How Our “Understanding” of Narcissism is Completely Wrong

The myth of Narcissist and Echo is familiar to most of us. We have misunderstood a major point of narcissism, though and this has sadly, lead to responses and behaviors ineffective when dealing with narcissists because we miss the core issue.

“Ode to a Narcissist”

Oh, my sweet, sweet narcissist
Look at you-
In your graceless sorrow and sorrowful greatness
Preening as if all the world was but a stage

Head and neck extended, attempting as you do, to relate
The plaintive, sick warble issues from your throat
“I can not see. I can not see.”

What would there be to see?
asks I, standing idly by

You turn, teeth exposed, Raven-ous in your
devouring blackness
Nuance is never your strong point, while rage is your default

I know you little secret
I whisper in conspiracy

Paintings capture your vision -locked unto that pool
You have stood by that damn pool for eons, Searching

Only now I know- It’s not the reflection which drives
your intent
and fires your motivation

but rather, the secret we now share;

You are staring because you see nothing but your own blackness
You are hoping and
You are praying

If you stare long enough
If you stare hard enough

You will see yourself.

As Echo and witness to your ever-lasting gaze
I simply say, “I wish you luck”

And those simple words almost kill you.

Our most familiar image of narcissism is of Naricissus staring at his reflection in the pool, while Echo looks on. We have mistaken what this image means. Narcissus is not caught up staring at his “wonderful” reflection. It’s actually much, much scarier than this. Narcissists stare and stare because they see nothing. There is no reflection for a narcissist to become enamored with. This is why narcissists are such needy people. They only see blackness where their own self-reflection should be. They expect the rest of us to provide the proper “mirror/reflecting” back to them.

The poem ends with the simple idea that all narcissists need us to care so much about them because they can not care for themselves. The one thing narcissists can not stand is to be ignored, it almost kills them, because without you, they are nothing.


67 thoughts on “How Our “Understanding” of Narcissism is Completely Wrong

  1. Incredibly sad. But there really is nothing left for others to do but to wish them luck as your poem alludes. Just a perfect illustration, I think, of what is really going on behind the narcissist’s lonely gaze. Thank you!

    • HI Paula, and thank you for re-blogging my post. Realizing what we can and can not do for such individuals allows us to detach in a healthy way. The depths of their pain can be overwhelming if we stay in their circle of influence.

  2. I read this on Paula’s blog. Thank you. I can’t process how this made me feel right now. It’s powerful…and it’s spot-on. I *do* know that it made me feel very sad. The funny thing is that even though my life has been scarred by a wife who this fits like a hate-sweater, I still felt emotion for her when I read this. She has robbed my life, she has stolen children from love, she has destroyed lives, she has separated kids from an entire family. The last time I saw her, the first in two years, she seemed an empty shell with a cold, cold gaze. This made me shudder, because it plausibly describes her thought processes. What the hell? I’d send this to her if she wouldn’t use it as a further vehicle to claim I’m crazy and therefore have no right to my children. :/

    • Thank you so much for your heartfelt words. Of course, I can understand why you would feel sad for your ex- when you read this. Compassion is one of our greatest gifts and when we see someone in pain, our response is to want to help, even if the pain is the result of narcissism. I find narcissists to be so consuming and such a void of neediness, control, and destruction, it is best to cut ties if we can (even if the ties are only emotional and symbolic). As she is the mother of your children, of course you can not cut ties completely, but you can remain centered in your own convictions and life. I truly wish you peace and goodness.

    • yes, you think they feel “great” about themselves and that is why they stare at that image in the pool. They are actually trying to find themselves in even a small way. Since they are not able to do this, they expect us to supply this reflection.

  3. I was introduced through Paula’s reblog ๐Ÿ™‚ I must say, this is quite an interesting twist on the Narcissist. Very astounding, but it does make sense. The Narcissist seems to have emotion, unlike the Psychopath. The Narc emotion-sphere is exaggerated, though. Not because they are “better” than anyone (?) but because they can’t quell their imperfections and loneliness. Could it be that their self worth is so low, they can’t accept it, and so require admirers to constantly fluff their ego or give them attention? Interesting. Thank you

    • Thanks for your insightful comments. Narcissism is such a strange energy. I have friends who I would consider to have “big egos” but their energy is still so different than someone with narcissism. Narcissists suck people dry because they really can’t seem to self-reflect, and of course, we can not provide such reflections for them.

