It’s Narcissist Friday!
There’s a video out there about a social experiment that almost went very bad. The goal was to see how people would respond to a young girl who needed help because she had lost her mother. Apparently the expectation was that strangers would try to help the girl in some way. The whole thing came to a screeching halt when a man took the hand of the girl and started walking away with her. No one expected they were setting her up for an abduction.
Pretending is both a normal childhood game and a way of coping with intense emotions. Someone who is frightened might act tough. Someone who is sad might act nonchalant. Someone who is angry might deny the anger. People pretend.
But let’s suppose that a young child pretended to be lost or hurt and found that the attention and extra love felt good. The child does it once and learns that people are kind and helpful and she is considered important. So she does it again. Different people respond and, again, it feels good. Maybe the rescuers buy her ice cream and tell her she is pretty and sit with her until her mom comes back. Maybe the police get involved, and she gets to ride in a police car, and the officers are kind. And maybe she learns that pretending to be lost or hurt or needy allows her to get what she wants from people.
Then she experiments with different ways of manipulating people, almost all of which involve her being needy in some way. She decides that good people are the ones who help, the ones she can manipulate. Bad people are the ones who think she is pretending or expect her to take care of herself. The rest of the people don’t matter. She only likes the ones she can use, and she only likes them as long as she can use them. It’s a game. A game of pretend.
But the game works. As she grows older, she becomes more sophisticated and more experienced. She learns to judge people. She can tell what techniques will work on what kind of people. Her relationships revolve around these manipulations. Good people are easily manipulated. Bad people are not. She meets young men and learns that the techniques work on them as well. It isn’t long before she is a fifty-year-old narcissistic friend, wife, and mother.
We often say that narcissism is a coping technique learned while young. Usually there is some trauma that causes the child to pretend. He might pretend he is stronger than others. She might pretend she is prettier. He might become a bully to make the pretending seem more real. Once the pretense begins—and meets the need—the child returns to it and builds it. Soon there is little left besides the pretense.
Many people who learn about narcissism have compassion for the child. It was trauma, after all, that made the pretending necessary. So, they say, we shouldn’t judge the narcissist harshly. But the child (and the adult) continued to choose the pretending over reality because pretending felt better. It didn’t matter how others were used or hurt. What mattered was that the child had fun or felt good. Even today, others don’t really matter. What matters is that the narcissist feels good.
It’s sad to think of a child who feels the need to manipulate others in order to feel good about him or herself. It’s something different when an adult does the same thing. Adults are supposed to be responsible for their actions. Hurting others, using others, is not supposed to be an acceptable thing. Adults are supposed to know better and do better. Adults are responsible for changing.
When a child steals in order to get something they want, we teach them that stealing is wrong and has serious consequences. When an adult steals, he may go to jail. We don’t expect to treat the adult, or to think of the adult, as a child. Our compassion for the little child who steals doesn’t attach as well to an adult who steals. A violent child is helped by training and discipline. A violent adult might have to be separated from society.
There is nothing wrong with separating the compassion we have for the child who responds to a time of trauma by hiding, lying, pretending, or whatever, from the need to hold adults accountable for similar actions. Adults make choices and can choose to learn new ways of coping with need and stress. In fact, we expect them to learn new ways.
So, when you begin to think of the poor little child your narcissist used to be, you don’t have to excuse current behavior because of your compassion. There were many choices along the way. Probably many people were hurt. And the narcissist is accountable for the pain others suffer.