“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” —Thomas Merton
After six years of working intensively with one-on-one clients in my mentoring program, one pattern arises over and over, especially because so many of my clients are female empaths and healers. This pattern is so pervasive—and so hard to both spot and break—I feel called to share parts of a manual I’m writing for those who will be joining me for A Soul Tribe Gathering in Mill Valley October 27–29. The reason I’m writing about this topic in the Soul Tribe Manual is that a healthy Soul Tribe cannot exist in the presence of this pattern. As we’ve seen from one spiritual community after another that nukes itself, narcissistic spiritual leaders result in abuses of power and abuse, yet a narcissistic leader can only exercise their abuse if someone gives away their own sovereignty and authority and hooks into their narcissism with codependence. In order to even begin to co-create healthy spiritual community, we must examine our own tendencies toward narcissism and codependence.
In Part One of this series, I’ll focus on the narcissist, but don’t start pointing fingers and blaming the narcissists quite yet! And don’t point the finger back at yourself and perpetuate the “blame the victim” mentality that many narcissistic spiritual leaders (and cops and narcissistic spouses) use to perpetrate their abuse. Also, avoid being quick to label yourself or anyone else. “He’s the narcissist. I’m the codependent.” Most people who are hooked into this pattern are hooked into both sides, which are like two sides of the same coin. You may be codependent with your husband children and a narcissistic boss at work. You may be a narcissist with your spouse but codependent with your mother. The point of this blog series is not to shame, blame, or demonize anyone. We are all vulnerable to this pattern! It is simply part of the human experience. The intention of this is simply to raise your awareness of how you might be hooking into these patterns and how doing so is interrupting your capacity to participate in truly intimate relationship.
If you read what I’m about to share with deep self-compassion and an unwillingness to demonize those who are caught on either side of this pattern, this difficult-to-discuss pattern can be examined without unnecessary defensiveness, self-blame, or demonization of the supposedly vicious “other.” Once we see with compassion what has previously been hidden in a blind spot, we can begin to unravel the hooks that keep us in the destructive web of this pattern. Compassion for yourself is key. Whether you have a tendency to fall into the codependent pattern or the narcissist pattern, be gentle with yourself, and don’t beat yourself up. You can’t do better until you know better. And once you know, you can gently and compassionately free yourself from abusive relationships that deplete your energy, interfere with your capacity to find and fulfill your calling, and make you sick.
Because this is an intense, triggering, and difficult to face pattern, I will release pieces of the book I’m writing about Soul Tribes on my blog here in digestible morsels. If it resonates with you, you might want to join us for A Soul Tribe Gathering, where we’ll be diving deeper into freeing ourselves from these and many other patterns that interfere with our ability to authentically and intimately connect with those who can help us grow, celebrate life, and navigate the bliss and pain of living the human experience at full volume.
“There Are Two Kinds of People”
Let me start by sharing a bit of my own experience, just so you don’t think I’m some talking head sharing dispassionately about something I haven’t experienced myself. As someone who had to take the painful steps to free myself from a physically and emotionally abusive marriage in my past, I have navigated this agonizing territory for many years. I can only write about this pattern after ten years of therapy has helped me get some distance from it, so I can spot both sides of the pattern from miles away and protect myself from hooking into this pattern. I like to joke that interrupting the narcissist/codependent pattern is like putting an octopus to bed. Every time I think I’ve got all those arms under the covers, another arm or two flies out! We have to keep a sense of humor about such things and hold it all with self-compassion. This becomes an intense spiritual practice, but it’s worth doing, because on the other side of this hard inner work lie the most incredibly intimate relationships with healthy people who refuse to enter into this pattern. That’s when the rewards of this deep soul work begin to pay off, and your capacity to connect from a place of true wholeness and equality flourishes.
Years ago, I was deep in the heat of a conversation with a friend of mine, as we sat across from each other at the dinner table. I felt fire burning inside of me. He said, “Tell me what’s going on inside your head right now?” I glared at him and said, “There are two kinds of people.” I paused for dramatic effect. There was venom in my voice.
I went on. “There are the smart, sexy, talented, handsome, charismatic people who lie, cheat, manipulate, dominate, and betray you. Then there are kind, sensitive, gentle, compassionate, reliable doormats who dote on you but are too weak and pathetic to stand up for themselves. You are the first kind.” My whole body was trembling as I said it.