      • The way it was explained to me (and I’m sure this is an incomplete definition), a narcissist is a construction with no foundation, a house of cards. The narcissist doesn’t dare look within because there is so much shame, self-loathing and emptiness inside, it would tear them apart if they dared to start to examine it.

        I think that’s sad.

        I was taught that the opposite extreme of narcissism, the other end of the see-saw, is extreme self-deprecation – the permanent martyr or victim.

      • Ah… I like what you write here- the other end of the spectrum= permanent martyr and victim. I have seen that lesson as well. Interesting that you are so clear about this in your own life. I always find it inspiring when people have awareness and can see their own patterns. Thank you so much.

  4. Yes a very good understanding! of course there is nothing there for them to see, that is why they MUST take from others!

  5. Thank you so much, Kimberly. I came by this on Paula’s blog and wrote a response there. So beautiful and so heart wrenching. We ARE compassionate people. So much so that I truly wanted to be something for the narcissist. He would stare and stare at ME constantly with a horrible dark gaze in his eyes.. He was desperate to see himself somehow and used me to do it…in every breath, every move, every action, every response, every emotion, every joy he took from me trying to be it.

    And I knew those simple words would almost kill him even as I said them walking out the door. But I had to do it or die myself. So be it, I’ve been given life again and maybe someday my love will not be used in this tortuous and horrible way but in a true way that is joyous, happy and free.

    • wow!! What honest words. You know exactly what I am talking about. Even a slight disconnect of your attention feels like a knife to the heart for a narcissist. It literally become a full-time job to mirror back to them some sense of self. we think if we do it enough, they will eventually grow and learn to take care of themselves. Sadly, I really have never experienced a narcissist who has grown significantly.

  6. Wonderful, very true post! It’s the irony of the disorder that the driving force of their rage and pain is emotional emptiness. It’s sad that they deal with it (although not our job to fix it) and so likely caused by what must have been a very painful childhood.

    • It’s difficult because we are caring/empathetic people. We sometimes believe if we show them love, that they will finally “get” it. We, instead, however become the Echo in painting- standing there for all of eternity.

  7. Anyone who has experienced living with a narcissist will recognize your accurate description. They demand attention and abuse others in order to elevate themselves. And goodness you hit the nail on the head when you say the worst thing you can do to a narcissist is ignore them. Their reaction is going to be fierce.
    Love the strength of your writing. Thank you.

    • wow! thanks for your kind words. Living with something who is narcissistic is a very specific experience. It’s beyond egotism. Their abuse of others is in proportion to their own pain. And, yes, they find the greatest pain when others ignored them. So sad.

  8. I love this part right here
    “The poem ends with the simple idea that all narcissists need us to care so much about them because they can not care for themselves. The one thing narcissists can not stand is to be ignored, it almost kills them, because without you, they are nothing.”

    My soon to be ex is sending me message after message because I’m ignoring him. He can’t stand it.

    • It’s not funny how compulsive they become when they are ignored. I am glad you are moving on from your ex-. Being ignored is a fate worse than death for a narcissist- they have nothing to fall back on.

  9. Great point. These people are not “evil” although their actions can be. I have not seen this before. They deserve our compassion but at the same time we must protect ourselves from them.

    I am still trying to figure out if one of my relatives is narcissistic. Has anyone ever had the experience of a narcissist who appears to be a giving person but really only gives to get? He has done some nice things for me but when I gave him a car that I no longer drive due to health reasons, he threw it back into my face and said it wasn’t good enough. It is a somewhat older car, but it is low-mileage and in excellant condition. But according to him I owe him forever and ever.

    I have also observed this kind of behavior on his part with my dad.

    I have been forced to limit my contact with him and that side of the family, who supports his behavior.

