Screenshot: Narcissism in PsychologyToday


Screenshot, Accessed 29 November 2015.

I was going to share this on my instagram until the caption became article length and I realised that my audience over there would potentially misunderstand and relate it too easily to my real life. I have more anonymity in WordPress land. Thankfully. (Waves ‘hello’ to my in-real-life friends and family readers. This post is in no way about you, though some of you might recognise some of the anecdotes I’ve mentioned as concerns I’ve raised in the past.)

In this the initial “N” refers to “the individuals in my life that I suspect have the hallmark characteristics of people with narcissistic personality disorder,” while acknowledging that without a formal psychiatric diagnosis I cannot fully make that claim with one hundred per cent confidence. What I write here is an amalgamation of my real life experiences with a group of individuals.

In early 2015 I happened to read an article online about dysfunctional family dynamics and the effects it can have when people from broken families have events like Mother’s Day. At the time I was reading it from my sociological perspective of taking a general interest in group behaviours. That was, until I noticed that I could relate to several of the stories shared by readers in the comments. The stories that reflected my own life usually came with a label: “narcissistic personality disorder.” My curiosity piqued, I have since started reading whatever I can lay my hands on in relation to the topic. The outright violent and abusive stuff in no way reflects my experiences. But the more subtle forms of control and emotional manipulation most definitely resonate. Having since raised it with my mental health professionals they have agreed that regardless of the label I apply to my situation, what I have experienced is not the normal behaviour of healthy, functioning adults. Whether it means that I’m dealing with genuine NPD people or simply individuals with a lot of similar types of dysfunction is not certain; what is certain to me is that it is one possible avenue of exploration for me in trying to bring my own personal life into a state of greater balance, psychological health and calmness. Basically, it’s a ticket to possibly reducing the drama in my life.  As an anxious introvert, what I greatly desire is a life quietly lived with a few quality people around me. If there’s one thing I hate it’s being dragged into other people’s chaos. It may prove to be a dead-end but for now I’m finding that it’s very helpful reading how survivors of NPD relationships (whether family, spouse, parent, friend, sibling, etc) have helped me gain some insight and clarity on my own circumstances, and have enabled me to begin to effect positive change.

Here’s what I wanted to share on IG (until my caption exceeded the character limit):

You don’t realise that a narcissist has gotten a grip on you until you take a look at yourself, your life, your choices and wonder what happened to your formerly motivated, independent, creative, thoughtful self. Losing all autonomy in the name of keeping the peace by complying with their increasingly intrusive and controlling demands. At first it was fine but over time the little criticisms came in. As someone who tries to better themselves and wants to do well, I was vulnerable to this criticism. At first it was really small stuff, and it even seemed to benefit me. The Ns in question seemed exceedingly helpful and at the expense of their time and money I got new clothes, a new haircut at a fancy salon, new experiences like staying in the city and shopping at exciting shopping malls that covered more physical space than my hometown. It was overwhelming but exciting. I felt indebted to them. I thought they were being generous. It never occurred to me that people would give gifts or be hospitable with a subversive aim to get compliance in return. I was just too naive to do anything but try to see the good in others.

Once the sense of owing them something sunk in, the nitpicking began and eventually escalated into full-scale control of my life, micromanaging every aspect of my life imaginable. At the same time they would point to other people and explain to me why those others were examples of what I must never be.

Eventually I realised that nothing I did was good enough: the music I listened to (“too evil”), the music I played (“mothers shouldn’t play bass guitar, it’s not feminine”), my art (“too morbid”), even how I used the washing machine, my hair (“too long”), my clothes (“they make you look poor and are not appropriate for a mother”), my studies (“I don’t see why you persist with university. Obviously being a mother isn’t good enough for you if you think you need to keep studying”), my physical appearance (“you’re too skinny” and later “you’re too fat” and later again “you’ve lost too much weight”), my religion (“you’re going to hell because your version of Christianity is slightly different to ours”)…

… basically every part of your life is torn down and criticised until virtually nothing is left.

You try to appease them by doing what they say. There is literally never a moment in which they ask you what you want from life, of course. Your own dreams and aspirations for yourself are a non-issue to them. If they see you as an individual at all, it’s just assumed that you want nothing more than to give your life decisions over to them. You move to a completely different part of the state that you don’t particularly like just to be nearer to them but then they ignore you most of the time, so that you fend for yourself in a place where you have no friends or family. You have to start over again in a place that overwhelms you, with no access to a car, your confidence in yourself shattered, no practical support, and entirely limited to whatever is within walking distance (which conveniently includes the church they insist you attend). You leave behind your home church which while admittedly boring as a teenager was by-and-large a safe haven and a place that injected the mystery and awe into life and surrounded you with supportive and encouraging people. You leave your community, friends, family, creative arts, university, the rural life you loved so much, your pets, your books, basically your entire past, and every dream you ever had – because N can convince you that your entire life prior to meeting them was invalid.

If you dare to ask anyone else for help and N hears about it, they’ll come charging back in demanding to know why you dared to get help from someone other than them – but if you do ask them for help they will magically never be available. They’ll tell you why the person you asked is bad. They’ll assault the character of the people that support you. They screen every person you choose to come into your life and basically make it very difficult for you when they realise they weren’t necessarily first on the list of social options.

