When someone who’s hurt us behaves as though nothing is wrong, they deny what we feel. When confronted and reacting as though we’ve hurt them, they deny us once again and put a fiction in our place.
And in their place, we move through the subsequent Kubler-Ross stages of grief for them as externalized ego-functions of them. We’re infuriated, confused. We try desperately to reason with them, to save both ourselves and the relationship. And when it becomes dreadfully apparent that it is we, not they, who must choose one or the other then we feel sadness. It is at this critical juncture, this decision at this point that separates the narcissist and their enablers from we who survive and succeed them.
I’ve apparently been sent a “gift” for Christmas from Brother through our father. Earlier this year Sister also used our father to deliver a “gift” on my birthday. These are two people who have expressed nothing but contempt for me in the past, have nothing to do with me in the present and for whom my future has no place. People who don’t like me, don’t give me things. But these do. So what I am to make of this seemingly conflicted, crazy-making behavior?
It’s never overtly spelled out but I think I know what I’m supposed to do, what my prescribed role is and what my unspoken expected response should be in all this: forgive, forget, move on (which is to say, reset back to default) and receive this “gift” in lieu of acknowledging, much less resolving any of our problems and, further, as a down payment to justify future abuse. This is giving a “gift” the same way a fisherman “feeds” a fish — always with strings attached.
The despairing citizen victims of Metropolis shout at Superman as he retreats from the battle with Kryptonian war criminals General Zod and his super-minions, Ursa and Non, that they put themselves directly in harms way of. Apparently too stupid to understand the situation, these dumb beasts chose to crowd a fight that was destroying the city around them rather than running for their lives. Zod and Ursa mock Superman – as well they ought – for making liabilities of the throngs of morons demanding and taking for granted that Superman will protect them as they willfully meander into this meat grinder like moths to a flame. And Superman’s reward for disappointing these ingrates with unreasonable expectations of and taking him for granted: disparagement for not being good enough to give enough.
It’s never enough.
Re-watching Superman II, I imagine an alternate ending to this scene playing out with Superman laying waste to all these deserving victims, Zod looking on initially with shocked horror as everyone is summarily incinerated by eye-lasers, iced by freeze-breath and crushed beneath jagged, broken slabs of their own beloved city, but then Zod’s expression turning to an understanding, even approving, smile. Superman might never be good enough no matter how hard he tries to be but he could certainly be bad enough just as he is.
The first strategy Sam mentions is the child isolating themselves from the narcissistic parent, reaching away for and adopting other, more suitable parental figures. This has become my strategy by consequence as much as by choice.
I’ve always said that my siblings and I essentially raised ourselves, Mother being more like an absent roommate than a parent and us, mere meal tickets used to wine and dine her boyfriends on the child support garnished from our father she unceremoniously discarded. Brother went to school wearing shorts and rubber boots, whatever he could find. I, myself, duct taped my shoes and tried to modify old clothes. Sister was excellent at scrounging for edible things not deemed off limits to create inventive food items from. All while we were berated as ungrateful, spoiled brats that didn’t do enough for Mother if we were paid any attention to.
Few things appear more perplexing than a someone aware of and seeking recovery from narcissistic abuse in full-throated support of “unpresidented” Donald J. Trump, a man that a significant number of psychologists have been compelled beyond usual ethical constraints to point out the pattern of malignant narcissistic behavior of (behavior that could also be explained by drug use, dementia or syphilis). After all, wounded healers that we are have sought answers that we’ve sacrificed for to move beyond the suffering we happened to find ourselves in and many of us share what we’ve learned so that others might do the same. That any of us could or would become enamored with a prime textbook example of the very thing we struggle to liberate ourselves from seems beyond the pale. And yet it happens.
A LOT is being made of narcissism as deliberate evil as symbolized by charming vampires, merciless terminators and wicked witches orchestrating hoards of flying monkey minions. “They know what they’re doing,” we say. “They just don’t care how it affects who they’re doing it to.” But how aware and, more importantly, in control of themselves are they really?
For those of us estranged from our families during the family fetishized holidays shoring up the end of the year, the pressure to forgive and forget can be especially pronounced. Society at large tells us that – to borrow a turn of phrase from the poet, Alexander Pope – to err is human; to forgive, divine. And that the victim is the perpetrator, the betrayer, the pariah should forgiveness be withheld — to be pitied, subjected to public scorn and, ironically, unforgiven for being unwilling to forgive. Rather than emphasis on understanding and compassion, this is institutionalized blaming of the victim that I think most of us were raised to believe, wrongly.
The narcissist exhibits an intuitive, almost preternatural awareness of who we are and what buttons to push in order to elicit the responses they want. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and diagnosed NPD, labels this sense “cold empathy” — that is to say, a dispassionate, more strictly cognitive form of empathy. But I don’t think it’s any kind of empathy.
As a black hole is a failed star collapsed under its own gravity into an inescapable singularity, the narcissist is a failed child reduced to a single function: the insatiable acquisition of attention to feel special (narcissistic supply). We can’t see black holes but for the distortion of space and effect on objects surrounding them. Similarly, narcissists hide in plain sight belied only by the social disruption left in their wake.