Let me address something. I know I’m not a narcissist. Believe me when I say this because I have checked and rechecked with therapists and my psychiatrist. I’ve asked my wife a hundred times if I’m like my mother and my father.
And I’ve read the DSM V (the manual used by mental health professionals to make a diagnosis of a mental health problem in an individual) description for narcissistic personality disorder so many time that I nearly have it memorized. Every source I consult confirms my lack of narcissistic personality disorder.
I’m sure that you have questioned whether you’re a narcissist. You’ve probably asked your spouse or a therapist about the possibility that you have narcissism. They’ve probably confirmed that you do not.
It’s very important given the next thing I’m going to say that you feel certain you are not a narcissist like your parent. If you harbor any illusion that you are a narcissist, please don’t read on.
OK. Here’s what I have to say, and you may not like it.
Even though you are not a narcissist, you have adopted certain narcissistic traits from your parent. You behave sometimes, in small ways, like your narcissistic parent.
My Concern with Appearances
Yesterday was Saturday. My wife and I went to watch one of my son’s games. As we were driving to the field, a man came walking out of a convenience store carrying a 12 pack of bottled beer. Walking behind him, and getting into the same car as the man was a boy. I took the boy to be the man’s son.
My youngest son, in the back seat, asked my wife a question. Before she could answer, I interrupted.
“Isn’t it sad to see that kid having to watch his dad buy beer that he’ll probably have to watch him drink,” I said.
My wife replied, “Yes honey, that’s sad,” real quickly. Then answered my son’s question.
In a low voice I said, in a condescending tone, “Yes honey, that’s too bad. That poor boy has to live with an alcoholic father. Not only that, but the father didn’t even get the boy a soda in the store.”
My wife said, “What did you say?”
“Oh,” I said, sweetly, “I was just talking to myself.”
“No,” my wife said. “You weren’t talking to yourself. You’re angry that I didn’t have a conversation about the man and the beer.”
Our kids hate it when we fight. So I didn’t want my son to think we were fighting. Or more accurately, I didn’t want him to think I was the cause of the fight. I wanted to appear the rational parent while my wife played the part of the crazy person.
Little did I realize yet that I was reenacting behavior I had seen my mother engage in again and again.
The Effects of a Narcissistic Upbringing Continue
My wife told me I was being passive-aggressive. I told her I wasn’t and reminded her I didn’t want to fight.
She got mad and said I always make passive-aggressive comments and then deny that I made them.
“Sorry dear,” I said without meaning it.
My wife and I hardly spoke the entire game other than for her to say she was going to go sit in the shade. After the game, everyone was hungry so we stopped for carry out. On the way home, I was reading a story on my phone and didn’t realize my wife was slowing down and pulling over. I asked why we were stopping on a busy road.
“A cop is pulling me over,” she said.
“Why?” I said less than helpfully.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Probably driving too fast,” I said under my breath.
She shot me a homicidal look.
The charge was indeed speeding. “Forty-seven mph in a 30 mph zone,” said the police officer before going back to his car to run my wife’s license and check whether she was a wanted meth trafficker. He reappeared with a ticket. My wife asked if he could knock it down to 40 mph (bless her hutzpah). The cop gave her the name of a ticket reduction program run by the county District Attorney.
She asked me to remember the program’s name. I rolled my eyes and sighed, a passive-aggressive signal that it was her ticket and she should remember.
Back at home she confronted me on the eye roll and sigh. I denied doing it. Then I lied and said that I didn’t care that she received a ticket and that I was glad to remember the reduction program name.
Tracing the Roots of My Behavior to Mom’s Narcissism
She called me on my lies. Then she traced the pattern for me.
“You get mad,” she said. “Next you make some mean passive-aggressive comment. I tell you that your comment wasn’t nice. You deny making it and walk away. I follow you and beg you to work it out. And you get mad that we have to talk about it. You’re angry at your mom but you take it out on me.”
She was right. And after a lot of arguing and denial, I told her so.
That was one of the hardest things to admit because I also realized—and admitted—that I was replaying the behavior of my mother. I realized that I had picked up and adopted some of Mom’s narcissistic behavior.
Having picked up this behavior doesn’t make me a narcissist. A narcissist would never admit to being passive-aggressive. He would blame the victim of his cutting remarks for their own emotions. No, I picked up a behavior—the way a person acts in response to some stimulus—the same way I picked up laying my finger across my lips when thinking from my father.
And if you picked up a couple of your parents narcissistic behaviors, that doesn’t make you a narcissist. You did what I did. You picked up those behaviors to survive your toxic childhood.
What Our Narcissistic Inheritance Does to Those We Love
My wife has tearfully explained that I’m so good with the cutting remarks that it feels like a knife stabbing her in the chest and carving out her heart. I don’t write this with pride. I hate that I use this ability on my wife while at the same time I treasure this ability.
I treasure the ability because it and my quick, witted humor made it dangerous to say things that hurt me while I was growing up. I was raised in a family where even the non-narcissists were toxic. All our family gatherings, on both sides of my family, were unrestrained insult fests. I was a master of the family art. I skillfully inflicted wounds on the psyches of any who dared challenge me.
I learned to do this from my narcissistic parents. Dad was one to whip out a series of cutting insults and rapid fire them at his victim. Mom relied more on sharp passive-aggressive comments and acting hurt without telling you why. I took up the weapons of both my parents and ventured out into the world.
Unfortunately, I brought my finely honed skills to my marriage. I’m not out there inflicting wounds on my wife each day. Rather, my skills are unleashed whenever she says anything that I interpret as criticism or that hurts me.
Thank heavens I don’t use these weapons on my kids. However, they see how I act and treat their mother. They worry we will split up. So while I don’t use my metaphorical blades on my kids, they still feel their cutting effects.
Yesterday was the first time I made the connection of my behavior with my parent’s narcissism. I’m both angered and ashamed at my unwitting imitation of their behaviors.
My challenge now lies in changing decades of use of a set of behaviors that are ingrained within me so deeply, that I respond without thought when certain stimuli occur. My wife doesn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of such meanness. And my children deserve a father who is the best he can be and models proper conflict resolution with his mate.
I have some changing to do.
It Doesn’t Stop There
There’s one more chore before me. A thorough examination of all my behaviors to see if there are any other narcissistic traits hiding beneath my skin.
I urge you to do the same. Think especially about how you respond when you’re hurt or threatened. Examine how you act when you don’t get your way. Compare that to how you narcissistic parent acted in the same situation.
If you find something, take a deep breath and go off alone for a while. Think about why you respond the way you do. Realize it doesn’t mean that you’re a narcissist.
Your challenge become like mine. You have to dig that behavior out of yourself by the roots and dispose of it. The task will not be easy. You have to be able to catch yourself acting out that behavior and stop yourself. Then you need to engage in a substitute behavior.
The reason the behavior will be hard to root out is that the behavior is engraved in your brain. When you perform a behavior for the first time, it makes a little path across your brain. Every time you perform that behavior, that path in the brain is retraced and etched a little deeper. The more times the behavior is performed, the deeper the path in your brain becomes.
This is useful of you’re trying to master a golf swing or develop an exercise habit. You benefit from the deepened paths in your brain in that your behavior becomes automatic. You swing the golf club in a near perfect manner every time you tee up. Or you get out of bed and automatically go to the gym.
Unfortunately, the deepened path is also made for unwanted behaviors. Think of the addict or the boy back in grade school who always got in a fight. They are practicing behaviors engraved in the brain just like the golf swing.
If you have any behaviors picked up from your narcissistic parent you have to resist automatically following that engraved path. We have the ability to reshape our brains. We need to create new behavioral paths.
At first it will be difficult. You will find yourself slipping back down the well-worn path that your narcissistic parents gifted you. But keep persevering. Each time you practice the new behavior, its path in your brain gets a little deeper and a little easier to use next time.
As you use the well-worn path less and less, it’ll gradually fade as your brain reshapes itself. Eventually you’ll be free.
But freedom requires awareness and a commitment to changing yourself. Sometimes the battle will seem impossible. Other times you’ll be walking the razor sharp edge of engaging in the behavior of your narcissistic parent or practicing your new chosen behavior. At times like this you may have a nearly overpowering urge to go with what you grew up with.
At moments like this, ask yourself if you want to be like your parent or do you want to be free?
Change is not easy, which is why so few people pursue it and why even less achieve it. You have to want it with all your heart.
And I know that you do. You can make the change you want in yourself.
You didn’t ask for your narcissistic parent’s behavior. You picked it up to survive. Now you don’t need it.
So let it go.
How do you plan on changing your unwanted behavior?
Tell us in the comments below.