Two of the hottest psychological topics on the Internet right now address two personality types that are virtually on opposite ends of the behavioral spectrum: narcissism/psychopathy (or more specifically, NPD), and HSPs (highly sensitive people). I think there’s some significance to this. For reasons no one seems to understand, Highly Sensitive People seem to be thrown together with Narcissists more than you would expect by chance alone.
Neither personality type is especially common: people with Malignant Narcissism (NPD) comprise approximately 4% of the population in the United States; HSPs comprise about 20% making them somewhat more common–though they may seem less common than they really are because they’re often hiding in the shadows and rarely call attention to themselves. Many HSP persons have learned to stuff their sensitivity and emotions because (besides having been shamed for it), high sensitivity doesn’t work very well in the narcissistic and materialistic society we are currently living in–a society where qualities like aggression, social gregariousness, bluntness, impatience, and indifference to the suffering of others are far more valued than qualities like civility, deference, intuition, shyness, and empathy. Aggression and gregariousness are especially valued in the worlds of business and politics. Face it, you’re not going to find a great job (or any job at all) if you call attention to the second group of qualities and may well be regarded as weak and ineffective. Politicians who appear too empathetic, tolerant, gentle, or soft spoken rarely win elections. That’s why liberals keep losing elections. It’s my observation that those with more liberal ideologies are usually better educated, but also by nature are more empathetic and care more about the plight of the less fortunate. Let’s face it: narcissism wins elections, and that’s why the country’s in such a huge mess.
But this isn’t about politics, and I don’t care what your ideology is. I don’t want to stereotype political ideologies based on personality, because there are conservatives who are also sensitive, and liberals who are anything but. I’m referring more to the people in powerful political positions, not the people who vote for them.
Highly Sensitive People have a number of characteristics that make them vulnerable, especially to people with NPD, and all too often HSPs find themselves either being raised by psychopaths, or married or otherwise in serious relationships or friendships with them.
You may be an HSP if…
1. You were bullied in school; the bullying may have become a pattern throughout your entire schooling. Maybe even as an adult, people like to “mess with you” to see if they can get a rise out of you.
2. You had imaginary friends or spent a lot of time in “imaginary worlds” of your own making, or you were often accused of daydreaming by your teachers.
3. As a child and perhaps later into life you cried easily and often. You may have been a “difficult” or sickly baby or toddler. HSPs do seem more prone to serious allergies and childhood illnesses more than other people.
4. You never were “popular” but prefer to have deep friendships with one or two like-minded people who may also be HSPs.
5. You dislike crowds and may not really like parties or other large social gatherings.
6. You’re a deep thinker and enjoy reading and studying about whatever interests you
7. You may prefer to spend time alone over social activities
8. Family is important to you, insofar as you have a workable relationship with your family.
9. You are very easily hurt and sometimes can’t let a cruel joke or comment roll off your back the way others can
10. You dislike negative or chaotic environments because you feel like you can pick up on the negative emotions of others around you.
11. Your own family may not understand you, thinking of you as a black sheep or a failure. They may even reject or bully you if there are Narcs in your family who have chosen you as the family scapegoat.
12. You feel overwhelmed easily when you’re forced to deal with others, especially negative people.
13. You may feel you relate better to animals than to people and that they even understand you better than most people.
14. If bullied or scapegoated by Narcs, you may approach life with a hypervigilance that may border on paranoia.
15. Because of your giving, empathetic nature, you find yourself attracted to those who abuse you or use you.
16. You put the needs of others before your own, and may sabotage your own happiness or success in the process.
17. You get very upset when you hear or read news stories about children, animals or adults who have been abused or killed.
18. You may have decided to stay away from reading or listening to the news because so much of it is negative and upsets you.
19. You may have reached the point where you feel no one can be trusted (but it’s in your nature to still want to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt).
20. You are prone to deep depressions and feelings of despair (sometimes this manifests as irritability and grouchiness), sometimes these depressions are not explainable by any personal situation; you also have the ability to feel the heights of pure joy when you feel in balance with the world around you or with those who truly care for you and love you unconditionally.
21. You may be attracted to the performing or visual arts, or to poetry or creative writing.You may well have a talent in these endeavors. You also may have a strong interest in spiritual and metaphysical matters.
22. You may have an intuition so strong it borders on psychic ability–you may be able to “read” the emotions of people you have never even met before, or even deduce what type of situation they are facing in their lives.
23. You may feel you can detect the presence of the supernatural
24. You may feel strongly you do not fit in the world very well and that you have poor survival instincts.
25. Most importantly, when dealing with a narcissist, you may have the ability to hone in on their true nature, and see how horrifying it really is, both to the Narc and to others.
I want to extrapolate more on #25, because it’s at the core of why Narcissists (the natural bullies of the world) are so attracted to HSPs (the natural empaths) and why they so often wind up in their unholy psychological death dance together.
