Until my familial obligations of 2004-2012, I never knew it was possible to be taken to task for one’s natural likes, dislikes, and natural emotional reactions. I’d long known differences in opinion could invite personal insults (mostly online), but when I didn’t like Fox News, Walmart, or singing Christmas carols, it blew my mind that my different tastes could be impetus for someone to sit me down, outnumber me with their enabler, and tell me in grave tones how rude, wrong, disrespectful, hurtful, and ignorant I was for being suspicious of slipping reporting standards, exploitative corporations and forced performances of jolly and cheer.
But, it was the experience of some of these really WTF moments in my old life in the US that led me to read the accounts of people in dysfunctional families and living with narcissists and to realise, slowly, that I knew what they were talking about.
Individuals around whom other family members walked as if on eggshells. Individuals around whom you couldn’t say the wrong thing, make the wrong face, breathe the wrong way, look in the wrong direction.
Individuals who didn’t have mental illness or sociopathy (on paper anyway), but whose loved ones would give you a long list of what to do around them, so as not to cause “trouble”:
- agree with everything 100%
- thank profusely
- smile and be sociable
- praise, flatter
- apologise profusely if revealing other commitments
- never to do anything differently (much less better than) how they do it
- never to enjoy something when they don’t
OK, so I was only ever given the top 3 things on that list, I had to figure out the other 4 the hard way. The carrot for behaving perfectly was that I avoided Trouble, even if the tension in the room was often awful and the peace was fake. The sticks were horrible: Steely silence, being treated as non-existent or an object of shame, being spoken to like a child when I least expected or wanted it, and questioned for outrageously malicious motives. Faced with serious accusations, I was forced into denial or admitting all fault and wrongdoing, not so that the truth can be established, but so their superiority was beyond doubt.
Having different likes and emotional reactions from what they wanted me to have was not an option.
Because I was around people who were constantly trying to excuse and normalise the behavior of the individual with narcissistic tendencies, and who had developed their own coping mechanisms (which were arguably not that healthy either), I vacillated between compliance and passive aggressive rebellion. I would beg out of things as charmingly as I could manage (easier when the kid came along), I would joke a lot, and barely-sarcastically minimise my efforts even when they were obviously substantial. I pretended to be relaxed and oblivious during silences, and if the condescending lectures arrived anyway, I breathed. Taking Buddhist philosophy and meditation very seriously from 2005 to 2010, I focused on my breath at difficult moments and would try to turn the censure into air, and myself into nothing.
It worked to an extent. I would still get upset, but only express that upset away from the individual. And, I learned, I could only freely describe the situations and criticisms to my closer friends. While I received some sympathy from others, none of it–the fear of displeasing this individual, and the Emmy-level acting needed to cover our mutual dislike–made sense to me until I stumbled onto pages about Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Yet I still thought I could be mistaken, and that NPD was too premature a diagnosis, until I read about Scapegoats and Golden Childs. As newest foreign arrival in the family, I recognised myself in the role of the scapegoat.
The Lack of Emotional Safety
The worst thing about being around such a person is that you start suppressing and questioning your every natural response to everything around them. You are required to self-suppress, because your feelings aren’t worth a damn. You only exist as an extension of the narcissist, and you are to fall in line with their wishes and requirements. You are not to have a will of your own, and if you try to, simply, you are just wrong (or “disrespectful”), and they will use whatever means necessary to force you to agree.
These individuals will not be swayed by:
- Opinions backed with research, citations, peer-reviewed articles
- Appeals to common sense, the majority, or popular opinion
- Invitations to recall their own contradictory statements
- Demonstrations or examples of your argument
The sooner a normal person realises this, the better. Cut your frustration and stop trying to persuade with logic or reasonableness.
The irrationality of NPD individuals can only be explained and understood through the lens of their ego and extremely insecurity about themselves. Oh, and total denial. Nothing is ever their fault. It’s all yours.
Confessing your most personal secrets and emotional weaknesses to such an individual will never come to good. The information will be used by them to undermine you when they see it as useful.
The political rise of Donald Trump has rightly brought us a whole new arrival of articles on what narcissism looks like in the public sphere.
Now is probably a good time for this disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional. Sadly, I just have a lot of real-life experience.
In the work environment
The trouble with spotting a narcissist in the workplace is this: even if they’re generally difficult, it’s hard to make the case that they should be penalised for their behavior–the company may even find their tendencies and behavior an advantage, what with their ability to ignore the feelings of those beneath them, and to get their wants fulfilled at all costs (including disregarding privacy, shaming those beneath them with personal information, and fostering isolation and dependency).
I thought I knew how to ID and run sooner from people with narcissistic tendencies. I was recently proven wrong. Perhaps it isn’t always possible to avoid them (and I may well be a magnet for them). Or, I might have run into a narcissist who was harder to spot until I was caught, and sprung all their traps in the space of three weeks. When I started looking up emotional blackmail and abuse, I was horrified that I’d missed and ignored their red-flag behavior.
- Emotional Abuse: Definitions, Signs, Symptoms, Examples
- 30 Signs of Emotional Abuse
- 37 Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse
On the bright side, I had evidence of the blackmail and abuse heaped at me. Not all of it, but enough. And while I won’t reveal everything I did with it, I will say it was used to help me and others gain a sense of justice and closure.
Only those who understand are the ones who ask me if I’m ok, if I’m safe.
I hope I am. I’m counting on that person’s narcissism that they’ll never bother looking me up to find this.