Enough about you: My explanation of narcissism

Posted in writing on March 15th, 2009 by Merrill Markoe

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 didn’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.

56 Responses to “Enough about you: My explanation of narcissism”

  1. R. Chatt says:

    I did a google search for “attracting narcissists” and eventually linked to this entry. Very good description of your relationship with your mother. I had the exact same experience of my mother being insulted because I didn’t share her taste. Plus my father was a full fledged narcissist — major league. So I had a double dose.

    As I reflect on past friends, and the people I have attracted recently on dating sites I was truly wondering what it is about me that is attracting these people? I think reading your entry helped me find the answer. The point isn’t that I am attracting these people it’s that other healthier people just walk away from these people faster! Other people don’t get involved, they don’t feel guilty or obligated to be nice, and neither do I. It’s that simple.


  2. Rebecca says:

    Hi Merrill,
    I also grew up with N parents and know your journey with mother very well. I find reading the accounts of others experiences with N’s to be insightful and checked out your book, “It’s my F___ing birthday on Amazon.

    I think one of the hardest things to deal with is the fact that other people seldom “get it”. I noted that several of the reviewers of your book expressed irritation with the character through comments like, “It annoyed me that she didn’t just do x or y”. It is hard to convey to people that the guilt of not measuring up and always being wrong can become such a focus that acting like a normal person doesn’t even occur to us. Great essay. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Mary Lautner says:

    My father was a narcissist. So narcissistic, in fact, that he left his children (me and my siblings) and hardly ever saw us. When I was a young college student I started to experience his narcissism because I moved to the city where he lived. It took me years to understand what it was all about and in therapy many years later I have experienced sadness that in terms of a relationship, there is no there there. Thank you for such an articulate definition! And also for your great book walking in circles before lying down.

  4. […] on Friends. She also wrote one of the best (and funniest) essays I’ve read about narcissism. When I used to teach memoir at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop, one of the things I always […]

  5. Christine says:

    Well done you! Extremely funny and hit the nail on the head, When I think about some of the presents I have been given…It is great when you realise you can never please her, because to her you are not you, you are a not very good employee – and that is it. Farewell to the crockery with cats all over them (In my case) because, apparently, “I am a cat person”? Bliss to be free of the power of the mother with NPD.

  6. Jesse says:

    I’d still be trying to get the floor perfectly clean and cook the perfect eggs if I hadn’t discovered your article. And your delivery was so much more enjoyable to read than all the clinical stuff that’s out there. Thank you.

    • Merrill Markoe says:

      Dear Jesse:
      I am thrilled to have provided this service. You have my permission to leave the eggs on the floor and go home.
      Love, Merrill

  7. […] are right. But it’s also about your husband.”(Read the same article at enough about you.) There you have it.  I was so deeply enmeshed in my role as source for my narcissistic […]

  8. Kate says:

    What a beautiful essay! Apt, funny, wise, and sweet (in the smart way). Thank you so for wittily explaining my mother and so many of my ex boyfriends, the poor things.

  9. Nark says:

    Great article. I grew up with two extreme narcissists. The problem is, I’ve always known better than to have expectations of them, but they always trick me into it anyway. The other day I got in a fight with my father after he for the millionth time got me to open up under the pretense of him trying to “understand” me. Of course, it only ended with him turning on me in a completely ridiculous fashion. Just to give you an idea, it started out a low-key conversation about Glenn Beck, and within five minutes he was taking my credit card away. I couldn’t care less about the card, just the ridiculousness of what occurred, and that somehow I always end up the ball of exploding emotion when I’m the one who cares the least, and only engaged out of respect in the first place. After a cooling down period, I explained to him that this is what always happens, and we decided to just stick to a “fluffy” disengaged kind of relationship, like what you achieve with your mother at the end. I hope it works out and isn’t just another false expectation. But I guess there’s no choice with these people.

    • Merrill Markoe says:

      I predict your father will continue to be just the way he has always been. However YOU can stay disengaged. And you should. And one day soon you will.

  10. andrea says:

    Back when I was young and hip and working at a small indie record label, my mother got me a gift subscription to Ladies Home Journal. Which caused one of my friends to ask, “Has your mother *met* you?”