    I am still working on forgiveness, but what I will say that your poem is helping me to see him in a new light. I think the basic problem with humanity is that we are psychologically sick, some more than others. However we are all in the same boat and we are all caught in illusion.

    • I really enjoy your final paragraph. That is so true. And many times, those of us who are aware of this and are compassionate end up being caught in the dangerous illusion of another. We are all living in an illusion, but some will choose routes of kindness and understanding, while others are at the level of manipulation and self-centeredness. What really strikes me about your response is that somehow you are aware of what is going on. The fact you have had to limit contact is very key. When one’s mind and heart senses narcissism in another , I believe it is usually present. Narcissists do not get better and the level at which they can take our best qualities, i.e. your generous giving of a car, and twist it around is simply sick.

      • Thank you for the compliment. Believe me, though it has taken around 20 years to me to see this guy clearly. He is not a blood relative but my assessment is based on his behavior since he joined this family. The difficulty for me personally is that since I have dealt with bipolar disorder for most of my life and my behavior hasn’t always been the best. However he accuses me of him having to rescue me from my jams when I was too ill to function well. I never took any money from him, only a little bit of his time of giving me rides and helping me to move when I needed to make alternate living arrangements. He also worked on my house when it developed a black mold problem. He was doing this to repay my dad, who was paying his bills. In fact my dad is still paying his bills because he won’t look for a job. It was a patch-up job because my home-owners insurance would not pay. They ended up pulling out walls and replacing them but some of the mold is still around. I just have to not use that part of the house.I am not blaming him because he was not an expert. However I think you can see the dynamic going on here and that I why I finally realized that just because I have bipolar disorder, that does not mean that I am a bad person.

        And yes we all have the choice to be kind or not. I have not always taken that route but I am trying to do better.

  10. Right to the core, so honest in words. I have lost friends as they think I’m over reacting! They havn’t lived this life. I never knew this existed . . . . I was co-dependant I’ve discovered, and have peeled layer upon layer to reach the real me. My mission and my calling is to expose these monsters, yet I am/ will be frowned upon for speaking my truths. If I can save a few kind souls I know it wouldn’t be in vain. How do we do this . . .I hope not behind closed doors! I exposed my ex and he was so vengeful and angry. I have seen another side to him, and it makes me feel creepy to think he was my love!!! They hide so much but the masks do slip after time. I know now it is so hard for them to keep up the pretence, and the fear of being found out is enormous. No, you can’t help them as they are too damaged and too far gone. It makes me angry to think these Aliens can deceive even their family members, and work buddies. Their smear campaign can bring devastation to ones employment, ( he lost me my job ) yet that’s how they work! He at this time has many face book accounts, and stalks me with those after 10 mths. I block him each time, yet he goes back and creates another using his ex wife’s maiden and married name, (his surname still) his children, grandchildren as well This same predator told me he hated face book, and was never on it! Yes he made out he didn’t understand computers. Here I was offering to teach him lols! I am so aware now how I will never sell my soul to the devil. Love your blog.

    • Thanks for your great comment!! Narcissists are just such a ridiculous waste of our time. They do not live in our reality. They live in a made-up, fantastical world that is so hurtful and painful, yet, they insist we join them there. I am so glad you have found your freedom. Your ex-, I assume, will continue to suffer the consequences of his self-serving, delusional decisions.

  11. Kimberly you are so spot on !!!!

    In the past I have been with a few narcissists…sadly I was attracted to them like Winnie Pooh to the honey and vice-versa…

    Then my last relationship with one of those vampires brought me in the darkest place I have ever been…and it was scary!

    After about 6 months away from that negative person I am a new and stronger woman, so much happier…

    I think I was attracted to those ill individuals for different reasons :

    – because of their beauty, which I came to realize was only a superficial beauty…
    – at the time I kind of wanted to learn to be strong and in love with my self, just like they seemed to be….
    – I somehow admired, at the beginning of our relationship, the way they seemed to take care of themselves…

    I wasn’t able to see the truth, which was, “they were desperately trying to compensate the void and emptiness they had inside” with a constant and obsessive attention to their image, body, their needs etccc…..

