You don’t have to be married or partnered with a narcissist in order to have one in your life. Studies show that almost a quarter of us have to interact with narcissists, although that may just be peripherally. If that’s the case, dealing with them becomes much more difficult because they are likely to be in your life for a long time, if only intermittently. It may sound harsh, but once you make up your mind, you can usually get out of a spousal/partnered relationship with a narcissist, although if there are children involved, you may still have to deal with the narcissist for many years.
Nevertheless, many of us have to, especially around special occasions, look out for what I like to call the seasonal narcissist. This is a person whom you may only see every couple of years or maybe a couple of times a year, since narcissists don’t like to hang out much with their families. He or she is a cousin, aunt, uncle, an in-law or maybe even a sibling, parent or grandparent. The fact that you don’t see the narcissist very often doesn’t make dealing with him or her any easier; in fact, as you probably already know, these narcissists can do a great deal of damage to whatever special occasion is under way.
The reason for this is that special occasions are just not their thing. Special occasions usually involve having others around, sometimes lots of others, to say nothing of the fact that the occasion itself, no matter what it is about, demands attention. Those details can seriously steal their thunder; they know that they will be part of a crowd, or perhaps lost in the crowd. They may be called upon to help out with preparations, cleaning, cooking, washing dishes – things they don’t like doing unless they can get something out of it. Altruism is definitely not one of their traits.
If you think about it, you can see why any special occasion is an absolute minefield for them. They aren’t the centre of attention. They are not the “special ones,” the person with the birthday or wedding anniversary or Easter party or Bar Mitzvah. It’s not all about them. Since their families know them and have probably been exhausted by them, the narcissistic “show” is likely to fall flat and their projections will be ignored. They cannot manufacture a new “self”. They are literally very stuck; nothing from their bag of tricks will work.
For all of these reasons, they will hate to have to go to whatever event it is. They may get dragged there by another family member, the one who always wants to see everyone show up at these shindigs. They may have to go because otherwise it might not look right, and narcissists are all about appearance. They may go simply for the bragging rights: “I organized all the games!” or, “Without me there singing and playing the piano, the whole thing would have been completely dead.” “My speech was killer!” and so on and so on.
And that leads me to what I believe you have to do to avoid a narcissistic-induced “scene” at your next event. You have to assign them some task or other that allows them to show off and get attention. Otherwise, you will have a mess on your hands.
As I’ve already indicated, these narcissists may feel hemmed in by the fact that nothing from their bag of tricks is working. They may feel as if they are lost in the crowd. They may feel deflated and sorry for themselves. And this is dangerous, because then they will attempt to get attention in any way they can, no matter how negatively or inappropriately. Your event could be completely derailed.
I recall with much distaste the birthday party that I organized for my closest friend and held in my home while I was married to my ex-narcissist. There were some twenty people in attendance, including her children, a number of her friends and a couple of her colleagues. I seriously cannot think about this event without shuddering. All was going well until my narcissist started to very loudly chastise my friend’s son over the courses that he was taking in order to get into medical school.
According to Harry, Evan (my friend’s son) was shirking his academic responsibilities and shouldn’t be allowed into medical school with such foolish courses in his background. This then lead to a tirade about the general watering down of academic requirements and about how much tougher Harry had it when he went to university (supposedly he had to chisel his essays on stone tablets, which of course taught him the value of struggle and determination, something that today’s students also don’t have), that his degree was therefore much more valuable and was in fact the equivalent of a PhD.
Utter nonsense, of course. He attended a respected university and got an undergraduate degree in engineering. An academic accomplishment and achievement, yes, but certainly something that many other people have also done.
The business of shouting their “distinctiveness”, especially where their intelligence and academic prowess is concerned, is a common narcissistic trait. Harry rounded out his rant with a treatise on how Evan would never get into medical school and didn’t deserve to.
He only started to wind down when one of Julie’s (my friend whose birthday it was) colleagues started to call Harry on what he was saying. Julie and her colleague are both university teachers and are very familiar with the entrance requirements for medical school – something Harry had forgotten. As Julie’s colleague calmly started to defend Evan’s course choices, Harry began to seeth. He attempted to continue his bluster but eventually gave up. He walked out and didn’t return until after the party was over.
