A desire of most individuals is a life of peace and contentment…and understandably so.  We wish to find people who are capable of sharing respect, cooperation, and encouragement.  Simply put, a good life is accentuated by love and reliable connections.

A core reality in each person’s life, however, is psychological pain, much to the consternation of all.  We don’t want to accept it, yet every person has to come to terms with the opposite of peace and contentment.  Each individual has to contend with being rejected or dismissed.  Anger and contempt abound in our world and we each have to decide how to maneuver through that.  Likewise, no person can expect to go through life with an absence of disappointments and heartaches, sometimes to an exaggerated degree.

How many times have you been hurt or disillusioned, prompting you to agonize: What’s going on here?  This is so unfair. I don’t like any of the options in front of me. Why are some people so antagonistic?  Why is this happening to me?

As we desire peace in the midst of disillusionment, one question emerges that will prompt a person toward either growth or collapse:  How should I manage my pain?

The mark of a mature person lies in direct proportion to the ability to satisfactorily answer this seminal question.  But unfortunately, many do not consider the question until they are in the midst of trauma or trial, and such moments are not often typified by pensive, objective thinking.  Further, most individuals establish pain management strategies at times of life when they are too immature or inexperienced to cope well, meaning inadequate responses can be well entrenched before adult thinking can sift it out.

Narcissists, in particular, have great difficulty answering the question, given the self-serving and entitled nature of their pattern of life.  Not at all inclined toward growth, they set themselves up for collapse due to their inability to manage pain.  As you observe their coping strategies, you can easily recognize their poor responses to the question:  How should I manage my pain?

Here are some of the most common ways they respond to psychological pain. They…

  • Develop super-tight, impenetrable defenses.  “You are not allowed to know my personal vulnerabilities.”
  • Choose one-up options toward others.  Toward the one who inflicts pain, they can choose some form of vengeance.  When that is not possible, they displace their pain onto convenient recipients.
  • Seek someone, anyone, to blame.  Driven by free-floating anger, they accuse easily.
  • Hold onto grudges and resentment.  “One of these days, you’ll pay for my woundedness.”  Pessimism gains a foothold.
  • Compensate for being hurt by becoming the one who dishes out hurt.
  • May turn toward mind-numbing priorities.  They might seek relief in materialism, empty entertainment, addictions, and meaningless time-filling activity.
  • Will use people who can temporarily fill them, suck them dry, discard them, then repeat the cycle with a new target.
  • Seek power and control over others, falsely assuming that harsh dominance compensates for feeling wounded.
  • Park in a mindset of cynicism, sarcasm, and criticism.

Narcissists, just like the rest of humanity, have experienced the dark emotions associated with psychological pain, but through the years, they do themselves no service as they then develop their own dark responses.  Very little focus is given to “non-pain” responses, and for this reason, they assure their own psychological demise.

Healthy individuals can distinguish themselves from narcissists by becoming lifelong learners dedicated to the task of finding balance despite painful circumstances.  First, you can gain valuable insight as you explore the why questions associated with painful exchanges.  Knowing what drives inappropriate behaviors, you can learn to respond to pain objectively.  But then, even when you reach a dead end in the search for good answers to why questions, you are not without hope.  You can make room for mystery while still choosing options that can ease you in your “today moments.”

Ask yourself:  Even in the midst of pain, how does goodness and decency guide me?  Can I, will I, go into a different direction than the one who perpetuates pain?  How can I define myself in a manner that allows me to tap into meaning and purpose, despite my hurt?

The great Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, reflecting on his own immeasurable pain, concluded: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing…your freedom to choose how you will respond to a situation.”

Drawing upon such wisdom, when faced with unfair and unwanted psychological pain, you can still determine:

I choose gratitude and will revel in moments of gladness and thankfulness.

I choose respect, toward myself and extending toward others.

I choose love, refusing to be defined by its counterparts of hatred and stark apathy.

I choose empathy, knowing that others too have their stories to tell.  I like to connect.

I choose transcendence.  I know there is much more to life than conflict and evil, and will spend the balance of my life seeking it. 

Yes, pain exists and narcissists are ruined by their great inability to cope with it.  But goodness is not defeated by pain.  That is a lesson lost on self-absorbed egotists, but one I hope you can lean into.

~Les Carter, Ph.D.

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