    Now I am proud to say I am in love with myself ๐Ÿ™‚ and even though I went to hell and nearly died because of this narcissist, I feel grateful for this experience, as I am aware that I had to go through all that in order to become

    my real beautiful free self ๐Ÿ™‚

    Havin said that, in my ideal world I wish teenagers could get some sort of advice/counselling in schools so that they would be able to spot people with those personality disorders and avoid experiencing so much pain…

    Thanks Kimberly ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Ha!! I love your response. I was the same way!! “Winnie the Pooh and honey”…instant attraction! It is so very, very frightening where you can end up mentally when you deal with such people. It is literally a constant battle to maintain any semblance of self. I love the points you bring up about why you were attracted. Yes! Yes! Yes! It is intoxicating to be around someone so self-assured, who seems to control the world. YOu know, your words frighten me when you write you nearly died because of this experience. I hope you are truly o.k.

      But, the thing I have found with being with a narcissist (if you survive, intact) is that your understanding of the world and human dynamics reaches a new level of awareness- because it had to in order for you to survive.

      i hope others like you (and myself) continue to be brave and put the word out there about these individuals and all their tricks. Thank you!!

  12. Good explanation for me…I could always avoid the obvious ones, but the one who was the blackest I fell for…MY FAULT!! I truly did reflect what he wanted to see, as I was so desperate to be married, or loved, or accepted, or whatever it was…I may never know.

  13. Have you ever thought about creating an ebook or
    guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based on the
    same subjects you discuss and would really like to have you share some
    stories/information. I know my readers would appreciate your work.
    If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

    • You have made my day- I do not say that lightly. I think one of the greatest gifts we can give each other in “blogging world” is a sense of support for the work of each person. I had just posted the other day that I am writing a book on narcissism. I still was having doubts, so your words could not have come at a better time. I don’t think I have time to do a guest blog right now, but I so appreciate the offer. I hope we can stay in touch and thank you for the blessing of your words today.

  14. I have never heard this explanation before, it all makes sense now! A narcissist is looking to others to mirror and reflect back to them. What if I see elements of this in my self? Does that make me a narcissist? See I’ve always suspected I have some of these tendencies, but if I can see this in myself that must mean I’m not one. I hope! I have great anxiety about this because my mother is a narcissist with no self awareness. My whole life is geared towards not turning into my mother. In fact the pain of my relationship with her has caused me to cut ties with her. I haven’t seen or spoken to her for several years, in fact almost all of her close relationships have cut ties including my 2 sisters and we all feel terrible about it yet just can’t handle that relationship anymore. I have a therapist and I feel my narcissistic tendencies come out with him. That need to be mirrored and validated and when he ignores me I feel crushed! Sorry for this long post, but you are the first person I’ve come across who really gets this issue so clearly.

    • I love your writing. I truly believe if you even question if you are a narcissist- you most likely are not ๐Ÿ™‚ I mean, we all have narcissistic tendencies, but I find the line between this and being a narcissist is that, as my poem states, narcissists truly “see” nothing- they don’t see themselves, they certainly don’t see others. they are frightened by the blackness they see and they are longing for a way out. They use others to provide some type of light through mirroring.

      I totally understand why someone may need to break off ties with a narcissist, even a mother. I think this type of thing happens more than any one is willing to admit. I think what happens is that we begin to realize that there is NO progress with a narcissist- EVER. You can try every management strategy that you want, but a narcissist will NOT meet you half-way in your attempts.

      Therapy is a great place to work out our hidden tendencies. Your awareness and your ability to articulate your feelings (“crushed”) and your responses to him (“feeling ignored”) show you are light years ahead of any narcissist (who would have been ranting and raving about the “mean, uncaring therapist”…who am I kidding…as if a narcissist would ever enter therapy ๐Ÿ™‚ )

      • Thank you for your comment on my writing and for your concise answer. ๐Ÿ™‚ Your understanding of the narcissist is very enlightening. Its so true that there is NO progress with a narcissist – ever. My oldest sister was the first one to break ties with my mom, and she tried ‘every management strategy’ including keeping a script by her phone to deal with my mom’s phone calls. We all tried various coping strategies but they eventually failed. What a strange phenomenon this disorder is. I’m very happy you are writing about it.

