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When Learning About Narcissism Stops Being Helpful

when learning about narcissism stops being helpful

Do you have an appetite for information about pathological narcissism that is never satisfied?

Have you found diminishing returns in the helpfulness of this information?

Do you find it hard to focus on yourself after a deep-dive on narcissism?

People who realize they suffered narcissistic abuse can feel like Jim Carrey realizing his life is on TV in the movie the Truman Show. They can feel a sense of freedom and power in seeing that things were not what they seemed. They were not defective and undeserving as the narcissistic parent claimed. They felt this way because the narcissistic parent needed them to. 

They may learn everything they can about narcissism. Anything to further clear up the fog they have had to live in. They are getting to make sense of what happened while in the throes of narcissistic abuse. At the same time, their quality of life may remain largely the same. 

In today’s post, I want to talk about the hazard of going too far in educating oneself on pathological narcissism. Past a certain point, immersing oneself in this information poses two risks. First, since the process of learning about narcissism is typically done alone it can reinforce the assumption that you are all on your own. Second, it can reinforce the assumption that the narcissistic parent’s opinion of you is more important than your own. I will use a case example throughout to illustrate how this can happen and how one can incorporate other essential facets of the healing process.

At Long Last: The First Dose of Information About Narcissism

I cannot overstate the relief and clarity a survivor can feel when they realize their parent was narcissistic. They have had to live under the false premise that they were inferior and their parent was superior. Nobody likes to feel less-than. Understanding pathological narcissism shines a light on the path towards equal status. 

The survivor gets to reframe their past. Whereas before they may have recoiled in shame at how they were so disobedient, rude, or inconsiderate of their parent. Now they see that these accusations were the product of their parent’s artificially inflated self-worth and entitled expectation that everyone reflect that elevated importance back to them. This can result in a loosening of a long-felt knot inside. The knot of having to force oneself to believe a lie that their survival depended on. In this case, the lie was that they were objectionable and their parent was perfect. 

Terence grew up feeling disconnected from his father. The man always seemed to have it all together but would not let Terence in. Nothing Terence did in his own life interested his father. The only time Terence knew he existed to his father was when Terence approached him. Terence had no memory of his father seeking him out to spend time together. 

At the same time, Terence felt a strong pull to show gratitude and appreciation for his father. If he did not make eye contact with his father whenever they were near then his father would grow nonverbally irate. He would start slamming cabinet doors and criticize Terence for not picking up after himself. Terence knew he had to make a big show of appreciation towards his father or face this backlash.

His father mostly avoided social occasions and friendships. He would make up excuses for why he could not attend social functions. When forced to attend, he would occupy himself on his phone making it impossible for other adults to talk to him. 

Terence felt unaccompanied by his father throughout his childhood. 

Occasionally, his father seemed taken by someone else and would go out of his way to make a good impression. He would shower them with attention and admiration. Terence would look on with the painful conclusion that he did not matter enough for his father to treat him so well. 

The consequence for Terence was low self-worth and disappointment in what relationships offered. One day he was perusing Youtube videos and stumbled upon one about covert narcissism. The speaker highlighted how such individuals tend to be aloof and avoidant yet entitled to others’ warmth and admiration. This fit his experience with his father like a glove. 

Terence was overtaken with a sense of clarity and relief. He began to notice his own feelings of inner emptiness and longing. He could understand these feelings as a consequence of his father’s dismissiveness. And he could understand his father’s dismissiveness as a consequence of his father’s psychological problems. This beat chalking it up to his own unworthiness.

How Learning About Narcissism May Go Too Far

This phase of recovery can also happen in isolation from other people. The survivor can find books, articles, and videos that help them feel understood in what they have endured. After a lifetime of being deliberately misunderstood this is invaluable. 

Survivors’ core trust in others may be shattered at this stage. They have learned that closeness means being deprived, devalued and controlled. They have then had to believe they deserved such mistreatment in order to keep their most important relationship going. It is enough to make one want to be on their own. 

They have also had to organize their minds around the demands and needs of their narcissistic parent. Sure, this has not been a comfortable arrangement. But it has been an arrangement that beats no arrangement. In learning about narcissism, the survivor can keep the narcissistic parent in the center of their minds while finding their parent’s claims about them to be faulty. This is a hopeful and marked improvement from the parent being in the center and being right about how unimportant the survivor is. 

Learning about narcissistic abuse is a necessary but not sufficient step towards healing from it. It is one of three pillars of recovery. The other two pillars involve finding safe closeness to others and centering yourself in your mind. These cannot be accomplished without new experience. 

Learning about pathological narcissism can go too far when it eclipses other aspects of the healing process. When this happens it can unintentionally reinforce the survivor’s assumptions that they are on their own and that it is their narcissistic parent who matters the most in life. 

