.
Empaths are particularly prone to getting involved with narcissists due to their failure to spot their games—it is just too different from their own personality. During the initial phase of the relationship (the positive phase), the empath will likely feel positive feelings unlike those received from being with anyone else, and will take this as a sign that this is a special relationship. Because all the empath wants to do is help, and all the narcissist wants to do is take, the empath will end up in a game that cannot end well.
If you suspect that you have a narcissist in your life, you may benefit from distancing yourself. With some people, you may be unable to do this—in which case, you would benefit from a plan that helps you minimize their effect on you while not alerting any of their conflict behaviors. Maintaining objectivity is key to your success. The more perspective you can get, the easier it will be to see what is going on. Make some space for yourself and enroll the support of other people who can help you see things more clearly. You can still empathize with the pain that is the root of the narcissist’s behavior without putting yourself in harm’s way.
Empaths often are exploring self-love within the context of relationships. I invite you to read more here >>> “7 Reasons to Love Yourself First.”
Even if you have spent a significant amount of time on your own healing, you can end up in a relationship so toxic that it takes its toll on your otherwise healthy life. This is particularly true of our romantic relationships or our other closest relationships.
Elucidating contributing factors to our experience of unhealthy relationships been approached in a number of different ways.
One of these is through the discussion of the activation of our defenses in accordance with our attachment styles. There are four different attachment styles: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, and Anxious-Avoidant. In any relationship that is not securely attached, there is the potential for deep activation of attachment issues that can lead to dysfunction. In the book Attached, Amir Levine discusses the crazy-making downward spiral of unhealthy attachment. This book helps to provide insight into how otherwise healthy people can become very unhealthy when there attachment wounds get triggered.
Another important angle is taken by Harville Hendrix in Getting the Love You Want. In this book, he talks about it as “the turtle and the tiger.” The turtle retreats from conflict and the tiger appears to be the aggressor. While this is not a direct correlation to attachment styles, there is some overlap. Overall, the retreat and attack dynamic can be found in many relationships where two people are struggling.
Codependence literature, on the other hand, can help us clarify unhealthy boundaries and how they affect us. By looking at where we have become immeshed with the people around us and learning new skills, we can learn to untangle ourselves from some challenging relationship dynamics.
No matter how we slice it, once we get into an unhealthy pattern things can go downhill fast. And, as messy as this can be, relationships can actually get worse. When we, for example, add attachment issues, which are a part of many relationships, to some deeper personality issues, we can enter into some very challenging relationship territory that is very difficult to extricate ourselves from. Add in an issue like addiction and things get even worse.
The very nature of the problems that get created in these problematic relationships can cause us to doubt ourselves, and also make it so that we may not know what we should do or where we should focus our efforts to make things better.
There are two parts to getting yourself out of an unhealthy relationship. The first is understanding what got you there. The second is your plan to get free.
Understanding how you got there:
Your Attachment Style: When you understand your attachment style and how it got activated, you can begin taking steps to get back on track. You can lean into healthier attachment bonds, you can more directly ask for what you need, and you can depersonalize the other person’s behavior.
Assessment Skills: When you can assess healthy versus unhealthy behavior and recognize truly pathological behavior, then you can understand how and when to put certain boundaries in place. You will be able to see if the person you are struggling with is a narcissist, sociopath, or some other personality that cannot be safely negotiated with.
Healthy Boundaries: When you are aware of your over-involvement in toxic relationships, you can begin to put healthier boundaries in place. This sometimes includes cutting off all contact with the person who is triggering you in such a deep way or who may simply not be safe.
Your plan to get out:
Once you understand the cause of all the dysfunction, you can build a plan to either work on or leave the relationship. If you need to leave, here are some steps that you can take.
Gather Support: Perhaps the most important part of an exit strategy is getting the support that you need to make it successful. This means establishing people to be on-call with assisting you during the transition. Immediately after leaving the relationship, the emotional volume can get turned up and the other person might escalate their behavior. Planning on this happening can help to make sure you have the right people to see you through these difficult times.
Meet Your Needs: Know that your attachment needs will be activated. Because of this, you will want to establish multiple ways to take care of these needs as part of your plan. If you need to be held, who can do that for you, safely? If you need distraction, how can you divert your attention?
Be Patient: The deeper the activation of your issues or the more pathological the relationship, the more likely it is to take a few tries to get out of the relationship. Be kind to yourself. You will get there, but likely not until you are really certain why this is an unhealthy relationship for you—which is why it makes sense to understand what is going on before you try to separate.
