Anyone with a giving persona, and a desire to help others, attracts narcissists. You give, they take. It’s a match made in
heaven hell. It’s an utterly confusing dynamic, not least because it’s so surreal. One of the keys to sanity is understanding that, when it comes to love, narcissists come from a completely different place.
Pick an electrical appliance that you use a lot. Maybe your computer, or cellphone / i-phone, or MP3 player. Got one? O.k. You know how an appliance like that can make a great contribution to our lives, to the point where, when it’s working, we really love it for doing all those things?
That’s a lot what narcissistic “love” is like.
You know how, when you truly love someone, whether it’s a person, or even a pet, you can get really angry at them, yet despite the anger, you still feel love for them? That’s healthy unconditional love. It’s not something narcissists are familiar with.
Healthy unconditional love requires a bonding beyond the surface appearance and behaviour of someone. It’s a love that connects you from core to core. You could say it’s soul based. It’s a love that goes beyond appearances. This is not to say that there are no limits to what you will tolerate. You might come to a point where the relationship no longer works, yet, on some level, you continue to love the person, despite their behaviour. This is why letting go can be so hard. There is a loving connection beyond behaviour and circumstances.
Narcissistic love is more superficial. We love appliances, as long as they do what they are supposed to do. Who decides what they are supposed to do? We do. Similarly, narcissists decide what other people are supposed to do, and when expectations are not fulfilled the scene can be a lot like someone swearing at their computer for crashing. It’s not a love based on any core connection, it’s a love based on functionality. I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly grieve when an appliance breaks down and I need to replace it (I might be upset about the cost and effort required for the replacement though).
The Lack of Deeper Connection
Unconditional love requires an awareness of a presence beyond appearances. I imagine that, for a narcissist, it would be akin to asking you to sit in front of your computer and connect to its soul. You might laugh, you might shrug, you might blink. Chances are, you’re not going to find anything to connect to.
Not everyone is able to see beyond the superficial image of others. While doing so probably comes quite naturally to you, it’s important to realize that it is not natural to everyone. The ability to see other people at a deeper level, requires the ability to see ourselves at a deeper level.
For many reasons, that deeper connection to self can be absent. Simply put, due to a combination of severe trauma and a collection of beliefs that state that ‘facing the trauma will just make things worse’ someone can actually become completely cut off from their inner experiences. It’s a recipe for disconnection so to speak. With such disconnection comes the inability to deeply connect to others. On the receiving end, this can feel like the frustrating experience of not being seen by the other, and not being able to get through to them or really communicate with them.
You know those days when electrical appliances break down, and you entertain the hope that if you just “do the right thing” they will spring back to life? That’s the point when we tend to talk to our machines (“nooooo, don’t break down!”). It’s also the point where our conditional love is apparent. There is no old-appliances home for no longer functioning computers is there? Of course not. Now extend that analogy to people, and you’ve got a sense of an extremely narcissistic world-view.
Gradations of Narcissism
Obviously, there are gradations of narcissism. A little bit of narcissistic self-centeredness is necessary. We are not talking about the necessity to meet your own needs here. We are talking about the narcissistic approach of treating people as a means to an end only. Full-blown narcissism is a personality disorder. If you are dealing with someone who loves you when “you do things right” and who stops loving you when you don’t, then you are dealing with narcissistic love, which really isn’t anything like unconditional love at all.
Narcissistic love is the “look at my new i-pod / friend ” love. Later it becomes the “that used to be my i-pod / friend but it no longer does what I want it to”.
Narcissistic love in the workplace is a lot easier to figure out than it is in our personal relationships. In the workplace, a person with narcissistic personality disorder will treat you like their best friend when they want something from you or when they somehow look better due to being associated with you. The next moment (perhaps when you are working on a different project), they will completely ignore you.
In our private lives, narcissistic love is harder to spot because you might be on the “positive” receiving end much longer. If your functionality includes: a shoulder to cry on and a willingness to listen to a lot of venting, then you might be kept in the “appliances I love” category for a very long time.