    (This year it’s Better Homes & Gardens.)

  11. Dana says:

    I just read your essay in the nick of time – a brooding and attractive artistic type has been attempting to seduce me by piecing out these important things to know about him: his feet and toes are long and elegant, people can’t resist the curvature of his lower back, gay men can’t resist his round butt.
    I will never be that horny or lonely.
    My mom is a narcissist too. An alpha, cheerleader, opposite-of-feminist narcissist. Arch-conservative dad was too. Made for lovely dinnertime political discourse.
    My mom won’t stop buying me purses. I suspect you can imagine.

  12. ellen says:

    Thank you for the hilarious and all-too-familiar essay. I do feel your pain, and realize I’m sooo fortunate that I don’t have narcissistic parents. I *did*, however work for 7 years for a textbook case narcissist–so I *was* just an inadequate employee (even though I was their senior (and perfectionist) production person that helped the business go from a spare room operation to I suspect a million dollar baby). My boss was an alien being to me–I noticed after the first four years or so that she had predictable ways of behaving, but I couldn’t understand her motivations for belittling her employees or whimsically changing her directives and undermining the other boss (who is now one of my best friends and no longer with the company). So I pretended that she was a character on Dynasty, that helped for a while. Then I found a book about narcissism in a thrift shop and voila! there she was. It was a truly creepy reading experience, and I planned my escape. One thing I can say for her is that she has exquisite taste, so if she did force any of us to wear anything, we would like it. That’s the best I can say though.

  13. Cat says:

    I’ll add to these excellent comments with information that I learned recently. Daughters have a completely different relationship with a NPD mother than their male siblings. Boys do not usually get the full treatment from their mothers. Karyl McBride has written a wonderful book on the subject. One of those (like Merrill’s column) that helps you realize that you are not a crazy person after all.

    My eye’s have certainly been opened. Thanks Merrill for sharing in your inimitable style.

  14. Rosanne says:

    I grew up with a narcissistic mother and it took me a long time to realize that what happened during my childhood wasn’t my fault (including my parents’ divorce). I can remember her trying to teach me how to knit and telling me that I do everything backwards because I’m left handed like my father, and she pushed my brother to play a musical instrument because in her mind he got the gift from her side of the family (I think she fancied herself as Mozart’s mother). Her love was always conditional, it depended on how you responded to her, so I spent a lot of time upset and crying because I didn’t understand why she was mad at me. As an adult I finally realized that no matter what I did, no matter how much I tried to accommodate her every whim and desire, it would never be enough — it was her, not me. It liberated me. I didn’t need to feel guilty any more, and I made the decision not to communicate with her any more.

    I have also ended up in relationships with narcissistic men who blamed me when things went bad (one man who started to have “performance” troubles said they were happening because he wanted to please me so much). They took great pleasure in telling me that I wasn’t good enough for them, and a lot of those feelings from childhood came flooding back as I struggled with the emotional upheaval.

  15. Hortense says:

    Wow, am I happy to have found your site. My name is Hortense, (Not even close.) and my mother is a narcissist. The effect that she has had on my life has been profound. I severed ties with her about four years ago after a particularly brutal verbal assault, in which she made it abundantly clear that–biology be damned–she was not a good person to have in my corner. The act of disengaging has been exceptionally tough. She spent thirty plus years conditioning me. I was her emotional backbone. If her mirror was cracked, I was the curator of her collection of fragmented images.

    She has not let me go lightly. In fact, she still makes regular, loosely veiled attempts at sucking me back in. And though I try–really, really hard–to maintain distance, I am not totally immune. What you wrote about the “death of expectations” is so poignant, and accurate that (though I happen to be an agnostic Jew) I want to stand up and shout AMEN, Hallelujah!

    I still have to remind myself that I have long since given up hope. That I have drawn an indelible line in the sand. But that line is the only thing that allows me a little space, and really, that’s all I need. A little space to call my own. To heal, to look back and gain some understanding. To turn around, put one foot in front of the other and step out on my own. From there I can take another step. And another. And then I can run like hell, and OK, maybe I need more than just a little space. But you get the idea.

    I have also found that I have an overwhelming need to write it all down. The need is constant. It’s as if my past is nagging at me. Get it out. Get it on paper. I have finally summoned the courage to start a memoir, and that’s what brought me here. Since my mother is still very much alive, and her criticism burned into my psyche, I find I am having problems with tone and approach. In an effort to learn what angles others have explored, I googled “memoir narcissist”, and up popped your essay. I read it feverishly, and with a lot of ‘sing it sister’ head-nodding that eventually led to this rambling reply. I realize that you may never have the time, or patience to read this post, and I wouldn’t blame you for that. But, on the off chance that you do, and you have two minutes to respond, I (and what I’m sure amounts to a multitude of others) would love to know if you have ever written, or wanted to write, anything about your mother, before she passed away.

  16. JonathonsMom says:

    Really?! Why couldn’t I have stumbled across your story sooner? So what is your recommendation for a woman surrounded and raised by N women? It is so sad and depressing to have come upon this realization because that support system you thought you had (as long as you were doing what they wanted you to do/the way they wanted you to do it/so that they could live vicariously through you) is and never really was there for YOU (aka-me). In fact I know that I have been living for them and now that I have gone through things that have forced the strength into me, I have my own thoughts and ideas and without their support in those things (for what I really want in my life/but they don’t want me to have in my life) I feel alone, or sadder family-less (is that even a word). Thank you for sharing this lesson (online-for all).

  17. CC says:

    is it possible that narcisists breeding breeds more of the same?

    my mother always had delusions of me running off with my h.s. sweetheart.

    I was 15 when she contacted the parents of my then-boyfriend and offered me up to be his bride!

    So, my Christmas story involves “what I i did for love”.

    You see Grandma had given my poor brother — who was just in from the Navy during the Vietnam war (enough said) — a $100 sweater. It was BEAUTIFUL.

    So, what did I do with Mom’s approval to try and seal the deal and get me out of the house and living happily married with my boyfriend’s family? I swapped my chintzy sweather I got at Sears for 20 bucks for my brother’s. He was NONE the wiser.

    This would have been all well and good. My sweetie looked so dashing you see in the $100 wool woven garb.

    But unfortunately, my beau was a cheater.

    He left me for a younger fresher face. And I had to endure them holding hands while he donned the beautiful sweater never meant for him in the first place.

    This was, quite simply, the beginning of the end. I never stood a chance.

  18. The Problem Child says:

    I breath easier when I hear others’ stories of N mothers. Don’t miss “Trapped in the Mirror” by Elan Golomb or Harville Hendrix’ series on “Getting the Love You Want.” Unfortunately for us, narcissistic traits are learned and handed down, but all is not lost … these books help you deal and grow.

    My story is much the same. Growing up, my mother regularly said my sister was her favorite, once threw a Christmas present at me which I gave her because she didn’t think I’d spent enough money on it, and when my father left her for his HS girlfriend, evidently I was to blame despite the fact that I was 35 and living 3000 miles away. My favorite story was when she threw me a bridal shower, brought a scale into the room, and told 40 of my friends and relatives the next game would be, “Guess How Much the Bride Weighs.” Obviously, I balked until she shamed me by saying in front of everyone, “be a sport.” I’ll never forget cleaning up after wards, and picking up all these little pieces of paper with everyone’s guesses on them.

    I’ll be in therapy my whole life.

  19. mary says:

    wow! this was really helpful. more insightful than my therapist, and cheaper. THANK YOU!

    this is probably why i love your books so much, i can relate to having problem parents and confusing relationships with ex-boyfriends.

  20. mary says:

    ps…i BUY your books. i am a huge reader and mostly i use the library. i don’t keep many books any longer because they are a pain in the butt to dust and move around. i only buy books by authors who i wish to support…i would pass up your book in the bargain bin and buy it full price because it is WORTH the money and i want to encourage publishers to keep publishing your work.

  21. Sally says:

    All of the people leaving comments are talking about themselves.

  22. Cally says:

    You are so spot on about narcissism. The narcissist in my life is my sister. Everything you said about your mom could be said about my sister. As long as I am her “yes man” we get along fine. The minute I try to express myself or tell her something contrary to her vision she will get angry— I could have saved myself lots of money on therapy just by reading your story.

