Through a Mirror Darkly: Pathological Narcissism & the Tragedy of Perception
Key topics explored:
- Self-worth & shame
- Supply & mirroring
- Survival mode & empathy
- Manipulation & control of resources
- Narcissism is a spectrum and narcissists are people; not everyone has exactly the same behaviors or experiences. It's about patterns and mindsets.
- A personality disorder is a diagnosis. A narcissist is a type of person, one who has rigid and toxic narcissistic traits.
- If you recognize some of these things in yourself, remember that there is large difference between displaying narcissistic behavior and being a narcissist.
- The Little Shaman YouTube channel has at least one video about each of the topics covered here if you need more information.
When the Apostle Paul stated that we as people see through a glass darkly, he was saying that we have an incomplete and egocentric view of reality. He was saying that what we see reflected to us about ourselves and the world around us through the mirror of our perception is not always accurate. There is no type of person who lends more credibility to this statement than a pathologically narcissistic person.
The truth is, we all have our biases. We all have our frames of reference. We all have our experiences. We all have our perception. Narcissistic people are not different in that regard. Where they often differ is in how strongly they hold to these biases and how their perceptions are processed. This may not seem like a big deal; after all, everyone sees things a little differently, right? However, we must have a baseline to start from. If four people see a ball and one person sees a tomato, there can be no conversation about the ball or how it got there, because not everyone even agrees that there is one. When perceptions cannot be agreed upon, there is dysfunction and disagreement. If perceptions are widely divergent, there is a lot of dysfunction and a lot of disagreement. When perceptions are so totally different that there can be no agreement at all on anything, communication is now no longer possible. There must be a place to start from, an agreed-upon idea or focus of the interaction. If this is not present, there can be no healthy or productive interaction.
Because of the affected perception of pathologically narcissistic people, there can be no agreed-upon focus or baseline for communication. In many ways, this affected perception is the well-spring of all of the difficulties that are notorious for affecting relationships with this kind of person. It isn't, "You say tomayto, I say tomahto." It's, "You say tomayto, I say basketball." The perception of the narcissistic person is so colored by their perceived experiences and emotions that it can come across as paranoid, eccentric or even delusional. People are at a loss to understand how the narcissistic person has come to the conclusion or idea that they're now espousing, and when asked, it is often difficult for the narcissistic person to explain their thinking. If they can explain, the leaps in logic are often astounding and senseless, leaving people with the idea that they are dealing with someone who is profoundly mentally ill, grotesquely immature, woefully mistaken or perhaps, simply lying.
Maybe it's one or the other. Maybe it's all. Maybe it's none of these things. The pathologically narcissistic person's relationship with the truth - and consequently (or perhaps in tandem) with reality - is tentative at best. For the narcissistic person, feelings are facts. They are evidence of reality. If someone says something that affects them, it becomes a fact (and therefore their reality) that this person said it to affect them and for no other reason. The proof of this fact is their feelings. Because they have "proof," no other explanation or reason will be accepted. It is a backward way of processing information where they fit the facts to their feelings, rather than fitting their feelings to the facts. It is essentially saying, "This is true because I think it is. The proof of its truth is that I think it and if I think it, it must be true." This irrational, circular logic cannot be argued with, mostly because it cannot be disproven. How can you argue facts against a feeling?
When dealing with narcissistic people, many times the feeling is the argument. It is the theory, the evidence and the conclusion. Attempts to prove or disprove the facts surrounding their argument are often taken as gaslighting or manipulation. You can't prove that you weren't trying to hurt them or embarrass them or lie to them or cheat them, because they are hurt. They are embarrassed. They feel betrayed. They feel cheated. To them, that's proof of your intention right there. The reasoning seems to be, "If you did not intend for me to feel this way, I wouldn't." Whatever feeling has been triggered: anger, shame, jealousy or anything else is now calling the shots, and everything that is perceived now is seen through this defensive, suspicious, hurt and slanted lens - and it looks bad. Because the feeling is the argument, they may feel that any assertion you make to the contrary is an attempt to talk them out of their feelings, deny the harm you've done, trick them into accepting something hurtful or dismiss their feelings. This feels like abuse and manipulation. Asserting or arguing the facts of the situation is threatening to narcissists because you are now invalidating their feelings. Which is to say, you are invalidating them. Contradicting the actual facts of the situation feels to the narcissist as though you are contradicting - even attacking - their feelings. Consequently, you are attacking them.
