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, October 18, 2012

Superior, Subordinate, Equal

I was married to James, a malignant narcissist, for more than 10 years. Like most narcissists, he was a poor excuse for a human being, but he had a way of conning people to his way of seeing things. When he couldn’t bring someone around to his way of thinking with persuasion, NH would do what he called “beating him over the head with data” (inundating the guy in a flood of information, misinformation, facts and lies). If the person still resisted, then he was dismissed as “stupid” and, if the person was superior to him in any way NH viewed as significant (more wealth, better house or car, higher pay grade), resented. Dinner table conversations consisted of listening to him rant about his latest encounter, how this co-worker “sandbagged” him in a meeting or that colleague was out to get him as evidenced by disagreeing with him in front of others. If his boss was in the meeting to witness his humiliation (being disagreed with in private enraged him but in public, in front of a superior, he found it humiliating), NH would be doubly pissed, sometimes actually shaking with suppressed rage and spouting “get even” fantasies that would surely have gotten him fired, if not jailed, had he gone through with them.

Dinner time often consisted of listening to these rages, then talking him down by advancing alternative reasons these people might have had for disagreeing with him…always predicated on the idea that they were not smart enough or devious enough to do what he was accusing them of. Not that I believed these men weren’t smart and capable, but to calm him down, he had to believe it. It was an endless and endlessly exhausting task, talking him down from the ledge every night over dinner, but there were really were times I feared he would “go postal” on someone if he wasn’t brought back to reason before he came face-to-face with those people again.

Over time, listening to the same rants night after night, I began to realize things—to get a reading on his perspective and point of view. He admired his boss, a European man whom NH aped in dress and grooming and managerial style. He absorbed many of the man’s attitudes as well, not such a good thing when you realize that this boss later had his former secretary arrested for grand theft when his wife discovered that he had spent tens of thousands of dollars on her: to cover his tracks, he accused the woman of forging checks. Charges against her were dropped when she sued him and his employer for millions for sexual harassment…great role model, eh? Even when this boss did something monumentally stupid, like sending female sales reps to Saudi Arabia to meet with male clients (one poor woman got arrested by the Religious Police on a prostitution charge for being alone in a hotel room with a man she was not married to, even though they were quite obviously fully clothed and conducting non-sexual business), my NH could find no fault with him. He excused the boss’s mistakes almost indulgently, while he would fly into towering rages over the smallest error someone else made. I found it really puzzling…

And then one day, listening to him rant on about the stupidity and sabotaging behaviour (all in his mind, as far as I could tell) of one of the other managers, it hit me—this man’s world had no peers in it. It consisted exclusively of superiors and subordinates—there were no equals!

Realizing this was huge. Later on, when I applied this insight to other dysfunctional personalities in my life (I still had not heard of narcissism), I found it applied to some of them as well, most notably my NM. You were either her superior or her subordinate, and she had no equals: people were either above her or below here and there were no in-betweens. The people above here were famous or rich or powerful—or all three. They were admired by others—and especially by her—people like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball. Who was beneath her? Everybody else.

When your world is broken up this way, “fate” does not decide the status of others, you are the one who assigns superior/subordinate status. In the company he worked for before he met Mr. Suave European boss, NH worked for another European man who was anything but polished. Crude, rude, rapacious, and predatory, he was an uncouth, squatty little man with an ugly personality who delighted in keeping everyone in his company in fear of their jobs. He had no qualms about stiffing a vendor (when I was a recruiter I supplied him with a CFO and even though he hired the man and kept him on board for more than two years, he refused to pay the fee—and when I asked why, he told me he didn’t owe me an explanation!), he had no sense of honour at all. But his ignoble character had made him a rich man and in his eyes, that made it OK. NH hated this guy, not only because he cheated him out of his vacation pay, but because there was nothing in him that other people looked up to…he was universally held in contempt by his peers…there was nothing in him for NH to emulate (he was already just as ruthless and devoid of conscience).

With the contrast of the two bosses and NH’s attitude about his peers—literally, other managers who were in the same pay grade and reported to the same VP he did—I came to the realization that not only did he divide the world up into superiors…people he wanted to emulate, and subordinates…people for whom he had no respect…there was no place in his world for an equal. An equal would be someone he might have to share with. In any competition, he had to win, so he would only compete with subordinates—people who he considered beneath him, people who were supposed to lose, to give it up to him. He did not compete with people he considered his superiors: he emulated and lionized them…and hoped to ride their coattails to wealth, power and glory.

Somehow this all felt a little familiar—not so much in the similarity to my NM kind of familiar, but like I had read or heard something about this before. After a bit of pondering and reflection, it came to me…when I was in training for my recruiting job, we had a psychologist speak to us and he gave us a brief training in Transactional Analysis (TA) and how it explains various communication styles. He also told us how to recognize and more effectively deal with dysfunctional communication styles.

In TA, you basically deal with others from one of three positions: Parent, Adult, Child. I prefer Superior, Equal, Subordinate because they are more descriptive and less likely to be confused with the real positions we hold in life. (For example, your NM is your parent in real life but she may interact with you from the position of a child, casting you in the role of parent. I think it is much less confusing to leave real-world relationships out and say your NM has placed herself in a subordinate position, casting you in the role of superior, dumping all responsibility on you.)

Myself, I lived in a world largely populated by peers—equals. I thought of others as equals, interacted with them as equals. Even people who were above me on the corporate ladder, while their jobs were superior to mine, they were not superior human beings. Additionally, I didn’t see very many people…outside of children…as subordinates, either. It might be germane to point out here that NH had often referred to me as being “very egalitarian” with a note of contempt in his voice that I could never quite fathom…

According to the psychologist, communication with others is a transaction--a two way operation. Both you and the other person assume a “position” in the transaction, and that position is either a superior position, an equal position, or a subordinate position.

Superior—When you yell at someone, you are taking a superior position; if he yells back, so is he.
Equal—When you calmly discuss something with someone, you are taking an equal position; if he engages you in the same calm, reasonable manner, then he is also taking an equal position.
Subordinate— If you interact with someone timorously, fearfully, deferentially, afraid or unwilling to ask for what you want or you try to get them to make decisions for you, you are taking a subordinate position; if the other person also won’t make a decision and behaves as if he is afraid to speak up or be decisive, then that person is also taking a subordinate position.

Additionally, transactions can be Subordinate/Superior, Subordinate/Equal, or Superior/Equal. As I am sure you can guess, an Equal/Equal transaction is the ideal—and it is often the most difficult to achieve.

Look at the graphic on the right and you will see how many different types of transactions are possible. Only the Equal/Equal transaction is a healthy exchange of information between peers. The rest are rife with manipulation and best to be avoided. Unfortunately, that is difficult because people who are stuck in unhealthy communication patterns tend to want to continue them because that is what they know and what works for them…and they can actually, subtly, force you into their dysfunctional patterns despite your best intentions.

Why am I telling you this? Why is this important? Because if you ever hope to get any kind of peace with your NM—or with other dysfunctional people in your life—you need to be able to recognize and then change the kinds of transactions you have with them. You need to be able to spot it when someone is trying to force you into an unhealthy form of communication along with all the baggage that comes with falling for it.

Most common with DoNMs and their NMs, I would think, is the Superior/Subordinate (Parent-Child in TA) transaction. NM sets herself up in one position or the other and will, through her behaviour, try to force you to take the other position. If she sets herself in the Superior, you are expected to take the Subordinate so she can bombard you with messages of how unacceptable you are and then you are expected to take on the baggage that goes with it: guilt, remorse, and attempts to make amends (by doing whatever she wants you to do). I would guess this is the most common transaction between NMs and their daughters.

Some, however, take a Subordinate (Child) position and come across with helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, and whiny, rescue-seeking behaviour, casting you in the role of the Superior (Parent) who has to ride to the rescue. If you don’t you are abandoning her and heaped with guilt (both from her and yourself) for it.

