Get through Thanksgiving more or less unscathed, did you? Ran the gauntlet of the narcissists' curiosity. Turned a blind eye to the derisively raised eyebrows. Skillfully skirted the intrusive questions.
Well good on you! Kudos, high fives and champagne toasts. It's no mean feat to be the “dish of the day” surrounded by hungry narcissists and survive to thrive another day. Mazel tov!
But what now? A month extends before us. A month until we must again run the Narc Gauntlet. And for an unluckily high percentage of my readers, they'll be hosting this year's festivities. Got a minute in your frantic rush to find the perfect gifts, bake the perfect cookies and clean your already-spotless house? Cause we need to talk. Now.
If, like me, you too were raised by narcissists, then the mirror in which you see yourself is warped. It's like having psychological dysmorphia disorder. Or seeing yourself only in carnival fun house mirrors for a lifetime. The “you” you think you know isn't really “you” at all, you know. (Five uses of the same pronoun in one sentence. WOW!)
The real “you” is actually okay. Yes, that's right. You're OKAY!
Y'know, if narcs didn't cause such excruciating pain, they'd almost be funny.
My particular lot placed all their self-esteem in their Little One-and-Only. Pathetic, huh. The pageant mom dynamic was going on, but in an intellectual way. I must be perfect at all times...for them. Their self-esteem demanded it. They called it “a good faith effort.” I called it a 4.0 GPA, no friends, no extracurricular activities.
I also called it living symbolically. Everything I did was for the reward of getting to feel OK for a moment, not for its own sake. Waxing the car had nothing to do with the car. It had everything to do with earning their praise. A few heady moments of feeling okay.
Meanwhile, I was also their “almost failure.” Their self-esteem demanded that too. After all, if I were too good, I'd be a threat! At each new venture, I was deemed a failure.
Odd then, that I vividly recall achieving a 4.0 GPA in 7th grade while being assured I'd almost failed. Mastering my first magazine designer position, y'know, the one I almost failed. The list goes on.
Perfection. Failure. Perfection. Failure.
It's like walking a knife edge. As long as you keep juggling all the balls perfectly, all goes merrily. You're an OK human being...for the moment.
But show any sign of struggling. Or, worse yet, drop one ball and holy shit! You're a failure. One slip and you're toast.
You're not a nice, normal, okay human being who made a boo-boo, like everyone else. No! You're a failure. A lower life-form. Unworthy to look anyone in the eye. Relegated to the dung heap of humanity.
And how they love it! Love donning that supercilious, kindly condescending expression. Love removing privileges. Love lecturing us. Love helping us get back on track. Love bragging about helping poor, pathetic us. It's a mmm, mmm, finger-licking good orgy of narcissist bliss.
How were we to know that this isn't normal? We were just children when it started. Innocent, wide-eyed children wanting nothing more than to be loved. Just loved. And accepted. To feel OK. To be an “okay” kid like the other kids. Just to be normal.
What was it Todd Chrisley on the USA Network's Chrisley Knows Best show say? “There's no normal here.”
Truer words were never spoken. Narcs aren't normal and they'll be damned if we feel OK about ourselves. They don't, so we certainly won't be allowed to. It becomes like an itch, we try vainly to scratch.
It goes something like this. “And when he was twenty-four, Narcissist I begat Narcissist II. And Narcissist II was thirty when he began Narcissist III. Narcissist III was twenty-eight when he begat”...you! It's a multi-generational affliction, passed down the generations. “The sins of the fathers,” me thinks. But luckily, we had our egotism screamed, yelled and smacked out of us at a very early age. And that's why we're called co-narcissists. Or, as Dickens might have called it, “Narcissists and Co.” We're the “Co.”
And it's that blasted co-narcissism that feels like we're living on knife-edge. We internalized the narc's opinions about us and now apply those same principles even in their absence. We still try to keep all the balls in the air, working feverishly, symbolically, for the glow of success. But shit happens.
Dirty dishes in the sink. Failure.
Crunchy carpet. Failure.
Misplaced our keys. Failure.
Paid a bill two days late. Failure.
Balanced the checkbook wrong. Failure.
Forgot the coupon for buying toilet paper. Failure.
Dirty (but very happy) dogs. Failure.
New business slow to “launch.” Failure.
Thirsty houseplants. Failure.
Struggling to slowly recover from narcissistic abuse. Failure, failure, frickin' failure.
Flip the coin of failure over and you'll see perfection. Perfection and Failure. Different sides of the same rotten coin. A plugged nickel we keep shovin' in the vending machine of life, but nothing's coming out...except a whole lot of pain, angst and OCD habits developed decades ago in a vain attempt to scratch the itch. The itch of not feeling OK.
Can we take it fore-granted that we are okay!?! “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...” All! That means us too.
We are hard-working. We are good people. We care, really care. And we try. Good grief, we're always trying. Haven't you ever had a moment, perhaps on a starry cold night, when you suddenly suspected that, rather than failing, you might actually be excelling at this thing called “Life!?!” We don't know it, but we're actually successes!
And guess what!?! As long as the narc's aren't around, no one is judging us. Oh, sure, we think everyone's watching us merely because the narcs always had an eagle eye on us, ready to pounce on the smallest gaffe. But other people aren't watching us, you know. They're really not. And if they are...screw 'em! They're narcs too.
So as we deck the halls and smooch under the mistletoe, let's remember that we're okay. Really okay. No worse, no better than anyone else. Just normal, with all the beauty and all the warts. All the successes and all the oopsies. All the joys and all the tears. Now that's true self-esteem. A balance. Neither the over-weaning vanity of the narcissist nor the soul-destroying grovelling of their victim.
Now where have I read that before? Oh yes. In dear C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. It turns out that perhaps what we mean by positive self-esteem is, strangely enough, humility. No, not that grovelling we've been doing for a lifetime. That's not humility. It's actually something much, much better. As Lewis said...
“[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. [God] wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor's talents--or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.”
A delightful self unawareness. Neither defensive nor self-conscious. Sounds good, doesn't it? No, we don't have to achieve it perfectly. But we can stop living on knife's edge.
At last, there's light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Image courtesy of moggara12 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net