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.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Learning at the Narcissist's Knee...

If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas, or in Latin, qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent. “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas” has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard's Almanack.

“The quote has a large almost universally agreed meaning of ‘You should be cautious of the company you keep. Associating with those of low reputation may not only lower your own but also lead you astray by the faulty assumptions, premises and data of the unscrupulous.’”

I suspect most people, when they think of teaching children, think of formal teaching, like parents schooling their children in table manners or classroom teachers with a lesson plan. But children learn more by observation and mimicking than by what they are formally taught and so you get children whose parents are mortified (or worse, amused) when sweet toddling Susie opens her little rosebud lips and an obscenity pops out. The little ones learn by observation and imitation much more than they learn from what we tell them.

In narcissistic terms, “fleas” are “…narcissistic-like behaviour traits displayed by a non-narcissist, generally learned behaviours from having been raised by a narcissist and not knowing what is normal for the situation.”  And if you live with narcissists, you’re gonna get fleas…

There’s nothing shameful in that—none of us are perfect, our parents are our first teachers and we, as little kids, believed them implicitly. They are our first gods, our first teachers, our first role models. We are programmed by nature to believe in them and in their benevolence because our survival literally depends on it: in our primitive brain, which is concerned with survival issues, we understand that pandering to and learning from our care-givers means our own survival, and so we ape and imitate them from our earliest years, absorbing their beliefs and prejudices and behaviours right along with their form of communication (language), rituals, and habits. And very little of this is consciously, formally taught or learned.

Children also learn from what they don't see. If they do not see compassionate or courteous behaviour from their primary caregivers, if they don’t see honesty and truth-telling from them, if they don’t see sharing and giving the benefit of the doubt, they don’t learn those things themselves. And when they see these things later in life, demonstrated by others, they not only don’t value and adopt them, they may disdain them because they were not part of the core values they absorbed in their homes of origin.

You see, children are naturally narcissistic. It is a survival mechanism built into the infant. Helpless and unable to do even the smallest thing for itself, the infant lives in a world of only two states: needy or needs satisfied. When it is hungry, it will squall and it will keep squalling until it is fed, no matter the circumstances…not even if its noise brings danger upon it and those around it. The infant operates from its primitive brain and is totally preoccupied with its own needs, having no care whatsoever for the needs of those around it. Programmed by nature to survive and to alert its caretakers when it has needs, there is no sense of shame, compassion, empathy, or consideration for the circumstances of anyone except itself.

As children grow, so does their capacity for seeing outside themselves. But by then they absorb the values and beliefs of their home of origin, and they ape their caretakers. It is natural for children to begin to outgrow their embedded self-centredness, but part of the job of the caretaker is to help the child become aware of the feelings of others and teach the child to respect them, to give them value.

Children, however, remain convinced for quite some time that their experiences define the normal world. Things that are different are potentially dangerous, so they often fear and balk at new experiences, particularly those that do not involve their protectors/caretakers. Lots of kids are clingy and apprehensive at the beginning of their school careers, or when changing schools, for example. And they carry with them that notion their world, their experiences, their knowledge is what is right…meaning that, at least initially, things alien to them are wrong—even bad or dangerous.

School is the great equalizer. I remember being in the third or fourth grade and being tormented by a nasty little boy who reminded me of my own equally nasty little brother. My brother was the GC and even by that tender age, I was nurturing a growing hatred for him as he browbeat me verbally like NM and he physically abused me as well—and if I told NM, she “spanked” me for tattling and let GCBro continue on. This other child would punch me in the arm or back and was verbally abusive, calling me names and inciting other kids to do the same, so I was nurturing a growing dislike of him as well.

Remember, children believe that their lives and their feelings are universal…it is part of the natural narcissism they must eventually outgrow. So when he came up to me on the playground and said something rude to me when I was talking to his sister, one of my classmates, I sincerely thought that she would have as much animosity towards her little brother as I had towards mine. Imagine my shock when she told me “Yes, he’s mean a lot, but I love him. He’s my little brother.”

