Guest Essays

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Monster in the Mirror: Living with Narcissism

Part of a series on Personality Disorders.
This is a guest essay from a writer who didn’t want to be credited. They’re one of countless people diagnosed with Personality Disorders who don’t hurt anyone, don’t abuse anyone, and do their best to manage their conditions in the absence of almost any support. This powerful essay asks you to imagine how it would feel to be one of them.
Personality disorders, unfortunately, remain stigmatized in Western society. Even as mental health slowly, painstakingly becomes able to be broached at all as a topic, there are still so many “acceptable targets”. You know the ones—the “bad” ones. I don’t even need to say it. The image springs to mind freely, though we’re only going to focus on one right now. Narcissism. One that everyone with an armchair psychology degree thinks they can spot. Imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to search the internet for how to recover from such a debilitating condition, only to be told things like:
“Narcissists are incapable of love.”
“They’re just evil. Irredeemably evil and manipulative.”
“They prey on people with rich inner worlds and free kindness!”
“I hope they all die.”
“They’re defective humans who lack empathy, but desperately want yours!”
“[They’re p]sychic vampires leeching off others’ emotions.”
Imagine that, by some miracle, it’s possible to find actual resources instead of insults and death threats…only it’s for people who survived relationships with you. Yes, you. Reading this. Imagine that for me, that a huge chunk of the world collectively decided to write guides for surviving and escaping relationships with You specifically.
It hurts, doesn’t it?
Now imagine you somehow press past all of that unpleasantness, as difficult as it may be to do. You realize something is wrong, as much as it hurts, and want to fix it. You realize the internet isn’t helpful, so you try to schedule psychologist or psychiatrist appointments. Maybe a professional can help you?
“Narcissists are untreatable.”
“Oh, I only cover narcissistic abuse victims.”
“Therapy is wasted on them.”
“They just manipulate therapists. Don’t bother.”
“Why? They’ll just quit when they get uncomfortable.”
“They’re drug-seekers. Do not treat.”
Your morale must be flagging by now. The professionals write you off as untreatable, the laypeople consider you evil and monstrous, your loved ones are terrified of you or left, and this infuriating pattern of behavior chronically recurs. You can’t seek help, despite knowing something is wrong with you, yet that is precisely what you need. If you don’t have support, this crack in an already frayed social safety net will swallow you whole. And if you’re lucky, you’ll actually realize this is happening. If not? You’ll be oblivious your whole life, trapped in an ironic hell of your own devising.
So let’s try to break that cycle, alright?
Most proper beginnings start with a definition. In this case, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined, in part, by disturbances in Whole-Object Relations and Object Constancy. The first of which, roughly speaking, is the ability to form integrated, realistic assessments of the self and others that includes pros and cons at the same time. The second is the ability to consistently acknowledge, feel for, and think about those who are not nearby. At the root of both of these lies a profound and exquisitely excruciating sense of shame and fear of being hurt even more badly than Before. What was “Before”? It’s different for everyone, but something hurt us terribly.
In other words, narcissism is a defensive or coping mechanism.
Notice how I spoke nothing of “empathy” until just now. Empathy, as it turns out, is quite a nebulous and amorphous thing. In German, there is a word, Schadenfreude, that means the feeling of happiness or pleasure born from beholding the misfortune of others. How warm and cozy one must feel when knowing others are out in the rain, for example, or even being grateful for dodging a busy work shift someone else comes into. Yet, these are also what many would consider empathy disturbances. Surely you’re supposed to feel badly for them, not take pleasure in their pain, right? At least, if common parlance definitions of empathy are any indication. So clearly such a thing is unreliable.
None of this is to say empathy does not exist, nor that narcissists are incapable. In my case, I am but it takes conscious, deliberate effort on my part. It does not come naturally to me; I have to stop and think, and so sometimes my façade cracks or slips if I guess wrong or say the wrong thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if many others were similar. I cultivated this because I realized something, though at the time I knew not what, was wrong with me, that I was Different, and it made relating to others more difficult. I flailed around for quite a while. Even when I finally Knew, as depicted earlier it was still a mess.
So, let’s say you, reading this, are in a similar position: you know something’s wrong, you are Different, relating to others is Difficult, and you’ve noticed issues with whole object relations and object constancy. Or perhaps you simply don’t like how ‘little things’ seem to set you off. Or perhaps, just perhaps, you’ve felt your rationality be swept away in a familiar hurricane of indignant self-righteous fury, only to come to later and sob to yourself, “What have I done?”
You don’t have to stay that way.
