Free Yourself From the Narcissist/Empath Pattern

By Lissa Rankin

Guest writer for Wake Up World

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” — Thomas Merton

After six years of working intensively with one-on-one clients in my mentoring program, one pattern arises over and over, especially because so many of my clients are female empaths and healers. This pattern is so pervasive — and so hard to both spot and break — I feel called to share parts of a manual I wrote for those who joined me for A Soul Tribe Gathering in Mill Valley last week. The reason I wrote about this topic in the Soul Tribe Manual is that a healthy Soul Tribe cannot exist in the presence of this pattern. As we’ve seen from one spiritual community after another that nukes itself, narcissistic spiritual leaders result in abuses of power and abuse, yet a narcissistic leader can only exercise their abuse if someone gives away their own sovereignty and authority and hooks into their narcissism with codependence. In order to even begin to co-create healthy spiritual community, we must examine our own tendencies toward narcissism and codependence.

In the first half of this article, I’ll focus on the narcissist — but don’t start pointing fingers and blaming the narcissists quite yet! And don’t point the finger back at yourself and perpetuate the “blame the victim” mentality that many narcissistic spiritual leaders (and cops and narcissistic spouses) use to perpetrate their abuse. Also, avoid being quick to label yourself or anyone else. “He’s the narcissist. I’m the codependent.” Most people who are hooked into this pattern are hooked into both sides, which are like two sides of the same coin. You may be codependent with your husband children and a narcissistic boss at work. You may be a narcissist with your spouse but codependent with your mother. The point of this blog series is not to shame, blame, or demonize anyone. We are all vulnerable to this pattern! It is simply part of the human experience. The intention of this is simply to raise your awareness of how you might be hooking into these patterns and how doing so is interrupting your capacity to participate in truly intimate relationship.

If you read what I’m about to share with deep self-compassion and an unwillingness to demonize those who are caught on either side of this pattern, this difficult-to-discuss pattern can be examined without unnecessary defensiveness, self-blame, or demonization of the supposedly vicious “other.” Once we see with compassion what has previously been hidden in a blind spot, we can begin to unravel the hooks that keep us in the destructive web of this pattern. Compassion for yourself is key. Whether you have a tendency to fall into the codependent pattern or the narcissist pattern, be gentle with yourself, and don’t beat yourself up. You can’t do better until you know better. And once you know, you can gently and compassionately free yourself from abusive relationships that deplete your energy, interfere with your capacity to find and fulfill your calling, and make you sick.

Because this is an intense, triggering, and difficult to face pattern, I will release pieces of the book I’m writing about Soul Tribes on my blog in digestible morsels. If it resonates with you, you might want to join us for A Soul Tribe Gathering, where we’ll be diving deeper into freeing ourselves from these and many other patterns that interfere with our ability to authentically and intimately connect with those who can help us grow, celebrate life, and navigate the bliss and pain of living the human experience at full volume.

“There Are Two Kinds of People”

Let me start by sharing a bit of my own experience, just so you don’t think I’m some talking head sharing dispassionately about something I haven’t experienced myself. As someone who had to take the painful steps to free myself from a physically and emotionally abusive marriage in my past, I have navigated this agonizing territory for many years. I can only write about this pattern after ten years of therapy has helped me get some distance from it, so I can spot both sides of the pattern from miles away and protect myself from hooking into this pattern. I like to joke that interrupting the narcissist/codependent pattern is like putting an octopus to bed. Every time I think I’ve got all those arms under the covers, another arm or two flies out! We have to keep a sense of humor about such things and hold it all with self-compassion. This becomes an intense spiritual practice, but it’s worth doing, because on the other side of this hard inner work lie the most incredibly intimate relationships with healthy people who refuse to enter into this pattern. That’s when the rewards of this deep soul work begin to pay off, and your capacity to connect from a place of true wholeness and equality flourishes.

Years ago, I was deep in the heat of a conversation with a friend of mine, as we sat across from each other at the dinner table. I felt fire burning inside of me. He said, “Tell me what’s going on inside your head right now?” I glared at him and said, “There are two kinds of people.” I paused for dramatic effect. There was venom in my voice.

I went on. “There are the smart, sexy, talented, handsome, charismatic people who lie, cheat, manipulate, dominate, and betray you. Then there are kind, sensitive, gentle, compassionate, reliable doormats who dote on you but are too weak and pathetic to stand up for themselves. You are the first kind.” My whole body was trembling as I said it.

My friend was visibly stung, but then something softened in him, and he said, “Wow. You really believe that, don’t you?”

I started crying.

He said, “I think you should bring that up with your therapist.”

So I did.

I shared my sob story with my therapist Rose, who very pointedly and ruthlessly — but quite lovingly — told me that I believe there are two types of people because I’ve been intimate with people who are either “Narcissists” or “Echoes.” She then went on to tell me the Greek myth of Narcissus and Echo.

Echo was a beautiful but quite talkative nymph who was put under a curse that made her only able to speak what others have spoken first. She fell in love with Narcissus, a vain young man who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and, not realizing it was himself, spoke words of love to the reflection. Echo, the cursed water nymph, would hear “I love you” and repeat “I love you” back to Narcissus. But her love was never truly returned by Narcissus. When Narcissus realized that what he loved was actually his own image, he killed himself and transformed into a narcissus flower.

The Narcissus/Echo Pattern

This myth can be translated into a psychological pattern of relationships, wherein one partner plays the “It’s all about me!” Narcissus role and the other boosts Narcissus’s already hearty ego by repeating back what Narcissus wants to hear while compromising her own needs and desires until she becomes resentful and feels victimized. Most people who get hooked into this unhealthy relationship pattern tend to prefer one role in the pattern or the other. The Narcissus character tends to be exactly what I said to my friend — sexy, charismatic, talented, attractive, funny, smart, seductive, the life of the party. Others are drawn to these people — but you only get close if it’s on Narcissus’s terms. And if you stop echoing back what Narcissus wants to hear, you’re likely to get ousted.

On the other hand, the person who plays the Echo role tends to be more empathic, submissive, deferential, sensitive, self-effacing, service-oriented, externally referenced, over giving, and emotionally manipulative. Echo, who refuses to allow attention to be focused on her, has difficulty receiving if anyone tries to refocus the energy on her. Echo is always feeding Narcissus’s ego and enabling him to be the center of attention. And she never quite has a voice of her own because she’s too afraid Narcissus might leave if she fails to echo back what he wants to hear. (Keep in mind that both genders can play both roles, so this is not a male/female thing.)

Most people who hook into the Narcissus pattern don’t have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, though some do. Echoes may also have personality disorders. Both roles in this pattern are equally unhealthy from a psychological perspective, and this pattern requires the participation of both parties. Most people who get hooked into this pattern play both roles in different relationships. Sometimes they play Narcissus. In other relationships, they play Echo. However, most prefer one role over another. Some people only have a tinge of this pattern, while others are full blown.

My therapy session led to a huge epiphany for me when Rose suggested that many of my closest peers, as well as the men I had dated, had played out the role of Narcissus, and I had been their Echo. But in other relationships in my life, I’ve played Narcissus to someone else’s Echo. I feel much more powerful, in control, attractive, and secure when I play Narcissus. When I’m Echo, I feel insecure, grasping, disrespected, resentful, and underappreciated. Either way, this dynamic never ends well. Although people seem to demonize the Narcissus role disproportionately, it doesn’t feel good to be in either role. Both interfere with healthy intimacy and make healthy Soul Tribe dynamics impossible.

For more on this, please read the article Are You Involved With a Narcissist?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Those who fall into the Narcissus role may have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder or, more commonly, they may have narcissistic tendencies.

Those with narcissistic personality traits:

