Empathy Can Be Learned: Overcoming Narcissism, One Day at a Time

An earlier version of this post appeared in December 2008.

A couple of years ago, I put up this post about overcoming my own mental illness. In particular, I wrote in response to this post by the Happy Feminist about her relationship with her narcissistic father.

In my years in and around the mental health system, I was consistently diagnosed not with depression but with a personality disorder. More precisely, I was regularly described (by several psychiatrists) as having “cluster b” personality disorders: Narcissistic, Antisocial, and everyone’s favorite, Borderline. Based on the traditional criteria, I hit each and every one of the criteria for the last of these, and many of the crucial ones for the first two. From late adolescence until the cusp of thirty, as I cycled in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals, these diagnoses were offered again and again. And in my 2006 post, I talked in general terms about my recovery, conversion, and transformation. But I didn’t get much into specifics.

I’ve corresponded a bit with Jan at Planetjan, who has written quite a bit about dealing with folks with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (See her first, second, and third excellent pieces.) She wrote something that stirred me up a bit, for understandable reasons:

How is a personality disorder different from mental illness? I had a hard time initially wrapping my head around this one. A mental illness (schizophrenia being the most widely known) can be treated, with varying degrees of success, with medications or cognitive therapy. Most mental illnesses are caused by brain cell synaptic disruptions, most of which are believed to be genetic in origin. I have friends who are bipolar and as long as they take their meds, any symptoms subside and they feel and act relatively “normal.” Mental illnesses typically present themselves in late adolescence or early adulthood. The onset of the mental illness is often sudden and profound. A mental illness descends over a person’s personality like a heavy wool blanket feels on an already warm summer night.

A personality disorder, on the other hand, is all pervasive. The DSM-IV describes a personality disorder as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

With mental illness, a person’s personality is blanketed, or suffocated, by the onset of the mental illness. But the personality of someone with a personality disorder is virtually interwoven into every fiber of that blanket. Unravel the blanket and you unravel their personality.

So someone doesn’t have a personality disorder; they ARE the personality disorder. These personality traits are so deeply ingrained that they defy change.

Bold emphasis mine.

I’ve heard this distinction between mental illness and personality disorders before, of course, though rarely so succinctly expressed. And of course, it brings me up short. Looking at my life narrative, three possibilities suggest themselves as a response to her position (widely but not universally held by the psychiatric profession) that personality disorders “defy change”:

1. Despite being diagnosed with cluster B disorders again and again over more than a decade by a number of doctors, perhaps I never really had a personality disorder — the shrinks were wrong. I just met a whole bunch of the diagnostic criteria, but not the disorders themselves.

2. The diagnoses were correct in the first place, and I’m fooling myself — and a lot of other people — when I claim that I have “overcome” the pernicious influence of these disorders on my psyche and my life. I may have gotten better at disguising the NPD and the Borderline characteristics of my identity, but they still dominate my identity at its very foundation.

3. Jan, and a great many doctors, are wrong. Personality disorders, as powerful as they are, can be overcome.

I want to believe #3, and most of the time, I do believe #3. I seldom give much credence to #1, largely because of the preponderance of evidence over a fairly significant period of time. I do worry, less and less as I grow older, about #2. The fear that I am broken, “maimed from the start” by an aspect of my identity that can be hidden but never erased, comes up occasionally. I know that I have aspects of my personality which continue to meet the diagnostic criteria for at least some of the named disorders, even if I do what I imagine is a very credible job of keeping them from becoming manifest and obvious to others.

I’ve known for a long time that my self-involvement, my preoccupation with Hugo, was stronger than the normal self-regard we see in other, well-adjusted folks. And particularly in the past decade, I’ve been very intentional about developing the ability to hear and connect with others and prioritize their concerns. The problem, of course, is that like many narcissists I was always very good at feigning empathy in order to get close to others so that I could win their approval. (Most folks who knew me in my teens and twenties would nod vigorously at this.) The dilemma, as I first began to contemplate my recovery seriously in the late ’90s, was a simple one: how do I make something real out of something I fake very well?