You can imagine what this did to the happy party vibe. We attempted to get back on track but that really didn’t work and the party fizzled out with most people leaving quite early. The worst part was the pity and curiosity that I could feel being directed at me. Their questions were floating around the room inside of big cartoon bubbles. “What is she doing married to that guy?” “Where did she meet him?” “I wouldn’t want to be her when he gets back.”
When Harry returned, however, he was contrite. In one of those flashes of insight that Harry is capable of, he realized how awful his behaviour had been and he regretted it. He thought about writing letters of apology to Evan and to Julie. Like all of Harry’s good intentions, however, the idea disappeared.
The fact was that Harry’s momentary contrition only came to the forefront because he had gotten what he needed and was feeling better. Soon, though, his desire for more attention and his firm belief in his own superiority eclipsed his sense that he needed to make amends and he sidelined the idea of the letters. Does that make him sound like an addict? Yes. In many ways, narcissists have very similar characteristics to addicts and vice versa.
So here’s what you have to do if you’re dealing with a seasonal narcissist: first of all, as I’ve already mentioned, give them highly visible, “important” tasks that will generate lots of attention. He could give a speech or present the gifts or play the piano or do a skit. Play into your knowledge of the narcissist and what he thinks he’s good at.
Be sure to fuss over and flatter the narcissist. If you have to lie, lie. Remember, you’re only doing this for one evening or afternoon or whatever and in this case, lying is the better part of valour. You can go to confession or expiate your lies later. Compliment his hair, clothes, weight loss, new job, whatever. Leave him with the impression that he’s the most important, smartest, best looking person in the room.
Assign someone to stay with the narcissist at all times and to keep him under control. This person should be completely aware of the mission and should be able to indulge in flattery, fussing and outright lying without throwing up. This “shadow” person will also need to ensure that the narcissist does whatever task he has been assigned. Narcissists are usually very undependable.
In the lead-up to the event and on the day, ask for his advice (be careful not to ask him to do what he might consider to be menial tasks) as to how things should be done, organized, carried out, and so on. Publicly acknowledge his help and how you couldn’t have done it without him. Gag later.
Designate someone, particularly someone who has good diplomatic skills, whose job it will be to get him out of the room as quickly as possible if he starts haranguing, pontificating, ranting, shouting or in other ways seeking inappropriate attention.
I can’t guarantee that any of these strategies will work; I’m only improving your odds. The one thing I do know, however, is that when it comes to dealing with narcissists, you can’t be too prepared, so be sure to prepare for this narcissist as much as you would for any other aspect of your special occasion.
One note: my apologies for my frequent use of the male gender when describing narcissists. I don’t mean to offend anyone. Statistically, however, the vast majority of narcissists are male and it is more likely that you will encounter a male narcissist rather than a female narcissist.
Right now it is very fashionable to worry about the under-30s and how entitled they behave; the complaints about them are legion and growing. Prospective employers tell scary stories about helicopter parents accompanying their 28-year-olds to job interviews while university profs talk about the parents who wait outside their office doors and demand to know the grades of their 20-year-olds. Adult children populate the homes of their parents long after they should be on their own, and in many cases, the parents are quite happy to accommodate them, even if these kids are married and have kids of their own. Books abound about how we have produced an entire cohort of self-involved, pampered, physically and intellectually lazy bores, and educators have been blamed for developing a cult of over-esteem. However, I have a somewhat different label to hang on them. I think it’s more that they have been infantalized, and that, in and of itself, is rather dangerous; many people suffer from narcissism because they were stopped in their emotional development at a very young age. Nevertheless, it’s more likely a form of narcissism on the part of their parents: the parents want the children to be a reflection of themselves and their perfect lives; therefore enormous control over every detail must be exerted.
