Many years ago I got very self-indulgent and bought myself a sports car. It was glorious, a little green Triumph TR-6 two-seater convertible. I loved loved loved that car! For 15 years I zipped through the highways and byways of Silicon Valley, top down whenever possible, totally loving the way the car drove, the way it felt, the way I felt driving it.
Of course, there was a down side. Being an English car, the electrical system was crap, and England is a lot cooler place than California, so the car tended to run hot. In fact, it averaged at least one trip per month to the mechanic, sometimes more…and some of those trips could be horrendously expensive. But I loved the car and in all the years I owned it, in all the years my pocket haemorrhaged money to keep it on the road, I never begrudged it a penny. It was the most fun I ever had on four wheels and it was worth every cent I spent on it.
Shortly before I finally sold the TR, I bought a registered Arabian mare. She was 12 years old and at some point in her life, she had been very well trained. But somehow she ended up as a brood mare and, after many years in pasture, she was purchased as the mount for a six-year-old child who had little riding skill. Unable to control the horse, the child was thrown and her angry mother put the animal up for sale at an auction where I got her, pedigree, papers and all, for a mere $125, the “meat price.”
Tia was a beautiful bay mare, with a soft, loving temperament…and she was afraid of everything. She had a lovely gait and was easy to ride (if you knew direct reining), but if you took her to the park, you had to avoid the picnic areas because the crowds freaked her out; bicycles on the trail freaked her out; mailboxes along the road freaked her out—and the entrance to the horse trailer really freaked her out. She hated water unless it was in a trough: a narrow, shallow stream, a rivulet of water running across the road, the horse washing station with a garden hose hanging from a pivoting beam—those freaked her out as well. She would stand passively for grooming and shoeing, never walk away from the saddle, never refuse to take the bit, and stood patiently for mounting. It took minimal direction either from my legs or hands to direct her…until something frightened her and which time she would slam it in reverse. I am telling you, that horse could back up the length of a football field! And if she didn’t back up, she bolted…and on any given ride, you could be guaranteed that something was going to scare her.
But I loved her, and I loved riding her. I got a trainer to help me learn how to get her to load up into the trailer without fuss; I learned to anticipate her antics with water and her reverse gear; I learned to bathe her with a sponge and bucket instead of the wash rack. I spent money on good shoes, I learned how to give her the quarterly worming treatment and immunization shots myself, and I drove up to the ranch to comfort her when the infrequent thunderstorm came along and the lighting and noise frightened her. And never did I think of her as a burden, but was proud to own and ride and care for such a beautiful, majestic creature.
My husband and I own a house in South Africa, an old, rambling brick dwelling with a gorgeously landscaped garden, a sparkling blue pool, and a leaky roof—and you would blanch at the list of other things we have had to fix in the last 2.5 years. The previous owner lived here seven years and did no maintenance at all, so we have inherited his deferred maintenance along with all the stuff that normally goes wrong with houses, like leaky pipes, burst hot water heaters, appliances that mysteriously stop working, and plumbing woes. Our first month in the house we spent enough for emergency repairs to cover two month’s worth of house payments and it escalated from there. And every time we think we have everything fixed, something new crops up. Fortunately we have two rental units on the property that provide enough income to make repairs without landing us up in financial hot water, but there is no denying that the house has sucked up a lot of cash resources that we would have rather put elsewhere.
One could easily hate a house that causes you say to yourself, at least weekly, “Oh, no! Now what??” From a broken suction line on the pool pump to water cascading down an inside wall from a roof leak, from a hot water heater pumping water into the attic and ruining ceiling boards to a kitchen stove that won’t get hot enough to boil water to a double oven that can’t maintain temperature, from an air conditioner that won’t cool to a motorized driveway gate that won’t function to leaking showers to five toilets that constantly run, this house has had its share of malfunctions, and not one of them cheap to fix! And yet, I love the house. It is rambling and spacious with big sliding glass doors onto a terrace and beautiful views of the garden from my bedroom and study, it has an airy, gracious sunroom and a sunken TV room that has become my husband’s lair, leaving the formal living room (lounge) a pretty and uncluttered room to entertain guests. It is brilliantly located, only 4 kms from his office and within 5 kms of virtually all of the shopping we need to do on a regular basis, the mature trees shade the house, the lush green garden cools the air and the breezes come through those sliding doors to provide natural ventilation. Yes, it has cost us time and money and aggravation, but I can’t think of a better place to live in this town and the house itself is the nicest I have ever owned.
