Health has always been a struggle for me. As a child, I have multiple memories of sleeping on the bathroom floor so that I could be near the toilet because I was too sick to be far away. As a teen, I struggled with debilitating migraines. Often, when I was at school, trying to study, I suddenly noticed a shimmering circle in my peripheral vision. If I waited too long, the circle completely engulfed my sight and I was trapped at school in the throes of a migraine so severe that I couldn’t tolerate any light or sound.
As soon as I noticed the shimmering, known as an aura, I ran to the office and called my mother to pick me up so that she could pack me into bed, put a blanket over my bedroom window as make-shift blackout curtains, give me an ice pack for my pounding head, and shut the door so the room would be as quiet as possible, because any noise at all was like a nail being driven into my skull.
I had my last migraine at age 17, and thought that my struggles with my health might actually be over. What I didn’t realize was that I was just at the beginning of struggling with the health of my romantic relationships. I’ve discussed my early marriage in previous posts. Suffice to say it was bad. Since then there have been a string of bad relationships that looked great in the beginning. The trauma of these events led me both into therapy, and to become a therapist in my own right.
However, I hadn’t realized what the true problem was until my current therapist, a wonderful woman who specializes in Highly Sensitive People, said, “You know. I think every man you’ve ever dated was a narcissist.”
Running through the criteria for narcissism in my head, I realized she was right.
As a Highly Sensitive Person, I possess a depth of empathy that is difficult to find. When I meet new people who interest me, I invest in getting to know more about them, and I have an unfortunate tendency to notice the light in people and disregard their shadows. For these reasons, I’m like catnip too narcissists. They love being put on a pedestal. They love a person wanting to know more about them and being interested in what they have to offer.
There is a lot of talk in the media about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but most people don’t understand what it truly means. It sounds like someone who has high self esteem and is generally impressed with themselves. These qualities don’t sound so awful. We tend to like people who like themselves. However, the truth about NPD is so much more insidious. Here are the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
(3) believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
(4) requires excessive admiration
(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
**Author’s note: While there are women with NPD, 50 to 75% of people with NPD are men, so I’m going to use the pronoun he/him to refer to the NPD person. Please know that I acknowledge that not all NPD people are male. I am also going to refer to the person he is dating as her. This works for my purposes, but know that I recognize that romantic relationships can be between people of the same sex, or people that identify as transgender or gender fluid.**
At first meeting, an NPD person will be excessively charming. This isn’t to make the other person feel comfortable. It’s a way to gain admiration. Unfortunately, this charm takes people in, especially in dating situations. When the NPD person takes a date to a fancy restaurant, buys expensive gifts for her, and takes her on romantic vacations, it isn’t to show his date how much he loves and respects her. It’s to make her believe he is as amazing as he believes he is. The more that she believes he is wonderful, the better he feels about himself.
It’s a trap.
Once the NPD person has hooked his target into admiring, and possibly into loving him, things start to shift and the other criteria for NPD show up.
Here’s a real-life example that happened to me. I had been dating Adam (not his real name) for about 3 years when he suddenly decided that we should move in together. Instead of discussing this with me, he told all of his friends about his decision, and they brought it up in conversation with me, which is how I found out. This should have been my first clue. Then, without discussing it with me, he decided that I should move into his apartment building. I told him that I would prefer that we look at other places, and choose a place that was new to both of us so that it would be our place instead of a place that belonged to him.
Instead of respecting this request, he informed me that he’d talked with the management of his complex and made an appointment for us to look at an available apartment (criteria 5 and 7). When I said that I had no intention of looking at the apartment in his complex because I had already made my needs clear to him, he became very angry with me and chose to punish me by taking me on a hike that we had planned for the day and refusing to speak to me the whole time (criterion 9). It was excruciating, and I eventually told him I wasn’t having a good time and was going back by myself.
Adam eventually caved and said that he would look at other places, but was still rigid about what he wanted in an apartment, and didn’t much care about what I wanted. We ended up compromising on a place where we lived together for 2 years. During that two years, we went on amazing trips, ate at fancy restaurants and he gave me beautiful and expensive gifts. He was a very fancy dresser and tended to talk too much about money and his expensive education (criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4). However, living with him was excessively lonely. He spent all of his time watching television that I hated, and I mostly hid in the bedroom with earphones in trying to get some peace (criterion 7).
When I finally realized that he was just keeping me around as a roommate and was never going to marry me (criterion 6), I moved out. The day I left, he didn’t even say goodbye to me. When I emailed him saying that it bothered me that he didn’t say goodbye, he told me that he had considered us broken up for the whole two years, so he didn’t feel he needed to say goodbye to me (criteria 6, 7 and 9). I was devastated. He had lied to me and wasted time that I could have spent trying to find someone who truly loved me and wasn’t an exploitative narcissist.
