By Samuel Malkemus
These reflections are part of a larger body of writing. While there is much written about narcissism, this is my attempt to put my understanding of it into my own words. How does narcissm form? How does it work? How do I heal from it? I hope you enjoy!
You would be lucky if you lived until now without encountering a narcissistic person. While there are gradients of egocentrism, we could say that, in general, a narcissist is characterized by an inability to self-reflect and take complete ownership and responsibility for their actions. And, this inability to self-reflect is coupled to an inability for a genuine connective presence with another. Each of us have narcissistic tendencies and parts of us that want others to conform to our needs, yet a narcissist is deeply rooted and committed to these dynamics. Why is this so?
In my work with clients and my personal life experiences, I have come to see how a narcissistic personality develops. In my work it is very rare that a client has not been significantly harmed by a narcissist. It is perhaps one of the most devastating forms of wounding, both interpersonally, and, for the life of the planet. This is because it is, essentially, a form of dehumanization, disconnecting us from the truth of our heart, and the source of our value. For healing these wounds, it can be helpful to understand, first, what it is that a narcissist does, so that I can extract myself from their energy field. And second, perhaps when the fire of narcissistically inflicted injury subsides some, what makes a narcissistic who there are? How did they become such a pain in the ass?
No one is born this way. There are no “original psychopaths,” as some would have you think. Instead, the narcissistic personality forms as the result of an insecurity that is not adequately tended to. This insecurity grows through a lack of connection—a grounded present other—which is required for an enduring feeling of safety and security. Think of a tender child who is scared, who needs support. Where is there a hand for them to hold? How do they cope with the absence of that hand? This chronic experience of disconnection, and lack of somatic and emotional safety, leads a child to wall themselves off from the world and energetically focus selfward. This selfward focus keeps the child from facing this deep insecurity, which is founded upon the pain of disconnection (a lack of presence from the humans around them).
In the formation of a narcissistic personality a kind of energetic cloud develops that protects a child from their pain. This cloud is at once a metaphor and a literal energetic field of the personality structure that maintains disassociation from early childhood wounds. As the energy cloud solidifies it obscures the innate need for connection and leads to the emergence of a false self, and to an objectification of reality in accordance with the needs of the false self, which are driven by the unconscious insecurity that is the seed of the false self. The false self obscures the true self, who a person is in their essence. Yet the degree to which the true self is hidden varies, and the true self may shine through the cloud in certain instances and to certain degrees.
The narcissistic person projects their energetic cloud onto others, enticing them to conform to the demands of their unconscious insecurity. This can involve the narcissist asserting their perceptions and experience over the experience of those around them. This gaslighting, which asks others to doubt their own experience, and thus their own true self, is needed for the narcissist to maintain their psychological equilibrium. This is because that which does not conform to their false self threatens to break them open to the pain which is hiding within them.
A subtler form of this gaslighting is when the narcissistic person insists that another person should, or must, behave and act in a certain way. Another person, be it their child, intimate partner, or friend, is then objectified and energetically entreated to join in the illusory cloud of the false self, and forget the truth of their own experience—their actual sensations, emotions, and desires—which are hallmarks of the true self. When we are caught in the narcissistic projections of others, we doubt our experience, question our value, and can take on the narcissistic projection such that we view our true self as bad and shameful, and the cloud begins to take hold in us.
In many cases a narcissist is born by developing within the energetic clouds of other narcissists. This is a kind of intergenerational trauma wherein disconnection and unconscious pain is passed from parent to child. In this case, the narcissist sees the insecurity, fear, and pain of their own children as threats that need to be extinguished. These tender and difficult emotions are like ventilation fans that blow away the narcissistic energy clouds and ask the narcissist to face their own forgotten pain.
Many of us walk through the world feeling a deep-seated sense of shame, that we are not of value, without realizing that we are followed by an energetic cloud of narcissistic projection that hides our connection to our true self. It is like there is an energy point within us that is constantly emitting a smoky cloud that makes us doubt ourselves and feel lost in the world, or, if we identified with the narcissistic projection, makes us rigidly identify with the false self and spread our energy cloud to others. The smoke of narcissistic projection is intensified exponentially by human societies that are founded on and structured by the false self. How can we breathe smoke free air if it is everywhere around us?
Healing from narcissistic projection involves clearing away the smoke and finding others who can see through the smoke to our true selves, affirming our value and the truth of our experience. This can be a slow and arduous process yet it is assisted when we can feel and know that our true self is always within us, guiding and whispering to us, asking us to remember who we truly are.