Every year at Christmas my mother would buy me an expensive piece of clothing that I would never wear. Or, if luck was smiling on me, it might be several pieces of clothing meant to be worn together. I describe the clothing as expensive because when my mother gave me these gifts she would make a point of telling me how much everything cost, and how much effort she had expended. Unfortunately, every year, she would miss the mark of predicting my taste by such a wide margin that I thought she might know an alternate universe version of me who dressed in ethnic print skirts with gathered waists and blouses with Peter Pan collars festooned with applique ducks holding umbrellas. I began to dread getting these gifts because from December 26 on they hung in my closet unworn, causing me shame for having selfishly squandered my mother’s time and money.
Then one year, as our annual holiday gloom rituals were kicking in, the light went on. At age 35 I had finally conceived of a brilliant solution: I suggested that she and I go out shopping for my gift together. And I was truly thrilled when she agreed. I knew just what I wanted: A black, fitted blazer that I could wear with everything. Not only would it be stylish and versatile, it would herald the end to my guilt about unworn presents. On the appointed day, my mother and I walked around crowded department stores for hours on end as she waved hangers full of ethnic print skirts with gathered waists and blouses with Peter Pan collars at me in a flag-like manner, reminiscent of Napoleon on the bridge of Arcola. Not wanting to be the one to fire the first shot, I made sure to say, ‘Yes, that’s really lovely. ‘ Or, ‘Wow! Great choice!!’ in reaction to each new outfit she displayed. But I held firm. After the third time I said, ‘I could really use a new black blazer’ my mother made a grim face as only my mother could make, an expression lifted from a George Romero movie. She let loose with her patented lip curling Yicccch, insisting that I at least try on the clothes she picked out. Respectfully, I played along, thinking to myself as I looked in the dressing room mirror, that if my goal was to look 15 years older and 30 pounds heavier, this is definitely the outfit I would buy. At the end of the day, when closing time was requiring us to wrap this party up, I said, ‘Mom, as much as I love all those things you showed me, you know what? I really need this black blazer. I can wear it to work, for casual stuff, over pajamas, its a bulls eye on every front,’ She sighed, rolled her eyes, and exhaled an exasperated gust of air that caused all the clothing on all the racks in the Women’s Sportswear Department to sway. Then she muttered bitterly, as she handed over her Visa to the cashier, ‘This is the last time I am doing anything like this. I get no pleasure from buying you something I don’t happen to like.’ As I followed her out of the store, carrying my present in a garment bag, she shook her head silently and pursed her lips. She could barely look at me.
I was shocked. Somehow I had gone and done it again: ruined Christmas for my mother. This incident puzzled me endlessly. How had I miscalculated so badly? Here I had thought I was not only saving my mother time and money, but I was ensuring her future happiness by being able to show up for family functions wearing a present she bought for me.
This was just one of many bafflingly similar incidents that cluttered my life for many years. By then I had begun to notice that my parents and boyfriends seemed to have the same complaints about me. I was combative and contrarian, according to one boyfriend who would become furious if I stayed up to watch a late movie by myself instead of going to bed at the same time he did. Other paramours would accuse me of caring about no one but myself, of always insisting on having things my own way.
This certainly didn’t sound like what was going on from my perspective, but because these complaints were coming from people I cared about in two separate arenas of my life, I figured I had better make a sincere and concerted effort to identify and repair my shortcomings. It seemed to behoove me to learn how to stop endangering my relationships with inflammatory behavior such as having my own taste in clothing and picking my own bed time.
So, I signed up for therapy hoping to discover what steps I needed to take to remedy the situation. But what I learned was not what I expected. I learned that I was the child of two law-abiding, middle-class narcissists, a man and a woman bound together by their twin passions of criticizing their offspring and picking fights in restaurants. And because of this legacy, I was also attracted to narcissists as lovers and friends.
I finally had a reasonable explanation for why my brother and I always seemed to be wearing and doing and saying the wrong thing whenever we attended family gatherings, even when we armed with perky outfits, tidy haircuts, and carefully selected topics of conversation. At last I had insight in to what was behind three decades of embarrassing restaurant incidents in which my parents behaved like aristocracy and treated the stammering wait staff with utter contempt. I can only marvel now at how well I survived the number of dinners I probably consumed in my youth that were drenched in the spit of revenge seeking restaurant employees.
What is a narcissist? Any time you find yourself living inside that classic New Yorker cartoon in which two people are dining together and one says to the other, ‘Well, enough about me. Let’s hear what you have to say about me, your narcissism alert bells should be ringing. A friend of mine explained the credo of the narcissist as follows: I’m the piece of shit the world revolves around.’
Narcissists are people who cover up feelings of shame and worthlessness inflicted during their own screwy childhoods by doing whatever it takes to maintain a false sense that they are very special and therefore not bound by ordinary rules. This requires them to surround themselves with people who will constantly pump them up by agreeing with them about everything. In narcissism talk this is called feeding their grandiosity.
