I have been struggling to write something relevant to the current political and social turmoil that might be helpful; yet while I have many opinions, I am not an expert at political, economic, or social trends. But one thing I do know about is narcissism and its effects.
I know that narcissism exists on a spectrum, from charmingly self-absorbed to pathologically destructive, and I’ve known people who fall all along that spectrum. I’ve witnessed the effects of growing up with a narcissistic family member; I’ve been personally affected; and I’ve spent years in therapy healing from it. I’ve had several narcissistic bosses. And I’ve also had, not surprisingly, lots of clients who are dealing with the effects of a narcissist in their lives.
I have been triggered by the election of a pathological narcissist to the highest office in the land, and felt somewhat traumatized these past four years by his words and actions. I know many others have as well. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to write about it until now, now that he’s finally headed out the door. (Cue, “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back no more no more no more no more. . . .”)
Because of my experience, I have excellent radar for narcissists, and avoid them whenever possible. This one’s extreme narcissism seemed so glaringly obvious, I didn’t understand why people voted for him in the first place, and I’ve been at a loss to make sense of why so many voted for him again, after seeing four years of his total lack of empathy and concern for others, the self-aggrandizement, the grandiosity, the meanness, the lies, lies and more lies. His “purposeful, vindictive chaos,” as I heard Jon Stewart say on the Colbert Show in January 2017.
When you grow up with a narcissistic parent, your own sense of self doesn’t fully develop. You are more vulnerable to being manipulated by other narcissists, because you’ve been trained to seek affirmation through people-pleasing. You are more likely to be attracted to, and seek out relationships with, other narcissists. Or you may eventually become one. Unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to have some positive, nurturing adults in your life, and the opportunity to get therapy, and to find a support group.
The support group I found, quite by accident, was Adult Children of Alcoholics, a self-help group modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. At my first meeting in 1982, I was completely blown away as I heard others sharing thoughts, feelings and experiences just like mine, which I had never told anyone. For the first time in my life, I felt I belonged. Which was very weird, because there were no active alcoholics in my family.
Turns out that narcissism is a key trait of alcoholism, and the two co-occur in families with great frequency. In fact, today the group is called Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families. I also learned later that the effects of growing up with an alcoholic can be passed down over generations. But I didn’t need to know those things in order to know that I should keep going to ACOA meetings. What I learned there was tremendously helpful in healing my own wounds, and allowed me to become a healer for others.
When you grow up with an alcoholic parent, you are vulnerable to becoming addicted yourself, whether to alcohol, another substance, or compulsive behaviors like gambling and shopping. You’re also more likely to be attracted to, and seek out relationships with, other alcoholics or addicts. You may become a people-pleaser, or be terrified of abandonment. The most common traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics have been compiled by members, and called The Laundry List.
Back in the 1980’s, when I was learning about my own dysfunctional family dynamics, there was a popular PBS show hosted by a man named John Bradshaw, who talked about family dysfunction caused by alcoholism, and explained how the children in these families each take on different roles to protect themselves, or other family members, from the chaos, confusion, and fear that the alcoholic’s unpredictable rages and destructive behaviors cause. They may become super-responsible, taking over the parent’s role, or they become enablers or super-caregivers. They might fight back against the alcoholic’s raging, or they might try to become invisible and disappear.
Everyone in this country has been affected by the actions of the narcissist in the White House, but just like in alcoholic families, the effects are different for different people. Some people have taken heroic action to speak up and stand up to his bullying behavior, risking their jobs. Others have mirrored him, seeking his approval by striving to be just like him. Others have exhausted themselves trying to make everyone else happy. And some are simply lost, numb, mute. Those are the ones I’m most worried about.
When you don’t develop a healthy sense of self, you can’t take care of yourself. When your sense of self is distorted by narcissism, you can’t take care of others. The narcissistic parent only loves him/herself, and demands unconditional adoration while dispensing scorn and disdain. That is a traumatizing experience for a child. This country is now full of people who have been traumatized by the narcissist in the White House, directly or indirectly.
Rates of substance abuse and addiction are up, so are rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. The effects of trauma show up in other ways: emotional withdrawal or dysregulation, nightmares and insomnia, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, bullying behavior, lack of academic or career progress, or outright failure to navigate the stages of adulthood.
So now what? How do we begin to heal these wounds? We can start by recognizing what has happened to us, and calling it what it is: the Trauma of Toxic Narcissism. Trauma therapists know that the most important first step in healing trauma is to create a safe space for trauma survivors to process what’s happened. Even when the toxic terrorizer has been vanquished, people still may not feel safe. (I know people who didn’t feel safe even after their narcissistic bully was dead.) Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, has some wonderful videos and resources on Healing from Trauma, and Lisa Najavits has excellent books and trainings on Seeking Safety originally developed for women with PTSD and addiction.
We also need to take immediate and strong action to stop the proliferation of toxic ideas and behaviors that the narcissist has spawned, stopping these Mini-Me’s in their tracks so they can no longer intimidate others. The United Nations has published guidance on countering COVID-19 hate speech, which builds on their global plan to counteract hate speech and contains recommendations for business leaders and individuals. This might be a starting point.
I wish everyone would learn what I have known for years: the narcissist doesn’t change. He doesn’t listen to feedback, he doesn’t learn from his mistakes, he doesn’t acquire wisdom, and he is incapable of developing compassion. He only becomes more of what he is: vain, selfish, mean, delusional. But WE can change, and that’s what truly matters.