I have been thinking about the empath’s contract with the narcissist: it come from one’s early experiences with other people’s minds–usually your parents’ minds. There are two parts to this: the narcissist’s mind and the way the empath understands the narcissist.

I don’t have a handle on this fully, but I do think the narcissist’s experiences are simply very loud. Other people can’t really compete and the narcissist is also very impulsive, very vindictive.

There are these different attachment styles, and if you don’t have a secure attachment, you work out how best to have your attachment needs met in lieu of that. If your parent is preoccupied–busy, sick, depressed or lacking in warmth, you find the best way to get your parents’ attention is to occupy yourself and wait for the parent to need you, so you become avoidant or detached. If your parent responds to your sense of vulnerability and need, it’s best to go with an anxious style and continually cling.

I think with a narcissistic parent, the most effective way for the child to manage that relationship is to be loud. Meet the parents’ unmet attachment needs by appealing to their own need for warmth or affection or specialness. Satiate their desire for safety by offering control. Or even play on their fears of abandonment or social exile by placing yourself at risk.

Pretzel yourself, and you might get lucky enough to penetrate their self-absorption. But step wrong, and their wrath comes down on you.

I think these are C’s assumptions about relationships.

I am starting to realize I am not that familiar with them. My mother, in my inexpert assessment, was a narcissist or had lots of narcissistic traits with a histrionic streak either from borderline issues or actually being histrionic. But my dad was a sociopath, and that is quite different. Yuri was a sociopath, and I think he functioned as an attachment figure too–since he controlled my life.

Or maybe I am and don’t realize it, but there is this other element that comes with the malevolence: don’t notice me. If you notice me, you can do nothing else other than hurt me.


Walking on eggshells

Female life expectancy. Source: UNDP Human Development Report, 2009.

Aunty is chronically angry. From time to time, she is relaxed and jolly, but not often. Mostly, she is angry. In fact, she is angry so much of the time that anger seems to be her personality.

At the same time, she also had her 60th birthday this week, and I don’t think she likes getting old. Sixty is not old, but she lives in a country where the mean life expectancy is only a few years away from that. So for her, it is.

She has been a black cloud ever since.

I think I also drive her particularly crazy. Because I refuse to be drawn in. If she doesn’t feel like talking, I don’t talk to her. But otherwise I go about my daily tasks in the same calm and cheerful way. “Good morning, Aunty,” I say with a smile, when she comes into the bedroom where I’m writing in order to start on the laundry. She mumbles something unintelligible back or, if she’s really in a bad mood, scowls in a fixed kind of way–looking, but without making real eye contact. As if you aren’t a person and hadn’t spoken.

I am relentless, in fact, my tone never changing, the smile always there. If I were her, I’d be thinking of murdering me. What right do I have to be so happy? Especially when she is feeling so glum.

You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

Life, clearly, is just not fair. I say that with a degree of irony. She grew up pampered and spoiled–“kept in cotton wool” she says. And you know how I did. My happiness was not a gift, handed to me. I fought for it–tooth and nail. That’s one reason I won’t let go of it.

I’m also using the medium chill technique on her: polite, upbeat, steady, distant. And I’m not doing it specifically to yank her chain, but for the benefit of my own sanity.

However, I am also inclined to placate her, to be careful of her preferences, and to do exactly what she says even if I’d rather not or if it makes no logical sense. Now, this is not my house, and my own belief is that you should be able to have things done as you like in your own home. But in addition to that, I’m also aware of the pull to not make things worse, or to try not to make things worse if it’s possible.

The effect is something like walking on eggshells.

Nearly everyone walks on eggshells with her. And this makes me think.

People who are chronically angry tend to exploit others for the benefits they can provide rather than engage in caring, reciprocal relationships. They often see others as objects and use them accordingly, the way you would use a coffee maker or a car. Perhaps their anger makes any other kind of relationship impossible, or perhaps their view of others as objects is what is making them so  angry in the first place–after all, I’d get really frustrated if my coffee maker started making its own decisions about when and how it wanted to make coffee. So I can understand.