    BTW, I found your site when I was googling your name— curious to see what another one of DL’s x’s looked like. Shallow of me, I know. But what a pleasant surprise to find your website. I am going to go buy everyone of your books today. You rock.

  23. EliB says:

    I am currently engaging in an experiment: if I don’t call my mom, how long will it take for her to give enough of a shit to call me? So far it’s been two months. I’ve done the dutiful adult daughter thing and tried to call every week, only to be subjected to a monologue about every meal she’s eaten, how my father/grandmother/siblings made her feel bad about herself (have heard each of these stories a thousand times), anecdotes detailing how people in her current volunteer work/church/neighborhood group admire her. Phone calls became unbearable, especially when I was undergoing chemo for breast cancer, and she would quickly steer the “conversation” back to her own health conditions. It’s not just old age; she’s always been this way.

    Anyway, enough about me…heh. I appreciate your writing, and think the take-away is that one cannot change one’s parents. The real goal is to avoid repeating the pattern of establishing relationships with narcissistic people. If someone appears to desperately need to be “understood,” run the other way.

    • Merrill Markoe says:

      Here is what a shrink said to me that I think might be very useful to you next time you are listening your mother, (who she would have termed a ‘primary narcissist.)’:
      “Think of her as a babbling one year old who is the center of the universe enchanted by the sounds coming from her mouth.”

  24. Sally says:

    I was looking at some more of your website and saw this in your bio.

    “Since 2002, Ms. Markoe has been living with the singer/songwriter Mr. Andy Prieboy, co-author of her novel The Psycho Ex Game.”

    • Merrill Markoe says:

      Yes. I put that there. At least I think that was me…Hmmm. Wait a minute. It should say 2001. I better go fix that. I’m not sure what your point was, but it ended up being very helpful. So thanks!

      • Sally says:

        Hi, my point in quoting this “Since 2002, Ms. Markoe has been living with the singer/songwriter Mr. Andy Prieboy, co-author of her novel The Psycho Ex Game.” was that he is the co-author but it says “her novel.”

        It wasn’t really a pointed point. I saw it after reading the narcissism essay and thought it was funny. Glad it was helpful.

  25. Lucy says:

    I am *so* grateful I had the mother that I did. I am a lucky person. She died in May, two weeks before I turned 60, so I had a pretty good friend for a very long time. I wish everyone could feel as loved as I did, no matter what.

  26. Elliott says:

    Just read a great interview you did and a link brought me to your site.
    I can’t figure out who the narcissistic influence in my life is / was, yet every guy I ever fall far is a chronic narcissist. I am drawn to narcissistic personalities, because they are outwardly very confident…. I kind of admire how they can’t understand people who do not give them the attention and appreciation they expect to receive. My cousin is a complete narcissist, and if she likes a guy who doesn’t like her back, instead of feeling bad about it, she becomes mystified as to what is wrong with him that he isn’t head over heals for her? There’s something to be said for that.
    Questions: Do you think narcissism is a genetic flaw, or a result of the nurture received during formative personality development years? Do you think other species can be narcissistic as well? Like dogs for example….. have you ever had a narcissistic dog? If so, story please!

  27. Lissie says:

    I found your article very interesting. I was with/have been with a man I now recognise as a narcissist for over five years. A roller-coaster ride of highs and lows and supreme love followed by abandonment. Over and over again. This time around he spent six months trying to get me back again, finally sending a song ‘The Best is Yet to Come’. After two weeks, I invited him to, then, let it come. What followed was a lovely lunch, then a few days later dinner and a night away in the city and then, two weeks later, he withdrew again.
    There is also something in me that attracts men like this and I do wonder about my own upbringing. I wonder about myself.
    But this man is one of the most thoughtless and cruel men I have ever known. Other people who know him won’t see it – it’s so selective – but I finally know.

    • Merrill Markoe says:

      Dear Lissie:
      That you attract men like this is not really the issue. Sure, probably men like this see you as someone they can exploit once they’ve met you. The actual problem is that you are attracted TO men like this when you run in to them. Plenty of people who meet these guys think “Get me OUT of here.” But people who were raised by narcissists see it at something familiar that they know how to handle. People raised by narcissists look past the obvious warning signs and get involved anyway. So read enough books about narcissism until you are sure you have developed a way to warn yourself when you are attracted and ignoring the obvious. And THAT is the rest of my 2cents on this.