My Twelve-Step sponsor, Jack, told me to practice a new way of listening to people. Normally, my mind would wander in most conversations, even as my eyes and expressions continued to suggest interest. I spent a great deal of time not only wondering what it was that the other person was thinking about me, but also about what I needed to say or do in order to get him or her to do what I wanted (leave me alone, sleep with me, validate me, co-sign some bizarre or dangerous impulse.) Jack told me to repeat, in my head, everything that was said to me — so that I would hear the other person’s words in the voice I clearly paid the most attention to, my own. He told me to ask the universe (or God) to help me to see what the other person really needed from me. Jack told me that if I let their words rather than my own sink in, I would begin to be able to act in response to them with genuine rather than manufactured empathy. It seemed simple, perhaps too much so — but I tried it. And bless him, Jack’s direction worked.

What I came to understand was that while I might have a personality disorder (exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction), I was not a sociopath. I was not incapable of empathy; indeed, I had a surprising capacity to connect with others. I was able to imagine, quite vividly, how others might feel — and indeed, the intensity of that realization (once the drugs and the alcohol were out of my system permanently) was almost incapacitating. What I realized was that narcissism, for me, functioned like a very loud radio station. As long as I was tuned into to “KHGO” at full volume, listening to a litany of my own needs and anxieties and desires, I couldn’t hear anyone else’s “station” very well. If I had genuinely lacked empathy, I would have lacked the ability to “hear their sounds” at all. But someone who is listening to loud music isn’t incapable of hearing other sounds — they’ve just chosen to drown out everything else. And so learning to lower the volume on my own broadcast was the first key step in learning to hear, really hear, what others were saying and what others needed.

It’s no accident that in the nearly fourteen years since I began what has proved (thank God) to be a lasting recovery, my primary volunteer work has been with teenagers, and with animals. I’ve been a youth minister with various churches and the Kabbalah Centre for nine years; my wife and I have run our chinchilla rescue charity for nearly five. Adolescents and domesticated chinchillas are, almost by definition, remarkably dependent upon loving, caring, responsible adults. Taking care of teens and other small creatures proved the great litmus test to determine the degree to which I had been able to overcome my staggering, clinically disordered self-centeredness. But of course, it’s tricky to use this sort of public volunteerism as evidence for having overcome narcissism. After all, I get at least a fair amount of approbation as a result of what I do. Something teenagers and other non-human animals definitely have in common is a tendency to respond to love and attention with a great deal of the same. I get a lot of love and validation and praise from this work, and that is of course pleasing to my ego as well as to my soul.

I’ve come to accept a basic truth, however: true service to others does involve a commitment to de-prioritize one’s own desires. But a willingness to serve doesn’t mean that one’s own pleasure and validation must be absent. In many areas of life, the greatest moments of delight often come at times of shared joys. (Cooking, sex, traveling, and so on and so on). Rubbing my chinchillas behind their ears feels good for them and it feels good for me. And while it doesn’t mean that there is anything deficient about solitary pleasures (from reading a good book in a hammock to masturbation to a nice long run in the mountains), there is a particularly fulfilling aspect to experiencing one’s own capacity to bring delight to another. The fact that I get deep satisfaction and validation from public service doesn’t mean that my narcissism has wormed its way into every aspect of my life. And it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve come to accept that commonsensical and happy truth.

Some would say that my first hypothesis above was right: the doctors in the various hospitals were wrong, and I was never a “true” Narcissist or a “true” Borderline. Symptoms are not always proof of a particular illness, and there are those who aren’t even sure that personality disorders exist, or can be accurately diagnosed. All I can prove is that I was repeatedly diagnosed with the same personality disorder cluster again and again during multiple hospitalizations. And if — perhaps a big “if” — the shrinks were right, then I think the friends and mentees and students and family and spouse who know me best today can say that yes, Hugo Schwyzer is capable of being loving and empathetic. (Either that, or I’m a pretty swell actor.) The narcissism that was — and at moments still perhaps is — in me is not nearly as manifest as it once was.

