Have you ever found yourself wondering,
If I don’t believe in enemy images or labels, how do I understand narcissism? Is it even really “a thing”?
So, what do I do with the narcissist in my life?
Am I narcissistic?
If I empathize with them enough, can I heal them?
Is it possible to have a relationship with “a narcissist?”
Growing up in my family of origin, I learned that “narcissism” was a very, very bad thing to be.
Phrases like “that’s your/her/their/his narcissism” were spoken with so much contempt and disdain that I learned very quickly the absolute worst thing that anyone could be in the world was narcissistic. Shudder.
My list (of terrible things one could be) grew to include abusive, passive-aggressive, defensive, a perpetrator, a borderline, a codependent, a people-pleaser, and a victim. I also began to see others through these labels, trying to categorize myself and others into their rightful place.
I desperately tried to fix all these flawed aspects of myself as I tried to find safe, meaningful connections with myself and others.
Identifying patterns is normal and healthy. Our brains are wired to categorize and differentiate things. We like naming things: rose, daisy, oak tree, lion. We like to see “what’s what.” When it comes to understanding ourselves and one another, naming patterns of personality, defenses, ways of being is not in and of itself problematic. Diagnoses can meet important needs for clarity, understanding, and information.
Diagnoses and labels can also have a downside. They reduce us to static objects and encourage us to think through the lens of “wrongness.”
Three Downsides of Diagnoses and Labels
1. They can be a form of dehumanization.
When we subtly make someone less human, less like us, we also tend to see them as more “deserving” of rejection, criticism, and hurtful treatment. Our compassion for their humanity and suffering shuts down. We also become anxious about being labeled by others and can spend a lot of time trying to prove to others how healthy we are. It’s exhausting.
Let yourself be human: imperfect, flawed, wounded, real, lovable, alive, awake, and aware. You’re not that great, and you’re not that bad. Instead, just take your place as a legitimate part of the human race in shared humanity with all of us.
2. They can lead us to externalizing and giving away our power.
When we put our focus on what is wrong with them, we have less energy for caring for ourselves. We are leaking energy into trying to change and understand them, instead of channeling our life force energy into what actually is healthy for ourselves. Also, when we perceive ourselves as “victims” and move into our disempowered wounded child states, we tend to make choices and act out of our adaptive child strategies instead of from our wise adult selves. We then have less access to our clarity, discernment, and self-protection.
3. They can perpetuate the dynamics of domination.
When we make ourselves “better” than they are and see them as less human than we are, we are participating in the toxic cycle of “who’s on top” or “who’s more right” or “who’s more healthy.” Learn to step out of that dance entirely. You don’t need to make someone else bad and wrong to ground yourself in a deep knowing of what is good and life-affirming for you. Leave a relationship as an act of self-care and self-advocacy rather than as a statement or report card of the other person’s “badness.”
What Makes an Enemy Image
The essence of what makes something an “enemy image” is not the word itself, but rather the underlying superiority and contempt with which we use those words to dehumanize and dominate one another, coupled with our own disempowerment in the face of various relational dynamics.
When I see people first begin to study Nonviolent Communication and learn not to develop “enemy images” of others, they tend to go through a phase in which they seem to want to delete all sorts of diagnostic words and concepts entirely from language. They embark on the noble and worthwhile task of trying to translate and reduce all labels and relational experiences into a set of feelings and needs.
To this I say: Dive in. Go to town. Good for you.
I’m totally on board with awakening to multi-dimensions of our experience and with any movement that helps us to stay connected with the essential humanity and care for all people. When it comes to rehumanizing, rehabilitating, and repair work, I am an enthusiastic yes.
But I also have this caution: A reductionistic focus on feelings and needs coupled with an undiscerning habit of privileging empathy above healthy self-protection can actually lead to a tremendous amount of confusion, suffering, and stuckness.
When people are trapped in cycles of abuse, domination, and harm, it can be vitally important to have a label and a diagnosis to organize and understand their experience.
Three Core Mindsets We Can Practice
1. Get clear on what parts of ourselves get hooked by the dynamics and continue to do our own healing and growth work to bring more empowered, conscious, loving energy to all our interactions with self and others. The more healing work you’ve done yourself, the less seductive or magnetizing experience you’ll have of these dynamics.
2. Protect ourselves from harm by setting kind, clear boundaries around intrusive, controlling, judgmental, and critical behaviors and not over-personalizing the dynamics that arise. They will see you as the one who needs to change and they will often see themselves as victims of your reactions, your anger, your choices, your perceptions.
3. Compassionately understand and accept the real emotional limitations that narcissistically defended people bring into relationships. Look beneath their words: they can be very skilled at the structures of empathy, but they continue to struggle with the spirit of empathy.
How do these mindsets resonate with you? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.
This article about enemy images is the second in a series about what’s often missing from discussions around narcissism and codependency.. Click here to read part one.
WANT TO GO DEEPER IN THIS WORK?
Here are a few of my programs that might be of interest to you:
Conversations from the Heart, a free learning call on Wednesdays at 10am CT. LEARN MORE
Membership, a deep dive into personal growth with a dedicated community. LEARN MORE
Private Consultations, one-on-one guidance for your specific life situations. LEARN MORE
Thank you so much for your article. Here I am, waking up at 4am, keep thinking about a relationship I just left. I keep criticizing myself for not being consistent on using empathy and NVC skills in our relationship, otherwise I won’t have to leave the relationship, becasue I know deep down we all want the relationship. But I couldn’t handle the criticism from the other side and that sense of "there is nothing wrong with me, you are the one who has problems and needs to change"from the other side. After reading your article, I realized I was just trying to protect myself by setting the boundaries with that person. Thank you so much!
I don’t just carry enemy images of "them," I carry similar enemy images about those very aspects of myself. If I can embrace my flawed humanity, perhaps I can embrace theirs as well.
Hi, Yvette –
I so appreciate your bringing together NVC and an understanding of narcissistic personality disorder. I’d like to push back on one thing. It’s true that there is an ideal in NVC – from Marshall Rosenberg – not to label people and not to use diagnoses. I agree with you that such words can actually help with our understanding. However when you write: "But I also have this caution: A reductionistic focus on feelings and needs coupled with an undiscerning habit of privileging empathy above healthy self-protection can actually lead to a tremendous amount of confusion, suffering, and stuckness."
– which is so TRUE! – I also notice that it is really unrelated to the preference not to use labels or diagnoses. You do deal directly with why the preference not to use them, but the real reason to make an exception is not what you write about a reductionistic focus on feelings and needs, at least as I see it. I think it’s simply about giving us a short-hand to understand why someone may consistently be acting in a certain way.