When we stand up to an NM, too often we start out trying an Equal position but allow ourselves either to be reduced to a Subordinate status or goaded into taking a Superior position. Two people who try to conduct a transaction with each taking a Superior position are pretty much headed for conflict—you can’t have two bosses operating in the same space without conflict. She tries to tell you what to do, you shout back, telling her to get off your back (telling her what to do), and chaos ensues.

Equally untenable is a transaction in which the people both try to take the Subordinate (Child) status. Nobody wants to make a decision, not even for something as mundane as to where to go for coffee. They may find fault with each other “I never get to choose where we go for coffee…” “Ok, where should we go?” “I dunno…where do you want to go?” Imagine trying to buy furniture, or a house or even groceries when neither person is willing to make up their mind and keeps deferring to the other?

So, what do you do? You start by finding out what an Equal/Equal transaction feels like. This is a situation in which two people treat each other as equals, with respect for the other person’s position and feelings, even if they don’t agree. If there is an issue under discussion, some persuasion may be encountered, but it will be put forth respectfully as an appeal to reason and will not include any implications that you are somehow defective if you persist in your disagreement. The transaction will close as the result of a compromise or an agreement by both parties to agree to disagree. Respect by and for both people involved will be the hallmark of the transaction. When you walk away from a transaction like this, even if you didn’t get all that you wanted out of it (compromise involves giving up something of what you want in order to get some of what you want), you do not walk away feeling beaten down or disrespected, nor do you walk away angry. If you truly had an Equal/Equal transaction, you feel respected by the other party—and respect for the other party—even if you didn’t get what you wanted.

Suppose you walk away from the transaction feeling angry and taken advantage of? Or beaten down and crying? Or guilty? Or victorious, like you got one over on the other guy? Then you did not participate as an Equal. If you felt victorious—or angry that you didn’t get what you wanted—then you participated as a Superior. If you felt defensive or guilty, you participated as a Subordinate.

What is important to realize before we go any further is that the role the other person takes only affects your role if you let it. It is entirely possible to have an Equal/Superior transaction or an Equal/Subordinate transaction. All it takes is not budging from your Equal position no matter what the other party does to provoke you into the Superior or Subordinate position…and yes, I know, this is often easier said than done. How about a few samples?

An Equal/Equal transaction:
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: OK, dear, thanks for letting me know in advance. I’ll see if Sue is available—if she’s not, can you make Sunday?

An Equal/Subordinate transaction:
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: Oh no! What am I going to do? How am I going to get by? I’m so alone…Saturday is the highlight of my week because I get to see you. How can you do this to me when you know I have no other way to get to the store. Do you want me to starve? What am I supposed to do?

An Equal/Superior transaction:
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: Oh no you don’t! You are not going to dump me to go running off doing something frivolous with those lowlife friends of yours! Whatever it is, it can’t be important or you’d tell me what it is. I’m not letting you get away with this—you said you’d be here on Saturdays to take me shopping and that is what you are going to do, do you understand me??

How you respond to Mom’s opening gambit determines the direction the transaction will take. For example:

An Equal/Subordinate transaction derails (1):
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: Oh no! What am I going to do? How am I going to get by? I’m so alone…Saturday is the highlight of my week because I get to see you. How can you do this to me when you know I have no other way to get to the store. Do you want me to starve? What am I supposed to do?
Daughter: I’m sorry Mom! Can’t you get Sue to take you?
Mother: Why should I call Sue? YOU promised to do this for me…I can’t bother Sue—what would I tell her ‘Oh, my daughter dropped me at the last minute…’
Daughter: I’m sorry, Mom, but I just can’t make it this time. What about Sunday? Can we go Sunday?
Mother: No, I plan my shopping very carefully and I will be out of things that I need before Sunday. Why are you doing this to me? You said Saturday and I believed you. You don’t want me to go hungry, do you? Or my poor little SammyCat? I can’t believe you would be so unreliable and so thoughtless…

An Equal/Subordinate transaction derails: (2)
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: Oh no! What am I going to do? How am I going to get by? I’m so alone…Saturday is the highlight of my week because I get to see you. How can you do this to me when you know I have no other way to get to the store. Do you want me to starve? What am I supposed to do?
Daughter: Dammit, Mom! You can survive one more day until I can get there! I am so sick of you whining and demanding and not appreciating anything I do for you. Maybe I should just let you take care of your shopping without my help, you are an adult, after all, aren’t you?

