Narcissists are like con men—they’re always scheming for a way to pull one over on you. You can set up boundaries to protect yourself, but they find the weaknesses in your defenses and slink through. And before you know it you find yourself the patsy in their con.
Where a conman uses visions of riches to ensnare their victims, narcissistic parents are likely to use your own guilt and anxiety to get what they want. The narcissistic parent’s demands are not always stated up front. At times they use a con to steal what they want from you.
Cons follow a predictable pattern that looks like this:
- Foundation Work—the narcissist makes their plan and lays the ground work for getting what they want from you.
- Approach—this involves getting in touch with you. This stage is carefully prepared and they come armed with what will make you feel guilty so you lower your boundaries.
- Build-up—the narcissist introduces their scheme to you. What they want will mostly not be stated outright. They use this stage to lower your guard so they can get what they want.
- Pay-off—the narcissist appears to give to you, his victim, something that you have been wanting. This may be a physical gift or an emotional promise. The narcissist knows what you yearn for so they know just how to pay you so you can be easily manipulated.
- They Hurrah—this is a sudden crisis or unexpected development in which the adult child of the narcissist is pushed or forced to act. Once the hurrah is triggered the child is putty in the narcissist’s hands and will give her what she wants.
(For more information on how cons work, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confidence_trick#Stages_of_the_con)
Right now I’m trying to figure out the hurrah in my father’s attempt to con me. The other day he sprang the pay-off on me so forcefully that it felt like he hit me with a one two punch. My head is still spinning. After the pay-off, I was left in near paralysis. All I could do was sit on the stairs with my face in my hands as anxiety ate me alive.
The Normal Set of Boundaries I have with My Narcissistic Father
The con started about ten days ago. Dad and I hadn’t spoken for four months. I have a boundary with him. Though it is unspoken, we both understand it.
Our arrangement was simple: he needs a ride to a doctor appointment and can’t get one, he can call me. Meanwhile, in between appointments we don’t speak, visit, or interact in any way. His interactions are with me alone. My family is not involved, which is fine with him. They hold no interest for him.
I understood this relationship. He uses me for something he needs. I respond out of guilt—what kind of son doesn’t take his father to the doctor?
Whenever I pick him up, he shuffles out the door with a walker. Not yet 70 years old, his alcoholism and smoking lend him the appearance of someone in their 90s. He has no teeth and weighs a mere 130 lbs. for his nearly six feet in height.
In the car, he talks about himself. Someone sitting in the back seat would imagine we see each other every day since he asks nothing about my life. Sometimes he’ll push against the boundaries.
For example, he’ll tell me he needs to stop and get some lottery tickets. My boundaries give a little. Guilt puts pressure on the walls I have built and they bend as if they were made of Jell-O. Telling him no is hard because I’ve been trained since birth to give him what he wants. But my boundaries stay firm when he asks for us to go to his bar. I always say no.
After the appointment I drive him home. I assist him from the car to his apartment. Never has he asked me to stay and talk or have lunch with him. He just dismisses me and I depart, glad to be away from him. The arrangement has been completed. He received his medical attention. I soothed my guilt of ignoring my father in physical decline.
The boundaries worked. But now a con is on to break through those boundaries. I don’t know what his final game is, but I know I need to reestablish some boundaries to protect myself.
The Approach: My Narcissistic Father Begins the Con
Dad and I hadn’t spoken for four months. The silence was comforting. Then, about ten days ago, he shattered it.
My brothers were taking him to a doctor appointment, and he called me and asked if I wanted to hear what the doctor had to say. I told him I had to work and couldn’t go.
He told me that my siblings were trying to get him to move to an assisted living facility. When I asked why, he said he left his coffee pot on all day and they think he had a mini stroke.
That I had heard nothing of this shows my role as the outcast in the family for setting boundaries with my narcissistic parents. Boundaries have consequences that you have to make sure you’re willing to suffer.
I asked questions about whether he was getting around and to the bathroom alright. He said “No problems at all.”
The conversation ended as he wanted it to. I felt guilty for not going to the doctor appointment. So I told him to call me the next day and say how the appointment went.
