NPD narcissists consume a huge amount of emotional labour. And before you know it, you can be down on your knees, completely exhausted, while the narcissist continues to, at the very least, be extremely dissatisfied.
There is no filling them up. They are never full. They are never sated. They are never content.
They simply have periods of digestion. Slowing down, savouring, enjoying … that’s not something with which they’re comfortable.
And yet, they desire the relief that slowing down and savouring can bring. They want it desperately and will chase it far and wide, but don’t know when they have it and are even scared of attaining it.
If they slow down … they might have to really consider themselves. And why bother with doing that? Because there you are, ready and willing to help them avoid their inadequacies and polish their fantasies.
Your love, your work, your labour will save them. At least for now. Until you do something human that screws up their picture of you and they start convincing you that there’s serious stuff wrong with you.
Up until that point, you’ve been pouring your emotional energy into them to shore them up, to give them a sense of self-confidence, to make them happy, to take away their pain, to provide them with everything they think they have been missing. And you’re beginning to feel depleted and exhausted.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Because when you start to think that they’re right, that there’s stuff wrong with you and that that’s why they’re detaching, you will bear down even more.
You will expend labour on improving yourself, fixing yourself, correcting yourself. You will forget about your efforts to help them. There’s a terrifying, growing list of stuff you have to attend to, right now, before they walk out the door forever and it will be all your fault. Your emotions are twangling like a poorly strung violin.
All that work. All that labour. And this is what you get?
How did this happen?
Well, it happened because that’s how a true NPD narcissist is. The second they acquire whatever they have been chasing, they lose interest. And make no mistake, you are a “whatever.” After the chase has been won, you simply become a source of supply. Supplying what? A supply of whatever the narcissist saw as being desirable to take from you.
It could be money. Or status. Or connections. Or a place to live. Or warm fuzzies. Maybe it was all of those. It could be that you provided yourself as a person to control. Or as a person to feel superior to. Or maybe you’re a challenge to be dismantled, in which case you supply him with proof that no one is better than he is. Whatever the combination of holes you were filling for the narcissist … that’s what you were doing. Filling holes.
And filling holes is time consuming, hard labour with little reward; few of us will want to shout, oh, look what I did! A hole to be proud of!
So. The seasonal narcissist. A narcissist behaves according to three operational seasons: idealising, devaluing and discarding.
Oh yes. Narcissists can take apart a seasonal holiday, too. I’ve written about that before, and you can read my scribblings here and here. But to the narcissist, you are also seasonal, and you have a beginning, middle and end.
Is there anything seasonal about the narcissist from a conventional point of view? Yes, there is.
Think Hallowe’en. Think hobgoblin.
Personally, I tend to think dentist, as in that stuff you find in the spit cup they give you. I certainly don’t think Valentine’s Day. If there’s a season out there for the narcissist to manipulate your emotional labour and “prove” to you that you’re anything but special, it’s Valentine’s. In fact, it’s one of their favourite discard days.
Have you had a seasonal experience with a narcissist?
Today I listened to CBC radio’sTapestry presentation on the subject of emotional labour. It’s an interesting topic and a type of work to which someone has finally given a name. Essentially, emotional labour is anything that people do that requires an emotionally invested outlay of energy. For example, we expend emotional energy keeping track of and making sure that our children go to the dentist, we listen when friends or family members need a shoulder to cry on, or we ensure there’s gas in the car. For the most part, emotional labour refers to the million little maintenance jobs (and sometimes not so little) that need to be taken care of and done on a regular basis, although much of this work can also be unexpected and/or quite time consuming. Statistically, it’s mostly women who complete these tasks, and we apparently spend a lot of time on them.
While listening to this piece, I was reminded of the amount of emotional labour one will expend if involved with a narcissist, and then I was reminded of a post I did about three or four years ago called The Seasonal Narcissist. It’s one of my more popular posts, particularly at this time year, but it only looks at the seasonal narcissist from the perspective of dealing with one on a temporary basis. It doesn’t really look at the long game at all. And it also doesn’t look at the energy that goes into having to be married to or in some sort of live-in relationship with one while Christmas, or any other holiday or special occasion, is in full swing.
Those of you who are familiar with me know that I have first-hand experience with this. Over a 20-month period, I became immersed in all the difficulties one encounters during any type of special occasion if involved with an NPD narcissist.