Here is the short explanation for why they act like this: Narcissists essentially live in a world that is one person big because they never fully outgrow a phase of infantile behavioral development in which baby thinks he and Mommy are the same person. Therefore, when a brilliant, charming, elegant and grand narcissist honors you by allowing you entry into his or her very elite cadre, it is kind of like being annexed by an imperialist country. Your borders have now been erased. The subtext of all future interactions will be: What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine. Welcome to a world where there is no you! When you are with a narcissist, their needs must become your needs. Its not enough for a narcissist to be the center of his own world, he must also be the center of yours. Your job is to serve as admiring audience or vent for his anger, Fan Club President or Incompetent Maid. If you are not mirroring him or praising him, you are proving you are a separate person and thus a threat.
Once I understood this, I could finally solve The Mysterious Case of My Mother and The Christmas Present. My mother became peevish and aggressive about my desire to select my own present, because I was not paying homage to her excellent taste in clothes. Buying a present for me, in her mind, was not about getting me something I might like but about pumping up her own self-esteem. In her rigid and fragile world view, when I demonstrated that I had my own ideas about what was best for me, I had humiliated her.
At first, having my new knowledge was a mixed blessing. People I once regarded simply as family and friends were transformed before my eyes into strangely predictable robots whose limitations would always be greater than their capabilities. It was freeing to know that my behavior wasn’t causing the narcissism outbreak, no matter how much they like to assign blame. But it was certainly not good news to learn I had to give up on any of these people ever behaving with any real degree of empathy or interest in me.
As any book on this subject explains (in CAPS, italics, and underlined with bold exclamation marks!!!), the only method for coping with narcissists is to change your expectations. Maintain emotional distance. Stop trying to please un-pleasable people.
That was the sad part of it all. Because the death of expectations also meant the death of hope. Gone forever was the dream that by treating my mother with kid gloves, or even talking honestly, I was going to transform her in to someone more enlightened. Instead I had to face the depressing fact that to interact unguardedly with her (or any narcissist) was to set myself up as a sounding board in one-sided conversations that could easily morph in to petty personal attacks.
From that point on when she provoked me, I didnâ€™t bite. My mother could sense that a certain familiar degree of push and pull in the dance between us had been modified. She knew things were different, that I was more aloof. And it confused her. But it would have done no good to explain any of it. There was nothing I could do or say to make things any better. By the end of her life, I was tip-toeing around her trying not to get into fights- or getting into fights but knowing what the outcome would be.
The good news is that learning about narcissism has protected me from wasting a lot of energy. Now when I find myself unexpectedly under attack and thinking How did I get in to the middle of this stupid fight when I’m not even angry, the new smarter me knows that the answer is not to look within and figure out what I did wrong. The answer comes from without: I am probably hanging out with a narcissist.
And once that piece is in place, I also know I have only two sane options: Either agree with everything they say, or pick up and go elsewhere. To stay and fight is to confront an irrational, wounded animal. Knowing how all this works also helps me when I find myself being magnetized by the considerable charisma of some factory-fresh narcissist seeking my worshipful love. I rely on my sonar-like, early-warning detection abilities, fine tuned from years of static and misread signals.
I still think back proudly to a flirtation at a party with a guy who set off all my alarm bells: sad-eyed, brooding, artistic, articulate, hilarious and utterly self-absorbed. I knew instinctively to draw him out of his shell by asking many flattering questions, then listening to his answers with rapt attention and appreciation bordering on awe. I knew that if I greeted his every anecdote with extreme empathy and selfless offers of support, he would be mine. But despite the fact that every microbe in my body begged to do these things,(old habits die hard), I watched myself with amazement as the voice coming out of my face said instead, Well, you seem like a smart guy. I’m sure you’ll figure it all out. And then instead of allowing myself to get sucked in to his turmoil, I turned and went off to talk to someone else.
I’m happy to report that these days I no longer have to defend my opinions on trivial matters, such as what lightbulb to buy, or apologize for things that make no sense. It’s a relief not to feel guilty for failing to read a persons mind or fan the flames of someone whether or not I think he has any flames to fan. In short, I’m not being batted like a cat toy by narcissists anymore. And in a way that is the greatest life lesson I received from my mother.
PS. If you enjoyed this piece, an updated version of it will be printed in my new book, out Nov 1, called “Cool Calm and Contentious.” Here is a promo I made for it: (Or you can just click over to my blog page, where it is sitting.) The book is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and contains a few pieces about narcissism in it. HOWEVER, if you’d like to submerge yourself in some fiction about narcissism, read my fictionalized magnum opus on this topic: The Psycho Ex Game. It is told from 2 points of view, a man’s and a woman’s. And it is a carefully detailed dissection of narcissistic love gone bad in a couple of awful relationships. If you are in a narcissistic relationship, I think you’ll recognize yourself in this book.