The approach had worked. I was being pulled into the con.
The Build-up: The Con Advances
Sure enough, Dad called the next night. He told me the appointment went fine and that the doctor had told him to keep doing what he was doing.
I thought that this might be the end of our interactions, but he had his scheme in place. He told me that his doctor wanted him to get an MRI to see if he had a mini stroke.
I reacted to the bait he tossed me and I took it. I told him to let me know the results. I was a fish on his line, just waiting to be fileted and eaten.
It’s the Saturday before Christmas, not even 48 hours since my father’s doctor appointment. I’m curled up in bed, head foggy from not enough sleep, wishing I didn’t have to get up.
My phone rings. I groan. The caller ID tells me my brother is calling, so I answer. He tells me that dad has fallen several times in his apartment. Sometimes he doesn’t make it to the bathroom in time. My brother is taking dad to get an x-ray for his hand. The doctor thinks he fractured it during a fall.
What strikes me about the conversation is how little I care. Why is my brother calling and telling me this after keeping me out of the loop? What he says in reply to my question causes a string of light bulbs to go off above my head.
“Dad says you want him to move to an assisted living facility,” I said into the phone.
“Yeah,” my brother responds. “The doctor thinks that it’s a good idea. I’m arranging a meeting in January. This social worker is going to lead it. She wants all of us to be there to talk to Dad about moving.”
Son of a bitch, I thought when I got off the phone. My brother called only to get me on board with the effort to move Dad to an assisted living facility.
But in calling me, he had alerted me to what the target was in Dad’s sudden blitzkrieg of contact with me. Dad was trying to make me his ally and help him resist the move to assisted living.
Like a typical narcissist, he was only calling because he needed me. He knew he was breaking our boundaries, but he was using guilt to keep me from fortifying my walls. Guilt about his well-being. And the guilt was letting him worm his way into my confidence just as a con man gets close to his mark.
Even though I knew a con was on, I was not expecting what came next. In my success at erecting barriers between my family and both my mother and father I had let my guard down. I had forgotten how cut throat a narcissist can be when they want something from you.
The Pay Off: The Big Attempt to Earn My Confidence
Christmas came. I sent Mom a text thanking her for the gift cards she sent my kids. She responded with statements of love. That was the extent of our Christmas contact.
There are differences between how my narcissistic mother and father interact with me. Mom tries to play the role of the loving mother when she wants something from me. She’ll tell me how much she loves and misses me. She does this so I’ll respond in kind and feed her narcissistic need to be admired.
Dad, on the other hand, doesn’t issue statements of love. Usually he’s simpler and less confusing to deal with. Give him what he needs and he dismisses you with no show of affection. I like this because it’s less game playing than I have to do with my mother. Until the day after Christmas that is.
On December 26th, at 11:00 AM, Dad initiated the payoff in his con. I had the day off so I was home. When I answered the phone, Dad said he just called because he was thinking of me on Christmas day. Feeling that good old narcissistic guilt stabbed me in my gut like a killer intent on disemboweling me, I told him I was thinking of him too.
He asked if I spent the day at my wife’s parents, which I had. I asked what he did. He told me. Then the first of two punches to my psyche came.
“Around the first of the year you’ll be receiving something in the mail that the whole family can use,” he said.
My gut churned. He was sending a gift? I cannot remember the last time he gave me a gift. Right away I became anxious and felt guilty for getting him nothing. I told him he didn’t have to give us anything.
“I want to,” he said.
Then he said, “I’ll let you go.”
Relief flooded me. The gift thing had thrown me for a loop. He had to be sending money and he didn’t have a lot as he lives off Social Security.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll try to stop by.”
“Good-bye,” he said. “I love you.”
With shaking hands I put the phone in my pocket. My father just said “I love you.” He never says he loves me. And I never suspected he did love me. His utterance of that phrase instantly threw me into confusion. I felt as if I someone had stuck a spoon in my brain and scrambled it.
Moments later I met my wife on the stairs. She looked at my face and asked what was wrong.
“He said he loves me and is sending a gift,” I said, my voice shaking. “Why is he fucking with me?”
