When you have a parent who is a narcissist (imagine Donald Trump), you can never have your own thoughts and feelings. You can only have thoughts that align with that parent, and can only have feelings that mirror what that parent is feeling at that exact moment. Anything else is met with a confusing mix of guilt-tripping, rage, manipulation, and attempts to fill you with self doubt.
I have severe sleep apnea. Before it was treated I was having trouble with short-term memory. I had learned to cope with this by taking lots of notes, and repeating important things in my head over several days. The interesting phenomenon was that I had no trouble at all accessing long-term memories. So with that method, I was able to cope with the day-to-day rigors of a detail-oriented job.
My NPD parent, however, used the fact that I had at one point struggled with memory (not understanding that I wrote down literally everything I ever said to him, and everything he said to me), to convince me at all times that I needed to defer to his memory of how things happened. However, it was totally at odds with what I’d written down about 85% of the time. But he built in the self doubt because it benefited him… he got to “always be right.” I learned as a child not to disagree with him, so instead I allowed him to try and convince me that I was always wrong about my recollection, and he used that to essentially blame me for whatever he wanted to. This led to a pattern of him attributing statements and decisions to me that were actually made by him.
My wife and I were talking about this recently, and she said “Pete, I know he always told you that your memory sucks and he was always right, but Pete… you actually have a good memory.” It was the first time I’d had that parental commentary challenged by someone who talks to me every single day. If anyone would be aware of my memory failing, it would be her. The fact was, I really was remembering things correctly, and my parent was using his knowledge of my “weaknesses” to push me around.
The notes I was taking were always in stark contrast to what he insisted I had said, and it made me question my own sanity. I simultaneously worried that if I left the business venture in which he and I had engaged, that it would quickly fail. But how could that be, if I was the memory-impaired imbecile that I had been convinced that I had become?
“Perhaps the most commonly shared fear among children and spouses of narcissists is that your efforts to change your situation with the NPD individual will be the cause of his catastrophic self-destruction. You are not only aware of his capacity for rage, but also his deep vulnerability. Even though you have never understood his problems, you have long sensed the presence of some deep wound. You can’t imagine the guilt you would feel if your actions precipitate his deterioration. The dilemma for you has become a growing awareness that survival is coming down to him or you. You may be adhering to the belief that the goodness of love and patience of time will bring change and healing… I will simply say that the NPD person is unlikely to change without the proactive efforts of someone close to him. Much like the dynamics of alcoholism, the NPD individual needs to see the consequences of his narcissism to recognize that he must face his behaviors, if not his inner issues, in order to continue his relationship with you.”
I know this is a sentiment that my entire family felt for years. Eleanor Payson wrote those words in her book “The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists.” The book was extremely eye-opening for me as it so perfectly described not only him, but me, my mother and my siblings. The pathology of NPD is so predictable that she is able to perfectly describe my home growing up.
My own pathology is described in three pages of this book, written years before I read it. “Left under siege, this child must tap into her inner self for inventive means for survival and often become resourceful, and determined…. Yet the untold side … is the anger and rage you must feel for the endless insults to your dignity and integrity…. For the “rivaled against” child, this unresolved anger will lead to….a repeating struggle for positive mutual regard in their relationships…. Many “rivaled against” adult children strive to excel in their family business or other enterprise, hoping to surpass the NPD parent’s success in order to gain approval, revenge, or both.”
I hid my true thoughts and feelings because they weren’t wanted. In fact, they were explicitly NOT wanted. I was expected to be a “yes” man, and if I did not, I was either bullied, ignored, or told that I wasn’t smart enough or my memory wasn’t good enough to be right. As a result of my silence, we entered into many terrible business arrangements and honestly hurt good people along the way as a result.
The point of all of this is self reflection. One of the most common things for someone who grew up in my spot is lack of empathy (which I’ve long felt), and often repeating the patterns of the parent. I don’t want to do any of those things, and I certainly don’t want to lack empathy – especially as a father. It’s easy to dismiss a kid’s problem as insignificant, because I know with 39 years of life experience that it really isn’t significant in the grand scheme of things. HOWEVER, to my child, it is significant, and that should be enough for me. Right now, it seems like the biggest thing in the world to her. It’s not silly if it’s important to one of my kids. It matters.
At the end of the day, money, power, status, sex, and whatever selfish pursuits a person can have are completely meaningless. What matters is our spouse and our children.