Friday, March 13, 2015

Raising a Narcissist

(welcome to this post...I'm glad you are here-thank you! Please feel free to comment and look around the rest of my blog. I am working on a follow-up post to this one, so please come back!
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Recently there has been a rash of articles about the beginnings of narcissism. Some of these articles point to the fact that if you overpraise a child, they will develop into self-centered narcissists. It seems obvious and simplistic, and I believe there are deeper family dynamics at work.
One must have a real sense of what narcissism really is. A narcissist, very often, is not created alone, meaning, often other narcissists are shaping them. Yes, narcissists are entitled, and grandiose, and contradictory, and selfish, and socially awkward, but many of them are also lacking ambition, superficially generous, socially adept and manipulative, and moral. Being self-centered and entitled is not necessarily narcissism, although it is part of it. It is not necessarily easy to spot a narcissist. They look good on the surface. They can be fun and charming. They often have a story where they are the victim and so they elicit sympathy.
The key, in my opinion, is empathy and character.
One can be self-centered and still have empathy. One can be overpraised and still feel a sense of reality regarding their capacities.
One can be a narcissist and think about the world around them. One can be a narcissist and still make grandiose and generous gestures in the world, making others think they have stumbled upon someone truly moral and higher.
That is the key. True narcissists will always think they are better than you, deserve more than you, take more from you than they give, and believe that they are morally superior to you. There is not just snobbery, perfectionism, and judgment of everyone else. There is an element of abuse in that a narcissist needs a scapegoat, and an audience, to keep up his masks and prevent him from taking responsibility for his actions.They need others to use and walk on.
Narcissists invest in masks. Behind every "good" mask a narcissist has a "nasty" mask that they will trot out just because it suits their whim.
Narcissists are quintessential bullies who never grow past their need to make someone else smaller so they can always be the one who is bigger, more right, more moral, more intellectual, and more capable.
To a narcissist, people are not people. They are toys, tools, or obstacles.

Outside of the DSM definition, there is the experience of being with a narcissist. The following traits are common among the narcissistic set: passive aggression, contempt, judgment, stonewalling as an abuse tactic, habit of correcting you as a way to consistently give the message that you are "wrong", can't "do" feelings, has a narrow repertoire of feelings, overly "heady" and intellectual, lacks empathy even when asked to demonstrate empathy, refuses to take responsibility for actions and their consequences, constantly projects, is self-deceptive, contradictory, sets double standards, extreme lack of self-awareness (or simply lack of care for how they treat other people), concerned with how they appear to others (masks), won't apologize, controlling, verbally abusive, emotionally manipulative, and often "delusional".
These behaviors come out of a sense of entitlement, extreme selfishness, and a "my way or the highway" approach to life.
Why should we care that there are narcissists, bullies, or mean people? It is my belief that to the degree we collectively tolerate this behavior, we limit our humanity and invite abuse. These behaviors are hurtful and damaging to relationships, and to our world at large. Lack of empathy is the root of all  evil.
While it is impossible to change a narcissist and if you have one in your life you are in for a healing journey you didn't expect, it is possible to be conscious in how we raise our children so they are not exploitative and uncaring.

The Flip Side
So how do you avoid raising someone who bases their relationships on whether someone is useful, entertaining, or an enemy?
How do you avoid raising a narcissist?
My belief is that it is NOT that we avoid teaching children that they are important, or even overly important. It is that we teach them HOW they are important in RELATIONSHIP to other people. 
Here are my suggestions based on my in-depth research on narcissism, personal relationship experience, 13 years' experience as a Waldorf teacher, and 23 years' experience as a mother.

1. Build Good Character
I believe it starts with building good character. Good character, at its base, is allowing words and actions to match up. Narcissists can't do that. They are Jekyll over here, Hyde over there, and have a "split" in that their own picture of themselves just doesn't consistently match with their actions. They may claim to be moral, yet be habitually dishonest with others and themselves. I believe lessons in good character are learned first with modeling behaviors of good character. Just live your truth, don't cover it up with lies, take responsibility for yourself, don't judge, and teach your children to do the same.
Honesty and good character will prevent a multitude of narcissistic traits: projection, blame, criticism, scapegoating...because if you know how to care for yourself through responsibility for your own words and actions, you know how to take care of others as well. You can be trusted in a positive way because your word is backed up by your behavior.Sadly, one of the scary things about narcissists is their ability to delude themselves, and others are sucked in to their stories of victimhood because they seem to so vehemently believe they are victims. I have found myself nodding in understanding of a narcissist's sob story even though it was all about them: the friend who became jealous of a friend's new baby and stopped talking to her, the man who left his wife high and dry yet said he "had" to. When confronted on these behaviors, watch out for a narcissist's revenge. A narcissist has no self-awareness and wants none either, since that would mean taking responsibility for themselves. They cannot tolerate personal boundaries you set since those are a threat to their ego or their enmeshment.

2. Emphasize Compassion 
There are many writings on compassion, and developing compassion is sometimes a lifelong commitment. It is a worthy commitment. Narcissists don't feel compassion, not in the way you and I think of compassion. They might put on a show of kindness but cannot ultimately back it up in a meaningful way. They borrow the neighbor's lawnmower without asking and return it broken without offering to fix it. They are prone to blame, kick you when you're down, and when faced with your heartache will somehow turn the attention back on themselves. For example, after my divorce, I had a "friend" who indulged herself in opinions about my life yet refused to hear my experience, and got angry when I did not comfort her over my divorce. They will judge, disdain, and ignore your feelings, thoughts, dreams, and desires. Contempt is the opposite of compassion and narcissists are filled with contempt. It is what eventually makes you angry with them and want to run from them as fast as you can.