Because narcissistic people are so disconnected from themselves internally, they experience events differently. They assume their thoughts and feelings are being caused by things other people are doing, rather than being a result of internal conflict or problems. This could be understandable or even true, but a lot of times it really makes no sense and instead of at least considering that their conclusions could be illogical, they use their feelings as evidence to double down. No matter how gently you attempt to contradict this experience or assert reality, they experience this as you telling them that they are wrong. Worse, you are telling them that their feelings don't matter and subsequently, neither do they. These things trigger shame in the pathologically narcissistic personality and seem to be experienced as abusive, dishonest or punitive, rather than as an honest attempt at communication. This causes them to dig their heels in even deeper, hold on even tighter and essentially destroys the possibility of actual communication. It has now become about winning, and the stakes are much higher than just a conversation or an argument. Winning is now about validating themselves as a worthy person. This is the bane of their entire existence.
Obviously, most people understand that feelings can be hurt on accident, or that their perception of a situation may not be the reality of the situation. However, narcissistic people do not function this way. Because of their affected perception, they believe that everything which happens is about, to, for and because of them. Therefore, there is no way they could be hurt on accident because everyone is always considering how things are affecting them. They are the most important person in the situation, so how can this not be true? More importantly, their feelings back up their conclusion. The fact that they are making a backwards assessment of the situation does not occur to them and it wouldn't matter if it did. Emotional fireworks with narcissistic people almost always begin with whatever they are claiming the other person did to upset them. Anything they did even directly preceding the situation does not matter, is not mentioned and will not be acknowledged.
If they are physically violent and you threw them out, the problem is that you threw them out. Or you caused the violence somehow. If they have been caught cheating because you saw it in their phone, the problem is that you were snooping through their phone. If they said something horrible to you and you said something back, the focus will be on what you said back, Often, things will be presented in such a way as to make it appear that you've done these things for no reason. This is probably a sincere experience for most pathologically narcissistic people. They really don't think they've done anything wrong. They really do think they are a special case, or have special reasons or are subject to special treatment. When you can justify anything - absolutely anything - in your mind the way that narcissists can, you can essentially do whatever you like. They always have a reason or a scapegoat or an excuse. Always. The reason for this is due to a survival mechanism they use called mirroring.
One of the biggest problems for these types of personalities is that they require the cooperation of others to survive, but have been unable to work out how to successfully achieve this. They require voluntary participation from others in order to function yet are unable to successfully maintain even basic relationships with these people they so desperately need. Even the smoothest, most manipulative narcissist on the earth uses up the goodwill of others eventually. No matter how enamored or spellbound or afraid or dependent somebody is, eventually most people get sick of the way they are being treated. This is disastrous for the narcissistic personality. Many think that narcissists don't care what other people think of them. This could not be farther from the truth. They require other people's input before they can know what to think of themselves.
Pathologically narcissistic people cannot create, sustain or regulate their own self-worth or self-image. The inability to do this is devastating to the human personality structure and often results in suicidal behavior. Once again, narcissists are no different in this regard. However, to combat the inevitable crash, narcissists survive using a tactic called mirroring. We see this in very, very young children. Small children cannot create or maintain their own self-worth or self-image either. They require caretakers to do this for them through the process of mirroring. This is where the caretaker reflects their feelings and their concept of the child back to them like a mirror. If the caretaker consistently reflects positive feelings and a positive image of the child, the child will create a good self-image and have a healthy sense of self-worth. If the caretaker consistently reflects negative feelings and a negative image or if the reflection is inconsistent, the child's self-image and self-worth will suffer greatly. (Keep in mind that this doesn't necessarily reflect reality or refer to anything intentional; for example, if mom and dad work all the time, children may get the impression they are not important and this creates a problem with self-worth and self-image even though it is not necessarily reality and certainly isn't intentional.)
This is the same basic way that pathologically narcissistic people operate. They require the input of others in order to function, the same way that small children require it. Because they already have such pervasive issues with their self-worth and self-image, they cannot tolerate negative reflections from others - whether they are real or not. In the idealization or "honeymoon" stage of a relationship, the narcissist believes the other person is perfect. This is largely because the other person believes they are perfect.