On their own, any one of these actions doesn’t look too terrible. Perhaps he simply forgot to tell me that he thought we should move in together. Maybe he really liked his building and wanted to stay. Maybe he likes watching television a lot and is careless about making sure the other person enjoys the show that’s on. However, taken together, they show a pattern of disregard for the rights and needs of others that is pervasive to his personality. I should also say that Adam was probably the nicest of the narcissists I’ve dated and this is a fairly light example.
Many people wonder how kind and giving people end up with narcissists. It seems to be a pattern. When one person in the partnership is cruel and exploitative, the other person seems to be incredibly empathic and caring. This is exactly because narcissists have an unending need to be loved, understood and cared for.
In the article “Do Highly Sensitive People Attract Narcissists” Andre Solo writes, “[Narcissists] have very lofty dreams, nothing they do or achieve is ever good enough, so they’re frequently upset, disappointed, or even wildly angry. Isn’t there anyone who can treat them the way they deserve? Yes, unfortunately; and all too often it’s an HSP, the person who keenly feels the pain of others and takes a true sense of satisfaction from helping. HSPs are often the first to try to console and comfort someone in need, and that puts them at risk of getting pulled into a narcissist’s trap.”
What happens is that whenever the HSP gets exhausted by the NPD’s selfish and exploitative behavior, the narcissist reels the HSP back in by “love bombing.” What is a love bomb? It’s a super romantic date or trip, or an expensive gift out of nowhere. The HSP thinks, “Oh. I was overreacting. He really does love me,” and then the narcissist goes right back to sucking the empathy and kindness out of the HSP.
If you’re recognizing yourself or your relationship here, please don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. It’s an insidious trap that unfolds over time and plays on your capacity for kindness and empathy.
However, I urge you to get out now. It will not get better. It will only get worse. Leaving a narcissist can be incredibly painful. He will blame you and make you question your decision. He will punish you. The intermittent reinforcement the narcissist gives, alternating between intense attention and then intense lack of attention is addictive, and leaving a narcissist can feel like detoxing from a drug.
However, once you’re through the detox, it can feel like being freed from a long and arduous prison sentence. The day I received my divorce paperwork after I left my NPD ex-husband, and I saw my name in print changed back to the one I’d been born with was one of the happiest days of my life. I walked away from the courthouse holding my divorce papers with a smile on my face so radiant that several people stopped me as I walked back to my car and asked me why I was so happy. All I could do was hold up the 1/4 inch-thick divorce decree and say, “I’m free!”
On Thursday this past week, my supervisor called and gave me some unwelcome news. A decision was made, he told me, to remove me from leading the psychotherapy group that I’ve been leading 3 times per week for the past five years. It’s called an Intensive Outpatient Group (IOP), and it’s specifically designed to support people going through an acute phase of a psychiatric illness, with the goal of keeping them out of the hospital. My job is to create a safe place for talking about suicidality, depression, anxiety, and sometimes psychosis.
Many would run screaming from work like this, but it’s often the brightest part of my day. Somehow, running that group brings out the best that I have to offer, and I become a psychotherapist full of empathy and compassion for these people who are often going through the darkest hours of their lives.
I wasn’t removed because I’d done anything wrong, my boss was saying. It was because of a business decision having to do with metrics and numbers that I don’t care about at all. As he spoke, the breath caught in my throat, my eyes burned, and I tuned his voice out from my consciousness, not wanting to hear anymore cold, business justifications for why he was taking away my baby.
I tried to ask a couple of questions, but my voice came out much too shaky to avoid detection, and I abandoned any hope of conversation until my nervous system processed the news enough for me to come from a place of rational thought instead of pure emotion. Cursing my sensitive nature, I wondered how people go through disappointments like this without crying. I know that they do, but no matter how much deep breathing I practice, I end up in a puddle of humiliating sobs–and then the humiliation just makes me cry harder.
For most of my life, this tendency towards overwhelm led me to believe that there was something quite wrong with me, and other people tended to reinforce this belief. My ex-husband told me to stop being so sensitive on a daily basis (hence the Ex status). When I got into some trouble at a previous job, and could do nothing to repair my reputation, my tears only convinced my boss that I was weak.
I’m not weak. In fact, I’ve survived horrific traumas relatively unscathed through my ability to persevere long and difficult journeys toward a desired goal, and I have a strong ability to sublimate my own terrible experiences into increased compassion that I use to help others walk through their own traumas.
There is nothing wrong with me, and telling me to stop being so sensitive is like telling me to stop being a human.