It’s a Love/Hate dichotomy.
Narcissists have a love/hate relationship with the HSP. What the narcissist sees in the HSP is a person who wants to trust, is easily manipulated (because they always like to give the benefit of the doubt), easily taken advantage of, and shows their hurt when wronged. They see a person who has insight into why other people tick, and are self-aware and introspective. More than other people, they can easily be coerced into blaming themselves if things go wrong because they can be shamed or embarrassed so easily. They are unlikely to attack the narcissist (at least at first) and they crave love and acceptance.
What the HSP sees in the Narcissist is a person who seems strong and in control of things; at first this may make the HSP feel safe and validated when the Narcissist is love bombing them to woo them into a relationship. Since Narcissists are usually quite aggressive when trying to rope in the HSP into commitment, making all sort of promises to the HSP that sound wonderful at the time. Soon, the HSP falls in love with the Narc and the match from hell is conceived.
The dynamics in a family with an HSP child raised by a narcissistic parent are different, because no love-bombing phase is required (except when the child is an adult and threatens to leave or go No Contact with the Narc parent). Shortly after a HSP child is born, the Narc parent quickly realizes this child is vulnerable and can be used as their narcissistic supply to boost themselves up at the expense of that child. Often, the Narc parent will coerce other family members (often siblings of the HSP) to act as “flying monkeys” in the bullying of that child. Unfortunately, such children are so sensitive they are often bullied at school as well, and the child may feel there is no safe place of their own. As a result, they may turn inward, creating imaginary friends or worlds in which they can escape. My mother hated it when I went inside my head into my imaginary worlds, and punished me for acting “spooky.” I couldn’t help it though: it was the only “place” where she could not get to me.
Narcissists live in terror of being exposed.
Narcs hone in on high sensitivity and are both attracted to it and despise it. The vulnerability of an HSP and the Narc’s ability to bully them temporarily makes them feel better about themselves (the only way they can feel good about themselves is by putting others down because they know they have no “true self”–more on this later), but they also hate it and envy it, because it’s this very quality of high sensitivity and empathy they know they do not possess, and worse yet, they know it’s possible the HSP could one day use that quality to expose the narcissist. Narcissists do not feel anxiety the way most people do, but the prospect of being “outed” one day for the monsters they actually are behind their mask of normality and sanity is incredibly terrifying to them.
But why is the psychopathic narcissist living in such terror of being exposed? After all, they think they’re better than everyone else, so why would it bother them?
The answer is horrifying. If they are exposed or “outed,” they are forced to look into the mirror–and what looks back at them in that mirror is not a monster, not an ideal self, not a demon, but something worse: a black, endless void of nothingness. There is nothing there, under the mask they wear. In effect, the masks they wear are what they have become, because inside they don’t exist. And yes they are evil. Evil isn’t badness; it isn’t the opposite of good. Evil is the opposite of somethingness; evil is pure black nothingness. In their desperate attempts to fill the void, they take on superficial behaviors and attitudes they think they “should” show the world–but they are fake. There is no real self there. Ergo, everything they think they are and everything they say is a lie. They are the People of the lie.
Are Narcissists born that way, were they made that way, or did they choose their path?
I don’t believe psychopathic narcissists were born this way. I don’t believe in “bad seeds,” like the demon child Damien in “The Omen.” In fact, I think all children start out as blank slates with the potential to become good (or bad). I think Narcs often have abusive or neglectful parents who fail to mirror the child in a positive way when they are very young, and as a result, not being able to mirror the parent in return, they don’t develop a true self and spend their lives trying to mirror the people they come in contact with and HSPs make this mirroring easier for them. Unfortunately by this point it’s far too late for them to internalize the mirroring of the other person, and so it never infiltrates beyond the surface. This explains why the Narc will act like they are the most understanding and caring person in the world when the HSP first meets them, but since they never internalized the behavior, it’s not really part of them and they quickly move on to abusing the HSP because deep inside they envy and hate the same behaviors they have so recently “mirrored.” Narcs cannot be helped in traditional therapy because in order to reach them, there has to be a self there to be reached, but Narcs have lost their true self, or it’s become so deeply buried it can never be accessed in any normal way, if ever.
There’s another way a person can become a psychopath. Some people cross a line at some point in life, a line where they seriously violate some inner (but maybe not fully developed) moral code. For example, in “People of the Lie,” Dr. Peck talks about a man who almost became evil. The man, who was by all accounts a good man, a devoted husband and father, suffered terrible panic attacks when crossing certain bridges as a requirement of his job. To help alleviate his anxiety attacks, the man made a deal with the Devil: he told the Devil if he could make it across the bridge without a panic attack, then he’d give the Devil permission to allow something terrible to happen to his son. The man said he didn’t really believe in the Devil, so he knew nothing would actually happen and therefore really wasn’t that bad a thing. But it’s still a deal with the devil, and Peck was horrified. The fact the man felt remorse and shame (and confessed his “sin” to Dr. Peck) saved him from crossing the line into becoming evil himself.
