Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking To Strangers highlights a behavior that may not be immediately evident in our polarized world. Cooperating with others, forming communities where we look out for each other, is an evolutionary advantage. 

Two qualities that make cooperation easier also leave us vulnerable to people with predatory behavior and traits. 

We believe people unless we have overwhelming proof that they are lying and we attribute similar motives to other people. If we are unethical, we look for that in others because we believe they are the same. If we are honest, we assume others are too. Lord Chamberlain, a high ranking British politician, was taken in by Hitler’s charm and believed he was not lying about invading Poland.  

Fast forward to the present and our own personal lives and relationships. What is the cost of clear seeing? We have a hard time seeing what we can’t afford to see. Denial keeps us stuck in old patterns and toxic relationships.

There is a range of “normal” behavior that can be hurtful in relationships. Most people with some narcissistic traits are not extreme enough to be diagnosed as narcissists. Well-intentioned people do not always have the capacity to treat us well. People are absorbed in their own story and don’t really see us. Some feel threatened and lash out with harsh words. Others are not able to connect with trust and vulnerability because they are afraid of rejection.  

And it is true that not everyone wishes us well. In learning about narcissism and malignant narcissism, we see patterns and can be alert for toxic behavior. Narcissists have a fragile self-esteem and are detached from their true self. They have an inability to appreciate others, entitlement, lack of authenticity, need for control, intolerance for views/opinions of others, emotional detachment, grandiosity, lack for concern for the impact of their behavior, and are desperate for approval and attention.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. Stop expecting them to be something other than who they are.” Maya Angelou

If we had narcissistic parents, we were conditioned in childhood and it feels familiar. We may love and feel sorry for them. We are drawn by their charm and attentiveness. They fill up our holes. We feel loved and don’t want to give that up. We are hooked. People who were not groomed in this way are more able to spot the behavior and stay clear. 

As a child, I was safe physically.  My parents were not narcissists. There was no addiction, physical, verbal or sexual abuse. There was also no emotional connection. I felt like no one knew me or cared. I was taken in by the first person who turned on the charm and wanted to protect me. I was blind to the dysfunction. I couldn’t afford to see.

Relationship trauma leaves us isolated and shaky. We don’t trust ourselves to see clearly and act in our own best interests.

Do you suspect narcissism in your parents or people close to you now? Educate yourself. Look at the lists of behaviors and diversionary tactics people use to make you doubt yourself: gaslighting, projection, triangulation, degrading sarcasm, and love bombing to hook you. Shahida Arabi is one good resource.

What is holding you back from trusting and being vulnerable and authentic with people? Try this Reverse Inquiry to bring up your subconscious objections.

I trust myself to recognize and move away from people with toxic behavior

I am clear eyed and act in my own best interests

Sit quietly and see what your mind brings up. One of the first things to come up will be from your inner critic reminding you of all the ways you have been in denial and haven’t acted in your own best interest. Sit with it. Use the tools of Tapping, Tracing or Focus to watch the thoughts and Mining to stay with energy in your body. 

Ultimately, we are interested in where we are now so bring your inquiry into the present moment. Do you trust yourself now? If not, that could be what is keeping you isolated and alone. There are many ways to free ourselves from fear and safely move into connection with ourselves and other people.