Most humans hunger to be appreciated, to be loved, to achieve and receive admiration. This is confirmed by Maslow in his famous Hierarchy of Needs. So where is the line between a healthy desire to be more, and narcissism?
Narcissism is often understood to mean extreme self importance, delusions of grandeur and a lack of consideration for others.
As abuse victims and codependents, we are inherently at the opposite end of the scale. We give up so much for others. We put ourselves last. We ignore and forget our own needs and desires. We often hate ourselves for not being able to save others. This is completely inconsistent with the above definition. Right? Well, maybe not.
One of the most fascinating things about human beings is that we are so often opposites. We are narcissists who hate ourselves. We are victims who are abusers. We most love the person we most hate.
We as abuse victims are often raised by narcissists. We are raised to believe we must grow up to be important, to achieve great things. We are taught we must be perfect- that to be normal is to be mundane.
We take on these beliefs as our own. There is so much suffering around not being good enough, not achieving enough, not being great. We develop a learned narcissism, driven by the need to appease and impress our abusers.
In my experience, narcissism is driven by deeply unconscious self hatred (this is ironic considering Ovid’s character Narcissus famously fell in love with himself).(1) Healthy human striving is a moving towards something. Narcissism is the act of hiding, of moving away from something.
The more a person despises themselves, the more they suspect they are loathsome and hated, the more they drink and engage in destructive behaviors- the more they must be ‘great’. However, their need for greatness is never satiated because it is driven by self loathing. It is pouring achievement into a black hole rather than a celebration of having done something worthy.
As abuse victims, we are at a special risk for this kind of thinking. We are taught to doubt and hate ourselves. We fight to meet impossible standards. We are never perfect enough to heal our addict or avoid abuse and ridicule. These conditions leave us vulnerable to this kind of narcissism.
The work is not to stop striving or achieving. The work is to stop achieving just to prove we are even worthy.