From House of Mirrors
Let’s take a look at why malignant narcissists not only don't change but become worse. Keep in mind, they have mastered a lifetime of this twisted way of being in the world, and are always pushing their warped behavior to the limits.
Narcissists are shameless: Without a conscience the narcissist is unable to process the feelings that make us want to alter our behaviour like shame, guilt, embarrassment, and remorse. They simply excuse, rationalize, blame-shift and project all their problems and bad behaviour onto you. Whatever shame sneaks into the narcissist’s wisp of a conscience is simply dumped onto you.
My parents had a rocky marriage. They divorced when I was two, remarried when I was four and moved to California where they separated again when I was eight, reconciled briefly, then separated for good and divorced when I was ten. In that final separation, my mother simply told my father that she was going to be seeing other men, and she might even be bringing some of them home, and he could stay or go, she didn’t care. And then she did just that. Absolutely shameless.
My father, of course, moved out and, because it was the 1950s, my mother got the house, the new car, the furniture, and full custody. My father got his 10-year-old car, his hunting and fishing gear, his mechanic’s tools, and the bills. When his financial obligations to her became so onerous that he literally did not earn enough money to pay them, he left the state to avoid being arrested…a circumstance that caused her no end of joy, as it allowed her to simultaneously wear the victim mantle and smirk at her victory over him.
All of the separations and both divorces were at her behest and yet my mother managed to make herself the victim in every case. Publicly, it was poor her, saddled with two kids and not enough money to support them…yet privately there always seemed to be enough money for beer, for cigarettes, for new cocktail dresses, for barhopping.
Appearances are everything to a narcissist. She must look prosperous, even when she’s barely middle-class. She lies not only with her words but with her actions and appearance as well. We all want to look our best, even fashionable, but the narcissist wants to appear to be better than she really is, to fool others. And if there isn’t enough money to support her efforts and take proper care of her children, the children do without so that NM can have.
So what if someone sees elegantly appointed NM and her shabby kids/home? Why, she blames the kids, of course! Preening under hearing such remarks as “She is always so well turned out!” she explains her scruffy kids by shamelessly blaming them. “Oh, I can’t get her to brush that hair,” or “he won't change into play clothes after school and I just refuse to spend more money on things he will just ruin…” A rundown house and dilapidated furniture can be blamed on the husband who abandoned her and the unmanageable kids. She shamelessly spends money on herself, and blames others for the deplorable conditions that an infusion of that cash might have remedied.
We left Oregon under a cloud. Her scandalous behaviour was such that we could no longer live in our small town. We drove to San Diego in a rattletrap old Ford and moved into a cheap motel while my father looked for work and we applied for a place in the post-war Navy housing projects.
My father worked as a mechanic and my mother got a job as a bookkeeper. And every night she would shut herself into the kitchen with her sewing machine. Under my bed were suitcases and she regularly added new clothes to those suitcases—clothes we were not allowed to wear.
After months of this, my father suddenly came home with a new car—a 3 year old Buick with all the options available at the time. My mother had mandated a new car and my father obeyed. Never mind we slept on cots, the lamp tables were up-ended orange crates, and for blankets we had my father’s old Navy blankets, cut in half and the house was barely furnished—my mother was going back to Oregon to put those “old biddies” who ran her out of town “to shame” with her false image of prosperity.
We could have eaten better. We could have had decent furniture. We could have worn the clothes she was sewing rather than the outgrown and threadbare things we had. But everything was sacrificed to her desire to create a false image of prosperity and show it off to the women who had shamed her—and rightfully so, for she had abandoned one of her children, left her husband, and spent two years earning herself a reputation as the town tramp—into leaving town. She was, in a word, shameless. Completely without shame and driven only by a vengeful desire to “show them!”
Narcissists have no shame. The emotion that makes you and me uncomfortable and sparks in us a desire to change something so we won’t be assailed by it again, does not exist in the narcissist. When it rears its head, the narcissist’s psyche immediately converts it into something else. When the women of our small Oregon town began to shun her for her behaviour, rather than take the point, feel ashamed and change her behaviour, my mother felt angry and victimized. And rather than be motivated to change her behaviour, she was motivated to create an image of prosperity so that not only would they feel “less” than she was, but so that she could don her cloak of affluence and feel like she was better than they were. And if she was better, then she was right, thereby shamelessly justifying not only her fantasy foray into prosperity, but rationalizing that these women had no right to judge her scandalous behaviour and shun her.
Shamelessness comes in many, many varieties. The mean girls who ostracize others and feel good about doing so, bullies who try to justify their behaviour by blaming the victim for being “too fat,” “too nerdy,” “gay,” or anything else they find personally not to their liking. Public officials who condemn the very behaviours they privately practice. Newt Gingrich abandoned two wives during their terrible illnesses, kept mistresses, and yet shamelessly attacked a sitting president for having an affair (a president who was still on his first wife, nogal). Narcissists take shamelessness to new heights—or depths, if you will—in their sense of self-righteousness. Rick Santorum, erstwhile GOP candidate for the presidency, has spoken out against abortion despite his wife having had one with his knowledge and consent. Narcissists are shameless in their hypocrisy.
This shamelessness has a terrible “trickle-down effect.” Children learn more by what they observe than what they are told, and those who have parents who behave shamelessly either never develop the capacity for shame themselves and carry this awful legacy to the next generation or they become the repository for the shame their parent(s) should be feeling. They become perpetual victims, overly responsible, believing themselves at fault for anything that is wrong in their lives or the lives of those around them.
I was married at one time to a terrible malignant narcissist. My therapist asked me why, if life with him was so unbearable that I had been contemplating suicide, did I stay? For a long time I couldn’t articulate my answer—it was just a nebulous feeling of needing to remain—and then one day it coalesced and just popped out: I felt responsible for him. I spent hours each night after dinner, talking him out of his paranoid fantasies so that he could go to work the next day and not react explosively to those imagined barbs that brought him home seething every night. I was afraid that he would get himself fired—or worse—if he was allowed to go back every morning with those paranoid notions growing daily in his perceptions. I knew how cruel he could be to women and kids, how he glowed with joy when he trounced a 6-year-old at Monopoly, how his chest swelled with pride and a grim smile of satisfaction would come over his face when he had gaslighted me into a quivering heap of tears. How could I turn this monster loose on the unsuspecting women of the world?
This was the daughter of a malignant narcissist thinking. This was the adult version of the child who had internalized the shameless blaming, who had come to take responsibility for the misbehaviour—even the conscious, knowing evil—of others. This is the adult version of the child who was beaten for her brother’s transgressions because she had not prevented that brother from misbehaving. This was me, sacrificing myself to keep this monster contained, not because I feared external punishment, as I had as a child, but because I had internalized the belief that his behaviour was my responsibility. As my mother shamelessly dumped her responsibility for controlling and managing my brother on me, my brother learned he could do anything he wanted because the consequences would be borne by another; and as I had learned to be a good little whipping post, I managed to find for myself a husband who would perpetuate the dynamics of my upbringing: he needn’t think or critically assess situations, he needn’t keep his baser impulses in check, he could indulge whatever he fancied, and the responsibility for being rational, the blame for his misdeeds or even his unhappiness, would all fall to me.
This is one of the legacies of being the child of a malignant narcissist—we attract people with whom we can resume the familiar but unhealthy dance of our childhoods. And the narcissists we attract shamelessly use us, for haven’t we been trained just for them?
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.