Tag Archives: Personality

Where Does Narcissism Come From? Part II

From what I experienced with my ex-husband, narcissism, and by that I mean the extreme narcissism that produces narcissistic personality disorder, is a result of a combination of personality and environmental factors.

Harry, my ex-narcissist, seems to me to have been born with a personality – in other words, the basic personality that was the result of his genetic inheritance – that left him unable to cope with much in the way of emotional upheaval. As a child, he was was probably much more emotional and sensitive than most people.

That was in the 1940s. And being an “emotional” boy would not have been an accepted trait during that time. He likely would have been castigated for any displays of emotion. “Boys don’t cry.” “Act like a man.” “Toughen up.” And so on.

Then, from what I’ve been able to piece together, the perfect confluence of long-term emotional upheaval began: his mother developed a drinking problem and was sent away by Harry’s father to get treatment. She was gone for a long period of time, possibly more than a year. Then, Harry’s father, distant to begin with, exposed Harry to a sort of uninvolved neglect. It could also be that at about this time, Harry became nascently aware that he’s gay – he was around ten.

As a result of these nurturing deficiencies, Harry became locked into childhood behaviour. He developed a love/hate relationship with women. He was in awe of his distant father. As he became older, he enacted repeatedly the wounding that he suffered from his parents, spreading it to others like a plague, hoping, on a subconscious level, to eliminate it from his life, or worse yet, dropping it on others so that they could feel the same way that he does. After all, it isn’t “fair” for others to feel better than he does.

Because he was a child when this occurred, with a child’s sense of understanding and logic, the narcissistic wounding was perceived through a child’s eyes. A childlike reaction resulted: in particular, narcissists react to criticism in very childlike ways. They are hypersensitive to any kind of perceived negativity that might be directed at them. One cliche certainly applies to narcissists and criticism: they can dish it out but they can’t take it. Eventually, the original wounding is forgotten and buried, and the narcissist can no longer make any kind of connection between event and  behaviour, if a connection had ever consciously been made in the first place.

Although Harry is a grown man physically, he relates to the world through the brain of a sensitive child who was damaged beyond repair. He has developed coping mechanisms and armour to protect himself from further injury. He has objectified others so that they can’t hurt him; since others are to be viewed with mistrust and suspicion, they become tools. Despite this, he is aware that others function better than he does, so he frequently copies them, masquerading what he interprets as “normal” behaviour. The fact that others seem to function better than him also causes frustration and rage. He thinks, “I’m doing what they’re doing. I’m saying what they’re saying. And I still can’t get it right.” He has completely lost himself in a confused morass of borrowed behaviours, opinions and habits, looking for the right fit, as if buying a new suit.

The sensitive child still lives within him, so there is a further impetus to over-react to criticism, or, he might perceive as criticism an action or comment that is completely innocuous. His bewilderment has continued to grow as he sees others handling criticism in a much healthier way, even as he sees them as objects of suspicion.

He doesn’t understand others or himself. He doesn’t understand life. He just emulates it. And he’s built such a ferocious, defensive fortress for himself, and has such mistrust of others, that he’s never going to admit that anything is wrong, let alone allow someone to help him.

He has wound up with no self of his own. He doesn’t know what he thinks or believes about anything. He might say that he believes or thinks this or that, but it’s only temporary. He will change his mind ten seconds later.

He is constantly on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, idealizing, devaluing and discarding as he goes. He tries to soothe himself with the acquisition of things and money and people.

He doesn’t know love. He doesn’t know comfort. He doesn’t know empathy. He’s completely empty except for that infected, weeping wound and the fear and anger that it generates.

And the worst part is that he has come to the conclusion that everyone else operates in the same way. We’re all like him – without scruples, without principles, without truth.

There are times when I feel very sorry for Harry. He didn’t have the best childhood. He grew up during a time when it was expected that men be “tough.” A younger brother died in a tragic accident. He went on to face other life difficulties.

But then I stop to remember that there are many, many people who have it much, much worse than Harry, but who treat others with genuine courtesy and respect.

Is Harry, and are narcissists in general, more to be pitied than blamed? In many ways, they don’t know what they’re doing. Or should they be held to account, even if they don’t fully understand what that means? What do you think?

In my next installment on narcissism, I plan to look at the emerging theory that narcissism is the result of abnormal brain structure.

How Are Your Boundaries Holding Up?

Narcissism 101
Narcissism 101 (Photo credit: Lynne Hand)

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.