The main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see other people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one’s desires and fears. – Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
Narcissists, it turns out, have a hard time loving someone else. No surprise there. Excessive self-love prohibits us from loving others, erecting an internal barrier that stops our understanding and empathy from functioning. The narcissist’s most deeply-held conviction—“I am special”—makes it very difficult to recognize the unique, special and outstanding qualities of others. As a result, narcissists often have severe problems sustaining satisfying, mutually supportive relationships. Narcissism causes a lack of psychological awareness and empathy. But even worse than all these difficulties, narcissists tend to use others for their own ends.
Have you ever tried to sustain a relationship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies? If so, you probably had the same troubles that many others do—dealing with the narcissist’s inability to truly love, an unquenchable need for attention, a tendency to lie and emotionally manipulate, and the constant desire to charm and attract others. These character traits, so destructive to so many relationships, prevent people with strong narcissistic behavior patterns from ever fully giving love to others.
Of course, every person struggles, to some degree, with these issues. If you plotted out a spectrum of narcissism, it would go from completely selfless on one end, to pathologically and clinically narcissistic and selfish on the other. Few people would qualify for the extremes on either end—which means most of us would fall somewhere in between. Since some amount of naturally-occurring narcissism exists in everyone, love and relationships continually pose this question: me or you? Should I endeavor to meet my own needs, or yours? Should I give more or get more? That balance, so tricky to maintain, faces us daily. In order to love one another, each of us has to fight the spiritual battle of our innate self-interest:
I shall ask you a question: Did God create us for love or for enmity? Did He create us for peace or discord? Surely He has created us for love; therefore, we should live in accordance with His will. Do not listen to anything that is prejudiced, for self-interest prompts men to be prejudiced. They are thoughtful only of their own will and purposes. They live and move in darkness. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 42.
We are, the Baha’i teachings say, created for love, not darkness. To grow and develop that capacity for love in our souls and hearts, we have to learn how to selflessly give love. This occurs best in the context of true faith:
Sincerity is the foundation-stone of faith. That is, a religious individual must disregard his personal desires and seek in whatever way he can wholeheartedly to serve the public interest; and it is impossible for a human being to turn aside from his own selfish advantages and sacrifice his own good for the good of the community except through true religious faith. For self-love is kneaded into the very clay of man, and it is not possible that, without any hope of a substantial reward, he should neglect his own present material good. That individual, however, who puts his faith in God and believes in the words of God — because he is promised and certain of a plentiful reward in the next life, and because worldly benefits as compared to the abiding joy and glory of future planes of existence are nothing to him — will for the sake of God abandon his own peace and profit and will freely consecrate his heart and soul to the common good. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 96-97.
What happens, though, when we encounter those who don’t view the world this way—who think first of themselves, and have little or no empathy for anyone else? What’s our spiritual responsibility toward those with severe narcissistic tendencies? We’ve all encountered the pathological liar, the deeply narcissistic, the self-loving. How do we deal with such a syndrome? How can we protect ourselves without enabling the pathology of others? The Baha’i teachings have some advice that may surprise you:
The Kingdom of God is founded upon equity and justice, and also upon mercy, compassion, and kindness to every living soul. Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind — except for those who have some selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul. Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before. No matter how much kindliness ye may expend upon the liar, he will but lie the more, for he believeth you to be deceived, while ye understand him but too well, and only remain silent out of your extreme compassion. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 158.
This advice, roughly comparable to the “tough love” philosophy of many twelve-step recovery programs, focuses on treating others with love and respect—but also asks us to deal forthrightly and without excessive compassion toward narcissists, egotists and tyrants, refusing to countenance, support or buy into their self-destructive behaviors.
This kind of spiritual tough love requires a clear eye and an open, honest ability to spot the manipulation and exploitation narcissists typically exhibit. Identifying and naming this sort of behavior isn’t always easy, but one clue can help: a short fuse leading to a state of rage. Because narcissists have a need to control others, they can suddenly and abruptly turn from charming to alarming when something upsets, threatens or destabilizes their carefully-constructed world. Such “two-faced,” Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior should shout “Narcissist alert!” to everyone nearby.
The Baha’i teachings ask everyone to focus on the good qualities of the people around them, and ignore the bad qualities. In people like these, however—those who have “a selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul”—we owe it to ourselves, and to them, not to fall victim to their pathology. If we follow this sage spiritual advice, perhaps we can help identify and stop the next narcissistic outburst of rage before it becomes toxic, violent and murderous.