“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” ~ Thomas Merton ~
After six years of working intensively with one-on-one clients in my mentoring program, one pattern arises over and over, especially because so many of my clients are female empaths and healers. This pattern is so pervasive — and so hard to both spot and break —that a healthy soul cannot exist in the presence of this pattern. As we’ve seen from one spiritual community after another that nukes itself, narcissistic spiritual leaders result in abuses of power and abuse. However … a narcissistic leader can only exercise their abuse if someone gives away their own sovereignty and authority and hooks into their narcissism with co-dependence. In order to even begin to co-create a healthy soul and spiritual community, we must examine our own tendencies toward narcissism and co-dependence.
In the first half of this article, I’ll focus on the narcissist — but don’t start pointing fingers and blaming the narcissists quite yet! And don’t point the finger back at yourself and perpetuate the ‘blame the victim’ mentality that many narcissistic spiritual leaders (and cops and narcissistic spouses) use to perpetrate their abuse. Also, avoid being quick to label yourself or anyone else. “He’s the narcissist. I’m the co-dependent.” Most people who are hooked into this pattern are hooked into both sides, which are like two sides of the same coin. You may be co-dependent with your husband children and a narcissistic boss at work. You may be a narcissist with your spouse but co-dependent with your mother. The point is not to shame, blame, or demonise anyone.
We are all vulnerable to this pattern! It is simply part of the human experience. The intention of this is simply to raise your awareness of how you might be hooking into these patterns and how doing so is interrupting your capacity to participate in a truly intimate relationship.
If you read what I’m about to share with deep self-compassion and an willingness to undemonise those who are caught on either side of this difficult-to-discuss pattern, it can be examined without unnecessary defensiveness, self-blame, or accusations of the supposedly vicious “other.”
Once we see with compassion what has previously been hidden in a blind spot, we can begin to unravel the hooks that keep us in the destructive web of this pattern. Compassion for yourself is key. Whether you have a tendency to fall into the co-dependent pattern or the narcissist pattern, be gentle with yourself, and don’t beat yourself up. You can’t do better until you know better. And once you know, you can gently and compassionately free yourself from abusive relationships that deplete your energy, interfere with your capacity to find and fulfil your calling, and make you sick.
Because this is an intense, triggering, and difficult-to-face pattern, I will give you what you need to know (also in the soul manual and blog I am writing) in digestible morsels.
There Are Two Kinds of People
Let me start by sharing a bit of my own experience, just so you don’t think I’m some talking head sharing dispassionately about something I haven’t experienced myself. As someone who had to take the painful steps to free myself from a physically and emotionally abusive marriage in my past, I have navigated this agonising territory for many years. I can only write about this pattern after ten years of therapy which has helped me to get some distance from it, so I can spot both sides of the pattern from miles away and protect myself from hooking into this pattern. I like to joke that interrupting the narcissist/co-dependent pattern is like putting an octopus to bed. Every time I think I’ve got all those arms under the covers, another arm or two flies out! We have to keep a sense of humour about such things and hold it all with self-compassion. This becomes an intense spiritual practice, but it’s worth doing, because on the other side of this hard inner work lies the most incredibly intimate relationships with healthy people who refuse to enter into this pattern. That’s when the rewards of this deep soul work begin to pay off, and your capacity to connect from a place of true wholeness and equality flourishes.
Years ago, I was deep in the heat of a conversation with a friend of mine, as we sat across from each other at the dinner table. I felt fire burning inside of me. He said, “Tell me what’s going on inside your head right now?” I glared at him and said, “There are two kinds of people.” I paused for dramatic effect. There was venom in my voice.
I went on. “There are the smart, sexy, talented, handsome, charismatic people who lie, cheat, manipulate, dominate, and betray you. Then there are kind, sensitive, gentle, compassionate, reliable doormats who dote on you but are too weak and pathetic to stand up for themselves. You are the first kind.” My whole body was trembling as I said it.
My friend was visibly stung, but then something softened in him, and he said, “Wow. You really believe that, don’t you?”
I started crying.
He said, “I think you should bring that up with your therapist.”
So I did.
I shared my sob story with my therapist Rose, who very pointedly and ruthlessly — but quite lovingly — told me that I believe there are two types of people because I’ve been intimate with people who are either “Narcissists” or “Echoes.” She then went on to tell me the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo.
Echo was a beautiful but quite talkative nymph who was put under a curse that made her only able to speak what others have spoken first. She fell in love with Narcissus, a vain young man who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and, not realising it was himself, spoke words of love to the reflection. Echo, the cursed water nymph, would hear “I love you” and repeat “I love you” back to Narcissus. But her love was never truly returned by Narcissus. When Narcissus realised that what he loved was actually his own image, he killed himself and transformed into a narcissus flower.
The Narcissus/Echo Pattern
This myth can be translated into a psychological pattern of relationships, wherein one partner plays the “It’s all about me!” Narcissus’ role and the other boosts Narcissus’ already hearty ego by repeating back what Narcissus wants to hear while compromising her own needs and desires until she becomes resentful and feels victimised.
Most people who get hooked into this unhealthy relationship pattern tend to prefer one role in the pattern or the other. The Narcissus character tends to be exactly what I said to my friend — sexy, charismatic, talented, attractive, funny, smart, seductive, the life of the party. Others are drawn to these people — but you only get close if it’s on Narcissus’ terms. And if you stop echoing back what Narcissus wants to hear, you’re likely to get ousted.
On the other hand, the person who plays the Echo role tends to be more empathic, submissive, deferential, sensitive, self-effacing, service-oriented, externally referenced, over-giving, and emotionally manipulative.
Echo, who refuses to allow attention to be focused on her, has difficulty receiving if anyone tries to refocus the energy on her. Echo is always feeding Narcissus’ ego and enabling him to be the centre of attention. And she never quite has a voice of her own because she’s too afraid Narcissus might leave if she fails to echo back what he wants to hear. (Keep in mind that both genders can play both roles, so this is not a male/female thing.)
Most people who hook into the Narcissus pattern don’t have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, though some do. Echoes may also have personality disorders. Both roles in this pattern are equally unhealthy from a psychological perspective, and this pattern requires the participation of both parties. Most people who get hooked into this pattern play both roles in different relationships. Sometimes they play Narcissus. In other relationships, they play Echo. However, most prefer one role over another. Some people only have a tinge of this pattern, while others are full blown.
My therapy session led to a huge epiphany for me when Rose suggested that many of my closest peers, as well as the men I had dated, had played out the role of Narcissus, and I had been their Echo. But in other relationships in my life, I’ve played Narcissus to someone else’s Echo. I feel much more powerful, in control, attractive, and secure when I play Narcissus. When I’m Echo, I feel insecure, grasping, disrespected, resentful, and underappreciated. Either way, this dynamic never ends well.
Although people seem to demonise the Narcissus role disproportionately, it doesn’t feel good to be in either role. Both interfere with healthy intimacy and make healthy soul dynamics impossible.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Those who fall into the Narcissus role may have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder or, more commonly, they may have narcissistic tendencies. Narcissistic personality traits include:
• Are often charismatic, initially quite likeable, and talented
• Can make you feel very special when they’re trying to get you into their clutches. ‘Love bombing’ in the beginning of relationships — or as an attempted repair after bouts of abuse — is common
• Always manage to turn the conversation back toward themselves and tend to ‘one up’ anyone else’s story
• Rarely see themselves as being at fault and make up complicated rationalisations for why it’s always somebody else’s fault
• Tend to serve in leadership roles, not because they’re better leaders but because they like the attention
• Name-drop often
• Are prone to affairs
• Don’t hesitate to violate clear boundaries and fail to respect them even when they are reinforced
• Are quick to react with anger if challenged
• Tend to have grandiose stories about themselves
• Like to display status symbols
• Care about their appearance beyond simple self-care and can often be quite vain
• Break promises and fail to keep commitments often
• Lack the ability to respond with humility in the face of criticism
• Make a lot of excuses
• Leave a trail of bad relationships in their wake
• Show little remorse
• Tend to cut other people down in order to feel ‘better than
• Drop people (and projects) like a hot potato when they get bored or have satisfied whatever it was they wanted from you
• Promote an inflated false identity and squelch anything that interferes with this false self
• Lack insight into their narcissistic tendencies and if called on it, show no interest in seeking treatment
• Tend to be successful in their careers
• Are jealous and competitive
• Puff up when flattered and can be manipulated through flattery
• Interrupt others often, showing little interest in other people
• Justify breaking rules, as if rules only apply to other people
• Feel entitled
• May be physically or emotionally abusive, especially if their authority or ‘specialness’ is questioned
• May manipulate through guilt or irrational projections onto others. (“You have to make Mommy proud! You wouldn’t want to make Mommy look bad now, would you?”)
