Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's Hard to "Be Yourself"...

...when you have no idea who "yourself" is.

Here is a very insightful post on how the presence of a narcissist in your life negatively affects your sense of self and how it is sometimes only possible to assess the damage after the narcissist is no longer around to minimize it. (Here's hoping PWC doesn't mind being paraphrased. Do read the entire post.)

Getting your sense of self back after a relationship with a narcissist is hard enough. But what about those of us who had no "self" to talk about before the narcissists in our lives? What about us whose characters and ideas about ourselves were shaped by narcissists? What about us with narcissistic parents? What do we go back to?

If you asked me just a month ago, I could tell you things about myself. I "knew" who "I" was. I was an over-achiever who was never quite satisfied with myself. I was masculine and not very motherly. I was rational, cold, and unemotional. I enjoyed discussions with intelligent people and eschewed talk about emotions and relationships. I wasn't necessarily happy about who I was, but I tried to accept it and spent a lot of time and energy defending and justifying "myself" to myself and others.

Then I ran across a few articles such as this one, where who I thought I was was simply explained away as an armor that some children of narcissists develop to shield themselves from the narcissistic abuse.

I don't really lack empathy. I thought I couldn't understand others and others' feelings. Actually, I couldn't understand my father's reactions, moods, and the dissonance between his words and his actions. I couldn't relate to his antics.

I'm not unfeeling. When I let myself realize that the self I thought I knew was shaped by narcissistic parenting, I unlocked the emotions that I'd kept under key. I used to stop every emotion in its inception, telling myself "Cut the crap. You know you're not really feeling sorry for that person. You just like trying to make yourself believe you're so sensitive, and emotional, and loving, just like your father and his mother did, but it's fake. You're not fake. Neither are you a really warm, loving person like your mother." I don't block emotions any more. I trust them. They're slowly and cautiously coming back.

I'm not truly unmotherly. I was very insecure about becoming a mother because I had a deep-seated belief that mothers don't matter, because mine was forced to take a back seat by my narcissistic father.

I'm not only interested in discussions. My narcissistic father, who had no religious, political, or philosophical convictions, allowed any abstract discussion to take place in our home. But little more than that. So discussions always felt "safe" to me. Also, before I admitted to myself that there was something profoundly wrong about the way I was raised, I didn't feel completely comfortable talking about personal stuff with people. Every personal conversation somehow felt superficial and fake, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

I don't really need to achieve the things I thought I did. Sure, I have ambitions career-wise, but they're normal and healthy. I used to envy people who worked at a place that sounded more prestigious to my father and a few others of his generation, although it's a horrible place to work and the people there are miserable. If I was honest about it with myself, I would have actually liked to have refused to work there, so I wouldn't seem Not Good Enough for that place, but I couldn't accept it and still claim to love myself - it's a bad place to work at if you value your sanity. So, no, I'm actually not truly envious either.

So now I know a little bit about who I'm NOT. I still have no idea who I AM.

The armor that was molding me into shape is gone, and now I'm exposed, vulnerable, and - mostly formless.

I know one thing - I do enjoy being kind to the people around me. I'll take it from there, I guess.

How did you discover your authentic selves after realizing you were raised by a narcissist or two? Any advice? Please share!


  1. It's trial and error, really. One thing I absolutely had to do was make my life more complex. If I had many things to do, many obligations that I couldn't get out of, and (most importantly), if I met new people outside of the N's milieu, then I was able to rebuild my world, sans Narcissist. You'll find out what you like and don't like, and there will be some errors along the way, hopefully, but that's all part of finding out who you are!

    Part of the process is seeing what the N is and deciding you don't want to model yourself after them (which sounds like what you've done and are doing, hooray).

    I think you're in a big boat in that many, many people feel they have no self after they run into a Narcissist. You're not alone.

    (Oh, and I don't mind your paraphrasing at all! This is what blogging's about, the discussion and cross-pollination of ideas. And the support. Thanks for the compliment of knowing my post sparked one at your own blog.)

  2. Thank you for your original post and for the advice here!

    I might actually need to do the opposite of what you did - my narcissistic father was very invested in me engaging in all sorts of "activities" - gymnastics, ballet, piano, choir, languages, never a second to relax and reflect. Those were all my choices, but he was so proud and bragged about it and never got over the fact that one day I just said "no more" and just read and hung out with friends all day. He STILL complains about it. I deprived him of bragging rights. But that rebellion lasted only through my teens - when I became independent from him, it was like he moved into my head! I got into achievements and juggling stuff all over again. So I guess I'll go into lazy mode, enjoy my kids, walk and think a little, see friends... Just Do the Opposite ;)

  3. If I can offer you some hope...not long ago, I revealed to a friend that growing up, I was spat at that I was "a cold bitch" and "a machine" and "had no human emotions". The friend was *stunned* because that wasn't her observation of me at all, and she has known me for a decade now, so she's seen the good and bad. Your post was a gift that helped me see that we do put on emotional armor just to survive the crazy upbringing, and my gift to you is that we are so much better than our upbringing. You strike me as a very lovely, caring person, and I am sure you are a warm and caring person to the people who actually matter in your life.

  4. "So I guess I'll go into lazy mode, enjoy my kids, walk and think a little, see friends... Just Do the Opposite ;)"

    That's great! Whatever works for you, it's great that you've found a way to side-step your father's pressure to achieve.

    (Seconding the above commenter's observation as well.)

  5. Anon and PWC, that's sweet... but I actually have a defense against that sort of notion too: I've had people tell me I'm nice, or supportive, or empathetic, or whatever, and my internal response is: "Wow. I must be faking it really well."

    I've just witnessed so much fake in my life. I can't trust myself to be real. I don't believe myself. I guess I need to work on that.

  6. I don't know yet if my parents are narcissists, but one thing I remember when I was 4-5 years old that I was very insecure about my mother's love, and would ask her all the time if she loved me. Instead of reassuring me, she would yell at me and be disgusted at what a stupid question it was. When I asked her, years later, why she reacted that way, she said, "How would you have felt, if you had sacrificed so much for your child and she was still ungrateful and still questioned your love?" I was only 4!

    Anyways now my almost 4 year old often asks, "Mommy are you happy to me?" I instantly recognized my 4 year old self in that question and answer with a big smile, "Of course I am!" Unless he misbehaved - then I say, "I'm not happy because you just threw your food" - or whatever he did - and then add "but I will always love you no matter what you do." I don't know if he gets it, or if I'm doing it wrong, but I will never look at him with disgust and tell him it's a stupid question. I still think I am doing something wrong for him to ask that a lot, so I'm now trying to be conscious of my behavior around him.

    Sorry for the long winded comment!

  7. That's horrible! I wonder what her parents were like... to even be able to think that a 4yo is "questioning" her love? Ad being "ungrateful" by doing so? That's so sad.

    I do the same with my 4yo :)

    And I also feel bad when she asks "Am I being good?" "Do you love me?" ("Yes, you're behaving wonderfully, and you're always good, even when you misbehave, and I always love you"). I guess what your mother and you and I are all used to is feeling responsible and blamed by almost anything said or asked. The difference is how we handle it. Your mother focused on herself and how she felt being "accused". We're trying to focus o how our children are feeling, and that's a really good start!

    Anyway, I believe 4yos generally need reassurance and mirroring and feedback while defining themselves. I don't think we're to blame.


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