The narcissist and you - Is it forever your fault? - (12/22/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Sandy entered the pharmacy to pick up some prescriptions. The pharmacist said, “I was sorry to hear about your mother. I knew her for almost 25 years.” Sandy turned red and looked down. The pharmacist thought she might burst into tears at the thought of losing her mom. Instead, Sandy looked directly up and into the pharmacist's eyes and said, "When she died, I felt nothing. I did not cry," said Sandy. “Instead, my first thought was, ‘Problem solved.’”

The pharmacist knew that Sandy’s relationship with her mother was strained. It was not as if Sandy was a rebellious teen. Indeed, she always got top honors. Yet, when the pharmacist would mention to Sandy's mother that he was happy her grades were so high – and higher than his own son's grades – the mom just blew it off. "Oh, it's easy for her. No big deal," said Sandy's mom. 

Sandy had a dismal self-image as she grew. Nothing she could do – good grades, a clean record, an attentive boyfriend, a job – would satisfy her mother. So, Sandy blamed herself and dropped out of school. Eventually, she landed in a psychologist’s office to heal her mental misery. The psychologist explained to Sandy that her mother probably has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). According to Sandy, her mother had many of the classic symptoms of NPD: A sense of entitlement (“What about me?”); a lack of empathy for others (“That’s their problem!”); a tendency to exploit others (“He will never know the difference.”); arrogant behavior (“She’s just jealous of me!”). “Everything was about her,” Sandy explained, “If she didn’t get her way, she would scream, cry, and throw things. Everything was forever my fault.” 

Is everyday narcissism – admiring oneself in the mirror, flexing one’s muscles – a mental illness? Researchers separate the healthy and innocent pride in one’s looks or intellect from the extreme pathological selfishness of NPD. One may want to fit in, or want to stand out. Either way, denigrating or criticizing others to boost one’s pride is an damaging weakness. To be the child of a person with NPD, such as Sandy, can be confusing because the child’s personality is warped due to the parent’s unstable behavior. Everything the child does is wrong (“You are never going to amount to anything!”). Anything the child does right is dismissed and minimized (“You got good grades because of me!”).

No cure exists for NPD. Doctors treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with medications. For NPD, there is no magic bullet. The person with NPD may be coerced into seeing a therapist. But often, this plays right into the narcissist’s hands. Talking about oneself to a captive audience for 55 minutes is a mental orgasm. Once the therapist pushes back, however, the narcissist typically stops treatment.    

Humans need approval and attention. In varying degrees, people yearn for others to admire their looks, work, or personality. With the NPD patient, the need for love is a hunger that can never be sated. One can love the narcissist but must realize that the person is toxic. The cure is to heal from within. Know that not everything is your fault. Move away from the shadow of the narcissist and step into the sunlight. Understandably, Sandy loves her mother as a parent. Yet, when her mother died, she said, "Problem solved." This feeling is not entirely accurate because her mom’s words will live in her head until she seals shut that mausoleum of memories. In the process, Sandy can grow into her own person, worthy of any successes she attains. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.

Illustration by Doug Savage 

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