So It Begins

It’s Narcissist Friday!

My wife and I were at a restaurant recently with two women and a small child (maybe 3 years old) sitting nearby. One woman was the grandmother (she said), and we assumed the other was the mother. The little one started acting up, not loudly, and we heard the grandmother say, “You better start acting right or we will send you to another family. You can go to another home.” Then she apparently pointed out some people and asked, “Do you want to go home with them? How about them? No, well you better stop fussing.”

That’s all we heard, but I started thinking about that little child. So young and already hearing a message that ties acceptance to performance. In fact, already learning that acting like a little child is something to be rejected. Now, it appeared to me that the child was already a foster child or adopted. He was a different race than the two women. Obviously, I could be wrong, but it seemed that the child had already suffered some kind of rejection, perhaps more than once.

Children do not understand adult expectations or standards. Instead, they learn what it takes to get past the pain and sadness. When adults expect children to act like adults, rather than their age, the children do not learn to become adults. They learn to act in ways that move adults to accept them or do what they want. In other words, they learn to manipulate the system before they are part of it.

I suspect that narcissism often begins when children are bound by expectations to be what they are not. They are rejected when they are themselves and accepted only when they are something they cannot be. We have often said that the narcissist sets up and supports an image of self, something for others to admire and serve. That image is better than the narcissist, better than everyone else. That image can do everything the narcissist cannot. It is stronger, smarter, better looking, more worthy, and more important than others. The image is what the narcissist thinks he/she must be in order to be accepted.

When acceptance is tied to performance, and we don’t understand or cannot achieve the level of performance expected, we will try to deceive, distract, or even attack to get the pressure off. This was what I saw in legalism in the church, long before I started teaching about narcissism. Church members were told what they needed to do and be but not how to do or be those things. The level of performance was either vague or impossible. So they used comparisons, lies, criticisms, and distractions to take the focus away from their inadequacies. They might have tried to conform, but most of them simply learned how to manipulate the system.

And this is what narcissists do. A good portion of the pressure you feel from the narcissist is the result of the pressure he/she feels. She wants to look good, so she makes you look bad. He wants others to see him as superior, so he pushes you to do well and takes credit for your work. The narcissist has not learned how to be superior, but how to look that way.

That little child at the restaurant was being prepared for a life of manipulating others to avoid rejection. He will very likely try to make people think he is so good, so superior, that they wouldn’t want to reject him. He may become critical of others, never allowing them to feel loved and fully accepted. He may use others to salve the fear and pain he feels. He may even abuse others to make himself feel stronger and smarter and more worthy of admiration. Whatever it takes to feel accepted. I pray for that little one.

Now, whenever I try to explain the development of narcissism in the heart of a child, we are almost overwhelmed with this sense of compassion. I feel it. I have heard childhood stories from narcissists that break my heart.

BUT – my grief and compassion does not excuse the choice the narcissist makes to use and abuse. And, yes, it is a choice. It was a choice long ago, and it continues to be a choice. In so many ways, the narcissist has never grown out of that fear of rejection, that childhood of confusion and angst. By pushing the child down, hiding the anxiety rather than dealing with it, the narcissist continues childhood as an adult. He/she chooses to continue to hide and chooses to continue to manipulate.

Many people grew up in situations as bad as or worse than the narcissist. Most of them do not choose to hurt others to make themselves feel good. Most of them do not depersonalize others to the point where they don’t care about the pain they cause. Some do struggle with the wounds of their childhood. That’s sad. But many remember their pain and wish to help others in similar situations. I suspect there are far more who want to help others because of their own suffering.

One of the primary reasons narcissism is so difficult for professionals to classify among the various personality, emotional, and mental disorders is that it is inconsistent and can be unlearned. Narcissists can learn to behave differently, even if they continue to have some of the same fears. But few want to change. This is the way life works for them. This is the way they get what they want. Others don’t matter. Disruption either doesn’t matter or is a tool worth using. Narcissists may not feel things like love and compassion, but they don’t have to be cruel.

So, yes, we have compassion for the pain the narcissist has suffered, but that does not excuse his/her cruelty. Don’t let your compassion compromise your boundaries!


Filed under Narcissism, Uncategorized

26 responses to “So It Begins

  1. A friend

    Wow, just wow! I was that little child.

    • I am so sorry! That’s hard for most of us to imagine. I found it upsetting. Compassion and prayer for that little one … and for you.

      Yet, as horrible as that situation was and is, the response to it is a choice – for an adult. A child doesn’t know how to respond to something like that, but not all, not even most, grow up to be narcissists. We grieve for children like that, but still hold adults accountable for their cruelty – even if they were victims of cruel people.

      • I was that child, too. And worse. When I was a preschooler, my mentally ill father stopped the car on the Oakland Bay Bridge and carried me over to the railing, chanting in an eerie, sing-song, psycho voice “I’m going to throw you off the bridge, Linda! I really will! I’m going to throw you off the bridge and you will die!” — I wondered what I had done so terribly wrong that it made my daddy want to kill me. More than sixty years later, I still can’t drive over a tall bridge without flashing back.

