It’s Narcissist Friday!
Every once in a while I come up with a term for a narcissistic behavior only to find that the term is already being used for something else. I have wanted to write about a certain type of narcissist who controls others by being needy. I thought that the helplessness these people exhibit is a learned behavior. So I looked up “Learned helplessness.” Yes, it is a psychological term used for those who have tried a certain task repeatedly without success, then have become convinced that they are unable to do the task. A kidnap victim, for example, may try to run away and fail over and over, then give up and become unable to take advantage of real opportunities. Some of the more famous kidnapping cases, like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, may be examples of this inability in victims to help themselves.
Of course, I realized that I couldn’t really apply the term to “needy” narcissists. But before I left the idea altogether, I remembered that narcissists are often mimics. They watch others to see what works: who gets attention and service. Some are loud and obnoxious, having learned that intimidation works. Others are critical and cruel, having learned that abusive behavior works. But some are needy because they learned that helplessness works.
So I am going to call this “Contrived Helplessness.” It is learned, as are all the narcissist techniques, but it is not a response to real trauma, at least not to different trauma than most of us suffer through our lives. Instead, this is a method of control, using others to meet needs and desires.
The Needy Narcissist wants you to do things for her/him. But she can’t just ask you. You have to want to do these things. You have to value the narcissist enough to serve with enthusiasm. That way you become the servant by choice.
Needy narcissists will express themselves with what seems like humility. They tell you what they can’t do. Whereas the normal narcissist brags, the needy narcissist whines and moans. He doesn’t have enough money for lunch. She can’t get all her work done. Too many expectations. Too many aches and pains. Too weak. Too old. Too traumatized. Too sick.
This contrived helplessness works. Especially in the church. Many people have reported trying to help a person in need only to find themselves stuck in the relationship as some kind of caregiver. You take a meal over and end up doing housecleaning. You do the housecleaning while listening to a recital of how few people really care. You stopped by for a few minutes and spent the afternoon. You can’t complain because you volunteered to help.
But then the calls begin. During lunch. After supper. Pulling you away from family and daily responsibilities. Spend time with me, the narcissist says. But she doesn’t actually say that. Instead, she calls with a crisis or asks for advice. You talk for an hour about her/his problems, and you struggle to find a way to get off the phone. Why don’t you come over tomorrow, the narcissist asks. Spend more time. Don’t worry about your family. Don’t complain about being tired. Don’t bring up your problems. The narcissist wants your time. He/she gets it by being needy.
And the work starts. The narcissist wishes she could get to church but is so afraid of driving. You volunteer to pick her up on your way. Of course, you will have to wait for her to be ready. It’s hard, you know. If her washer worked, she could have better choices of her clothes. So, you volunteer to do her wash. Oh, that would be great. She’ll have it ready on Tuesdays. That will give you time to get it back to her on Friday for Bingo. (Yeah, you notice that she somehow gets to Bingo.) But, pretty soon, you find your weekly schedule revolves partly around her laundry.
And the money begins to flow. She could do her own laundry if she just had enough for a new washer. It’s just a loan, you think. But her new washer is nicer than yours—and you just paid for it. She wants to begin driving herself to church, but the car has been acting up. Can’t trust it (except for Bingo). If she just had money for repairs. You know a good mechanic. Oh, that would be great. Again, it’s just a loan.
If you have lived through this, you will understand. Your time, your money, your energy—they are all going to the narcissist. You get so little in return, especially when you realize she was doing all of this without you before you took that meal. And you begin to understand that nothing has really changed. She doesn’t get ahead. She doesn’t become more able. If anything, she has become more needy as you have helped more.
Usually, there’s another aspect to what the needy narcissist wants from you. You are supposed to compliment him. But, unlike the regular narcissist who almost asks for the compliment, the needy narcissist gets you to do it without him asking. He tells you that he just isn’t good at anything. That’s why he can’t find a good job. So you sit down to list all the things he can do well. He is a good carpenter, you say. But no one’s hiring carpenters, he says. And he couldn’t do that kind of work anymore. That cabinet he made is quality work. But he no longer has good enough tools. Eventually, you understand that he doesn’t want work, he wants you to say nice things about him.
Eventually, these relationships become stressed. Big surprise. Some day you will say something. You will decide not to answer the phone, skip the laundry run, end the compliments. You will hint that you should get some of that loan money back. And—suddenly—the needy narcissist will become angry, even resentful. You might find that he stops calling and won’t answer your calls. She stops going to church and blames you when she talks with others. She thought you were her friend, but all you can do is criticize. Eventually, you realize you aren’t going to get your money back.
What do you do? Well, most of us write these things off as the price of a “good education.” We are more cautious next time. You could push the issue and try to get your money back, realizing that the needy narcissist will try to make you look bad. You might actually get your money because the narcissist will want you to go away. But she/he will lie and cry and gather support against you first. On the other hand, you might be surprised. People are often not quick to take the side of someone who will not repay a debt.
Now you might be thinking that this is the same as Munchhausen’s Syndrome. Actually, the narcissist’s needs don’t revolve around being sick—as in going to the doctor. Munchhausen’s is usually associated more with being a patient, under physical care from professionals. The narcissist might use sickness or disability, but you will notice that they rarely get any real help for those things. That’s because those complaints are useful and, if not phony, at least far less than portrayed.
On the other hand, both behaviors are almost certainly learned. Let’s call it “contrived helplessness.”