There’s too much concern over this, however. There is perhaps much more narcissism among the under-30s than there used to be, but I believe that given a chance, many will outgrow this or maybe, recover from it. Remember the “me” generation? The “yuppies”? Remember the “Material Girl”? Madonna? Still material, as far as I can tell, except now she’s collecting kids instead of music awards. Anyhow, I’m dating myself here but that is my generation – the baby boomers – those born between late 1946 and early 1966. A 20-year span. The war years that interrupted the lives of our parents and caused them to want a better life for their offspring literally came true, in a material sense anyway, no pun intended. Driven by consumerism and one-upmanship, we have been characterized as having stepped on anything that got in our way. My generation, the later ones, anyway, make up many of the helicopter parents that we see now. I might very well be wrong, but I tend to see my own generation as having been worse than the under-30s of today. Frankly, the hallmarks of narcissism are much more prevalent among my generation – the grandiosity, the rampant spending and consumerism, the self-absorption and to add to this, the lack of respect, gratitude and humility. We are supposedly the best of the best, and because there are so many of us, we can make a lot of noise and can often get our way. In other words, if we don’t get what we want, we throw a narcissistic tantrum, and that applies to our kids, too.
The fact is that many of us raised our kids in environments that while perhaps not narcissistic per se, certainly were driven by narcissistic tendencies, and a lot of us continue to see these kids as extensions of ourselves. Many of these kids then find themselves stuck between being children and being adults; they occupy some sort of childish purgatory where they never really grow up. The only way for them to get out of this netherworld is to fight, which is an affront to us as parents. Our kids are supposed to be perfect! We have taken huge steps and made great efforts to prevent our kids from making any mistakes, no matter how minor. Why, then, are they doing this to me, we cry. Why do they want to leave us? We leave them lost in a vicious circle that’s difficult for them to escape: they want their independence and they also want a good relationship with their parents; that’s hard to achieve if the parents are needy, clingy, controlling hangers-on who, let’s face it, may resort to manipulation to stop their kids from passing into true adulthood.
There’s also the danger, as I mentioned above, that they might become narcissistic themselves or may have to recover from living in an environment that, at a minimum, was emphasizing some of the characteristics of narcissism. If our children see themselves as entitled, then we only have ourselves to blame, never mind the fact that we have saddled them with a difficult, life-long issue.
The words respect, gratitude and humility come up often when people start discussing the under-30s. They lack respect for the work it takes to earn a dollar. Helping out or contributing to others are foreign concepts. All they care about is the latest iPhone and who posted what on Facebook. There’s no gratitude. They don’t know how to say thank-you. If they want something, they expect you to provide it for them, no matter what it costs. They’re pretentious, self-important and full of themselves. They don’t know how to work hard and expect immediate promotions and lots of perks. They believe that they should be able to leave work or take days off whenever they want to. They’re much too good to start at the bottom and work their way up. They don’t know what the word humility means. Actually, this is a very good capsule description of my ex-narcissist, Harry. In light of this, perhaps we should be more concerned about the narcissism of the younger generation than we are.
I have heard these kinds of complaints over and over again, and I have to say that I have seen lots of evidence of it, too. But I also remember the things that were said about my generation, too. It was odd. On the one hand, my parents wanted us to have everything; they spoiled us rotten. On the other, though, the most common complaint about us was that we “had it easy.” There were also these stories about how the weather patterns were much worse then and how they had to endure switchbacks on their way to school, resulting in them having to walk uphill both ways.
But I digress. Mixed message? Yup. And compared to my parents, I certainly did have it easy. At age 16, my mom was in the army and dodging bombs in London. At 22, my dad was trying to escape Dunkirk. The fact is, however, would they have wanted us to experience a war so that we could understand that we had it easy? What kind of logic is that? At times, however, I felt that that’s what the message was. They wanted us to have what they didn’t have, but at the same time there was a great deal of guilt-inducement going on: look at what we have done for you, and all you want to do is grow your hair, get stoned and sit around. The problem is that they wanted us to understand what it cost them to provide this great life for us, but they weren’t very good at expressing that and we were too self-involved to try to get it.
