Narcissists & The Ego Trap
We always hear about narcissistic egos and they certainly have their own ego traps but we are actually going to talk about the ego of the other person in the relationship or situation. Your ego is involved too, whether you realize that or not.
Ego gets a bad rap. When people hear "ego," they take it to mean selfish, self-centered, arrogant, egotistical... It's perceived as an insult. But in reality, everyone has an ego. It's part of how identity is structured. It's the part of you that says "I." Pathologically narcissistic people have serious ego problems because they have serious identity problems. Your ego helps you function. It's the thing that says, "I need such and such," or "Hey, what about me?" Balanced ego functioning is considered healthy narcissism. It stands up when it should and accepts what it needs to.
Many times in situations that involve narcissists, we find that the narcissist's ego is not the only one involved. It's usually the biggest and most toxic one, but not usually the only one. For example, when someone believes they can save the narcissist or love them back to health and fix their problems, that's ego. The ego is trying to validate itself through these things. Unfortunately, this is a trap, but the ego's unadmitted arrogance does not allow that to be recognized. It's a trap because it can't be done. The ego says to itself, "No one else has done what I can do. I can fix this problem." Or it says, "When I can do this, I will have proven my worth." It tells itself stories about how things are going to be once this happens, ignoring reality in favor of what it wants. It ignores the fact that you cannot control others or make them do anything they don't really want to do. Indeed, the ego believes it controls everything.
It often gets involved in other ways, as well. The ego believes it is the center of everything. To that end, it wants to believe that everything that happens to the self or around the self is because of the self. This is why people sometimes get offended when you tell them abuse from narcissists is not personal. The ego can feel attacked and dismissed when you say that. This is also why people will attempt to control the narcissist's behavior with their own. They will say to themselves, "If I don't do this, then he won't do that." Or, "If I do this, then maybe she will do that." We call this "if, then" thinking. The ego convinces itself that it has more importance in situations than it really does. The truth is that the solutions proposed by "if, then" thinking don't work, because the narcissist's behavior is not caused by what anyone else is doing or not doing. Nobody's is. People do what they do based on how they react to their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. That's why different people deal with the same situations differently.
In narcissistic relationships of any kind, many times the person's ego convinces them that they are causing or are in control of the narcissist's behavior, or that they can be. This is false. Reality proves it false, because the narcissist's behavior is inconsistent and unpredictable. Even if you do everything "right," it often makes no difference, They are still abusive and invalidating. However, the ego often ignores this and chooses instead to focus on the times it seemed to be true. It has convinced itself that it can have what it wants if it figures out the "right answer" and ignores all proof to the contrary. It has convinced itself that it can "win." Or, it has convinced itself - and you - that you deserve what is happening and are therefore still the cause of it.
The ego is emotional and sees things in absolutes: I won. I lost. I succeeded. I failed. I was right. I was wrong. This is bad. That is good. It doesn't like to admit defeat. It doesn't like to say, "I failed," or "I was wrong." The fact that the thing might not even be a failure doesn't matter. The fact that what you were "wrong" about might actually be a good thing doesn't matter either. This is how the ego perceives things. Many people hang on to narcissistic relationships for years and years for this very reason: they don't want to fail at what they were trying to do. They can't accept the fact that they did not succeed, or that they were wrong about something or somebody. These things - and most other ego-related situations - are usually wrapped up in self-worth. If people can succeed, they will have validated themselves. The problem is, they are not actually validating themselves. They are trying to convince other people to do it for them.
This usually stems from an unhealthy or invalidating relationship with a childhood caretaker, where the person was conditioned to believe that their worth was based on what others thought of them or what they can do for others. Many times these messages are given to children totally unintentionally, but as an adult, the person may spend their life trying to prove this conditioning wrong while at the same time acting according to it. It can be complicated and hurtful. For example, someone may not actively seek out relationships with abusive, unavailable or invalidating people, but they may be unable to walk away from them because the pain caused by not being able to prove to this person that they are worthy of love and decent treatment is too much. It's a vicious cyle because every time they are not able to prove it, they are inadvertantly reinforcing this conditioning, driving the idea home home that they need to prove themselves to others in order to have value. At the same time, they are trying to prove that isn't true, that they do have value aside from these things. It's a mess, and it's a situation where people never get what they want because they are relying on the wrong person to give it to them.
It's kind of like having a job where you are totally dependent on tips for your income. No matter how great you are at your job, no matter how far above and beyond you go for them, some people are just not going to leave a tip. That's it. If you are dependent on that to live, you can get in big trouble with just one or two bad customers. In the same way, you can't depend on others to validate your self-worth. It's too important to leave in the hands of other people. You must learn to do this for yourself. Otherwise, you are literally giving other people the responsibility to decide for you what you think of yourself.
Validating yourself is about trusting yourself. It's about believing your experiences and knowing you can trust yourself to show up for you the way you show up for others. It's knowing you can trust yourself not to betray yourself. One of the big reasons people don't trust others not to betray them is because they can't trust themselves in that way. When another adult breaks your trust, it hurts and it's disappointing. But it is only devastating if too much of our self-worth and identity was wrapped up in this other person. Trusting others is only scary if we are relying on them to do for us what we should be doing for ourselves. If you can trust yourself and are validating your own self-worth, it's painful when someone breaks your trust but it isn't the end of the world because you know that regardless, you will be all right. You don't need this person for those things. You can have healthy relationships where people are in your life because you genuinely want them to be, not because you are dependent on them. Most importantly, when you can do these things for yourself, you realize that you aren't responsible for doing them for others. This helps you avoid toxic relationships where that is required.
As you can see, the ego can cause many problems for people if it is not tempered with logic and maturity. This is where pathologically narcissistic people have some of their biggest problems. Because of their dysfunction, they believe the stories their ego is telling itself. These things feel true, even when they make no sense. They have not matured beyond the belief that they are the only thing that really matters and everything happens because of them, and their emotions are so out of control that they are illogical. Narcissists are so desperate to hold on to who and what they are that they are unable to question any of the conclusions or narratives they are creating. They simply accept these things and the accompanying feelings as facts and react accordingly. They have no "checks and balances" system in place to regulate things. All thoughts are believed and accepted as facts. All emotions are believed and accepted as facts. All desires are interpreted as needs. All impulse behaviors and reactions are considered acceptable and necessary.
Narcissism is a spectrum, so the level of ego dysfunction in any particular narcissistic person's life may vary, but if they are pathologically narcissistic, it's usually pretty significant. As we discussed earlier, the ego is the part of you that says "I," and pathologically narcissistic people are famous for only thinking of themselves in any situation. A tragedy that affects the whole family will only be discussed as far as how they are going to suffer. Everything is supposed to stop when they have a problem. Everything is supposed to revolve around them and how they feel. Everyone will be reminded of what is important to them, what they want, what they need and what they require. Constantly. Because the narcissist's dysfunctional ego can never achieve fulfillment, it must be tended to endlessly. It's like feeding a ceaselessly-screaming baby that grows enormous but never gets full. They are trapped in this way of being and don't seem to even understand that it's not the only way to live. Maybe for them, it is.
Avoiding the ego trap yourself with narcissists and in general is very important, because it creates situations where people are hanging on too long, putting up with too much and where they are reinforcing their own old, toxic conditioning by trying to use others to get their needs met. Sadly, many people believe this is love. It isn't. You may in fact love the narcissist in your life; many people do, but it isn't love that causes people to betray themselves in order to hold on to something that is hurtful and unhealthy.