Empathy, narcissism and survivor status

I appreciate that this is a dismal issue, but… there’s an awful dynamic that can take hold in informal circles purposed to supporting survivors of abuse, or discussing the politics of support, and I guess it’s borne of a kind of black and white thinking; the victim can’t also be the perpetrator. By this, I don’t mean that we should blame the victim for their own mistreatment, but rather, that there probably needs to be greater recognition that abuse survivors aren’t magically immune from also enacting abuse against others, and further that they are capable, if willing, of enabling abuse if they’re not willing to get their hands dirty themselves.

Abuse, while providing a particularly horrid array of experiences, doesn’t actually qualify a recipient in combating or preventing more of the same further down the line. If this were true, it’d be marginally easier to break free from abusive relationships – some of the trap is often socio-economic, but so much of it is a mind game as well.

In social circles with an emphasis on empathy, we’re told to respect, and if we can, emulate other perspectives, particularly those of survivors. But this doesn’t actually provide terribly much in the way of solutions, so much as it provides a qualitative approximation of a set of problems.

Using empathy in dealing with survivors can be like walking the proverbial tight rope.


The other thing about empathy, in addition to being potentially perspective widening, is that it also makes you vulnerable to narcissists and other apaths. This doesn’t mean you should categorically suspend your empathy, but rather that you need to be aware that given the chance there will inevitably be individuals who view you as an easy mark.

This doesn’t mean that they have to see you as a potential victim – although they could – but rather that you’re an angle for gratification. Maybe you’ll provide them with their own victims, so they can feel better about their own experiences. Maybe you’ll provide them access to a potential pool of followers for their egos to be stroked because they’ve always liked their egos stroked since day dot.

Narcs are pervasive minority that cut across all manner of social groupings. Expecting that your group operates in isolation from this could very well be folly.


For seemingly the umpteenth time in the past few years, I’ve just seen a rape survivor condescend to another on the topic of what they’re allowed to feel anxious about (particularly in relation to the proximity of penises). There was no immediate indication in this case of whether or not PTSD was involved, wherein the sight of a penis was a trigger, but I’ve already run across a couple of incidents of rape survivors gaslighting rape survivors wherein it was.

It takes a special kind of callousness to barge into an online support group for lesbian victims of rape, and just tell them the harden the fuck up and get used to cocks; that “feminism” means they should be infallibly strong, and not so (supposedly) self-pitying. And yet I found out that a former acquaintance, herself a rape survivor, did exactly this. I’ve since resolved to pay more attention to the warning signs.

Who are you going to trust in these situations? Are you going to have a “who was raped the worst/most?” or a “who is the most oppressed?” competition to determine who to acquiesce to? Are you just going to acquiesce to the loudest party so you don’t get your own ears boxed, or your job threatened? Or are you just going to look at shitty behaviour and call it for what it is, knowing the damage it can cause?

It’s not like narcs are terribly good at showing genuine solidarity with other people even if they are in the same in-group; a part of the definition is that they’re self-absorbed, self-interested and have a poor conception of other people’s personal boundaries. How do you get to the kind of group-affinity required for a supporting environment from there? Well, you don’t.

I’m not arguing that the suffering of apaths is morally unimportant – it is important. It’s just that in the aftermath, involving them in any healing process, or in any attempts to stem ongoing damage, is a task fraught with risk.


You can’t envy people who have to deal with this shit for a living – to simultaneously care, and then have to compartmentalize. It doesn’t help that for any number of reasons, people look to narcissists for direction, sometimes even resulting in those who care – genuinely – taking a hiding.

The trick, I think, in many cases is this:

Step 1: Find a group of people who like you, have suffered a certain abuse, but unlike you, are not apaths. Preference those individuals with the most over-developed doubts – they’ll need you more. Identify with them on the basis of your shared bad experiences if you can. Even if you don’t belong to this group – even if you haven’t been abused at all – this trick can be pulled off by “good allies” as well. These broken people are your base.

Step 2: Find an argument or statement that advocates the interests of your base that is just and obviously so, except to the obtuse – you will need the obtuse; they’re your foil. “Abuse is bad” is far too obvious, but there’s just enough ambiguity around topics like victim blaming for you to never be redundant in condemning it, while importantly, for your supporters to harbor their own doubts and insecurities about certain specifics.

Step 3: Memeify your objection. Make it rote. Make it repeatable. Make it short. It needn’t be ill considered, but it can be, provided it rings true, provided it can be easily repeated by supporters, and provided it has the short, percussive force required of an interruption. It can educate, it can inform, but it is not purposed to this end so don’t bother wasting your time worrying. Also, don’t worry terribly much about plagiarism when working up your material, although you may need to develop a portfolio of memes to rotate through so as not to evoke ennui.

Step 4: Establish your creds by finding an obtuse, enabling sort who’s spouting horseshit about your people’s situation that you have just the bromide for – an easy if near-universally annoying target – and firing your rote objection at them for the benefit of your base as an audience. Your audience will see you being confident in the face of mendacity, in support of their cause, and they will feel more confident for it by extension. They’ll even try to emulate you. But not being narcs themselves they’ll be dependent on you for that confidence going forward too, which is by and large the point. Repeat as necessary to instill the required level of emotional dependency in your base.

Step 5: Reap the rewards. Construe any frustration or slight as being an attack on your person, and by extension an attack on your base by way of your shared social grouping/allegiance. Don’t worry too much about stretching the logic beyond breaking point. On the whole your base will gladly support you, and even overlook abusive behaviour on your part. Remember that for a lot of them, to lose you is to loose their newfound confidence. If you’re really canny, you can get them to attack people who’ve only ever had their best interests at heart, or attack other members of their own group. Maybe you can even get a medical practitioner fired!

Of course, all of this requires you to be a cynical narc. I’m not sure you the reader can actually manage this, and if you can’t, well good for you for being that much better a human being.


Stepping entirely back out of semi-satirical mode, I’m not actually sure that the various narcs I’ve seen engaging in this kind of behaviour have actually planned it. It just seems to come naturally to them; they just gravitate towards the exploitable, have a penchant for thinly-veiled self-serving ideation, and a need to weaponize people in the service of their own egos.

And yeah, I’ve seen it derail and break up more than one informal support group. This is especially when the narc in question no longer needs their base, and can benefit personally by doing a deal with some entrenched power broker.

Old support base? Get under the bus!

My point in all of this again, while simple to repeat but difficult to execute: If you want to take care of abused people, you have to entertain the possibility that some of their number may aim to further the abuse, and have some idea of how you’re going to respond. And yeah, if you’re obviously aware of this, any narc in question may just try to single you out in order to make things go more smoothly (for them). The fact that they may have survivor status doesn’t change any of this.

Leaven your empathy with situational awareness.

~ Bruce