There were lots of people who behaved that way. On the other hand, there were lots of American baby boomers who tried to stop the Vietnam War. All over the world, there were lots of hippies who tried to make love, not war. There were those who had to endure a war themselves. I was too young for any of this, and I otherwise know only a couple of people who participated in these things. They then went on to become rather narcissistic, consumer-driven yuppies. For me and most of my peer group, however, things were rather different. I worked hard. I put myself through school. I joined the army. I started a career that has given me a comfortable living but has not made me wealthy. I have never owned a BMW. For the most part, life has been pretty good. I pay my bills and my taxes and I vote when there’s an election. I’m fortunate enough to have been born in a country that doesn’t have a coup every time there’s an election. In other words, I think that despite the fact that I “had it easy”, I turned out all right, as did most of us. I have even learned to appreciate my parents and what they wanted for us.
Does my generation show some pretty incredible characteristics of narcissism? You bet. Have I at times been egotistical myself? Yes! I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. And because of our size, we do get a lot of attention. But we’re mostly okay, and we have even managed to do some pretty valuable things.
And the under-30s? They will have to deal with the way they have been infantalized and they will have to find their feet and fight. They have a steep learning curve ahead of them. But there are many good things about them, too, and like us, most of them will be fine, and in the end, I doubt that they will be any more narcissistic than any other generation.
Some of you dear readers have probably come to the conclusion that after my nasty experience with a male narcissist that I’m a sort of man-hater. Nothing could be further from the truth. My experience with Harry has in many ways been beneficial and clichéd as it might sound, has helped me to become a better person. Not that I would recommend this method of self-improvement.
Becoming a better person lead me to M. He is the love of my life and the best man I have ever met.
Well, it could have been worse, I suppose. I could have been lying on a cold, rock-strewn slope, the victim of an avalanche with two broken legs, gangrene setting in, wolves gathering in the closing twilight and no coffee left. On the other hand, it could have been a lot better. I could have been lying on a beach in the Dominican Republic, gin and tonic in hand, with nothing to do but crisp in the sun. Or I could have been sitting in a little Montreal bistro with a nice glass of wine while waiting for some beautifully prepared boeuf bourguignon. But nooo.
I think it’s probably apropos for me to spare some of you the gruesome details, but if only one person is saved by what I have to say here then it will have been worthwhile for me to have re-lived this horrific experience.
I was not lacking in gear, preparation or organization. I had plenty of re-usable, environmentally friendly cloth bags. I had a list. I even remembered to bring the list along. I arrived early, budget firmly in place. I was well-rested and fed. I had comfortable shoes, a water bottle and a thermos of coffee. I was ready!
Yes, dear reader. I was tackling the – cue the theme from Jaws – Christmas shopping list. I finally gave in. It had to be done. There was no way around it.
I entered the mall at nine thirty in the morning and noted that at that hour, the place was quiet and almost deserted. A lone security guard strolled nonchalantly, occasionally glancing in the windows, yawning and taking sips from his coffee cup. It was the perfect time to get the dreaded operation done. Yes!! I congratulated myself and patted myself on the back and grinning and chuckling to myself I started poking about, mentally comparing the wares on display with the requirements of my list. I hummed some old tunes and loafed along, secure in the knowledge that soon I would be safely back home, mission accomplished and feeling a certain degree of superiority over the lesser types who wait too long or are too late or both. I was, of course, tempting fate, Murphy’s Law and all manner of biblical imprecations about pride going before a fall and all that.
I arrived at “Santa’s Workshop,” famous in song and story as the scene of many family breakdowns while parents force their bawling and terrified offspring to sit on the Bearded One’s lap and have a photo taken. I don’t blame them. Who wants to sit on some weird-looking stranger’s lap while he booms ho ho ho at you in a thunderous voice that could scare the crap out of you and often does? What makes parents think that this is cute? The poor kid may as well be sitting on Darth Vader’s lap. Afraid that I might start having flashbacks, I nipped past as quickly as I could, even though all was quiet and Santa and the elves were hiding somewhere and sleeping it off.
