There was a study recently that suggests psychedelic trips reduce narcissism by boosting connectedness and empathy. Now, I’m no psychologist, nor am I an expert on drugs. I was raised with the belief that “illegal” drugs were bad, and I shouldn’t give in to peer pressure to try them. I’ve essentially adhered to that my entire life, but for the one time I was coerced into trying recreational marijuana after it was legalised in California (which I voted in favour of, but more on that later) because the other person desperately wanted me to share the experience with them. I didn’t see the appeal, and haven’t bothered with it since.
Whilst I’m not a psychologist, I have actually taken a keen interest in learning about narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder over the last year. There’s a lot of excellent content out there, from books, to YouTube videos, to articles. I’ve consumed a lot, though I’m not sure I could classify myself as an expert on the subject. My motivation was primarily because I wanted to learn how to recognise the signs so I can protect myself and avoid being taken advantage of by people who show narcissistic traits (whether or not they necessarily have full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder), because I have personally suffered from the kinds of abuse tactics these people use. It’s also useful to learn in a personal sense, so you know how not to treat other people if you want to be kind and respected.
Narcissists are often characterised as having no empathy for other people. They blame others for problems they have themselves created, and suffer from cognitive dissonance. They have to create their own reality that others don’t live in, in order to feel better about themselves. Often they believe their own lies, which is why their gaslighting tactics can be so convincing. They believe the reality they have created for themselves, which causes others to question their own reality, and then instead choose to support the narcissist’s version of the truth. This is especially common amongst empaths, who are much more inclined to want to improve themselves to make others feel better. To tell the difference, you don’t really have to look further than ask, “Is this person willing to seek therapy for their issues?” If they are, they’re probably not a narcissist, who are far less likely to accept responsibility for their actions and want to seek change. Narcissists often act out of self-preservation. They don’t want others to see their vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and always emphasise their strengths. When that doesn’t work, will characterise others as being horrible, bad, or evil in comparison to themselves rather than resting on their own merits. They fail to see the strength and respect that comes from sharing their vulnerabilities, and admitting to their faults, because they have this belief that people must see them as perfect. Or, on the flipside, might frame themselves as the victims of other people being mean to them.
Since my self-education, I view the world and the media I watch very differently. It’s become increasingly clear, for example, that a certain President of a certain country engages in such tactics on a national scale that you can see why so many people are describing him as narcissistic. If you’ve ever suffered from narcissistic abuse, it’s like watching everyone you know go through what you did. I’ve described the President’s loyal followers and base as abuse victims suffering from cognitive dissonance because they don’t want to see the truth, they don’t want to believe they were wrong about someone who claimed to care about them. I’ve had friends better understand the mindset of an abuse victim just by watching this all take place on a national scale. Perhaps this is why I won’t go to the extreme of denouncing all of his supporters as ignorant, homophobic, racist, bigots as I see so many others do. It’s like blaming an abuse victim for being abused. Psychologically, they cannot see the damage being done. And just as it is challenging to get an abuse victim to see their abuser clearly just by trying to explain what you witness, so is the challenge of getting his most loyal subjects to see the truth. People see what they want to see. Treating them with disrespect, calling them names, and talking down to them is more likely to push them deeper into their false beliefs, because people don’t like being treated like that. Then, if they ever do wake up and see the light, they’re not going to see you as someone safe they can turn to. They’ll remember you as someone who caused them pain and didn’t listen.
In media, I now recognise how pervasive narcissistic characters can be, and how charming they are when you don’t understand their driving motivation. Narcissists appeal to us as characters because they are charming, confident, and self-driven, and we want to be around that kind of personality, or be like that ourselves.
During the pandemic, I re-watched the entire series of the Battlestar Galactica remake. When I originally watched the show, I came in mid-late season one, and I had a crush on Gaius Baltar the entire show. Re-watching it in 2020 after having done all this research on narcissism, I came to notice all of his narcissistic traits and despise him. God, what an awful person (though still an engaging character to watch). But it helped me understand why I may have been attracted to narcissistic personalities in the past, and appreciate how unlikely I am to fall victim to their tactics again, because now I see them so plainly. Other narcissistic characters in media I’ve consumed recently include Gail Weathers in the Scream movies, Kuvira in The Legend of Korra, and, of course, Tony Stark/Iron Man (narcissists don’t have to be strictly evil, and can in fact be heroes).
So where do drugs come in to this? Why would someone who is against taking drugs herself even care? Well, first of all, there have been plenty of studies to suggest that addiction is a mental health issue. Lack of healthy connection to other people can lead people to seek out a high from drugs, in order to feel something. Given how important external validation is to narcissists, because they have no sense of self, it’s easy to see how they could be drawn to drug use, in order to feel something.
When I came across the article I linked to in the first paragraph, I immediately connected to it. It rang true to me, because of my limited personal experience of having a conversation with a person with narcissistic tendencies while they were tripping on magic mushrooms and I was completely sober. Now, I have no idea how often this person chose to use drugs of this nature, but I had been aware of the situation in two specific instances because they said to me it was the only way they could have a deep conversation with me without getting defensive, and actually listen to me and then try to have a healthier relationship with me. Those conversations were far more productive than the countless circular arguments we otherwise engaged in. I didn’t say anything different than I did when they weren’t on mushrooms, so it became clear to me that the drug actually allowed them to see my point of view. It also gave them the opportunity to be completely honest with me, about how they had actively chosen to engage in tactics to deliberately hurt me as revenge for the times I unintentionally hurt them, because they believed I was being intentionally mean. In a round about way, this was sort of like a confession of this person being narcissistic. Most people don’t go around thinking it’s okay to intentionally hurt another person—they might think about wanting to hurt someone, but are more likely to take the time to rationalise why that’s not okay, and not act impulsively on those thoughts. However, apparently narcissists think it’s perfectly acceptable to do harm to others they see as harming them, or act impulsively without thinking about the negative consequences about how their behaviour could come back and hurt them in return.
The majority of the content I have consumed about narcissists say it is near impossible to get a narcissist to change. First, they have to want to change, and as long as their tactics and mindset works for them, why would they want to change? But I have a hard time with this idea. Unless Narcissistic Personality Disorder has become extremely widespread, I suspect most narcissistic traits are treatable and open to change if people who use narcissistic tactics can be shown a better way, and/or are held accountable for their actions, and see consequences that actually make a difference. It’s when people keep enabling those with narcissistic tendencies because they’re too afraid of the possible fallout that gives these narcissistic people more and more leverage to keep behaving badly. However, much of the behaviour is a protective measure for their fragile egos, and in general, they’re probably more afraid of being exposed for who they are, or damage being done to their egos, than other people are scared of their actions. In a lot of cases, their bark is worse than their bite.
So what does that mean we can do to affect change, and reduce the negative impact of these narcissistic behaviours on our own lives? How can we tell what will work and what won’t? Well, honestly, that depends on the person. Absolutely it’s important to not let them erode your boundaries, but there are many different ways of handling that. Sometimes it might involve having to stroke their ego, or showing them how your goals actually benefit them. For an example anecdote here, I’d like to refer back to that particular President of a particular country who didn’t care enough about his country’s populace to protect them from a pandemic. In my mind, when I looked at the situation from a self-preservation standpoint, I thought, “But if you just told everyone what to do to prevent the spread of the virus and protect themselves, you would be lauded a hero for saving so many lives!” I have no idea why that approach was taken, but I’d like to think some narcissistic people might be willing to change if they can see how those changes would benefit them, rather than other people.
If all else fails, don’t be afraid to cut people off, or out of your lives. Above everything, those with narcissistic tendencies crave attention, and it doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative. If they’re getting attention, they win. So don’t attack them, because they win. Ignore them and their ideas, they lose. The main reason we still see what we do from that certain President is he keeps getting attention for it. He actively plays up things that a majority of the population despises because he gets attention for it. I’m not saying don’t call out harmful ideas, because absolutely that’s necessary to do for an effective democracy. But it’s important to be realistic and aware who will be impacted, how it’s approached, and know that if your goal is to get the narcissistic person to change by calling them out, you’re likely to be disappointed.
If it’s not possible to go to the extreme of cutting someone off completely, it’s still important to limit their harm or potential conflict and damage by being firm in our convictions and boundaries. We don’t necessarily have to be stern with people when asserting boundaries. It is still possible to treat them with compassion, and I would hope that when people are treated with compassion and listened to, there is room for change. Because, let’s face it, many of us at some time in our lives have experienced fragile egos and fear of failure, and have maybe acted out in narcissistic ways, but that doesn’t mean we have to always stay there. I know I’ve, regrettably, occasionally engaged in such tactics until I learned a better way, so if there was hope for me, there’s hope for others. But what worked for me isn’t going to work for everyone. I didn’t need illicit drugs to help me, though being prescribed an SSRI for a while could’ve had some positive impact to improve my behaviour until I developed a better way of connecting to people through learning improvisational theatre.
So, circling back to drug use, though I have no desire to take illicit drugs myself, I do support legalisation and research into benefits, because the world overall has an empathy and connection problem, and if treatment along these lines can help people create better connections with others, isn’t that worth exploring? What if mushrooms or LSD is more effective in developing that connection than anything I suggested earlier, which requires a ton of emotional labour from those who are directly impacted by narcissistic behaviours?
The other, completely unrelated reason I support legalisation is because the war on drugs has failed. In the US, it incarcerated a disproportionate number of people of colour on minor drug offences to support private prisons, which is a major systemic problem. I’d rather have drug “offenders” out of prison, and having drugs taxed, so the taxes can help pay for better mental healthcare and homeless services, and therefore hopefully a reduction in the desire to even seek out these drugs to help people feel. Treating the underlying issues like poverty and access to education and healthcare is always going to be more effective than trying to stop the symptoms.