The emotional energy I expended around these events was enormous.
First of all, “Harry” was incredibly unpredictable in general, but if Christmas was coming up, he was much worse. I have read lots of accounts of people watching their narcissist walk out the door just before Christmas (or other special events), leaving the significant other or spouse in emotional hell and the children devastated, only to return as soon as the holiday or event is over.
This is typical behaviour.
Essentially, they don’t want anyone to enjoy the holiday or event, because they aren’t going to be the centre of attention. And if they aren’t going to be the centre of attention, then what’s the point? It’s just a bunch of work for nothing. Then there’s also the problem that watching others have fun when they’re not is just too much to bear.
So, let’s take everyone down! Let’s make everyone feel like crap! Let’s walk out! Let’s have a horrible argument! Let’s make everyone feel as wretched as possible!
Then everyone’s attention will be back where it should be. That’ll teach them!
I spent two Christmases with Harry. During the first one, we were on our honeymoon in Hawaii and within a couple of days, he became completely morose and withdrawn. I had no idea what was going on and felt confused, scared and concerned. The only time he talked was to forcefully complain about everything from what I was wearing to the food that was available. All he wanted to do was stay in the hotel room and watch tv. Otherwise, he brooded and became uncommunicative. He faked a stomach bug (I know this because he kept eating heavy meals from the room service menu) so that he didn’t have to go out. A couple of times, he claimed boredom. Of course, suggesting that he leave the room would have been met with more complaints.
Describing him as “high maintenance” would have been an understatement.
Unbeknownst to me, though, it was my very first set of indicators that the person I married wasn’t the person I married.
When we got back home, for a short time he became all sweetness and light, and apologised for his behaviour in Hawaii by claiming that he just hadn’t been feeling well. I didn’t know it then, but my expenditure of emotional energy was about to go up in a big way, because during our trip, he had been grooming me to walk on eggshells.
By the time our second (and last) Christmas came around, I was dwelling in a land of contradiction, confusion and confrontation. I had been shouted at and called every kind of name. I had been accused of betrayal, disrespect and dishonesty. I had been accused of contemplating an affair and of spending too much money. I had been accused of eating too much, of making too much noise when eating, of eating the wrong things, and of being an alcoholic. He said I was lazy, poorly educated and stupid. My clothes and hair were wrong. My furniture was wrong. Nothing was right.
And for a while, I swallowed the notion that it was me who was the problem.
My head was swimming and I was starting to feel like I might head into a depression, but I kept trying. I invested serious emotional labour into trying to fix the so-called wrongs. The list of things that I needed to be careful about became longer and longer and I tried to adhere strictly to the “rules,” but every time I thought I had them right, he changed them and pretended that they had always been that way.
Just before the holiday, I was subjected to a tongue-bashing that left me reeling, but as I see it now, it was also the beginning of my liberation.
It dawned on me that he was looking for an excuse to leave or to destroy any happiness that I might have during the holiday with family and friends. And once I made that connection, other connections that had been loitering in the background strode into the foreground.
An uneasy Christmas proceeded, but the day before New Year’s Eve, when we were supposed to go to a party together, the other shoe dropped. He announced that he was leaving and would be back later in January to pick up his things. According to him, we were done.
And that’s when I turned the tables on him. I left, and spent the night at a friend’s house.
My friend C invested some serious emotional labour of her own in helping me through that night and encouraging some flames from those awareness embers.
I began to see that I was in an emotionally abusive marriage. I began to see that no matter what I did or didn’t do, it would never be good enough. I began to see that no matter how much emotional labour I invested, it would never be enough.
Trying to maintain him, to run around trying to remove any source of annoyance or anger from his day was impossible, because there was always something else. There was no amount of love, effort, or material items that would satisfy him. He was a bottomless pit, and I was expected to keep trying to fill it until I was exhausted and no longer useful.
The beginning of the end had started. Within the next month, I had started counselling, and seven months after that, I got him out of my house.
What it finally came down to was an unadorned realisation on my part that there was nothing I could do except walk away and work at getting my life back: the seasonal narcissist is always a narcissist. It’s just that they do more manipulation when those special occasions roll around. They know that people want to have fun and want things to go well, and that makes them vulnerable and malleable, especially if children are involved.
Stay tuned for Part II.
Have you experienced a seasonal narcissist? What are your thoughts about emotional labour?
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.