The Core Of The Narcissist

To make us feel small in the right way is a function of art; men can only make us feel small in the wrong way.

- E. M. Forster

The majority of humans are willingly influenced by their emotions. Some more than others. Empathy allows us to feel the plight of another person and want to help them. Shame regulates our grandiosity, and reminds us that we’re not gods who need everyone to bow down to us, but rather that we are humans with flaws who need to get along and who are in need of constant improvement and adjustment. Guilt forces us to reflect on our wrong actions and make amends. These feelings can be painful, but they are also good. They help us maintain healthy relationships, to coexist and to create a better world.

Narcissists don’t give a shit about any of that. They couldn’t care less about your feelings. As far as they are concerned, feelings are not about creating a harmonious society or fostering fulfilling relationships - they are a way to control you. Gas-lighting, triangulation and hoovering are the subtle and often not so subtle techniques that narcissists use to control their targets through emotions. Saying a certain thing in a certain way can set off the emotions of their target and cause them to react. Narcissists are well aware of this. Tactics, however, crucial as they are to know, are focused on what the narcissist does. What we need to first understand, is what the narcissist is;

Narcissists are shameless.

This is the defining trait of narcissism. A narcissist is not in touch with their empathy or shame. Some people claim that narcissists have no capacity for shame at all, others that they have disowned their shame from an early age in exchange for a grandiose, false self. Either way, narcissists are shameless. Because they don’t feel shame, their sense of grandiosity runs riot unchecked. In order to feel grandiose all the time, however, they need people to feed off. As a result, a narcissist lives out their grandiosity by subjugating and objectifying other people. On the shame/grandiosity continuum, the narcissist aims to push other people as far left as possible (shame), while maintaining their own position on the right (grandiosity).

Shamelessness is the most subtle thing about a narcissist and the most difficult to see. It is also at the core of a narcissist and what makes them so deadly to our well-being. By being shameless, the narcissist does not have to self-reflect. By being shameless, the narcissist does not have to admit to their limitations and humanity. It creates an impenetrable shield. They don’t have to admit to being wrong, they don’t have to admit to not being good enough, they don’t have to apologise and they most definitely don’t have to give others the higher ground.

Being in the presence of someone who is shameless automatically reflects all shame back onto you. By putting on an aura of godliness, it instantly causes the person in the narcissist’s presence to feel inferior in comparison. When you are in the presence of a person who shows healthy shame, you feel warm and a sense of camaraderie and equality. When you are in the presence of a narcissist, more often than not, you feel like crap. Being raised by a narcissist or being in a relationship with a narcissist is like being under the hot sun all day. They reflect all shame back onto you just by being around you.

It can be easy to miss this if you spent an extended period of time in the presence of narcissists. They don’t even have to do anything overtly abusive. It’s not just about catching their manipulative behaviour, it’s about being aware of how they make you feel. There’s something off putting about it and it goes on just below your conscious awareness. It’s like being in emotional purgatory. You are constantly waiting to be let in, to experience the joy of being in a satisfying, human relationship, but the narcissist keeps you at arms length. This is the core of a relationship with a narcissist; it all begins with this. They’re like slippery fish. Nothing sticks to them. All flaws and shortcomings - i.e. anything human - get reflected back onto you. You are always the vulnerable one. By being shameless, the narcissist forces the other person to carry the shame – to feel inferior. As mentioned earlier, if the person feels it continuously and for long enough, they will eventually internalise it. It will become entwined with their personality and will exist as a constant shadow over a person’s entire experience. Feeling anger for a long period of time makes a person become an angry person. Being depressed for a long period of time makes a person become a depressive person. Being exposed to shame for a long period of time makes a person believe that they are flawed to the bone. This toxic shame is what makes shamelessness in a relationship the most dangerous, even before any overt abuse takes place.

Shamelessness creates shame in others and is demonstrated in many subtle ways.

A narcissist might:

  • Strive always to be in control: This can be as simple as impatiently snatching the broom from you when you’re sweeping and doing the job themselves. Refusing to relinquish control or to allow a person to learn at their own pace makes them feel incapable of ‘getting the job done’.
  • Use condescending stares/eye rolling: A patronising look can communicate a message like “I’m doing you a favour just by tolerating you and allowing you to be around me”.
  • Snicker and laugh at your weaknesses: That all knowing laugh when you make a mistake communicates how amusing you are in comparison to a person who wouldn’t make the same error. Quite often, the mistake is not even a mistake, but a snicker at something you simply did a different way to how the narcissist would do it. Not uncommon still is being laughed at even if you did something correctly, just to make you question yourself and think the narcissist knows something you don’t.
  • Speak about you in the third person when you’re present:When you’re discussed with someone else while present, especially in a non-favourable way, it can make you feel both shamed and powerless. For example, “Lisa has been so lazy around the house. She hasn’t done any housework, she just watches Netflix all day.” When this is said to someone else in your presence, it shines the light on you without actually including you in the conversation. It creates an illusion of two people of ‘higher knowledge’ discussing you: the object of ‘concern’. Firstly, such a statement is subjective (Lisa might have felt a bit sick and watched Netflix for a few hours simply to unwind) and it forces you to either defend yourself or feel shame.
  • Inflate themselves through story: Sharing stories which paint the narcissist in a highly superior way makes the listeners feel small in comparison. Many narcissists are great storytellers, and in their stories, they are usually strong and superior. An alternative way they boost their image in a story is not just by raising themselves up, but by putting down the person who they are describing in their story.
  • Inflate themselves through assertion and deflection: A narcissist will avoid admitting weakness or to being limited. The narcissist might begin a sentence with “I never..” or “I always..”. For example, “I never get dumped, I’m always doing the dumping” or “I always get through the queue within ten minutes”. The second statement will come especially as a response to you saying that you had to wait for an hour. This separates them from the ‘luckless fool’, and makes them stand out as special.
  • Ask critical, rhetorical questions: For example, “Why did you arrange the plates like that?” or “Why are you wearing those pants for?” These questions have no real answer or purpose other than to shine a light on your supposed incompetence.
  • Refuse to empathise and support: When you share something genuine that’s important to you, the narcissist will shut it down as quickly as possible or simply ignore it. They might simply nod, change the topic, or analyse and problem solve what you are saying. They do this so you cannot influence their emotions. This rejection of your genuine expression makes you feel shameful and unloved. Nothing is overtly done, yet it feels off when you realise that the person to whom you are opening your experience does not care enough to empathise.
  • Not allow you to set boundaries: A narcissist might assume they know what’s best for you - without consulting you first. They’ll order your drink without asking, make decisions involving you without consulting, open your mail and so on. This objectifies you and makes you feel like the narcissist and only the narcissist knows what’s best for you.
  • Refuse to go along with your plans or allow you to influence them: The relationship is generally lopsided. They call the shots and decide where to go, what to do and for how long. They rely on the low self-esteem of their target to enforce this. Also, by not giving the target a preference, the narcissist can further erode the target’s self-esteem.
  • Make unwelcome, supposedly neutral observations: i.e. “You have hairs growing on your ears” or “You know, you’re always the first to finish your food” or “You need to buy new shoes”. This is designed to make you feel self-conscious without seeming like an actual attack.
  • Feign or exaggerate concern: By exaggerating concern, the narcissist can make you feel like someone who needs help; even though you didn’t feel that way to begin with. Although we do sometimes struggle in life, when concern is exaggerated, we can begin to feel like a basket case; i.e. someone who cannot cope with life. This fake or exaggerated concern normally comes with an accompanying look of worry.
  • Compare you to others: When the narcissist points out that someone they know can do what you can’t, or is better at something than you, they force you onto a scale of worth. Real or not, it is shaming and can be difficult to ignore. A man could be trying to put on weight at the gym, and then have his girlfriend point out how muscly her ex-boyfriend was. A parent can (subjectively) explain to their single daughter that every other woman her age is happily married and has children. These subtle comparisons undermine and shame.

Note that all of the above are designed to create the illusion that the target is of lower status and the narcissist is of higher status.

Comrades in shame

Those who find themselves on the left side of the shame/grandiosity continuum for too long will internalise shame. They feel inferior and less than human. They feel like they don’t deserve the support of others, but they themselves must provide it.

In a healthy relationship, on the other hand, the shame is shared and cancelled out. All parties work together to stay in the middle of the continuum. It is subconsciously communicated that we are both human, we both make mistakes and neither person is better than the other. We are equal. Whether it was intended or not, anything contrary to this, by definition, is shaming. For example, if a person explains to a friend that they embarrassed themselves showing off in front of someone attractive, the friend, as an act of acceptance and solidarity, might share a similar experience they had. Shame becomes a non-issue. If you share the same story with a narcissist, they might snicker and laugh at you and then talk about how attractive their last conquest was. In a healthy relationship, what you share is respected and given importance by the other person. Your boundaries are respected, and the relationship is about sharing and equality, not control and competition. There are no mind games. You laugh together with the other person, not be the target of their ridicule.

Those with healthy shame and empathy will:

  • Mirror back your emotions
  • Look for ways to laugh with you
  • Admit to being wrong without making excuses
  • Give you the space to express yourself
  • Tailor their emotional experience to ensure a connection is achieved with you
  • Be comfortable having boundaries in the relationship
  • Allow for equal status in the relationship
  • Respect your vulnerability and allow themselves, in turn, to be vulnerable

When a person has people around them who work for equality and a balanced standing on the shame/grandiosity continuum, they will have healthy shame. They believe in their potential and self-worth, but accept their own limitations and respect the rights of others to express their own grandeur. They are not defined by their shame, nor do they allow it to control them. They simply use it for growth and to get along well with those they care about. They seek ways to thrive while also co-existing with and supporting others. They most definitely do not tolerate shamelessness in others.

Responding to shamelessness

As stated earlier, the law of grandiosity encourages one of five shame-based reactions. This law can also be applied to narcissism. When in a relationship with a narcissist, the target can react to shamelessness as follows:

  • Accept their low status: Toxic shame will run riot. If the narcissist is a parent, the child will have no choice but to accept their position in the pecking order. As an adult, if the narcissist has sufficiently broken the target’s self-esteem or has sucked the target into a relationship with them, the target will be cajoled into accepting their low status.
  • Attempt to live up to the narcissist’s standards: The target could try harder to please, or to explain and defend themselves, or to make changes and improvements. The narcissist will simply raise the bar. This never ends and almost always leads to an overwhelming feeling of shame.
  • Identify with the narcissist: This is the most common. For a child, identifying with the parent and viewing them as omnipotent and good is automatic. It’s a necessary survival tactic. In a relationship with a narcissist, the target will be convinced that they are in a loving, equal partnership. Many people simply care for those they are close to, and so their love keeps them positively identified with the narcissist and everything that comes along with that.
  • Dis-identify from the narcissist: Children do not have this option. In adulthood, this is usually the best path to take. It can involve ending the relationship or withdrawing emotional involvement as a protection mechanism. This will be explained in more detail later, in the chapter titled ‘Scorched Earth’.
  • Discredit the narcissist: Slugging it out with a narcissist is not recommended. They are well trained in and thrive on mind games. Sinking to their level will only serve to give them narcissistic supply. This will also be explored in more detail later.