Narcissistic people do not forgive, condone or accept mistakes - from anybody, including themselves. To the narcissist's skewed perception, if someone is not perfect, they have no value. This is why they always have a reason or a justification or an excuse or a scapegoat. It's not a real mistake, it's not a real failure. And if it is, it isn't their fault. As a way to combat their damaged self-image and nonexistent self-worth, the narcissist has created an optimum - if one-dimensional - version of themselves to present to the world that insists on judging them so harshly. It's all good qualities and none of the bad. They use this flexible false self to mirror back to other people what they seem to want. This is how they have learned to survive: through mimicry and mirroring. They have no true interest in other people as people and are simply trying to get their needs met the only way they know. As they mirror the other person, the other person reflects back to them extremely positive regard that helps create and sustain self-worth. "This awesome person thinks I'm awesome!" That would make anybody feel good.
However, the narcissist is a paranoid and suspicious person in general, and especially in relationships of any kind. Others have enormous power over them in these situations, because the narcissist is dependent on this person or these people for survival. This causes them to be defensive and suspicious. Not only do they often believe everyone operates as they do, but as a defense mechanism to combat their nonexistent self-worth, they also believe they are the focus of everything and everyone is just waiting to take from them somehow. Or, they may believe everyone needs them somehow and they are the only ones who can help or fix things. At the same time, they fear the exposure of "who they really are" and the resulting loss of necessary relationships which will culminate in their needs not being met. And, whether conscious or unconscious, they also need someone to blame things on so that they can remain perfect and therefore valuable.
It's a complicated and unbalanced situation that does not usually last very long. Cracks in the narcissist's facade start to show through, often very early in the relationship. In established relationships, this is often experienced as "going back to their old ways." As in, "Mom promised to butt out of my business and stop being so controlling, but here she is, calling my landlord and making everything worse instead of letting me do it myself. She's back to her old ways after not even a month."
In order to achieve the respect of the narcissist (which is really only admiration and envy), they must perceive you to be better than they are in some way or at something. However, the narcissistic person is so self-loathing that this admiration and envy curdles quickly. Admiration becomes scorn and contempt. Envy becomes jealousy. The things that made the narcissist believe you were superior and therefore attractive now make them feel inferior and therefore ashamed. Because they perceive their emotions as coming from outside sources, they often assert that you are doing things to cause this feeling. This is perceived as an attack and will be treated as one. The worse the narcissist perceives you are making them feel, the worse you will be treated. The more you deny these intentions, the less they will believe you.
Part of the reason for this ongoing competitive perception is that narcissists often cannot manufacture anything of their own. They cannot win unless someone else loses. Their entire life is a play they are putting on for an audience of one: themselves. Other people are simply props used to make the fiction more believable - to themselves.
"If other people think I am good, I am good."
"If other people are bad, then I am good."
"If others are wrong, then I am right."
"If the other person has lost, then I have won."
"If others are to blame, then I am not."
Mirroring is the reason we often find that superficial relationships are more important to the narcissist than those with family or people who know them well. The reflection they perceive from those who know them is not perfect. A lot of times, in fact, it's awful. Even if it isn't, they often perceive it to be, because how could it not be? But those who do not know the narcissist have not been tainted with knowledge of the narcissist's abusive, reckless or uncaring behavior. They are pure in that sense and the image they mirror back to the narcissist reflects that.
This can be why triangulation and compartmentalization happen; the narcissist does not want this "pure supply" of positive regard for them to be tainted by those who know them. They will often go to great lengths to keep people in their lives apart for this very reason. If someone's opinion of them changes or they simply perceive a loss in that "pure supply" from someone, they will often reveal their pathological fear of exposure by accusing others of ruining the relationship or going behind their back to tell the person things about them - even when this is completely illogical or makes no sense, such as in a situation where the people involved don't even know each other.
This is one of the most destructive things about narcissistic relationships of any kind, and one of the reasons they are doomed to failure. The narcissist must maintain their flawless self-image at all costs. To do otherwise is to be swallowed by self-hatred and shame. Of course, this is impossible. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. But in the narcissist's unrealistic perception, this is not acceptable. Beyond not acceptable, in fact; the waves of shame it causes are intolerable and even life-threatening. But though reality can be interpreted and lied about, it cannot be erased. There are times when someone simply must be to blame for something. There are failures which cannot go unanswered. There are mistakes which cannot go unpunished. In these situations, the narcissist needs a scapegoat. Now their perfect partner is not so perfect anymore. One cannot be perfect and reflect perfect positive regard for the narcissist while also being to blame for everything. This is where the relationship falls apart, usually on both sides, because what the narcissist wants from their partner is impossible for anyone to give, and their frustration at not getting it is huge.