But when we tiptoe around difficult people, it make objects out of them a well. It is as if we are saying, “You are not a person, but something like a delicate machine or a rickety bridge–something to be careful of rather than engaged with.” And I wonder about that.

The Tungsten and Coltan of Narcissists

I still like this picture.
I still like this picture.

I am trying to get across to myself that it is acceptable to feel a full range of feelings. I don’t know if I am getting anywhere with this or not. It is as if it is so difficult to move, that it takes every ounce of strength to move two inches.

I am trying to feel ashamed.

I know that is entirely counter-intuitive–most of us want to feel less shame and not more–but the cost of not feeling everything I feel is a flattened existence. That is worse.

And I also have this deeply ingrained belief that if I can feel it, I can fix it. I can make sense of it, I can comfort it, I can heal it. If I have flattened it into non-existence, I can’t do anything about it. I am stuck.

The old saw is that we numb our feelings because they are too painful. I am completely confident that it is not too painful, that I am actually feeling only a small fraction of what is really tolerable for me. I could do better than this.

The difficulty I am having is based on a belief, and that goes back to yesterday’s post, The Balance Sheet, which makes it extraordinarily clear that the most valuable commodity is power. And attachments, shame, fear, sorrow, guilt–all of these things allow someone else to exert power over you. They are liabilities.

I can’t seem to believe that the forces of hell will not be unleashed if I embrace these liabilities. No one will play, “Let’s see what makes you cry” with me. No one will force me to stand on my tip-toes until I faint from exhaustion and fear. No one will kill an animal in front of me to see if I flinch.

I went through Beverly Hills earlier this week. It has been taken over by cupcake shops. Just FYI.
I went through Beverly Hills earlier this week. It has been taken over by cupcake shops. Just FYI.

I can flinch all I want to. I can cry until the sun goes down. I can feel worthless and ashamed and generally throw a pity party for myself and you might bring cup cakes.

It is safe.

The paranoia is hard to let go of.

Narcissists (and others like them) are shameless. They never seem embarrassed. They never admit to mistakes. They do feel ashamed–some say they are easily shamed–but they wriggle out of it so quickly through rage and projection you hardly notice.

Because their images of themselves are unrealistic–no one is that smart, that funny, that beautiful, that anything–the world tends to rip holes in them. But it’s like the couch cushion you keep turning over to hide the stains. There’s always a way not to see that.

Feeling ashamed or embarrassed, caring what people think of you, wanting to be liked and loved and cared about, these are all normal desires and emotions. They are not there for someone to use to exploit you, or ways that someone else can legitimately inspire you to twist yourself into a pretzel just to win some approval. They are there to help us to get along with each other, to place checks on our behavior, and give us reasons to reach out to and connect with one another.

We blame ourselves for being human (and here I am really talking to myself) when the reason these traits in ourselves are making us so unhappy is that someone around us is or was bad at being human themselves. And they exploited our basic human features: shame, guilt, a desire to please and to connect, because for us there is strength in numbers.

They withheld approval and affection. They induced an untenable amount of shame or guilt by suggesting you control aspects of yourself or the world that you couldn’t control: like expecting a child to keep her mentally ill mother calm and happy, that you never feel tired or hungry or sad, or that you never made mistakes. And they violated you in the ways they knew would hurt you most.

Diamond workers in Sierra Leone, post civil war. Photo credit: Lydia Polgreen.
Diamond workers in Sierra Leone, post civil war. Photo credit: Lydia Polgreen.

But that is not your fault.

It is not your fault if you felt ashamed or guilty because of your failures in a violating and overly-demanding set of expectations or that you felt lonely, insecure, and clingy when your needs for affection and regard weren’t met. They knew you would. That was the point.

Because the blood diamonds here, the tunsten and coltan of the narcissists world, are power. And you have needs that can be used to give them what the power they want.

This doesn’t mean the needs should go away. You can’t make them even if you tried. It means the narcissists need to go away, and with a little luck you can get them far enough on the periphery of your life that they don’t matter anymore.