In the end, I believe that personality disorders can be managed. The disorder is, in some sense, so much a part of my identity that it can never be fully removed, just as my physical allergy to alcohol means that I can almost certainly never drink in moderation again. But just as spiritual work and physical abstinence keeps my alcoholism in check, so too does this constant intentional focus on “lowering the volume on KHGO” work, I pray and believe, to keep my narcissism under control. I believe in the Twelve Step model of mental illness and addiction as a disease. Thus I believe that the disease is in me, and in me forever; one aspect of that disease is made manifest in a disordered, narcissistic personality. But recovery — though perhaps not a cure — is real. If I choose to ignore my “work”, the volume on that self-obsessed broadcast will quickly drown out everyone and everything that doesn’t meet my immediate needs. But if I do the conscious work I’ve been taught to do, then I will hear you, and feel you, and be able to connect to you without first evaluating how it is you can validate me.

And I’ve got people in my life who can attest to all this: to the man I was and the man I am and the difference between the two. That’s a happy thing.

UPDATE March 2012: I first wrote this post a month before the birth of my daughter. More than three years later, I can say that becoming a Dad has been more exhausting and challenging — and more exciting and rewarding — than I ever could have imagined. I’ve talked to many adult children of narcissistic parents, and their stories of bewilderment and betrayal are sobering. One day at a time, I do everything I can to be as connected to Heloise as I can be, to be present with her. Blessedly, I don’t spend much time at all worrying how she feels about her papa; what matters is the certainty and love and reassurance I can bring to her.

And yet, I’m vigilant. If narcissism never really goes away, and is rather something from which I get a “daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of my spiritual condition”, I can’t afford not to be. Especially with a daughter.

29 thoughts on “Empathy Can Be Learned: Overcoming Narcissism, One Day at a Time

  1. I’m painfully close to getting my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Hugo, so I can talk out of a smidge of expertise (literally a smidge — I’m not specifically expert in personality disorders).

    PDs are hard to beat, yeah, but they can be beaten. Hard work and constant vigilance can do some of the duty, but time and development do a lot, too. Cluster B problems tend to moderate a bit with age, particularly after you hit forty or so. Antisocial types, frex, stop going to prison quite so often after that. Of course, there’s a survival curve involved: you know perfectly well that some of your Cluster B habits could have gotten you killed, and that’s true for a lot of people. So not everyone with Cluster B makes it to age forty. But those who do, tend to be people who have figured out how to manage their habits of thought and behavior — maybe even how to manage their emotions a bit.

    Do you think there’s a development piece here for you, separate from the hard-work-and-vigilance piece? I myself don’t have any PD, as far as I can tell, but I did notice that my hormones stopped kicking my emotions around quite so hard, sometime after I hit thirty. What are your thoughts?

  2. Seems like you’re a good egg. Narcissism is basically a sign of settling for other’s positive opinions of you in lieu of one’s own positive regard. Looked at in this way, one would have to be incredibly humble and prone to underestimating the goodness of life, to view everything in these terms.

    The cure for such humble self regard would not be profound self-policing (although self awareness never goes astray). Rather, one would have to see life itself in terms of abundance, such that nobody competing with you on any level can ever take anything away from your sense of well-being.

    I think one finds this normal state of mind if one is at all capable of relaxing.

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  4. I commented here and there about this aspect of you during the debacle. Others seemed so focused on “the narcissism” as a defining aspect of you and your behavior.
    I don’t pretend to know you at all deeply or personally, but I’ve read much of what you’ve written and the experiences others have had knowing you. I don’t see NPD. I just don’t. Which is not to say that you have not struggled with narcissism. But there’s a world of difference between the diagnosed personality disorder and the wide range of narcissism as a personality trait that we all have.
    I am generally loathe to diagnose from afar, but, hey, people with no training or degree or knowledge-base whatsoever had no problem doing so in several hundred posts worth of ad hominem, soooo: You don’t fit the hallmarks of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And it’s not that you play the game well. It’s that you are willing to be the subject of others dislike. True NPD’s will not stand for that. They will beg, cajole, insist and finally reject those who don’t like them or see the world they way they see it. We all have people who like us, and don’t, for who we are. The NPD cannot handle that. They must be surrounded by those who see the greatness within them at all times.
    To the contrary, while you don’t like it much (and who would) you stand up well to the deep and hateful negative opinions others have had of you.
    That, by itself, eschews the NPD label.
    Did you/do you have narcissistic traits? Oh hell yeah! I haven’t met an addict/alcoholic who doesn’t. But it’s telling that as you became clean and sober is when you discovered your ability for empathy. I venture it was always there and buried beneath a 14 year old boy’s fear/self-loathing which became treated with substances instead of substance for nearly two decades.
    Sorry if I’m going on too long, but I was frustrated a LOT by all the uneducated armchair diagnosticians flinging psychobabble crap around a couple months back.