  28. Susan says:

    I’m 52 now and I’m still still feeling like love is a mystery because I never had that connection growing up with an extremely narcissistic mother — father died when I was 7. That’s the part that really gets to me, the disconnection from love, and you have to try to figure it all out on your own. At least that’s how I’ve fared, through the school of hard knocks. I’ve done therapy but for years have gotten the reaction, “so why don’t you just forget about her, you’re an adult now.” Thankfully, my current therapist is the one who Finally understands the pain that’s inflicted by having such a disconnected, unloving mother and that it confuses the hell out of connecting with future partners. Just the understanding is so healing. And I’ve just found a kind, intelligent, Non-narcissistic man and hope to god that I don’t screw it up like I have so many times in the past. (I still don’t know enough about what wonderful issues he might have; it’s still new.) In any case, I refuse to give up on love because of having a crappy mother. And I am so happy to hear that You’ve broken the N cycle. (“In short, I’m not being batted like a cat toy by narcissists anymore.” — jeez, I can relate to that cat comparison.) I have the impression that if my current man turns out to be The One, that it will be an especially close, loving connection. I hope your relationship’s like that. You’ve certainly hit a sadly important topic here — thanks.

    • Merrill Markoe says:

      Dear Susan:
      An important thing to remember though is that you and this man are TWO people. Another person and your problems with your mother should stay in two separate categories. Being raised in the cult of narcissism teaches you that you are supposed to be one. And that one better be the narcissist. So be careful that you are not now the one foisting that idea on someone else because you were raised that way. Best thing you can do is stay in therapy for a while and talk over whatever comes up with someone smart. Also keep reading. If you picked a good person I’m sure it will work out. Good luck.

      • Susan says:

        I know that you want to wrap up this topic, but I just had to say that you’ve provided a great public service on this subject, which is *too silent* an epidemic per C. Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcisism.” I will continue to do my best with this new man and enjoy him and put my mother on the far back burner. And keep reading and talking to Smart people. The end.

  29. Susan says:

    P.S. Thanks for not sending a bill!!!

  30. Josie says:

    Wow, where do I start?? First, I just happened upon your site from reading a little article that i had been putting off reading for a week now. It was an article discussing David Letterman’s apology and it had a short blurb outlining the capacity of your relationship- the quip that you posted they quoted suggests my mentioning it wouldn’t offend; i hope i’m not wrong. It also listed some of your accolades, which started to peak my interest of Merrill Markoe.. I started doing a little research, which brought me here. Providence.

    It is so interesting reading everyone’s comments. You really quickly begin to notice a common theme in the little vignettes of their being victimized by narcissistic parents, lovers, etc..

    While reading your essay I started asking myself the hard questions and for a solid 20 min afterwards, I just sat here in my chair, staring at the screen, and finally came to the grim desperate realization that I am a narcissist. My problem and my question for you, Merril, is not how to deal with my narcissistic parents, but rather how to deal with my own narcissism. I want everyone in proximity of me to be consumed by me. I want their conscious mind to be lorded by my dominion and to constantly make mention of me in their thoughts, prayers, and praise.

    I am 23. A little over five years ago this all started to take an ugly form and came to a head a little over a week ago. I got pretty damn intoxicated and tried to jump out of my car (while my girlfriend was at the wheel. sober, thank god) because I was pissed at her.. i’m always pissed at her.. and for the most trite and ridiculous bullshit. We came to a stoplight and i bolted out of the car and fell face first into the pavement. I got right back up and took off again and then wondered around in a stupor for more than an hour while she searched for me. Finally, she found me.. a battered and bloody mess of a boyfriend. She brought me home and tried to get me cleaned up.

    The next morning the excruciating pain on my face was what stirred me from my snooze. I ran to the mirror praying it was all just a really bad dream. It wasn’t.. haha My eye was the size of a goose egg, swollen shut and blood crusted down my cheek around my mouth and all on my neck. I very well could have fricken killed myself.

    Now what’s really poignant are the words my girlfriend asked me which resonate throughout your entire essay..
    ….”why can’t i ever please you? you are never satisfied with me, and you are always pointing out my shortcomings.” – Jessica (my girlfriend).

