A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won't sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”
The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”
“Because,” replies the scorpion: “It is my nature...”
Scorpions sting, mosquitoes bite, magpies steal…does anyone expect anything different from them? How many hours have been spent trying to elicit change in the natures of these beasts? How much guilt and personal pain do we endure because somehow, some way, we provoked them? How much hope do we hold out that we can walk through a cloud of mosquitoes and not get bitten? Or do we simply accept that it is the nature of these creatures to sting, bite, steal and do whatever we must to avoid being injured by them?
You know where this is going, don’t you? Do you think that the rules of nature don’t apply to one particular pet mosquito you might have? Or perhaps you think you can induce your pet magpie not to steal shiny things you leave laying around your house. Have you tried, like the frog, bargaining with your scorpion only to find yourself stung yet again?
For some peculiar reason we find it easy to accept that the scorpion will sting without provocation, the mosquito will bite you because you are there, the magpie will steal because it is its nature…and we hold no hope of them changing their behaviours. We accept that this is what they are and what they do and we take steps to protect ourselves and our loved ones from them. And yet, we live with a scorpion in our midst, a blood-sucking mosquito at our elbow, a magpie at the other end of the phone…and we expect them to change and we feel guilty about taking steps to protect ourselves and our loved ones from them.
I am, of course, talking about narcissists. And denial…your denial and the pervasive and perhaps subconscious belief that there is a chance that your narcissist will “wake up,” grow a conscience and miraculously transform into a loving person who will feel remorse for treating you badly and bend over backwards to make amends.
We are talking about hope, that same hope the frog experienced when he agreed to ferry the scorpion across the river, the same hope that was dashed midstream when the scorpion dropped the mask that inveigled the frog into making what would become a fatal agreement. Like the scorpion, narcissists spin a good tale. They draw us in with convincing logic and faked behaviours and, like the scorpion, can maintain the façade for as long as it takes to achieve their objectives. But once victory is firmly in their grasp, they revert to their true selves and you are again stung.
It is tempting to say that the frog’s mistake was in believing that the scorpion could change its nature, but I think it goes deeper than that. You can believe something is possible without committing your well-being to it…that takes hope. It takes both the belief that something is possible and the hope that it is true to take us to the point of making that commitment…the frog not only believed that it was possible for a scorpion to restrain its nature, the frog had the hope that it was true and, based on that hope, committed himself to what turned out to be a fatal venture. Humans do this all the time…we believe it is possible to get a million dollars by helping some Afghani general’s widow smuggle ill-gotten gains out of the country and hope leads us to believe her tale is true. We believe it is possible that the doctors are wrong and hope leads us to quack cures for illnesses like diabetes and cancer. We allow hope to lead us down paths where, if we had no hope, just bare facts, we would never consider treading.
Hope is not a bad thing…misplaced hope is a bad thing. When we hope some creature will go against its nature because that is what we want it to do, we are doomed to disappointment. A man who climbs the fence into the lion enclosure at the zoo because hope has led him to believe the lions won’t harm him…even though he has never been within touching distance of a lion…will be locked up (provided he survives) for observation, his mental health in question. And yet we, who have a lifetime of experience being hurt by the stingers of our narcissists, keep coming back for more, driven by the hope that this time it will be different.
It is said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but I disagree. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a manifestation of hope…hope that something, this time, will change, that something we say or do will lift the scales from their eyes, soften their stony hearts, open the locked and sealed doors of their minds. We try everything: kindness, cruelty, acquiescence, rebellion, withholding, generosity, love, hate…but nothing shakes them loose. We try to win their love, their approbation, using everything and anything that comes to mind: our techniques may change, but our objective does not: we seek their love, their respect, their approval. And we are regularly and predictably disappointed.