  5. Hugo, I was interested to read about your quest to develop/experience genuine empathy. And thank you for the link to my 3-part series, “Close Encounter with a Narcissist” on my blog planetjan. While I applaud your introspection, I stand by my original response to your original post in my post, “Can a Narcissist Be Cured?” Self reflection is the antonym of narcissism, so although you might be extremely narcissistic, I doubt that you meet the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Having lost my father this last week has made me reflect on the role of a father in the raising of a daughter. I can honestly say my father never had to feign empathy or even think twice about his “feelings.” As the child of divorce (back when divorce was rare and made him a social pariah), his inner injured child manifested itself by overcompensating to be the best parent he could be. I wish you all the best in parenting your daughter, but for most of us, empathy is a no brainer – that is we don’t have to think about it – it’s only natural. I can only hope that you will one day know this firsthand.

    • Nice try Jan. I can clearly see the condescension in your remarks to this man’s post. See Jan, we survivors of malignant narcissists have this inate if not learned ability to see through the most well crafted b.s on earth. You’re good at feigning empathy for this man but not good enough to fool me. The real question is: why do you feel the need to patronize a man for not only having the enormous courage to face his demons but also a man who has demonstarted the enormous fortitude to struggle with his desire for recovery daily? Perhaps you’re subconsciously resentful of his ability do so because your in deep denial that your father wasn’t truly the “saint” you made him out to be. That said, I’m sorry for your loss. Perhaps you would be better served by facing your own inner demons though rather than minimizing another person’s valiant efforts to face theirs. Best of luck to you in your recovery.

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  7. “….an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

    Here’s something I wish someone in the know would explain to me, as an anthropologist: how does a responsable psychiatrist define what “the expectations of an individual’s culture” are, exactly?

    What’s the science behind that?

    • Very interesting indeed to have an anthropologist enter the discussion. It brings forth an interesting and welcome (at least in my eyes) theory to the discussion. I’m sorry I didn’t find this thread a couple years ago when it was fresh, but better late than never. I was pretty deeply immersed in the anger stage of my recovery then though and probably quickly reversed back into denial. I’ll credit my open mind and my wife, who is a mental health therapist though for saving me from that hopeless cycle. And no, my wife was not my therapist before I married her lol. Quite the contrary actually. I was never exposed deeply to psychology until I met her. My naturally curious mind then took over and hence, my very tough introspection began. After much self discovery, I will admit that psychology does have it’s benefits. By no means is it an exact science though and probably never will be. However, I do believe it can serve as a roadmap to self discovery though, which is in itself very useful in becoming a stronger more self-accepting person.

    • Very interesting point Thaddeus. As a 42 year old male son of a malignantly narcissistc father, I can tell you that even in a culture as deeply narcissistic as ours, some people with NPD do transcend even America’s “normalized” standards of “acceptable” narcissistic behavior. My father is certainly one of them. Some of my siblings were vanquished by him, but I’m stuuborn as hell and fought him tooth and nail when necessary. I incurred his wrath several times for it, but always emerged from the ashes eventually. He drove my younger brother into a deeply passive aggressive, schizoid personality type. I ended up with some pretty anti-social personality characteristics, but apparently escaped becoming a full fledged socio or psychopath. Somehow, I ended up with a very low fear mechanism and a temper that can be psychopathic when I’m pushed far enough, but I seem to have developed a genuine capacity for the ability to empathize some and to love selectively. Regardless, I’m finally accepting of and comfortable with the man I’ve become, faults and all. Perhaps, I’m the “poster boy” for what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. Then again, I suppose that may depend on what one’s definition of death is ;-)

  8. Heh, the antisocial over on that other blog loves this post like crazy. It’s interesting to see how folk who cannot really be “fixed” by meds and docs have to figure out their own way to get shit done and function and oh, live in a world with other humans in it. Supposedly those with my particular issue mellow by 40 or so. 40 now, fingers crossed….but then I wonder what life will be like if I do mellow? But good on you for actually WRITING about your issue and how you work day to day- IMHO when folk don’t like you and will look to throw stones- that takes serious guts.

