Toni Bernhard, author of the Buddhist-inspired How to Be Sick, How to Wake Up, and How to Live Well, interviewed me sometime back over at Psychology Today about caregivers and narcissism. Here’s an excerpt and link to Is Your Caregiver Self-Absorbed and Manipulative?
Toni: What are some of the signs that someone who is the caregiver for a person might be narcissistic? What is the difference between a narcissist and person who can’t stop talking about him or herself? Why does it matter?
Meredith: While narcissism can present itself in different ways, and is made up of a variety of traits, given the focus of your blog, it seems appropriate to discuss empathy, or rather the lack thereof. For example, the DSM IV, published by the American Psychiatric Association, indicates that people who are narcissistic are generally unable or “unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”
This would be of concern in a situation when one requires care, as illness, chronic or acute, can make us feel more vulnerable, more in need of support, acknowledgment and kindness, even in passing. This is natural. But a person who veers toward truly narcissistic, especially when experiencing the deepened or exacerbated needs of another, will likely not be able to deliver the empathy. Oddly enough, they may demand empathy from the person who needs the care, as the narcissistic person’s own feelings of abandonment, rage, emptiness and anxiety are triggered. (Another facet of narcissism is projection, meaning that uncomfortable feelings are relegated to the other person – you!). Keep in mind, this does not happen on a conscious level, so if you point it out, the other person might say you are the one doing the attacking, just when he or she needs you most. Some narcissists might appear to care at first, but then go cold. Interactions, in my experience, can be very confusing and crazy making.
On the other hand, a person who is rough around the edges, bossy or curt, or who can’t stop talking about themself might be anxious, nervous, inconsiderate and annoying, but might still be able to express empathy and caring, and follow through appropriately and consistently to provide the care another person needs. This might be the case with some family, hired caregivers, neighbors, healthcare professionals, and others.