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.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Be perfect: 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 9

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

9. Thou shalt be perfect

Sample Situation: “Just because you got all ‘A’s on your report card doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have done better. You’re lazy. Now get to work and let’s see you get some more ‘A+s’!”

Lesson Learned: If it’s not perfect, people won’t love you. No matter how good it is, it’s never good enough...but keep trying!

Motto: You’re only as good as your performance and that’s still not good enough!


In a dysfunctional family, the standards of performance set by the parents often have no bearing on reality—or the performance of the parents, themselves, either. Narcissists are the masters of unreality—what they say is the last word, even if that last word should be “impossible.”

I recall a terrifying incident when I was somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10 in which my NM dragged me into the bathroom by my hair, slammed me against a wall, and turned on the tap full blast. She was furious with me for not completing some task I can no longer recall and she was enraged with me for attempting to excuse my failure by saying “I tried…” Screaming almost incoherently, she turned to that tap and told me that in the future I was never to “just try.” I was to do whatever it was she demanded of me, without failure. And then she pointed to the tap and said “If I tell you to tie a ribbon around that stream of water I don’t want to hear ‘I can’t’ or ‘I tried,’ I just want you to do it and no whining, do you understand me?” or something to that effect. I recall nodding my head and feeling utterly petrified, like I had stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone.

I think I remember this so clearly because this was the incident in which I became truly, viscerally afraid of her because I finally understood that she was, beyond a doubt, out of touch with reality and in my child’s mind, that made her extraordinarily dangerous. She wasn’t just mean, she was crazy and mean, too—a combination I was to often fear might become a lethal one, at least where I was concerned. We both knew what she was demanding of me was an impossibility and yet she had every expectation that I would fulfil that or any impossible task that she might set me to, or I would suffer dire consequences. To say the realization was disheartening would be to understate it by several magnitudes.

I recall that at about the age of 10 I became responsible for mopping the kitchen floor every Saturday morning. The floor was a dull brown asphalt tile, literally impossible to shine (at least with the products available in the stores in the mid 1950s), and rather like the colour of mud. To my child’s eyes, the only way you could tell the floor was dirty was if you walked over it and your shoes stuck to the floor. NM didn’t bother to show me or tell me how to properly wash that floor. There was a string mop in the laundry room and a tin bucket, and a box of Spic n Span under the kitchen sink. It was from the back of that box I got my only lessons in mopping a floor—that, and the “hard knocks” I got for everything wrong she found once I announced I was finished.

Do you really expect a 10-year-old to know you have to move all the chairs away from the table and sweep the room first? Do you really expect a 10 year old to know what constitutes a “clean” floor when the floor is the colour of dirt? I could barely wield the mop, I was so scrawny, and was hopeless at trying to wring it out…my little arms simply did not have the physical strength to do so. And, since the floor looked the same to me, dirty or clean, I couldn’t even tell if I was getting it clean or not! But NM apparently could tell and each failure, from failing to remove the chairs to failing to sweep to failing to wring out the mop sufficiently to leaving dirty marks on the skirting boards, warranted a separate physical punishment, each one accompanied by angry, impatient, screeching insults to my intelligence, eyesight, and ability to reason. Nothing short of perfection was acceptable and, perfection being an undefined, unstated goal, the goalpost moved unpredictably and often.

When I was seven I was skipped, mid-year, from second to third grade. Nobody bothered to assess what educational fundamentals I had missed and give me some make up classes—I assume everyone thought I would do just fine. But I missed multiplication and when I entered the new class, the kids were doing long division and this was way, way over my head. I was afraid to ask for help—the one time I approached my teacher with my dilemma, she suggested I might want to go back to the second grade, but that would turn my already frightening home life into a war zone, with me at the centre of it. So, instead of helping me with learning multiplication, the teacher intimidated me (I met up with her again in the 7th grade and she rather snidely asked me “so, did you ever learn to multiply?” in front of the Home Ec class she was teaching—I had to pretend I didn’t know what she was talking about) and I went away to struggle by myself.