  • Are often charismatic, initially quite likable, and talented.
  • Can make you feel very special when they’re trying to get you into their clutches. “Love bombing” in the beginning of relationships — or as an attempted repair after bouts of abus — is common.
  • Always manage to turn the conversation back toward themselves and tend to “one up” anyone else’s story.
  • Rarely see themselves as being at fault and make up complicated rationalizations for why it’s always somebody else’s fault.
  • Tend to serve in leadership roles, not because they’re better leaders but because they like the attention.
  • Name-drop often.
  • Are prone to affairs.
  • Don’t hesitate to violate clear boundaries and fail to respect them even when they are reinforced.
  • Are quick to react with anger if challenged.
  • Tend to have grandiose stories about themselves.
  • Like to display status symbols.
  • Care about their appearance beyond simple self-care and can often be quite vain.
  • Break promises and fail to keep commitments often.
  • Lack the ability to respond with humility in the face of criticism.
  • Make a lot of excuses.
  • Leave a trail of bad relationships in their wake.
  • Show little remorse.
  • Tend to cut other people down in order to feel “better than.”
  • Drop people (and projects) like a hot potato when they get bored or have satisfied whatever it was they wanted from you.
  • Promote an inflated false identity and squelch anything that interferes with this false self.
  • Lack insight into their narcissistic tendencies and if called on it, show no interest in seeking treatment.
  • Tend to be successful in their careers.
  • Are jealous and competitive.
  • Puff up when flattered and can be manipulated through flattery.
  • Interrupt others often, showing little interest in other people.
  • Justify breaking rules, as if rules only apply to other people.
  • Feel entitled.
  • May be physically or emotionally abusive, especially if their authority or “specialness” is questioned.
  • May manipulate through guilt or irrational projections onto others. (“You have to make Mommy proud! You wouldn’t want to make Mommy look bad now, would you?”)
  • Inflate themselves by knocking others down.
  • Hold grudges.
  • Like to keep people off balance, often failing to offer reassurance when those close to them need comfort.
  • May masquerade as shyness, when secretly, in their own fantasies, they’re just waiting for the day they can topple with their brilliance the over-the-top narcissist they resent.
  • Lack empathy and can behave with great cruelty in the face of someone else’s vulnerability.

DSM-5 criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder include:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it.
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents.
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people.
  • Requiring constant admiration.
  • Having a sense of entitlement.
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations.
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want.
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you.
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.

The Mayo Clinic says, “Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.” Obviously, this pattern is incompatible with healthy participation in a Soul Tribe. Historically, this has proven true. Most cults that ended tragically did so because codependent Soul Tribe members had given their power away to a narcissistic leader. (We’ll talk more about how to tell if you’re codependent — and how to interrupt this pattern — in the second half of this article.)

Whether someone has the full-blown disorder or just narcissistic personality traits, narcissism interferes with healthy relationships and interrupts the capacity to participate in Soul Tribe in a nourishing way — for obvious reasons. Narcissists aren’t wired to care about the needs of the tribe. They only care about themselves, so they become a drain on the tribe’s energy. The lack of empathy that characterizes narcissism predisposes narcissists to violence and addiction, so they can become physically destructive to a Soul Tribe, leading to boundary violations and safety concerns.

If reading this enrages you, and you’re busy listing all the narcissists in your personal life, your workplace, your spiritual community, and in Washington DC, hold on a minute! Everyone loves to hate on the narcissists, but I am not writing this to give you ammunition to fuel the story of separation that makes us demonize one another and polarize each other into “the bad guys” and “the good guys.” Yes, it’s helpful to spot these patterns and call a spade a spade, because until you’re aware of how these patterns play out, you may be stepping into a narcissist’s trap unwittingly. But pointing at someone else’s side of the street without looking at how you give your power away and fail to set and enforce boundaries as a form of conflict avoidance is not empowering. Cleaning up your side of the street also doesn’t mean you are responsible for someone else’s dirty street. Own your side, and if the other side of the street is still messy (and that person isn’t interested in getting help), set and enforce clear boundaries.

The Empath/Echo/Codependence Pattern

We talked about the Narcissus/Echo myth and how to identify whether you or someone you’re in relationship with behaves with a lot of traits characteristic of the narcissist. Now, let’s focus on how to identify whether you have a tendency to fall into the empath/Echo/codependence pattern, which hooks into the narcissist pattern like lock and key. If you feel confused because you identify with both the narcissist and the empath, join the club! Most people who fit one of these patterns fit both. In some relationships, you may play the narcissist, while in others, you play the codependent. Most people have a preference for one pattern over the other, but some flip-flop between them equally. Really, they are two sides of the same painful coin. But don’t despair! This is a curable pattern, and there’s so much love, joy, intimacy, and freedom on the other side of this pattern interrupt.