By now, you should have picked up on the theme, the common thread that runs through all of these vignettes: things do not have to be perfect to be worthy of love. Cars, houses, horses…even people…do not have to be perfect in order to be entitled to, worthy of, love…but for some of us, this is a novel concept.
If you were raised by a narcissist, like I was, you quickly realized that just “being” was not good enough…you had to “do.” And whatever passed for love from your narcissist was given out based on your performance in whatever it was you were supposed to do. Now, before you say “she didn’t give me anything, no matter how I performed…” consider the phrase “whatever passed for love.” For some of us, that meant getting stuff—a doll, a lollipop, a quarter; for others it might have meant getting permission for something, like a trip to the beach or going to a friend’s house or calling Grandma; for others of us, it meant not getting negativity—no lectures, beatings, insults, maybe even getting blessedly ignored for a period of time. Whatever your NM did with/for/to you when she was not perturbed with you, that was what you, as a child, learned to accept as tokens of affection from her—or at least, a sign that you were not in imminent danger. Even if you didn’t get outright approval, the lack of overt disapproval was a sign in itself.
As children, right and wrong come from outside us: we learn it from others around us and we are controlled with external consequences meted out to us by those others. Goof off on a test, we fail; defy our parents, we get punished; steal from the corner store, we get the law involved. As we mature, however, normal people internalize those messages of right and wrong and we punish ourselves with guilt when we do wrong. Unfortunately, normal people who had narcissistic parents internalize the toxic message that we are imperfect, flawed, and unworthy of love unless we do something to earn it…and just as our efforts were never sufficient for the narcissistic parent, once the parent is internalized, our efforts are never good enough, not even for ourselves.
Have you ever loved something that is imperfect? I adore my Yorkies, and they are as imperfect as they come. As I sit here typing, one is barking to get my attention, another one is laying quietly on the rug by my feet…she is the one who poops on the dining room carpet when she is displeased by something. The little boy still pees on the bed, so he can’t be in the bedroom unless he is on my lap, under my direct supervision. But rather than disdain them for their faults, rather than withhold my love or approval from them because of their imperfections, I make adjustments to accommodate their flaws: I have a squirt bottle full of water for the barker when she won’t obey my command to stop; Puddin’ isn’t allowed in the dining room; Boykie can’t go into my bedroom unless he is being carried in arms. Is this more work? Is this more effort? Of course it is…but I love them and they are worth an extra effort to accommodate their little flaws.
And there you have it: I love them just as they are. I make allowances for their flaws rather than withhold my love and approval until and unless they conform to my rigid expectations. Yes, I continue to expect them to improve, but I don’t withhold positive feedback, petting, and loving until they improve because my love for them is not based on their performance: it is based on their being.
How are you doing with loving yourself? Are you waiting until you are perfect and therefore worthy of being loved before you love yourself? Are you withholding positive affirmations, kindness, patience, and love because you aren’t perfect? Who set that standard for perfection you aspire to (or despair of ever reaching)? Did you set it or did you just adopt—internalize—your NM’s expectations and standards? Has your NM set up housekeeping in your head and you continue to dance to her tune, even when you aren’t even speaking to her?
We must have expectations of ourselves. Humans do not thrive when they are directionless, and our expectations give us direction, something to live up to. But there is nothing in the book of life that says you must live up to the expectations of others if you don’t want to. In fact, you have every right—you have a true entitlement—to create your own set of expectations to live up to, and they don’t have to bear even the slightest resemblance to the expectations of your NM or FOO. They only have to work for you. And to work for you, they must be attainable.
And you know what? They don’t have to be cast in concrete, either! You can change those expectations if you want to. If they were too tall for you, or you achieved them already, or they just don’t fit you, you can fine-tune or even completely throw them out and start all over again. But there is one thing they all absolutely must contain: they must not demand perfection of you in anything. Excellence, yes…perfection, no. Perfection is unattainable and to set that as a goal is to set yourself up for failure…and a reason to keep on withholding love from yourself.
You set the stage for how others treat you by how you treat yourself. If you think of yourself as unworthy of love, others will believe you and will think of you the same way. When you love yourself unconditionally, you accept that you are flawed, human, and deserving of love for who you are, not for what you do. People who value you for what you do are not people who love you…at least no more than they love their car, dishwasher, or mobile phone: and to these people, you are just as disposable as these items when you stop functioning the way they want you to.
You don’t need to be perfect to deserve love, yours or anyone else’s. You don’t need to be perfect to deserve appreciation or approval or to feel good about yourself. You are entitled to it, no matter how flawed you may think you are. All you really need is permission—your own.
Isn’t it time you gave it?
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.