This led to a lifelong problem with math—I became math phobic, silently weeping over homework I did not comprehend, unable to bear the humiliation of asking for help and having it thrown in my face. My grades fell…in the 4th grade I was assigned homework (not done in my school district for students below 7th grade unless they were having difficulty) and it plunged me into suicidal thoughts—if NM found out about the homework she would know I was failing math but if I didn’t do the homework, the teacher would call NM—either way, I was screwed and, at the tender age of 9, I began closing my bedtime prayers with a request to die in my sleep so I would not have to face NM when she found out. As this tender age I was brought nose-first up against my limitations and even my mortality, tragic when you consider that children this young should be looking forward to a limitless future rather than praying for deliverance through death.

Perfectionism on the part of parents puts an unwarranted burden on children, a burden that many children internalize and then grow to up put impossible pressures on themselves. If nothing less than perfect is acceptable, then the child learns to feel she is unacceptable because every day she finds evidence that she is not. This is devastating to a child’s self-esteem and just gets worse as she grows up and turns that pressure on herself. Media sets impossible standards of beauty, thinness, wittiness, coolness, setting before us role models who are genetically unlike us and who have access to unlimited resources to force themselves into conformation to the desired “norm.” If you are not thin enough, fair enough, blond enough, rich enough, blingy enough or whatever the current trend dictates, you are worthless.

At home, at school, at work, even at church, we are bombarded with messages of perfection, the barely disguised sneers for those of us who don’t measure up to standards of dress or style or grooming or knowledge or deportment; the fleeting approval when we hit the mark, only to have to do it again in an hour, the next class, the next day, the next Sunday. We are not OK just as we are, love and approval are earned, and we must earn them over and over again.

When we grow up and move out of our dysfunctional homes, we carry this message within us. We internalize it and now begin to beat up on ourselves, to relentlessly punish ourselves for our failures to achieve those impossible “norms” we have been trained to. When we cannot achieve something, it is not because it is impossible or unhealthy or beyond our grasp, it is because we are flawed. We are constantly assailed with more messages, from admonitions that pretend to be affirmations, to well meaning friends who urge us towards success, to our own inner voices who tell us “if you wanted it bad enough, you would make it happen,” whether it is realistic or not.

We learn to count ourselves by our failures, not our successes, and to judge ourselves not on what we accomplished but on what we didn’t achieve. Some of us learn to not try because if we never make an effort, we cannot fail…yes, if we don’t try, we cannot succeed, either, but if we try there is a possibility of failure and we will avoid that bitter taste at all costs. Some become compulsive, relentless, obsessed with their pursuit of success, never having enough because no matter how great the success, that brass ring eludes them…there is no love waiting at the end of each race, each merger, each buy-out, only the expectation that the next one will be bigger, better, more spectacular the last one.

Dysfunctional parents use the reward for performance concept dysfunctionally—they turn it into a carrot-and-stick affair in which the stick is constantly applied and the carrot never gained. Perfection is the key that opens the padlock holding that carrot just out of reach, but you never, ever seem to be just quite perfect enough. Internalized, you cannot love yourself, approve of yourself, feel good about yourself until you achieve that perfection and no matter how hard you try, there is always something you are not perfect about, something that makes you undeserving, something that keeps you from being worthy of love, either your own or someone else’s.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
10. Thou shalt not forgive yourself or others.


  1. This rings so true for me as does everything else on your site! I remember being only 8, and sinking into depression because I got a few A-'s on my report card. Why, they SHOULD have been A's. GC brother always got A's. Anything less than perfect = failure. I worked hard to make sure the rest of my grades that year were "perfect."

    Sad, because even then I knew she didn't truly love her bright little girl; she only loved the attention she got from having smart children. Whatever happened to unconditional maternal love and acceptance?

    Thank you again for giving us DONMs insight as well as a place to share our feelings.

    1. It doesn't take very long for us to internalize the message, does it? "Love is something you earn." And then they either don't tell us how to earn it or they lie to us...the goal posts are always moving.

      I think your second paragraph sums it up very nicely: she loved the attention she got for having smart children. Imagine the chaos that would have reigned if I had agreed with that teacher that I should go back to second grade (which I wanted to do but KNEW what would happen to ME if it actually happened!). It is--and always has been--about them, not about us.