My own upbringing did not include loving someone whom you did not like. It was inconceivable to me, at that time. Hate was the watchword in my household and, like any child, I just assumed that that was how everybody was—you only loved the ones who were really nice to you, and you hated everybody else. That was what my household felt like to me—why would anybody else’s house be any different, why would any other little girl feel differently from me about a brother who tormented her at every opportunity?

The very notion that everybody else feels the same way I do is at the core of the narcissist. They lie and manipulate, connive and misconstrue, all without guilt and remorse, assuming everybody else is exactly the same way. And because they believe everybody else is lying, manipulating, conniving and misconstruing, just like they are doing, they feel justified, which eliminates any reason for guilt. This kind of thinking is actually not atypical for young children (along with vengeful notions of payback), but it is something conscientious parents try to help their children grow out of. Some kids respond to those efforts…and some kids do not.

One of the things that narcissists do is they take things for granted…especially things you are expected to do. I learned to say “please” and “thank you” as formal kinds of politeness and, modelling on my mother’s behaviour, usually said them to strangers or to adults outside my family. My grandfather once watched me polish off a huge piece of lemon meringue pie that my grandmother had made just because it was my favourite pie (we had fruit she could have used for a fruit pie, but made this one because of my affinity for it). When I finished it and started to get down from the table, my grandfather very quietly said to me “It might be nice to thank your Nana for making your favourite pie.” It had never occurred to me: nobody ever thanked me for doing my chores, nobody ever thanked me for making sure my surly little brother got to school on time—in fact, nobody ever thanked me for anything. It simply did not occur to me to thank anyone for doing their “job,” including thanking my grandmother for cooking. It was a single sentence, but it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. I ran into the kitchen and hugged my grandmother around the waist and thanked her for the pie and for the dinner, then told her I thought she was the best grandmother in the whole wide world. I don’t think a diamond necklace could have made her smile so broadly!

I still remember that day…brilliantly…and still recall the huge amount of thinking I found myself doing, pondering all the different ways I could apply this newfound insight. Wouldn’t it be great if I could make people beam with happiness, like my grandmother, with just those simple two words, “thank you”?

It inspired me to go to the library and check out books on etiquette and to learn and practice good manners. It inspired me to pay attention to others and their feelings, to say please and thank you for the most mundane acts—if it served me, it deserved thanks. More than half a century later, I still practice it: I thank waiters when they bring the cutlery, I thank shop clerks when they give me my till slip and, even after having her work for me for five years now, I still thank my maid after every shift. Yes, I pay her and for some people that is considered enough, but she saves me from all of the housework, which I hated even before my back issues started and I really do appreciate her work, her cheerful demeanour, her attention to detail, her honestly and reliability. And I thank her every time she goes out the door.

But, as I said earlier, we all have fleas and I am no exception. Deeply ingrained in me, learned from my NM and incorporated into my being from my earliest days, is this failure to notice and acknowledge the efforts of others, the tendency to take things for granted, to expect that some people just know how I feel. And while I know that an appreciation or gratitude, if unspoken, might as well not exist, I have blind spots and I fall into ingratitude, not so much in spirit but in practice. And every once in a while I wake up and see what I am doing (or failing to do) and try to amend my behaviour to fix it.

On Saturday my husband and I were sitting at a red light, getting ready to go into a petrol station. As we sat there I looked at the station’s name and it clicked to me that we were buying petrol here because they had a loyalty-reward program, linked to our bank, that gives us 15% off every fuel purchase if we use that bank’s credit card. Considering that my car is an SUV, that comes to a handsome piece of change! In just few seconds a host of thoughts flooded mind about the many things my husband has done and the many ways he has sought to improve our finances and maximize our income to give us—me—the highest standard of living that I have ever enjoyed in my life. And while I have told him that…my thanks for all of his efforts implied…I suddenly realized that in the nine years we have been married, I have never actually said it to him. All these years and all that effort, and not one word of thanks to the person whose efforts made my comfortable existence possible!

As the light turned from red to green, I put my hand on his thigh and said “I don’t think I have ever told you this, but I want you to know that I am very proud of you and very appreciative of all the hard work you have done to give us the comfortable life style we enjoy. I really do notice and I really do appreciate it…and I am sorry I never said anything before this.”