Stay Clear: No matter how bad the relationship, there are usually good parts that can leave you wondering whether you made the right choice. To help you stay the course, it is helpful to clearly remember the reasons for leaving the relationship and the damage that it has caused.
While it is not always essential that we leave a relationship that appears to be unhealthy, there are plenty of times when it is in our best interest. To determine whether or not we need to leave, we will benefit from understanding what contributes to these problematic relationships so that we can see what got us there in the first place. Then we can begin to set up a plan to leave that helps us transition away from the toxic relationship while retaining—or regaining—our sanity.
To explore what self-love has to do with your relationships, check out my post here >>> “7 Reasons to Love Yourself First.”
It takes a very small amount of empathy and compassion to recognize that if someone is getting angry, then very often, something is wrong. Yet we so often miss this point—even when relating to the people close to us.
We often miss the point because of an underlying belief we have about anger being “wrong” or “bad.”
Just a short while ago, during my visit to a spiritual community, I had a potent exchange with one of the leaders that highlighted the importance of restructuring our relationship to anger – especially amongst spiritual people.
Prior to this exchange, I had just received some very difficult news and I was trying to figure out what to do with it. I went to her for help and guidance. She was not giving me the type of answers that would help or even a compassionate response, and I began to get irritated.
With all of the veiled condescension that is only possible from a person who has put their emotions in quarantine, she said, “I can sense you are getting angry.” Of course I was angry—and confused, and a little afraid. I’d just had my world rocked. How was saying this and not acknowledging my distress in service of resolution? How was this a spiritually mature response?
It felt much more like a shame-based technique born in a sense of moral superiority than a helping hand. Of course, it was never her responsibility to relieve my distress but it was unnecessary to add to it through implying my feelings were somehow wrong.
Anger is not something to be gotten rid of. In fact, one of the most problematic aspects of dealing with anger is the faux spiritual belief that anger is a sign of lack of spiritual development.
Like all emotions, anger is essential. Anger is part of the navigation system of our emotions. Without it, we are left traveling with only a partial map. Anger can help us know to protect those we love or ourselves. It can show us when we are in danger. It can convey the very important message that enough is enough.
Overall, our anger shows us that something we consider important is being threatened.
We are wise to pay attention and see what this is.
Each day, we can experience disrespect, mistreatment, and boundary violations. For some of us, this is much more common than it is for others. Is the highest and best response to this truly a complete absence of anger? Or, is it simply a more productive relationship to our anger?
In our interpersonal relationships, we can struggle with challenges such as meeting our needs versus the needs of those we care about. We can feel like we give too much and haven’t gotten enough in return. Or, we can feel betrayed when someone close to us does something we never thought they would do.
All of these situations can at times produce feelings of anger.
It is possible to do some soul searching when facing these situations and because of this feel less anger and more understanding. This an extremely important piece of navigating the fields of anger—learning to see things differently, letting go of past hurts, expressing ourselves more constructively.
In short, becoming more skillful in dealing with our anger.
However, it is also important to embrace anger in ourselves and others and see it as the powerful rich resource that it is. Anger has some powerful lessons for us, and not all of them are about how to experience it less.
When we pay attention to it in ourselves, we learn our motives and our values. Sometimes, we might learn that we are protecting something that we no longer want to protect. Sometimes, we learn that we have not been protecting something that we need to. Either way, in these ways and in others, our anger informs us.
When we pay attention to the anger of others, we learn what is most important to them. We can see where they are most delicate. Their anger can show us where they are hurting or where they have been hurt. Empathy and compassion allow us to see past the anger and address the issue at hand—which is quite often not, solely, their lack of ability to express their anger effectively.
To embrace the teachings of anger, we do not need to put ourselves in harm’s way. When we face someone else’s anger, we must carefully discern how to care for ourselves as well as the other person There are those people who have such wells of anger that they become dangerous. Or, people who are in so much pain that we need to save ourselves rather than stick around to offer understanding. Learning how to care for ourselves as well as, potentially, another hurt person is one of the skills of working with anger.
Very likely, we have also, at some point, misused our anger or expressed it in a way that was particularly destructive. It benefits us to question ourselves and our intentions, but not to the point of shaming ourselves for our emotions. We simply need to be accountable.
When we misuse our anger, regardless of how well we are able to justify our position, it takes away a little of our light. Somewhere inside, we know that we have crossed a line and become the transgressor. This robs us of our power and can leave us more strongly justifying our position to escape the reality that we have created.
This is an example of how our anger can sometimes lead us astray.
Whether we are learning how to make space for anger, create healthier boundaries around it, or express it more cleanly, anger is a potentially powerful teacher and ally.
Anger is a fire. Fire can purify, transform, and destroy.
