Have you ever met a narcissist? You may not know the answer to that question, but here’s a clue: they tend to think quite highly of themselves, and very little about others.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a recognizable mental illness that usually includes a pattern of grandiose behavior, lack of empathy and a pathological need for admiration and attention.
One of several types of personality disorders, people who have NPD display an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, and typically have troubled relationships and a severe lack of empathy for others.
Sound familiar? I hope not, because one of the lynchpins of our humanness is our ability to empathize with the condition of others. Narcissists lack that ability. We all may feel selfish or self-important at times, seek attention and admiration when we do well, and have trouble in various relationships, but hopefully those conditions remain temporary and we work through them. As the Baha’i teachings clearly say, selfishness and self-love, the traits of the narcissist, can destroy human virtues. In a response to a letter he received from an American Baha’i who wished to be freed of the dark quality of selfishness, Abdu’l-Baha replied:
All these wishes are well worthy of asking, especially the rescue from self-love. This is a strange trait and the means of the destruction of many important souls in the world. If man be imbued with all the good qualities, but be selfish, all the other virtues will fade or pass away, and eventually he will grow worse. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet to an American Baha’i, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 184.
But for those who can’t seem to shed those behaviors, narcissism represents a personality disorder and mental condition causing extreme behaviors that usually cannot be corrected easily. Some narcissism can be ameliorated through the use of prescribed medications, and psychotherapy or psychiatric treatment may help. But as in all such cases, the patient him or herself must first realize they need help, seek it out, accept it, and try to change their patterns of behavior.
The loss of feelings of empathy toward others, as exhibited by the narcissist, is a common trait of many of these disorders. But what is empathy? Here’s the dictionary definition:
empathy: n. the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts or feelings.
According to psychologist and empathy researcher Lidewij Niezink, Ph.D., empathy does not refer to an “imagine-self perspective.” This means we focus on our own experiences as if we are in the other person’s shoes, which limits our insight and emotional connection to others. When we consider how we would feel, think and react in a similar situation, we don’t really learn anything about the other person, and we might even make erroneous assumptions about them.
Instead, to really empathize, Niezink said, we need to ask ourselves the question: “What is it like for a blind person to be blind?” This represents an “imagine-other perspective,” focused on the experiences of others.
So empathy does not mean figuring out the right words to say, or trying to erase a person’s pain. It is not wanting things to be different than they are. It is not saying, “Cheer up! It’ll be better tomorrow,” or “Don’t worry about it!”
To empathize with others, it helps to first empathize with ourselves. This is vital. Many of us have a hard time sitting with someone else’s pain simply because we can’t sit with our own. We don’t take the time to understand or connect to our own range of emotions, and over the years we’ve learned to ignore, avoid or discount our feelings.
The Baha’i teachings have some excellent spiritual advice about encountering and empathizing with our inner selves. Baha’u’llah wrote that everyone can and should take this journey to self-discovery:
… man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 34.
Baha’u’llah also advised us to “read the book of one’s own self …” and then wrote:
Wherefore, put thy hand into thy bosom, then stretch it forth with power, and behold, thou shalt find it a light unto all the world. – Baha’u’llah, The Four Valleys, in The Call of the Divine Beloved, p. 99.
Finding that “light unto all the world,” which involves moving from selfishness to selflessness, truly brings every spiritual seeker closer to self-knowledge and self realization.