Before you read any further, let me suggest you be infinitely tender and hold yourself tight as you read on. This can be a really triggering topic! Be gentle with yourself. And others. If you recognize yourself or your loved ones here, please don’t beat yourself up — or get all indignant and righteous and start shaming anybody else. Turn your heart light all the way up before reading on. My intention is to activate more awareness and more love — of yourself and of others. The last thing this world needs is more judgment, polarization, and demonization of the self or the other.

Related reading: Dealing With the Challenges of Being an Empath (or Highly Sensitive)

“Love Bombing”

Those who fall into the “Echo” patterns are often empaths, playing out a pattern of codependence. Empaths have what can be a gift and a curse — a finely-tuned sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others. If the narcissist is focused on “Me, me, me,” and the empath is focused on “You, you, you,” you can see how this is a match made in hell. This dynamic can feel very confusing and hard to spot for the empath because, in the beginning of a relationship, the narcissist can “love bomb” the empath to hook them into this pattern. However, it’s not real love. Initially, the praise, gifts, touch, affection, and approval showered on the empath by the narcissist feels so rewarding to the empath that the pattern gets hooked.

However, do not be fooled! The love bombing is not real, intimate, meaningful, unconditional love. It’s a form of deception. Although the narcissist may be completely unaware and free of any conscious intent to manipulate, the conscious or unconscious motive of the narcissist is to lure the vulnerable empath into an intimate relationship by hooking the empath’s insecurity and lack of worthiness. The narcissist counts on the approval-seeking tendency of the empath to create premature intimacy and artificial stability in the relationship. The empath is an easily hookable target, burdened as he/she is with low self-esteem, poor boundaries, romantic fantasies, and the pathologic need to be needed.

The push/pull dynamic, the “come hither/go away” unpredictability of the dynamic becomes a kind of addiction for the empath. Unacceptable, neglectful, cruel, or even abusive behaviors are neurotically tolerated because the empath wants another hit of the love bombing or gets seduced by the idea that she is going to be the one to finally demonstrate how unconditional her love is, even if the narcissist is behaving abominably. Over time, the frequency of the love bombing diminishes, which further fuels the “I’m not worthy or loveable” story that often stems from childhood. This makes the empath vulnerable to abuse and interferes with the capacity to have insight and make empowered choices that free the empath from the abusive relationship.

Blind Compassion and Neurotic Tolerance

In the beginning, the love bombs outweigh the neglect and abuse, so the empath can justify the tolerance. She may even puff herself up with stories about how spiritual, compassionate, and unconditionally loving she is. She very likely justifies staying in the relationship with stories like, “Wow, I’m learning so much in this relationship! How else would I learn unconditional love unless I was tested this much? How grateful I am to my Love School teacher… ” (And yes, this too is true.)

Yet, as Robert Augustus Masters writes in his book Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, this kind of “blind compassion” is really conflict avoidance in holy drag. This spiritualizing way of rationalizing unacceptable behavior in another is simply evidence of an inability or unwillingness to set and enforce healthy boundaries, which are a natural side effect of self-care, self-love, and self-respect. Healthy boundaries are simply a healthy person’s way of saying, “This is what’s OK and not OK in this relationship.” Then if someone can’t or won’t respect the healthy boundaries, the healthy person simply withdraws. We teach people how to treat us.

Empaths Often Learn to Prioritize the Needs of Others Over Their Own

Empaths have usually been conditioned early in childhood to prioritize the needs of others over their own needs. Although empaths tend to be very expertly attuned to the needs of others, they often have little to no awareness of what they need themselves. This causes a toxic imbalance, since healthy relating in conscious Soul Tribe dynamics requires that all parties be aware of their own needs, care about the needs of others, express and get these needs met in healthy ways, and prioritize meeting the needs of others as equally important — but not more important — than meeting your own needs.

Often, the most empathic, intuitive, sensitive children grew up in abusive or neglectful homes. (Or perhaps abusive or neglectful homes breed empathic, intuitive, sensitive adults. Chicken or egg?) These beautiful little children did not learn what healthy children learn — to prioritize self and others equally. While budding little empaths grew up, they learned to attune to the needs of others as a survival mechanism. This was a necessary adaptation at the time! This pattern can be a gift, opening up spiritual connection, psychic channels, and powerful healing abilities. But the very tool that kept them alive makes empaths vulnerable to victimization in adulthood.

