The Blood-bag: Co-narcissists and Narcissists in Tech
This post is the first in a series of 3 posts we are writing to describe what it’s like to be a co-narcissist in the tech industry, how to stop being a co-narcissist, and how narcissism plays out in tech specifically.
We’ve decided to call co-narcissists “blood-bags” for this series of posts. Why blood-bag? In the opening scenes of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Max is captured and forced to serve as a portable blood-bag for an injured War Boy — they hook up an IV line to transfer Max’s blood to the War Boy so he can join in the chase after Furiosa. Max is only useful to this society as a source of blood; otherwise he is merely an object to them, to thrown away when used up. This is a good analogy for how narcissists view people who provide them with their own version of blood, called “narcissistic supply” (more on that later). Other examples of blood-bags in pop culture include Sookie’s relationship with Bill in True Blood, Melissa McCarthy’s character in the film Spy, and the high school girls surrounding the lead Heather in the ‘80’s cult film classic, Heathers.
We were inspired by the recent post on narcissists in tech, “No more rock stars: how to stop abuse in tech.” You see, rock stars need blood-bags; they can’t exist without them. If you can learn to identify when you are serving as a blood-bag, and figure out how to stop, you will be taking away the support that rock stars and narcissists need to survive. In this first post, we will describe what narcissists and co-narcissists are.
You might find this post difficult or confronting if you’ve been in a narcissistic relationship in any role. Use your judgement and stop reading if it is too upsetting for you. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid publicly labeling other people with mental health conditions or personality disorders. However, it’s perfectly reasonable and healthy to identify abusive dynamics and patterns and to take action to protect yourself, even if you aren’t sure about someone else’s diagnosis. If someone is acting in a way that fits a narcissistic pattern, you can use the methods of coping with narcissism to protect yourself, without feeling bad about potentially mislabeling the other person as a narcissist.
This post was co-written by Marlena Compton and Valerie Aurora. It is informed by our experiences working as software testers, software developers, and social justice activists in the software industry.
The Narcissistic Couple
We tend to focus on the narcissist when we talk about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), but there are at least two players in any narcissistic relationship: the narcissist and the narcissist’s partner. Psychologists call the partner the co-narcissist, but we’re going to use “co-narcissist” interchangeably with “blood-bag” in this post. “Blood-bag” is gory and gross and demeaning, but in our experience that reflects the reality of being a co-narcissist pretty well.
What is a narcissist?
First, let’s talk about narcissists. Narcissism, our sense of self-love, is something all humans possess and is a normal part of a healthy personality.
When we say someone is a narcissist, we are talking about someone with a destructive sense of self-love. In her book, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson describes a narcissist as someone who “excessively pursues admiration, attention, status, understanding, support, money, power, control, or perfection in some form” (Kindle Location 132). Their intense, single-minded pursuit of these goals often sabotages the goal itself — for example, they may demand admiration so overtly that they make people feel contempt for them. Sometimes narcissists are people whose sense of self was damaged by a narcissistic parent ignoring their needs or shaming them for having needs when they were a small child. Sometimes this child gets stuck in a pattern of demanding their needs be met but being unable to feel satisfied — the bottomless pit of narcissistic need. Sometimes narcissism develops later in life, when someone was relatively normal until they became enormously successful or famous. This is called acquired situational narcissism.
This damaged sense of self shows itself in the way narcissists relate to other people. Because they are unable to recognize the rules of relationship reciprocity — that is, the normal give-and-take of a healthy relationship — narcissists see relationships only in terms of what they need. The normal rules of relationship reciprocity don’t exist in their world. They may be unwilling to give appropriate attention or time to their husband, wife, father, mother, brother, sister, lover, friend or co-worker — and yet, if they are in any of these roles themselves, they see themselves as deserving unending attention and effort. Even if they appear to be giving out affection or attention, narcissists are always motivated by receiving some kind of direct return.
Types of narcissists
Narcissists come in several types, some of which don’t look like our stereotypical image of a narcissist. The popular stereotype of a narcissist is someone who is always the center of attention in the room, wearing the flashiest clothing, or outright demanding recognition. This is an overt narcissist: someone who loudly tells anyone who will listen how great they are, displays comical overconfidence, and gets angry and abusive when they don’t get what they want. The overt narcissist can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from someone with antisocial personality disorder (a.k.a. a sociopath or psychopath).
Most psychologists think that the symptoms of ASPD include all the symptoms of narcissism — in other words, all sociopaths are narcissists but not all narcissists are sociopaths. If someone seems to be sadistic and cruel even when not directly punishing people for failing to feed their ego, or has major problems with impulsivity, or doesn’t seem to take into account potential punishment or consequences for their actions, you might want to investigate ASPD as a better model than NPD for predicting their actions and protecting yourself. (Reminder: diagnosing other people with disorders is a bad idea; using what science has discovered about personality disorders to protect yourself is fine and can be done without labeling someone else.)
