If you’ve ever been in a relationship with a malignant narcissist or someone who has narcissistic personality disorder, you might have wondered on more than one occasion whether you are the narcissist in the relationship. Thanks to the gaslighting and manipulation involved in the relationship, a toxic partner, friend, or family member may have convinced you tha you are, in fact, the one who is toxic and that they are the innocent victim. So, how do you know if you’re the narcissist – or not? What if You’re the Narcissist? (See video on YouTube or read below).
What’s the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Narcissism?
Would you be offended if I told you that you have at least a little bit of narcissism in your personality? It’s actually the truth! See, every single one of us has some amount of narcissism.
At its most basic level, narcissism is simple self-interest, so just the fact that you woke up this morning, maybe got dressed and fed yourself? That is an indication of narcissism. Getting your hair done or wearing outfits that you love can be considered narcissistic. Thinking you’re attractive, or smart, or in any way a good person? Also narcissism. But there’s a difference between someone who cares about themselves and someone who is what we call a “malignant” narcissist.
So, let’s talk about that. One of the biggest things that people ask me when they first find my videos, articles, books or podcasts is, “but isn’t EVERYONE a narcissist?” And my answer is always yes. But…there’s more to it than that. See, there is such a thing as “healthy narcissism,” and then there’s what we call “malignant” or “toxic narcissism.”
Healthy Narcissism vs Unhealthy Narcissism
Whether it’s due to our culture, our technology, our parents, or some other cause, a larger percentage of narcissists seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Some people are even calling it an epidemic. And of course, in the past couple of years, tons of new so-called experts have come out of the woodwork, MOST of them doing the work because they have found someone like me and healed, so they’re trying to give back. There are some who aren’t so genuine in their efforts, but we won’t give them any more focus than they deserve.
Is there a narcissism epidemic?
As news and gossip around certain well-known narcissist-types swirl through the media and our minds these days, you’ve got to wonder if maybe there is a narcissism epidemic, right? In any case, there seems to be evidence of an increase in narcissism in our society, and there are those who would argue that there is a certain amount of narcissism that is healthy for most people.
Would you be totally shocked that I agree with “them,” that there is a certain amount of narcissism that is necessary to survive and certainly thrive in the world these days? It’s true. But a healthy amount of narcissism looks a lot more like a dedication to one’s own happiness and success – along with the ability to empathize with and generally care for other people and their feelings.
How do you know what’s healthy when it comes to narcissism?
What does healthy narcissism really look like? Well, it starts with self-esteem. It looks like loving (or at least being okay with) yourself and understanding that you have value without the need for excessive outside validation. It means that you don’t need people around you to be “less than” you in order to feel validated.
It’s being able to be genuinely happy for another person’s success and able to admit it if you feel a little jealous of it. It’s using those feelings to push you to inspiration and success, rather than to feel insecure and threatened by it.
And this next part is especially important. Healthy narcissism must coexist with healthy empathy skills. That is exactly the difference between a toxic narcissist (or sociopath, or person with narcissistic personality disorder/NPD) and a healthy person with a healthy amount of narcissism.
In fact, I personally feel that compassionate empathy – or the lack thereof – is the tipping point between relatively healthy narcissism and malignant narcissism.
When does it turn into malignant or toxic narcissism?
Officially, a malignant narcissist is a person who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) along with other antisocial features, paranoid traits, and ego-driven aggression. They may also exhibit an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement.
But here’s the part that’s really important here – it’s the empathy thing. When we say “narcissists have no empathy,” we don’t necessarily mean that they’re not capable of figuring out what you’re feeling. What we mean is that narcissists don’t FEEL empathy in the same way as most people do. They have no compassion, no remorse and they don’t feel regret – unless they regret a choice they made because it negatively affected them directly.
What I mean is that a narcissist cannot feel genuine empathy, and often, unless it benefits them directly, they don’t even pretend to understand how you feel. Of course, when it suits them, they are more than happy to use the ability to read people in order to manipulate them. In fact, even in the cases where they appear to understand emotion, it’s only to their benefit that they use that ability – only when and if it’s required to get what they want from you. THAT is “cognitive empathy.”
And there’s a big difference between the kind of empathy a narcissist displays and actual empathy. To clarify, in general, real empathy is the ability to sense, understand, and feel the emotions of someone else, even if you haven’t had an identical experience. Now, real empathy might be cognitive, emotional, and/or compassionate.
But either way, real empathy means, on some level, you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You can feel what they are feeling even if you cannot relate to what they are going through directly because you can sort of imagine how they must feel. You feel compassion for them and you care about their feelings because of this – and then you act accordingly.
False empathy is sadly used as a manipulation tactic by narcissists when they want something from you. As emotionally delayed as they are, narcissists are usually relatively intellectually inclined. They can “think about” what someone else is feeling, but it doesn’t affect their emotional state directly, nor does it play a part in how they treat the other person.
Malignant Narcissists Do Not Recognize Boundaries
Narcissists by nature are wired to do whatever is necessary to get what they want, and they do this in varying degrees of intensity, often pushing their victims to the point of emotional exhaustion, isolation, depression, and even various forms of PTSD – and then there are the physical symptoms involved with emotional and psychological abuse.