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  10. Cliché, but I truly believe that if you can feel remorse and be aware within the moment and within EACH moment to the best of your ability…that is “recovered” for personality disorders. Authentic humility, understanding, and awareness is the key.

    I have “BPD”. Apparently abuse/parents/Western-society-perfectionism is to blame, and I have my share of all three. I am 50% Irish and most of my mom’s side has schizophrenia; I believe strongly that “BPD” is a manifestation of schizophrenia within a different culture. BPD and NPD are drawn to one another like magnets and both are becoming exponentially more common. My belief is that instead of demonizing personality disorders we need someone to stand up and break them down, make them understandable and accessible like RD Laind did for schizophrenia in our parents generation.

    Narcissism is the ROOT of love, hence Oedipus. UNDERSTANDING is HEALING.

    Shame and simplistic answers is just passing the same issues onto the next generation. Time for people like you and the rest of us confused and suffering to stand up, take responsibility, build community/support, and show that NPDs and BPDs have empathy, want to heal, are not monsters but simply victims of a generation who have agency of their own.

    • You seem like a nice woman Rachel, so I really hate to say this, but people with NPD do not want to heal and have a very limited ability if any for empathy. Your outlook is noble, but I believe you are misguided or misinformed on NPD. People with NPD completely lack the will to even admit that they are deeply flawed, hence the inability to change or heal as you put it. Self-awareness is the first step in any recovery. Without it, there is no recovery. BPD and NPD are two completely different disorders. The truth is, NPDs see you as easy bait. I don’t mean to crush your spirit. I’m just trying to introduce a more pragmatic way of approaching and dealing with NPDs. Sadly, they will just victimize you again and again until you take a stand and fight like hell. It’s not about being a masochist to survive them. Masochists are only fooling themselves if they consider that survival. That’s just servitude. Plain and simple. You’re obviously a beautiful woman (the icon). The key now is to realize that your inner beauty doesn’t depend on someone else’s perception of what that should be. To allow others to mold you, is allowing them to control you. The key to overcoming BPD, is to search hard for your true inner-self. Allowing others to define who you are or should be, is an endless road block to self-discovery and hence a recurrant obstacle to healing. I truly wish you the best in your recovery.

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  12. I very recently realized that I have been involved with a person with acute NPD. My initial reaction was, “stay away from this person”. But now I am wondering if I shouldn’t be helping the person to realize what he is doing and to see if I could be of any use make him aware of what he is going through, and to help him if not manage to come out of it, at least to manage it in such a way that he does not lose himself (His marriage is already going through a rough patch and about to end in two or three months). Reading your post makes me to feel hopeful for this person. But I don’t know where to start because he has refused to take professional help. Would be a good idea to make this person to read articles on NPD and may be even make him read your post? Would it give positive reinforcement? Is it alright for a nonprofessional like me to introduce this term to my friend?

    • Goodluck Banu. I strongly suggest you research a lot more on NPD. First of all, you’ll never ever be able to “make” a person with NPD do anything….Unless…you can figure out a way to make them think whatever you want them to do is their idea instead of yours. This man obviously has you in his trap already. It would be best for you to abandon your ideation of being able to “fix” anyone, let alone someone with NPD. That just flies in the face of reality. You’re deluding yourself into thinking that he even deserves to be fixed let alone that it’s even possible, which it isn’t. I’m sure some here may try to label me a cynic. Feel free to. I’m no cynic. I’m a pragmatist to the core. You must either outwit the NPD, out fight him (goodluck, that’s no easy feat) or just walk away. Your best option is clearly to walk away. Why do you have so much invested in this man? He’s married to another woman. Even if he is being honest with you about wanting to leave his wife (which is very doubtful if he truly has NPD), he’ll just do the same thing to you eventually. Here’s a little secret I discovered to vanquish a narcissist. LEAVE them and NEVER look back if you can. Abandonment is a narcissists worst nightmare. Their well crafted image of self-confidence is just that, an image. Nothing more than smoke and mirrors to hide an empty shell. Don’t confuse healthy narcissistic traits with NPD. NPDs are full-fledged, malignant narcissists. They don’t change. Ever! The change must come from within you to either accept them as they are, warts and all, to fight like hell or to walk away. Those are your only choices period. Expecting them to change is just a pipe dream. I chose option 2. Accepting my father for the enormous jerk that he is never was an option for me in my mind. Walking away from him forever being that he’s my father and albeit a bastard, wasn’t an option for me either because he’s also my employer in a family business we’ve had for over 40 years. That only option 3 for me. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m almost 70% Irish and have a natural predication to resist domination I suppose. You must chose your own path though for your unique set of circumstances. Just please don’t delude yourself into believing that he will change. Believe me, he won’t.

