So, yeah, I’ve had more than my share of narcissists in my life. My father and stepfather were malignant narcissists, and my mother, who enabled their abuse, also has serious narcissistic tendencies. I love my parents, but those are the facts, and they sentenced me to early years as a narcissist magnet. Luck of the draw I guess.
Like so many children of narcissists, I tended to attract and be attracted to narcissists as I grew up and moved into adulthood. We seek what we know, and we also seek ways to repair our broken family relationships by getting involved in similar broken dynamics with others.
Narcissist Best Friend
My best friend starting in junior high school was a narcissist. Sandy was pretty, funny, and charming, but she was also self-involved, manipulative, and ultimately incapable of seeing beyond herself enough to achieve true intimacy with anyone. She was abandoned by her biological father for a new family, and her mother and half-brother were narcopaths. Considering how she was raised, Sandy was admirable, and that was a big reason I stuck with our friendship. She was leaps and bounds better than her mother, she tried at times to be a good friend to me, she came to love animals, and she worked toward self-awareness.
But she bailed on me at key times in high school, smoked in my house when I asked her not to, asked me to name my daughter after her when I told her I was pregnant, and changed the subject when I confided that my partner had been diagnosed with a life-threatening condition. I had long been growing out of the friendship, and that latter moment for me was its heart-breaking end after 25 years.
During my freshman orientation week of college, I fell hard for my dorm’s Resident Assistant (RA), a charismatic confident junior who greeted me with her widest dimple-cheeked Italian smile, helped carry my boxes up to my third floor room, held my hand on a romantic evening walk, and seduced me into her bed, all before classes had even begun.
Debra made me feel beautiful, smart, and adored—things I had never felt in my own family. That fall she took me home and trotted me around to her family like a prized pony. To my amazement, her parents welcomed me and our relationship, and her cute brother, a high school senior one year younger than me, said he wished he could have a girlfriend just like me. Somehow I had stumbled into an alternate reality where everything was opposite world from what I had grown up with.
But the honeymoon phase was short, and soon Debra began to withhold the “love” she had lavished on me. Compliments shifted to competition. Adoration turned to criticism. Attention waned, and affection was intermittently withdrawn. Soon Debra had invited another Julie from our dorm into our relationship, turning it into a twisted threesome. Julie was straight, and Debra was adamant that I was not to tell her that Debra and I were a couple.
In time Debra dumped me for someone else, telling me I was her “forever girl” and that I should wait because she would come back for me. A year later she did actually come back, complete with an apartment she had readied to receive me and our new life together. But by then I had done a lot of wising up, and that was the end of Debra in my life.
Narcissist Older Family Friend
As a young adult I got entangled with an old friend of my parents, Jimmy. I had known Jimmy and his family my whole life, and I was friends with his daughter. As a kid and teenager I had spent time on their family grape vineyard farm, and I had been enthralled with Jimmy’s uberarticulate storytelling and flirtatious favoritism of me, the opposite of how my father treated me.
Once I became an adult, Jimmy and I began exchanging letters and emails, sometimes daily. Although we were both committed to other people, occasionally he would call and suggest we see each other in person. I knew that Jimmy serially cheated on his wife, whom I also loved, abused every substance he could get his hands on, and periodically wrecked his cars while driving under the influence. Although I never allowed our relationship to become physical, it often crossed boundaries that it would take me years to realize were not healthy. As I came to understand narcissism, I recognized Jimmy. Years later his daughter told me he had been verbally abusive to her and her mother.
If you’re vulnerable to narcissist personalities, chances are you’ve had at least one narcissist boss along the way. My narcissist boss was an entire family. At 25 I was delighted to get a job as a writer at an up-and-coming educational publisher, a family-run company that turned out to be nothing short of a modern Dickensian Hell.
The owners were the Grieveys, world-class narcissists. Pamela, the ruthless mother with a nearly flawless sweet-old-lady act, smilingly horsewhipped the company’s underpaid proofreaders in a cramped windowless room of the basement. Pamela’s son Jake, a tangle-haired 40 year old dating a sweet young Catholic girl employee, ran the editorial division with palpable menace. And Pamela’s daughter Kaitlin, a stab-you-in-the-back “friend” to all, who was chain-smoking through her second pregnancy, ran the design division. Jake’s and Kaitlin’s flying-monkey kids lurked around the office after school spying on the staff and reporting back to their parents.
The Grieveys had spot-on instincts for hiring smart young underachievers. They worked us like a mule team, calling for unpaid weekend workdays and holding impromptu companywide meetings in which they publicly shamed employees who had fallen into disfavor. Jake told a small group of us he knew had writing lives outside the office that the company owned any creative work we produced in our own free time and that we should hand it over. Kaitlin fired one of the company’s most tenured employees when he was diagnosed with cancer, causing him to lose his health insurance. He died soon after that, in his 50s. One Monday following a “working weekend,” Jake, Kaitlin, and Pamela drove into the company parking lot each in a bright new Lexus, my cue to finally quit and run like hell.
Developing a Well-Tuned ‘Nar-dar’
As I worked to understand my family and painstakingly unravel myself from the barbed wire of my past, even before I had a word to describe it I came to understand narcissism enough to recognize its warning signs—arrogance, self-centeredness, grandiosity, unwillingness to take responsibility or change, lack of empathy. I found people who loved me for me, not a manipulated projection of them, and I built healthy relationships. When I eventually found books and information about narcissism I began to understand how it functions as a system, and over time I deconstructed the system in my own life.
These days I have a well-tuned Nar-dar, and I avoid narcissists like head lice. It doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally get tripped up, but the important people in my life—the people I trust and spend time with—are listeners, give-and-takers, and empathetic. Now I know I don’t have to settle for less.
A different version of this post appeared April 27, 2016.
Julia L. Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir Carry You about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissist family. Read excerpts. Her articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post.
Related Articles by Julia L. Hall
- The Dangerous Nihilism of President Narcissist and His ‘PostTruth’ America
- Caretaking My Narcissistic Mother Through Cancer
- Child of Narcissists Goes from ‘Death Dealer’ to Healer
- A Golden Child’s Story of Guilt in the Narcissistic Family
- The Terrible Dilemma of the Golden Child in the Narcissistic Family
- Raised by Narcissists? Why You Can’t Afford the Wrong Therapist
- Tolstoy Was Wrong: Narcissistic Unhappy Families Are Kind of All Alike
- Why I Hate the Word ‘Narcissist’
- A Daughter’s Story of One Hell of a Narcissist Mother
Image courtesy of Steve Johnson, Creative Commons.