What can the wisdom of the Tao teach us when dealing with narcissists? In several articles, I will explore Taoism and its principles and how it might apply or relate to dealing with narcissists. In this article, I will introduce Taoism and mainly go into being natural, not forcing and polarity.
My experience of having a narcissistic father has brought me on a path of Buddhism and Taoism. I started to learn about Buddhism a decade ago and by learning about Eastern philosophies I stumbled upon Taoism as well. I love to share the ideas of these beautiful philosophies with you as they are full of wisdom and compassion.
Taoism is about spontaneity and being natural which interestingly represents everything a narcissist is not. A narcissist acts very unnaturally by using a lot of force and manipulation. It results in disturbed and chaotic energy.
Sadly, a lot of people experience or have experienced the brutality of narcissists. In this article, I would like to share some of the wisdom of the Tao applied to life’s challenge of dealing with narcissists and yourself. I will shortly introduce Taoism and go into being natural, balancing Yin and Yang and how polarities apply in the dynamic between narcissists and empathic persons.
In the sequel of this article, I will go more in-depth into ego, the dependent and independent mind, excessive personal importance and inner power. These articles are my interpretation of the Tao and narcissism and are based on my experiences. I hope these articles can be helpful to you in some way.
My experience of unnaturalness
I grew up with a narcissistic father and around the age of twelve, I realized my father’s words never aligned with his actions. I told him when we first discovered he was secretly cheating, that if his actions didn’t change I had no reason to trust his words. He never apologized or changed anything and always kept pretending everything was normal while having another family on the side.
It became clear he was an actor always playing a role. He drained the energy of others by his need for attention and appreciation. He was always manipulating, gaslighting and lying and I realized nothing in this person was true. We appeared as a happy family to the outside world but the dynamics and energy inside the house were very unhealthy and unnatural. It was a strange and disturbing thing.
I knew and felt within his energy wasn’t healthy, although I had trouble accepting my harsh judgement about another human being. Growing up I observed this narcissistic man for years and I saw how he consciously manipulated and controlled others. It was painful to witness and I survived my youth by creating a distance from my feelings and I naturally became a grey rock and silent observer in order to protect myself.
Growing older, I had a fear of becoming like my father and I used him as my negative example. You can read more about this in my article about what I learned from having a narcissistic father. I wanted to be different than my father and I started to learn about Buddhism and Taoism.
I became intrigued by how ego, identity, expectations, and attachments work. The Eastern philosophies made so much sense to me. It became my therapy and soothed me. I believe in the strength of kindness, compassion, and harmony.
As survivors/victims know, there is much doubt, fear, anxiety, discomfort, and pain to deal with. I feel as if narcissists force you to eventually develop yourself, to work on self-worth and finding your true self. It might be the only possible gift or positivity following from experiencing narcissistic abuse.
Taoism in short
I will first shortly discuss Taoism (or Daoism) to give a glimpse of this Chinese philosophy and its principles. The two foundational texts of Taoism are the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and the later writings of Zhuangzi.
What is the Tao? In the first verse of the book of the Tao, we learn that the eternal Tao can’t be named, defined or told. Tao is ‘the way’ or the cause of things. The Tao flows everywhere. It’s the way nature behaves. It could possibly be explained by the basic idea of the universe as an organism. There is no controlling center in the universe and everything is interdependent.
The Tao seems to try explaining what can’t be explained with words and this results in a practice in paradoxical thinking when reading the Tao. Interdependency is important in Taoism. To be and not to be arise mutually. Simply put: you will only find bees where there are flowers and you will only find flowers where there are bees. Flowers and bees might look as different things but they are inseparable. You could say they arise mutually and this supports the idea that the universe is a form of cooperation.
Taoism thus revolves around the spontaneity of the universe. The world is the result of a spontaneous and ever going evolution of cosmic energy and matter known as Qi. When practicing Tai Chi, for example, a person embraces the mind, body, and spirit to experience ‘the spontaneous’ and cultivate the Qi or life energy to flow smoothly throughout the body. Taoism is about harmony and nature.