As I turned a corner, I ran into an old friend who invited me to join her and her husband in a cup of Christmas cheer. They were so gracious and kind that I couldn’t refuse. We wound up sharing the cheer much later than I had anticipated, but I declined their kind offers of a lift home. If one is going shopping then one is going shopping, and no joking about it. I assured them that I would take a taxi home and wandered out of the restaurant and into the now crowded and noisy mall. Since I was all mellow, this ceased to bother me and I fished my trusty list out of my pocket for further perusal.
I was meandering down a perfume aisle, lost in the contentment of my mellow mood when I both heard and smelled a small boy who was bawling and roaring for his mother. He was either so scared that he had pooped his pants or he had been forced to sit on Santa’s lap. I tried looking around for his mom but couldn’t spot anyone nearby except for a rather large security guard one aisle over who was energetically chastising two adolescent boys for slinging hockey pucks at each other.
I tried to get the guard’s attention while hanging on to the small child so that he wouldn’t wander any farther, but this was proving to be difficult as he screamed even louder and tried to squirm out of my grasp. I was becoming less mellow by the second. Suddenly the guard turned toward me and impaled me with a look that would freeze mercury. He came striding over and demanded to know what I was doing. I was somewhat mesmerized and distracted by his unibrow which hung over his face like a kind of awning. What Period is this guy supposed to be, anyway? Triassic? Jurassic? He had lots of stuff all over his uniform – about four different kinds of radios, mace, handcuffs – have you noticed lately how the police and security types have about 50 pieces of crap dangling from their persons? It must take two hours to get ready to go to work, and especially this guy, who would also have to spray-paint his eyebrow into place.
He had a mean look about him. A frustrated look. The kind of look that says, “I may have flunked out of police school but this mall is mine and I’m going to get you whether you did anything or not.”
I tried to organize my thoughts enough to explain that the little boy had lost his mom but I was cut off in mid-babble with, “Have you been drinking?” Visions of spending a night in a concrete room with alien roommates danced through my head, but didn’t impart any sense of caution, or sugar plums, either.
I didn’t know that the Temperance League was out and about and chasing down malefactors. In fact, I didn’t even know that they still existed. I was about to make a sophisticated and sarcastic retort along the lines of “fuck off”, but was interrupted by the return of the boy’s mother, who when she saw him also started bawling. The two of them kicked up a racket that could be heard on Easter Island. I backed slowly and carefully away – I saw my chance to escape and took it. Stumbling out to the main entrance I flagged down the first taxi I could find and headed home.
I count myself as lucky. Like people who escape a cult consider themselves lucky. I got the message, and it’s one I’m happy to receive. Avoiding Christmas shopping is like avoiding narcissists – may the force be with you and protect you from yourself.
He’s a fence-sitter. He’s a waffler. He’s a flip-flopper. He’s inconsistent. He’s unstable. I’ll never forget the day that I realized that. The day that I stopped making excuses and stopped trying to soften the impact that his behaviour was having when I used euphemistic descriptors. It was an important turning point because I began to see what, exactly, I was dealing with instead of trying to minimize, rationalize and cope. I didn’t know it then, but that was when I started to get my life back.
The narcissist is a curious mixture of nothing. My former narcissist projects a charming act that hides an abyss – its only contents are things that he manufactures. He’s completely stuck there, as frozen as an amber bug. The most startling and contradictory thing about him, however, was that he occasionally had glimpses of insight into himself – there were very brief moments of self-awareness. One of these moments especially stands out.
Long before I met him, Harry had launched a lawsuit for defamation, depression and loss of professional earnings against two women: one was a former colleague and quite clearly a narcissist herself while the other one was a former girlfriend who had suffered some brain injury after a car crash.
Mary, the former colleague, took a dislike to Harry after a professional disagreement and proceeded to try to have Harry’s license as an engineer revoked. In the meantime, Harry broke up with his girlfriend, Danielle, as a result of the ongoing issues with her mental health. To make a very long, very soapy story short, Mary and Danielle eventually became friends and colluded to have Harry charged for stalking and threatening their lives; he was ultimately arrested but the charges were dropped five days later because of a lack of evidence. Harry then started his lawsuit.