Fire can also create.
The anger that we feel can also inform us in such a way that it shows us what we or another person wants rather than only what we do not want. It can be used like fuel to create alternative ways of handling the problem at hand.
There are no easy answers when it comes to this powerful emotion. We cannot safely ignore or repress it. We cannot simply let it run wild.
The result that we get from an expression of our anger is powerful. It can liberate and can kill—sometimes both at the same time. The powerful impact of this emotion is in our hands and at its best is paired with soul-searching questions versus spiritual pabulum—questions that need to be asked with curiosity and respect as well as the desire to create something different.
In the end, we find the answers about how to learn from, and wield, our anger in the best possible ways from our healed and loving heart. It is here that we can hear its divine wisdom. It is here that we can use its fuel to create more of what we want in our lives.
For more about anger and safe expression of it, check out my post here >>> “What’s ANGER got to do with it? Negative Emotions and the Lower Self.”
Better self-love equals better decisions. Creating an ongoing experience of self-love for yourself keeps you operating at a higher level. Like all things that you do to take care of yourself, loving yourself makes it easier to make better choices simply because you are feeling better when you make them.
Helps determine your real needs. If you do not give yourself the love that you need, you may end up getting confused about what your real needs are. If you do not even fulfill this most primary need how can your really know what your other needs are.
You know how to do it best. While it is wonderful to receive love from others, we actually know what we want and need better than anyone else. Sometimes, if we are feeling a lack of love or care from an outside relationship, we can focus on giving/showing this love to our self in exactly the way that we know we need.
Sets the tone for the people in your life. We teach others how to treat us. When we love ourselves, we show others how to love us, thus setting a standard for the other people in our life.
Self-love is the best form of self-protection. When you act lovingly toward yourself, you are unlikely to tolerate unloving behavior from others. As a result, many problems can resolve themselves without effort, and certain predatory types will find the presence of your self-love less appetizing.
You are the root of positive change. Whether you are a professional caregiver or trying to have your impact be a positive one, giving yourself a steady dose of self-love keeps you healthier, happier, and in the game longer. If you shirk your responsibility to love yourself, you will lessen your overall ability to make a difference.
You are a role model. You are teaching your friends, partner, children, and others how to love themselves each time you show up for yourself in this way. We can all use some extra support in the direction of loving ourselves even more completely. You doing this for yourself helps those around you to do the same.
Do you ever feel compassion fatigue? Read more about caring for yourself here >>> “4 Ways You Can Stop Burnout When You Care a Lot.”
I hear it all the time from people who work with others in any helping or healing capacity: “I am exhausted. I am not sure I can do this anymore. I need a vacation. Maybe I should go into another line of work.” This same fatigue also affects those who are caring for other people in their lives. It is the result of actively attending to other people’s pain at the expense of your own self-care. It even has its own label: compassion fatigue.
One of the first things that I talk to practitioners about when they start to work with me is their own self-care. The more that you care for yourself, the more you are able to assist other people. The problem is that many helpers and healers get into the work because of their own wounds. This is fine overall; however, you will continue to deplete yourself to the extent that you have not healed.
If you find yourself stressed, with little energy to put into your work, or have noticed your behavior deteriorating in other areas of your life because you are caring a lot for others and little for yourself, try some of the following tips.
Boundaries. You may need to rewrite the way that you do the work you do, or work in a different way. You may need to learn to say no to those you love so that you can do some things for yourself. If you are feeling fatigued and possibly ready to quit, your boundaries are not in the right place. You are giving more than you have to give. Ask yourself: what do you need to make this a healthy arrangement?
Time out. One of the best ways to figure all of this out is to take a break. This can seem like a really big request when you feel like you are barely keeping up as it is. BUT—and it is a big “but”—it can be the smartest and easiest solution to your dilemma. Take as much time as you believe is possible and then take just a little more. The space will give you the perspective to help you see new ways of doing things.
Therapy. As I said, very often we get to this point because of our unresolved issues. Get some help from someone outside of your situation who can help you examine and shift the underlying patterns that are creating your over-giving.
Vision. First, connecting to your vision can be reinvigorating. However, it can do more than that. Take a look at how you are represented in your vision. Is it possible to have a vision where not only are you helping others but you are also well cared for? Write or rewrite a vision statement with this in mind, and read it regularly to keep yourself on track.
Perhaps most importantly, know that this can just be a passing phase. You can offer your amazing gifts to others in whatever way you do and you can be healthy while you do it. Look for new solutions, and don’t settle!
Take a look at my article here for more ideas on why loving yourself is so key >>> “7 Reasons to Love Yourself First.”