As with most philosophies, there are various schools and explanations of the Tao Te Ching. Important concepts are Wu Wei (action without intention or inaction), naturalness, spontaneity and the basic virtues in Taoism are the ‘Three Treasures’ compassion, simplicity, and modesty. Other principles underlying Taoism and Chinese philosophies are polarity (Yin and Yang) and the idea of constant change.
I’m aware this article might provide a lot of information at once, as these ideas are quite different than Western perspectives. I hope things slowly become clearer when reading if this holds for you.
The Tao shows the way of life is being natural. It’s the answer for people that might get disentangled. The regular lifestyle could lead you to disentangle from nature. The Western way of life of going along with the pattern of school, work, buying a house, and achievements is one in which you assume a certain role in your life.
Essential questions might remain unanswered living your life unconsciously this way: who am I ultimately behind my identity or personality? What is my true self? Thinking about your essence and true self might lead to living a life that goes with nature rather than against nature.
A narcissist seems to want or live the opposite of the way of life of being natural. No one would describe a narcissist as having or cultivating any of the basic virtues of Taoism of compassion, simplicity or modesty. From the perspective of Taoism, a narcissist is fully disentangled.
What can we learn from the idea of being natural? We can try to feel and assess whether our relationships feel natural and whether you seem to go in the right direction. This can be the relationship with yourself as well as with others. Does the relationship allow you to stay close to yourself or are you assuming a certain role in your relationship and life? Is there a healthy balance in this ‘adjusting’ to a certain role?
These questions lead us to the next principle of Wu Wei.
Wu Wei – Not to force anything
A fundamental principle of Taoism is Wu Wei, which means not to force anything. It’s about always acting in accordance with the pattern of things. To illustrate, in playing sports or playing a musical instrument a good teacher will try to teach you the skills by eventually ensuring you’re not using force. You first need to learn the movements but later on, you need to forget it again in order to achieve relaxation or flow.
Taoism is a philosophy that emphasizes nonresistance and the importance of gentleness. Wu Wei means taking no unnatural action but to allow spontaneity (Zu Ran). It thus doesn’t mean doing nothing but rather means trusting the mind to work by itself.
Spontaneity is what happens of itself or to be so of itself. It happens as your heartbeat and it doesn’t have to be controlled. The more you allow spontaneity the more order you have. You allow yourself to spontaneously live in the here and now and to be able to have action and intention simultaneously.
To be clear, nonresistance doesn’t mean putting yourself in harm’s way or allowing being mistreated. Your intuition will tell you the situation is unhealthy when dealing with a narcissist and it is thus more a message to trust your truth and intuition. These messages mostly will be that you need to break free.
Be like water and the grey rock method
Taoism is thus about naturalism and supporting everything in its natural stage. Because of that, it’s often compared with the ways of water. Water is a soft substance, yet it can penetrate the hardest substance of the world. You can’t grasp it or strike it and it will not be divided as it has no shape of its own. It shows the strength of simplicity and softness. Being like water results in a simple life in harmony, plainness, unity, and peace.
It’s interesting to see that the grey rock method shows similarities with certain aspects of Taoism. The grey rock method is about simplicity, plainness, and detachment. A person makes themselves emotionally detach from the narcissist and thereby feeding their independent mind (a mind that is independent of the opinions of others).
The simplicity, modesty and ‘boringness’ is the opposite of what feeds the narcissist. The grey rock method is not caring about what the narcissist cares about the most. The narcissist seeks appreciation, validation, and ego-boosting and has a very dependent mind. When you’re aware of the oneness of the universe and your true self this attachment and need make no sense.
The grey rock method is thus quite similar to the idea of Taoism, where harmony, modesty, and simplicity is valued. Learning about the Tao could possibly empower you when you need to act like a grey rock when still interacting with a narcissist. You will become more aware of the narcissist’s and your own dependent mind and detach from it in order to allow your independent mind to grow. You can read more about the grey rock method in this article.
Clearly, it’s not something easy to connect with yourself and be natural all at once. It’s a challenge to deal with fears, insecurities, and doubts even without a narcissist in your life. Our learned way of life, expectations, thoughts, and feelings can make things quite blurry. The narcissist could make it more urgent to find your true self as they push you in the wrong direction towards the dependent mind (ego). This will probably feel empty and it drains your energy.
Finding your true self and harmony in life is what I think the Tao is about. I will go deeper into the dependent and independent mind in the sequel of this article.
To end this part about being natural I would like to shart a part of the 22nd verse of the Tao Te Ching (Translation Derek Lin):
‘Yield and remain whole
Bend and remain straight
Be low and become filled
Be worn out and become renewed
Have little and receive
Have much and be confused’
The principle of polarity lies in the heart of Eastern philosophies. A common mistake is interpreting polarity as opposition or conflict. Polarity isn’t equal to opposition or conflict. Light isn’t the opposite of darkness, life doesn’t conflict with death and positive doesn’t contradict negative.
What does the above mean? It’s a form of paradoxical thinking where polarity or duality is different and one at the same time. You need to allow the apparent duality while recognizing the unity. These dualities flow in and out of life like the tides. Life and death are the same.
With the idea of polarity in our minds, for example, the desire for happiness will only result in frustration. The desire is creating a conflict against the ‘negative’ side of the duality happiness and unhappiness.
You can’t take away unhappiness, as this would mean there will be no happiness either. After all, to what would we compare happiness if unhappiness doesn’t exist? Happiness and unhappiness are one. This is polarity. You can’t take away one pole from the other as this would mean they both don’t exist.
Changing perspective shows how standards are subjective as anything that can be called large could be called small as well in a broader perspective. Can we imagine something that is fully independent and doesn’t need any comparison?
Due to this interdependency balance and unity is essential in Taoism. It’s about being aware of the oneness of the eternal Tao. You are simply just being you. It actually might be the most simple lesson from the Tao: Just be.
Yin and yang
I will now go into dealing with narcissists from the perspective of Yin and Yang. The Yang (whiteness) principle represents positiveness, masculinity, substantiality, firmness, day, heat, and so forth. The Yin (blackness) principle represents negativeness, feminity, insubstantiality, softness, night, coldness, and so forth.
Nothing is so permanent as never to change. This means if activity (Yang) reaches the extreme point it will become inactivity (Yin), and the other way around. The system is continuous and Yin and Yang are mutually interdependent.
Looking from the perspective of Taoism, a narcissist is considered as being involved in foolish practices. They see themselves as partial and don’t see the unity of the universe. There is only a specific focus on or obsession with their self-image and their thoughts. A thought is simply a thought and one should not attach to them. Mental silence, between thoughts, is where the Tao is gathered.
A narcissist is fully invested in the Yang world. They only see what is tangible and concrete. It’s about appearance, looking good and status. There is no interest or ability to feel the subtle energies. The Yin world of gentleness and what’s behind the surface seems completely unknown or denied. There will be no harmony but only chaos. It means when dealing with narcissists it’s wise to remain in the shadows and only show your hand at the right time if needed.
A narcissist doesn’t want a fair fight and you will not win a battle with them. I wrote an article about why outsmarting a narcissist is not smart at all that covers this subject. A narcissist could only be approached with such subtlety that they are unaware of being ‘outsmarted’ or avoided.
The narcissist’s life is about competition and comparison. There is only winning or losing to them and they will thus always try to dominate, control, or destroy you. You need to trap them into a position in which they can’t act against you without harming themselves by doing so. You allow them to believe their position is stronger so they feel comfortable and reduce the force. They will overplay their hand and the time will come where you can set the trap.
The trap would probably be going no contact and detaching. An example is to first use the grey rock method to reduce the narcissistic supply they get from you and to emotionally detach from them. Their needs will be less fulfilled and they will search for new or other supply. You use the created space to prepare to leave at once and go no contact (which is a firm Yang decision). You could use a discard period as well to do the same.
Balancing Yin and Yang
As discussed above, Yin and Yang shouldn’t be understood as opposites but as an explicit duality that expresses an implicit unity (Alan Watts). It makes Yin and Yang relative to each other. The essence is we should balance Yin and Yang as they don’t exist without the other.
This part of the 2nd verse of the Tao Te Ching explains these dualities (Translation Derek Lin):
‘When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises.
When it knows good as good, evil arises.
Thus being and non-being produce each other.
Difficult and easy bring about each other.
Long and short reveal each other.
High and low support each other.
Music and voice harmonize each other.
Front and back follow each other.’
Simultaneous appearance or inseparability is important when considering Yin and Yang. It resonates with the idea of interdependency between things. In Western society, we are used to distinguishing good and bad, hot and cold, and so forth. It creates a risk of losing unity. A narcissist is an expert in distinguishing and comparing things.
A narcissist doesn’t allow for any unity in a relationship because they don’t really listen to you or allow any criticism or feedback. They cling to their own created truth and therefore there is no possibility to transform your relationship with a narcissist. They will be fully invested in the Yang world and you will be pushed into the shadow (Yin).
Empath (Yin) and a narcissist (Yang)
In some way, we can see a duality between an empath and a narcissist. In my in-depth article about the toxic empath narcissist relationship, I go into the dynamics of this toxic relationship. A few dynamics show clear dualities:
– A narcissist is a taker and an empath is a giver.
– A narcissist draws all attention (Yang) and the empath lives in their shadow (Yin).
– A narcissist’s needs result in chaos whereas the empath’s nature is to seek harmony.
What do Yin and Yang then tell us about these dynamics? It’s clear the narcissist is very unbalanced but the interesting thing is the victim is unbalanced as well because of that. The victim becomes dependent on the narcissist in some way. It could be the idea of the relationship, the conditional love, fear, control, and/or the mind’s game of reducing the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
Breaking free is a great release from all this build-up tension and being disconnected from your true self. The empath can restore their balance by learning to state clear boundaries and be firm (Yang) in protecting them. Being balanced, an empath can stay close to their Yin nature by being gentle and soft but use their Yang side to firmly protect their boundaries.
An empath might focus on trying to heal the narcissist with compassion or being spiritual. In essence, they don’t treat themselves in the same compassionate way by ignoring their own needs and feelings to help the other. This is where shifting the attention from the narcissist to yourself would be very powerful. You then give yourself the kindness, compassion, and love you deserve.
Connect with your true self
From Yin and Yang perspective, the balance is regained by finding the connection with your true self again. Yes, this is easier said than done. What truly defines you? The true self knows there is no name, title, degree or distinguishing label that truly defines you. This true self knows you are enough and you only need to ‘be’. In the process of finding your true self, the fears, thoughts, self-doubts, and insecurities of the ego will slowly decrease.
You might feel many things such as shame, guilt, self-doubts, and have fears. You are here though! You are enough and always will be enough. You have an eternal true self that is one with the universe. It’s found in silence, underneath all these thoughts and feelings. It’s a state of being natural and in harmony.
I hope this article provided some insights or was helpful in some way. I wish you strength and more kindness and compassion in the future.
If you like this article, you can read more about Taoism and narcissism in the sequel of this article. I will go further into force and softness, excessive personal importance, ego, the dependent and independent mind, and inner power. You might like my article about conscious breathing as well in order to shift attention to yourself again.
– Alan Watts – Tao: The Watercourse Way
– Bruce Lee – Artist of Life
– Derek Lin – Tao Te Ching (translation & explanation)
– Wayne dyer – Change your thoughts change your life; living the wisdom of the Tao
– Dutch translation and explanation of the Tao Te Ching and the writing of Zhuangzi by Kristofer Schipper.
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