My friend was visibly stung, but then something softened in him, and he said, “Wow. You really believe that, don’t you?”
I started crying.
He said, “I think you should bring that up with your therapist.”
So I did.
I shared my sob story with my therapist Rose, who very pointedly and ruthlessly—but quite lovingly—told me that I believe there are two types of people because I’ve been intimate with people who are either “Narcissists” or “Echoes.” She then went on to tell me the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo.
Echo was a beautiful but quite talkative nymph who was put under a curse that made her only able to speak what others have spoken first. She fell in love with Narcissus, a vain young man who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and, not realizing it was himself, spoke words of love to the reflection. Echo, the cursed water nymph, would hear “I love you” and repeat “I love you” back to Narcissus. But her love was never truly returned by Narcissus. When Narcissus realized that what he loved was actually his own image, he killed himself and transformed into a narcissus flower.
The Narcissus/Echo Pattern
This myth can be translated into a psychological pattern of relationships, wherein one partner plays the “It’s all about me!” Narcissus role and the other boosts Narcissus’s already hearty ego by repeating back what Narcissus wants to hear while compromising her own needs and desires until she becomes resentful and feels victimized. Most people who get hooked into this unhealthy relationship pattern tend to prefer one role in the pattern or the other. The Narcissus character tends to be exactly what I said to my friend—sexy, charismatic, talented, attractive, funny, smart, seductive, the life of the party. Others are drawn to these people—but you only get close if it’s on Narcissus’s terms. And if you stop echoing back what Narcissus wants to hear, you’re likely to get ousted.
On the other hand, the person who plays the Echo role tends to be more empathic, submissive, deferential, sensitive, self-effacing, service-oriented, externally referenced, over giving, and emotionally manipulative. Echo, who refuses to allow attention to be focused on her, has difficulty receiving if anyone tries to refocus the energy on her. Echo is always feeding Narcissus’s ego and enabling him to be the center of attention. And she never quite has a voice of her own because she’s too afraid Narcissus might leave if she fails to echo back what he wants to hear. (Keep in mind that both genders can play both roles, so this is not a male/female thing.)
Most people who hook into the Narcissus pattern don’t have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, though some do. Echoes may also have personality disorders. Both roles in this pattern are equally unhealthy from a psychological perspective, and this pattern requires the participation of both parties. Most people who get hooked into this pattern play both roles in different relationships. Sometimes they play Narcissus. In other relationships, they play Echo. However, most prefer one role over another. Some people only have a tinge of this pattern, while others are full blown.
My therapy session led to a huge epiphany for me when Rose suggested that many of my closest peers, as well as the men I had dated, had played out the role of Narcissus, and I had been their Echo. But in other relationships in my life, I’ve played Narcissus to someone else’s Echo. I feel much more powerful, in control, attractive, and secure when I play Narcissus. When I’m Echo, I feel insecure, grasping, disrespected, resentful, and underappreciated. Either way, this dynamic never ends well. Although people seem to demonize the Narcissus role disproportionately, it doesn’t feel good to be in either role. Both interfere with healthy intimacy and make healthy Soul Tribe dynamics impossible.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Those who fall into the Narcissus role may have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder or, more commonly, they may have narcissistic tendencies.
Those with narcissistic personality traits:
- Are often charismatic, initially quite likable, and talented.
- Can make you feel very special when they’re trying to get you into their clutches. “Love bombing” in the beginning of relationships—or as an attempted repair after bouts of abus— is common.
- Always manage to turn the conversation back toward themselves and tend to “one up” anyone else’s story.
- Rarely see themselves as being at fault and make up complicated rationalizations for why it’s always somebody else’s fault.
- Tend to serve in leadership roles, not because they’re better leaders but because they like the attention.
- Name-drop often.
- Are prone to affairs.
- Don’t hesitate to violate clear boundaries and fail to respect them even when they are reinforced.
- Are quick to react with anger if challenged.
- Tend to have grandiose stories about themselves.
- Like to display status symbols.
- Care about their appearance beyond simple self-care and can often be quite vain.
- Break promises and fail to keep commitments often.
- Lack the ability to respond with humility in the face of criticism.
- Make a lot of excuses.