At the bottom of the stairs I ripped opened a box containing the parts of a desk for my son that I was planning on assembling that day. Pieces of wood tumbled out of the hole and spilled across the floor. I sat down on the bottom step.
I covered my face with my hand and tried to focus on my breathing. But all I could feel was a burning anxiety in my chest and stomach that felt like a swarm of insects eating me alive from the inside out.
I sat there a long time. Dad had miscalculated his con. He meant the gift and telling me he loves me to be a payoff to get me to side with him in the assisted living debate. Instead of paying me off he had tripped alarms all throughout my emotional being.
There would be no hurrah. I wasn’t going to fall for his con because if I know anything, my father doesn’t love me. And no payoff could convince me he does.
The Consequences of Letting a Narcissist Past Your Boundaries
As an adult child of a narcissist, you too struggle with boundaries and guilt. Your parent has been conning you since you were born and knows just where to hit you so it hurts. We have to learn to stay strong and not relax our boundaries for anything—not even guilt.
The narcissist will say they love you and try to make you feel guilty for putting distance between you and them. But, as my wife says, “love is a verb.” Merely saying I love you does not demonstrate love. Love is demonstrated through consistent actions over time.
When a narcissist claims to love you but complains of all the sacrifices she makes for you, that is not demonstrating love. We gladly give and sacrifice for those we love.
When a narcissist says I love you and then makes you feel guilty, he is not demonstrating love. Love is not manipulative. Love is freeing and unselfish.
There is a part within you that has yearned for your parent’s love since you were a small child. Even today, you long for your parent to nurture you. That part of you has never given up hope that your parent will change.
And it is that child within you that lets your parent past your boundaries. The child in you is what feels guilty when your parent manipulates your emotions and tries to con you. That child hopes that this time things will be different, even though your adult, rational mind knows it won’t.
Healing comes by taking care of that child. You have to recognize and accept that yearning within you. You have to convince the part of you that wants your parent to change that it is never going to happen. Accepting that may mean a period of grieving on your part. But you will be stronger for it.
Your parent will never stop making you feel guilty for your boundaries. And he will never stop trying to con you so he can get past them and gets what he wants from you. What you have to recognize is that every time you relax those boundaries you get hurt. Your parent only wants to use you to further her own selfish needs.
Your parent will never tire of using you because that is what narcissists do. They suck everything they can out of you to maintain their imagined image of themselves. They care nothing for the wreckage they cause in your life.
The strangest part though is that we let them make us feel guilty. They should be the ones to feel guilty for destroying our childhoods. They should feel guilty for our self-doubt and low self-esteem. They should feel guilty for our anxiety, depression, and fear. And they should feel guilty for every unhealthy, abusive relationship we have entered because they never taught us how we should be treated.
But they don’t and they never will.
Why should we feel guilty for setting boundaries with someone who is only interested in our lives for what they can take from us?
We are not powerless. We don’t have to take their calls. We don’t have to let them in our houses. We need not interact with them at all.
I’ve learned from my dad’s attempt to con me. The boundaries are going back up, stronger, higher, and thicker this time. When his money arrives it’s going anonymously to charity.
Just thinking about reestablishing those boundaries provokes within me an anxiety consistent with waiting for a pair of loansharking goons to come break my legs because I can’t make payment. But I’m going to sit with that anxiety and not fight it.
For it is that part of me that yearns for my parents love that is anxious. That part of me is anxious because it thinks that if I set boundaries my parents will never show me their love.
That part of me is right. I just have to make it realize they’re never going to show me love if I let them fully into my life. If they are in my life, the part that yearns for love will get hurt over and over again. So better to live with a temporary state of anxiety than the same chaos and pain I grew up with.
I urge you to set your boundaries and maintain them. Don’t let your narcissistic parent con you. You have nothing to feel guilty about. The time has come for you to live your life free of your parent’s manipulations and the pain they cause you.
You deserve loving relationships. You deserve happiness. Only you can make them yours. Work with a therapist if you need help setting boundaries or need someone to process your guilt with.
I wish you the freedom, love, and peace you deserve.
How has your narcissistic parent tried to con you? Tell us in the comments below.