He pulled the car up to the pumps and turned and looked at me, a bit of surprise on his face, and said, “Why thank you! I really appreciate that!”

I felt shamed that I had allowed him to go all of those years without a word of encouragement or appreciation of all of his efforts. It made me think…and more than that, it made me wonder why I, who never fails to thank the maid for her efforts on my behalf, would let him toil for nine years without ever thanking him. And for the next day or two, I turned it over in my mind until I realized that in the household I grew up in, that was the norm…that nobody rewarded you with thanks, or even a “well done!” when you did what was expected of you. Oh, you got plenty of flak if you failed to do what was expected of you, but no encouragement, no appreciation, no kudos. That rule applied only to members of the household, however…friends, neighbours, even visiting family members were thanked for their assistance—they were even thanked just for showing up at our door!

I thought back, trying to think of just one time that NM thanked me for anything (children tend to absorb traits of the same-sex parent more than the opposite sex parent, by the way) and couldn’t come up with a single instance. Instead, I remembered the Mother’s Day card I made for her when I was about 8, and how I brought her breakfast in bed and the card, which I had laboured over for hours, and how the anticipated praise and thank you never materialized…and how I got castigated, instead, for a spelling error.

And I thought about myself and how like my mother I was being, taking my husband’s hard work and his clever, out-of-the-box thinking that gave me a comfortable lifestyle, for granted, never telling him what I was thinking but just assuming that he somehow knew. And I felt ashamed of myself, wondering how I had let such a thing come to pass…

Those fleas are damned difficult to get rid of!


  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful and humble post.


  2. Wonderful post! Whew, and to think I almost missed it! That's the beauty of two-week old posts, allowing some of us to 'catch up' before a new entry is posted. ;-)

    You have made a stellar connection between the "narcissistic environment" people grow up in, and their willingness to be impacted by Non-Narcissistic relationships as adults. Like your relationship with your husband who has earned your trust through his consistency and support, inspiring a moment of realization for you (insight).

    Your insight hinges perhaps on what anonymous commented about above: your humility. Humility IS the foundation to precious "moments of clarity" as we willingly accept responsibility for our unconscious/thoughtless behaviors and set our intentions on healthier, more loving behavior. Like expressing gratitude even when someone is performing their duties or job!

    Even if unloving behavior was modeled for us as children, the people with whom we 'hang out' can set the course of our eventual destiny. If we're hanging out with dogs who have fleas, we're gonna keep our infestations of fleas and the colony will likely increase.

    If we hang out with dogs who don't have fleas, we'll eventually notice how "comfortable" and "at ease" they are with life---playing with other frea-free buddies. Our fleas will become apparent to us by the differences between our behavior and theirs. People compare themselves to other people. That's life and it can be for our ultimate good as well as our bad.

    So I love this post of yours for many, many reasons but especially because it reiterates something I've always believed: that we can partner with people who don't have fleas and thus become flea-free too; or, we can partner with a flea-bitten dog and never get rid of our fleas since that darn dog keeps re-infecting us at every turn. The metaphor might be wearing out at this point so I'll paraphrase this:

    If we hang out with normally dysfunctional people (as we all are), we will get better overtime. A loving relationship requires increased self-responsibility as the relationship itself matures. If we are with pathologically people, we will get worse.

    I especially appreciate your admission about feeling shame for your behavior. Instead of denying your shame by finding a multitude of reasons 'justifying' unappreciative/unloving behavior, you faced it. Felt it. Took responsibility for it and allowed this moment of clarity to change your heart. That was beautiful to read. Thank you.


    p.s. No one is completely "flea-less"....we live in a flea-promoting society so my comment isn't meant to be taken too literally. ;-P