In both examples, what started as an Equal position on the Daughter’s part became quickly derailed in response to the position taken by the Mother. This is being REactive rather than being PROactive, meaning your mood and your response is a reaction to the other person rather than staying with your own feelings. This is a behaviour pattern that can become habituated (and almost automatic) and it is not healthy—it puts you at the mercy of other people and their moods rather than allowing you to be yourself. It is something we learn as a protective mechanism as children, something we undoubtedly needed to keep us safe when we were little, but we are not little any more, so we have actually outgrown this mechanism and it no longer serves us, we have come to serve it…and our NMs…when we allow ourselves to interact with them as if we were still only five years old and still under their control.

We can find our transactions even more easily derailed if our NM chooses to respond to our Equal opening statement with a hostile or Superior statement because that makes us feel defensive and even people who didn’t grow up under the harsh tutelage of an NM often feel defensive when they feel attacked. Some of us respond to the attack with anger and attack back (we assume a Superior position) but all too often we immediately sink back into the Subordinate position and let NM run roughshod all over us.

It is a fundamental rule of interactions that if you want something to change, you have to change what you are doing. Narcissists deplore change unless it works to their advantage, so any change you want to make in your communication with your NM is going to be fraught with resistance on her part and, depending on her individual characteristics, the resistance can be anywhere from the silent treatment to a whinge-fest to aggressive tactics to “show you who’s boss” and “put you in your place.” But if you want things to change, you have to change how you do things, even in how you communicate with your NM, and not let her manipulate you back to where she has had you all these years.

Next: Superior, Subordinate, Equal Pt 2: DOING it!


  1. This is brilliant. I find it to be very timely in my progress and I am so glad I came across it today. Thank you so much for the information. I look forward to reading Pt 2.

    1. Thanks for writing--this was a tough one for me to write, to discipline my mind to put down in words the amorphous concepts that have been operating in my brain for 25+ it is doubly gratifying to receive this kind of feedback. Part 2 is already under way, but it may take a bit to give birth to it!

      Glad you've found it helpful so far, though!

    2. I did. I really found it helpful. I had a conversation with my NM the same day that I read this. I kept thinking "use the equal position". It really helped me from going off track and dissolving into a whiny, defensive kid or a scolding, angry mother with her. The end result was so much better than I could have hoped for in a very difficult conversation with NM.
      Thanks again. It was well written, informative, and interesting. And so helpful.

    3. I'm glad it worked for you Jessie--and thank you for telling me and the people who read the blog. There is nothing like success to inspire us!

  2. Wow, great post! I definitely see my NM in this, she never had any equals, either. She always has someone on a pedestal (superior), but if they disappointed her, then she would put them in the subordinate role, never to return to their former superior position. Right now, everything is about my N-SIL and how special and talented she is (we're both artists). I'm subordinate, so I'm pretty much invisible. I'm just waiting to see what fireworks happen when, inevitably, N-SIL will anger my NM. It will happen, at some point, I have no doubt. NM generally has a family feud going with someone in the family at any given time.

    Unfortunately, I'm also dealing with this very thing with an N-coworker and this post just made me realize it! She does the same as your NH, mimicking our boss, whom she sees as superior, and all. So much so, a visitor from another office asked me what was up with that and were they an "item" (he's married, she's not). I'm persona non grata, subordinate to her, although we are equals in the company and our positions. I haven't heard or seen her refer to or treat anyone else in the company as an equal, just superiors and subordinates. It's rather startling now that I've realized what about my coworker has been bothering me so much. She's always reminded me of my NM, but this makes it more clear to me one of the work-related ways she's doing it.

