In my last essay, “Winning at losing, Losing at Winning”, I wrote about an early personal experience with narcissism and two tragic events that were most likely caused by two men with narcissistic personalities. This generated responses from several readers. More than one said they were reminded of ex’s. One said she was sorry I had to experience life with the person in my story. Others said they were glad I didn’t mention Donald Trump even though it was clear to them that I was drawing the parallel to him in my description of Narcissistic Personality.
I too had quite a reaction to this essay. I didn’t notice it at first. I was just happy to have written another essay to share with my readers. In fact, I felt a certain catharsis, a release from this long held memory. It was like a painful tooth had been pulled and after the initial pain, there was a wave of relief. In the ensuing days, as comments came in, and as I reverted from writer to psychotherapist, a feeling of exhaustion crept in. I felt an emptiness every time I tried to think about what I might write next.
I made several attempts but nothing came that I felt interested in. I wondered why I had written it. It had little of me in it or so I thought. I could not find a thread of an idea to begin a coherent narrative. I had this feeling several months ago when I felt overwhelmed by the impact of Covid-19. I ultimately got past that by focusing on what I could change and by reaching out to you, my readers.
This time it felt different. I could not identify what was keeping me from finding my legitimate voice. But then on rereading my unpublished essay, I realized that it was me writing to me. It was about what happens when my clients find the courage to look at what they had created to protect themselves from a basic negative belief about who they were. With this realization, clients experienced an enormous relief from anxiety.
On reflection, I saw that while it was true that clients find they are less anxious, often they first experience a place of emptiness. They now had to define their life without the hurt they had built their life around. It is perhaps akin to how someone feels after a divorce. They are happy to be rid of the pain that caused the divorce but are then confronted with the reality of living alone without a mate. The space between ending a marriage and reconstituting one’s own identity can be a time of great loneliness and feelings of loss.
In writing my last essay about my personal experience and how it evoked in me memories of violent acts by people I had no connection to, I was left with a sense of loss that I could not understand. I thought I was just using personal experience to help illustrate the function and impact of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). What I didn’t realize was I had identified with the passengers on that doomed flight and the concert goers who were just out for a night of fun listening to live music.
I frequently have clients who have siblings, a parent or coworker who have all or many of the traits of a personality disorder. They have tried, sometimes for years, to have a positive relationship with that person and always come away saddened or even depressed. They believe they had somehow failed. They feel they are in a no-win situation. The truth is, they are. You can never “win” with a NPD but you can change how you see yourself in relation to that person.
The greatest fear of a narcissistic person is to “lose” because that touches on their deepest fear of being inadequate, a failure. The narcissist cannot admit defeat. They cannot have peer to peer relationships because they must always assert that they are superior. All their bravado and self-aggrandizement is in the service of defending against that deep seated fear. Success, whether in the form of monetary wealth, a “trophy” wife or husband, outward demonstrations of power or assertions of great intelligence, is all meant to protect against an unexamined feeling of inadequacy.
In my personal story, it was about an older sibling. My story is one of many experiences where this sibling seldom missed an opportunity to demean me, to try to off-load on to me his own fears of inadequacy. What my parents saw as normal sibling rivalry was actually a relentless attempt to keep me from outshining him in any way.
Sibling rivalry is not in itself a terrible thing and in many families it is resolved as maturity replaces childhood conflicts. In others, it is never resolved. In my case, I think it was my parents’ failing to recognize what was actually going on. I have come to see that they had unresolved conflicts with their siblings. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t my sibling’s fault. Unexamined behavior is repeated across generations.
When I wrote in my last essay about NPD, I didn’t realize at the time I was writing more about myself than I thought. Writing about one potent memory from long ago unleashed much more than I imagined. This is how psychotherapy often works. What the client thinks they came into therapy for often leads to places they never suspected but were actually the basis of what they were hoping to understand better about themselves. The passageway to consciousness is never a straight line.
It took over two weeks for me to be free enough from the anxiety I had stumbled upon in my writing, to find the path back to my legitimate self. Just as my clients go through a period of disorientation, so did I. It was very frustrating to not be able to sit in front of my computer and write something that felt meaningful, something that I was connected to and owned by me.
I think my previous attempts to write came from a need to step outside of myself in order to be more objective. I have held a lot of anger about some of the experiences in my childhood especially as they related to how my older sibling treated me and how my parents seemed to condone it. I have talked about it in my personal therapy many times. There was some relief, some insight but somehow the catharsis didn’t quite happen. In my unpublished essay, I wrote, “Self-knowledge can only come when the client is ready to hear it. Truth revealed too soon produces fear and fear turns into an increased desire to protect one’s self from that fear. When the time is right, however, there is an internal shift in a person. They escape from their self-imposed prison.“
My regular readers know that I believe strongly in taking seriously our connection to the people around us, to all of humankind. I do believe we are all connected. “No man/woman is an island unto him/herself”, to quote a modified/modernized line from John Dunn’s famous poem, “No Man is an Island”. When I end an essay, I urge people to love the ones they are with, even the ones who are hard to love. I now know I was writing this to myself as well as to you. At this moment in time, I feel no rancor toward my sibling or my parents. They have had their own struggles in their life’s journey. And now, many years later, they have become my key to releasing long-held anxiety.
I am filled with hope when I see my clients liberate themselves from long-felt hurts and they have increased energy and creativity. I don’t know what the long-term effects will be for me but I look forward to sharing the results with you. Love the ones you are with, even those hard to love. They may hold the key to great self-discoveries. Be safe. Be well.
Today, I am more grateful than ever to you, my readers. Your support and encouragement make a real difference in my life and inspire me to try to touch your lives as well. We are not here to see through each other, we are here to see each other through. Love and Honor.