One of the characteristics of the narcissist is their lack of empathy. The majority of humans are willingly influenced by their emotions. Some more than others. Empathy allows us to feel the plight of another person and want to help them. Shame regulates our grandiosity, and reminds us that we’re not gods who need everyone to bow down to us, but rather that we are humans with flaws who need to get along and who are in need of constant improvement and adjustment. Guilt forces us to reflect on our wrong actions and make amends. These feelings can be painful, but they are also good. They help us maintain healthy relationships, to coexist and to create a better world.
Narcissists don’t care about any of that. They couldn’t care less about your feelings. As far as they are concerned, feelings are not about creating a harmonious society or fostering fulfilling relationships – they are a way to control you. Gaslighting, triangulation and hoovering are the subtle and often not so subtle techniques that narcissists use to control their targets through emotions. Saying a certain thing in a certain way can set off the emotions of their target and cause them to react. Narcissists are well aware of this. Tactics, however, crucial as they are to know, are focused on what the narcissist does. What we need to first understand, is what the narcissist is;
Narcissists are shameless.
This is one of the defining characteristics of the narcissist. A narcissist is not in touch with their empathy or shame. Some people claim that narcissists have no capacity for shame at all, others that they have disowned their shame from an early age in exchange for a grandiose, false self. Either way, narcissists are shameless.
Shamelessness is the most subtle thing about a narcissist and the most difficult to see. It is also at the core of a narcissist and what makes them so deadly to our well-being. By being shameless, the narcissist does not have to self-reflect. By being shameless, the narcissist does not have to admit to their limitations and humanity. It creates an impenetrable shield. They don’t have to admit to being wrong, they don’t have to admit to not being good enough, they don’t have to apologise and they most definitely don’t have to give others the higher ground.
Another of the characteristics of a narcissist is the tendecy to adapt their behaviour depending on who they deal with. To endear themselves to others, the narcissist needs to behave in a way which appeals to their target. The narcissist is an opportunist and their role is spontaneous, coming about as required.
Examples of the narcissist’s guises are:
- The supportive friend: The narcissist will listen attentively and agree wholeheartedly with what the target is saying. Regardless of what the target shares, the narcissist will be unconditional in their support and hearty in their praise. If the target complains about another person, the narcissist will be fierce in their mutual condemnation.
- The fun friend: The narcissist will joke and laugh with their target, generally at the expense of someone else. Because it is all in the name of fun, the target will usually not object. This dynamic creates a feeling of being ‘buddies’ who have a great friendship.
- The wise orator: The narcissist will speak passionately and confidently, exhibiting their alleged strength and knowledge, which gives them an air of authority and compels their target to pay attention, hoping to be enlightened by this alleged high-status figure.
- The victim: The narcissist will express how difficult things are for them or how life has dealt them terrible misfortune. The target then feels compelled to empathise and invest in the narcissist’s ‘problem.’ Many people like to problem solve because it feels good to have a challenge, or because problem solving helps distract them from the difficulties of their own life. When the narcissist plays the victim, the target will not only empathise, but also propose solutions for the problem. The narcissist usually brushes off these suggestions and instead keeps the focus on their alleged misfortune.
- The actor/charmer: The most charismatic characters are usually narcissists, their seamless persona impressing and disarming the people with whom they come into contact. Their eye contact is magnetic, and their zeal and lack of hesitation make for intriguing interactions.
The narcissist will mix and match these roles, shifting shape depending on the person. All of these guises are intended to disarm the target by giving them an ego boost.
While the narcissist is shameless, another of their characteristics is how they deflect shame onto others. Shame is one of the two most powerful emotions the narcissist exploits. It is the emotion of worth which drives a person to redeem themselves. The narcissist’s strategy around shame is two-fold. Firstly, they act shameless, which sets them apart from the other ‘flawed’ group members. Secondly, the narcissist ridicules, questions and attacks their target, putting them on the back foot and causing them to feel inferior. In doing so, they make their target question and try to redeem themselves. This is a gross breach of the golden rule, which encourages people to embrace healthy shame through equality and mutuality.
Fear is the second of the two powerful emotions. The narcissist asks a plethora of ‘what if’ questions which challenge their target’s sense of security and arouse uncertainty about the future. The narcissist may also threaten to leave, which arouses their target’s fear of abandonment. The target’s fight/flight state then activates and gives them tunnel vision, limiting their options and forcing them to quickly react while remaining caught where the narcissist needs them to be.
Scapegoating frees the narcissist from their shame and bolsters their sense of grandiosity. It is also a duality-based tool they use to boost their ethos. By putting down others in the presence of a third party, the narcissist creates the illusion of being ‘good,’ since they are the one pointing out the ‘bad’ person. This can be as subtle as poking fun at somebody they perceive to be weaker than them, pointing out somebody’s alleged incompetence, gossiping about someone they secretly despise or can be as overt as lashing out at a minority group. Scapegoating is compelling for many reasons. It allows the narcissist to discharge their shadow onto another person, effectively relieving them of the burden of feeling negative emotions and pent-up rage. Scapegoating also helps the narcissist recruit allies by using a method of divide and conquer. The narcissist relies on scapegoating to create an ‘us versus them’ narrative, using ethos, pathos and logos to convince others to join the ‘us’ team. For the uninitiated, taking the narcissist’s side when they scapegoat can be an addictive ego boost. Owning your shadow side is confronting and painful for anybody, narcissist or not. Life is simpler when you can disown your negative emotions and direct them at someone else. The narcissist knows this and uses it to powerful effect.
Propaganda is usually attributed to fascist and authoritarian regimes, but is also one of the covert characteristics of a narcissist. The purpose of propaganda is to hijack a person’s consciousness by filling it with a series of carefully cultivated and lopsided messages. It is a tool for misdirection, distracting the target from seeing the narcissist’s true nature.
The narcissist will use pathos and logos to overwhelm their target’s mind. They tell far fetched stories which have a grain of truth while making outlandish fabrications. Quite often, their ‘story’ is so compelling that it becomes believable. They communicate with conviction, spurring vivid images and rousing their target’s emotions. But behind it all, propaganda is about creating an alternate reality and maintaining a target’s engagement. It is a smokescreen, and nothing more. Once it seeps into a target’s consciousness, however, it can be hard to see through.
To discover more about the characteristics of the narcissist and heal from narcissistic abuse, check out the following books: