Narcissism is something I think most of us understand and some of us maybe have had first-hand experience with, and now all of us perhaps have a certain figure or two in mind who exhibit classic narcissistic behaviors. A little while back I wrote about how to deal with the narcissists in our life. What I would like to explore now is how to not have black and white opinions about those with narcissistic tendencies.
Whether a person has narcissistic or other negative behaviors, it is easily to label them as bad. As we learned about our own shame, we want to be careful to only label the action, and to not label the person. Behaviors and actions can change if we are willing. Just as we want forgiveness for when we are not at the best, we owe it to others to not judge and condemn them for their actions. All of us can act bad at times (guilt), but we should not be forever labeled as a bad person (shame).
If you are like me, you may often see things in a continuum. We see people on one end of a spectrum or another. For example, either you are a liberal or conservative. For this discussion, you may see the line as being narcissist on one side and being empathetic on the other. What I have come to believe is that no person is on a single continuum. We are more like a chili with multiple ingredients. We all have some narcissism and some empath in us. I like to think of it more like a bar chart with multiple possible combinations.
In the chart above, the first person is more of the typical narcissist. This person is strong in both self-centeredness and victimhood; they see the world as all about them and feel they are unfairly treated. On the other hand, Person 2 is more the classic victim. This person does not think of themselves and often focuses on others, leaving Person 2 feeling like a victim of others’ actions. The final example is a fairly healthy person. They have a strong sense of self, balanced with empathy. They take care of others and have good boundaries so they can take care of themselves.
We all have different elements in us, and these elements may shift depending on who we are with and the situation. I often hear how people can be loving and kind to a stranger, but have a hard time being as accepting and compassionate to their own family. It is also important to remember that we are all ever changing, and we all have the capacity to change.
Before labeling someone as a narcissist or putting them in some other negative descriptor ask:
- Does this person always act like this, 24/7, 365?
- Do they act differently around others than they do around me?
- Do they only have one negative facet to their personality, or do they also have other positive facets? (In the example above, even though Person 1 exhibited high narcissistic/victim behaviors, they were also caring and giving to others – maybe with a self-serving motive in mind, but yet, they give.)
- Can I name three times this person acted in ways other than the negative way I am perceiving them?
When we label someone, we sentence them to be that certain way for the rest of their life. Even if they do not act that way ever again, we can only perceive them as we have labeled them. Just as we would wish that others treat us with an open and forgiving mind, all those we interact with deserve to be treated with compassion and openness as well.
It is important to note that being understanding and accepting of other’s negative behaviors does not mean you have to put up with them. Healthy boundaries can protect you from other’s behaviors and provide you with the ability to be compassionate, without hurting yourself.
Understanding, acceptance, and healthy boundaries can certainly make for a better world.