- Leave a trail of bad relationships in their wake.
- Show little remorse.
- Tend to cut other people down in order to feel “better than.”
- Drop people (and projects) like a hot potato when they get bored or have satisfied whatever it was they wanted from you.
- Promote an inflated false identity and squelch anything that interferes with this false self.
- Lack insight into their narcissistic tendencies and if called on it, show no interest in seeking treatment.
- Tend to be successful in their careers.
- Are jealous and competitive.
- Puff up when flattered and can be manipulated through flattery.
- Interrupt others often, showing little interest in other people.
- Justify breaking rules, as if rules only apply to other people.
- Feel entitled.
- May be physically or emotionally abusive, especially if their authority or “specialness” is questioned.
- May manipulate through guilt or irrational projections onto others. (“You have to make Mommy proud! You wouldn’t want to make Mommy look bad now, would you?”)
- Inflate themselves by knocking others down.
- Hold grudges.
- Like to keep people off balance, often failing to offer reassurance when those close to them need comfort.
- May masquerade as shyness, when secretly, in their own fantasies, they’re just waiting for the day they can topple with their brilliance the over-the-top narcissist they resent.
- Lack empathy and can behave with great cruelty in the face of someone else’s vulnerability.
DSM-5 criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder include:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it.
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents.
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people.
- Requiring constant admiration.
- Having a sense of entitlement.
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations.
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want.
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you.
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.
The Mayo Clinic says, “Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.” Obviously, this pattern is incompatible with healthy participation in a Soul Tribe. Historically, this has proven true. Most cults that ended tragically did so because codependent Soul Tribe members had given their power away to a narcissistic leader.
Whether someone has the full-blown disorder or just narcissistic personality traits, narcissism interferes with healthy relationships and interrupts the capacity to participate in Soul Tribe in a nourishing way—for obvious reasons. Narcissists aren’t wired to care about the needs of the tribe. They only care about themselves, so they become a drain on the tribe’s energy. The lack of empathy that characterizes narcissism predisposes narcissists to violence and addiction, so they can become physically destructive to a Soul Tribe, leading to boundary violations and safety concerns.
If reading this enrages you, and you’re busy listing all the narcissists in your personal life, your workplace, your spiritual community, and in Washington DC, hold on a minute! Everyone loves to hate on the narcissists, but I am not writing this to give you ammunition to fuel the story of separation that makes us demonize one another and polarize each other into “the bad guys” and “the good guys.” Yes, it’s helpful to spot these patterns and call a spade a spade, because until you’re aware of how these patterns play out, you may be stepping into a narcissist’s trap unwittingly. But pointing at someone else’s side of the street without looking at how you give your power away and fail to set and enforce boundaries as a form of conflict avoidance is not empowering. Cleaning up your side of the street also doesn’t mean you are responsible for someone else’s dirty street. Own your side, and if the other side of the street is still messy (and that person isn’t interested in getting help), set and enforce clear boundaries.
We’ll talk more about how to tell if you’re codependent—and how to interrupt this pattern—in future blogs in this series. If you’re not already signed up for my mailing list so you can receive notices about new blog posts in this series, sign up here.
Can You Relate?
Tell us your stories. And please—with great compassion and the tenderest love (and direct personal experience), I invite you to see if you can tell us your story from an empowered place of self-compassion, clear-sightedness, and personal responsibility. I’m not suggesting you practice spiritual bypassing. Go ahead and feel the pain of any anger, grief, frustration, disappointment, or resentment as your victim stories arise and your eyes open to how this pattern has hurt you and others. Allow those emotions to bubble up inside of you and and move those energies through your body (try kick-boxing or ecstatic dance!). If you need to talk about your feelings, discharge your feelings to a trusted friend, not by complaining and spewing your toxic energy at an innocent friend, but by simply engaging in a conscious, one-sided rant. (Try this method of spring cleaning.) Or find a good therapist who doesn’t coddle your victim story or blame you for your pattern but who loves you enough to help you alchemize the whole experience into soul growth.
Most of all, be gentle with yourself. Hold yourself in great arms of love as you surrender your desire to free yourself from this pattern. Trust Divine Will to help you. Let go . . .
With so much love and prayers for your inner freedom,
PS. You might also want to watch this TEDx talk Psychosis Or Spiritual Awakening
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