So what was the frog’s mistake? The fundamental mistake the frog made, the error upon which he set the hope that led him to make his fatal bargain, was the belief that the scorpion’s mind worked the same way his did. When the scorpion said “Because if I do, I will die too,” that made perfect sense to the frog. He believed the scorpion had the same mental processes he had and this logic was incontrovertible: the scorpion would not hurt him because in doing so, the scorpion would hurt himself. And this, I think, is where we make our biggest mistake in dealing with narcissists: believing that their minds work like ours and those of other people, believing that the same methods we use to elicit the cooperation of others will work on the narcissist.
But the narcissist is not like other people. She has no “better nature” to appeal to, she has no compassion to evoke, she has no sense of reciprocity. Until we accept…truly accept…that the narcissist is like a scorpion, that she has her own agenda and will pursue it regardless of anything we do or say, we will continue to be lured into traps, then be hurt and disappointed.
And this is where denial comes in: the frog knew he was dealing with a scorpion. He did not delude himself into believing that the creature was something more benign, he did not deny the essential nature of the beast…but too often we do. We feel that it is somehow our fault that our narcissists treat us like shit, that there is something wrong with us because we don’t seem to be able to find that magic key that will unlock the love and nurturing parent we so deserve. And we feel guilty and we redouble our efforts, only to get stung again.
We make an immense mistake when we ascribe our very normal mental and emotional functions to the narcissist. In believing the narcissist thinks like us, we must believe that her attitudes and behaviours stem from the same kinds of things that would provoke us to those behaviours. And believing that brings a secondary belief: if we can be provoked to certain behaviours and also dissuaded from them, then if the narcissist’s behaviours are the result of provocation (what else could it be?) and she can be dissuaded from them by finding the right thing to say or do.
But what we fail to see is that there can be no magic key to unlock the loving nature of our narcissists because there is no loving nature to unlock. There is only self-serving selfishness and the narcissist uses whatever tactic or technique that works to get what she wants from the people around her. The frog knew he was dealing with a scorpion, he had no illusions about the nature of the creature he was dealing with, but too often we do not. And even when we do, like the frog, we may accept that our antagonist is a narcissist but fail to grasp just what that means in practical terms.
Humans tend to seek reasons…our brains seek patterns in order for the world to appear more orderly and predictable to us. When we are faced with a situation in which we cannot see a reason, we can be frightened because without a reason to help us build a predictable pattern, we feel unsafe. Our need for reasons underpins our creation of gods and religions, superstitions and magic: if we can’t find a reason that the sky bellows and weeps, then we create a reason…gods fighting, goddesses weeping, the lightning bolt a god’s weapon used to signal displeasure with the puny humans below. As children we do the same: our mother is angry with us and we can see no legitimate reason, we create one: we did something wrong, we are inadequate, we are not pretty enough, not smart enough, not accomplished enough…not good enough, for our mother to love.
We want to believe that our narcissists not only can change, but that given the right motivations, they will change. And that is where we are most wrong: narcissists don’t want to change, they simply want their own way and they want complete freedom—the kind of freedom that is not curtailed by such inconveniences as compassion or conscience—to pursue their goals.
The scorpion’s behaviour made no sense at all to the frog…he indulged his base nature and condemned himself in the bargain, something the frog would never dream of doing. To the rational mind, there has to be a payoff, and we cannot fathom the payoff a narcissist gets from her behaviour any more than we can fathom the payoff an anorexic gets as she deliberately brings herself to the brink of death by starvation. But just because we can’t see the payoff doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Be careful, also, of dismissing or discounting the narcissist’s payoff that you can see—just because you cannot see the value in the payoff, just because it is worthless to you, doesn’t mean the narcissist does not hold it in high value.
The scorpion, after all, was willing to die for his payoff and it didn’t matter if the frog—or anyone else—understood it or not. What mattered is that the scorpion valued it enough to die for, and that was enough to motivate him to do what he did.
Remember that the next time your narcissist does something baffling, you don’t need to understand anything about the narcissist’s behaviour, you simply have to accept that she does what narcissists do…and, regardless of anything you might say or do, always will.