This lawsuit took ten years to come to its conclusion because Harry changed lawyers a couple of times and during its course Harry also continued an on-again, off-again relationship with Danielle which the trial judge noted in his reasons for judgement. The judge sided with Harry and concluded that he was the subject of a false, hate-fuelled, vengeful plot. However, it’s also clear that the judge to some extent saw the situation as being the product of Harry’s own behaviour and that there was also an attempt on Harry’s part to make the situation appear worse than it actually was. As a result, the monetary settlement that Harry received was only a token and was quickly consumed by his legal costs.
It’s true that Harry was wronged. There is no question of it, either legally or morally. However, the personality defects that define the narcissist lead him or her to having some very odd reactions to things, especially conflict. For instance, neither I, nor most people I know, would continue to have a relationship with a mentally ill person against whom they have an ongoing, bitter and protracted lawsuit that’s designed to relieve her of any money that she might have because of the damage that she’s done. It became obvious to me that during the course of his relationship with Danielle, he flopped around like a mop and never did come to any firm conclusions or positions about his feelings for her. His issue was that as a very beautiful, well-dressed woman – and she was, undeniably – she made the perfect trophy. She was able to present well for short periods of time and he could bask in the reflected, surface glory as he squired her around. This was irresistible to him, and he continued to take advantage of her mental shortcomings so that he could wring as much from her as possible.
Behind the scenes, however, he harboured a pathological, misogynistic dislike. Remember, Harry has profound issues with women and is also a homosexual who hates himself for it. This is a cauldron of discord; instability would be a natural result. What to do? How to be? He’s all about display and artifice and charm but at the same time reacts with an instinctive hatred toward women that he tries to bury but that unexpectedly leaks out.
This situation is incredibly difficult for anyone to deal with, but for someone who is mentally handicapped, it’s impossible. In my opinion Danielle was also taken advantage of by the other narcissist in her life, Mary. This is reflected in the judge’s ruling who verbally chastised Danielle’s behaviour as reprehensible but did not otherwise punish her in any way. The token monetary amount was adjudicated against Mary alone.
Then there were Harry’s interactions with Mary. Two narcissists having a row. Lovely. The lying, the misrepresentation and the one-upmanship was spectacular. I admire the trial judge’s fortitude in picking his way through this mess, if also feeling rather miffed that a couple of narcissists could manage to clog up the court system for so long with this dreck.
The upshot, as I’ve already indicated, is that while Harry won, he also lost. He claimed hundreds of thousands of dollars in missed earnings because of the damage the two women inflicted on his reputation. However, the judge noted that Harry’s career as an engineer had historically been spotty and punctuated by periods of unemployment and poor relationships with superiors, employers and colleagues. He had always earned much less than the average and already had a questionable professional reputation. Without directly saying so, the judge intimated that Harry was exaggerating and that he was also taking advantage of the situation in order to score a significant cash infusion; Mary was a very wealthy woman with significant financial resources.
I remember well the question Harry asked me after I had read the judgement for the first time and we had discussed it: “I’m partly to blame for this, aren’t I?” I agreed that he was; that he could have let the whole thing go after the police determined that there had been no basis for the charges, that he could have avoided the financial hardship and depression that came with the lawsuit.
It was only months later, when I was in the process of divorcing him, that I realized that he liked all this drama; he loved legal scrambling and being on the financial brink and using those situations to claim depression and heartache and victimhood. He craved the instability of this situation because it’s what he’s comfortable with. He could wallow in it and get lots of attention from it. For him, instability is stability.
I later learned that during the lawsuit against Mary and Danielle, he had no less than three other lawsuits (not including a law-suit that had been brought against him) in various stages: a countersuit against a lawyer whom he had refused to pay when Harry disagreed with his handling of Mary and Danielle; a lawsuit against another woman who had broken off her romantic relationship with him, and a lawsuit against a former employer who had fired him. Indeed, there were two other lawsuits that he contemplated but did not pursue; the commonality among all of them was that they were frivolous and unwinnable.
