Apologies for the lack of posting. I have lots of things I am dying to post, but I was distracted (in a good way) by a multitude of activities and real life issues over the long Labor Day weekend -- including a husband-initiated Elvis movie marathon and reviewing the drawings we just received from the architecht who is helping us plan our house.
The thing that got me going yesterday was my discovery of something called "Narcissistic Personality Disorder." Someone (to whom I will be forever grateful) mentioned recently that my father sounds like he may be narcissistic -- in a psychological rather than a colloquial sense. So yesterday I did some exploring on-line and discovered this diagnosis. Obviously I am not trained in psychology and this is only my opinion, but man, Narcissistic Personality Disorder seems to fit my father perfectly.
I spent most of yesterday afternoon reading scores of on-line articles for lay people on this disorder. There is a lot to say about it, but in a nutshell, it is characterized by a pattern of grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Others are not seen as fully human subjects in themselves but rather as sources of much-needed admiration, barriers to receiving much-needed admiration, or as objects to be stepped on so that the narcissist may elevate his own image. The narcissist, while appearing arrogant and full of himself, actually has an incredibly fragile ego and deep-seated feelings of inferiority usually resulting from having been rejected by a parent. (My father was a victim of childhood abuse, and his abuser, my grandfather, was probably a narcissist as well.) To compensate for his belief in his own lack of worth, he creates a grandiose, false image of himself and then identifies with it, deeply repressing his real feelings. There are fuller descriptions and explanations here.
While there is part of me that feels a little bit silly to remain so focused on and upset about the way I was treated growing up (after all I have been mostly out of the house for over twenty years), the reality is that I am thrilled to have discovered this. I have read about people with different types of problems feeling incredibly relieved to discover labels and diagnoses that apply to their experience -- and I feel exactly the same. It is a huge relief to realize that my father’s behavior is not unique but consistent with a documented psychological profile.
The articles all seem to describe this disorder as virtually incurable because narcissists will never admit that they have a problem and are very negatively disposed to the idea of therapy. Narcissists are described as bad, bad news for the people around them, and even as destroyers of human lives. Frankly, I don’t think that’s at all off the mark. I appreciate hearing this because it validates and justifies how miserable I was growing up in what seemed a picture-perfect family.
And finally, and most importantly, this diagnosis provides a framework for understanding what seemed before to be just bizarre behavior. Memories of all sorts of weird things from my childhood have come flooding back to me and are now clicking into place. Like how my father would alternate between treating me with utter contempt (especially in private) and talking about me as though I were the most brilliant, fabulously talented child in the world. Narcissists, you see, use contempt a lot to elevate themselves and make themselves appear superior in comparison. Contempt was the norm in my house. My father used to negatively compare my childhood deficiencies with his own supposed childhood courage and brilliance. If I told a joke, he would just look at me stone-faced and say, “Not funny.” He constantly put me down or dissected my character flaws in minute detail. Or if there was ever an object dropped on the floor in the house, like a pen or a coin, he would call me, often from a different room in the house. And when I came trotting to wherever he was, I would just find him silently pointing at the item on the floor, where I was expected to pick it up while he just stood over me continuing to point. He enjoyed being the god-like master of the home. And these are only a few examples.
Whenever I complained, my mother would say, “But your father is so proud of you. He talks about your intelligence and achievements all the time.” And in fact, that was true. I often puzzled over how he could act so constantly contemptuous towards me, yet so proud of me. Narcissistic Personality Disorder holds the answer. The narcissist cannot stand to be associated with people who are inferior because doing so interferes with his sense of grandiosity. So the narcissist often idealizes the people with whom he is associated so that they can be worthy enough to be in his orbit. The narcissist views his children in particular as extensions of himself, objects that inure to his greater glory. At the same time, though, the narcissist often devalues the people around him, including his own children, so as to make himself seem to himself and to others to be the god-like superior of everyone around him. This all explains the childhood see-saw I experienced of being treated as either less than dirt or as an adored incarnation of all of my father’s own brilliance and energy. It also explains why he often attributed characteristics to me that didn’t fit me at all but that he viewed as being like him or somehow reflecting his alleged intellectual and moral stature. And to this day, he will listen with rapt attention if I boast about something I have achieved (because again this reflects on him since, in his mind, I am an extension of him), but has virtually no interest in listening to my ideas or opinions or certainly not anything I am struggling with. Those latter things have nothing to do with him, or may even remind him of his own weaknesses he is struggling to keep hidden.
