This is the transcription of Episode 65: Narcissists & HSPs, with Nikki Eisenhauer. Listen to the audio here.
This transcription has been edited just a bit for clarity.
HSP Podcast: Nikki Eisenhauer is a licensed professional counselor, a chemical dependency counselor, yoga and meditation teacher, writer, and budding comedian. Today we’re going to discuss a few things–but mainly narcissists and why HSPs attract narcissists. We’re also going to talk about why high sensitivity is often pathologized.
Before we get started, let me tell you a little bit more about Nikki. In her work and experience, she specializes in trauma, grief and loss, addiction, and has come to understand highly sensitive people–what wounds them, what drives them, and how they heal. Her most recent project is called Wise Owl Within, where she offers sensitives and healers support, evolution, and the life that they desire. You can find more at wiseowlwithin.com.
Let’s get started. What is it like to be a mental health professional and also a highly sensitive person? I ask because something that comes up over and over through my research of high sensitivity is that so many people say that their therapist has never heard of high sensitivity.
So, for you, as a mental health professional and a counselor and highly sensitive person–How does it all fit together?
Nikki Eisenhauer: I’ve been the client with some of those therapists [who didn’t know about high sensitivity. It’s a big part of why what I wanted to be a therapist, because I’ve had some therapists that I felt really understood me even if they didn’t use the term “highly sensitive”. I had other therapists that I felt on every level really did not understand what my process was or what I was going through, and they labeled it in a pathologizing way, as a problem.
I’ve come to love some of my sensitive traits a lot and love it about other people. I think it’s some of the most wonderful qualities that we have, but it also takes a lot to manage them.
So as a professional, I think it’s a huge asset and gift that I have, because I can feel and sense what someone is going through when they come into my office.
But with the clinical training, it’s very tricky, because therapists are trained to find these clinical criteria and really get away from our gut and our own feelings. That way, the client and come in and be themselves and we, the therapist, can be sort of this “blank slate” sounding board to bounce ideas off of. So in a lot of ways, it’s been a struggle for me to reconcile those two very opposing positions.
HSP: Is it hard to put away your emotions when you’re helping someone? I’m imagining if I was a mental health professional–it would be extremely difficult for me to not and feel bad for people and their problems when they are really hurting and struggling.
NE: Yes. So, my undergrad is in psychology, my master’s degree in counseling. Interestingly enough, a counseling education is different than the rest of the public, and different than any other profession, really. Therapists are taught about boundaries. They’re talking about self-care. They’re taught about how to be in an emotional process with someone and not soak it up like a sponge.
So even before I had the term “highly sensitive person”, my education as a therapist helped me to be able to distance myself, to take care of myself, and to separate and figure out, “Okay, what is my own and what is this other person’s? Where is that line, and how do I manage that?”
HSP: I think that could help a lot of HSPs. When something painful happens to you–or even when it happens to someone you know–it’s so hard to not keep thinking about it and keep feeling bad about it, on and on and on. People always say, “How can I stop obsessing and feeling bad about this thing that happened?”
So, how can a normal person (a non-therapist) put some of those tools into practice that you have learned as a mental health professional–to try to separate our struggles and our pain with other peoples’?
NE: It’s a big process. I think the biggest piece is accepting that this is not a light switch that you can flip.
This is a big part of why I felt so called to rebrand myself as more of a mentor to highly sensitive people to share part of my process, because I’ve gotten this unique experience of being forced to have to practice some of these skills. I’ve had client after client after client come into my office, session after session after session. It’s almost like a muscle–like you would work out a muscle at the gym–I had to work out these muscles of how to separate myself from their process while not burning out.
HSP: It sounds like part of the answer is just practice.
NE: Just like anything. We do need that practice and we have to figure out in our lives how to get that practice.
So a big part of what I do with people is help them reframe some of the difficult situations or the difficult personalities in their life—with their families, neighbors, or in their workplaces–and how to look at it through this lens of, “Wow, this person is an emotional vampire for me. I feel really drained, but instead of this being a negative in my life, how do I step back and look at this as an opportunity to flex and grow these muscles of being more of the observer of what’s happening, instead of being in the emotional process of what’s happening, so that I don’t drain myself.” That thought process allows you to have more control, which is really what we’re all vying for. Because we have no control about a lot of these personalities showing up in our lives.
HSP: I’d love to talk about narcissists. This is something that I see popping up all the time in relation to highly sensitive people: the idea that HSPs attract narcissists or sociopaths. First, can you define what a narcissist is?
NE: I can, but let me first talk a little bit about personality, because what were what we’re talking about as therapists, as a field–we’re trying to quantify and qualify personality, which is something that is just an impossible task. We are all multi-dimensional, we’re complex, so when I talk about personality, I just want to talk about it with the caveat of: please hear this in a general sense, to kind of soak up some learning and be able to kind of learn more about yourself and other personalities in the world. We all have these different hats—for example, in the bedroom, we have a sort of sexual self that you don’t show when you go to the grocery store. It’s not that you’re two different people, it’s just two very different aspects of your personality, and different parts of yourself show up at different times.
One of my beefs with my profession and with how we categorize personality disorders is that it’s so finite. The reality is that there are people who fit this narcissistic personality type or this sociopathic antisocial personality type 100%, but there are also tons of people who fit on a continuum. They don’t fit 100% of these personality disorder types, but they have a lot of these traits.
In that gray area is where a lot of us–a lot of highly sensitive people–get confused, because it would be very simple for someone to be all good or all bad. As a human beings we want it to be simplified like that. If somebody is all bad, “Wow, that is so clear to me–I don’t have to deal with that, let me move away from it.”
But that’s not how people show up as human beings. They have good and wonderful parts and we can’t be manipulated without those good and wonderful parts so we have to really–in my professional opinion–learn how to take people as their whole, but identify these different parts that are hard for us individually. Then we can learn skills to deal with these different parts of personalities that that show up, instead of thinking about a type of person.
“Antisocial” is kind of a funny term. I wish it wasn’t the term, because it sounds like someone who is off in the corner and pulling themselves away from society, and that’s really not what it is. Sociopathic antisocial personality, by definition, is someone who goes against the norms of the culture. That’s what antisocial means. To be social–to be healthy–to be a thriving social society, we need to respect each other. So an anti-social sociopathic personality does not respect the other people in the tribe. So, not every sociopath is a narcissist. Not every narcissist is a sociopath.
So, in in terms of narcissism, there’s a lot of charm. There’s charisma. There’s a lot of grandiosity, there’s a lot of big ideas and big visions–they like to take credit at work. If you have been working and someone just kind of takes credit for what you do, that person might have some narcissistic traits. They tend to be very self-serving, and they really lack empathy.
HSP: That sounds very opposite from the trait of high sensitivity.
NE: It is. And it’s part of why we can attract them.
So, if there’s a big long line of a continuum of personality, I might say that this difficult personality is on one end because they they’re not feeling empathy, and on the other end of that spectrum might be highly sensitive people. In an interesting way of opposites attracting, we HSPs might be the opposites for narcissistic personality.
HSP: So why do they attract each other?
NE: Well, with a narcissist–it’s all about them. So if they are all-knowing, they don’t have to self-reflect. It’s kind of a catch-22. It’s also why they don’t show up in counseling, even if they have a lot of interpersonal issues, because they’re not the problem. Everybody else is the problem.
So the reason that they’re attracted to us is because highly sensitive people offer what we call “narcissistic supply”. A narcissist really craves being perceived well. They, so to speak, take up all the space in the room. They can’t see from other perspectives. And a sensitive person has so much empathy that we can give a lot of space to that personality, accidentally.
HSP: Like we accept their behavior more than we should? We’re not as critical of it as we should be, or we don’t see the harm in it?
NE: Yes. It’s part of the human condition that we project what we want or we give away what we want to other people.
I know as a highly sensitive person, for me, I crave understanding. So here comes this narcissist in my life and they’re grandiose, and they’re taking credit for my work, and they’re kind of pushing my buttons, and they don’t really seem to care. I start seeing some red flags and things feel icky to me, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. But because I crave understanding, I would hate it if someone just completely disregarded me and didn’t want to listen to what I had to say. So I have a propensity, as a highly sensitive person, to give away a lot of understanding. Because I really crave understanding.
HSP: So you try really hard to understand them—their perspective and what they’re going through–whereas they’re absolutely not doing that for you.
NE: Yes. So there’s this anti-reciprocal relationship that’s happening and sensitives can get into this hole of giving and giving and giving, and a narcissist is completely comfortable taking and taking and taking. Do you see how we kind of link together? Like unfortunate puzzle pieces.
HSP: Now this is such a ridiculous HSP thing to say, but there’s part of me that feels bad for the narcissist! Because they probably don’t know that they’re like that, and they don’t know the downsides to their behavior.
Does a narcissist ever realize that they’re a narcissist, and try to get help for it?
NE: Traditionally, I would say no, because in their mind they’re absolutely fine the way they are. Anyone who has a problem with them—well, the other person has the problem. So there’s no problem for the narcissist to seek out change for.
HSP: Are there any other ways to spot a narcissist?
NE: You can start to check in with yourself. In the therapeutic process, often what happens is in a family system or in a work system is that the person who shows up for counseling is what we call the identified patient. Now this shocks a lot of people, because the common conception about going to therapy is, “I have a problem and I’m going to therapy to fix it.” And the family members–especially if they have some narcissistic traits and it’s not their problem, right?–they love that dynamic, because, “hey buddy, you’re going to therapy, the problem is you. I’ve been telling you the problem is you. I’m totally comfortable with you going to therapy, you being the patient, you being the sick one, you being the one with things wrong with you.”
But what we see in counseling is that the person that shows up as the identified patient is often the healthiest person. Because they are able to look at themselves and say, “I can improve in some ways” or “I need to grow,” or “I need to figure something out about myself.” That’s such a healthy dynamic.
HSP: Now, I feel better about myself!
NE: Absolutely! It’s often the healthiest person who goes to therapy; that is backwards to how we traditionally think about it.
HSP: There’s still part of me that can’t help but feel bad for narcissists!
NE: Yes, but that’s also the part that keeps us in some dysfunctional relationships much longer. Because that’s our empathy.
HSP: I’m falling into it already! This is a made-up narcissist I’m imagining in my head, and I already feel bad for them—and it’s just a hypothetical!
NE: That’s part of what makes it so difficult to disentangle, especially by ourselves. To disconnect–or to pull back our empathy–feels so awful to us as sensitive people. We don’t want to–it feels wrong, it feels icky, it might even feel cruel. Being so empathetic is also the thing that makes us so vulnerable to these personalities that do not have empathy for us and will suck us dry and use us.
To manage this dynamic, we have to step back as highly sensitive people and be able to acknowledge, “Wow, I am so participating in allowing other people to use me. And I have to learn how to stop that.”
HSP: How do you know when you’re being overly empathic? Where’s the line for HSPs?
NE: It’s a process of really learning about yourself and your own intuition. Because if I could be a little fly on the wall while an HSP and a narcissist were having an interaction, I would bet that there’s a little moment where intuition says, “something’s off here” for that HSP.
Judith Orloff is a wonderful author that I love. She has a few books out, she’s got a wonderful website, and similar to me, but a little different–she’s a psychiatrist, I’m a psychotherapist. She’s an MD. She talks about going through school and turning off her intuition or her sensitive qualities to be this clinical doctor that she thought she was supposed to be. And I had a similar process. Once you start to work with people again, it’s like intuition knocks and says, “no, you need this part to work with people, this is a good part.” And that part turns back on again. That’s our intuition saying, “I might not have this figured out in this moment, but there’s something that I need to pay attention to here.”
HSP: I think that’s an important lesson. Even personally, in the not-too-distant past, I’ve tried to become more in-tune to my intuition, or more accepting of it. I ignored it for so long—well, I ignored it forever, because I always thought that I was overreacting, or I was wrong about things, or I was so open to other people’s opinions and points of view that I always just assumed that mine might not be right.
It’s a new feeling for me to listen to my intuition and value it instead of just thinking, “Oh, you’re being silly, you’re just overreacting.” It’s been nice to finally trust my intuition for the first time because it does tell me valuable stuff!
But it’s difficult because I always still want to go back to the old way of not trusting it. Maybe because trusting intuition is kind of scary. It’s easier to just trust what other people say instead.
NE: And when we’re trusting something and we’re arguing a point–even if it’s internally to ourselves–we really want evidence. That was a huge part of my training that I had to overcome—that it’s not okay to trust my intuition. That is so backwards to me and who I am now and in working with people.
If you’ve noticed you have a pattern of attracting narcissists or sociopaths in your life, managing it better is exactly what you’re naming, Kelly. It’s coming back to yourself. It’s coming back to trusting your intuition. It’s repairing a lifetime of millions of messages of, “You’re too sensitive, you’re overreacting. Why do you think that? That’s not real.”
HSP: So how do I fix that?
NE: Well, you’re working on it already. What you just said is beautiful. It’s a slow process. It’s back to what we said at the beginning–it’s not a light switch. It’s not just reading something and learning it in terms of a thought in your head, like a piece of knowledge. It’s about learning some of this knowledge and being able to engage yourself in a process of figuring out what that knowledge feels like as a sensitive person. Intuition is often a calm sense, it’s that little, “Huh, there’s something to that. If I don’t have it figured out yet, I can pay attention to that.” That’s a very calm, centered place to be, versus anxiety, which is kind of scattered.
A big piece of learning how to manage this–and what I coach people through–is figuring out, within themselves, this difference between anxiety and intuition and starting to trust intuition again, so they can walk through their world and not become prey for these personalities that want to have sensitives offer this narcissistic supply.
HSP: Wow, the difference between anxiety and intuition….That is so fascinating to think about because if you’d said that to me a couple years ago, I wouldn’t have even understood what you meant. I think one has to be a certain distance along the path of understanding our high sensitivity and self-reflection to even understand what it means to examine the difference between anxiety and intuition, and to understand why that’s important.
NE: Yes! And to be able to believe that that’s real.
I was raised very conservatively. A lot of that intuitive language, a lot of the high sensitivity language–I got a lot of messages that it’s a lot of hooey.
HSP: Yeah, me too.
NE: So it’s a lot of shedding all of those preconceived notions that weren’t even our notions to begin with. We’ve just soaked them up like the empathic sponges that we are our whole lives. Wringing that out and soaking up information and knowledge, intuitive insight–that really fits where we are now.
If you are early on in this journey, in this exploration of yourself of high sensitivity, the concept of intuition versus anxiety can be really mind-blowing.
HSP: I totally relate. I also was raised in a conservative family, a conservative community, where it was exactly the same thing. It was all about facts and proof and evidence, not feelings. Feelings were useless. Now, it is weird to try to embrace the other side of that.
NE: It is. And it’s scary in confronting either the narcissist or sociopath or anyone with some of these traits that are presenting because we don’t have any proof.
HSP: Right. “What if we’re wrong, what if, what if, what if….”
NE: Part of the process and part of what I coach people and myself with, is a permission of: “You know what? I might be wrong, but my intuition is waving a red flag.” So in a sense, I have to give myself permission to say, “I might be wrong, but I’m gonna back away from this.”
HSP: If there’s only one thing that someone takes from our discussion maybe that would be it. Even if you don’t completely trust your intuition, try to start. Try to start listening a little bit when the red flag is waving, like you said. That might be the first step. Because our intuition is such a valuable thing! HSPs have awesome intuition! That comes from the fact that we observe so much and we process every little thing and the nuances around us, it gives us such an insight into the world around us. And to be ignoring and fighting it is kind of a shame, when you think about.
NE: It is, and especially for women.
There is a fantastic book from the late 80s called the Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. I think he was FBI or something like that–he interviewed people who escaped serial killers (who are all sociopaths and narcissists) and what he started figuring out was that all of these people said the same thing. They said, “I knew something bad was going to happen that day. I knew the guy that offered to put my groceries into my car was creepy.”
So he pulled back and said. “What in the hell is going on? If everyone had this intuitive sense, why didn’t anybody act on it and trust it?”
I’m born and raised in New Orleans–I’m a Southern woman–we have some of those Southern things, you know–a lady doesn’t do certain things. You don’t upset people, we don’t get angry, we’re polite at all costs. A lot of that is really rooted in the culture.
A big part of not trusting our intuition is: we’re gonna look rude.
HSP: Right. And that’s the worst thing. [sarcasm]
NE: Yes. And even when someone was terrified or scared of someone assaulting them, that reigned supreme: “Oh, I better not be rude”!
And the psychological aspect, and where I where I pull from that, is figuring out: what are these belief systems that keep me from trusting my intuition? A lot of it is politeness, a lot of it is judgment about how a woman presents–that I’ll be “bitchy” if I assert myself.
It was hard for me to go through school and learn a lot of the basics of this information. I would get angry with my professors and I’d say, “Why isn’t this part of what we teach in elementary school and high school? This is information that all of us can benefit from!” It’s a huge part of why I’m passionate and trying to shift my career to be more online so I can get this out there for more people and help them take better care of themselves and not apologize for trusting their intuition.
HSP: If someone is listening to this and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m in a relationship with a narcissist”, or “I know I have a narcissist my life”, what would be some tips? Should you just run as far away as you can from a narcissist?
NE: Well, ideally maybe, but because life is complex–we have children, we have bank accounts, we own homes together–it’s just not that simple.
I would say get support—absolutely. You need support. These personalities are really good at getting inside of our heads, and if you’ve been in a relationship–especially a romantic relationship–for years and years, there’s just so much there to untangle, to disconnect from, that you need some healthy supports. If you don’t have that, figure out where to get it. Find a therapist that understands highly sensitive people and narcissism–not every therapist does. All this fits together is so many puzzle piece ways.
That’s part of advocating for yourself as an HSP. It’s unfortunate because you shouldn’t have to. Every therapist should understand what this is but we’re not there yet. Maybe in my lifetime we will be, maybe it’s part of the work that you’re doing and that I’m doing.
Each person that realizes that they’re HSP–I think they’re adding to the collective consciousness. They’re being an advocate for it. Every time they tell someone that they are a highly sensitive person–we’re all growing and figuring it out more and more. But you do need safe people who understand what HSPs are, and how to work with them, and help empower you to make the changes that you need to protect yourself.
HSP: So let’s go back a second. Can you clarify the differences between narcissistic and sociopathic traits?
NE: One of the main differences is that, for the most part, a narcissist is not going to be too manipulative. The sociopath is going to be more manipulative. It’s because the narcissist is really unaware of their effect on others. They’re so self-absorbed that they don’t even really pay attention to the fact that their behavior is having an effect on other people. The sociopath will engage you to talk about you; they’re more skilled at manipulating.
We all know about serial killers; without that charming part that makes you comfortable at first, they can’t get in there to do the harm that they have planned. Now, a serial killer is way far on the extreme–it’s as extreme as you can get on the scale–but there are lots of different ways that this shows up in a non-violent way.
One of the differences is that if you make a narcissist or sociopath angry–and by setting boundaries, you very well probably will–the narcissist might lash out at you and bully you, but a sociopath might play the long game. And that’s creepy and scary, but something that we need to know and deal with, because if you sense that maybe that’s going on, it can feel crazy. We don’t want to think that someone is manipulating us on such a grand scale, but it happens day in and day out. So just know that if you’re sensing that, it really may be happening. You might not ever be able to put your finger on it, you might never be able to get the evidence that tells you that it’s really happening, but consider that your intuition might be the most information and evidence that you need.
HSP: If someone’s realizing that they’re with one of these people, what a feeling of dread that would be. Like, “oh my god, I’ve built a life with this person and now I’m realizing that they’re a narcissist or sociopath.” That’s really scary.
NE: It is. But I would say, “you’ve been living in ‘scary’ ”. You’ve been living and not being able to figure out what’s going on. It’s chaotic and you’re internalizing and taking blame–because these personalities don’t take responsibility. Sensitive people can be so overly responsible that we can accept blame and try to work real hard at it, and we can’t make it work. It takes two people to make something work.
So if you are realizing that, and it’s freaking you out, try to take a deep breath and know that nothing’s changed. Now that you have some awareness about this dynamic, you can start to sort it out. You can get the help that you need–and people do every single day. There’s so much help and there’s so much information out there for you. If it’s not me, there are people around you that will help you, you just have to seek it out and find someone that really resonates with you that you can trust, to help figure this out, and make any changes that you need for your unique situation.
HSP: What a wonderful, comforting way to put that.
You mentioned when we first started emailing that you are a possible budding comedian. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
NE: Yes, well, I’m a complete silly goose. I have so much fun with my clients. This is a good example of how I work with people, too. I’m a big believer of practicing what I preach, right?
For years I wanted to do improv, I wanted to get on stage. When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a writer for Saturday Night Live. I finally went to an improv group recently and I love and adore them, and what I realize–especially being in HSP who can overthink and overplan and try to control the situation so that I don’t feel certain things–improv is a fantastic way to practice all the healthy muscles that HSPs need, because I absolutely cannot overthink an improv skit. It happens right now in the moment. And as uncomfortable and sweaty as that makes me, it’s a great tool to get outside of my comfort zone, to be able to flow more, to give myself permission to make mistakes, to look ridiculous and silly, and that’s a huge stress reliever for us HSPs. As much as we’re feelers, we can spend way too much time in our heads.
HSP: I never thought of that. That would be a great thing, especially for introverts.
NE: Yeah, and I am introverted. I can appear very extroverted but I’m very introverted. That’s a great example of how I work, I try not to focus on the actual problem with people, and we come up with solutions like that, about like how to really practice the skills and the emotional muscles. I’m passionate about figuring out how more comedy can show up in my life and my ultimate fear is probably getting on stage and doing a standup set, so I would not be okay with myself if I get to the end of my life and I don’t do that, so I’m gonna make myself face that fear.
HSP: So you’re high sensation seeking.
NE: I am. I really am.
HSP: I’m also an introvert. So many people associate being introverted with fear of public speaking, and that always bothers me a bit because, first of all–everyone’s afraid of it. It’s one of the biggest pervasive fears among everyone–public speaking. It’s not just an introvert thing. And I actually don’t mind public speaking in the right situations if I feel prepared. I actually like talking to groups and speaking in front of people, so it’s the same thing with improv. People might think, well that sounds like the last thing but an introvert would never want to do, especially an introverted HSP, but there’s still some part of us–for the high sensation seekers–that we crave.
What makes you want to do it?
NE: Well, let’s see. I also believe that as HSPs, we can get into this mode of trying to avoid so much, because it’s uncomfortable or its draining. And while that makes sense a lot of the time, I do think we have to find whatever our own personal growth edge is, in this capacity, and stretch it. We don’t want to bust through or break through, we don’t want to snap it, but we do want to–with some gentle mindfulness–push against it and grow and see what can come out of that growth. In terms of the getting on stage, or getting in front of people, I think we have such a deep, feeling part and we want to share that with people.
HSP: Yeah. And it is a rush, like just with anyone, there are things that are exciting and have a rush to it. Just because you’re an introvert, or even if you are shy, or you’re an HSP, it doesn’t mean you don’t still get excited by doing exciting things.
NE: Being a highly sensitive person or an empath can get so heavy; it can get so serious. I think of everything through the lens of balancing. Because of that, I think we do need to get outside of our heads, we do need lightness, and I think comedy is such an underrated and undervalued healing modality. It lightens some of these heavy topics so we can process them and manage them.
I also teach grief and loss and I’m probably the most ridiculous grief and loss teacher on the planet because I have fun and silliness. When dealing with grief and loss, I think you need that, that’s part of what balances the heaviness of it. So that’s where I am at with comedy right now. I’m not all that great.
HSP: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today, Nikki. Let everyone know where they can find you on social media.
NE: My website is wiseowlwithin.com.