Into this mix was the fact that he had become well-known to the local police long before the arrest that precipitated the suit against Mary and Danielle – he had a long history of warnings and an arrest and conviction for assault. When he realized that he finally had a lawsuit that could go all the way, he must have been in absolute narcissistic heaven.
He can’t stand stability for very long. He’s got to have something boiling in his pot so that he can feel comfortable and so that his attention can be diverted from the boring, stultifying reality of living with an empty self. Hence the nasty comments that are designed to provoke a fight; the constant changing of opinion and direction, the neverending motion that accomplishes little. He is compelled to generate instability because otherwise, he won’t feel “normal”. The only constant is the inconstant, the only reality is the unreal, the only stability is the unstable.
However, if there’s one thing that causes me to feel any pity for this man at all, it’s the fact that during these very rare, very brief moments, I saw what he could have been. I saw illumination and intelligence. I saw humility and reality. And then it was gone. The act was back, and it was very sad.
One of the great things that this blog is forcing me to do is to think through the “relationship” that I had with my narcissist, and as a result, to think through other prominent relationships that I’ve had in my life, as well. It’s useful to take a hard look back, to see what I’ve done and not done, to see when I behaved and misbehaved, to see what I learned and didn’t learn. The saying that hindsight may be 20/20 but that it’s also only for assholes, is wrong, I believe. Otherwise, as with any history, if we don’t learn from it we’re doomed to repeat it. Okay. So I’m finished now with the d’Arty-Cross cliché review. Nevertheless, it’s important to every now and then do some looking back, as long as it’s not obsessive or overly critical and as long as the intent is to apply whatever you get out of this exercise only to yourself – don’t do any narcissistic projection! So today, I’m going to leave off the defining that I’ve been doing and share with you one of my behaviours, a behaviour that I was only barely aware of, that lead to my involvement with a narcissist. It was only through looking back that I really got what it was that I was doing, or should I say, not doing.
I had trouble with setting boundaries. Not that I was crossing other people’s boundaries, no; certainly not any more often than most people, and it usually happened inadvertently. I had trouble stopping people from crossing mine, especially the people I love. So yes, this boundary thing wasn’t just confined to my interactions with narcissists, it was a character trait, a way of being with those whom I love/loved. I am referring to it in the past tense, but I shouldn’t do that because it’s still very much in existence; it’s just that I now have it on a leash.
Boundaries. We think we know what that word means; I thought I knew what that word means. But if there’s one thing that I learned from my narcissist, it’s that I had very poor personal, mental and emotional boundaries and was utterly clueless that I had an issue with them. I was a “yes” person of the highest order. “Yessir!” unquestioningly, and unquestioning; that was me. I thought it was my function in life to run around after everyone else’s needs, to fix, to be on call for whatever had to be done, even if it made me feel undervalued, angry, disrespected or just plain pissed off. I didn’t know how to say “no” and felt that even if I tried, I wouldn’t be heard.
Now, this makes me sound like some sort of doormat or puppet, but really, I wasn’t. I was a respected professional person with a great deal of responsibility who had absolutely no trouble with saying no at work. But love relationships? That was an entirely different story.
My upbringing conditioned me to say yes to pretty much anything I was asked. Both my parents were WWII veterans and their sense that they were providing a much better life for me and my siblings caused them to think that I sort of “owed” them by behaving well, which meant that I had to do as I was told or asked. It sounds like I am blaming them for this but that’s not how I feel. I believe in taking adult responsibility for my behaviour; in the end the problem’s genesis didn’t matter because I still had to deal with it anyway.
My parents were products of their generation and believed what they were doing was best. To them, my siblings and I were raised in the lap of luxury and had nothing to complain about. However, they were setting me up to be rather non-thinking where my personal boundaries were concerned and when this was followed by a marriage to an older man who expected the same, I started to see myself as a lesser person who needed to take my direction from others. I see now that he was occasionally very disrespectful, but over time I had begun to buy into his treatment of me.