        As I write my memoir, looking back over my life, I realize that in my younger years, I came close to becoming a narcissist. I tried so hard to be perfect, I tried so hard to excel, to be worthy of acceptance and love. What stopped me from becoming a narcissist like my parents was simply because I could not bear the thought of causing anyone any pain. I know how bad it feels to be in that kind of emotional pain, and I did not want to do that to anyone.

        I was just on the phone talking with my stepdaughter about the fact that I have not yet filed a complaint with the state attorney general about a local company that I am sure has defrauded my husband and me out of almost $1,700. We really could use that money, too, for repairs on our house. I have known about this fraudulent loss of our money for almost a year now. Why haven’t I done anything about it?

        After reading this post, I know why I have been dragging my feet. I don’t want to be the cause of anyone going to prison.

        Oh dear Lord — what am I supposed to do? My husband did not want to report this theft, which is why I took it upon myself to do it. I could not understand why my husband was willing to just let the money go, but now I am sure this is the reason tor his reluctance, too. Someone working at that company will probably end up in prison. Someone who would smile and be so very nice and friendly when we went in to do business with them.

        We are senior citizens living on social security and my husband’s veteran’s disability. We used up our small savings to buy this house a year ago. We can’t afford to give $1,700 to a thief. But we don’t want to put anybody in prison. 😢

    • I read this post about an hour or more ago, when your comment was the only one here. I keep thinking about what you said… “I was that little child.” My heart aches for you.

  2. Sylvie

    Yes, the whole time I read this, I was thinking of a saying I often think of when hearing theories of what forms narcissists: “The same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay.” Some people’s hearts become softer to others’ pain because of such treatment, and some become hard as stone.

    • SD

      Pastor Dave said, “So, yes, we have compassion for the pain the narcissist has suffered, but that does not excuse his/her cruelty. Don’t let your compassion compromise your boundaries!”

      Sadly, sometimes what appears as a stone-hard heart from the outside just might be the necessity of a minimal-contact or No Contact “relationship” when it is clear that any contact would only result in more-of-the-same use and/or abuse by the N. There seems to be an unspoken assumption, especially within today’s christianity, that one should abandon all boundaries and serve to the death, in hope they will somehow “come to Christ” through such… I was caught up in that heart-set for many years. But that is what the Narcissist person, family or organization wants, that you serve THEM and THEIR wishes, goals and perceived needs, “proving” they are supremely important and the universe does indeed revolve around them. Is it compassionate to either side, to feed that, or is it what we used to call ‘sloppy agape,’ to emote and then act on that emotion without discernment or understanding or wisdom, given from God?

      Sometimes what appears from the outside to be a ‘compassionate heart’ might be falling into the same old patterns of letting oneself be used for another’s (not the Father’s) purposes, because it’s familiar or easier/less painful in the short term to just give in. And sometimes what appears from the outside to be a ‘heart of stone’ is the necessity of maintaining a firm boundary against that same old, same old “use-abuse-discard-rinse-repeat” cycle. Speaking of adults, obviously, not children – though my heart aches to hear of that child, and the thousands of others, who are set up so young for a lifetime of thinking they exist only for others to make use of in whatever way THEY see fit… and that attitude seems to be so very very prevalent in American society today, doesn’t it? It isn’t enough to live your life in Him; if you’re not tithing, volunteering, turning yourself inside out to ‘serve others’ you’re somehow a “bad” person and selfish, uncaring, uncompassionate.

      Or you can create healthy boundaries and hold to them even when everyone outside looking on would tell you that you are hard-hearted, cold and cruel. Looking at someone ELSE and deciding if they have a compassionate heart or a stone heart is impossible, only the Godhead has that knowledge. We can only choose, each of us, how we deal with those in our own lives, by the Spirit’s leading. And sometimes that leading might seem hard-hearted, even “stone-hearted” to those who do not know.

      • Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Can’t say it enough. Good people will respect your boundaries. Those who don’t are toxic to you. You are not wrong to set limits to their abuse! And, yes, they will use your compassion against you if they can.

  3. Terri Ray

    Probably the most well written piece I have read.


    Sent from my iPhone Terri Ray c: 512.800.1551


  4. Janet Siegel

    “They are rejected when they are themselves and accepted only when they are something they cannot be.”

    That describes my childhood.
    I was punished or harshly criticized when ever I was “myself”. I came to the conclusion I was just organically bad. (So I bent over backwards to be a people pleaser. That, of course, is a no win, impossible road.)
    But this psychological and emotional environment is what caused me to hunger and thirst to be GOOD. I so wanted to be GOOD, not the “bad girl” I was made to believe that I must have been. I was told I could do nothing right. I was told I was hopeless. I was called stupid, ugly. I as told I was useless. I was told I was born under a rock. This was POUNDED into me almost daily. Naturally, I believed it.
    It was THIS that caused me to accept Jesus, because I was told He could change me and make me GOOD.