If they notice you’ve been giving them space, they’ll either accuse you of being motivated out of hatred towards them – and as a person who’s just trying to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’ the worst thing possible is to be suspected of being mean. Or they’ll suddenly be so intensely nice and generous that you start to question what you were ever angry about. You’ll start agreeing with them again, not realising they’re escalating again from the seemingly small stuff so that you think you over-imagined the sense of being controlled. Your spouse can’t see it for what it is either – they think that N means well and is therefore not to be held accountable for your sense of abject misery.

And again, the same old patterns will arise. Year after year after year. You don’t know anyone who can help or understand because from their point of observation it appears that you just get along with N so well that they think it’s a mutually agreeable relationship. You’ll be held accountable to every move you make – the books you read (“what are you reading that for? You didn’t buy that from the Christian bookstore I take you to, did you?”); the music you listen to (“I thought I told you exactly what I think of that satanic-sounding stuff”); the hobbies you have (“you need to try drawing something else, I don’t like your subject matter”)… that is, until they realise that outsiders admire what you do with your art and writing, and then suddenly they’re highlighting the fact they know you. And N will not recall that they ever told you how much they hate your art while they’re in a phase of telling everyone they ever met just how proud they are of your work and how they perceive that they were integral to your art in the first place. That’s right, they actually think that your lifelong love for and interest in art, music, religion, books and animals was their doing, despite your not having met them until you hit adulthood. They will take credit for the best of what you accomplish but blame you for everything else. Your kids do something good? They’ll explain how it was their influence. Your kids do something bad? It’s because you’re a terrible parent. They will accuse you of all kinds of strange crimes, like jeopoardising their employment opportunities (until you remember that they run a home business and it’s not as if they’re firing themselves).

If you, as a parent, make any mistakes, they will take it as proof that they deserve custody of your child. They will try to break down your confidence as a parent, chipping away at your motherhood until you start to wonder if they’re right. They will try to win over the kids by making repeated statements about how “isn’t mummy silly” or “I think mum is wrong,” replete with a smile on N’s face, always ready to dismiss it as “just a joke.” But it’s not a joke and after a while the kids start saying they don’t want to spend time near N because they always come away emotionally distraught and confused.

N is never happy and they’ll just keep shifting the goal post and blaming you for never measuring up to their demands. They’ll convince you that God Himself sent them to put you on the “right” path. By that time your own autonomy has so disintegrated that you don’t even remember how to fight back or stand up. They will assimilate you until you are nothing but a compliant extension of themselves. The second you get help – in my case, it was asking my doctor for help because I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and I couldn’t work out what was wrong with me – and you learn how to turn your back on them and say that enough is enough, they will try to destroy you through backstabbing, rewriting history and trying to turn your spouse against you… Until they find a fresh codependent to feed on.

To make it worse, they literally will not remember the cruel things they said to and about you, so that when you confront them with the emails and text messages and screenshots to prove it they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about and accuse you of being the insane one. To outsiders who know both victim and narcissist, they will not comprehend the toxic interactions going on in the background. They’ll think you’re exaggerating. They’ll think you’re crazy – after all, you’re the one getting psychotherapy – and that you’re fabricating the whole thing or that it’s just a gross miscommunication. They will try to explain that because the N meant well, surely it wasn’t all that bad. They will not be able to comprehend how any one person could destroy another and accuse you of doing a crap job at defining your boundaries, not realising that N does not recognise other people’s reasonable boundaries. When you tell N their habit of walking in on you getting changed is making you feel really uncomfortable they will tell you it’s your fault for being an uptight prude. You basically have no bodily autonomy whatsoever because they don’t see you as separate from themselves.

Outsiders will not know what it is like to feel like every last shred of what you once were obliterated by another human being. You find the little clues and hints – an immediate family member might pipe up from time to time and ask what happened – but most people are too polite to confront the obvious, drastic changes in your personality. Oh, there was no “illegal” stuff. No one got hit or physically hurt. It’s not like you can call the police and say, “N is kind of a jerk, arrest them because they’re annoying me.” It’s more subtle than that. It’s in the reams of abusive email that while they aren’t threatening, they are extremely nasty – and then there’s the fact that they demanded your own email address be on the server they administer so that you’re not even sure they aren’t reading it. When you decide to change email addresses because it’s creeping you out and you just don’t know that your privacy is protected, they’ll publicly attack you for being a party pooper and not following the rules they made. Like what email address you have. It’s insane. It’s in the angry texts sent to one’s spouse about how you’re destroying other people’s lives. It’s impossible to deal with this through logic or reason. They will twist everything you say.

They will demand to know why you’re no longer helpless. When they realised I’d started driving a car again and cooking again and being generally self sufficient they told me it was motivated out of a desire to make them feel bad. That’s right. My growing independence as an autonomous adult was not my own personal growth into normal mature behaviours but rather an attack on them. When I had a friend offer to cook for me, alleged N #1 actually accused me of deliberately soliciting a free meal to make N feel bad about themselves. When The Husband went away for a five days-long work trip, N was livid that I was confident enough to manage everyday stuff like taking the kids to school and cooking dinners on my own. Apparently I was doing that just to force them out of my life. They actually can’t comprehend that not everything is about themselves.

I learned the term “narcissistic personality disorder” early this year and when I read victims’ stories I see my own experiences in theirs. Knowledge is power. As I learn more I only hope it will strengthen me to gain full control of my own life again.

(No unsolicited advice, please. I’m getting professional help from qualified individuals who are familiar with the specific details of the story.)