• Inflate themselves by knocking others down
• Hold grudges
• Like to keep people off balance, often failing to offer reassurance when those close to them need comfort
• May masquerade as shyness, when secretly, in their own fantasies, they’re just waiting for the day they can topple with their brilliance the over-the-top narcissist they resent
• Lack empathy and can behave with great cruelty in the face of someone else’s vulnerability
DSM-5 criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder include:
• Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
• Expecting to be recognised as superior even without achievements that warrant it
• Exaggerating your achievements and talents
• Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
• Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
• Requiring constant admiration
• Having a sense of entitlement
• Expecting special favours and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
• Taking advantage of others to get what you want
• Having an inability or unwillingness to recognise the needs and feelings of others
• Being envious of others and believing others envy you
• Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
The Mayo Clinic says, “Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.”
Obviously, this pattern is incompatible with healthy participation in a Soul Tribe. Historically, this has proven true. Most cults that ended tragically did so because co-dependent members had given their power away to a narcissistic leader. (We’ll talk more about how to tell if you’re co-dependent — and how to interrupt this pattern — in the second half of this article.)
Whether someone has the full-blown disorder or just narcissistic personality traits, narcissism interferes with healthy relationships and interrupts the capacity to participate with others in a nourishing way — for obvious reasons. Narcissists aren’t wired to care about the needs of others. They only care about themselves, so they become a drain on everyone’s energy. The lack of empathy that characterises narcissism predisposes narcissists to violence and addiction, so they can become physically destructive to others, leading to boundary violations and safety concerns.
If reading this enrages you, and you’re busy listing all the narcissists in your personal life, your workplace, and in your spiritual community, hold on a minute! Everyone loves to hate narcissists, but I am not writing this to give you ammunition to fuel the story of separation that makes us demonise one another and polarise each other into ‘the bad guys’ and ‘the good guys.’ Yes, it’s helpful to spot these patterns and call a spade a spade, because until you’re aware of how these patterns play out, you may be stepping into a narcissist’s trap unwittingly.
But pointing at someone else’s side of the street without looking at how you give your power away and fail to set and enforce boundaries as a form of conflict avoidance is not empowering. Cleaning up your side of the street also doesn’t mean you are responsible for someone else’s dirty street. Own your side, and if the other side of the street is still messy (and that person isn’t interested in getting help), set and enforce clear boundaries.
The Empath/Echo/Co-dependence Pattern
We talked about the Narcissus/Echo myth and how to identify whether you or someone you’re in relationship with behaves with a lot of traits characteristic of the narcissist. Now, let’s focus on how to identify whether you have a tendency to fall into the empath/Echo/co-dependence pattern, which hooks into the narcissist pattern like lock and key. If you feel confused because you identify with both the narcissist and the empath, join the club! Most people who fit one of these patterns fit both. In some relationships, you may play the narcissist, while in others, you play the co-dependent. Most people have a preference for one pattern over the other, but some flip-flop between them equally. Really, they are two sides of the same painful coin. But don’t despair! This is a curable pattern, and there’s so much love, joy, intimacy, and freedom on the other side of this pattern interrupt.
Before you read any further, let me suggest you be infinitely tender and hold yourself tight as you read on. This can be a really triggering topic! Be gentle with yourself. And others. If you recognise yourself or your loved ones here, please don’t beat yourself up — or get all indignant and righteous and start shaming anybody else. Turn your heart light all the way up before reading on. My intention is to activate more awareness and more love — of yourself and of others. The last thing this world needs is more judgment, polarisation, and demonisation of the self or the other.
Those who fall into the ‘Echo’ patterns are often empaths, playing out a pattern of co-dependence. Empaths have what can be a gift and a curse — a finely-tuned sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others.
If the narcissist is focused on ‘Me, me, me,’ and the empath is focused on ‘You, you, you,’ you can see how this is a match made in hell. This dynamic can feel very confusing and hard to spot for the empath because, in the beginning of a relationship, the narcissist can ‘love bomb’ the empath to hook them into this pattern.