There is help and hope for you. You’re just as capable of love as anyone else; your love just happens to be different. , the leading authority on NPD, even says so. It will take time, it will take effort, but it is possible. There was hope for me, after all. Isn’t that just the most narcissistic thing to claim? Hah!
To disclaim, I am not a therapist. I am not a professional. I’m just one person, trying to offer hope to the hopeless. Here is what helped me. I hope it helps you, too.
I had frequently turned to alcohol to help me cope, to stop the Emptiness inside from bothering me or the boredom from driving me up the wall. Out of curiosity, one day, I tried some marijuana edibles a friend offered. This one simple thing changed my life radically in a number of ways, but, for the purposes of this essay, the effect on my personality and thought processes are pertinent. It became much, much easier to engage my “empathy muscle”, so to say, to the point of being effortless. I could just… do it. Moreover, the world and those in it seemed more precious, more beautiful. Worth protecting, you might say.
It should be known narcissists tend to use substances more than most people. Whoops...
It was a highly psychedelic-like marijuana analogue, thc-o-acetate edible, however, that truly felt like awaking to an entire galaxy of sunrises. People were precious and deserved understanding and patience. It was much easier to grasp the true meaning behind whole-object relations and object constancy. Someone I love dearly, during this trip, said something that shook me forever:
“And in your quest to be perfect, if sincerely apologizing for your wrongs actively makes you better, isn't it the only logical thing to do? if you commit a wrong, that's an imperfection, but acknowledging and apologizing it [sic] helps reverse that damage and repair it, and in some cases erases it.”
It blew my mind. Still does now, though less than the first time. Constantly striving for perfection, for being The Best, is not intrinsically bad. Desiring to be utterly flawless isn’t either. You just need to acknowledge when mistakes occur, when you make them, and the best way to repair when you make a mistake.
This awareness, this one simple thing, helped me mend a lot of old relationships with people I thought I’d lost forever. Through this, I was able to broach the pain of acknowledging my flaws. Because, yes, it does hurt. It hurts deeply to acknowledge weakness, much less try to fix it, but it needs to happen or the cycle will repeat. The ironic hell will have no exit. Becoming more self-aware, more conscious of my actions and self, also helped me realize when I was going to boil over into a fury. I could see the signs of it, tell someone, and they could help me calm down.
Because doing so myself was insurmountable.
Eventually I learned a technique, again from Elinor Greenburg, on counting to twenty five whenever annoyance, frustration, and irritation dance across my mind. Now, you might’ve heard of counting to ten. Full disclosure, that never worked for me. Counting to twenty five, however, while taking a deep breath on odd numbers and exhaling on even numbers absolutely helps. Ultimately, however, there’s a simple lesson to be had here.
You need to know how you act before you can change it.
If you’re still reading, that’s wonderful. It hurts to even think about these things, yet here you are still pouring over it all. I’m proud of you. Really. This is not easy, and anyone who claims as such simply does not understand the struggle that comes from this pathology.
I truly believe psychedelics are an excellent key to helping process the trauma that brought us to narcissism. If, however, you do not want to use such things or are fearful of repercussions and consequences of all stripes (medical, legal, etc.), then there is still hope. There are resources, often written by Elinor Greenburg, for you. I’ve included them at the bottom in this essay.
Now, let’s put this essay on its head: what is the upshot of being a narcissist?
You are driven by intense ambitions and hate to settle for second best. This makes you highly motivated when you can channel it, and the desire to be perfect can manifest in extensive knowledge on a variety of topics. For example, narcissism drove me to the Dean’s List in college as I simply had to be The Best Student.
You are highly susceptible to praise, acknowledgment, and gifts. This is a good thing, as it means what you want is simple and provides you with a built-in love language. I collect shot glasses, and a loved one gave me one. I keep that shot glass prominently in view, so I can remember how much they love me. It feels more salient and Real that way. Another gift I received half a decade ago was a pretty rock shaped like a heart, which I still keep in my car and reminds me fondly of that friend.
You know better than anyone the value of pride. Acting confidently enough lets you take charge of crowds, circumstances, and people more easily than others. A leader, in other words. This is a powerful asset as an entrepreneur, but also for supporting your friends and loved ones. Helping them learn to puff up their chest and be proud of their accolades, taking what they deserve, and not minimize their expertise. Even better still, you can do all this without suffering as much emotional weight and heaviness for having supported them.
You can bring so much good to the world. You aren’t evil, but even if you were then you don’t have to be. And truly, is it better to be born “good” or to overcome one’s nature through great effort?


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