  13. Came Googling for some information on Narcissism after realising it has been one of the big destructive (and self destructive) forces in my relationships and life.

    The advice to repeat what other people say in my head is fantastic. Already started using it. It’s so simple to follow that it looks easy to incorporate into my unconscious habits.

    All the best to you.

    And thanks.

  14. i am very grateful for your posts. I just realise yesterday that i am narsistic. Got it from my mom. I am going to try the method of repeating it in my head.

    However, i am very embarassed by my previous behaviours and wish i could turn back time. I hav a friend going through this as well. but she has not ‘woken’ up yet. Perhaps to help her is also to help me.

  15. How we write about /imagine ourselves to others is not always the same as our spontaneous reactions in actual life situations. Perhaps some Ns can reflect on themselves on the computer screen to get narcissistic supply–but they may have absolutely no control over themselves in the heat of the typical narcissistic moment. Indeed, don’t Ns say that they cannot seem to control the horribleness of their reactions in the course of daily life but always regret them later? I see blogging on NPD as being that “after the fact” stage when the sated heart and avenged head has grown clear(er); but it’s really how we behave in actual, daily life interactions with others that are the basis of our NPD status. Before discovering my condition had a name, I used to describe my violent reactions as being like a wolf springing out of my chest, going for the jugular of my interlocutor. Ultimately, I had to stop involving myself with other people altogether. I would not recommend a N have children, because I do not think there is not enough recovery possible to warrant a N’s potentially abusing a child. Just my opinion.

    • You made some very valid points. I see a pattern here of some people confusing narcissistic traits with having full blown NPD. There’s a major difference. Narcissism runs on a spectrum. All personality disorders do. Some people will develop a few traits of various personality disorders but not exhibit any full personality disorder. The reason why personality disorders are so difficult to treat is because they aren’t technically a mental illness. Think of it as people being blankets and personality disorders or traits being the fabric of the blanket. The only way to change those disorders or traits is to completely unravel the entire fabric of yourself, the blanket. That’s the most difficult obstacle to recovery for most. Changing or modifying your core personality is an incredible feat but not impossible. The first step is acceptance of yourself and your situation. It takes an enormous amount of self-confidence to even begin that journey, let alone complete it, but it is possible. It does require a great deal of determination, focus, will, self-discovery and a willingness to accept temporary set backs or some defeats. Some battles will surely be lost but you can win the war. It probably didn’t hurt my fighting abilities that my father is an ex-marine fighter pilot even though he’s a malignant narcissistic. I always listened intently to his military and war stories and learned how to fight from them. I used his own hubris against him. He’s 83 yrs old now and still giving my entire family hell but I’m staying entrenched until the very end. I expect that he will leave us with nothing, which has been the hardest realization of my life. I’ve gone through the extremes of every emotion imaginable but I still stubbornly refuse to let him take my soul. That’s one thing he’ll never get. If he does, I’ve lost. For the sake of my wife and 18 month old child, I’ll die before I let that happen. A person that stands for nothing will fall for anything.

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  18. I feel empty a lot of the time and kind of unhappy. I was married for 29 years and think that I have narcissistic traits often blowing up at little things and not really connecting with my 3 boys or ex-wife and being more task oriented. I worked hard while wife stayed home, working full-time while starting a business when boys where 3 & 1. The business that did ok but was stressful to run (still have it) and after a few years I was able to quit my full-time job. About 10 years ago my wife fill out of love with me and though at times I’d feel close for the most part I felt outside looking it. When my ex left me I cried while walking the dog, worked on improving myself by dropping 40lbs and exercising. After a 1 year separation we had an amicable divorce as she had fallen for another before we separated but I wasn’t aware of that until about 4 months into our separation. I gave her plenty of chances to change her mind as she is a good person with a good heart who just couldn’t love me, possibly cause I wasn’t able to connect, not complimentary enough, got angry or bossy a lot. It was stressful starting up a new business and only me taking care of the finances. She could never relate with the stress I was under regarding making ends meet.