We have all heard stories of group violence, situations where people who otherwise would never partake in violent crime by themselves, enthusiastically take part in looting, mass violence and killing when part of a large group. In a way these people have also sold out to evil and have crossed a moral line. Soldiers in wars are obliged to kill innocent victims, sometimes women and children, and the deep guilt and shame they feel after doing something so alien to their own moral code could be a big reason why so many of them become mentally ill or suffer from the more severe forms of PTSD.
As an HSP (and also Aspie) child raised by a Narcissist mother, I was at a huge disadvantage. I suffered the whole gamut of psychic insults visited on the hypersensitive: bullied in school, bullied at home (and sometimes filled the role of the Golden Child too, since I was an “only”), and bullied by most of my serious boyfriends and finally my ex-husband.
Into the void.
I could see “through” my mother at an early age, and knew her occasional professions of “love” were utter bullshit. When I was about 6, I remember a very vivid dream that she came into my room, and instead of a loving face, all I could see was solid black eyes–the kind of demon eyes seen in horror movies, coupled with a sneer so full of hate that I felt like I turned to ice inside. Even after I awoke, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my mother was evil, and I acted especially “spooky” that day, something my mother hated and punished me for, because she knew my “spooky” moods meant she knew that I knew what she really was, and it scared her to death.
I had the same experience with my husband years later–same sneer, same opaque black eyes.
It sounds crazy I know, but I have no doubt I actually saw this–and know that what I saw was what they really were. The blackness in their eyes was not a manifestation of a demon inside them–it was a mirror that reflected back the nothingness inside. An endless, black hole where nothing can enter, nothing can be reflected back, and nothing can escape, not even the light of truth. Around a narcissist, just as around a real black hole, all reality becomes distorted and eventually sucked into its depths to become something…else.
If psychopathic narcissists were ever confronted with what they really are–a fake “person” without a true self–I believe it would drive them insane or even to suicide. They would not be able to face the horror of knowing in a sense they really are dead. They are vampires who must stay alive by sucking the lifeblood from the living. HSPs, by feeling everything as deeply as they do, and having the ability to tap into the life force and zero in on the inexplicable like a psychic laser beam, are extremely “alive” and thereby more powerful than the narcissist. The malignant narcissist hates that. He wants those abilities and powers for himself–so badly he is willing to destroy those qualities in those who have them, even slowly killing people they observe possess these coveted qualities they both envy and know may expose and destroy them.
It’s also why narcissists in positions of power (and they are all too often in positions of great power) denigrate, hate, and fear scientific research, critical thinking, the arts, and spirituality (as opposed to dogmatic religion). These are things that, just like the HSP’s intuitive powers, can hone in on Truth and expose the lies narcissists like to tell to keep their subjects under their control.
Can Narcissists ever be cured?
Probably not, because they either no longer possess a true self (and in a real sense are really soulless) or it’s so deeply buried and obscured it can never be accessed and brought to light. If there is a self there, I suspect it’s greatly diminished or nearly destroyed. It may sound woowoo, but I believe in the chakra system–those 7 points of concentrated energy that run down the spine and that correspond closely with the physical endocrine system. Most if not all of us suffer from imbalanced chakras or chakras that are weak (or too strong), but I think in the psychopath, while their chakras exist (if they didn’t they would be dead), they are almost nonfunctional and disconnected from each other instead of working together the way they should. I also think if you could see the aura of a psychopath it would be thin and dark, probably almost black.
But even the most evil psychopath is not entirely hopeless. We are all children of God or a Higher Power (or however you choose to understand him), and as long as their is life, there is hope. I believe even the most psychopathic, narcissistic soul-murderer has rare moments of truth and clarity, where they become aware of what they really are, and feel great shame and horror when they do. Unfortunately these moments of clarity are so frightening and painful for them that they almost always escape back into their narcissistic ways and deny the truth. If they are to ever be helped, it must be during these rare moments of clarity, and only God can help them, and only if they are willing to submit to His power. We can pray for the psychopaths, but we can never change them. They must make the decision to change on their own, and unfortunately that isn’t something we can count on happening very often.
The psychopathic narcissist is really a pretty weak and pathetic character, and as easy as it is for us to hate them, we can also pity them for the lost souls they really are.
ETA: Please see my latest article, “My Son’s Father Turned from a Loving Dad into a Monster” for the story of how my highly sensitive son became his malignant narcissist’s father’s scapegoat once his father realized my son could “see through” his mask.