  3. Great post! I recently stumbled upon your blog because some serious events in my life made me realize I'm a very self-absorbed person. While searching for some answers online, I came across this blog. After reading your posts, I realized where my problem of "self-absorbed"ness comes from. My mother's mother is definitely a narcissist (no physical or sexual abuse though). My mother, the eldest of 3 siblings, was the scapegoat all her life. My grandmother never wanted children, she wanted her career. She always used my mother as a substitute for her, whether it be taking care of the siblings, or cooking or just anything around the house. A free babysitter/house-sitter in short! My mother had to shoulder adult responsibilities from the time she was a teenager.
    I can see how those narcissistic traits traveled from my grandmother to my mother and now eventually to me, some of it genetic and some of it due to upbringing (although decreasing in their intensity). Your blog has helped me learn a lot. Please keep up the writing (even though it may be painful for you to bring up all your memories).
    Thank you :)

    1. There is a thing called "fleas," in which a non-narcissist displays learned narcissistic behaviours and attitudes. The chief difference between a narcissist and a normal person is that a narcissist is incapable of remorse or empathy. So, if you recognize your self-absorbed behaviours and attitude (unusual for a narcissist) and you feel bad for the way they have led you to treat people, you probably just have a case of fleas and you can, with effort, get over it.

      On the other hand, if you recognize those behaviors and attitudes and you feel justified and feel no remorse for people who have been hurt by them, you might just be a narcissist. That isn't a permanent sentence, however, as narcissists have choices just like everybody else, and you get to choose if you will stay the same or if you will seek and cooperate in some serious, in-depth therapy to try to change that. It is a personality disorder, not a death sentence.

      Congratulations on your insight--it is the very first step to fixing this, assuming you wish to fix it. You may find you have just set your foot on a path to a much better, much healthier emotional life.

      The very best of luck to you!



  4. This is a great post. Honest. There's no way to be raised by mothers or parents such as ours and not have fleas. I struggle with taking things personally that really aren't about me. My skin was WAY too thin for decades, because I was always being vaguely insulted by my parents, when not being overtly insulted. The feeling of being always disregarded, always expendable, made my major flea being treated dismissively. When someone acts like I don't matter, or like I'm not "there," especially when I'm right in front of them, I take it WAY personally and have at times said something like "HELLO--I see you." To colleagues.....
    I don't like being disregarded. No one does I guess, but I experience "umbrage," an old-fashioned word that smacks of narcissistic self-regard. I'm working on it. If someone doesn't want to notice me, that's fine now. At least I tell myself that. Re: gratitude, I err on the opposite side--I overthank. I feel like I'm not allowed to take anything (this from someone whose mother plagiarizes her work and ideas). If something is given to me or done for me, I feel like I can never repay it. I thank excessively. I'm trying to figure this one out. It's probably from being called an "ingrate" over and over by my parents when I was younger. "Selfish," "ingrate," "pissant" (my father loved calling that when he was angry). Told I was not important, so when someone does anything for me I practically fall over myself expressing gratitude. It's a bit much I think... great post. We all need to acknowledge our fleas, and you do it with such clear-eyed insight. CS

    1. I can really relate to that thin-skinned thing. Years ago, when I was still married to the NHusband, I remember playing a video game like chess or backgammon--alone, mind you--and when it went "beep" to indicate I had made an error or illegal move, I actually felt humiliated and embarrassed and unjustly criticized (I would be thinking something like "it was a mistake, not an attempt at cheating!") I couldn't even take a completely dispassionate, entirely unbiased critique from a machine without feeling defensive! Thankfully those days are long past, but I recall them all too clearly!

      I also have trouble with thank yous, but rather the opposite: I don't know what to say. Just "thank you" somehow seems inadequate, not enough, but I don't know what else to say without sounding phony (like my NM, who could really lay it on thick!). So, I fear I may sometimes end up sounding ungrateful because I say "thank you," for something and then kinda clam up.

      None of us are perfect---ever---but having a NM for a role model can make the most ordinary life situations a minefield. All we can do is to forgive ourselves and keep on learning.



  5. I find I tend to go too far the other way and thank everybody for everything all of the time! My NM never thanked me for anything I did either, so I think I started doing it to everyone and anyone because I wanted them to thank me too. Not out of a sense of grandiosity or anything; I think it's a bit like when you want someone to apologise to you but they don't, so you apologise to them to try to elicit an apology that you will never receive!


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.

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