      I'm glad you find my blog interesting and helpful--it's a win-win for me because the insights I get from the readers (like yours above) help me as well!



  2. This hurts my heart. Your crazy mother dragging you by the hair, slamming you against the wall, screaming at you that you can never say "I tried.." you must DO whatever impossible thing she asks. The stupid jerk teacher treating you like a fool over not having been taught multiplication... and remembering it 4 years later to toss back in your face again! What a Bitch.

    I remember how I made up my mind at the beginning of every school year that THIS year I would not make ONE SINGLE MISTAKE. I started making my solemn first-day-of-school vow beginning in the second grade, I think. Every year after that I made the same vow, promising myself I would not make a mistake in anything throughout the entire school year that lay ahead. Then, when I would eventually get the first test or homework assignment back with a big ugly red X-mark, I would feel CRUSHED, like I had failed the whole year!

    Oddly, my parents never seemed to care about my school grades, that was all ME, wanting to be so perfect that they would finally be proud of me and love me. It was my behavior at home that my parents were always nit-picking me apart over. Despite my constant hypervigilant determination to be perfect in all ways all the time, I couldn't walk across a floor in the presence of my parents without one or both of them finding something wrong.

    For most of my life I tried to ignore and forget these ancient childhood memories. But I stayed stuck in my belief that I was never good enough, never worthy of love, compassion, kindness, or consideration. Now I am almost 60 and I am finally figuring out why I have been so miserable inside my own skin practically since the day I was born: because this is what I was taught, along with the English language. I was taught by my malignant narcissistic parents that I am not and never will be Ok.

    And that is a lie.


    1. Well, I've passed the 60 mark and thankfully, the fraught emotional journey is mostly done for me, now I have this burning intellectual curiousity to unravel the knot of contradictions and peculiarities that was my NM and my life with her.

      Like you, I tried to ignore the old memories and forge ahead, but the belief that I was a "bad seed" stayed stuck. I eventually did an intense five years of therapy and came out with the tools to continue the introspection without taking on the responsibility. If therapy gave me nothing else, it gave me clarity on just who was responsible for what: one of the things my T wrote about me in her early notes was that I was "overly responsible," taking on responsibility for the behaviour of others just as NM had made me responsible for the behaviour of my GCBro. And because we really cannot control the behaviour of our siblings or our spouses or, to a large degree, even our children, I came up a failure every single day, reinforcing that belief that I was not worthy of those things people must earn--like love. I was probably 40 and in therapy before I was able to assimilate that love was not something I had to earn which, in retrospect, is odd because I never felt my kids had to earn MY love. But for me, it was different...

      You are right, of course, that you were taught right along with English that you were not good enough to love as you were, you had to earn it...and you were to earn it through perfection. I remember watching an in-law, many many years ago, scream at her toddler daughter that if the child would not use the potty chair instead of her pants, Mommy wouldn't love her. I cringed--I had two kids, one a newborn, and I loved them desperately. Failure to use the potty was certainly not going to put a dent in that! I have lost touch with that family through divorce but I often wonder what became of that child, if she is one of us.

      But you are right--it IS a lie. Because the one who is not and never will be OK is the narcissist. They are fatally flawed in that they will never know that they are their own worst enemies and will go to their graves with their demons still gnawing on their hearts. THEY can never get away--we can.

      Hugs to you


  3. Oh my God :( What a savage witch your mother was, Violet! And so much like mine! I remember ever since being around 5 or 6 years old being given so many chores, stuff like doing the dishes - glad I never sliced off a finger by accident. I did cut my thumb on a shard of a broken plate and had to get a few stitches once. My NM feigned concern in front of the neighbours and played the role of the worried mother til we got home from hospital. Then she accused me of having done it all on purpose for attention, and if I ever did it again, then she would beat me until the blood came out of my skin (her words) She also screamed at me for 'destroying' that plate and raged about her 'bad luck' and 'shitty life' and went on and on about how she was now forced to spend money on a new plate because of my stupidity. You just never can 'win' with an NM; a sinking feeling that their children learn quickly. I would do the dishes with my pulse racing and my bladder weak, because I knew that breaking a glass would mean being beaten and berated. I remember wishing my little fingers weren't so clumsy and feeling nothing but dread while standing on that footstool by the sink! All you can hope for is completing the tasks with minimal abuse - but praise? Approval? Oh hell no. Not unless you're the Golden Child (my sister). She could do absolutely no wrong.

