When I first came across “narcissism hacker” Dr. Nathalie Martinek, a lot about the state of our world has started to click into place. I began to understand just how much certain patterns of human behavior aligned with the principles of narcissism. The more we understand how people think, the more we can begin to make sense of the going-ons around us—and perhaps even influence them.
Dr. Martinek is a coach and consultant for leaders and executives in healthcare and related industries globally. She’s Montreal-born, Toronto-raised and Melbourne (Australia)-based. Her career took an unexpected journey from a developmental and cancer biologist to a relationship-centred practitioner.
Here we talk about some of the trends we’re seeing in society towards victimhood, attention-seeking, identity, moral superiority and power struggles. Much of this also guides our day-to-day life.
Q: As a narcissism hacker, you speak a lot about the relationship between putting oneself in the position of a victim and narcissism. How do the two connect?
Dr. Nathalie Martinek: It's useful to first describe the action of putting oneself in the position of a victim. I want to distinguish between being put into a position of victim by another's harmful and traumatizing actions vs putting oneself in the position of a victim. Any of us will put ourselves into a position of victim automatically when we're feeling threatened by our circumstances, even when our life isn't under threat. This is our natural survival instinct for self-preservation and defense against uncertainty and anything perceived as a threat to our safety. This automatic response to perceived threat becomes narcissistic when one lives in victimhood and centres their victimhood to demand or invite attention or sympathy from others, blame others and circumstances for victimizing them and dismiss notions of personal responsibility.
Their constant and perceived inferiority and vulnerability at the hands of a known villain (ie.illness, person, social structure) taps into people's genuine desire to help by activating the rescuer, fixer, saviour or healer for that person. The person exploits values of justice and generosity of others to gain power, attention and status. People who habitually centre their victimhood ensure that their suffering will always be worse than yours, thereby demanding your emotional supply and excusing them from considering your needs, avoid taking responsibility for the (negative) impact of their actions or provide you with their attention unless there's something for them to gain. The link between victimhood and narcissism is referred to as covert or vulnerable narcissism.
Why do you think a lot of people want to see themselves as victims in particular situations rather than empowered? Is this something they can control?
I wonder if people actually want to see themselves as victims and rather see their attempt to gain support from others as empowerment. For people who default into seeing themselves as victims when feeling challenged, uncomfortable, triggered or facing conflict they would need to be aware that this is disempowering for them and others who genuinely want to support them and have an incentive that motivates them to respond differently to provide them with a greater reward than the current default strategy. The key to controlling their self-perception is awareness in the moment that it's occurring and the ability to interrupt the cycle of disempowerment with a strategy that promotes genuine empowerment driven by a motivation for beneficial change.
Our society seems to really give a lot of positive attention to people who present themselves as victims, why do you think this happens so much?
Who doesn't love a good guy defeating the bad guy story? We love underdogs because they can be more relatable than the ambitious, go getters who don't let life's challenges stop them from pursuing their dreams. It's easier to see ourselves as the victim or saviour than to consider we could ever be in the villain/persecutor role. I speak of the three roles that re-enact the disempowering Dreaded Drama Triad described by Dr. Stephen Karpman. When there's a victim, there's also a clear villain, be it another person, institution, system, ideology or life itself, yet never any of us! When there's a clear victim and a villain, then the observer or witness can more easily work out their role as saviour, ally or condemner of the villain. People need something to blame because it's a lot easier to point fingers and expect others to change than to consider how we might each need to change something about ourselves or take responsibility for how any of us might contribute directly or indirectly to someone else's or societal problems, that might place any of us in the persecutor role.
Do you think it encourages people with a narcissistic streak to intentionally cast themselves in that role?
Perhaps this is an example of modelling of acceptable behaviour, especially if it translates to likes, follows, sympathy, attention, status and social currency.
As much as we might imply people are intentionally casting themselves as victims, I've just described how we are reactive, self-preserving creatures who don't have as much control over ourselves when we're feeling threatened as we like to believe we do. Our ability to access logic, reasoning and other features of executive function needed for self-control when we're in stress response is limited, regardless of the trigger. Very few people consciously and deliberately cast themselves in the victim role unless this is a calculated strategy and revenge tactic, features of dark triad personality traits. Overall, it's more of a habit of self-preservation through gaining sympathy while redirecting attention, blame and outrage onto the villain.
A lot of people these days want to see themselves as part of some identity – they tend to put themselves in boxes, rather the previous social set up where others would do it for them. There’s a dramatic increase in identities beyond even just sexual, gender-specific, and racial categories. Why are individuals wanting to be so public about their identities rather than keeping them private?
