Love and human connection, no matter how frightening, are the only things that can break you out of the house of mirrors that narcissists live in every day.
“I just can’t stand it—her out there thinking about me like that,” said the guy across the table from me. He was talking about a woman back home that he’d more or less abandoned after an unplanned pregnancy and abortion. We were on the second afternoon of a two-day-marathon OK Cupid date that had morphed into a Love Affairs of Nathanial P–like airing of dirty laundry about the shambles we each seemed to have made of our love lives.
“I have to get her to speak to me again,” he said. “I have to do something to fix what she thinks about me.”
I am 28 years old and have two ex-husbands who won’t speak to me. I knew, with a stab of sad recognition, exactly what to tell him.
“You can’t, Andy*,” I told him as kindly as I could. “You have to respect that she needs to be away from you, no matter how much it hurts your ego.”
Andy froze. One of those extraordinary moments passed where it was clear another person and I completely got each other.
The “narcissism epidemic” is in the news again this week with the release of two new studies finding that 1) it’s increasingly an equal-opportunities affliction that affects primarily men but ever-higher numbers of women, and 2) too much praise from parents can turn kids into narcissists.
Add this to what we already know about narcissism: that it’s worse in the West than anywhere else, and that it seems to result from both biological predisposition and upbringing. What we don’t know much about is how to make it better—nor do we see much popular empathy at all for people whose own empathy button seems to be out of service. Discussion of the narcissism epidemic focuses mainly on how to detect and steer clear of a modern Narcissus, not cure what ails them.
Narcissism isn’t (just) what most people think it is, an entrapment of self-obsession, a symptom of our modern age. It’s also a deeply fucked-up psychological coping method for dealing with terror of interpersonal intimacy. Convinced that they’ll be hurt by anyone they let close to them (usually due to the standard shitty childhood/terrible love life feedback loops most of us live in), narcissists hide inside their own heads, and believe that the only safety in their worlds is what they think they can control, their projected sense of self.
And—speaking as a quite narcissistic person here myself—that is a lonely and bewildering world to live in. Like being eternally trapped in a house of mirrors. Like everyone else’s voice is muffled, speaking to you from very far away.
I’ve started recognizing this in other people now, too: people like Andy from OK Cupid, who listed a litany of symptoms that could have been my own.
“My thoughts run constantly inside my head and I can’t make them stop,” Andy told me. “I haven’t been able to read a book in months. Anytime a woman likes me, or I like her, I immediately feel myself pulling away. I’m always worrying from the first second what they’re going to want out of me.”
Narcissists’ behavior tends to be controlling, infuriating, contradictory. They sometimes pull people very close so they can determine the boundaries of intimacy, only to freak out at the closeness they themselves created as the oxytocin starts to wear off. Then they push away so they can re-establish control. They hurt families and partners with their controlling behavior—and often don’t even understand it themselves.
I think we can all agree given how the term gets flung around on the Internet that a narcissist is somebody that nobody wants to be and only an idiot would decide to love. The consensus seems to be that narcissists deserve to be “banish[ed]…to a desert island littered with tanning beds and TV cameras.” In other words, people who live like this, confined inside their own egos and incapacitated in the face of the vulnerability that comes with real connection, are modern social pariahs.
But if you’re worried you might be too narcissistic, new research offers some hope. A recent study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin revealed that narcissists can be trained to be more empathetic by doing exercises in “perspective-taking”—that is, putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. When they are specifically prompted to do this, “high-narcissists respond to another’s distress with the same level of autonomic arousal as low-narcissists.” Put another way, their empathy button is not broken, but they need to consciously remind themselves that it’s there and how to use it.
So if there are any more of you out there who suffer—and make other people suffer—from high levels of narcissism, here are a few tricks I’ve worked out to help with perspective-taking and exercising your empathy muscle.
1. Know who loves you, and then hear what they have to say.
I’m lucky as hell to have my mother and brother and several dear friends I respect and know would never intentionally do me any harm. When those people give me feedback on my behavior, I try to give it serious attention. (Warning: This often launches me into attacks of panic and self-loathing, and it may happen to you, too. Be prepared to soothe yourself through it.)
2. Consume art constantly.
The arts are therapy for narcissists. Cinema, literature, television, photography, etc. show you the world from behind someone else’s lens—you just have to know how to digest it. The trick to this is to receive the information being transmitted without judgment, and assume that the perspective is the truth of how things look from the creator’s angle on the universe. (This may also trigger panic and/or self-loathing. Take a deep breath. You’ll get through it.)
3. Step back when you need to feel safe. But don’t run away.
The aforementioned panic and self-loathing that paralyze narcissists in the face of intimacy can feel literally suffocating. When that happens, take a step back, and be kind to yourself. Just remember to come back. Love and human connection, no matter how frightening, are the only things that can break you out of the house of mirrors that narcissists live in every day.
*Not his real name.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.