They Love Me, They Love Me Not
Trying to understand narcissists from the perspective of unconditional love is endlessly confusing. It’s a flower with an endless number of petals: “they love me, they love me not, they love me, they love me not…” Think back to a time when you were in love with someone, and you weren’t sure whether that feeling was reciprocated. It’s agonizing, right? Usually though, that uncertainty wouldn’t last too long. At some point, you’d get a yes or no. With a narcissist, you’ll never get the answer, because it’s not unconditional love to start out with anyway. Whenever you behave the way they want you to, they love you, and when you don’t, they love you not. Yet if you ask a narcissist whether they love someone, they might well say “yes”. Translation: “Yes, I love this person like an appliance, when they do what I want them to”.
The Desire to Fix the Relationship
Being on the receiving end of narcissistic love can make us feel like we need to try harder. Yet at the same time, it can make us feel that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t really get through to or connect to the other person (which is true). We can come to believe that somehow, it is up to us to fix the relationship. For someone who has blocked their heart, to the point where they cannot connect to themselves, superficial functional connections are all that is possible though.
It takes two to have a healthy relationship.
It is impossible to love someone who will not let themselves be seen, even to themselves. The mystery of that can be addictive though. Again, the idea that ‘if we just try hard enough, we will find a way to create authentic connection’, can keep us tied up in a relationship that really only revolves around functionality, but, like a quest for a holy grail, holds the unspoken promise of one day becoming a connection of unconditional love.
For all practical purposes though, this is like trying to deeply connect to an appliance. Narcissists treat others like appliances, because that is as far as their own level of awareness about themselves goes. They are unavailable to us, because -in a deeper way- they are unavailable to themselves. We can’t have a truly loving relationship with a narcissist, no matter how hard we try, there is just nothing to deeply connect to. Trying harder is not going to unlock the magic door to their unavailable heart.
The Dream versus the Reality
When it comes to loving a narcissist, all we can really do is love a dream we have of them. This dream can be so strong (and beautiful) that it becomes something that we come to superimpose on the true narcissist. Every little positive spark of something nice they said or did, enforces the “truth” of that dream. This keeps us at a seemingly safe distance from what is really happening. The dream keeps the painful reality at bay. However, at some point, it’s necessary to see the dream for what it is and recognize that it is impossible to love or be loved by the narcissist. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just that they have made themselves completely unavailable to unconditional love.
(If- right now you are thinking that -despite everything- you do truly and deeply love a narcissist, then ask yourself whether you have allowed yourself to feel any hate or anger towards them. Due to all kinds of beliefs about how we’re supposed to feel, our true feelings can become buried very deeply. When it comes to dealing with narcissists however, any feelings of anger and hate are (as long as they are processed in a healthy way) extremely liberating and healing. It can be a great relief to realize that there is nothing wrong with your psychic radar: that you did know that this person is not a good person for you to spend time with! You may just not have been able to face the reality of narcissists before and therefore had to deceive yourself into thinking that there was a solution. )
What About Helping a Narcissist to Heal?
If you’ve ever tried to really help a narcissist, you know that the closer you get to the heart of the matter, the closer you get to things blowing up in your face. The narcissist doesn’t want their issues to be solved, they much prefer to blame others for their problems. No matter how good your solution may be, share it with a narcissist and they will either find reasons why it doesn’t work or will suddenly come to the “insight” that the true problem lies elsewhere. It’s a diversion tactic. Blame energizes them and keeps them at armslength from their true issues.
Some people believe that sending/giving unconditional love will help, but here’s the thing: narcissists don’t want unconditional love. Unconditional love requires openness and honesty. It requires facing fears, feeling difficult emotions and being open to change. In the narcissist’s mind, these are all awful things that are to be avoided at all costs.
So, when it comes to helping narcissists, every time it seems you are getting somewhere, you are faced anew with an impenetrable wall. Face it, they want to stay behind it. It’s not your fault that you cannot love or be loved by them, they were never available for real love in the first place.
The best thing to do is to let them be and move on. If you can’t seem to move on, ask yourself: what am I hoping to receive? What do I still want from them? Then consider: Have I ever received this from them in the past?
- If so: what did I need to do/give/ give up for that? Was it worth it?
- If not: since the person in question is resistant to change, what are the chances that our relationship will change in the way that I want it to?
P.S. For more on this topic, please also read the other posts on empathy versus narcissism.