“I love you.”
Adult children of narcissists hear those words a lot. But they ring hollow and false to my ears, because words are just words–it’s the actions behind them that give them meaning. And I haven’t been shown much (if any) love or support by my family or the other narcissists in my life who have have uttered those three words to me so many times.
Anyone can send a Hallmark card or say “I love you” but that’s as close to love as narcissists can get, because they never learned what love really is.
There’s a blogger I read who is a narcissist. I like his posts because he writes about narcissistic abuse from a narcissist’s point of view (nope, not Sam Vaknin). Oftentimes you learn more about something when it comes out of the proverbial horse’s mouth. You get a whole new perspective on things that way. Usually he writes about the tactics a narcissist uses to prey on others, but sometimes he’s more transparent and and shows some vulnerability–even writing about the abuse that was done to him and turned him into a narcissist. From one especially gutwrenching post where the blogger, HG Tudor, describes what sort of “love” he was taught as a child:
Love is being told to never trust anybody.
Love is being made to re-write the entire essay because of one spelling mistake.
Love is being sent to stand outside on a cold winter’s day until all three verses of Ode to Autumn are recited correctly.
Love is knowing nothing is ever good enough.
Love is understanding that someone else knows better than you what is best for you.
Love is turning away from the reality.
Love is standing straight against a wall for several hours for speaking out of turn.
Love is for the weak.
Love is being told that when I am gone nobody else will look out for you.
Love is succeeding.
Love is building a wall as high as possible.
Love is trying until it hurts and gaining that final curt nod of approval.
Love is being seen and not heard.
Love is fulfilling your potential and securing that legacy.
Love is hurting you even though it hurts me, but someone in this household has to do it and it won’t be him will it?
Love is reading to yourself than being read to.
Love is living in the shadows and hoping not to be noticed.
Love is being the best.
Love is the preserve of the powerful.
Love is being denied a birthday party because the other children are too stupid.
Love is being undermined in order to prevent conceit.
Love is a begrudged recognition and the injunction to try harder, go further, climb higher, run faster, study longer.
Love is burning your hand but not crying.
Love is a righteous beating.
Love is being distant and pretending things never happened.
Love is being sent away.
Love is not being told.
Love is splendid isolation.
He has it right. He knows this is not what love is, even if he has no idea what real love is. There’s a lot of anger in his post. What he may not realize is this list could apply to ALL children of narcissistic families, not just people like him who have NPD.
There’s one difference though. For those of us who didn’t become narcissists, we somehow learned what love is. Real love is unconditional love: love that is unearned, love that is given just because you’re who you are, regardless of your flaws and shortcomings. You are not shamed for being who you are, at any point, ever. You are cherished for your soul, not your appearance, income, intelligence, or achievements. You are not judged for being in a bad mood or for not being happy all the time. Someone who truly loves you will still love you even when you’re sad, mad or afraid. They will offer support in some way, not turn their back on you or blame you or kick you while you’re on the ground.
Those of us with C-PTSD and other trauma based disorders didn’t get unconditional love from our immediate families. But if we didn’t become narcissists we might have had a taste of enough of it to make a model of it for ourselves. Maybe a loving relative outside of our immediate family–a grandfather or aunt perhaps–showed us this kind of unconditional unearned love. Maybe we were “adopted” by the loving parents of a friend (not literally adopted, just treated like a member of that family). Perhaps we were fortunate enough not to marry an abuser (unfortunately, that’s not the case for most of us, since we were programmed to attract and be attracted to abusers) who showed us what real love is all about. Maybe we had a compassionate teacher when we were young. It’s even possible that one or both of our narcissist parents (if they weren’t malignant or sociopathic) had occasional moments of lucidity when their false self was temporarily down for whatever reason, and during those rare moments were able to see and love us for who we really were, not for what they wanted us to be or what we could give them.
My point here is that love was somehow modeled for us by somebody before the critical period for being able to accept–and give–love came to a close. Probably not enough to heal our wounds; the damage done to us was severe and complete healing may not be possible. The scars will always remain, no matter how much work we do on ourselves. We may be compromised in our ability to give and receive love, but we can still learn. Even if we’ve been shown very little love throughout our lives, by the grace of God, our souls, though damaged, somehow remained intact. For a narcissist, there’s no inkling of what actual love might feel like, even if, as with the blogger quoted above, they want to know.
I’m so starved for unconditional love that when it is given to me, I want to cry in gratitude and some emotion that feels very close to relief. Occasionally I have. I can tell you what that kind of love feels like: a sincere hug when you’re depressed; concerned ears that listen without judgment even if they disagree with you; someone who isn’t a fair weather friend and is still your friend even when you’re going through a rough time or aren’t at your best; a real family that always welcomes and supports you no matter how old you are or how many problems you’ve faced and doesn’t disown you, judge you, shun you, talk badly about you behind your back, or tell you everything’s your own fault. Love is like a respite from pain after an excruciating illness; it’s reassurance that the thing you dreaded the most did not come to pass, that in fact, the outcome was wonderful instead. That’s what love feels like, and it’s everyone’s birthright. That some of us received so little of it–or none at all–is appalling to me. The injustice of it makes feel rage.
I received just enough of this kind of love, and at an early enough age, that it was modeled for me. I received just enough that my soul escaped relatively intact, even if my mind did not. I can feel unconditional love for others, but I’m still afraid to reach out to them, because I learned that people can’t be trusted. So many people in my life have shown me their “love” has no real meaning and is just three pretty words with nothing inside but betrayal and hurt. The terrible irony of having received enough of a “taste” to know what real love is like is that you constantly crave more of it, like a drowning person gasping for air. You haven’t received enough to feel confident that it will last or that anyone in the world really cares about you, so you either clutch onto it for dear life or avoid relationships altogether.