We are relational creatures. We come to know ourselves through the relationships we have with everyone and everything. Our basic survival needs include security, connection and belonging so each person will categorize and classify things, including aspects of self or identity to work out what's safe, desirable, acceptable (ie trustworthy), threatening and dangerous (ie not trustworthy) to meet these needs. Each person's self-worth and identity are shaped and influenced by all their prior experiences and which aspects of self/humans have been categorized by society and all its institutions (known collectively as the Authority) that are deemed good, neutral or bad. We are witnessing the shuffling of these human aspects from one category to another in response to the harm of some of the labels and their negative associations, and a lack of consensus because the authorities involved in the reclassification differ to the Authority who created the classifications in the first place. For people who have historically been and continue to be marginalized because they embodied human aspects in the 'untrustworthy' categories, perhaps the shift to public declarations of identity markers is a reaction to being forced into silence, invisibility and shame for so long, alongside acts of self-preservation in anticipation of threat, and the freedom to create categories into hypervisibility to promote belonging while rebelling against traditional boundaries.
What can we do when dealing with a narcissistic person who demands that we speak to them using the words they desire, and affirm whatever narratives they want?
A narcissistic person feels entitled to comfort and having their way at all times, regardless of what it asks of the other person/people. This means that the person has a fixed set of rules of how the world operates and how others should perceive and act toward them with immunity to other people's rules or expectations of conduct. It's a one sided relationship with one person's needs dominating the purpose of the relationship or conversation. The ability to recognise a person who fits these features alerts you to the reality that this person does not and will not care about your point of view and how you feel. Considering your effort to assert your needs will result in a battle of wills that will be draining, you can still demonstrate respect for the person, addressing them as they like while reducing the time involved in a conversation.
You can affirm that the person has the beliefs they do without needing to agree with them or needing to disclose whether you agree or not with those beliefs. For someone who needs to dominate a conversation and centre their victimhood, your role is entirely about seeing and understanding them without you expecting them to do that for you.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s a sense of powerlessness there and it’s the way they choose to try and assert some power…?
The outward features of narcissism such as entitlement, power grabbing and self-centredness are sourced in inferiority, insecurity, powerlessness and shame. Those who choose to impose their will and rules of engagement on others without providing the space to negotiate fair terms that preserve the relationship, it's unlikely that relationship will last. It's fine to assert power in moments when there's actual threat to wellbeing. Asserting 'my way' on another without considering the effect on the other or implications to an ability to achieve shared goals is narcissistic. When one's approach to relating becomes a barrier to another's ability to express themselves just as freely, it's the same as believing one can only become empowered by disempowering the other they believe or perceive as oppressive.
I’ve been thinking a bit about people who feel like they have some sort of moral superiority over others. They believe themselves to be so right and others to be so wrong that it can justify some truly abhorrent behavior. If that’s not narcissism, self-centeredness and massive ego, I don’t know what is. Why do you think we’re seeing an increase in such behavior?
Superiority moral or otherwise is an attempt to conceal feelings of inferiority and disempowerment. People who are able to centre in self-confidence don't need to convince others of their greatness, morality, prove their value or their ability to walk their talk. It's going to be obvious. For people who have been wounded and betrayed by life (and that's each of us in different ways), we're going to reach for our resources to tend to the wound that can increase our self-efficacy and competence at wound healing or keep us dependent on a saviour to cover the wound with a bandaid without stopping to reflect on the cause of the wound and whether they could have made a different choice that would have had a different outcome. When one's circumstances and quality of resources have only supported the latter process, the only means to surviving and succeeding at life is to adhere to the rules and behaviours that can predictably reproduce their version of success.
When that person encounters anything that challenges their path to success, including new ideas, uncertainty and different ways of thinking that contradict the tenets of their own life operation manual, those foreign ideas and the idea holders are viewed as threats and therefore automatically wrong. While this is nothing new, the platforms available to express viewpoints have increased exponentially, coupled by unresolved collective trauma of an ever-present pandemic, limitless entitlement to comfort, and eroding societal structures and norms, has made it easier to justify dehumanizing others without ever facing the consequences of their actions.
Any advice on how to deal with such a person?
My suggestion with others who want to be right is to let them be right. Try to appreciate what matters to them without needing to agree with them. Don't expect that they can or will do the same for you. Suspend your need to be seen or heard or understood by them. The amount of energy involved in trying to counteract their attempts at domination could be better spent with people who are interested in seeking to understand you in the way you are seeking to understand them. To hack our own narcissism means that we undergo our own ego management training through encounters with those who prefer to be right and dominate with their narratives of life, others and you. It feels good to believe you are in control, know your rights from wrongs, that can put you at risk of imposing your perspectives on others when you're feeling triggered or threatened and compromised in self-regulation. When you can see that you might be at risk, perhaps that makes it easier to acknowledge what is occurring in the other person who is trying to shut you down. It's in those moments that you might recognise that they are unlikely to meet you where you're at while you're expected to meet them where they're at, that you can remain friendly and transition into decreasing doses of transactional relating.