It’s Narcissist Friday!
Illness is a great way to get attention from caring people.
Now, if you read that and feel a little uncomfortable, maybe even defensive, you may be proving my point. We are designed to care for others. If someone is sick, it is very hard for most of us to simply step aside and continue on our way. We want to help. We want to make a difference. There is an empathy in normal people that moves us to intervene in the suffering of another. That’s normal, and it’s good.
But narcissists use this desire in us to get attention and service for themselves.
Not all narcissists are bold and loud, or what we call overt. Some are quiet and needy. They begin by doing acts of kindness, then expect kindness in return. Obviously, there is little wrong with that and most people are happy to reciprocate. But it often escalates to a demanding parasitic relationship that drains the life out of the victim. It may not appear that these people are narcissistic, but we call them covert. They hide their need for attention and focus. They drain the time and energy from others by being needy.
And covert or needy narcissists often use their health to manipulate others. They use recurring sickness or injury or infirmity to gain service and other benefits from their victims. Some of them always seem to be sick. Others get sick just when you have something planned. Some seem to determine whether they are sick based on the attention they want from you.
Now, of course, you think this is phony and manipulative. After a few times, you realize that the sickness or aches and pains come and go in ways that are a little too handy. So you get the “sick” person to a doctor, and the doctor prescribes medications to help with the sickness. Or you skip out on one of the “emergencies” and learn later that the EMT’s were called. The professionals seem to verify that the sickness is real.
And aren’t you ashamed of yourself? You thought it was fake. You thought it was manipulative. You thought it was just the narcissist trying to control your life and time.
Sadly, that story comes up often. Now you feel guilty. And now you are stuck. If the sickness is real, then the emergency is real, right?
So the question comes up: Can they make themselves sick? If being sick is so handy to them, and they are able to control it so well, how can it be real? And, if it is real, how did it start? Are these people able to manufacture real illnesses to serve their purposes?
As you can imagine, the answer to this is complicated. I will have to be content with sharing a few thoughts here that might stimulate your thinking and discussion.
First, look up Munchausen Syndrome. I put in a link to the Wiki article. This is a psychiatric issue where the person claims and exhibits symptoms for the sake of attention. These people are often hospitalized and often use their fake problems to raise money, get services, and manipulate sympathy. There is also something called Munchausen by proxy, usually referring to a parent who claims a sick child for the same purposes.
Second, in this day of litigation, doctors and hospitals and emergency care providers don’t have the luxury of questioning the illness of someone who claims to be sick. They must treat those who claim illness as though they were ill, no matter what they suspect. Few doctors will try to challenge the reality of a physical illness. So, if the doctor prescribes something, or the person is rushed to the hospital, that doesn’t mean the sickness is real. That only shows that the medical people have to treat it that way.
Third, we all have symptoms. From nasal congestion to sore backs, we all live with a certain amount of pain and limitation. Most of us realize that we shouldn’t spend our time focusing on these things. We keep going and get things done. But, if we wanted, we could be entirely honest with our constant complaints. If we wanted to use those complaints to manipulate others to provide attention and care, we could be quite truthful about it. The self-absorbed narcissist might be even more aware of pain, but they make the choice to exploit it.
Finally, back to the question: Can they make themselves sick? Most of us know of someone who claimed to have cancer, even though the physicians never found cancer. We tried to treat the person as deluded or manipulative. Then the person died of cancer. Then we felt guilty for not believing him/her.
The medical community recognizes the effect of stress on health. Narcissists are among the most stressed people of our culture. Their inward focus, unrelenting desire for control, and inability to trust keep them on edge all the time. This explains much of the sudden and intense anger narcissists often display. If anyone would suffer the ill effects of stress, narcissists would.
Let’s take just one example. Narcissists are particularly unable to forgive. They take offense at so many things and see negative intentions in so many places, that they always have something they hold against someone. In truth, they have many things they hold against many people. Remembering and reliving offenses can be very stressful. It is hard to move forward in life while stuck in these old grievances. But it is also hard to be motivated to get up and do things, like exercise, eating well, and bodily care. Unforgiveness moves many people to grind their teeth, tense their muscles, or frown and squint their eyes. So blood pressure goes up, headaches come, indigestion recurs, and aches develop. High blood pressure causes all kinds of problems in the body. Poor diet has a serious negative effect. Chronic indigestion causes further difficulties.
I have believed, based on observation, that stress and cancer are often linked. If the narcissist develops cancer (of which there are so many varieties and manifestations) we could hardly be surprised. There are some who suggest that we all live with cancer cells, but our body systems are able to combat them. If stress reduces that ability to cope with these cells, perhaps those with more stress will see more cancer.
Now, I am going to stop there. I am not a medical professional. My purpose is to encourage those who have felt the shame and guilt of trying to pull away from someone who uses illness to manipulate. Once you convince yourself that the illness is not real, then you feel free to separate from the abuser. However, when the illness appears to be real, or proves to be real later, it is normal to feel guilty for an incorrect judgment.
So here are some thoughts for you:
- Unless you are a medical professional, paid to take responsibility for this case, you should not get in the way of professional care. In other words, by rushing to meet every need, you not only destroy your own life, but also hinder the kind of care the person truly needs. Those who are unable to live on their own should be somewhere else. Those who are constantly sick should be tested and observed by people who know what they are doing. Get the doctors and therapists involved.
- If this is a friend abusing your kindness, find local services who care for the handicapped and the sick in your community. I am a big fan of Meals on Wheels, for example. Not only do they bring a good meal each day, but they check to make sure the person is up and able. The more the person refuses outside help in favor of yours, the more you know you are being manipulated.
- If this is a parent or sibling, do the same thing. It isn’t as easy to step away from a familial relationship, but you still have to protect yourself. Boundaries are the key. Don’t go over if a call will do. Don’t call until you are able and ready. Don’t feel that you have to answer the phone. The more anger and criticism you get, the more you know that you are being used. Begin to back away with little steps.
- Your health is essential for you to care for others. Whether the illness is real or not, you have to be safe and healthy to give help. No one wants to go to a sick or depressed doctor. You have a responsibility to care for yourself first.
- Unless this is your minor child or your spouse, you have no moral responsibility to care for this person. What you do is your choice because of the kindness in your heart. You are not under contract or bondage, not even by spiritual standards. You give because you love, and you even put up with a certain amount of exploitation because of love, but you have every right to set an end for the care you give.
- You will never solve the problem. If this is a covert narcissist, manipulating you to get attention and service, then you will never give enough in time, money, energy, or anything else. This person will never “get better,” never become healthy. Unless he/she finds someone else to use, of course. Then you will be discarded.
- Narcissists excel in draining the life from others and then making them feel guilty for being tired and weak. When you stop serving the narcissist, he/she will want you to feel ashamed and guilty. Plan on it. Get through it. Don’t get stuck in it. Move on with your life.
This post is far too long as it stands, yet there is so much more to say. I would love to hear from those who have been through these situations. I am particularly interested in learning how you solved it. If you are in the middle of one of these, please feel free to ask for encouragement and prayers.