    I've read almost your entire blog. Although my NM wasn't quite as physically violent as yours (though she has her moments) the similarities are incredible in the psychological violence you describe. I'm remembering things from my childhood I thought I'd long forgotten.

    1. Thank you for your comment. You actually have brought up something I notice in the forums with regularity: as you begin to get clear on who narcissists are and what they do, they begin popping out of the woodwork! You suddenly start seeing them amongst your coworkers, your family, and even people you have long considered friends. Enlightenment is a two-edged sword, I fear. As you get healthier, the unhealthy people around you begin to stand our more and more and inevitably you have to change the way you deal with them. And that is what this pair of articles is all about.

      Hopefully, these things you are now remembering you can now process as an adult. The biggest mistake we DoNMs make, I think, is to fear confrontation of old, painful memories. But as long as we hide the pain--and hide from it--it affects and even controls our lives today. Getting it out in the open, analyzing it, laying responsibility where it belongs...this frees us. Yes, sometimes we need professional help, but truth and honesty about our past are liberating. As a therapist once told me, the only way out of the pain is to go through it. I was really resistant to that idea but in the end, she was right.

      Hopefully this pair of articles will give you some new insights into dealing with the narcissists in your life. At the very least, they can give you awareness, which is the very first step.

      Thank you again for writing.



    2. I can't wait til part 2! It is hard to confront the old painful memories, but as you have noted, it's necessary and helpful and liberating. I've worked through a lot of my pain, by myself and with the help of therapy. I still need work in changing how I deal with the N's in my life like my co-worker. Other N's tend to trigger me into a knee-jerk type reaction, when I know what I can do better to protect myself from their tactics. I'm still low contact with my NM, but I've started to learn how to manage boundaries with her that work (for now, at least). Recovery is a work in progress.

    3. It takes time to learn how to do this, I will admit, but Jessie (see comment above) tried it without even waiting for Part 2 and got good results!!

      What this all really boils down to is not giving up your power to someone else's manipulative behaviour--being true to yourself and not allowing someone else to make you into a puppet. Sometimes it is just as easy as changing how you interact with them...

      I am working on Part 2, but this first bit took me three weeks of writing and revising and agonizing to squeeze out. I'm hoping Part 2 will be a little less arduous!! But while you are waiting, give Jessie's technique a try: just keep thinking "use the Equal position" while you are in a transaction with an N. It certainly can't hurt you!

      Hugs and thanks for commenting


  3. This is great, thank you!

    I now realize clearly why my NF insisted on repeating in a saccharine tone to me "You may be a teenager/student/adult now, but you'll always be a child to me" every time I showed signs of independence and why he jumped back and started respecting boundaries the first time I responded, calmly, firmly "You just have to accept that I am an adult and demand to be treated as one."

    1. Your comment foreshadows what the next entry will be about...putting the understanding of TA into practice...

      You engaged him as an Equal and didn't back down--when that happens, THEY have to back down (although most of them will give it their best shot to try and crowd you into a Subordinate or Superior place)! .

      Thanks so much for your comment.



    2. I heard "you'll always be my child" so many times. The first time I stood up to my mother as an adult, (I was being berated by my NM and my N-Aunt because I asked not to spoken to in a disrespectful manner by NM) they brought this up, as well as the old chestnut "she's your mother and deserves respect!". I think it's interesting, looking back on that scene in light of this post, that attempting to interact with my mother as an equal was "disrespectful" to her.

    3. Well, if you think about it for a minute, that makes perfect sense--if you refuse to take the Subordinate position (and asking for respect is repudiating that position) then you are, by definition, being insubordinate!! And for someone operating from the Superior position, refusing to do what they wish IS disrespectful.

      But they are going to take that attitude about ANYONE who does not bow to their expectations. I don't condone disrespect, even towards people who have gone out of their way to earn it (like an NM) and operating from an Equal position is respectful. Everybody deserves respect, not because of their position, but simply because they exist, until they earn your disrespect. But even then, being respectful to yourself demands showing respect to others, even when they don't deserve it.

