An ongoing survival guide.
Chapter 6: Scanning your environment (Narcissism begets Capitalism, or Capitalism begets Narcissism)
So why don’t we just all get on board the narcissism train since we are collectively moving in that direction anyway what with our 99% versus the 1%, our reality television celebrities, our insatiable desire for memoirs, our future hope for customizable babies and personalized gene therapy, etc.?
Let’s take a look at the legacy of narcissism. How is it that within two generations we moved from the survivors of the Great Depression to the kind of real life villains that Gordon Gekko was an example of. Charles Keating and Michael Milken, I mean you, and all those S&L bailout goons.
Chances are your narcissistic parent had a pretty rough childhood. Maybe they don’t really talk about it at all, but one commonality that seems to hold up is that narcissists cast their own parents in very black and white terms: they were either saints or the devil.
And don’t even try to get them to think otherwise. Narcissists thrive on black and white thinking. It props up all their own ego needs, keeps them from experiencing the truth of their own behavior, and the lack of real contact in the supposedly close relationships around them.
Let’s try to imagine we are them for a minute. If their parents were either saints or the devil himself, then there is no chance for them to have any real kind of relationship. How can you compare yourself, let alone compete, with a saint? You can’t. Read Angela’s Ashes if you don’t believe me. And if their parents were the devil, then clearly they can’t sustain a meaningful relationship with them either. So, the narcissistic parent has no history of truly reciprocal relationships either to fall back on, or to mold what their appropriate behavior should be toward their own children. And this is where you, the reader and adult child, get caught when you try to voice your own criticism or complaint.
“If you had my father for a parent, you would be damn grateful for all that I have done for you.”
“How can you begin to criticize me when I put food on the table every day and didn’t make you go work down in a smelly, cramped mineshaft like I did for my parents.”
Or whatever variation of the “having to walk to school in the snow without shoes uphill both ways” that your parent usually uses to narrate their childhood horror stories with.
What does this mean? And how can we use it?
Well, for one, if you can get your parent, or the narcissist in your life, to start asking questions about their own difficult history. It gives you the opportunity to carefully be empathic about their experiences. You can ask them for more information—because you are honestly curious—and see what and where they go with the opportunity.
Our parents and certainly their parents had a completely different idea about what represented appropriate behavior and effective communication between parent and child. In a way trying to document the difficulties in having a relationship with a parent—narcissist or not—is going to run head long into this issue. Is it only in hindsight that the behavior is as unappealing and unattractive, as unhealthy, as we are making it? Anyone over the age of 30 can appreciate how time changes the way in which we tell our stories. In changing the way we tell our stories, it can certainly change our relationship to our history.
Which is exactly what Oliver Stone showed us in his actually worth seeing sequel to Wall Street. Gordon Gekko revisits his catch phrase and amends it: “Someone reminded me I once said, ‘Greed is good.’ Now it seems its legal.”
Replace Greed with Narcissism and legal with expected.
Unfortunately for the adult child of a narcissist, there is rarely a happy Hollywood ending as a means of happy closure.
Of course this talk about revising memories is not logical. No. Memory and emotion are far more connected than people like to think, and at this point we don’t have any easy way of separating the two into safe, separate subjects. Ask anyone who has PTSD and they will tell you the proof of this. If anything recent research on long term memory suggests all long term memory is reconstructed every time we think of that memory. And don’t get me started on the manipulative power of peer pressure.
Where all of this is taking us is the difficult to accept place where your memories of your childhood and your parent’s memories of your childhood often will look nothing like one another.
Next time: Should you compromise with the narcissist in your life?