  5. blindzanygirl

    I relate. I too had to be the adult. Between two fighting parents. Fisticuffs and all that. I too was held over a brudge over a fast flowing river by my mother. She had me in her hands and the stone wall of the bridge was between her and me. I was over the river, slipping from her grasp. At the last moment she pulked me back, then took me to the grassy bank of the ruver, saying, “Look, it’s okay. Look how nuce thus is.” I had, in her eyes, been naughty because we were walking a long way and I cried because I was tired. I was 3. My mitger is now 93 ans a total narcissist. I am 71 just, and not a narcissist. The way she was made me determine never to be like ger, but to live people. I found Christ at the age of 13 and that was my sa,varion. So it doesn’t always happen that such children become narcissists. Interesting pist though. Hope I haven’t made lots of mistakes in typimg as I am blind.

    • Cecilia K

      How terrible and terrifying, blindzanygirl, for you and for Linda Lee! That should never happen to anyone, much less, a child!

      This post reminded me of a time when I was having lunch with a friend of mine, and she had brought her very young son. I want to say he was maybe 3 at the time. Anyway, I don’t remember what the exact comment or conversation was, but maybe I had said how adorable he was or something, and she said something like, “Yeah, you want him?”

      I knew she was joking, but it made me a little uncomfortable, because kids are smart, and they pick up on more than we think, and I just wondered, how does that make him feel, to hear his mom ask her friend if she wants him? Wouldn’t it make him feel unwanted by his mother?

      • G

        Whenever exasperated parents offer their children to me (it’s happened more often than you would imagine) I always look them in the eye, perfectly straight-faced and reply so that their child(ren) can hear “Absolutely. I would take them in a heartbeat.”

      • Cecilia K

        Excellent response, G, I like that!

    • I am so sorry you went through all of that. No one can know your pain but Jesus. I completely agree that such children don’t have to become narcissists. That was part of the point of my post. But many narcissists did come from those homes.

      • blindzanygirl

        Thankyou vrace. I totally understood what you were saying. It is pissibly a breeding ground for narcissists, but not always, because the child sees simething they really hate and do not want to be like. Thankyou so much for responding to me. Jesus has never let me down

  6. rox

    The story of the child at the restaurant being shamed for acting like a child resonated with me. Being told by my narcissist parents as a youngster that, “You’re not a child. You’re a short adult,” was devastating. They were essentially forcing me to skip all those developmental steps that help a child grow successfully into adulthood. To order a child to be someone he/she is not is to denigrate and shame that person for all the wonderful things they truly are. How sad!

  7. Liz Moore

    Wow !! This is my soon to be former husban, I stayed for 29 years and just couldn’t grapple with the pain of his covert narcissistic abuse. As I have studied this PD and my h I have nothing but sorrow, compassion and grief over a lost man and a marriage as well as complete estrangement from our children.
    This is a serious PD and the angst from this is not to be taken lightly.
    I nearly lost my souls trying to repair a deeply broken man.
    This was an excellent Article and reminded of what I had and left.

  8. Selma

    Last Sunday, I was in church, sitting in front of a young father with two small boys (about 1 & 3) who, not surprisingly, were acting like small boys. At one point, I heard the father say, “Jesus is very disappointed with you.” My heart almost stopped. I wanted to cry. I began to try & convince myself that I must have misheard him. Then, he said it again. I had to restrain myself from turning around & punching him in the nose — which would have caused quite a scandal since I’m the pastor’s wife.

    • And, again, it begins. So sad. My adult sons were at an Awana contest one time when the leader cautioned the kids against cheating by saying, “Remember, God hates cheaters.” No no no!! God loves children and adults. He calls to our hearts with acceptance and forgiveness. He is never disappointed with us. Never. Even when He knows that we are hurting ourselves and others, He looks on us with compassion.

    • hawk2017

      Have your pastor do a sermon on this. Ty.:)

  9. Patty

    Don’t let your compassion compromise your boundaries. So good. So timely. So true. Thanks.

  10. Another ACoN

    A narcissistic Christian couple I know (husband overt, wife covert narcissist) took in a foster child from a third-world country because the husband wanted a toy. The wife told me that the boy had a lot to complain about (no wonder in that narcissistic family). She proudly said they would silence him by telling him that if he didn’t like it, he could go back to where he came from. How callous can you be to boast of being so cruel!

  11. Charlie Rutherford

    Thank you for pointing out how many people grow up in situations as bad and even worse but do not grow up to narcissists or abusive and in fact have stong empathy for those who have suffered in a similar manner. This is helping to dismantle the common wrong belief that all people who grew up abused become abusers and that all “hurt people hurt people.”

  12. Samantha Franklin

    Lord, please heal families of this horrible epidemic.

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