Narcissists can also take the form of a covert narcissist, someone who is intellectually aware that people often don’t like people who want to be the center of attention, but who still craves that recognition and status. They often hide their narcissism through taking on a “helper” role, such as doctor, therapist, or assistant, or by taking on a persona of an isolated or misunderstood person: unappreciated artist, lonely misanthrope, or persecuted activist. This kind of narcissist will organize the best birthday party ever, and then sulk in the back of the room unless they are effusively praised and thanked, at which point they will blushingly disclaim any credit. A covert narcissist usually doesn’t act over-confident; instead they are more likely to act needy and constantly ask for reassurance in the form of approval and compliments. They tend to be incredibly sensitive to small or perceived insults (including constructive criticism), and blame all their problems on other people.
A benevolent narcissist knows that helping others and being kind to them is an effective way to win praise and attention, so they will make large donations to charity, or give extravagant gifts, or ostentatiously devote their lives to helping others. They still expect and demand to be praised and recognized for their good work and will sulk if they feel insufficiently appreciated or lauded. The difference between a benevolent narcissist and a benevolent person is not how much recognition they get, but what their underlying central motivation is: getting praise for doing good (narcissist), or doing good (non-narcissist). That is, wanting or insisting on fair recognition for good deeds doesn’t make you a narcissist, doing good deeds primarily for the recognition you receive makes you a narcissist. Benevolent narcissists can be a force for overall good in the world, and may have less negative impact on others than other kinds of narcissists, but they still require the support and sacrifice of co-narcissists.
Many other kinds of narcissists exist, but covert narcissist and benevolent narcissists are the two subtler kinds that we thought were worth pointing out in this post.
What is a blood-bag?
Now let’s talk about the blood-bag — the narcissist’s partner, or co-narcissist.
The blood-bag is an endless source of support and caring for the narcissist. As you can imagine, endless care and feeding requires large amounts of emotional energy. Blood-bags are typically caring, sensitive people. Blood-bags know their narcissist’s wants and needs down to the tiniest of details. They have been trained to be loyal, honest, sincere and hardworking. In short, blood-bags have all of the people skills narcissists do without.
Blood-bags acquire these skills through intensive training, often at the hands of narcissistic parents.
At the same time that the blood-bag is an endless source of caring energy for their narcissist, the blood-bag has difficulty recognizing when the narcissist is treating them inappropriately. Often the blood-bag will ignore their own needs or rights, or create twisted logical explanations to frame the narcissist’s behavior as acceptable no matter how out of bounds it is.
You might be a blood-bag if…
If you grew up comparing yourself to Cinderella, if one or both of your parents were constantly insisting on perfection, or if you were the caretaker for a “perfect” sibling and/or constantly asked to put aside your own feelings for the good of the family, chances are you were a blood-bag in training.
Giving up your own feelings to support someone else is the origin of becoming a blood-bag. You learned that your job in life was to prop up the narcissists in your family. If your mom or dad had a bad day, you were there to show them the great marks on your schoolwork.
If this was your childhood, then the training was happening every waking moment of every day, every month and every year. By the time you left home, you were fully prepared by your family to be a blood-bag for the next narcissist who happened to notice you from across the room.
What does it feel like to be a blood-bag?
When a blood-bag first meets their narcissist, it is enthralling, intoxicating and golden. It feels like being more than you think you actually are. You are flying over rooftops hand in hand with a gorgeous perfect person at your side telling you how great you are. That’s the beginning.
What you don’t notice is how they slowly start to draw from you. In the beginning, there is no way to see that they are actually building a bubble around the two of you, isolating you from outside opinion and support. Over time, they gradually draw from the bank of your effort and energy at an unsustainable rate.
Part of the implicit deal between a narcissist and a blood-bag is that once the narcissist’s needs are met, it will be the blood-bag’s turn to get their own needs met. But a narcissist’s needs are by definition insatiable. They may grudgingly allow the co-narcissist to get some of their needs met sometimes, especially if doing so reflects well on the narcissist, but it’s always a struggle — the gifts are always reluctantly given or have strings attached. The narcissist always feels more entitled to time, energy, and attention than the co-narcissist. The co-narcissist gets the crumbs from the table, and has to feel both guilty and grateful for them.
In the natural progression of things, a blood-bag will feel worse and worse about themselves as time goes on. The narcissist will constantly be telling them how imperfect and broken they are (often accusing them of being selfish and inconsiderate, ironically). The blood-bag becomes more self-critical, more depressed, has more feelings of worthlessness. The solution offered by the narcissist is to work harder, give more, self-sacrifice yet again. This will never work.
If you are the person who’s been trained to support someone this way, chances are you’ve never given yourself the respect you deserve because you were never taught how. Instead you were taught to work tirelessly, endlessly and forever to prop up someone for whom nothing is ever perfect enough.
While that’s sad and can leave you feeling robbed when you face it, once you learn how to focus the spotlight on yourself and that it’s ok to do this, you will see someone who is strong, smart and knows how to work hard. You will see someone who has developed some serious skills but who still has empathy.
In the next post, we’ll talking about how to cut the IV line connecting you to a narcissist.