Narcissists have enormous difficulty resolving conflicting information about one object. Something is either black or it's white. It's either good or it's bad. It's either perfect and valuable or flawed and therefore worthless. No grey area, no in-between. Most of us understand that everyone has positive and negative qualities. We can adjust to this and accept that no one is perfect. Narcissists have immense difficulty with this, not because they believe that less than perfection is worthless (this difficulty is part of the reason they believe that, in fact; you're either one or the other), but because the actual processing of these contradictory things is exceedingly difficult for them.
To try and process these things, for example that a perfect object has made a mistake, causes them extreme distress. This is why they often accuse people of lying, misleading them or betraying them just for not being perfect. They cannot make sense of the situation emotionally and it results in something called splitting.
Splitting is when the mind creates multiple categories or images for one thing, instead of being able to reconcile all of the object's characteristics into a total understanding of it. Rather than a complete and balanced picture of something or somebody, there is a "good" image of the object, and a separate "bad" one. This is something that happens in babies and very small children because they don't have the capacity to work this out for themselves in a way that they can accept and understand. For whatever reason... abuse, neglect, indulgence or some combination of factors, the pathological narcissist's development has been arrested and they are unable to do this, either.
Splitting causes serious issues in relationships with narcissistic people, and is part and parcel to the idealization-devaluation cycle so many people find themselves stuck in. A person cannot be perfect if they are to blame for things. Someone who is not perfect has no value. Someone who has no value does not matter. They are not important. And that is how they will be treated. Until they try to leave, of course, and that is when the narcissist suddenly realizes they are necessary and usually attempts to re-secure the situation. We call this attempt to suck people back in to the relationship hoovering and it happens because the narcissist is suddenly faced with the loss of a necessary situation and their self-worth bottoms out. A bad reflection is better than no reflection, and they will do whatever they can to get things back the way they were. Hoovering is about the narcissist's attempts to control their resources. It is a survival mechanism necessitated by being unable to provide for their needs themselves.
Because people are necessary for the survival of pathologically narcissistic people, they are essentially resources. Narcissists have severe anxiety in this area, because of their deep-seated insecurity regarding their needs being met. They rely on others to do this for them, and controlling people and situations is the way they try to ensure that these resources are secure and their needs will be met. When they are unable to do this, their anxiety can explode into hysteria, rage, violence, cold silence or simply fleeing the situation because they cannot deal with the overwhelming feelings of insecurity and helplessness that come from not being able to control other people. All of the manipulation, abuse and controlling behavior from narcissistic people is an attempt to secure resources from someone who is in survival mode.
Survival mode is the narcissistic person's daily experience, even though they may not appear to be in a survival situation. It is likely for this reason that they seem unable to display empathy in situations where they perceive themselves as being threatened or believe they have something to lose. The new theory in the mainstream medical community is that many narcissistic people do indeed have empathy and those familiar with this author's work know that has been maintained here for years. Many narcissistic people obviously have empathy in some situations, and narcissism is a spectrum, so the percentage of those considered "narcissists" who may also display genuine empathy at times varies.
The key in most situations seems to be whether they feel that empathy will be detrimental to their survival or not. In a survival situation, empathy may not be able to be a part of the equation because caring too much about the plight of others could result in detrimental consequences for yourself. In a survival situation, trusting others, believing them or caring about them could result in yourself getting hurt. If there is one thing the narcissist person tries to avoid, it is hurt. They are concerned only with now and are unable to see or care that the behavior they are engaging in now could cause them hurt later. It doesn't matter. What matters now is feeling better now. Tomorrow will be worried about tomorrow.
When you are in survival mode, you take it one day at a time. Today they are angry or sad or scared or anxious or lonely or whatever they are and they must do something about that immediately, as these feelings are dangerous to the narcissist. They are threatening. They are intolerable. The overwhelming majority of their behavior is designed to manage their internal emotional landscape in some way, but people around them may never realize the enormous amount of emotional difficulty pathologically narcissistic people are having, because so many of them are so good at hiding it. They are so good at hiding it and so disconnected from their emotions, in fact, that many narcissists don't realize it, either. They simply act - or rather, react - to their emotional state, many times without ever even acknowledging it.
To put it simply, fear often cancels out empathy. Self-preservation often cancels out empathy. Survival often cancels out empathy. This facet of the human condition is explored for example on post-apocalyptic television shows such as The Walking Dead. The characters are in a survival situation, therefore they are in survival mode and often must make choices between empathy and self-preservation. Between their desire to help, trust or care versus their drive to survive and their fear of people who might harm them. They want to trust but they can't because doing so is dangerous. After too long of being in this situation and its accompanying mindset, most people - even adult people who previously did not possess any significantly toxic narcissistic personality traits - will eventually lose the desire and even ability to trust or empathize, instead perceiving everything and everyone as either resources to be exploited or threats to be neutralized because survival has reduced everything to this one basic equation. Sound familiar?