Considering who these people are and how much they seem to need from the people closest to them, you won’t be surprised to know that they are quite often attracted to their polar opposites, for obvious reasons. While a toxic narcissist will create excessive “rules” for you and will enforce them even to their own detriment at times, they will refuse to accept your own boundaries, and often, if you do have the nerve to try to express those boundaries to the narcissist directly, they will actually intentionally cross them, just because you asked them not to do so.
It is one more way they show you they’re in control. This may start off small at the beginning of your relationship. For example, let’s say you have a new friend who might be a toxic narcissist. You tell them early in the relationship that you really prefer they call you before they drop by. They do at first, but over time, there are little drop-ins that you don’t expect. They’re just dropping off that thing they borrowed from you that one time, what’s the big deal? Or they just happened to be in the neighborhood, but they forgot to call. Do you mind making them a little something to eat?
Then, before you know it, they’ve got their own key and they stop by anytime it pleases them. And they complain if your house isn’t company-ready. Yep. They will slowly push your boundaries bit-by-bit until they completely obliterate them.
Why do we accept this?
We tolerate this kind of abuse for a few different reasons – and you might be surprised to learn why. But here’s the thing. Often, when we end up in toxic relationships with narcissists, we also may have been raised by them – or at least, deeply affected in childhood by some form of abuse or trauma.
Many times, that does come from a disapproving or controlling parent – or a directly abusive one. Or, in some cases, our parents may have just been really neglectful of our emotional and/or physical needs. Let’s talk about why the narcissist chose you and how this is connected to the suffering you’re facing in this toxic relationship.
What do narcissists look for in a partner or friend?
Narcissists seek out empathic, highly intuitive people for a reason – we care about how people feel and we are driven to action by their intense emotional outbursts. This is because growing up, someone taught us that in order to receive love, we needed to keep them happy by doing SOMETHING – we either had to live up to their particular standards for us (and often, those were impossible standards), or we had to stay out of their way, or we had to do whatever they told us to do, or whatever your parent’s particular needs and demands were.
We learned that love was not unconditional, even where it should’ve been, and we learned that our value wasn’t in our individual selves so much as it was in our ability to serve the toxic person in our lives. So, we became people pleasers and we learned that loving someone meant to do anything we could to make or keep them happy, regardless of the personal cost to ourselves and our mental or physical health.
There is also the issues that go along with trauma bonding that complicate things and may lead to C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder).
And let’s not forget how easy it can be to love bomb us – as people-pleasers, we are wired to want people to like us, and to seek the best in everyone. We are willing to put up with being treated like we don’t matter, and we are trained to literally put other people before our own HEALTH even – just to make them happy and to feel like they love us – even though that is clearly not the truth. See how that might make for an ideal source of narcissistic supply?
Narcissists Make You Feel Unlovable
In case you didn’t catch it – and just to remind you – the people who taught you that you weren’t lovable unless you served them and met all of their demands – they were wrong. Actual love doesn’t require you to give to the point of physical illness, or to put your own mental health on the back burner, or to ALWAYS give in and do what the other person wants, even when it’s against your moral, ethical, or personal beliefs. Real love doesn’t require you to give until you’re completely drained and never get anything in return. While a “real love” relationship might sometimes look like 40/60 or 70/30 in certain situations, the “average” ratio of give and take should be close to 50/50.
Bottom Line on the difference between healthy and unhealthy narcissism? Healthy narcissism is self-focus, self-confidence, self-interest, and personal drive, but these qualities must coexist with a healthy concern for others and the ability to genuinely empathize with them.
Unhealthy, malignant narcissism and NPD involve the lack of emotional and compassionate empathy and concern for others, combined with an unhealthy amount of self-focus. And of course, this kind of narcissistic person is secretly quite insecure and very troubled, in some cases – but you may never know that unless you look beyond the smoke and mirrors.
Question of the Day: Do you know a malignant narcissist who displays unhealthy empathy? How have they affected you and your life? Share your thoughts, share your ideas, and share your experiences in the comments section below this video, and let’s talk about it.
You Might Also Enjoy These Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Resources:
- Narcissism Test: Are you in a relationship with a narcissist?
- Narcissism Test: Could you be the narcissist?
- Covert Narcissist Test: Do you know a covert narcissist?
- Self-Assessment: Is your toxic relationship making you sick?
Videos On How to Identify and Deal With a Malignant Narcissist
- How to Spot a Narcissist – 14 Unmistakable Red Flags You’re With a Narcissist
- 7 Surprising Signs Your Parent Was a Narcissist (The Lifelong Effects of Narcissistic Parenting)
- Examples Of Narcissistic Behavior Through 3 Decades (Full Circle Stories of a Recovered Codependent)
- Collapsed Narcissist Female (What to Expect From This Woman)
- What Happens When the Narcissist Snaps and Loses Control?
- Going No Contact with a Narcissist (What NO ONE Tells YOU)
- The Narcissist Has a Selective Memory (Narcissist Manipulation Tactics)
- Disarm Psychological Manipulation In Relationships – Narcissist Silent Treatment
Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves.
Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy.
She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.