It’s Narcissist Friday!
Some of us are old enough to remember when telephone answering machines had two cassettes. One was for the incoming message and one for the outgoing. The one for the outgoing message was an endless loop. It lasted only a few seconds or a minute and you had that amount of time to record your message. (I was going to mention the early talking dolls with similar tapes, but then I remembered the ones with the little records in them and I started feeling old so I stopped.)
I learned something about how the memory works a while ago. For years, every time I fried some eggs I would remember a restaurant in Kansas City where I had a good breakfast. I kept trying to figure out why I thought of that every time. It wasn’t a bad memory, but not a great one either. It just became connected to frying eggs.
I puzzled about this, until I listened to a recording that mentioned the phenomenon. The explanation was surprisingly simple. The memory can be triggered almost at random. We simply find ourselves thinking about something. But when we puzzle about the connection between that memory and what we are doing, the puzzle becomes a memory on its own, a much more recent one. So, after the first time this came up while I was frying eggs, I remembered it as a puzzle the next time. I couldn’t figure out the connection before and it felt unresolved. Wanting resolution, my mind connected the two almost every time from then on.
So the idea is that unresolved conflicts, puzzling events, mysteries—these things stay in the front part of our minds because we want them settled. The problem is that our mind doesn’t really know when and how things get settled.
Narcissism is puzzling. Narcissists do things that don’t make sense. You know the questions. Why did he do that? Did I do something to cause this? Is she really that cruel? Didn’t she hear what she said? Did she mean to cut so deep? What kind of person does that? The more questions surround the narcissistic relationship, the more we long for resolution.
So strong is this desire for closure and understanding that we will often make assumptions about the narcissist or the situation just to try to settle our minds. We hear that many narcissists suffered as children. Oh, that explains it, we tell ourselves. We hear that narcissism is a mental illness and suddenly we think we have an answer. Or someone tells us that we just aren’t loving enough and we grab the statement as truth. But explaining narcissism isn’t usually that easy. His childhood wasn’t that bad. Narcissism is not a mental illness. You are a loving person. So now how do you explain what happened?
This seems to come up a lot in narcissistic friendships or short intimate relationships. They are often like drive-by shootings, dangerous but random. But those in long-term narcissistic relationships ask many of the same questions. Why? How does this make sense?
Ever wake up in the morning with an unexplained bruise? It hurts and it is dark on your skin, but you don’t remember hitting anything. So you puzzle about it; and, when you think about it, you rub it. When you rub it, it hurts. When it hurts, you think about it more. And on and on. The pain reinforces the question, aggravates the puzzle, in your mind. Narcissists cause pain and sometimes, in situations that continue, that pain keeps going. The best way to handle the unexplained bruise is to ignore it. If you stop rubbing it, it will probably go away. (Now, I know that some unexplained bruises are indications of more serious internal problems, but we will let the analogy stand as it is.)
Sometimes you have to let the mystery go. Force yourself to move on. Sometimes there are no answers for you to find. As we move through our days we sometimes bump into things. It happens so often we don’t usually remember it. And sometimes, as we move through our days, we meet people whose brokenness moves them to use and hurt others. The mystery of their brokenness belongs to them, not us. We may never understand why they do what they do.
So let me give a practical suggestion: Do what you need to do to protect yourself and to find health. Establish boundaries, create distance, find support. Then give the mystery to God.
As I get older I learn more that mysteries belong to God. We even have a simple saying, “God only knows.” Sometimes that’s true. Only God knows the answer you are looking for. And He knows that you don’t really need it. You just need to move on. Wipe the dust off your feet and don’t look back (you know those are both Biblical references?). Leave the puzzle, the anomaly, the question, with God.
Once I understood why I thought about that restaurant as I was frying eggs, that there was no real answer for the puzzle, I could let it go. It still happens once in a while, but I mostly shrug it off. The mystery is gone.
Once you believe that you will never really understand the narcissist in your life, that his or her actions have little to do with you, you can let it go. Every time the puzzle comes up, give it to God. Thank Him for taking the mystery and trust Him with it. Then shrug your shoulders and go on with your day. Don’t let narcissism be an endless loop of focus in your life.