An ongoing survival guide.
Maybe not a Narcissist in name, but surely one in (mis)deed.
Recently, I was asked by a client for a definitive judgment on whether their parent was or was not a narcissist. As a rule, I don’t think it’s wise to diagnose someone in absentia (politicians and celebrities notwithstanding—because that’s too easy).
But my client has a good point, and here we are at chapter 11 already.
It is less of a concern for me whether the parent or teacher or ex-partner in question does or does not meet the DSM IV criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder-301.81. What is very much a concern is whether or not the person in question has the following tendencies:
1) A persistent pattern of not validating the child’s emotional self and reality.
2) A pattern of using their child’s emotional distress and trauma as a proxy for their own emotional needs and/or trauma.
3) A tendency to avoid, minimize, mask, mock, or ridicule the requests from others to discuss their emotional needs or concerns.
4) Tends to be concerned only with the superficial needs of others.
5) A tendency of not being emotionally available for others.
6) Has a close relationship with an “enabler,” whether personally or professionally.
7) Describes their own parents in very stark, black and white terms.
8) Takes credit after the fact for their children’s successes but shows little support during difficult times.
9) Poor emotional self-regulation: either none at all, or too much and all the damn time.
10) Very thin skinned when it comes to criticism, of any kind.
11) When backed into a corner, they just stop talking.
12) Denies any wrongdoing or culpability with the above listed concerns.
So, let’s take on the criticism of what this list really means. As a consumer, the diagnosis of any disorder and the subsequent list of symptoms in the DSM IV isn’t really meant to help you. The DSM is written for the doctors, the psychologists, the counselors who diagnose people. If that bothers you, you can take it up with the DSM committee. They have been getting a lot of that lately. You, as a consumer, can read what symptoms a disorder is composed of, but it doesn’t necessarily help you understand how that disorder in another person disrupts your life. You, the consumer, do not get a lot of information about how those behaviors can make you feel. That’s why I have composed this list. It does both.
Yes, I agree that from this list of behaviors, the kind of person I am describing may just be a garden variety neurotic parent, or just a bad, out to lunch parent, a pre-occupied-with-other-things parent, an alcoholic parent. Yes, yes, and yes. Because this is a guidebook for you, a survival guide for you, as opposed to a disorder labeling dictionary for mental health professionals and insurance companies, there will be significant overlap. Expect more of this. I have chosen to use the term narcissist for this guidebook, but it is absolutely possible that your parent is not one, but you may still have a remarkably similar set of issues that you are struggling to deal with. I do not believe in perfect black and white containers for human emotions and experiences, and, honestly, neither should you.
If I thought it would have helped to name the guidebook The Therapy is Dandy Guidebook to having a Jackass for a Parent, I would have done so, but something tells me that wouldn’t really fly.
If you really are incensed at this point, stop reading and send me an email about it: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In reading through the list, it should be pretty clear what kind of behavior is avoided by these parents: emotions. Who else avoids emotions? An easier question would be who doesn’t avoid emotions? But as a parent, it is absolutely essential to allow a young child an opportunity to experience emotions, learn to monitor and regulate them over time, and to be able to talk about emotional experiences with their parents, who are obviously supposed to be much more experienced with emotional content anyway. If the door gets slammed shut on any of those options then the child is stuck in the dark.
Number 4 on the list is really interesting to me. I am dubbing it the tough guy routine. More often than not, these individuals might actually feel embarrassed by any emotional topic so it gets dumped altogether. This isn’t necessary something that happens on purpose. It can be a generational difference. If a father identifies strongly with the strong and silent John Wayne type of masculinity, then not a lot of emotions are discussed. Does that make the father a narcissist? Of course not. But if no one is willing to talk about emotions, to explain emotions, to model effective emotional regulation, then the child is dealt a serious handicap. A handicap that will be present in their adult life. If they were not allowed to express emotions freely as a child, then how do they go about it as an adult?
Well, they are going to need some help working that one out, aren’t they?