    I think I’m pretty sick inside. I need heeling and understanding and enlightenment. And Fast. I don’t want to be the piece of shit that thinks the world revolves around it. I don’t want to be this way anymore, but i don’t know how to change.

    I apologize that my response to your essay was just about as long as your essay, but hey! I read yours. Even if you don’t find the words to respond, I am grateful i found you and am going to frequent your page. you’re helping people and that matters. I am an aspiring writer… I want to be like you when I grow up. now that i’ve spilled my guts.. help

    • Rebecca says:

      Maybe Merrill will have a few words for you, but children of N’s have the cure for NPD. Everything I’ve read says it takes commitment to long term therapy. You are also self diagnosing. I’ve known quite a few guys with anger management problems who are self-centered. They have N traits but don’t have full blown NPD. I think you should get evaluated by a qualified therapist and take it from there.
      Good luck to you.

  31. Christine says:

    I came across the pathology of narcissistic personality disorder a few years ago after dating for a short time a narcissist. It was a friend of mine who directed me to the disorder and I am grateful because I was able to identify the disorder rather quickly and end the relationship. After doing a significant amount of research on narcissism and joining a support group, I am able to identify narcissist and prevent them from entering my life. However, one of the most difficult times that I have had identifying a narcissist was with my own mother. I now believe that she is a narcissist. I have two questions for you: Do you believe there is a spectrum of narcissism? Another words, do you believe that a person can have fewer characteristics of narcissism but still be a narcissist? If so, how can I tell if someone is on the spectrum? I am afraid, being raised by a narcissistic mother that I may have learned some narcissistic behaviors traits myself and I want to make sure I am not narcissist. What is your opinion of those who have been raised by a narcissistic parent? How does that parent influence their children? How can I tell that I am not a narcissist? Thanks for sharing your experiences with the rest of the world and helping others.

    • Merrill Markoe says:

      Well, there’s too much here for a non professional such as myself to answer. But if you were raised by narcissists you probably at least have “narcissistic components.” (as one shrink I know calls them.) Self examination and reflexion is your friend. Talk to someone (like a therapist) about it all. Just because you have narcissistic components doesn’t mean you are a lost cause. But as I understand it, if you at least see yourself clearly and work on what it is about your behavior that is bothering you, you stand a better chance of not inadvertently passing the whole shebang on to your kids. Its not uncommon for the children of narcissists to raise narcissistic children.

    • Jeanne says:

      I just read your questions to Merrill. I think there’s a little narcissist in all of us. Do you care about others? Do you think of others when you make a decision? Do you have empathy for others? If your answers are yes, GREAT! Being aware of narcissistic tendencies is a very healthy thing for Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents. As Merrill said above, it could be the best lesson your NP ever taught you. You can break the pattern!

  32. Jay Sheckley and her little dog too! says:

    Did a facebook search on “narcissism”. First hit was 30 minute old “status update” from an apparent sage named Larry O. Gay. Larry wrote:
    ” Shyness has a strange element of narcissism, a belief that how we look, how we perform, is truly important to other people.”
    His friend Angela Jones ” likes this.”; while fb friend Christine Weir Williamson applauds, “hmmmmm…..interesting take on shyness.”
    It is!
    Of more interest to us in MerrillMarkoeLand, though, Larry stole each of “his” 22 words from the late novelist Andre Dubus. To give Dubus the attribution due him, one must comment on “larry’s status”- a privilege available at the cost of ‘befriend”ing Larry. Sorry Angela and Christine, I’m sitting this one out.
    Feel free though, fellow Markoeites, to send him your own invitation. I’ll bet you he’ll scoop you up in a nanosecond, and then you can set him straight. I’ll just be lurking behind this chunk of scenery, feeling queasy.

