This is directly related to my last post, about HG Tudor’s theory of codependency and NPD. My parents tried hard to turn me into a narcissist, and it almost worked. But my innate empathy (which I’m finally learning to rediscover in myself) was what saved me from the curse of NPD.
This post was originally published on Lucky Otter’s Haven on January 21, 2015. But I think it’s actually better suited for this blog.
I remembered how I almost became a narcissist. I think I was finally ready to remember. It’s part of my journey to wellness.
I immediately began digging through boxes of old photos, because I was burning inside to write this post, to confess everything, and photos say a lot.
Narcissism runs in families, and although exacerbated by abuse or neglect, it can develop later in a susceptible person, and it happens because of a conscious choice the person makes. They may not actually be saying, “Okay, I’m going to be a narcissist now,” but they have been teetering on the brink of darkness and the would-be narcissist decides it’s easier to plunge right into narcissism than to keep being hurt as their true self.
3 generations of women: my maternal grandmother Anna Marie, my mother in the center, and me at age 5. (ca 1964) Our family dinners were always this stiff and formal.
Narcissists start life as Highly Sensitive People.
For a number of reasons, I’ve come to believe most narcissists started out as HSPs (highly sensitive people). I will not go into my reasoning here, but I strongly believe these are people who once felt things too much, and if they were abused, it would have been too much to bear. To survive, they constructed a false self in an effort to protect the too-sensitive self (true self) from further hurt. The problem is, for narcissists, the false front works way too well, so well that once it solidifies, it’s there forever.
Tormenting my therapist.
I remembered the therapist I had during my early 20’s. I was terribly infatuated with him, obsessed beyond all logic. This is called transference in psychotherapy and my therapist kept trying to get me to “work through it” but my crush kept intensifying. It was killing me. One day I told him I couldn’t take it anymore and walked out the door in mid session. I never saw him again.
I realize now how narcissistic I acted during my sessions with him. I was attractive and knew it so I flirted openly, tried to get him to hug me (he actually did this until he realized it was a manipulative game on my part and there was a definite sexual aspect).
One day I stormed into his office having a hissy fit because I’d found a magazine in the waiting room with his and a woman’s name on the label. I stomped in, started waving the magazine in the air demanding he tell me why he never told me he had a girlfriend. His answer was quite reasonable (and it was of course none of my business), but I sulked the whole rest of the session and refused to say anything. I’d show him!
After I quit therapy, I hoped I had hurt him. I think I was angry at him for “making” me like him too much and leaving him was my method of punishing him. Of course, my leaving therapy didn’t hurt him. I was just his annoying, demanding, manipulative little bitch of a patient and he probably couldn’t stand me. I wanted to think I was hurting him, but I was really only hurting myself.
It shames me to remember all this, but I really manipulated that therapist, and annoyed him all the time ON PURPOSE. I was sadistic…I was crushing so hard, maybe my strong feelings for him were causing me to want to hurt and anger him. I remember getting a thrill if I could see a look of hurt on his face. It made me feel more powerful–that I could do the hurting instead of always being the one to get hurt.
1977: Still a nice, sensitive, codependent girl at age 18…things were about to get ugly.
I was becoming partly dissociated from the me that is now and the me that was before. But it was all a defense against being hurt, and I knew it. I just couldn’t admit it.
I never saw my therapist’s diagnosis of me (I was there for anxiety and panic attacks) but it makes me wonder if “NPD” might have been one of the diagnoses. I’m pretty sure it was still called NPD in the early 1980s.
I think I can see the beginning of the “narcissist stare” in this photo of me from 1984. I look colder and harder than in the 1977 photo. I see this same look sometimes on my daughter, who is close to the same age I was here. I think this look can also be seen in some Borderlines.
The Danger Zone.
Sometime in my late teens and early 20s I began to act “like I didn’t care.” It was feigned but at the time my high sensitivity was shameful to me. I didn’t want it. It was my albatross, my curse. I was tired of being teased about it. So I made a choice to just act like a different person. Act like a person who didn’t give a shit about anything. I began to drink heavily and smoked a lot of weed to numb the pain of being me. I began to be over-critical of others and gossipy, something I had never been, and spread lies about people I didn’t like to anyone who would listen.
My envy of others (something I still struggle with) was off the charts. I couldn’t stand people who had more than me, were prettier or thinner than me, were smarter than me, or had a better relationship or job than me. I would spread lies and rumors about these more fortunate people. Mostly, it backfired, for my Aspieness made it almost impossible for me to maintain my masks or hold up a lie. A good narcissist has to be good at reading social cues. I wasn’t, but I sure did try.
I found it hard to feel happy for anyone. If a friend got a promotion or fell in love, I felt bitter and jealous instead of glad for them. I’d rant that they didn’t deserve it. And I actually believed this, to a point.
I imagined myself not “needing” anyone. I dated a few guys and unceremoniously dumped them, and yet I was so lonely. I longed to be in a happy relationship, but couldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable enough. I treated men like objects.