    After my divorce I met a woman who also just came out of a divorce after 14 years and she immediately falls in love but I’m still not over the loss of my marriage. She’s very complimentary, loving but gets down a lot which bothers me. After years of not feeling love from my ex it felt great to feel desirable but I guess that doesn’t mean so much anymore to me. She left her ex with nothing and I helped budget her finances, purchase her stuff for her place so her boys would have beds, t.v.’s. She says I am critical and make her feel bad at times. She had no discipline with regards to money so was a struggle to show her how to get her finances under control. She’s been living within her budget now for 5 months and paid off all her credit cards (thanks in large part to a big tax refund) while on a $9.60/hr job and $400/mo from her ex who isn’t obligated to pay as not in divorce just feels compelled I guess cause he got everything. As I’ve been getting in shape more I’m kind of pushing her to get in better shape too which she is resisting but as she is getting in better shape she is liking it more. She goes between “I’m doing this so you’ll like me more” to “I’m starting to like running more” to “I don’t want to change I like who I am”. She whines and gets down about lots of little things which bothers me as she could simply do a lot of the things but she’d prefer to complain. I guess her ex took care of most everything from how she describes it. I’ve not spent anytime with her two boys out of respect for their relationship with their dad though will likely soon as her ex is starting to get over her and now has a girlfriend.

    Yesterday I left the keys in the motorcycle and drained the battery and wasted a few hours trying to jump it after work and so was in a bad mood. As I’d been paying for dinners & food due to her budget and cooking a lot I was feeling the situation wasn’t fair and that she should cook more than once or twice a week and brought that up. She felt she was a guest even though she’d live with me 4 or 5 days a week and stay at her place when her kids were there 2 days a week (sometimes she’d stay home if she was feeling down). So she broke down in tears and said I was being hurtful and beings as I was feeling down there likely was a better way of saying this. She has a similar personality to my ex and maybe I just don’t find her strong enough or ambitious enough, or, maybe I have narcissistic traits and it wouldn’t matter whom I’m with.

    As for me, I was sexually abused by my grandfather when 3 while recovering from spinal meningitis and hit in the forhead with a rifle butt in the Army (and partied a lot) that required stitches and did drugs during that time so maybe my brain is messed up and I have that brain problem that football players get (plaque in the brain) as their symptoms seem similar. I haven’t gotten drunk or high in 30+ years. I post all this to see what some of you “experts” think may be my problem, if I’m a narcissist and if so will I never find true happiness because of this or have I just not found the right woman?

  19. Very interesting article and comments, thanks.
    I just wanted to mention that the stress management technique Transcendental Meditation (TM) has been shown in studies to improve personality traits..and as a bonus, TM is also recognized by the American Heart Association as the most effective self help technique to reduce blood pressure and thereby reduce the likelihood of heart attach and stroke.
    (Google: ‘Transcendental meditation, American heart association’).

  20. Just stumbled upon this webpage. My 21 year old son has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder tendencies. Whatever you call it, he exhibits a complete lack of empathy, physically and verbally, alienates himself from people, dropped out of college, has difficulties in the workplace, engages in dangerous behaviors (i.e. steals money, credit cards) to buy things for himself. He is unable to integrate praise and blames everyone for his predicaments. He exhibits a “why me” attitude when presented with professional diagnoses. On the outside, he is a very handsome guy with an amazing bodybuilder physique. I could go on but he sounds like a mini Hugo. Where does one go from here? If this kind of diagnosis is resistant to change and he is resistant to all forms of treatment, are there any “sponsors” or programs that are effective in cracking thru before he cracks himself and those who love and support him?

    ….A desperate Mom

  21. I am engaged to a narcissist so this helped me better understand from a different view. I have been questioning our relationship for a very long time and wondering had he always been this way or did it just happen over time. so much makes sense now. Question is, will he learn to manage it as you have?
    thank you for your story!

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