Empathy and Boundaries

Empathy and Boundaries 

In recent years I have been become more acutely aware of how narcissistic our society can be. Narcissism is essentially selfishness to an extreme. People with narcissistic tendencies feel entitled to what they want, when they want it, no matter how they get it. They lack the ability to put themselves in another’s shoes, to imagine what the other person is experiencing, to pause, discern, and consider the consequences of their actions.  And on top of this dreadful behavior, such a person will expect you to admire them and run your life around them as they dismiss you and your needs.  This severe emotional disconnect — lack of empathy — limits the individual with narcissistic features terribly.  After all, empathy requires a measure of vulnerability and together theses are the prerequisites to genuine intimacy and real love. 

We’ve all encountered someone extremely self-focused like this before.  From the global to the personal, we sadly don’t have to look too far to find people who regard themselves, their views, their preferences as more important than anyone else in the room.  Think of that celebrity, that politician, that co-worker, that neighbor, or that member of your family tree.  People are complex and the spectrum is wide, from those who are diagnosable at the clinical level with Narcissistic Personality Disorder to those who have bouts of narcissistic behavior that disrupt pockets of their lives significantly and repeatedly.  Whatever the pattern, the root cause can be summarized in a word: brokenness.  It may go back to not having a healthy attachment with a primary caregiver, or a traumatic event, or a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Regardless of the specifics there is something broken inside of an individual who can function in such a distorted way with little to no awareness or regret for the toll their actions take on others.  I don’t believe most people would consciously choose to live in such a shallow, hollow, and destructive way for they miss the best of life.  That’s not to say they aren’t responsible for their choices, they certainly are.  Yet those who are in the grips of narcissism typically lack the tools to even see another possibility.    

So what can the average person do about this brokenness in our midst?  Two things that are key: empathy and boundaries.  In a culture that, at times, glorifies self-absorption we can model empathy for one another, pausing long enough to really consider how someone else feels and then offer a compassionate response.  We can be an example of empathy by considering differing opinions, tolerating and even encouraging each person’s view to be voiced and validated, especially the ones with whom we disagree.  We can demonstrate empathy by acknowledging everyone’s inherent, indestructible, God-given dignity by treating one another as a valued human being, including the people exhibiting narcissism. 

The other piece to managing the brokenness we witness in the narcissistic conduct of another is to hold healthy boundaries.  In twelve step groups we often hear about “detachment with love.”  The idea is that, when dealing with someone’s narcissism, we say not verbally but with our reactions or non-reactions, “I love you too much to allow you to treat me this way.”  We balance our empathy with protection by not letting the person walk all over us, beat us down emotionally, or disregard the truth of our experiences.  They are not allowed access to our innermost selves to wreak such havoc and so any attempt they make to violate our self-worth is rejected.  We need not defend or explain ourselves (in fact doing so is futile with someone in the throes of narcissism), we simply hold firm inside to what we know to be true and to what we will or will not do regardless of what the other person says or does.  We stay aligned with our best selves even if the person throws a tantrum or threatens retaliation or abandons their responsibilities.  We do what is ours to do and no more, leaving their mess for them to clean up.  In other words, maintaining boundaries means we know when to walk away. 

Responding to the brokenness that comes with narcissistic behavior requires a strong practice of authentic empathy and healthy boundaries.  This practice takes awareness and intention and an ongoing commitment to the process.  The goal isn’t to change a particular person, it’s to preserve the best part of ourselves and build on that.  It’s to drown out the impact self-centeredness has on all of us by consciously adding to the light in the world. 

May you be inspired!

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