This is probably why many narcissistic people do seem able to display empathy when confronted with situations they are not personally involved in, or in situations where they are not threatened in any way. They will not lose anything by identifying with the other person or people, so to do so is "safe." For example, a narcissistic person may be able to feel empathy for people involved in a bus accident that they saw on the news. Or a narcissistic doctor may feel empathy for their patients because the patients are no threat to their authority and are therefore "safe." We see this with narcissistic parents as well, when the children are too young to challenge their authority or reject them by becoming individuals.
Some of this is undoubtedly image maintenance, but some of it does appear genuine. It's easy for them to have positive regard for people and things who do not - or cannot - challenge, judge or abandon them. This is underscored by the fact that if they are challenged somehow or do become involved personally, their perception of the person or situation often changes dramatically; empathy is no longer safe to offer, so it isn't. It is cancelled out by the fear, rage, shame, defensiveness and other emotions triggered by their perception of this previously "safe" person or situation viciously and unfairly turning against them. If you examine your interactions with narcissistic people - and really, their interactions with everyone - you will notice this same pattern of behavior repeating itself over and over again. And of course, some really do have no empathy at all, and what we generally find is the farther down the narcissistic spectrum someone is, the less empathy they will have.
The pathologically narcissistic person's relationship with the world around them is complicated and confusing, both for them and for others who are in their lives. Everything is colored by their skewed, immature and emotionally-charged perception, and because of that, their relationships are unstable and volatile - including their relationship with themselves. As with any other person on the planet, their relationships with others are reflections of their relationship with themselves. For example, something often overlooked about narcissists is that they don't just engage in splitting with others; they also split themselves, and for the same reason. The same good/bad image they hold of others, they have of themselves - hence the false self. The same effort they expend to hide malicious, abusive behavior or betrayal is often put toward hiding silly things no one would care about, such as making a small mistake and it's done for the same reason - hence the inability to take accountability for anything, no matter how insignificant. The way they treat others is indicative of their unacknowledged feelings for themselves, which is why they are often so desperate to prove this is not true.
When you are dealing with a pathologically narcissistic person, the most important thing to remember is that they genuinely do not see things the way that you do. If someone is truly a narcissist, their perception is extremely skewed. Their perception is colored by emotions they cannot regulate or understand (or even acknowledge), dysfunctional coping mechanisms that have become pathological thought processes and knee-jerk reactions, as well as deep-seated beliefs that are often extremely illogical. Perhaps most importantly, many of them do not know that these things are true.
This is why seeking help for this problem is fraught with serious issues, if it even happens. Aside from the fact that they trust no one this much - including themselves, for a narcissist to get help with these things requires them at minimum to be able to use insight which they don't have to engage in successful reality testing, which they can't do. It requires them to use their fundamentally flawed perception and corrupt thinking processes to examine their fundamentally flawed perception and corrupt thinking processes so they can identify - and correct - the flaws in this perception and these thinking processes. For all intents and purposes, this is just not possible. It's using a computer program contaminated by viruses to find the other viruses in the computer. It doesn't work because the program itself is contaminated.
This perception evolved during childhood in an effort to keep the narcissist safe and has now become a pathological process that keeps them stuck in the idea that they are not safe - ever. All facets of the pathologically narcissistic person come back to this one thing when examined. Any efforts to convince them this is not true are experienced as manipulation, because why would you want to tell me I'm safe here with you when clearly I am not? But they are not safe anywhere and it's because they cannot even trust themselves, their feelings or their own perception, much less their ability to fulfill their own needs and care for themselves. Sadly, their dysfunction has evolved in such as way as to "protect" them from exactly what they need to understand in order to make things better. It's a tragic situation in many ways, but you can't fix it. There is nothing to fix; this is what they are. The "bad" side of the narcissist is part of that, just like the "good" side is. These things cannot be separated. It may seem like two different people or personalities, but it isn't. Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde.
The good news is that for those who recognize this behavior in themselves, there is hope. Whether you are narcissistic or a victim who is displaying narcissistic behavior because you learned to be in defense mode all the time, you can change these things. You can learn to trust yourself, meet your own needs, deal with your emotions in a healthy way and use reality testing to manage your perceptions and conclusions. It isn't easy, but it's possible and it is so worth it. It's up to you.