    1. " Then she accused me of having done it all on purpose for attention,"--oh yes, the old "attention-getting device" accusation. How well I know that one--everything from pneumonia to hayfever to needing fillings in my teeth or needing glasses was declared an "attention-getting device" by my NM.

      I had a similar incident with the dishes when I was 17--I put my hand and the dishcloth into a drinking glass, gave it a turn, and a chunk of glass broke out of it, the sharp edge cutting the skin on the back of my right hand into a gash about an inch and a half long. NM's response? It was an "attention-getting device" to get out of doing dishes and she wasn't going to "reward" me by taking me to the hospital--I could just go see the school nurse the next day. This was the night before my senior prom!! Good thing we wore long gloves back then because my hand was so swollen those gloves were the only thing that kept it from looking grotesque and drawing attention. Nearly 50 years have passed and the scar is still visible!

      I was about 7 when the household chores became mine--all without any kind of training except the "after the fact" lessons that came about through criticism of...and punishment errors. Apparently I was not allowed to be ignorant of anything because when I made a mistake, it was because I was "defiant," which, of course, allowed her to mete out some draconian punishment for what was, in fact, a minor infraction. So I can really relate to that "destroying the plate" experience of yours--I would have gotten the same thing!

      Get it done exactly right? No mistakes? You kinda expect praise for that, don't you. Well, according to my NM, praise is not warranted for doing what is expected of you and doing it correctly. Made me wonder when praise was warranted because I don't recall ever successfully climbing that mountain. And yet I DO remember my GCBrother being praised, at age 10 or 11, for not wetting his bed--it wasn't that she didn't or couldn't praise, it was that there was none for me.

      Makes you wonder, if there is a god, why s/he ever allowed people like her to reproduce and leave vulnerable children at her not-so-tender mercies, eh?

  4. I read this blog to remind me I did the right thing going NC. And that I would never put my child through that type of hell for some societal view of normal.
    What I don't understand is how everyone knows my NM wont change and hasn't ever changed- yet I must put up with it. Why?
    There is no remorse, or apology for the long years of pain and humiliation.
    I got my self respect back.
    I've moved out of state started a new life.

    I miss things. But it's things I will never get from my FOO.

    Thanks for the good work, and for reminding me that although I am alone, I am not the only survivor.

    1. You raise an interesting question, Anon. They all know what your NM is like, but you are expected to put up with it. That is a none-too-subtle way of demonstrating where you are in the spectrum of importance in their view, because if you were perceived as being more important, they would expect HER to change to accommodate you.

      Tragically, this would seem to indicate a fatally flawed FOO, since nobody it taking up the defense of a child, nobody is advocating compromise, nobody is calling the N on her crap. The expectation is one of subordination to her, regardless of whatever is objectively right or wrong. And that is not healthy, no matter how you slice it.

      It is tough to be the only sane one in a family of can literally make you question your sanity, since you are alone in your perceptions. But it looks to me that you have heeded your red flags and taken yourself to a place of safety...all I can do is congratulate you on your insight and your strength to take yourself away from it.

      Best of luck to you and best wishes for a fabulous future.



  5. This breaks my heart. My N mother was more Covert but relating to perfectionism she would never be happy with my grades don't know what she wanted. The most horrible thing I remember was a beating I got after I accidentally knocked over a bowl of salad and soaked up the carpet on the floor. I had to go to school with all those marks and the shame..yuck. other horrible things: she made me work like a slave in the house before Christmas to scrub the walls of dirt or dust, to make sure everything is cleaned. Then I had to help her cook and she didn't like how I did it. I remember how exhausted as a child I was before Christmas and New Years. Everything had to be perfect and even then it wasn't enough..������


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