Many empaths were raised with narcissistic parents (most abusive parents and addicts have narcissistic traits) who violated their boundaries repetitively and never taught them to be aware of their own needs. As a result, empaths grow up normalizing such behavior. Painful though it may be, abuse is a comfort zone — until it’s not.

Being an Empath Is a Gift

Lest you misunderstand, don’t think for a moment that being an empath is just a handicap! While it’s important to bring into conscious awareness the shadow side of being an empath, being an empath is a beautiful gift, especially given the state of the planet right now. Once you’re free from the hooks of codependence that often ride shotgun with being an empath, you’re just what the doctor ordered in order to help this planet heal.

Just because you’re an empath doesn’t mean you’re codependent, but often, the two go hand in hand. If you’re aware of the tendency toward codependence and do the hard work to interrupt this pattern, set and enforce boundaries, and keep your energy field sovereign and clear, you can keep all the gifts of being an empath without being at the mercy of its shadows.

Related reading: What a Rabbit Taught Me About Being an Empath

What Is Codependence?

How do you know if you’re stuck in a pattern of codependence? Codependence is different than simple dependence, and it’s distinct from interdependency. We all have dependency needs at certain phases of our lives. For example, after having surgery or during cancer treatment, we may be dependent on others for caregiving, financial support, driving to appointments, even getting to the bathroom or making meals. There’s nothing fundamentally unhealthy about being dependent, as long as it’s not hooked into enabling a delay in the maturation process into adulthood, as when an able-bodied child moves back home, refuses to get a job or participate in household responsibilities, fails to contribute financially or through hard work, and expects Mom and Dad to take care of them.

Interdependence is also not unhealthy; quite to the contrary, interdependency is necessary for true intimacy. Psychologist Leon Seltzer, PhD writes, “In an interdependent relationship, each party is able to comfortably rely on the other for help, understanding, and support. It’s a ‘value added’ kind of thing. The relationship contributes to both individuals’ resilience, resourcefulness, and inner strength. All the same, each party remains self-sufficient and self-determining. They maintain a clear identity apart from the relationship and are quite able to stand on their own 2 feet.”

What differentiates codependency is that empaths are primarily dependent on someone else’s dependence on them for a sense of value or worthiness. The core wound of many empaths is that they don’t believe they deserve to exist unless they’re overgiving. A deep-seated insecurity fuels their need to rescue others. They quite literally need to be needed, feeding off other people’s neediness. If they encounter a healthy person who doesn’t need them, they often have no idea how to relate, and the relationship may feel uncomfortably vulnerable since codependency thrives on the needy narcissist. If the empath can’t rescue someone, the inner dialogue is that this person will then leave. If there isn’t dependency, why else would someone stay?

Someone hooked into a codependent pattern may feel so unlovable that she literally can’t believe that anyone would love her if she’s not giving too much and neglecting her own needs. This can be quite heartbreaking to the healthy people who try to relate with her. It’s similar to how the anorexic looks into a mirror and sees a fat person, while other people see skin and bones. The codependent looks at herself and sees someone essentially unlovable, while others see so much to love. This deep insecurity continues the pattern, since the empath tells herself that she must settle for taking care of a narcissist and his needs, because nobody would ever love her enough to want to take care of her needs reciprocally. Just as narcissism destroys healthy Soul Tribe dynamics, codependency wrecks the interdependency necessary for healthy interrelating.

How do you know if you’re playing out codependent patterns?

Codependents frequently:

  • Have difficulty knowing what they need
  • Believe that they don’t need help from others
  • Don’t know how to set and enforce healthy boundaries
  • Behave in passive-aggressive ways, rather than making themselves vulnerable and asking for what they really need
  • Self-harm in order to avoid conflict
  • Don’t know how to relate to others if they don’t feel needed
  • Are anger-phobic
  • Prioritize doing what others want and often don’t even know what they want if asked
  • Feel hesitant to go out on a limb and express a view that opposes what others think
  • See others as weak and have little faith that others can take care of themselves
  • Pressure others to do what they believe would be helpful in ways that feel intrusive to others and feel resentful when others ignore their advice
  • Attract emotionally unavailable partners but are blind to this pattern
  • Struggle to make decisive choices
  • Perceive themselves as never good enough
  • Feel embarrassed and judge themselves as weak if they express emotion
  • Run away from vulnerability
  • Struggle to graciously receive gifts, praise or help
  • Lack self-awareness about how they feel
  • Deny or minimize how they feel
  • Have an inflated sense of themselves as unselfishly service-oriented
  • Lack the ability to feel true empathy for others, projecting their needs onto others
  • Judge others
  • Rarely express gratitude to those in their inner circle
  • Leave those they are close to feeling that they constantly disapprove
  • Seek external validation and approval over self-approval
  • Have trouble admitting they made a mistake
  • Feed on feelings of righteousness and have a strong desire to be right, even if they have to lie to save face
  • Simultaneously perceive themselves as “not enough” but also superior to those they judge as “lesser”
  • Struggle to achieve goals, pursue dreams, and complete projects
  • Pride themselves in being loyal, but are loyal to a fault, often staying in unhealthy or even abusive situations and rationalizing why they stay, often with exaggerated tolerance or “spiritual bypassing” tools that justify tolerating abuse with aphorisms like “He’s helping me learn to keep my heart open” or “She’s teaching me about compassion and forgiveness”
  • Give inappropriately generous gifts, while keeping score and expecting lavish gratitude or the ability to control others in return
  • Use their sexuality to win approval or feel accepted
  • Sell others on how compassionate and generous they are, but secretly think nobody would want to be with them unless they give more than they receive in the relationship
  • Are always pointing a finger of blame at others and using shame to manipulate
  • Use their control patterns as a way to avoid true intimacy
  • Tiptoe around their requests or make evasive asks in order to avoid rejection, abandonment, or disappointment
  • Seduce people close with their promises of “unconditional love” and generous gifts, but then push them away if they get uncomfortably close
  • Trust their strong personal will more than they trust Divine Will

Please Don’t Blame Anybody (Especially Yourself)

When empaths caught up in the Echo patterns of codependence first learn about the Narcissist/Echo/empath pattern, they often have a tendency to become enraged and blame the narcissist or they turn that rage upon themselves and further wound the fragile, vulnerable part that doesn’t feel good enough. But please — don’t rage on yourself or commit emotional violence against someone else. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t feel rage and let it move through your body. In fact, this can be very healing. Rage against someone else is a healthy response to having your needs neglected and your boundaries violated. And rage against the overly compliant “nice” part of yourself can light the soul fire in your belly that activates your inner power and allows your “HELL NO” to burst forth into inspired action. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to move rage through your system.

When someone has been in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, it’s only natural to go through a phase of feeling fury at the narcissist. The mind will reel with thoughts like “What about me?” and “How could you?” These feelings must be honored and respected. It is in this rage that the fire in your belly moves you from the disempowered victim state to the empowered space of healthy boundary-setting and enforcement of consequences when your boundaries are violated and your needs are not met. This is how you learn the value of tough love and self-love. All that fury can activate a ferocious kind of love that says, “This stops now.”

Don’t Be Fooled by the “Spiritual” Narcissist

More commonly than blaming and shaming the narcissist, empaths turn their rage inward, judging themselves and blaming themselves for what isn’t working, mirroring what the narcissist repetitively communicates to the empath — “It’s not my fault. It’s yours.” In spiritual circles, the narcissist in New Age or Zen clothing can even use flowery spiritual language to justify abusive, neglectful, or even cruel behavior. We see this often among spiritual leaders, gurus, shamans, self-help authors, energy healers, and pastors/priests who get caught violating basic ethics. Instead of practicing the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — these supposedly “spiritual” leaders will twist spiritual teachings to justify their unacceptable behavior or even suggest to you that you should be grateful for this opportunity to exercise your forgiveness muscles!

When what you’re really craving is an apology, you’re unlikely to get an admission of wrongdoing or attempts to make amends. Instead, the “spiritual” narcissist will try to convince you with spiritual principles that if you’re triggered by the narcissist’s disrespect or if you’re making requests and asking to get your needs met, you’re clearly less enlightened than the one who you feel owes you an apology. “Obviously,” the narcissist spouts, “Enlightened people take responsibility for ‘manifesting’ their reality, so if you don’t like what’s happening to you, you need to shift your energy so you stop attracting what you don’t want.” Say what?