With this liberating knowledge under his cap, Terence, immersed himself in more and more research on the topic. He read every book, blog and article he could find on covert narcissism. He watched videos of the sort too. Weeks stretched into months which stretched into a year and Terence was awash in understanding what was really happening in relationship to his father. 

At the same time, Terence still did not feel close to anyone in his life or like he could live based around his own needs and goals. He had not entered therapy nor found a peer support group to help him. The prospect of doing either brought up dread and anxiety. ‘What if they think I’m complaining over nothing?’, ‘What if they think I’m the real problem?’, ‘I just get too anxious and uncomfortable around others…’

Whenever Terence came up against these reservations he would move back to the books and videos about narcissism. Perhaps there was more to learn that would make reaching out feel easier. He would feel a relief from the dread and anxiety from earlier. As time wore on, however, he still did not reach out and found himself feeling alone and oriented around his father’s psychology instead of his own.

The Other Two Ingredients to Healing

Finding and Connecting with Safe Others

The survivor of a narcissistic parent has learned that they are on their own. A narcissistic parent is limited in empathy so their child rarely feels emotionally considered. At the same time the parent feels entitled for the child to show them attention and admiration. So the child must abandon what they need from the parent and tend to the parent’s needs. Otherwise they face the narcissistic parent’s vindictive wrath for failing to reflect back their importance. The child’s existence on their terms is unacknowledged. They are left to figure out life outside of their narcissistic parent completely on their own.

Here is why finding attuned and responsive friends and relationship partners is so important. In order to be our full selves we need to know that we will not lose the care of others. Otherwise we have to be too occupied with securing that care to turn to ourselves.

The path to finding and connecting to safe people is not easy for the survivor. It requires doing what used to lead to the trauma of abandonment and rejection. This includes reaching out to others, telling them what you need and do not need, and allowing yourself to expect good treatment from them.

Defying the Narcissist’s Rules by Turning Your Attention to Yourself

A child is born expecting their parent to deliver all of the psychological and emotional necessities to become who they are. The child of a narcissistic parent gets little to none of these essentials. To survive, the child has to deny this fact and find a way to maintain hope that the parent can become who the child needs them to be. This often means doing what seems to please the parent. The child’s hope is that if they can make the parent happy then they will get the affirmation and love they want.

What makes the narcissistic parent happy is for the child to pay more attention to them than themselves. Unfortunately, this is a one-way arrangement. No matter how much the child prioritizes the parent their job is never done. The parent keeps expecting more. So the child is left holding the bag.

It is important in the process of healing to eventually turn towards and prioritize one’s own experience. There are plenty of aspects of a survivor’s experience that are not about the narcissistic parent. These aspects deserve just as much attention as the parts that adapted to the parent.

The path to paying attention to oneself is also not easy for the survivor. It, too, requires doing what used to lead to the narcissistic parent’s narcissistic rage and/or abandonment. The survivor can feel vulnerable to these same outcomes when doing this.

Terence eventually decided that he needed to try something new. He went to see a therapist who treated survivors of narcissistic abuse. Terence expected to go over his upbringing with a fine tooth comb with this therapist. He was surprised to learn that most of her attention was on the person he was today. They talked about what he wanted out of his life and what he felt stood in the way.

Terence worried that there was a right and wrong way to be a client and wondered if he was doing it “right”. But his therapist seemed equally interested in whatever he had to say. There did not seem to be a “wrong” way to be with her.

Terence brought up the lack of connection to safe others he felt in his life. They identified his fear of rejection as something that interfered with reaching out to them. Terence used his experience of the therapist’s interest and appreciation in him to counter these fears. He identified a couple friends in his life that seemed to treat him well yet whom he did not often make plans with. He deliberately began reaching out to them and cultivated an ongoing friendship with them. They showed interest in him and his life and offered him support for whatever was important to him.

After awhile Terence realized that he had not looked at a book or video on narcissism in quite some time. He reflected on how useful this information was for him. He was also grateful to be focused on new safe people and himself.

As with all of these videos, I would strongly encourage you to exercise compassion and patience with yourself if you find this applies to you. I, in no way, want to be judgmental if indexing on learning about narcissism has been a necessary coping strategy. Ultimately shifting from this pillar of recovery to the others can be liberating. It also needs to feel survivable. If that time has not yet arrived, then I strongly encourage compassion and patience with yourself. That stance towards yourself does wonders and may even make it feel safer sooner than later to incorporate the other two pillars as well.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation. I offer an introduction online course on the nature and impacts of narcissistic abuse. I also offer an advanced online course offering 8 powerful strategies for scapegoat survivors to reclaim the quality of life they deserve.

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