Or is someone just making this crap up?
When a friend invited me to join a group for survivors of narcissistic abuse, I turned her down. The truth was I felt so much shame that I didn’t feel good enough to talk about what happened to me.
Contributing to my shame was a false belief that I had somehow been complicit in the abuse because I hadn’t stopped it. Like many survivors, I blamed myself. I asked myself questions like — why me? Why didn’t I see that coming? Why couldn’t I stop it? My default was to blame myself before the narcissist. Sometimes I even wondered if I was just a bad person who deserved what happened.
When I finally got up the nerve to enter the group, I was surprised to hear other people’s stories. It was validating to find out that other people had gone through similar experiences. Many of their stories echoed my own. For the first time in my life, I felt safe enough to spill my secrets.
The group was healing and cathartic until I heard someone making excuses for a narcissist by saying “Well, we’re all a little narcissistic.”
Two things bothered me about this statement — the first was that it sounded like an excuse for the evil that had been done to me and countless others. The second was my own fear that what happened to me was my fault — perhaps I was a narcissist too. So in the middle of trying to get my bearings after the trauma, I began to spin with false guilt. I began to fear that I was judging my abuser too harshly. I felt nauseated to think that I might actually be like them.
When people make the claim that we’re all a little narcissistic they are drawing from studies that suggest that all human beings are on a scale called narcissism. By its very existence, such a scale seems to be measuring the wrong variables.
I’m not sure if all people are narcissistic, but I am convinced that such a generalization harms survivors. Why? Because most of us blame ourselves in the first place and now in the middle of trying to sort out what exactly happened to us, we are hit with the idea that we might be just like our abusers. The thought is overwhelming and almost too much to take for some people.
In the middle of healing from the trauma, I had to stop and ask myself the question — am I a narcissist? One of the narcissists in my life had accused me of being one and like many other survivors, I wondered if it was true. After all, I’d been taught that self-care is selfish to the point that standing up for myself felt wrong.
One of the most helpful tools I’d discovered in the survivors’ group was the language survivors use. Terms like flying monkeys, gaslighting, love-bombing, triangulating, and scapegoating, gave me a language to understand what had happened to me.
Using these terms, I began to ask myself some questions.
Do I have flying monkeys? Do I try to get other people on my side to attack and persuade others against their will? No.
Do I gaslight by making things up for the value of entertainment or mess with other people’s minds? No.
Do I lovebomb, flatter, and give gifts to use people and then discard them? No.
Do I triangulate by gossiping about others and running a smear campaign on other people to the point of murdering their reputation? No.
Do I try to get revenge on people by scapegoating them, then shutting them out of the group? No.
We’ve all had many occasions for anger in our lives. Many nice people have been tempted to get revenge or talk about the people who have harmed us. Who hasn’t insisted on their own way at some point? Even if someone is guilty of all of these behaviors, that alone does not make them a narcissist.
The key to understanding whether we are all a little narcissistic lies is in a book titled The Empathy Trap by Dr. Jane and Tim McGregor. They claim that those who are truly narcissistic lack empathy. It seems to be a good explanation for cruel and deadly behavior.
No one ever says, “We all have a little sociopath inside of us,” but they say this about narcissism. Empathy is the factor that separates abusers from victims — the dangerous from the safe.
Are we all inherently selfish? Probably. Have we all done mean things to someone else at some point in our lives? Yes. Have we been self-centered or cruel to someone when in a family fight? Most definitely. Have any of us lied about or used another person? Yes again. So many things we hate about the narcissist, we might have done ourselves at one point. If we only look at such behavior with a single lens, it might look like we all have a little narcissist inside us. But if we apply another lens — measuring the empathy factor, we get a completely different picture.
The scale we should be using to determine narcissism is not selfish behavior, but empathy. Every human being has self-centered moments, but that doesn’t make us narcissistic — it makes us human. It’s the selfish moments plus lack of empathy that determines narcissism.
Yes, we are all a little selfish, but we often regret it. Yes, some of us have lied or used others, but then we had regrets and changed our course. In grade school especially, many of us bullied or scapegoated another child and we still feel bad about it today. Some have even sought out that person and apologized decades later.
When someone has empathy, they view their behavior toward others with grief and healthy guilt. They try to make things right. A narcissist will never do these things because they lack empathy. They might make a false apology, but only to get something from you. This is the line that must be drawn for us to understand that we are not like our abusers.
So let’s stop saying that we are all a little narcissistic. It’s more realistic to say we are all a little self-centered or selfish or even mean on occasion, but empathetic people who actually have a conscience, don’t deserve to wear the narcissistic label.
Cherilyn Christen Clough broke the rules when she started writing about her family’s secrets. Some claim she sold her soul to the devil, but she prefers to think of it as gaining freedom. You can read about her strange childhood in Chasing Eden A Memoir.