It also explains another other weird dichotomy of my childhood. My father claimed to be (in his own words!) “a very humane guy.” He talked a lot about his belief in the values of the humane society and the ACLU. He would go on at great length about his empathy for the poor and the abused and the marginalized in our society. These are values with which I whole-heartedly agree, but I could never figure out why this person who seemed so concerned about the death row inmate or the beaten dog never seemed to have any empathy whatsoever for the people around him. The answer, I think, is that the empathy that my father expressed with regard to hypothetical people was an act, again another way of building himself up as more caring and more compassionate than others, when in reality he did not have even a jot of empathy for others. This lack of empathy led him to constantly misconstrue what others were saying and to misunderstand others' motivations.
As apparently a classic narcissist, my father can’t bear to lose attention to anyone else. If you came to my parents’ house for dinner and tried to tell a joke, odds are that my father would cut you off just before you reach the punch line and start talking about something completely different. You have to fight with him to get a word in edgewise. (Especially if you’re related to him. I think he knows that he can’t totally get away with monopolizing everything in public or his image would get ruined.) When you do get to talk, he interrupts before you get to make your point, or, when it’s his turn to talk, he simply ignores whatever you have just said and proceeds to discuss whatever is of most interest to him, even if it is a completely different topic. Also if you look away or get distracted even slightly while he's talking to you, he gets upset. Or even if you're looking right at him, if you don't appear attentive enough, he'll get really irritated and say something like: "Are you listening?!?!? You're not LISTENING to me!" Trust me, it's freakin' brutal day in and day out.
When I was a kid, he only attended my school plays, recitals, or other events a couple times, ostensibly because he was working. His absence never bothered me because he always dumped all over whatever public performance I was giving anyway. This included ridiculing the goody-goody little girls in tutus, including me, in my ballet recital, or talking about what a crashing bore school plays are, or going on about how when he was a kid he was too much of a brilliant non-conformist to ever participate in a recital or a play. I think the truth was that he couldn’t stand any kind of event at which someone else in the family was the center of attention, even if it was only seven-year-old me performing in a second grade play. Even at my high school and college graduations, he made me leave or tried to make me leave almost as soon as the ceremonies were done because he couldn’t stand waiting on the sidelines while I was hugging people and saying my good-byes.
Another weird thing was that I was never allowed to have sleepovers or birthday parties or friends come to play when he was around. I think this was partly a product of his general aversion to children. Narcissists, I have been reading, often have an aversion to children as children, I guess because children in all of their silliness and dependence remind them of their own helplessness. I myself was very much discouraged from ever behaving in any kind of childish or child-like way. The other problem was that children in groups tend to entertain themselves which means that he is no longer the focus of what is going on in the house -- thus the prohibition on having friends over when he was at home. When I did have a birthday party, it felt almost like my mother and I had to organize it on the sly because he would ridicule it or seemed irritated at any mention of it.
He would also take credit for things he had nothing to do with. For example, everyone agrees that my mother is a fantastic cook, but whenever this comes up, my father points out at length that he actually taught her how to cook. Supposedly, years ago when he was a single guy in his bachelor pad, he would whip up fabulous meals for his dates or for his sophisticated friends, whereas my mother didn’t know how to cook at all until she met him. Although my mother confirms this, I find it somewhat hard to believe given that my mother took home ec classes all through high school and also given that I have never ever once seen my father cook anything in my whole life except a bowl of buttered pasta (once).
And another weird thing: he is always very insistent that everyone around him and in his family adopt his tastes. He claims to be the only person in the family who has any true appreciation of music but, in fact, the only music he likes is Italian opera, which is fine but is a rather narrow taste if that’s the only thing you listen to. And not only that, but he couldn’t seem to abide anyone, say, watching a musical. Musicals were something my mother quite enjoyed watching, but only when he was gone. When he was around, his preferences and his tastes had to carry the day. And he would insist that whatever he liked was vastly superior to everything else. Even with regard mundane things, like the pronunciation of words, he would practically throw a fit unless you admit that his pronunciation is superior to the alternate pronunciation.
He also couldn’t stand it if people in the family were happy or excited about anything that didn’t include him. So being happy and excited about a gift he gave you was acceptable. But being happy and excited because you’re going back to school or because you have a fun activity of your own planned -- not acceptable. In such instances, he would try to burst your bubble by pointing out that it wasn't going to be that great or he'd pick a fight or scream at you about some non-existent issue or do virtually anything to put the focus back on him.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of bizarre behaviors that really were the product of a disordered personality. Other characteristics of his -- like extreme impatience, extreme pessimism, telling tall tales, unpredictability, and charisma all fit the pattern as well. I guess this post has turned into something of a therapy session but if feels so good to have a coherent explanation for things that were not only hurtful, but awfully confusing to me as a young kid. And the other good part is that I am feeling the first stirring of pity I have ever felt for this person. Being a narcissist sounds like it is ultimately even more miserable for the narcissist than for anyone else. The narcissist's fear of rejection causes him to behave in ways that ultimately lead others to reject him. It's an awful cycle, a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy. And there is no hope for the guy because he will never in a million years admit the underlying problem.