Narcissists often oscillate from hero to victim mode. As the hero, the narcissist attempts to dominate the situation. Saving the day fuels his or her ego and provides control. As the victim, the narcissist evades accountability by relying on a past hardship to excuse current wrongdoing. Both stances are dysfunctional and hurt others. To be the hero, the narcissist needs to create a “bad guy,” and as the victim, he gives himself license to mistreat others free from repercussions.
Posturing as the “good guy” while punishing a “villain” allows the narcissist to feel upstanding and honorable. However a narcissist’s perception of “good” and “bad” is often unconsciously distorted due to his tendency to project. Several rigid unconscious defense mechanisms distort reality, allowing the narcissist to see fault in others but not in himself.
Two unfortunate outcomes result from a narcissist’s need to be a hero. First is the tendency to unfairly assign blame and attack an innocent person. Often a narcissist uses underhanded techniques to persuade others to agree that a person needs “straightening out.” Utilizing a sliver of the truth but layering it with distortions is a common approach. Often an element of fact in a narrative leads a person to assume the details that follow are also true.
For example, Shelly is mowing her lawn on a hot day. She takes off her sweater and continues to do her yard work in a tank top. Her boyfriend stops by and drops off a gas can for her mower. Just then her ex-husband, Sal, drives past her house. The next day at a neighborhood gathering Sal tells his neighbors that Shelly and her boyfriend were undressing each other in her driveway. Sal promises the group he will advocate for an HOA by-law preventing public indecency in the neighborhood to protect the children. He continues to use his contrived example as the basis for his stance, positioning himself as the hero and Shelly as the “bad guy.” After the news spreads, the entire community is disgusted with Shelly. She is snubbed and avoided by friends and acquaintances despite her innocence.
Second, posing as a hero and rescuing another person from his or her plight may not be helpful to that person. Sympathy, or feeling sorry for someone, may disempower him or her. For example, Ron arrives home disappointed because he was overlooked for a promotion. His partner, Rick, is angered at the news. Rick, president of a powerful firm, uses his status to influence Ron’s boss behind Ron’s back. The next day, Ron receives word that there was an error and he is promoted. Eventually Ron discovers Rick’s involvement and is crushed. Devastated, his self-esteem plummets. He believes he lacks merit and is undeserving of his position. He becomes depressed and quits his job.
Alternatively, Rick empathizes instead of sympathizes. He listens to Ron and says, “You are so disappointed. I would be too. I get it. It hurts.” Ron feels less alone because he feels understood. He also feels close to Rick who really gets it. The dose of empathy helps Ron and he is able to absorb Rick’s encouragement. “Keep trying, Ron. You are so gifted at what you do. Keep plugging. Good things will happen.” Ron thrives on Rick's empathy and encouragement. Ron moves ahead empowered to fight for the next opportunity. He is promoted the following year and rises to the top of his field.
Unfortunately, narcissists often lack empathy. Sympathy allows them to feel powerful, in control, and righteous, which makes it more appealing. Empathy is selfless and taxing so, sadly, a narcissist usually selects the sympathetic response which supplies his or her ego.
Equally destructive is a narcissist’s need to play the victim. This typically occurs when the narcissist is confronted with a mistake or is attempting to escape responsibility. Conveniently, the narcissist uses a past hardship to excuse present wrongdoing. For example, Tim is hurt that Jen forgot his birthday. That night, he admits to her that he is upset. Jen, indignant at the suggestion that she is at fault, says, “When I was growing up, my parents forgot my birthday every year. I never had a birthday cake or a party and I never complained. Try dealing with that.” Tim feels guilty for bringing it up after Jen explains her childhood heartbreak. He blames himself for being too sensitive and drops the subject.
Three weeks later, Tim is meeting his parents and Jen for brunch when he receives a text from Jen cancelling. Tim asks why and Jen says, “The last time I met a boyfriend’s parents they were rude. It was a terrible experience. I don’t feel like dealing with that today.” Tim explains his parents are warm and kind people but Jen refers to the past and claims her prior experience scarred her. Disappointed, Tim meets his parents without Jen. After brunch, he receives a message from Jen asking him to bring sunscreen to the beach where she is playing volleyball with friends.
Utilizing past hardships to justify hurting a partner in the present provides a narcissist a license to do whatever he or she wants in a relationship. Difficult experiences are best discussed and dealt with instead of used to avoid responsibility. Getting caught in the push and pull of a narcissist’s hero/victim complex can cause a whirlwind of confusing emotions. Gaining perspective on the dynamic may help gain clarity.