INTRO: Hi and welcome to Your Permission Prescription, the podcast that teaches you how to confidently say yes to you and consciously create the life you desire. I’m NANCY
– bestselling author, Master Life Coach and founder of Levin Life Coach Academy. But it wasn’t too long ago that I was a burnt out people pleaser living my life for everyone around me and ignoring my own needs.
Fast forward to today, and I’ve successfully coached thousands of recovering people pleasers to set boundaries with themselves and the people around them so they can live a more fulfilling life on their own terms. I created Your Permission Prescription to help you do the same. Be sure to tune in for actionable coaching methods from me, interviews with other incredible coaches, speakers, and authors, plus one-on-one live coaching calls and so much more.
If you’re ready to start saying yes to you, then you’re in the right place.
NANCY: Welcome back to another episode of Your Permission Prescription. I am so thrilled that you’re here today. We have a very special guest, a very dear friend of mine. Melissa Grace is here with us. Melissa had a practice as a psychotherapist for 25 years and she then transitioned to coaching about 10 years ago.
And she has worked with thousands of people around healing wounds from their past and stepping into a life they love. For the past 30 years, Melissa has designed and
facilitated hundreds of workshops and trainings in mindful somatic counseling and coaching. Melissa, welcome!
MELISSA: Thank you Nancy, so much. I love seeing you. I love being here. I’m super excited about this topic. This is one of the most emergent topics that I think about and talk about with people. You know, this is the kind of hot-off-the-press. Not much has been written about it. It, you know, feels like you and I are going to talk about something that’s a little bit controversial in this topic, and I like that, I like talking about things that are, you know, a little controversial.
NANCY: Me too. So let’s clue the listeners in. We are going to talk about narcissism today, and we’re going to talk about specifically the intersection of narcissism and the empath. So as a foundation for our conversation, I first would really love for you to share a working definition of narcissism because narcissist is one of these words we’ve been throwing around a lot lately and there is, in fact, something called Narcissistic Personality Disorder. So there is a clinically diagnosed narcissism that is different from the way that we sort of throw around narcissists. So I’d love to start there with you.
MELISSA: I think that’s a great place to start. What is true is that the percentage of the population that would have a clinical diagnosis of narcissism is very small and to keep it really simple, a Narcissistic Personality Disorder points to features in the personality that we can think of as close to sociopathic, strong orientation toward self self in every way.
MELISSA: You know, like, what can I get for me? What can I have for me? Other people don’t really exist in the awareness of a clinical narcissist as a separate person than himself. Other people are a supply of what they need, whether they’re trying to get ahead in business, get their sexual needs met, get their kind of social affiliation needs met. It is almost complete lack of empathy. And so one of the things that clues you in to a clinical narcissism is that there is a feeling of being in the room with somebody who is wired very differently, and who’s not taking you in, not connecting in any kind of ordinary way. So the narcissism is a term that gets thrown around that gets written about a lot now is I think not clinical and yet still a significant set of features in somebody’s personality, where more of their attention is in relation to other people, what’s in it for me, what can I get, how can this person further my end? And not much capacity or minimal capacity to feel like this is another person over there with their own needs, their own ends, their own aims and I want to be inclusive of those. And so that is your sort of classic definition of what we think of when we think of narcissism, you know, there’s lots of stereotypes around it, selfish self-aggrandizing entitled, puffed up grandiose, in the clinical definition.
MELISSA: And then even in the more garden- variety definition, we think of that overt big man on campus kind of narcissistic persona. There’s also the covert narcissist, and I
think many, many people who are identifying an experience of being in relationship with a narcissist, you know, the empaths of this world, I very much identify with it, have been with partners who are more of a covert narcissist somebody who out in the world, people would say, this is a really lovely person, this is a good person, a generous person, a supportive person, somebody who does things for the community, who does things for other people, a charming person, someone that you want to know, that you want to have in your life. Someone who knows everybody everywhere.
MELISSA: And another version of the covert is just someone who’s very unassuming. Like, you know, that person they say just seems like a nice guy or a nice person, and they’re very different behind closed doors. So covert narcissist in this classic sense that we’re talking about is the person who behind closed doors is being manipulative by being shaming, by being belittling, by putting down, by finding fault, by criticizing. I think that’s what a lot of people relate to who are now in this emerging awareness of, oh my gosh, I’m in a relationship with a narcissist and nobody else might know it. You know, they don’t seem like one of those people would say, what a jerk, but between me and them, I ended up feeling bad, small, scared, like I’m never going to get it right a lot.
NANCY:And so those are some of the manifestations of the experience of being in relationship with a narcissist.
MELISSA: Yes. And I think that has been the new conversation that’s been happening let’s say over say between five and 10 years. You know there’s been much more written, much more talked about in terms of, you know, more stereotypically women saying I’ve been in relationship with a narcissistic partner.
NANCY: Right. And I know because we’ve had this conversation before, while it does seem to default to the male partner being a narcissist in a heteronormative world, it’s not just men.
MELISSA: It’s definitely not just men. And, so then we could get more to the dynamic. And I think the kind of classic dynamic is if we start to now add in the empath’s role that in any relationship it could be within a heteronormative relationship the male partner is the empath or in a relationship between two same-sex partners, that one or the other might be the more, what we would think of as the classically narcissistic, self-centered, calling attention toward me, I want to have it my way, being domineering, opinionated, critical, all those things. And then the empath role being that one who’s trying to cater and serve and get it right and accommodate. And you know, all of the, you know, very much in line with your work, all the people pleasers of the world.
And that is more stereotypically female, but it can be anybody. It really, and you know, plenty of people of all gender orientations might say, I very much relate to being that
kind of empath that is kind of scrambling a lot in the relationship to have the other person feel happy and not get upset.
NANCY: There are a few things that you’ve said that I would love for you to unpack a little for anyone who’s just coming to this and having an awareness that wow, this might actually be about me, you know, I find myself in this kind of relationship. So as we look at this dynamic between the narcissist and the empath, you said earlier narcissistic supply.
So let’s actually go into that and how the empath plays a role.
MELISSA: So the idea of narcissistic supply is that the narcissist needs a steady stream of attention, reflection, positive, that one of the things they’re doing in some way is manipulating the world. Like some of that charming narcissist as they’re manipulating the world to attend to them. And there’s all the obvious roles that do that.
In the primary relationship context one of the main sources of that supply for the narcissist is potentially an empathic partner, a partner who would be more of an empath. And let’s just say that for a working definition that an empath is someone who has a tendency and a capacity to tune into, attune to the feelings of others, sometimes to the point where, when this gets extreme, and we might say if there’s such thing as a clinical empath, and that really isn’t a term, but that it would be, I feel the feelings of others sometimes to the exclusion of feeling my own feelings. Like I’m over there. Right in somebody else’s experience.
NANCY:I’ve lost myself. MELISSA: I’ve lost me. NANCY: Right.
MELISSA:I’m tracking their every move, facial expression, energy. How did they feel when they walked in the house? What are the things that I know are the tripwires? So much of my attention is out there that I don’t have me.
NANCY:So it’s really extreme hyper other-referenced and no self-referencing.
MELISSA:Yeah. Very little, especially in contact with that person.
MELISSA:Like that person might go into an alone space and be able to feel themselves, but then they come back into contact and attention goes out.
NANCY:Right, like it’s just overridden.
MELISSA: Yeah, and it’s very automatic and it’s deeply hardwired, in a way unconscious. One of the things that I think is very interesting is that some people are starting to think and talk about the wound of the narcissist and the empath being the same and the wound being a wound around not feeling like enough, not feeling worthy, not feeling lovable, having parents who, for any number of reasons, were not able to attend in enough of the ways that a child needs tending for the child to have a sense of, I’m secure. I belong. I matter. I can be myself and have a place and be loved.
And the narcissist goes in one direction and the empath goes in another. We could say the narcissist at one level shuts down any feeling and the empath as a child gets very outside of themselves and attuned to others, partly as a protection against feeling me and partly as a way to try to figure out how can I get this sense of belonging that I need.
And I’m more likely to get it because I have the capacity to attune by being so attuned that I know how to be the best possible kid or adult in the relationship to get whatever is available from the not very available parent or now narcissistic partner. And so in that kind of vacating oneself, one’s own experience, if I don’t have me, I’m not actually very able to have any real relationship with anybody else because I’m just in the scramble to feel and attune and stay away from the landmines and get it right in the ways I can get it right. I’m not showing up as a person in my own right with boundaries.
NANCY:Right. So it is that self-abandonment toward, what do I need to do or say to make everything be okay?
NANCY:Which takes me away from any true authenticity.
MELISSA: Yes. I think when you and I have been talking about and started talking about the narcissism of the empath, the self focus of the empath, if my attunement is my own version of getting some kind of supply, then I as the empath – and I own this, I mean, I’m not saying, and all you empaths out there, I have identified this way for a very long time, and I think the positive qualities of it have wonderful elements and aspects, but when it gets funneled toward essentially a form of manipulation, so that an empath can get really, really good at manipulating relationship without even knowing that we’re doing it, without even knowing, because it’s coming from this primitive kind of primal need to feel safe, to feel belonging, to feel worthy, to feel loved, but we don’t recognize that that’s an inside job. That this kind of reflection back from partner, from audience, from whoever that we want, very same need as the narcissist, we’re using our heightened skills of attuenment to get that.
NANCY:So for everyone listening who’s sort of, you know, bristling, just breathe. And, you know, I said to Melissa earlier, this concept of narcissism of the empath is visceral, especially for those of us who have sort of prided ourselves on being an empath. And
we also throw around, I’m an empath, I’m an empath, and we’re not really aware of what can even be seen as the righteousness of the empath and the shadow of the empath.
So I’d love to go there.
MELISSA:Yes. The righteousness and the control.
MELISSA: So I think I’ll tell you a story here because it may make it more vivid that where this got on the map for me in a very personal way the most is in my relationship with my daughter who has incredible boundaries and she was kind of born that way.
Like she was one of those, you know, as a baby people would try and coochie coo her and get a little bit in her space and, you know, she wasn’t having any of it.
She was like, what, what, what are you doing? And so as this trained in childhood empath, as she got older, went to school, would have experiences at school, and I in a very unconscious way was getting up in her business. Like, you know, I was like a pain magnet. And as a therapist, I got to be a pain magnet, but drawn to other people’s pain.
Part of helping them heal their wounds, but with her, she felt so invaded by it. And so one thing I would say is for us empaths, you might notice, and I certainly have noticed that as we’re around people who are healthier, have better boundaries, that they don’t want somebody up in their grill. They don’t want or need that level of attunement.
And the other word we could use here is codependent, you know, they go together. And so with my daughter, she just, again and again, in so many instances and was like, um, mom, like backup, get back over there in your own lane. If I want to tell you about what I’m feeling, I’ll tell you. I don’t need you to crank up that attunement and be feeling what I’m feeling before I even know I’m feeling it.
Like, you know, I could pride myself on that. Like I could feel somebody else’s feeling across the room, you know, across the stadium, like, you know, dialing in, tuning in. And again, wonderful quality when it’s in the right setting with permission, for a reason, but when it’s being done for the, and I’ll say for me as the empath, for me to feel safe, for me to feel okay, like it would be somehow unbearable to me for her to be in pain as though somehow that then became my job and my responsibility, even when she was clearly demonstrating handling it fine and that’s just part of being human.
NANCY:Yes. And so, you know, building on that, it’s also the way that the empath swoops in to rescue, heal, fix and save.
MELISSA: Yes. And it’s a kind of, I think, an over identification with the painful part of people’s experience. Like one of the things that many empaths will say, certainly true for me, is I’m not getting over there with other people’s celebration in the same way I’m
getting over there with their pain, their anger, their, you know, underlying unhealed wounds.
NANCY:Yeah. And the inability even to be with this discomfort, when we’ve tapped into it.
MELISSA: Yes. And so the, of course, one of the questions to ask ourselves as empaths, and around this concept of what is the narcissism of my particular way of bringing my empath is, how are my boundaries? Who is it serving for me to make other people’s experience my job? And what’s my equation around giving to get. Like, I’ll sacrifice for you to get what? I was telling you, I read this line, which sort of was one of those things that gets written I think again and again, in a way by empaths wanting to really own this particular quality of empathy, which is, you know, that empaths have a kind of deep and unconditional care and love.
And so I read that sometime ago and the question that popped up was, is it love? Is it care? Like we know, what does care and love look like with boundaries? And so I think that’s just a good question for all of us. No, but especially as an empath and, you know, I think I want to say also, I don’t want to swing all the way the other way into people who identify as an empath then feeling like, well, my being an empath and having those kind of tendencies is all manipulation or it’s all a sham or it’s all giving to get, it’s all one thing, it’s not.
NANCY: Right. And that’s why the piece about boundaries is so critical so that we’re able to find within ourselves what are my own limits. And as I talk about a lot, you know, if my boundaries are being crossed, I’m the one crossing them.
And one of the big ways we cross our own boundaries is attempting to meddle into someone else’s emotional experience.
MELISSA:Yes. And so, you know, there’s this kind of place where like, if I can get you, if, you know, as the empath, if I can get you narcissist to see me, love me, for me to exist for you, is going to in some way feel like it heals the wound of not being seen, not being loved, of being missed more than getting those things from someone who’s not a narcissist, you know, so there is this repetition compulsion, you know, it’s a very, you know, it was Freud’s contribution as one piece and many others, but you know that basically we want to replay something and have it turn out differently. We want to replay the situation that we had, it’s familiar, and have it turn out in a way that we feel like, I’m getting my needs met. And I think one other thing that plays in my mind here is we want to feel special and we’re going about it in the wrong way, because we’re giving that power to somebody else.
Like if I’m giving someone else most of their votes about whether I’m special, I’m screwed.
NANCY:Right so I talk about this often in terms of, you know, putting our worthiness in someone else’s wagon, you know, I want someone else to be the determiner of my value and my worth, which is quite backwards because it is an inside job. We need to find this within.
MELISSA: So it’s like, I have a wish for myself and anybody who might strongly identify with these characteristics of an empath and a sense of identity as an empath, like my deepest wish for us is that there is a sense of specialness that comes from really having strong relational skills, like actually being able to feel people, you know, actually sensing in the server when we’re having dinner out, that they’re having a tired day and say, long day, huh, and have them smile and have a moment. But then I’m not all the way over there. I had a moment. I attuned to them. It creates a moment of connection. And then I’m back with me. Or with a partner or one of my kids or a friend or someone that I love that I’m really good at sensing people and that’s not a problem.
And so the wish is that we feel, and we can start to really pay attention to when we’re coming from being in ourselves and staying in ourselves with that sensitivity and attunement and when we’re starting to leave, literally leave our own body, leave our own ground of health and self-worth because then we don’t even have our legs under us.
And then it becomes a kind of deepening hole because then I don’t feel me and then I want to go even more toward you. And then I feel more insecure. And then I want more to get a reflection back from you. And we’re digging deeper and deeper into that hole of now I don’t know how to feel like I’m worthy unless I get a smile from you or some softness from you or an acknowledgement from you.
NANCY:What I’m also hearing here is that it’s both/and – I can be with me and I can be with you. It’s not either/or, and most people, most empaths get stuck in, in order to attune to you I have to abandon myself.
NANCY:And that in fact is not the case.
MELISSA: Yes. And so I think there’s also a little kind of feedback loop that we can get more aware of, which is, if I have space in my relationship to bring me while being aware of you, but bringing something that you might not like to hear, and there continues to be space from you to hear me, feel me, even if you don’t like it, even if you feel a little defensive as we all do at first, when we’re getting, you know, but if I’m in a relationship where I can do that and I don’t feel shut down right away, if I don’t suddenly feel like I overstepped. Now I’m scared. I want to take it back. And then I know that I’m in a relationship where I’m safe as an empathically attuned person. Like I’m in a relationship where, oh, this is a good fit, a good place for me because I’m safe to bring
all of my generous heart and my attunement and those qualities that are some of my most wonderful qualities.
And I can also bring the rest of me. And you love that about me. You love that I, that I’m really, really sensitive and aware and get you. And you also have space for the moments when I don’t or when I’m not attuning to you or attending to you. And when I’m wanting you to attend to me. You know, and I think that that points to, for many of us as empaths, there’s an underlying shame.
And so if people start to pay attention to me and attend to me, I actually get nervous and scared and uncomfortable because I’m not comfortable being seen. I’m not comfortable being attended to because I haven’t worked on my sense of worth. And so I’m then hiding out a little bit in turning the attention back toward you.
And so we know that we’re healing and we were talking earlier about kind of the empowered and enlightened empath.
MELISSA: And so we know that we’re healing and stepping into that more empowered and enlightened relationship with our empath when we are just as comfortable receiving attention and attunement.
And we’re choosing people in our life who have that capacity as we are offering it out.
NANCY:So that we’re not unconsciously giving to get.
NANCY:And we can lean into the empathy with boundaries and choice.
MELISSA:Yes, exactly. Yes. We can lean into it. And we can choose whether to do it or not. I mean, I know this is resonant for you, like in the thousands, tens of thousands of times that we are bone tired, just dog tired from having just come back from a work trip, having just done the heroic things and come back to partner who is pouting because we were gone and cranking up more compassion, cranking out more energy. And it not even being a choice and having the choice to say, oh, hun, that makes sense that you miss me and you’re feeling lonely. I’m whooped, I’m totally exhausted. I’m going to get a night’s sleep. I need to get up tomorrow morning and have a couple hours to myself. I gotta have my tea time and my journal, go for a walk by myself. And then I would love to hear how your time was when I was gone.
NANCY:Right. So that we can self-resource so that then we actually have the space and capacity.
MELISSA:Yeah. And, really feeling when my come from is that I’m actually, I have gas in my tank and I’m so delighted to be putting my attention on somebody else.
NANCY:Right. Cause otherwise it’s resentment rising, otherwise it’s, I mean, I know for me a big one has been, what do I need to do so I don’t get in trouble or don’t get punished or don’t get the silent treatment, you know, what’s my strategy for not getting punished?
MELISSA: Right. Punished, criticized, judged.
NANCY:Of course, all those things.
MELISSA: Like you’re not showing up as a good partner unless you’re selfless..
NANCY: So for someone listening who is identifying with what we’re sharing and is identifying as the empath, because what I also know is narcissists don’t necessarily identify themselves as narcissist, right? So, or someone who’s listening, identifying themselves as an empath in relationship with a narcissist, can you share some practices? Whether it be of self care, self preservation, connection. This is sort of the prescriptive part.
MELISSA: Yes. A few things that I think are kind of great first steps, like if you find yourself suddenly having these aha moments, these painful aha moments of, oh my gosh, like I have been in this relationship where I’m not putting myself in the equation. Often the first place to do that is outside of that relationship with the narcissist, by just begin to let yourself reach out more, spend more time in contact with people who have a similar empathic capacity. Let yourself kind of shore up your resources internally of feeling that you’re loved just for being you, not for being a superhero, not for being selfless, but you’re, you’re loved for being you and you’re loved including having needs.
I think in terms of the internal work that we can do, if we’re in a relationship with somebody who does have more of that narcissistic lean to them and they’re not going to change, and we’re not going to get much mileage out of trying to get them to change, even though that’s a very natural impulse, it’s to do the internal adjustment of starting to feel where we’ve left ourselves. And one thing, a phrase I use is breathe yourself back into your own body. Just take a few breaths. And as you do, bring your awareness back in, and if you can breathe yourself in and then have a phrase that you can say to yourself internally and, you know, they’re all different kinds of ones. One of mine that I love is just the simplest, I’m okay with me. Or, I have me, you know, there are lots that are around that person’s happiness is not my job.
MELISSA: Another that when I need to be a little more stern with myself, I will say to myself, get back in your lane. Just, you know, if my lane is me, I’m responsible for me, my happiness, my choices.
And then I think there are many things that you teach when you’re teaching coaches, especially that then coaches can teach their clients is around small daily practices that connect us with who we are. And so for many people, if the day starts with morning practices, we’re setting ourselves up for a different kind of relationship with ourselves all day.
And people have different things, even if it’s like I’m going to go outside and drink a cup of coffee or tea or whatever I do outdoors during the nice months, for some people it’s a little meditation. A little bit of writing, all of those things that are things where I’m giving myself the message every morning, every day, you matter, instead of I get out of bed and I’m going, right to the coffee maker or the whatever I’m doing for somebody else, whether it’s partner, kids, I’m getting into my email to respond to people right away.
It’s like try and carve out that time where you’re not responding to anybody except yourself for 10 minutes. Start with five minutes. If this is so hard because of the relationship you already have, and you need a tiny baby step, lay in bed, stay in bed and don’t let anyone know you’re awake yet, put your hands on your own heart, breathe consciously. It might be really small things, but for most people, these little practices are available.
NANCY: Yeah. I mean, I can say for myself, I noticed a tremendous, a significant difference when I started beginning my day with myself and even being with the discomfort of knowing someone else wanted to be spending time with me. By me, anchoring into myself first, it really allowed me to wean off the codependency.
MELISSA:Yes. Yes. And it, at first it will sometimes be scary. Like, you know, we have that kind of feeling like I have to, you know, get out there and connect. I have to find out what they need. And so it’s also, I think, making room to notice and become mindful of the automatic in ourselves, all that automatic responding and delay for 10 seconds, you have the automatic impulse to jump and respond, delay for 10 seconds. Build it to 20 seconds. Build it to a minute, five minutes. You know that what we’re doing there is we’re actually putting new neural pathways in place. And then through repetition, we’re strengthening them. Like our empath over-responder is a super highway in terms of literally kind of neural pathways, neural activity. And when we first start not doing it, that kind of pause and staying with self, it’s like not even a little footpath. A little thread and it disappears between one day and the next, but then we do it again and again. And it’s, you know, factually true that in our neurobiology, practicing something every day,
rewires our brain. So you can rewire your brain and your whole nervous system and your body to stay with yourself.
NANCY:And so before we close, I would love to hear what you would invite our listeners to give themselves permission to do or permission for.
MELISSA:First always, to give yourself permission to love that everything you’ve done, all the ways that you’ve showed up in your life have been in service of your own survival, doing what you knew how to do and what you came by honestly. So to first celebrate that you’re here. Celebrate that you’re listening to this as an act of something new starting to show up and become possible. And then to just begin to really think of yourself as the most important person in your life.
NANCY:I love this so much. I love you so much. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.
MELISSA:Thank you so much for having me. And I think the last thing I want to say is that as empaths, we are in a very beautiful, beautiful kind of network of friends and family and I really think that there’s an evolutionary movement right now toward what you teach and what I teach, which is this idea that myself being the most important person in my life is not selfish, isn’t wrong, isn’t bad. And in fact, it’s the least selfish thing in a strange way.
MELISSA:Because then I have me and then I have so much more to bring to this world. And even more of, you know, what I have to offer is going to come with me everywhere I go.
NANCY:Thanks so much for listening to today’s episode. If you loved what you heard, I’d be so grateful if you’d leave a review and share your experience. Even better, follow this podcast so you never miss a new episode. And if you’d like some extra support or guidance, head over to my Transform Together Facebook group for an engaged community where you can speak your truth, receive inspiration and ask for help as you navigate life’s journey.
Or visit my website, nancylevin.com where you can find resources to help guide your path to reclaiming what’s truly important to you.
Thanks again for joining me.