3. Empathy/High Tolerance for Feelings
Narcissists often cannot tolerate feelings. I have a hunch that anxiety around feelings or going deep into one's own self are one of the roots of narcissism. It keeps life very superficial indeed, and helps one avoid being close in relationships, spiritual, or self-aware. Tolerating feelings in ourselves and learning how to consciously work with them gives us a tolerance for the feelings of others, helps us develop sensitivity, compassion, and empathy. Repression is not healthy or life-giving.
Don't give your kids a reason to create scapegoats in their lives. Allow them to feel what they feel without fear of judgment, and teach them how to be healthy in their expression of what they bring to the world. Give them the confidence to contribute their unique ideas, plans, dreams, and feelings. Those can be a motivating force of love and bringing good to our world. I learned a long time ago that unhealthy families adopt the unwritten rules of "don't talk, don't trust, don't feel." Being open to feelings squashes those unhealthy rules.
One cannot experience empathy if one lacks a healthy sense of feelings.Some say narcissists have selective empathy. I think it is difficult to determine if they have empathy or if they mimic empathy when it serves them.

4. System of Forgiveness
Narcissists can't forgive, nor can they seek forgiveness. They will not hesitate to correct or criticize you, in essence, taking the heat off of them and their crappy behavior. One who is perfect, morally superior, and above everyone has no need for sincere apologies.  Apologies can either be lacking, or used as tools to manipulate. They are not backed up with action. Narcissists also have a need to scapegoat.
Having a system of forgiveness in your family is anti-narcissism. It gives everyone permission to mess up and have the confidence to clean up their messes through apologies and demonstrations of empathy. It encourages accountability to yourself and others. The act of forgiving deep hurts, discerning when it is right to forgive and let that person out of your life, and knowing when forgiveness is possible as a way of mending fences, or of re-establishing relationship are important aspects. Sincerely apologizing is anti-narcissism because it says you care about the other person, Letting go of a narcissist or someone that wholeheartedly supports them is often the only thing to do. They are lost unto themselves and will only bring more pain to their relationships and to the world. Teach children that they are human, not above someone else, tolerant of others, able to truly hear others, and to have compassion for what they are hearing. Again, this kind of honesty prevents the need for projection and blame.

5. Humanistic Values
As a way of developing empathy, one first values and accepts human beings and relationships with the people in our lives. In other words, we care about each other and how we treat each other. Intellectual or materialistic values, when overemphasized in a family, can lead to lack of empathy and therefore, narcissism. Being overly logical, robotic, cold, and detached are often traits of narcissists, especially if they rarely move into the warmth of empathy and valuing others. There has to be a sense of the other in order for us to appreciate how our words and actions impact another. Of course, you first have to care that you do have an impact.
I think people get morals and integrity mixed up. Morals are a superficial code by which to live. Integrity is a deeper way to live. Morals can be twisted to justify bad behavior or make one adopt haughty, superior attitudes. It is my belief that no one can, deep down, feel good about themselves in mistreating another human being unless they are psychologically damaged. Integrity is built when we feel good about how we treat each other and how we are treated. By the same token, we have healthy boundaries so that no one is unfairly exploited, and to give each other the opportunity to choose integrity. Helping your children feel good about themselves means valuing human relationship and valuing human beings. It means they are able to care for themselves, and recognize when they are safe and cared for.

There is more. Enmeshment and repression are two more aspects of a narcissistic family. then there is projection, overt or covert criticism, a feeling that you could never be good enough for these people or that you cannot be yourself: you must bear loyalty to the family "script". Lack of self-awareness.  I think just being on the road to emotional and psychological health through personal growth is going to help anyone be a parent who is "real" enough to avoid raising a narcissist.

(The articles I referenced:


  1. Great work on such an important topic. Enmeshment (poor boundries) is at the core of developing yet another N child. The N parent projects their Grandiose Self, their Self- Idealizing self onto the blank slate of the innocent child. Through extension, they are able to get back from the child – mirror effect – N fuel to support their own Grandiose Self they had before the child was born. The most tragic figure in the Narcissus myth is not Narcissus who dies from his self- absorption but Echo who dies from never being loved by Narcissus. Both never found true Love. These children of N are simply being enslaved to “echo” the grandiosity of the N parents. A relationship with the Devine is the only way to break free from enmeshment with either a close N parent, N family system or within a cult-like N larger social group. Great work … so glad I discovered your blog. God bless.

  2. Wallace, thank you for your kind comments. I completely agree that a relationship with the divine is the only way out of the narcissistic mess. God's love is anti-narcissism!

  3. Have a great week................

  4. Enjoyed reading your assessment/blog post which I found by clicking on your comment from the nypost article, I now share a link to an article about narcissism in ministry. In the comment section I found Brandon's comment particularly interesting.

  5. Dana, I don't see the link. Please do share if you come back! I appreciate it.

    1. whoops :-/

    2. Dana, that is an important post because it outlines how to approach your leaders when they are exhibiting narcissism. Also, the fact that there is no book does not mean that Christianity is not addressing the problem. It would be very good though if a book on narcissism were written from a Christian perspective. I see it as an issue of Grace versus the Law. Grace is all-accepting, the law often makes narcissism possible because you can point out when someone is not following the law and use that as an excuse to criticize, manipulate, and control others. Have you been to Pastor Dave has quite a few posts addressing narcissism in the church.


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