It’s Narcissist Friday!
Almost as long as people have been throwing things at each other, we have used shields to deflect the attacks. I suppose the first shields were wood and then leather and then metal. Some balance had to be struck between weight and protective ability. Rocks could be repelled with wood or leather, but arrows needed something thicker or stronger. Eventually, shields developed into body armor, from the knight’s mail to the Swat team’s ceramic plates. But in all of this the purpose remains the same—protection.
The Bible speaks of an interesting phenomenon that occurs in leaders, in marriages, and even in relationship with God. I usually think of the Pharaoh of the Exodus when I hear the term: hardening of the heart. What makes this interesting is that sometimes Pharaoh hardens his own heart, sometimes his heart is simply hardened, and sometimes God is said to be responsible for hardening Pharaoh’s heart. How can they all be true?
Well, over the years I have explained this using the idea of hardening an egg. What’s the difference between a soft-boiled egg and a hard-boiled egg? The only real difference is time. The natural process of the egg in the boiling water is to harden. The longer you leave it, the harder it gets. You could say that hard-boiled eggs are the result of someone not doing something (taking the egg out of the water).
So, in effect, Pharaoh decided to stay in the hot water and God let him. And the longer he stayed in the hot water, the harder his heart became. It took the death of his firstborn son to get Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go—and, even then, he reneged on the deal a little while later.
It may be that narcissism “boils” down to simple hardness of heart. Over time the narcissist learned not to trust anyone, to protect his heart against real connections and love. He learned that any good thing he got out of life had to be what he got for himself. Others could no longer be people, certainly not equals with him. They were something to use to get what he wanted. The narcissistic heart is hardened against pain and disappointment. It has learned to deflect attacks. It has learned to stay apart.
Much is made of the narcissist’s lack of empathy. In fact, lack of empathy is part of the definition of narcissism. But the narcissist’s lack of empathy is not simply a shortcoming, it is a decision. The narcissist does not want to empathize, does not dare to empathize, because to do so is to risk his heart. Many people have noticed the peculiar desire the narcissist has for relationship and then the abrupt rejection of that relationship when things get a little too close. Narcissistic relationships are supposed to give to the narcissist, but never expect anything of his heart. This is why the narcissist both needs and hates people.
Sadly, this hardness of heart seems to be communicable. Children and spouses of narcissists can develop something very similar. The way the narcissist handles relationships causes others to develop coping techniques and sometimes coping means to let the heart toughen against attacks and disappointments. Often this manifests as numbness or apathy. Some counselors understand that a particularly quiet and unresponsive client could be the victim of a narcissist. The numbness is very similar to the narcissistic hardness.
Spouses of narcissists frequently ask whether their children are destined to become narcissists. The answer is a strong negative. However, the children may develop this hardness to protect their hearts from the manipulations of the narcissist and may appear to be narcissistic in their responses and relationships.
I am very much of the opinion that a loving parent can affirm the heart of a child in spite of a narcissistic spouse. Children do not require perfect consistency from parents, but they do need acceptance, affirmation and hope. One parent can give that.
Protect your heart, but don’t let it harden against others. Find people and activities and interests you enjoy. Risk being excited and having hope. You may have to have a “thick skin” in dealing with the narcissist and his manipulations, but don’t let that damage other parts of your heart. Allow yourself to separate the narcissist and his/her problems from other areas of your life.
And if you know someone who is cut off from friends or family or heart interests, find a way to be a friend. Make a point to be dependable, affirming, and loving. Narcissists often try to isolate their victims to keep them under control. The relationship they have with you might bring the hope they need to survive.