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!