        Your words are very reassuring – I can’t thank you enough for this insight. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. I had a question. Do you think a narcissist would ever enter therapy? I would guess that the fear of being seen in truth in the emptiness would be too much for them to bear. I remember when I showed compassion to my ex narc he flew into a rage as if I had abused him. This relates to your other post about how a narc can shatter under empathy shown. Any further insights would be appreciated.. And re my earlier comment even though they are hurtful I still feel empathy for them, just not enough to be used by them. I know I had many narcissistic tendencies myself due to not being mirrored and was not always easy to live with due to this fact.

    • I think the current opinion is that narcissists seldom, if ever, enter therapy. the crux of therapy is learning to see one’s self and understand one’s life. I fear a narcissist does not have a strong enough reference point to withstand therapy. I am not surprised that empathy induced rage in the narcissist. IT truly is a sad situation.

      As for final comments, when confronted with narcissism we have ALL said and done things that we later regret. Be kind with yourself. ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. My ex husband would often want the children to come with him places, even when it wasn’t convenient or appropriate, so we would argue. He said in the heat of the moment once, “But I am invisible without them. Ever since I’ve been with you and the kids, I get attention.” I remember thinking that was such a strange thing to say, and to use this as a reason to override nap time or other people’s schedules so that he would not be invisible was very sad. Your writing has helped me piece together that I was married to a narcissist for 20 years, yikes, and has helped me make sense of so much of the craziness so I can move on with more clarity. Thank you so much for addressing this topic, Kimberly! I’ve even gained more compassion for his emptinessโ€ฆfrom a distance, even as we are struggling with his refusal to help with college expenses, oye! xo! marga

  17. It is very scary. I’ve likened it to a black hole where their soul should be. They are constantly trying to get others to “fill” it , but like a real black hole, everything that enters it becomes warped and distorted and even light (truth) disappears.

  18. “The one thing narcissists can not stand is to be ignored, it almost kills them, because without you, they are nothing.”

    So true … but interestingly enough, they can banish us without a second thought. When she could no longer manipulate me, my mother removed me from her life and then crafted a lie that had my entire family convinced my wife, then my girlfriend, was pure evil and I simply abandoned my mother because I was under her influence.

    The biggest mistake we can make when dealing with a narcissist is to underestimate what she is capable of.

    • What a great final comment. Words we should all remember. And you are right about the banishment- but usually when they do this- they think all of our attention is still on them as they believe we plan how to get back into their good graces.

      • What a horribly flawed and disturbed thought process. I hadn’t even considered that she might think I was planning a way to return to her good graces. It makes complete sense though – in an utterly twisted way; everything is about her. She didn’t want me back, I know that, but I have no trouble what-so-ever believing she wanted me to want her back …

      • Oh yes, she definitely believed you should want her back and spent your time thinking about how to get her back. So the silent treatment was, of course, all about her.

  19. Great post.
    This post gave me goosebumps and tears.

    I am working on re-asserting boundaries at the moment and it is such a balancing act. Scared of the vengeance, but want to be a good role model for my kids and live my own life.

    He is so lovely with our kids and I have been pushing for him to see them more and even have an overnight stay. This post has made me rethink.

    My need for some downtime (as I currently have my boys 24/7) may come at a greater cost than I think. So complicated, as he visits with the boys at my house and that is hard for me (not at all because he is the ‘ex’, as I’m sure you would gues). Just sucks me dry…

    This has been a good reminder I need help to manage this situation, that I am out of my depth. I have such a strong desire to help him feel ok, because of compassion and also because of fear of unpredictable repercussions.

    • I am touched this had such an impact on you. I feel for your situation. I sense your compassion and your desire to care for all involved.

      I do understand also the fear of unpredictable repercussions. You are so strong and brave and aware. Take care of yourself first, to the best of your abilities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s