      Respect is a complicated issue and I've got it on my list of topics to write about. But the bottom line is, you deserve respect because you are alive and breathing--and so does everybody else, right up too the point that they earn your disrespect. And even then, you should treat them with respect even when they don't deserve it by taking the Equal position in transactions with them. YOU will feel better for it!

      Now, back to work on Part 2!



  4. Hi Violet,
    Thanks for this post. Once again, you've covered a profoundly important issue.

    I've tried very hard to learn good communication skills, but these have failed miserably with my family of origin. For a while I thought that I was being diplomatic and respectful while also expecting to be heard as an equal, but then my husband pointed out that the fear was audible in my voice when speaking to my mother. He noticed that my voice was shaky and every statement I made ended up sounding like it had a question mark at the end. It disturbed him because every statement I made to her sounded like asking for her approval.("I'm going for a walk? I'll be back in half and hour?) I didn't even realize this was happening!

    Your example of equal/superior transaction sounded so much like my own mother I nearly jumped out of my skin. There was quite a strong reaction! This has created some ideas I'd like to write about on my own blog, with your permission, of course. A 1000 watt light bulb seemed to go on in my head after reading that.

    1. By all means, write about your own ideas on your blog! For clarity's sake, however (for your readers) you might want to include a link to this post so you don't have to do a lot of explaining of the concepts already explained here and can get right to your own ideas. And I would LOVE to have a link to your posts so I can see what you are thinking.

      Writing is just about the best way I can think of to purge the poison: unlike a therapist, it is available 24/7 and you can say anything without fear of being asked to further explain or dig deeper into your psyche. And while I firmly believe a therapist is an invaluable asset while trying to sort out the tangle our NMs have woven of our lives, writing fills a gap in a timely, most personal way.

      So, go for it! And I look forward to reading what you have to say!



  5. I am 52, my sister is 50 and both our parents have subjected us to the subordinate position ALL OUR LIVES.

    The job of parents is to VALIDATE their children - and give them the tools they need to exist as independent adults in the world. Not 'cut their legs from under them' - even a difference of opinion has been enough to earn me the 'punishment' of being disowned twice. "I only have ONE daughter now...." Golden Girl Sis was present for this one, as were my dear old dad (malignant narc) - and my 9 year old daughter (at the time), and my 8 year old son. Because I objected openly to being told "Shut the f**k up or I will smash your face in.....because I disagreed (hotly, it must be said) with the pure nonsense they were spouting on a religious issue (mother is a devout Christian - you can tell, can't you/

    My mother's superior attitude even goes as far as telling me that she "knows me better than I know myself...." at times, I have felt that I am fighting for my very 'right to exist"...'to be heard, hell, even just to BE SEEN.....As you all well know, this dynamic of relating to others causes huge relational difficulties in adult life. I had always cast myself in the subordinate role, and as such, really felt that I had no control or say over ME, my life, what did nor did not happen to me - and worse, THAT I HAD NO RIGHT to 'expect' anything.

    All of the articles and comments on this marvellous blog have given me the strength to walk away once and for all from my wicked family. Doing this is giving me the space I sorely needed to process all of the information and experience laid out here.

    I had to take a long look at myself, and the relationships that I have allowed myself to be the 'subordinate' - treated like crap - whilst INWARDLY FEELING SUPERIOR - because I AM THE BETTER PERSON FOR NOT RETALIATING.....smug? its very warped is it not? Also, there is always someone worse of than ourselves isn't there? And I seemed to be a magnet for 'people with problems' - 'that I can 'help' - (superior)...

    This one is going to need A LOT of thinking about.

    Thanks Violet and All.x


I don't publish rudeness, so please keep your comments respectful, not only to me, but to those who comment as well. We are not all at the same point in our recovery.

Not clear on what constitutes "rudeness"? You can read this blog post for clarification: