But I do understand that lives on a spectrum and the development of a narcissist is very intriguing.[00:08:14] From what I’m understanding the narcissist doesn’t have any regulatory skills ,or if they do they are quite minimal, and they use another person for that. But that person is also experiencing dysregulation either in maybe a codependent or empathetic way, just reflecting to attachment and that those are the two typical pairings that you see in narcissist attachment. But in saying that, they haven’t developed these emotional skills. And they likely experienced neglect, perhaps even severe neglect- emotional, maybe even physical. The parents could have been abuse. And from the perspective of complex trauma, I think the nervous system of a narcissist developed in chaos and pain. [00:08:58] Elisabeth: Yeah, absolutely. I was thinking about this as I was reading. I think having empathy and being able to connect to others and keep other people’s interest in mind is prosocial behavior. It keeps us connected as human beings. We’ve needed that social connection for survival, for reproduction, for protection from predators. So there’s a lot of reasons to have prosocial behaviors. [00:09:32] So I was trying to think about why someone would develop these kind of anti-social, self-interest or very self-oriented behaviors that caused a big rift between themself and others from a survival perspective, from the brain is always asking, am I safe? Am I loved? And trying to create outputs that ensure that safety. Why does that happen? Just like you were saying Jennifer, I thought a lot about someone who had a lot of neglect and emotional neglect and had to develop ways to give themselves the emotional regulation and the affirmation and sense of self that they needed to survive and became very avoidant in their attachment style. [00:10:06] Maybe the other people that were their primaries and the people around them were unstable and dysregulated themselves. So being too attached or enmeshed to other people felt like a lot to take on. So there’s a lot of protection against being too impacted by another nervous system, by somebody else’s emotions. [00:10:23] It was interesting as I was reading some articles for this, one was talking about in some fMRIs. They could see at a neural level that narcissists actually appeared insecure. That people with high narcissism scores had lower connectivity in certain areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which are associated with the ability to think positively about oneself or about your own self perception. So that constant need to seek affirmation from others could actually be the result of deficits, inability to have a strong identity and sense of self at a brain development level. [00:11:02] Matt: Yeah, I find the brain parts that are associated with narcissism really interesting. Some of them we’ve talked about before. And a couple of them were a little bit new to the discussion here on Trauma Rewired. So definitely the prefrontal cortex is involved in that self-perception and decision making, the ability to create emotional inhibition and kind of match others in social situations- whether that means verbally or non-verbally. [00:11:29] But going a little deeper, there’s part of the insular cortex that is involved here. The insula is the area that we generally associate with interoception, our perceptions from inside of our body. But the anterior portion of the insular cortex is really important for social cues and social interactions, like meeting social norms, reading body language, understanding social expectations, and really fitting in with another group of people. Whether that’s a small group or a large group. So the anterior insula is really about perceiving oneself in the tribe and making sure that you fit in. So that’s highly integrated with this whole conversation. [00:12:14] That’s one of the areas in the research that people who have narcissism as a pathological diagnosis, their anterior insula is often found to be either smaller or less active when they undergo brain scans than people who are kind of considered part of the normal general population. Just a side note, that the anterior insula is also less connected in those who are on the autistic spectrum. And those who have more difficulty with emotional integration with others. So several different diagnoses from the world of psychiatry would fit in there. But that area is so important for just being able to read and understand and get along with other humans. [00:13:00] The third area that I wanted to bring to the conversation is an area we haven’t talked about before at all. It’s called the ventral striatum. This is a deep part of the cortex that connects to the basal ganglia of the brain. So it kind of sits between the frontal cortex and the basal ganglia, which is much deeper. And this ventral striatum is involved in reward processing. So in the literature you find this Cortico-ventral basal ganglia pathway. It’s kind of a mouthful, but basically what that means is that our brain learns when we make certain decisions that are rewarding, we should get a dopamine hit as a response. We should get a dopamine reward.
So the ventral striatum is the area that kind of deciphers what actions are gonna create a dopamine response and which actions are not. So it helps to facilitate those that we would predict are going to be rewarding. With someone who’s narcissistic, what you find is that their brain has actually learned and conditioned itself to find rewarding behaviors that are either hurtful to others or not connected to the wellbeing of others; but instead that self-aggrandizing and self-centered focus becomes the primary driver of dopamine reward.[00:14:27] It really skews what behaviors will be chosen in a social situation or in a relationship because their own priority, like being at the top of social perception, being at the top of the ladder, atop of the food chain, really becomes number one. Their own self-aggrandizement, their own recognition. While we can talk about how that might’ve come from a deep insecurity or deep feelings of unworthiness, at the end of the day it has now become more of a patterned behavior where the brain has learned that those behaviors are the ones that are gonna give the greatest amount of dopamine. And that’s where it kind of becomes scary, going back to Jennifer’s comments a moment ago. Because that person’s whole sense of rational decision making is shifted or skewed based on that dopamine reward system. [00:15:19] Jennifer: I find this really fascinating. What I’m hearing you saying, I want to sum this up, because there is a spectrum in the way we fit in and the way we distinguish ourselves. And the further that you get from distinguishing yourself with and to others, is the further you get away on the empathic scale. [00:15:40] So narcissists in the pathological sense, the dangerous sense that we are talking about on the one end, they really lack empathy, right? They need to be validated by other people. We know that there are other attachment styles that really go into feeding and validating their behavior, which is how it gets gaslighting and condescending and quite manipulative in some relationships. But also in that area, in this spectrum… And you also said something else, remind me one more time Matt, what was the last thing you said? [00:16:17] Elisabeth: The reward component.
[00:16:18] Jennifer: The reward component! Because the reward component is the abusive behavior. The reward component is rooted in abuse because they don’t have the empathy to feel what the other nervous system is feeling, because no one was sharing that with them. They don’t have that social connection of nurturing and it just continues on. Thank you so much Elisabeth. [00:16:43] Elisabeth: I’m really glad you brought that up, Matt and Jennifer too. I really wanted to talk about reward circuitry because I was listening to Dr. Dr. Robert Malenka on Huberman [podcast] and he was talking about empathy and how it is really linked to our reward circuitry. And that it connects us to other humans. And it’s this quality as human beings that really binds us for the survival of the species. So there’s a lot of positive reinforcement in terms of the chemical reactions in the brain and the body for when we can connect and feel empathy for other people. And as I was listening to him talk, I had already been thinking about this episode, and I was like: how does this change for a narcissist who really lacks that ability to experience empathy? And are they not being reinforced for that prosocial behavior? [00:17:34] As you were both talking, I also just keep thinking about threat and the survival brain. And at some point maybe the cost of that social connection, it becomes more adaptive to protect yourself from that connection or from those emotional experiences, or from the reliance on other people, to get that validation because it seems so threatening to not get that affirmation or to have that connection or that intimacy. So the system changes to reward the most adaptive survival forward behavior, which is no longer the connection to other people. [00:18:20] Matt: Because the development of this narcissism as a whole and the insular deficits that go with it- the ventral striatum kind of stuff- all this brain stuff, it’s not only possible for that to come from social lack. Social lack is not the only potential cause of this. I’ve known people who’ve had head trauma that affected their insular cortex, and so their whole sense of interoception kind of goes out the window. They have poor ability to decipher hunger signals, difficulty with body temperature regulation, poor interoception of how and what is going on inside their body. In this world of interoception we often talk about interoceptive accuracy and interoceptive awareness. So sometimes their awareness goes way up, but their accuracy goes way down. Other times they lose both accuracy and awareness. So without a strong sense of interoception, they look to the outside world as a means of confirming that they’re okay. And very often that comes in the form of social engagement. [00:19:26] Well, the issue is compounded if the insular cortex was injured and it doesn’t have the ability to read those social cues. So I’ve known people whose narcissistic tendencies started with a head trauma, not with a social abuse situation, right? But a physical injury. I’ve also known individuals who experienced some type of serious viral infection or bacterial infection of the brain. Then had the same thing begin to occur either going through a virus or an infection and they kind of lose their sense of self and interoception through that process. There’s some other things that I just want to acknowledge are out there. There’s some other causes, but they do turn into the same thing. It eventually becomes a sense of ‘I need this confirmation, acceptance, love from other people, but I don’t know how to get it. I don’t know how to read it. I can’t just tell that I’m okay from the nonverbal cues of their relationship.’ [00:20:31] It almost has to be this twisted, explicit elevation above the other people in the relationship. If I have the person with narcissistic tendencies, I have to be put on the pillar, on the pedestal, and appreciated and worshiped as the most important in the relationship just in order to know that I’m okay. And at first, while that might be less intentional, what Jennifer was talking about a minute ago, eventually it does become sadistic where my reward centers switch and I start to take pleasure in harming other people or in putting them down and putting myself up. That’s where we move into that idea of malignant narcissism is the most severe form because it has that sadistic pattern or tendency where those people seek out reward by harming others in relationships. That’s the one that you see portrayed in movies and television that’s like pure evil. It’s manipulative and harmful and very sadistic toward others. But I don’t think it starts that way. I think it starts as a nervous system and a brain that don’t know how to be okay without external validation.
[00:21:49] Jennifer: Is this conversation speaking to you? Rewiretrial.com is the link you’ll follow for free two weeks of live neuro training onsite at Brain-Based Wellness with me and Elisabeth. If you’re finding yourself in this conversation, you can create a new lived experience in your body and in relationship. Show up as who you really are with the tools to support your unique nervous system. We’re live and onsite to guide and support you four times a week. So please join us at rewiretrial.com and learn how to regulate your own emotions with safety.[00:22:24] Jennifer: First of all, thank you for explaining and thank you for telling us the other ways that narcissism can present in head trauma and head injury ’cause I think that’s really important to note too, if people have loved ones who are exhibiting this and also have that. So it does come from different angles. But I would love to stay on the thread of the emotional. And Elisabeth do you want to take us into the exploring of the emotions of narcissist behavior and why they do have such difficulty with that? [00:22:53] Elisabeth: Yeah. You mean the difficulty expressing and experiencing emotions? [00:22:58] Jennifer: Yeah and the downplaying of emotions in general for them. And how that’s part of how they latch on with codependent people can find themselves in narcissistic relationships a lot, or we are gonna explore empathy more. But deep empaths also can find themselves in this realm of a narcissist. They kind of have this symphony with each other. One just validates and needs the other one. One is power seeking and one is power giving. So there’s dynamics that happen in there and in the emotional context. [00:23:29] Elisabeth: For sure. Well, I think a lot of what we were talking about with the insular cortex plays a big role here too. Because it’s our interpretation of the sensations and the emotional experience. Having deficits in those areas where we can feel the sensations and the physiological processes of emotions, interpret them with accuracy and the right amount of threat. And then be able to express them through our body in a healthy way that helps us come back to regulation is really important. When there are problems with that whole process that our bodies, our brains and our nervous systems need to stay regulated and safe. Emotional expression can become very scary and there can be a lot of detachment- detachment from the body in the form of dissociation, detachment from the emotional experience. Like Matt was talking about, over time that can actually shape the way the system functions- repeated outputs, repeated pathways that are chosen can then just become the way that we function. [00:24:33] Elisabeth: I think there’s a heavy component to a lot of attachment issues where we either need other people to regulate and to feel safe and we really need to feel that we have that connection for our social safety and survival. And also for our own, like we have such a difficult time carrying emotion and processing and staying regulated. [00:24:57] We need other people and we maybe had a big scarcity of that growing up. So we put a lot of emphasis on staying connected at all costs and really moving into those codependent patterns. Then there’s people who avoid and pull back from that. I think a lot of times we see those two come into play with one another where there is someone who is giving and fighting for the attachment, pushing into attachment at maybe the cost of their own health and to their own detriment, and somebody who needs that affirmation and that person to be pushing for connection and they continue to pull back and detach from it. And it can get into a real loop of playing into each other’s attachment styles and trauma. [00:25:47] Matt: People who have either developmental issues, head trauma, or learned conditioning that have affected the insular cortex, specifically the anterior insular cortex that we talked about before. Their empathy go one of two ways. I think we’ve talked about this before on another episode, maybe last season, but they either become super empathetic where they feel the feelings and emotions of everyone and all the animals and all the plants and all the bugs and everything, and they’ve just become empathetic with every living creature on the planet. Or they go the other direction entirely and lose their ability to feel empathy. It’s a split right down the fork in the road. [00:26:31] So the thing about the narcissist and their inability to feel empathy. I had a very interesting conversation years ago with a client of mine who had narcissistic tendencies. What she said was, I’m extremely sensitive to feeling like what’s coming at me to feeling other people’s emotions and energy. I can tell what mood someone is in or how they’re feeling, or when they’re afraid, when they’re happy and peaceful. I can sense others’ emotions, but I’m totally unable to share in the emotion with them.’ Okay, so this is a recipe for manipulation. If someone can always sense how other people are feeling, but they never share the same feelings. The other person in the room is feeling scared, but they’re not scared. They’re exhilarated by that. The other person feeling anxious. But they’re not anxious. The other person’s feeling happy, but they’re not happy. [00:27:29] So it’s this recipe for disaster because when someone else is on the high, they have the ability to tear them down. When someone else is on the low, they’re feeling great about themself. So they can always play the opposite piece in the chess game of emotions to have the power in the relationship. So while their empathy is really low, probably because of the insular issues, their sensing of energy and emotion is typically pretty high. So they have these little emotional antennas that are running around going, ‘what is everybody feeling? How can I use that to make myself appear or feel better in the situation?’ When that happens, that’s what triggers that reward. [00:28:14] So empathy and narcissism are absolutely tied. All the literature you’re gonna see says they don’t experience empathy, they don’t feel empathy, they don’t feel, share others’ emotions. And that’s true, but they do often sense others’ emotions and then they can respond in whatever way they want. So some narcissists will fake it and they’ll pretend to empathize with others because that’s what’s expected of them. While others will go, nope, I’m gonna use this to my advantage. Then they continue to play that card of manipulation and so they end up on top. [00:28:49] Elisabeth: I think it’s really fascinating. The big question that comes to my mind when we’re talking about all of this is- is change possible?
[00:28:57] Our next partner is AG1, the daily foundational nutritional supplement that supports whole body health. I drink it every morning. I gave AG1 a try because I’d heard about it on other podcasts that I really trust. And I love drinking a supplement that covers all my nutritional basis. It gives me an instant boost while supporting my entire body. I drink AG1 while I’m getting morning sun and doing my NSI drills. And it’s an important part of my daily morning ritual. I find it a beautiful pairing to support my nervous system along with my drills. So, if you want to take ownership over your health, it starts with AG1. Try AG1 and get a free one-year supply of vitamin D and 5 free AG1 travel packs with your first purchase. Go to drinkag1.com/rewired. Check it out. The link is in the show notes.[00:29:54] Do we, from a Neuro Somatic perspective, believe in personality disorders if we say on the show frequently, that we don’t really have fixed personalities, right? We’re a nervous system that’s always adapting and changing in response to stimulus. So if that is the case- that we don’t have hard fixed personalities- what are we thinking about with personality disorder? I was thinking about narcissism too, I was thinking that change is always possible. And for myself, I know it has required a tremendous amount of dedication and a daily practice and a deep desire to change my responses. I’m not sure if in this case the desire to change would be there or would be sufficient because I feel like a lot of the narcissistic personality traits are interpreted by that person as the most beneficial way that they can be for their survival, for their success. So is there even the motivation there for someone to put in the consistency and the effort to create that change? And if so, would it be possible? [00:31:09] Matt: I think change is always possible for the nervous system. Even with what Elisabeth said, there’s some acknowledgement that yeah, change is possible. You can rewire the nervous system, you can work on and train the insular cortex. You can rebuild reward circuits. The ultimate question though is, is an individual gonna be interested in that? Do they want to change at the end of the day? That’s a totally different question. As in as much as we’re just asking the question, is it possible for change? I think the answer is yes. Is someone who has narcissistic tendencies or personality disorder going to want to change? Probably not, because they’ve already established a reward circuit that says, here’s what gets me the best perceivable outcome. [00:31:51] I’ve worked with clients who have lower grades of this narcissistic tendencies, not a pathological diagnosis, and they’re aware of those tendencies. And when they have wanted to change, we’ve been able to do so. I haven’t ever had a malignant narcissist come in and say, ‘Hey, I wanna change my brain.’ I don’t think that would happen. Someone who has some of these tendencies, like I’ve had clients who’ve had head trauma, who’ve had those infections and they realize how they’re treating the people around them, and they don’t want to be doing that. They just go, ‘I don’t know why I do this, but it’s just my brain’s way of dealing with stress. Like I have to have this external validation, confirmation. I don’t let people feel the wrong feelings or make their own decisions and I don’t know why I do that, but I don’t like it. I’m just so, so selfish.’ Those are their words, more or less. [00:32:46] Those people have been able to change that behavior strategy by doing NSI type work and focusing on the insular cortex, prefrontal cortex, getting themselves out of survival mode. They have been able to change. So when I asked the question, is the nervous system capable of change even though it has these pre-established reward circuits and behaviors? I go, yeah, that’s the whole idea of neuroplasticity. So it really does come down to whether they want it or not, but I do think that it’s possible. [00:33:16] Elisabeth: Yeah, I’ve seen that too with clients. They really do have a deep desire for true intimacy, true connection, equal partnership. And are often driven by pretty extreme jealousy, distrust, and that leads to manipulative behavior and really strong seeking of external validation to feel safe. And they don’t like feeling that stressed out and that insecure at a deep level all the time. So there is, in those cases, a true desire to change and to find peace and safety inside of themselves to have a different connection to their own body, to their nervous system, to their interoceptive system. And to not need so much from the external world and to have better relationships where they treat people better and feel safer in that relationship. And I do see that. [00:34:12] And I also think that as we’re talking about this and the ability to change and neuroplasticity and the science of hope and all of that; I wanna also be really clear that we’re not telling anyone to stay in a relationship with someone who’s abusing you. If you are in a relationship where you feel you’re constantly invalidated or manipulated- physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive relationship, we’re not saying to hold out the hope for that change and that neuro work. All self-development and growth work is really about changing yourself first and using the tools to change you so that you can have healthy relationship patterns and not trying to change another person. It’s about giving your nervous system the capacity to be in healthy relationship, seek healthy relationship, and to leave abusive or dangerous situations and not continue to replay those patterns. And to create new relational experiences where you are safe and seen and heard and valued and expressed. So that’s really important that even though change is possible, the nervous system is always changing and adapting. It doesn’t mean the other person’s going to change and you need to take care of yourself. [00:35:20] Jennifer: I think the two examples y’all gave are really beautiful, because maybe there is someone who is listening to this podcast who is having a little bit of that awareness kind of shine through and recognizing the mental gymnastics that they have to go through every day and how stressful that is on their bodies. [00:35:40] Or maybe this person is already experiencing a chronic illness or disease that’s now showing up in their lives and they’re just starting to kind of connect the dots. We do believe in change. (laughing) I’m totally going to take out what I said earlier about running away although I kind of stand by that, but also I do believe in people’s abilities to change. It’s a lot to live with. Anyone who’s involved in this dynamic is under a lot of stress internally, emotionally and physically. So it’s the stress in the body. How can you use the NSI to just even diminish some of the stress that you’re in: your relational situationship right now? You might have a coworker that you work really closely with. This could be your narcissistic boss. This could be a partner, a relative. This could be anyone in your realm that you feel like that bond is here, it’s not gonna be severed. This is where you are right now. Then how can you support yourself? And there’s plenty of tools that people can use. And NSI is brilliant for more stabilization. [00:36:46] Matt: Yeah. I think the big takeaway from me from this conversation is that number one, narcissism is not a conscious choice that someone’s making, right? They’re not just a jerk or a giant a-hole who wants to be mean to everybody. But it’s the way their brain is actually wired and programmed itself through conditioning to feel safe. So when you’re around someone who has these narcissistic tendencies, it really is important that you be able to regulate your own nervous system. You can stay regulated using NSI tools or other emotional and stress practices. You also have to have some really good boundaries to know that you’re not being taken advantage of or manipulated in that situation. [00:37:45] It’s like Jennifer just said, it could be a colleague, a boss, a family member, a friend. It does not have to be someone you’re in an intimate relationship with, obviously. So some of those other relationships you may not have the power to just say, ‘here’s how things are gonna go’. It’s a little more delicate than that in a lot of times, a little more, you know, muddy waters. So you creating your own strong set of personal boundaries regardless of what type of relationship it is, it’s very, very important. [00:38:06] I think for a lot of listeners, this is gonna be kind of an educational look into the mind and nervous system of a narcissist. The most important thing is to take the information and go, ‘now what can I do with it to make my own relationships and my own emotional life a little bit safer, a little bit more predictable, and more sustainable and regulated in the long term?’ [00:38:30] Elisabeth: Yeah, absolutely. Always as we increase the capacity of our nervous system through daily training, through understanding it and knowing how to work with it, then we have greater capacity to to care for ourselves, to change our relational patterns, to set boundaries appropriately, even when that used to feel really, really scary because losing an attachment or feeling like someone was disappointed in you or didn’t like you or was frustrated felt life threatening at one point- for me in my life. It felt paralyzing to put boundaries in place or to change the way I interacted in my relationships, whether that was familial or intimate or work. And now I can say with relative ease, I do those things. And the more I do that and the more I train my nervous system to have the capacity to do that then the less I replay those patterns in my life even if there are people out there that I need to interact with that do have heavy narcissist traits I can, just like you guys were talking about, I can take care of myself and I can still have a capacity almost to love them from afar rather than getting entrenched and resentful. It changes the way that I view them and it creates more space and opportunity for them to heal and grow if they want to or to stay the same. But for me, just to allow them to be who they are and also still take care of myself. [00:40:01] Elisabeth: If this conversation resonates with you and you want to take a deeper dive into these practices- grief practices, learning tools to move through your shame, finding ways to regulate your nervous system around the expression of anger then we would love to be there with you. Join us live at rewiretrial.com to get your free two weeks of nervous system training and tools for emotional processing working directly with me and Jennifer. We’d love to meet you on the site, so check it out at rewiretrial.com
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