…become a caring, loving, understanding and respectful person simply WON’T WORK. Please, oh please, TRUST ME ON THIS. How and why do many of us get ‘trapped’ in a narcissistic (narc) relationship in the first place? There are many reasons for this of course and not all can be addressed in one article, however I would like to talk about what I call “The Empathy Paradox”. There are very real personality characteristics an empathetic (or highly sensitive person aka HSP) person brings to the table, and it is just these qualities the narc is attracted to and will actively seek, and just these qualities that can keep an Empath entangled with the narc. This is where awareness, understanding, acceptance, and making different choices can save the Empath’s life; literally and figuratively. Let’s break it down.
By and large narcissists (narcs), individuals with Narcissistic Personal Disorder (NPD), and toxic people will search for and FIND empathetic people; people who are kind, giving, caring, altruistic, and understanding of others. ENTER: the Empath. This pairing suits the narcissist very, very well. When an Empath or highly sensitive person first meets a narc, or someone with anti-social personality disorder (ASPD), the Empath does not know the depth of mental / emotional illness; these things are well hidden by the narc or toxic for a considerable about of time. During the courting / get-to-know-each-other-phase, the Empath simply has no idea there is a dangerous individual living ‘behind the mask’ of the person being presented to them in the beginning. As the relationship progresses and things start to change and not be as wonderful, Empaths enmeshed with toxic people think they can assist the toxic person / narc in making positive change. Sadly, this is not the reality when it comes to someone with a personality disorder (PD), particularly NPD or ASPD.
It must be understood and accepted anyone with a PD processes and experiences the world differently, causing drama, chaos, and wreaking havoc at every turn. Enter the Empath – male or female – who typically believes with enough love, care, support, and understanding their efforts at ‘helping’ the narc change, help the narc grow, and live a more positive life will be effective. This is NOT the case. A personality disordered individual cannot change. Statistics and research proves this.
“Ask yourself, how many weeks and months (maybe even years?) have you already invested in trying to make a toxic relationship work? Have your efforts resulted in LASTING positive change for the health and happiness of the overall relationship? Have you even tried counseling with the narc (or anti-social), only to find no lasting positive change results from the effort? Most importantly, how many MORE weeks, months, or years are you willing to continue living like this? Only you know. If what you’ve tried all along has not made significant and lasting positive change, consider your decisions carefully.” L.A. Gilliam
Someone with NPD, ASPD, or another personality disorder cannot change who they are interally. Personality disorders are much different than mood disorders (depression, anxiety, bi-polar I or II, seasonal affective disorder), which can be effectively and well-treated by a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, and medication. Personality disorders are who the person is, their enduring character. I compare it to dogs and cats, actually. Dogs are dogs, and dogs bark. Cats are cats, and cats meow. We cannot make a dog meow, nor can we make a cat bark. Cats are cats. Dogs are dogs. This is just the way it is. We could spend years and years trying to reason with the cat or dog about why they should learn how to bark and meow, but IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN. It is the exact same concept with someone with NPD or ASPD. They are who they are.
Enter (again) the Empath. Highly sensitive to the environment and the feelings of others, particularly perceived suffering, the Empath wants nothing more than to HELP the person with a PD live their best life. We want to heal. We want to understand. We want to HELP. Often, Empaths are on the front lines in the counseling professions, educators, nurses, and other professions which allow the Empath close and personal contact with others who may indeed be suffering. Due to the acute and intrinsic ability of the Empath to FEEL, we are very well suited to offer support, understanding, and genuine loving care to others who NEED that loving care and help. We are keenly aware of suffering; we feel it in others who may even be working hard at covering up their suffering…. we can feel it as deeply as if we too, were suffering.
Enter the Narc (or anti-social). One of the narc’s favorite strategies to HOOK THE EMPATH is to tell woeful stories, full of horror, tragedy, tears, and angst. To listen to a narc during ‘story time’ is to watch and be in the presence of someone who can literally sell ice to an Eskimo, a bridge to someone living in the desert, and well, you get the picture. Narcissists are MASTER ACTORS and manipulators, know just how to present themselves to hook their victims. A narc will watch for telling body language in their victims, they will adjust their stories and expressions and their own body language, to deepen the connection with the Empath. NONE OF THE EMOTION DISPLAYED IS REAL. None. Of. It. The narc is acting, and likely acting well, knowing and hoping and working desperately hard to HOOK the Empath. These manipulations work all too well at ensnaring an empathetic person; a person who just wants to help, soothe, and support the narc. What normal person wouldn’t want to soothe another person telling such harrowing stories? Of course we want to help! To soothe! To make things all better. This is the Empath’s ‘mistake’ with the narc. The narc will exploit these wonderful qualities in an Empath, and over time the Empath becomes only a shell of who they ‘used to be’.
Strategies for an Empath to guard against toxic narcissists / anti-socials:
- Take your time getting to know new people. Do NOT rush relationships nor friendships, even if it seems ‘you have so much in common’. Remember, narcs will MIRROR you back to yourself (see previous posts) to make it SEEM like you have things in common. Sadly, this is manipulation and not the real person.
- Let patterns of behavior tell you who someone is; NOT WORDS. An Empath can get sucked in to a good story, and feel their heart break. Work on letting time pass while you assess patterns of behavior. DON’T ACT or let yourself ‘feel’ too much from the telling of stories. Narcs are GREAT story tellers, and will twist the truth to hook the Empath.
- Never discount your gut instincts, your inner voice. Your inner voice will start to scream in alarm after any amount of time spent with a narc / anti-social; too often the Empath pushes that voice away because after all, we just want to HELP.
- Make self-care a priority, particularly while getting to know a new person. Never allow yourself to be overpowered by constant attention, ‘appreciation’ (not real with a narc), or requests to see you frequently. Stop. Pause. LIMIT your time with a new person. Spend time in nature. Spend time alone. A narc will push to see you quickly and consistently; it will be up to you to make sure self-care stays a priority, so the narc’s manipulations are kept at bay. A narc will hate that you are not falling for their power and control needs in seeing you often and quickly; they will either get bored and move away, or try to overpower you. Self-care, time in nature, time alone, time with a trusted friend, SPACING OUT THE TIME YOU ARE WITH A NEW PERSON, will ensure clarity of thought and emotion.
- Stop feeling like it is your JOB to save the world. Work on this. Limit your seemingly relentless feelings of needing to help everyone with every thing. Work on this. It is HARD work, I know.
- When your own patterns lead you to further involvement with a toxic / narc / anti-social, seek counseling with a qualified therapist for more in-depth personal analysis and work. Therapy has saved many, many lives.
So, here we are, again. The toxic dynamic between the Empath and the Narcissist cannot be denied as being strong, powerful, and dangerous. It will be up to the Empath to put an end to this cycle; the narc never will. The Empath must learn that self care needs to move to the forefront, rather than an afterthought. The Empath must learn to temper their natural healing drive, and WAIT. Wait for someone to show you who they are, rather than rushing in ‘to save the world’. WAIT. Let time pass. Assess red flags. Let red flags BECOME DEAL BREAKERS. Stop second guessing yourself. Learn. Understand. Research. Then, adjust your life, adjust your decisions. It is tough being an Empath? Yes, at times. It is devastating however, for the Empath to be involved with a narcissist. Do not become a victim of the ‘Empath Paradox”. You are the only one who will PROTECT yourself; a narc never will. Best, L.A.