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It’s Not Your Fault You’re a Narcissist

It’s become a simple put-down—so recognizing narcissism in others gets easier and easier, while recognizing it in ourselves is ever more challenging. Who wants to be the (self-absorbed) bad guy? We’ve explored the trouble with narcissistic parents and partners. Now, with the help of psychological astrologer and frequent goop contributor Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., we’re exploring it within ourselves. Narcissism is not your fault, Freed says, who sees the roots deep in childhood. Here, Freed outlines the symptoms of what she calls narcissistic wounding—craving compliments, a disdain for the ordinary, a feeling of not-enough in your relationships—and how to move past it:

Are You a Narcissist?

Narcissus, son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, was known far and wide for his beauty and his cruelty to those who fell in love with him. One day, a rejected nymph prayed to the Gods that Narcissus would experience the rejection he inflicted so callously on others.

Shortly thereafter, Narcissus was lured to a mountain pool where he became insatiably drawn to his own reflection in the water—which, of course, disappeared every time he tried to capture it. In anguish and obsession, Narcissus went without food and water in pursuit of his elusive image—and died of unrequited love.

“The problem with narcissistic wounding at a young age is that it creates an unending, insatiable thirst for external approval.”

If you grew up in a household where your emotional experiences were not sufficiently mirrored, you were not held when you needed nurturing, you were indulged excessively instead of given consistent boundaries, and/or received inconsistent and inflated praise (especially for your appearance or accomplishments), you may suffer from a narcissistic wound.

The problem with narcissistic wounding at a young age is that it creates an unending, insatiable thirst for external approval. Even if you are, say, attractive, successful, and in a committed relationship, your emotional foundation feels insecure, and needs to be shored up regularly. Unhealthy narcissism drains us and others because the spigot of recognition never provides enough nourishment. This is why so many narcissistic people become famous and successful: They are driven by accolades.

Conversely, if a child receives sufficient empathetic responses, appropriate holding and touch, dependable nurturing, and sufficient and reliable structures, expectations, and boundaries, they grow into adulthood with a deep sense of wholeness, a comfort in spending time alone, and a general sense of self-approval.

“This is why so many narcissistic people become famous and successful: They are driven by accolades.”

In the absence of appropriate early emotional validation, a child grows up craving what they did not get. Sadly, no one can give them what they should have received from their parent as an infant/in childhood. It becomes a “frozen need”—a need that, as hard as we try, we cannot travel back in time to fulfill. The only way to attend to this type of early wound is to realize that the parental fountain of attention we wanted is no longer available, to confront that emptiness inside, and to learn to self-soothe in order to fill that gap as an adult—as opposed to the regressed needs of a child.

How You Know If You Have Some Type of Narcissistic Wounding?

You may experience some or all of the following:

  • You crave compliments from others; however, when you receive them, the effect evaporates quickly.

  • You are self-conscious to the degree that you feel like people are always watching you, or you wish they were watching you.

  • You vacillate from a sense of grandiose self-importance to pernicious self-doubt and self-loathing.

  • You are repulsed by others who are openly needy for attention.

  • You are drawn to others who provide intense emotional or sexual contact but are also unpredictably distant.

  • When someone gives you sustained focus and attention, you become very uncomfortable.

  • You seek validation from authority figures; but when you get it, you feel somehow emptier and crave more.

  • Your body brings you down to earth by creating symptoms that require ongoing attention and nursing.

  • You question whether your relationships are vital enough for you; you often yearn for the novel high of those first “in-love” feelings.

  • You have a hard time being ordinary and doing ordinary things. Life should always be AMAZING and HUGE.

  • When people give you constructive or difficult feedback, you feel crushed and the need to defend yourself or attack them.

Healing the Narcissistic Wound

If you recognize yourself in the symptoms above, you might wonder: How do I become whole?

Begin with the understanding that your symptoms are lodged in old childhood attachment failings. This does not necessarily mean you had bad parents or caretakers, but it does mean they were inadequate for you in significant ways.

Start by mapping out the deficits you are aware of. For example:

  • I did not get held when I needed comfort.

  • I was left alone too long when I was upset.

  • My parent prodded me to be someone that made them feel good about themselves.

  • I received intense but very unpredictable attention.

  • It was not okay for me to be needy and dependent on a parent.

  • I did not have an adult who could patiently follow my learning process and assist me in my autonomous explorations.

  • I had a parent that would brag about my talents but would hardly ever help me work through painstaking tasks and figure out practical solutions.

As you recognize the early roots of your wounding, you can start to address what was lost and what needs repair now. Instead of a miracle cure, which is what much of the self-help sensationalists proffer, the work of healing a narcissistic wound is slow, deliberate, tedious, and often requires a very even tempered and non-flattering guide or therapist. It is a gentle and steady process of learning how to internally re-parent those childish wants and needs, and to be able to tolerate the disappointment and sorrow that comes with accepting that no one else can fill in those gaps. Any type of spiritual or psychological practice that involves patience, skill building, honest and kind feedback, service to others, and fearless self-inventory can assist us in this healing.

How do you know if it is working? You notice—a little bit at a time—that you can focus more attention on how other people are doing, rather than what they might think of you, or might do for you. You begin to express yourself more for the joy of creative freedom than for how that expression might be noticed by others. You start to enjoy having time alone without digital devices. Your own experience is interesting enough.

“Your sexual attractiveness is not proof of you being worthy or lovable.”

When people disapprove of you or doubt you, you may feel a little bruised, but then rebound fairly quickly because you are motivated to learn and grow. A sustained, even connection with another person no longer feels boring or beneath you. There is even something relaxing about having kind and reliable people in your life—and you want to be that for them too.

You are in touch with your body and become quite aware that you have physical, emotional, and mental limits. You take time to renew yourself regularly instead of speeding, crashing, and burning. Your sexual attractiveness is not proof of you being worthy or lovable. You stop wanting to use sex, food, or substances to keep you jacked up. You become okay with being ordinary.

“You’re able to be more and more present, instead of always seeking a more exciting moment.”

When other people are lauded and recognized, you feel happy for them instead of competitive or short-changed. Most notably: You begin to enjoy your own company and accept your weaknesses and strengths with detachment instead of self-absorbed obsessiveness. You’re able to be more and more present, instead of always seeking a more exciting moment.

Slowly, brick by brick, a sense of self is rebuilt, sturdier than before—because you also now have a deep compassion for others and their own struggles to be safe, seen, and celebrated.

This is not an easy road. Ultimately, however, it allows you to become the light you have been desperately seeking. That light becomes not only fulfilling to yourself, but creates a glow for others to bask in.

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