Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Challenging perspectives: reflections on a narcissist

I was thinking today about perspective - how it varies so much from one person to another. 

For example, I have a friend who experienced a great deal of trauma as a child and young adult. Despite suffering significant physical and emotional pain, her perspective as an adult is that she is has a responsibility to care for other people and do what she can to protect them - often at great personal cost to herself. 

By contrast, I learned recently of a man (the father of a close friend) who experienced similar childhood trauma but developed a very different perspective on life.  In his case, the pain he experienced formed the basis for quite a severe case of narcissism in adulthood. He sees life only in terms of its own needs and desires, constantly and unapologetically demands that others see things from his perspective and is almost entirely unable to empathize with his children or anyone else.

On the one hand, I feel compassion for him (and for his family, of course) because it seems whatever is motivating his behaviour must be deeply painful. On the other hand, how do I reconcile his reaction to trauma with that of my friend? How is it that some people turn fear and pain into love and caring, while others rely on it to justify thinking only of themselves?

It's hard to know how to respond to someone who approaches life from such a narcissistic perspective. As my friend explained it to me, if you give in to their demands and conform with their expectations, you feed their narcissism by demonstrating it will get them what they want. If you don't, you reinforce the pain that is at the root of the narcissism and run the risk they will strike out in anger and frustration.

According to the literature, adult narcissists rarely seek treatment or recover from their condition because they are almost never prepared to examine the emptiness and pain that drives them, or acknowledge that there is something wrong with the way they relate to other people.  Practically speaking, I suppose that means the only way to deal with a narcissist it to wish them healing and peace, then have as little to do with them as possible.  But that's not a very satisfactory answer when the person in question is your father or someone else you care about.

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