And I think I have.

Today, Feeling Unimportant, and Trying that on for Size

A completely different take on what it means to be unimportant.
A completely different take on what it means to be unimportant.

Today is not a good day.

It is one of those days when nothing in particular is going wrong and it feels terrible anyway. I feel terrible. Just, you know, because I’m me and I’m alive and that’s how being alive feels today.

Specifically, I feel useless, unimportant, and irrelevant. Beside the very point of life.

And sometimes, when I feel particularly bad, I try the thoughts that are making me feel so bad on for side. So what if this is true? What does that mean? How does that actually feel?

Because I know where it’s coming from. It’s an old sense about myself, derived from being treated as if I really were beside point, and deserved no consideration, respect, or care. And I could simply be used.

I know there are some people who grow up with abuse and come out of it feeling that the world is fair, and conclude that they must be bad people to be treated that way. I didn’t though. I grew up feeling the world is not fair. It is capricious and arbitrary. And I am not important enough to be protected from its capriciousness.

And the end result is not that I don’t feel deserving of anything at all.

But it’s all part of this sense of unimportance. That I’m sitting with now. And playing with for a while. Because I have decided it doesn’t matter that much what I think. And so I am not afraid of what I think, and this frees me up to simply play with those thoughts. (There is a method to this madness.)

Because, see, people with a grandiose sense of themselves–which most people who harm children have–harm those they see as lacking their special status. Average is their worst enemy. Average is the worst kind of character flaw. Average triggers their rage. Not being grossly defective, although they may make it sound that way. Just average.

Which is handy, actually, because it makes most of the world a fair target.

Of course, I’m really not quite average. I would not fall close to the median of most measures. So there’s a bit of problem there. But let’s keep going with this anyway.

Because I am still basically unimportant. I matter profoundly to one or two other people. And I matter some to several others. But to the great majority of the 8 billion people on the planet, I matter not at all.

My life or death make almost no difference.

There. How does that feel?

Actually (and feel free to listen in to this little conversation I’m having with myself) it feels fine. It feels rather fine. It feels like I can do whatever I want. Which isn’t quite true. I am not so unimportant that I can stop paying the bills and still have the lights come on when I flip a switch.

The electric company would eventually notice it was time to cut me off.

So I’m not quite that unimportant. But close enough.

No, being unimportant is okay. It does not need to hurt. The flaw is in thinking what being unimportant means: that other, important people have the power and the right to harm me.

They don’t. Because they aren’t very important either and have no more right to harm others than I do.

What do you think of that?

Motor Empathy

We don't copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it's about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.
We don’t copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it’s about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.

There are actually three systems that work together to help us understand how others are thinking and feeling and that allow us to relate to each other as social beings. The third one, which I haven’t really mentioned up until now, is motor empathy.

Motor empathy is the reason you find yourself looking in the same direction a stranger suddenly turns toward. It is the reason you tend to cross your arms if your conversational partner is crossing hers.

It is probably also the reason my cat smiles after more than a decade of my smiling at her.

Motor empathy is also called mirroring. We do it unconsciously for the most part, although life coaches and job interview tips might advocated doing it on purpose. Mirroring the actions of others makes us likable. It is an advertisement of your success as a social human being. It says you are skilled at understanding how others feel. It says you care about other people. It says you share your toys and play nicely in the schoolyard.

To some extent this may really be true, because motor empathy may be the precursor of affective (emotional) empathy. And you need affective empathy to develop real concern for other people. Cognitive empathy alone doesn’t seem to do it.

It works like this. Someone smiles at you. you smile back. The smile makes you feel happy, and consequently you understand that people who are smiling are happy.

The Russian doll model (that I don't totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.
The Russian doll model (that I don’t totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.

So motor empathy may be the mode of transmission for contagious emotions. You mimic the expression and the expression creates the emotion that goes with it.

But it’s not entirely clear. Autistic people have great difficulty with motor empathy. However, we don’t know whether they have difficulty with affective empathy. They may not. The jury on that is still very much out.

Even if it is, good motor empathy as an indicator for other kinds of empathy only works for some people–most people, in fact, but not everyone.

It doesn’t work for people with personality disorders. They all have perfectly fine motor empathy skills and major gaps in others systems. Borderlines feel what you feel, but cannot make sense of it. Narcissists lack affective empathy. Psychopaths do too. They do not feel what you are feeling, even if they are doing what you are doing.

Motor empathy is a part of what makes us feel connected to others. There are other elements involved, but motor empathy is one of them. That is why you can develop the most intense feeling of connection to a narcissist or psychopath–they can seem so absolutely in synch with you–but still be dropped like a hot potato.

They don’t feel what you are feeling, even when they look like they are. The connection is entirely on your side.

Empathy in Personality Disorders

Russian dolls.
Russian dolls.

One of the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is “lack of empathy.” But what kind? Affective, cognitive, or both?

So I read a study. Granted, I only read one study. You should probably read more before you decide if their findings are valid.

According to K. Ritter and a bunch of other researchers, narcissists have average cognitive empathy. They can see things from your perspective. They can’t always be bothered though.

However, they have impaired affective empathy. When you are distressed, they aren’t also distressed. Which I think probably explains a lot.

The same study looked at empathy in those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). They found what other studies have found about borderlines and empathy. Individuals with BPD have impaired cognitive empathy but average or above-average affective empathy. They feel distressed when you are distressed–maybe even very distressed–but they don’t know why.

Lana Del Rey, Mortality, and Parakeets

I have been listening to Lana Del Rey the last few days. Specifically, this song:

For those of you who have come to see me as a bulwark of intelligence and cultured reason, I hope this does not disappoint. Because, based on her lyrics, Lana does not have a whole lot going on upstairs.

Granted, I am aware that singers don’t generally write their own lyrics, and that all that lines such as, “Sometimes life is not enough and the world gets tough. I don’t know why,” indicate is that her record label thinks that that is the image her target fan based wants to hear.

I am so very sorry.
I am so very sorry.

No, what interests me is not her lack of cortical activity, but the grave and serious way in which she delivers these fatuous bits of supposed wisdom. The very idea that, “We were born to die,” has intense meaning for her, and therefore should for us also.

This is clearly a woman who never had a hamster drop dead on her. Or a bird. That she was bird-sitting. For friends. While they were away.

(I am so sorry, Dick and Joy. And thank you for telling me it was old and would have dropped dead anyway. I still don’t believe you, but it was a nice thing to say.)

This woman has all of her grandparents still living. And great-grandparents. And she doesn’t believe in any previous generations. Because people don’t naturally die. Only her.

That’s grandiosity for you, isn’t it?

The belief that we are so special that even what is most mundane about us is unique.

It reminds me a lot of my mother. She was heartbroken, devastated, destroyed. The rest of us mortals just got our feelings hurt. And we were too sensitive anyway.

My mother believed she owned feelings.

Lana del Rey owns mortality. And some other things too, but I’m thinking here of just one area of her overall oevre. Of that one song. To really get what I mean, you need to watch it, I’m afraid. But this should give you a sense.

She is miming the action of smoking a joint. While singing, “Let’s go get high.” I have never seen anyone take her own drug use so seriously before in my life.born_to_die


Grandiosity is contagious. I’m sure that has something to do with mirror neurons. And I could get all scientific about it. But I’ll leave for another post.

Suffice it to say, if you hang out with grandiose people long enough, and eventually you will start to believe that they are pretty special right along with them. You start to think you are special–more special than average, in fact. Unique. On the A-list.

Belief is contagious.

You listen to Lana del Rey long enough (and I have, believe me) and a little of that happens too. If you can relate to her at all, you start to feel you are just as special as she is, or thinks she is. If you have ever felt that mad beating of your own mortality, you feel that you must be pretty special too.

Even though we have all felt it. Even that poor bird.