Emotional Toddlers: Narcissists, Borderlines and Psychopaths, Part 1 discusses similarities between personality disordered adults and children, particularly toddlers. That’s basically what a personality disorder is; an individual who is arrested at an early age of emotional, cognitive and moral development typically between toddler-hood and adolescence. Unlike actual toddlers, tweens and teens, narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths don’t grow out of it.
The forms of abuse and manipulation may shift and evolve with time and age, but they don’t mature into emotionally healthy persons of integrity. They become more efficient abusers and manipulators with time and practice. Or, they have to change tactics due to the physical aging process. For example, Nancy the Narcissist or the Bob the Borderline lose their looks and physical strength, so have to employ tactics like guilt trips and professional victimhood instead of seduction and brute physical force.
Let’s look at some other characteristics narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths have in common with toddlers:
Limited empathy. Or a complete and utter absence of empathy. Toddlers can be sweet and loving, but are fundamentally egocentric and selfish. Children are supposed to be at that age. Good enough parents teach their toddlers empathy by holding them accountable, for example, when little Susie clobbers her younger brother because she wants to play with Dora Robot, explaining why it’s wrong and helping little Susie empathize with how she’d feel if the roles were reversed.
If empathy isn’t learned during the appropriate developmental windows it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to learn as an adult. Developing empathy, in my opinion, is a critical foundation to developing integrity and an ethical code of conduct. If you can understand what it feels like to be hurt, deceived, betrayed, exploited and have the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, it’s a major buzzkill when contemplating being a stone cold asshole. Most people have these impulses from time to time. Having empathy and integrity is what makes it possible to override our baser instincts. Barring that, fear of consequences also works, which is often the only thing that keeps narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths in check.
Of all the self-serving twaddle I’ve read on many support sites for self-identified borderline personality disordered individuals, the “we hurt others because we have too much empathy” twaddle is the twaddlie-ist of the twaddle. People don’t hurt and abuse others because they have too much empathy. There’s no logic in that. That’s like saying, “I randomly murder my friends and family due to my profound respect for life.” Say what?
People who have limited or no empathy hurt and abuse others and then justify their abuse of others with toddler-like or teen-like excuses. “You made me do it. It’s your fault because [lame excuse/self-pitying psychological rationalization]. What about when you did x, y or z? Why do you hate me?! I didn’t ask to be born! I didn’t ask to have BPD!”
People with empathy can and do hurt others and then we feel bad about having done so. Empathetic people feel awful when we see another hurting because of our actions or words. We feel remorse, guilt and shame, hold ourselves accountable and make amends. Some personality disordered individuals do feel bad **about themselves** when they hurt others, but that’s usually where the rubber meets the road.
Don’t confuse feeling sorry for oneself with being sorry. They don’t feel bad for making you feel bad. Rather, they feel bad about themselves and mad at you for feeling bad about themselves. They don’t feel bad for hurting you. See the difference?
Narcissists don’t spend much time thinking about how their victims feel (unless they’re trying to exploit it in some way). Instead narcissists attack their victims for making them feel bad about how badly they behaved. Heck, sometimes the narcissist, borderline or psychopath can even manage to get their victims to apologize to them for their abuses and betrayals. How many of you reading this apologized to your narcissist or borderline for “making them” cheat on you? [Sheepishly raises hand.]
Self-absorbed. Self-absorption is also related to empathy or the lack thereof. Empathy makes it possible to put others first, to contemplate how our actions affect those around us and to consider the rights and needs of others. Toddlers, narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths think of others. They think of others in terms of how to get their needs and wants met. This is natural and acceptable for infants, toddlers and increasingly less so for teens.
As children mature, their emotional and physical dependency on adults decrease as they become more responsible and autonomous. They become more capable of reciprocal relationships, of understanding the principles of give and take. Children with good enough parents also gradually learn that they’re not special snowflakes around which the universe revolves. Special to their families and friends? Yes, but no more special than anyone else.
Not so with narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths. These are the people who, when their spouse of 15 years is diagnosed with lung cancer, tantrum and pout whingeing, “But who will take care of meeeeeeeeeee!?!?!?!?!?” Because they’re so self-absorbed, the feelings and needs of others, at best, don’t register or, at worst, are experienced as extremely annoying nuisances or deprivations to the attention and care directed toward them.
Poorly developed object constancy. In normal childhood development, object constancy develops between the ages of 3- to 6-years old. It’s the ability of the child to understand and trust that mom and dad continue to exist when out of the child’s sight. This is why peek-a-boo is such a thrilling game. It’s why 4-year old’s periodically stop their play to reassure themselves that mom and dad are still there. As a child develops object constancy, they can spend time away from mom and dad (e.g., school, play dates, sleepovers) without having meltdowns due to separation anxiety.
In narcissists and borderlines, poorly developed object constancy manifests in their fear of abandonment, their excessive need for attention and chronic infidelities because, hey, in a storm (the absence of an attentive audience) any breast or orifice will do. One of my new theories is that the obsessive text messagers text bomb either due to extreme control issues or a lack of object constancy or both. Are u still there? Do u still exist? Are u cheating? Ur attention needs to be on me. Why aren’t u responding? Are u cheating? Why r u ignoring me?!?! Where are u?!? Call me RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!
Flexible morality. Flexible morality is also underscored by a lack of empathy. Toddler-hood is when most us begin to learn right from wrong, however, we’re still pretty much unrestrained ids with legs. We want what we want when we want it — candy, toys, attention — and find ways to get it even if we’re told no. The ability to think about how our behavior affects others is one of the keys to understanding right from wrong and respecting the rights, feelings and needs of others.
Narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths typically know the difference between right and wrong. They just don’t let it stand in the way of taking what they want and hurting anyone who gets in their way or, heaven forbid, holds them accountable for their interpersonal atrocities. Narcissists and borderlines are also able to point out when someone else has behaved badly, especially if it adversely impacts them in some way, but don’t hold themselves to the same code of conduct they hold others. They tend to live by the IDWIDI (It’s Different When I Do It) credo. Double standard? Yes. Hypocrites? Hell yes.
What’s more, narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths bank on the decency and integrity of others to perpetrate without consequence. In other words, they count on the rest of us not to sink to their level, to be law abiding citizens, to give them the benefit of the doubt and to be too polite to call them out. They see kindness and integrity as weaknesses to exploit. They know how to play on people’s caretaker instincts and take full advantage of it through hard luck stories, guilt trips and instilling a sense of obligation in others. They’re natural born con artists.
If you’re still in a relationship with someone like this, what are you getting out of it? What childhood wounds are you trying to redress? Are you avoiding dealing with your own issues? Were you parentified as a child and, therefore, made to feel bad or guilty for thinking about and taking care of yourself? Are you confusing being needed with being loved?
Personally, I find adult toddlers exhausting, not to mention boring. Self-absorbed jerks are tedious. They tell the same stories ad nauseum for years and then become aggrieved if you don’t respond with delighted amazement as if it’s the first time and not the forty-third time you’ve heard it. You shouldn’t have to parent an adult partner. You shouldn’t have to pack an emotional diaper bag for a grown-up. Why spend your life as the mirror on the mobile into which man-baby or woman-baby gazes? Seriously, we all have much better things to do with our time.
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I know several of these adults-in-diapers types. “Boring” is the best description. Great article, Dr. T!
Dr Tara Palmatier says
Me, too. Thanks, Pam!
Great article Dr Palmatier. If you have any advice on what to do if you are married to a narc and there are kids involved it would be a great blog article to read. My therapist says I have C-ptsd and have had it for years, but it’s not even treatable until I get out of the relationship. I feel like that’s throwing my son to the wolves, even letting Narc have a few days a week custody. It’s a bad place to be in for my son and I both.
The quick answer is to begin planning for a divorce. Of course divorcing a disordered person is like walking through Hell. Think of it this way. Your son is living in Hell with you. The only way you can get him out of Hell is to leave the Narc. If your son can tolerate living in the house with the Narc full time (as he is now), then living with him part-time will be a better situation for him.
WOW Dr. Palmatier!!! This two part article really hits home. I divorced a borderline 7 years ago. At the time, I didn’t know what a narcissists/borderlines/psychopaths was or that I was married to one. I kept searching to find an explanation for her bad behavior after we separated and went through the divorce process. That’s when I found your site: Shrink4Men. It helped me immensely and helped me understand, I was not the one who was “crazy”!!!
More importantly though, this article has tough me something about myself. Just as your article states: I think I was the adult child of a narcissist or borderline, were I probably was parentified as a child. I had to take care of both of them (mom and dad). I know I developed some codependent caretaker traits as a child and a young adult and I have chosen an adult partner (my ex) who is just as emotionally and psychologically underdeveloped as my parents. This article not only describes my ex-wife to a tee, it also explains why or how I was attracted to her in the first place. Looking back now, I didn’t know how I could have chosen her then. Now I think I understand, why I did. I just hope I’m not in some way, a narcissist/borderline, or have some of the traits.
My story is a long and complicated one, that I won’t get into here. But I just wanted to say thank you for your website and articles. With your help, I think I can now enter into a healthy relationship and live my life in peace and happiness.