However, it’s not real love. Initially, the praise, gifts, touch, affection, and approval showered on the empath by the narcissist feels so rewarding to the empath that the pattern gets hooked.
However, do not be fooled! The love bombing is not real, intimate, meaningful, unconditional love. It’s a form of deception.
Although the narcissist may be completely unaware and free of any conscious intent to manipulate, the conscious or unconscious motive of the narcissist is to lure the vulnerable empath into an intimate relationship by hooking the empath’s insecurity and lack of worthiness. The narcissist counts on the approval-seeking tendency of the empath to create premature intimacy and artificial stability in the relationship. The empath is an easily hookable target, burdened as he/she is with low self-esteem, poor boundaries, romantic fantasies, and the pathologic need to be needed.
The push/pull dynamic, the ‘come hither/go away’ unpredictability of the dynamic becomes a kind of addiction for the empath. Unacceptable, neglectful, cruel, or even abusive behaviours are neurotically tolerated because the empath wants another hit of the love bombing or gets seduced by the idea that she is going to be the one to finally demonstrate how unconditional her love is, even if the narcissist is behaving abominably.
Over time, the frequency of the love bombing diminishes, which further fuels the ‘I’m not worthy or loveable’ story that often stems from childhood. This makes the empath vulnerable to abuse and interferes with the capacity to have insight and make empowered choices that free the empath from the abusive relationship.
Blind Compassion and Neurotic Tolerance
In the beginning, the love bombs outweigh the neglect and abuse, so the empath can justify the tolerance. She may even puff herself up with stories about how spiritual, compassionate, and unconditionally loving she is. She very likely justifies staying in the relationship with stories like, “Wow, I’m learning so much in this relationship! How else would I learn unconditional love unless I was tested this much? How grateful I am to my Love School teacher… ” (And yes, this too is true.)
Yet, as Robert Augustus Masters writes in his book Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, this kind of ‘blind compassion’ is really conflict avoidance in holy drag.
This spiritualising way of rationalising unacceptable behaviour in another is simply evidence of an inability or unwillingness to set and enforce healthy boundaries, which are a natural side effect of self-care, self-love, and self-respect.
Healthy boundaries are simply a healthy person’s way of saying, ‘This is what’s OK and not OK in this relationship.’ Then if someone can’t or won’t respect the healthy boundaries, the healthy person simply withdraws. We teach people how to treat us.
Empaths Often Learn to Prioritise the Needs of Others Over Their Own
Empaths have usually been conditioned early in childhood to prioritise the needs of others over their own needs. Although empaths tend to be very expertly attuned to the needs of others, they often have little to no awareness of what they need themselves. This causes a toxic imbalance, since healthy and conscious relating with others requires that all parties be aware of their own needs; that they care about the needs of others; that they express and get these needs met in healthy ways, and prioritise meeting the needs of others as equally important — but not more important — than meeting their own needs.
Often, the most empathic, intuitive, sensitive children grew up in abusive or neglectful homes. (Or perhaps abusive or neglectful homes breed empathic, intuitive, sensitive adults. Chicken or egg?) These beautiful little children did not learn what healthy children learn — to prioritise self and others equally. While budding little empaths grew up, they learned to attune to the needs of others as a survival mechanism. This was a necessary adaptation at the time! This pattern can be a gift, opening up spiritual connection, psychic channels, and powerful healing abilities. But the very tool that kept them alive makes empaths vulnerable to victimisation in adulthood.
Many empaths were raised with narcissistic parents (most abusive parents and addicts have narcissistic traits) who violated their boundaries repetitively and never taught them to be aware of their own needs. As a result, empaths grow up normalising such behaviour. Painful though it may be, abuse is a comfort zone — until it’s not.
Being an Empath Is a Gift
Lest you misunderstand, don’t think for a moment that being an empath is just a handicap! While it’s important to bring into conscious awareness the shadow side of being an empath, being an empath is a beautiful gift, especially given the state of the planet right now. Once you’re free from the hooks of co-dependence that often ride shotgun with being an empath, you’re just what the doctor ordered in order to help this planet heal.
Just because you’re an empath doesn’t mean you’re co-dependent, but often, the two go hand-in-hand. If you’re aware of the tendency toward co-dependence and do the hard work to interrupt this pattern, set and enforce boundaries, and keep your energy field sovereign and clear, you can keep all the gifts of being an empath without being at the mercy of its shadows.
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