I didn’t listen to people. I interrupted them, only thinking of what I would say next. I only wanted to talk about me. Other people were becoming objects too.
I lied to people about my accomplishments (which in actuality were few), my background, my social status. But no one really believed me. I wasn’t good at this game. In fact, I sucked at it.
I think I came very close to becoming an N. Over time, this hard outer shell I’d constructed out of the ashes of my own pain ossified and grew more stable. I was forgetting what it felt like to be vulnerable and human.
There was something else too. During the time I was test driving narcissism, I suffered from severe panic attacks (which is what led me into the therapy described above). I felt like I was out of my body a lot, and that made me panic. Some of these attacks were so bad people thought I was having epileptic seizures, because when I was “out of my body,” I had trouble controlling my movements and would stumble around as if drunk, or my eyes would sort of glaze over as if I wasn’t quite “there.” To rule out epilepsy, I had an EEG done. It came out normal. The only thing I can think of is that somehow the dissociated state I was in was causing me to feel detached from my own body, because I wasn’t “myself.”
Coming back from N hell
One day when I was about 26 (and the same year I got married to my MN ex), a friend of mine from high school told me she didn’t think she could be friends with me anymore, because I was too mean and she didn’t trust me. Other people were calling me out for spreading rumors and lying and my whole flimsy construct came tumbling down. I couldn’t escape from the web of lies I’d created, and now that web threatened to engulf me. It was terrifying but was the wake up call I needed.
I finally realized I was hurting people. Even then, I hated knowing I’d hurt someone else more than I hated being hurt by others. I was overcome with guilt and shame, and realized I couldn’t keep up the mean-girl front anymore. I didn’t become a narcissist, but I came close, so close.
This wake up call catapulted me back into my normal self and the horrific panic attacks soon subsided. (I still have panic attacks from time to time, but they are specific to certain situations and nowhere near as numerous as they were from 1979 – 1984 or so.)
I’d been balancing at the precipice, and ultimately chose codependency (sometimes now referred to as “inverted narcissism”). Looking back, that was actually a very wise choice for if I hadn’t, if my guilt had not been strong enough to stop me in my tracks, I would have been a much different person today, and would not be doing what I’m doing right now. Sharing my journey with other survivors of narcissistic abuse. It’s a contagious thing, and any of us from narcissistic families could have gone in that direction. But we didn’t. That’s why we, not the narcs, are the lucky ones.
I think my Aspergers actually saved me [EDIT: what I thought was Aspergers when I wrote this was actually Avoidant PD + BPD + social anxiety]. I was always bad at reading social cues and therefore can’t lie well and are bad at maintaining a workable mask. To be a narcissist would require me to use skills I did not possess. So I chose codependency because I had not been trained by my MN family to think for myself or trust my own judgment. I was trained to be Narcissistic Supply. That was a role I was much more successful at and comfortable with than my Narcissist Test Drive period.
But I think there was an advantage to my visit to the dark side too, and maybe a reason. I feel like like I understand narcissists’ motives and thinking patterns and self-hatred more than the usual non-narc ACON. Because I almost became one myself and felt a little bit of what they feel. All the money in the world wouldn’t be enough to get me to turn into darkness again. It was like a trip to hell. But I do know, they are in excruciating pain. All the time.
Refinishing a table as young wife (around 1989-1990). I didn’t know how malignant my husband was yet but he was showing signs.
Never feel guilty for feeling guilty.
If I had been able to ignore or deny my guilt or the pain of others that I’d caused myself, I think I would have crossed the line into becoming a fullblown narcissist (though maybe not a malignant one).
Most narcissists make a choice at some point, usually early in life because of abuse but sometimes later, like I almost did. But I think there is also an escape hatch: a window of time where a budding narcissist can still “get out” and redeem themselves before the door between the Ns and everyone else slams shut.
Unfortunately I still have a few narcissistic traits and think I still sometimes act a bit like one. But my ability to feel shame and guilt is very well developed, in fact too well developed (and always has been), so that overrides my N traits. Perhaps that makes me a Borderline (I was actually diagnosed with BPD comorbid with other disorders in 1996). But if I am a Borderline, I try to control those behaviors. I try to be aware of them. I think I’m doing pretty well.
Growing into me.
Now I’m changing, moving farther away from the N and B traits of my early-mid adulthood than I have ever been. I don’t envy people much anymore and am beginning to understand what it feels like to feel joy or sadness for someone else. To feel humbled by the simple but beautiful things that surround us. I’ve embraced my sensitivity and am finding rather than being a curse that brings torment and hurt, it’s a beautiful thing that allows the growth of empathy and true understanding. Instead of shame over it, now I’m proud.
The ironic thing about this is that, it’s because I like myself MORE now, that my N traits are disappearing. I used to think I was worse than a piece of dog poop stuck on the bottom of a shoe and had to go around proving I was more, much more than that. It’s not like that anymore, and I’m ever so grateful I saved myself at the 11th hour.