Understanding Toxic Relationships : The Narcissist- Empath Lock-In



One of the biggest keys to finding and managing Happiness is to locate the toxic relationships in your life and manage them. Such relationships appear all around you, and like a frog in a saucepan, boiling on a slow-heating stove, you don’t recognize them till it’s often too late. Most importantly, during the formative years when your key relationships are just taking shape, you don’t even have the skills to define and mold such relationships to your advantage.

Declaimer: This article was originally in October 2017, and some of the data points may be outdated

A parent, a sibling, a ‘best friend’, a teacher, a football coach, and later, a boss or a spouse, even a child, can often turn into a toxic relationship if you don’t know how to locate and manage such a relationship.

There are 4 basic types of toxic people:
  • The wet blankets. These are the ‘glass is half-empty’ types, who can see the negative side of anything under the sun, even the sun itself. Make sure they are not around when you are making a Business Plan, or planning a holiday, for example.
  • The Delhiwallah. He is a ‘better than’, at almost anything you name. And he knows Narendra Modi. Perversely, they are insecure and suffer from low confidence, this is merely a reaction to their inherent sense of inferiority.
  • The passive ones. They have no voice, no opinions and they can’t control what happens to them. Their oppression comes from their dependence on you, and the inability to be independent…..they depend on emotional blackmail and an appeal to your human qualities.
  • The Control Freaks, are angry, judgemental, oppressive, and bossy.
The Narcissist Empath relationship

There are different patterns to your relationship with any or all of these types of people. Remember, we often are one of these people ourselves, so the first life skill is to find them in yourself, before which it is not possible to start managing toxicity in your relationships.

There isn’t enough space to recount all the various types of relationships that are possible, but one specific pattern has been studied and researched to great depth by psychologists, it’s called the Narcissist- Empath relationship. While the internet is full of hacks on this, and almost every toxic relationship (read ‘bad marriage’) can be classified as a Narc-Empath one, there’s a clinical definition to it. Some 40% of males (and 24% of females) suffer from egotism, a milder version of Narcissism.

Egotism is a well-recognized and loosely-used word, but the definition in Psychology refers to the development of a ‘false identity’, a self-image that distorts the description of self into a grander, unreal version of yourself. It is often drawn from position (of power), or the possession (of things, like a trophy wife), or even attributes (like good looks, or family lineage) and influence through association (“my tea stall was the one next to Narendra Modi”). The point is that when we conduct our life in defense of this identity, with the sole purpose of using it to seek validation, that distorts our personality, and the ‘false identity’ takes over, like the swordfish who tries to fight with its mirror image.

Narcissism is an extreme form of egotism when you obsess over this false superiority and lose your mental balance. Some 1-3% of both males and females are narcissistic, males being power-focused and females being looks-obsessed.

The Empath is the counterfoil to the Narcissist

The Empath is the counterfoil to the Narcissist. In most bilateral relationships, especially in marriages, and even friendships, a person gravitates to one or the other of these poles. As power (in a relationship) compounds, the lesser of 2 Narcissists will gravitate to being an Empath, and vice versa. Of the 4 types recounted above, the Delhiwallah  (a.k.a. Better Than) and the Control Freak will gravitate towards being a Narc, while the Passives and the Wet Blankets gravitate towards being an Empath. Since we all have shades of each type in us, the diagnosis of who is where in a toxic relationship needs to be understood with finesse. If two people are both passive, the stronger, less passive one will gravitate to being an Empath, while the weaker one will be the Narc oppressor, for example.

Knowing about toxicity is the same as managing it. “You are the average of the top 5 people you hang out with”, said Jim Rhone. Fining the Narc within you is the first part of the job, and admitting to being locked into a Narc-Empath embrace is the other part of the job.

While locating your ego and its driver is one of the big tests of Narcissism, a lack of empathy that he offers is one of the big symptoms. It is difficult to find the cause, especially from the outside, but if you find a set of friends with little empathy for each other, you will find a bed of Narcissist-Empath relationships within such a group.

For example, an alumni network of so-called ‘friends’ may have little empathy for each other, and no history of supporting friends in distress. The Harvard Alumni Network is a unique exception, with a long culture of helping alumni with leads for jobs, mentoring and skill-building, et al. Lesser networks are more likely to be ‘nurseries’, more akin to a box of crabs, a set of siblings rife with Sibling Rivalry. Alumni interactions are occasions to scratch each other, measure whether mine is bigger than yours……occasions that bring out internecine jealousies rather than fraternity.

You can go through a lifetime thinking of them as friends, locked into Narc-Empath relationships that you do not question. Simply because you never learned how to define ‘friendship’ and demand its components……bonhomie is confused with the fraternity. The good-natured scratching of siblings in a box of crabs starts as a way to sharpen claws for the world outside but soon turns into a boxing ring that is not kind to the weaker ones, exactly the ones who would benefit from an alumni network. Such networks come to be dominated by Narcs, in a normal centrifugal pattern that rewards the loudest voice. Empaths should locate this pattern, identify their position in such a group, and leave when convinced of its toxicity.

The Narc Empath relationship

Another characteristic of the Narc- Empath relationship is how an Empath makes the mistake of not diagnosing a toxic relationship as such and puts out her insecurities for examination. The mistake she makes is to think that because she is empathetic, she can also expect reciprocation. Not realizing that the Narc is only feeding his false self, and is looking for a ‘narcissistic supply’, which is the beating down of his counterpart’s ego, in order to validate his own. To the Narc, everything exists for a ‘narcissistic supply’, all occasions are to be used to aggrandize his identity at the expense of others.

In this situation, an Empath who puts her insecurities on display is going to be severely injured, to the point of suffering permanent and debilitating damage to her personality. Bad marriages are often like that, leaving a person irreparably damaged. Such an Empath must learn about Authenticity, the idea that insecurities are to be handled alone, because fear reduces your id, and provides a ‘narcissistic supply’ to the Narc. One of the biggest cures for a Narc- Empath relationship is to shut off the ‘supply’ by building Authenticity. The primal tendency of an Empath to seek empathy to manage her insecurities is a big mistake. Seeking Authenticity will teach her that insecurities are just that, an avatar of fear, which must be fought alone. Baring it to the outside world will convert even close friendships into Narc-Empath relationships.

Empaths need to survey the world around them, to separate friends from toxic foes. The roots of toxicity in their relationships are hidden in the power equations with their closest ones. Some 60% of the population is Empath, and Happiness only happens when an Empath meets an Empath.



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