Eventually, I became afraid (see my post “Is There a Narcissist in Your Life?”) of making my own decisions about interpersonal boundaries. It seemed like everyone else knew better than me and I began to rely heavily on the mental and emotional judgments of others with respect to how I should behave. For a long time, I did not recognize this issue and went blithely on taking my emotional and mental boundary cues from others. It became a habit that was character-defining. Eventually, it also became a gap that my narcissist was able to easily recognize and exploit.
As always, the narcissist starts with baby steps. He began by asking me to pick up small items for him – he was working for weeks at a time in an isolated area – “on [his] dime,” as he always said. A pair of gloves, a book, some specialty shampoo. However, once I had given him these items, he just wouldn’t reimburse me. I chose not to see the issue. I chose to think well of him and to trust him. I was in love with him. But he had already crossed a boundary – a minor one, yes, but a boundary nevertheless.
Later, I was buying for him, on request, items that were much more pricey – tools, expensive clothes, a camera. After a while, he stopped working and then moved in with me. He asked me to pay a sizable debt of his and I did.
He flew to Toronto to deal with a legal issue and wound up stuck in the airport with no money and with no way for me to transfer any money. I flew there, money in hand, to rescue him.
He had an accident in his vehicle and started driving mine. Then the collection of photo-radar tickets started appearing – thousands of dollars of them. He wouldn’t stop speeding but kept using my vehicle anyway. He mistreated the vehicle and its condition started to deteriorate.
I still wouldn’t acknowledge the issue and continued to rationalize and minimize it and shortly after, we got married. We honeymooned in Hawaii because that’s where he wanted to go. I paid for it. Then the spending got really out of control. I was completely supporting the household, paying the mortgage, the taxes and the insurance while trying to keep up with the mounting pile of bills that he was generating.
He wouldn’t get a job or even look for one and preferred to do “projects” around the house which mainly consisted of him taking something apart and not putting it back together or only partially completing it. As usual, he had to spend a lot of money on the proper tools for these projects, with me footing the bill.
He is a car hobbyist of sorts and also started spending money on all kinds of parts and pieces for it, many of which had to be shipped in, in one instance from as far away as Australia. Again, I paid.
My stress levels began to go through the roof. I am not wealthy by any means and I began to really worry about how significant our debt was becoming. I’m sure you can see where the lack of boundaries had gotten me. I finally was forced into calling a halt, at which point he returned to work. Not to help out with the household expenses or the debt, not a chance. It was so that he could continue to finance the luxury items that he wanted to purchase for himself.
I now understand how people get themselves into these abusive relationships and in my opinion, it begins because there’s a lack of boundaries. Anyone with a strong sense of herself is going to heed the warning signs – and believe me, they are always there – of narcissistic abuse (or any other kind of abuse, for that matter) and will tell that narcissist to take a hike.
But I was a fixer, a rescuer, a yes-person. I believed that if I loved him enough, if I was unconditional enough, everything would be fine. Look at the financial crap I put up with, and that was only part of it! I literally invested everything I had into him and was arrogant enough to believe that with me, he would find happiness. It was difficult to give up on him, to finally get him out of my life, because that meant that I was giving up on what I thought I knew about myself, that I was giving up on the dream, that I had to admit that I had been taken.
And that was scary. It was humiliating and I was afraid. Almost afraid enough to stay in it. But not quite. Thank-you, good friends.
So, those of you out there who have been raised to be good little yes-people, beware. This particularly applies to women because we are raised that way more so than men but this can also apply to men. If it feels like you’re being taken advantage of, and especially if you feel angry or upset at what you are asked to do, listen to yourself and examine what it is you’re feeling. That’s your warning system kicking in. You may save yourself a lot of trouble and heartache.
Who knows, if it works maybe we can use the idea to increase collaboration. I’ve put a lot of work into the blog, trying to think how it might run effectively – which has meant I’ve become quite attached to it, and nervous about it being good.
I honestly feel it could be great – I’m just not savvy enough to know how to get the idea properly ‘out there’ to ensure…