What I am, is one of the twenty percent of the population whose nervous systems are wired to be more sensitive than the other 80%. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). HSPs are split evenly by gender–50% male and 50% female–and their existence is supported by science. While the majority are introverted because it takes less to stimulate their nervous systems, 30% of HSPs are extroverts. This is not a psychological diagnosis, because it’s not a disorder. Being an HSP is a genetic trait, like having brown hair, or blue eyes. HSPs are present in most mammalian species, and they are in the world for a purpose, which I’ll discuss more below.
It was about 3 years ago that a patient told me she was reading Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and the name of the book shook me inside. I had to read it, and when I did, I devoured every word, feeling understood for possibly the first time in my life. I thought, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this? It would have made all the difference in the world to know that I’m just wired this way. I could have stopped trying to be something I wasn’t years ago.”
Since then, I’ve made it my business to educate people about HSPs whenever I get the chance. Elaine Aron offers the DOES acronym to describe the traits of HSPs:
D – Depth of Processing
O – Overstimulation
E – Emotional Reactivity and Empathy
S – Sensing of the Subtle
It was only quite recently that I realized my depth of processing is above average, and my mind is much busier than most people’s. After interactions where I feel I did poorly with others, I’ll often go home and pick the conversation apart, trying to figure out where I went wrong. When I have a problem to solve, my brain will dissect for days, and sometimes nights, until I find the answer. One of my favorites in life is learning something new, and I’m great at putting in the time and thought. Recently, I’ve been learning piano, Spanish, and how to blog and podcast. These are great hobbies for me because they’re done quietly, in private, and call for deep thinking.
Crowds can be a real problem for me because of the HSP tendency towards overwhelm. I love concerts, but I need quiet time before and after, and I can’t stand general admission concerts. My own assigned chair and space keeps me from panicking and leaving. My work-load has to be kept at a manageable level, and I have to take excellent care of my body, mind and spirit in order to keep myself from burning out. Events where I meet large groups of people I don’t know for the first time can have me hiding in a corner, overwhelmed by the number of people, the noise, and my own internal sense of not fitting in as easily as others seem to do.
I feel sadness, joy, hope and fear at a more visceral level than non-HSPs, and I love with a depth that is often frightening to my beloved. Disappointment, frustration, anger, and joy all make me cry. The emotional reactivity of my HSP nature is both a curse and a blessing. Feeling the difficult emotions deeply is the downside, but the intense love and joy I get to experience make it all worth it, and empathy is my superpower. I had to learn how to shield the integrity of my own heart, but now that I know how, I can feel the emotions of those around me with incredible accuracy. Definitely a useful trait for a therapist.
Panel interviews are a nightmare for me due to the HSP trait of sensing the subtle. I’ll get completely overwhelmed reading the subtle body postures and facial expressions of the multiple people who are judging me, and my anxiety soars, leaving me tongue tied. I’m not good at getting people to believe I’m good at what I do, but if they give me a chance, I hit home runs over and over. On the upside of the sensing subtleties trait, I notice details that others often overlook, and I’m great at solving puzzles and finding creative solutions.
Now that I know these things about myself, I can build in protections like giving myself time alone to recuperate after being around a lot of people, making sure I get a lot of rest, and enough to eat. I give myself grace when I’m not able to handle disappointment and hurt as coolly as other people. It’s OK, I tell myself. The world isn’t in technicolor for them, like it is for me. The biggest blessing is that I allow myself to be authentic in a way that I never have before, and that’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities, such as writing this blog for you about my true experience of the world.
Dr. Aron explains that the world has gotten more difficult for HSPs as history has moved forward. There used to be two classes of people, the warrior kings and the priestly advisors. Both were equally respected. While the warrior kings actively ruled and waged wars, the priestly advisors researched, wrote, gave valuable advice to the warrior kings, and created works of art. Over time, though, the warrior kings stopped listening, and made policies that hadn’t gone through the deeply processing, subtle minds of HSPs, and I believe the world is poorer for it.
Now HSPs are told to stop being so sensitive and to stop thinking so much. They are pressured to be like the warrior kings, who think that something is wrong with the quiet thoughtfulness of HSPs. I am here to tell you that there is nothing wrong with us. The world would be a poorer place without the greatness of HSPs such as Leonardo da Vinci, St. Thomas Aquinas, Mother Theresa, and Ghandi. When given the space and time, we HSPs can create peace, healing and great art.
If you are relating to the HSP traits as much as I do, please stop trying to force yourself to be a warrior king. It won’t work, and you’ll end up hating yourself. Settle in to being an HSP, and it will open a whole new world for you of beauty, deep thought and strong emotion. Allow your creativity to spill out into the world, and forgive yourself for the times when your emotions overwhelm you.
IF you love an HSP, don’t shame them for traits they can’t help. Love them for the full depth of their priestly advisor selves, and they will blossom like well cared for roses in the garden.