Or you might hear this one. “Your criticisms of me are just a projection of what you don’t like about yourself. So do The Work on yourself if you don’t like how I’m treating you.” Or even more maddening — “You should thank me for being such a good teacher so you can work out your tendency to judge.” While all of these statements have truths in them, while we do tend to project our shadow onto others and while we can find the space to be grateful for those who trigger us, don’t let yourself be blamed for healthy challenging of someone else’s disrespectful behavior, awakened boundary setting, or expression of your needs. These kinds of turnarounds are simply aimed to get the narcissist off the hook and protect him or her from the shame they might feel if they have to face the fact that they’ve done something unethical or unkind.

Have you ever noticed how some of the supposedly most “spiritual” people are the least kind? They have the harshness and necessary truth-telling of the scalpel, but they lack the comfort that comes with being a sanctuary for others when they’re in pain. For the spiritual narcissist, it’s as if their spirituality has somehow stripped them of the simplest human capacity to be a benevolent presence in the world. Have compassion for this, but do not be fooled by this form of narcissism in holy drag or let anyone convince you that there’s something wrong with you for acknowledging that the emperor has no clothes. Do not let this kind of victim-shaming further disempower you and prevent you from setting healthy boundaries and clearly, powerfully, even forcibly enforcing them, even if you have to get a restraining order to do so. Be aware that many narcissists have the tendency to use “gaslighting” as a way to disempower someone they hope to victimize. Once you see this pattern, you will recognize it when it shows up and hopefully can shield yourself from this kind of abusive, even sociopathic manipulation.

Now … PAUSE …

Take a deep breath. You can do this hard thing.

(Hat tip to Annie Lange for introducing me to this song when I really needed it.)

In one of my future articles, we’ll talk about how to interrupt these patterns, but for now, just know that interrupting this pattern begins with awareness. Once you see what you once didn’t see, you can’t “un-see” it. The pattern begins to unravel the minute you see how much you’ve been unconsciously harming yourself — and others — by hooking into one or both sides of this destructive pattern. If this pattern sounds familiar to you, hold dearly and tenderly the little child in you that learned to operate from this pattern as a form of self-protection.

((((((((((((( DARLING YOU ))))))))))))))))

Keep the Gifts. Let Go of the Curse.

Remember, empaths do not have to be codependent. You can keep all the gifts of the empathy — the gifts that make someone an excellent healer, caregiver, and Soul Tribe member. When intuition, empathy, self-love, and healthy boundaries merge with an open-heart and an orientation toward service, the capacity for truly Divine service emerges. Free of both sides of the narcissist/codependent this pattern, you bless everyone you meet, even those on the receiving end of your ferocious love — and you receive blessings in equal measure.

Can You Relate?

Tell us your stories. And please — with great compassion and the tenderest love (and direct personal experience), I invite you to see if you can tell us your story from an empowered place of self-compassion, clear-sightedness, and personal responsibility. I’m not suggesting you practice spiritual bypassing. Go ahead and feel the pain of any anger, grief, frustration, disappointment, or resentment as your victim stories arise and your eyes open to how this pattern has hurt you and others. Allow those emotions to bubble up inside of you and and move those energies through your body (try kick-boxing or ecstatic dance!). If you need to talk about your feelings, discharge your feelings to a trusted friend, not by complaining and spewing your toxic energy at an innocent friend, but by simply engaging in a conscious, one-sided rant. (Try this method of spring cleaning.) Or find a good therapist who doesn’t coddle your victim story or blame you for your pattern but who loves you enough to help you alchemize the whole experience into soul growth.

Most of all, be gentle with yourself. Hold yourself in great arms of love as you surrender your desire to free yourself from this pattern. Trust Divine Will to help you. Let go.

With so much love and prayers for your inner freedom,


p.s. If you’re not already signed up for my mailing list so you can receive notices about new blog posts, sign up here. Interested in more tips on how to prepare for co-creating your Soul Tribe? Learn more here. For a deeper dive into Relationships on the Spiritual Path, register here.

About the author:

Lissa Rankin MD, Wake Up World bioLissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician on a grass roots mission to heal healthcare, while empowering you to heal yourself. She is the founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and healthcare providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of the books Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself (2013), The Fear Cure (2014), and The Anatomy of a Calling (2015).

Lissa blogs at and created the online community She is also the author of several other books, a speaker, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Connect with Lissa on Facebook and Twitter, or visit

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