  33. Jeanne says:

    Oh jeez! I just laughed so hard reading this! Thinking about the goofy-butt presents my Dad has given me (the silky workout suit in many lively colors that an 80 year old lady might wear was a goody – I was 40 at the time). Or the many horrible restaurants with “great food” we were subjected to as children/young adults. There he’d be, chomping away on a pink hot dog or slugging down liver & onions at a truck stop, where the special of the day was pork brains and applesauce. I can remember thinking, “what in the heck is he doing?”, and marveling at how he never got sick from eating that stuff. Thanks for such a well-written and humorous account of your NM. I can relate to all of your attempts of honesty and not hurting her feelings. It was the same for me and my Dad.
    I have 12 siblings, most of whom are no longer playing the game. However, there are still a few hold outs who continue to fan my Dad’s flame – and as long as there’s somebody who will play, it goes on. Fortunately, I am an unwelcomed audience member for my Dad. He’s aging and acting up without me. I’d like for him to see the light, but I don’t hold out hope for it occurring.

    I wish you much luck for your future – keep ’em coming, girl! You’re a riot!

  34. Rachel says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this experience with me. I am just coming to understand the connection between my narcissistic mother and my desire to please she and many others not capable of loving me.

  35. another comic says:


    I’ve loved your stand up and storytelling for a long time. Here’s a question: would you have written this essay or the birthday novel when your mum was alive?

    Do you think it’s possible to put material out while still maintaining the detached relationship? Especially if you have more of a public engagement than the Ns do?

    Love love your story of your dad teaching Letterman how to turn on a radio. So familiarly hilarious.


    • Dear AC:
      I might not have written either piece while my parents were alive, you’re right. I once wrote a sit com episode about a mother that was a collaboration with another staff writer who had a narcissistic mother. My mother didn’t speak to me for six weeks. And this was on a sit com full of fictional characters, none of which were modeled on me so there was no need for my mother to personalize it. However I have a friend named Laurie Sandell who has a new graphic novel out about her sociopathic father. (“The Imposter’s Daughter”.) He is still alive and married to her mother. Obviously her relationship with her father is pretty distant. But the rest of the family seems to be still talking to her. Very brave, I thought.

  36. Jennifer Naughan says:

    You have handled your situation with great poise and wisdom. But, I’m sure it was a long road. I am on that same road and it is a wonderful feeling to know I am okay, but on the other hand, I have bouts of mourning for what I thought I had, never did, but yet feel I have lost in a relationship that can, or may, never be. You chose happiness and your story is very helpful to me on my own path – thank you.

  37. Martha Ruskai says:

    Brilliant and funny.
    As a recovering Catholic taught to always look inside for what I did wrong this hits the nail on the head.
    My late Mother always bewailed the fact that she failed as a Mother because none of her children became Nuns. When I pointed out to her that now that her youngest, me, was out of the house and her husband dead she was free to pursue this holiest of professions herself she was struck dumb and never spoke of it again.
    The other mind-blowing moment came when planning *my* wedding. At one point she turned to me and said, “This is MY party, you and _____ are the guests of honor.”
    Thank you for this reminder at a time when I need it to help deal with a few difficult people at work.
    This will help so much.

  38. MissyMagoo says:

    My friend Martha (above) sent me this link – she & I share a lot and connected because of our mothers.
    I most certainly could have written your article – same issues with clothes at Christmas. It took my father saying something to my mother years ago “why don’t you buy something SHE likes rather than what you want to wear” – thank God for him…
    I applaud you for being brave and sharing your story – great to know I’m not the only one out there.

  39. blog says:

    Ms. Markoe, I am enawed (came here via Ken Levine). Narcissism is the psycho-immune system’s response to chronic self-loathing.

  40. MW says:

    I have a narcissitic sister in law who makes up just about everything about herself to try and one up ‘whoever’ she is talking to or about. I was telling her that my cancer may have spread and she says with a smirk on her face, “Gee, your life reaaaaaaaallllly sucks right now.” She then proceeded to tell me that she would be dancing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (NOT!) She had a parking sticker on her car from a local high school she was attending to try and get her GED (she failed the test), The name of the high school is also the name of a local university. We were at a university event and she told us….”Oh yes because I attend ________, I got in for free.” It’s so funny how a narcissitic person will make up stories of granduer about themselves and tell them to people who know they aren’t true! But the ultimate one-uppance is when I had relations with a guy. She was so jealous that she slept with him too, and she was married. I only found this out from the fellow a few years ago! I broke off my friendship with her years ago but married her brother in law so I am sometimes thrust back into her little game. UUUGHHH!