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, September 1, 2014

When you don’t—or can’t—take credit…

Why are some people so gratuitously cruel? It’s more than “because they can”…in my opinion, it is because they get something out of it…a feeling of superiority, perhaps.

My grandmother once told me that if you look hard enough, you can always find something to compliment another person on. I decided to test that out and, sure enough, she was right. Even in the case of a co-worker who dressed like Ugly Betty and wasn’t much more attractive…she was a very nice person who had a wonderful, infectious laugh. The day I said to her “I just love your laugh!” she lit up like she had been plugged in…and seeing her so delighted made me feel good, too.

Years ago, after years of wanting one, my husband gave me a pretty little Yorkie puppy for Valentine’s Day. I was over the moon…she was so cute, and such a little sweetheart. We took her with us everywhere, bought her jerseys and cute outfits and a pretty pink collar with her name spelled out in rhinestones and my husband even sent to America to get her a dog stroller (pram) because walking on a leash in crowds was a terrifying exercise for her (as an adult she weighs less than 7 lbs…as a puppy she wasn’t even 2 lbs!). We went to “slow food” and farmer’s markets and craft fairs and other outings with our little doggie girl securely leashed into her pram and she was such a delight. She is very outgoing and loves attention, so when people would stop to greet her, she would wag her tail and raise up to be petted and even give out kisses if her admirer was so inclined. Every weekend there were at least two or three people who would whip out their camera phones and take snaps of the cute little Yorkie wearing a frilly dress, her hair done up with a bow, and sitting sweetly in her pram.

And then one Saturday morning at the farmer’s market held at the nearby ostrich ranch, we ran into someone who didn’t admire the little dog but who couldn’t be bothered, like most people who didn’t find her overwhelmingly cute, to just walk on by, saying nothing. She stopped and bent over the pram and Puddin’ began wagging her tail and raising up into a “sit up” position to get petted. The woman ignored her and turned to me and asked “What kind of dog is this?” “A Yorkshire Terrier,” I told her, whereupon she proceeded to tell me, in indignant tones, that my dog was not a "real" Yorkshire Terrier, she was a poor example of the breed and should never have been allowed to live! She went on to point out every fault she perceived the dog had, ending with a reiteration that my precious baby was such a poor example of the breed that she should have been put down rather than sold to someone gullible like me. And then she stomped off in a huff. Not only was I shocked and stunned, so was the dog: accustomed to being adored and petted…and being highly intelligent…she knew that for some reason she did not meet with that woman’s approval and she sat in the pram, ears down and tail tucked, as if she had done something worthy of a scolding.

Now, I have bred dogs in the past and I am well aware of breed standards. I already knew that Puddin’ would never make it as a show dog, but I didn’t want to show her, I just wanted a sweet little dog to cuddle and play with and she fit that role admirably. Spunky and with a cheerful, loving temperament, she was everything I had expected and more. And after that dreadful woman’s diatribe, my poor puppy sat in her pram with what can only be described as a “hangdog” look, and her only sin had been to attempt to greet the woman and bestow a little Yorkie love on her.

I cannot fathom why that person would take such issue with my dog…she’s not a show dog, but she is healthy and personable and well-mannered…what’s not to like? The only thing that I could think of was the possibility that this woman had a show-quality Yorkie of her own and it made her feel superior…and to reinforce (or milk) that feeling of superiority, she had to belittle my dog (and probably any other dog that did not meet show standard). It was not about my dog at all, but all about her.

I am uncomfortable with praise and have been all my life. A curt “this is good,” is all I can take without feeling squirmy, but I don’t feel that way about others. You can wax eloquent about how brilliant my husband is, how cute my kids are, how endearing my dogs, and my sense of pride just blossoms. Go on like that about me or my attributes or my achievements and anything beyond “ya done good,” makes me feel uncomfortable. And I don’t know exactly why.

When all of those people admired my little Yorkie, I felt proud and, seeing how she loved the praise and attention, felt good for her—I liked seeing her happy and obviously enjoying the admiration. And when that awful woman scorned my little puppy in such harsh terms and sharp tones, I felt bad for the dog as much as for myself because it was obvious that the little sweetie knew she was being maligned and the set of her ears and tail showed she felt bad about it.

I get comments and letters all the time from people who have read posts on this blog and took away information that helped them change their lives for the better. I received one such letter over the weekend and, while reading it, began to have an awareness of my own feelings on the subject. On the one hand, I am always very pleased to hear that people have been motivated by what I write and as a result, begin looking critically at their lives and taking responsibility for making changes. On the other hand, as soon as someone writes something greater than “Thank you, Violet,” when they get into more lavish praise or fulsome commentary, I start to feel uncomfortable. Just what the hell is that all about??

It’s odd, but I notice that when someone says something nice about me to another person, I am gratified but when they say it to me directly, I feel uncomfortable. I have tried to better define that “uncomfortable” feeling I get and the closest I can pin it down to is that I somehow feel vaguely threatened. That, of course, is absurd—how can anyone feel threatened by being praised? And yet, there it is—I do not know how to appropriately respond, on an emotional level, to being praised and appreciated. Intellectually I get it, intellectually I am pleased and gratified…but emotionally, I shy away from feeling pleased and gratified and feel somehow threatened by it.

I just checked the thesaurus for synonyms for “threatened” and was rather surprised by what I found: endangered, vulnerable, susceptible, exposed, helpless, defenceless, disappearing, in danger. And it begins to make a little better sense…if you use my little dog as an example, she had come to have an emotional investment in the positive interactions she had with people: their praise and admiration made her feel happy. And that correlation between the praise of others and her feeling of happiness left her vulnerable, exposed, and defenceless to the killjoys of this world, like that woman who thought my dog should be perfect or it should be dead. Puddin’ approached this woman, all doggie smiles and innocence, expecting a pat on the head and some positive-sounding noises and instead, she got what sounded to her like a scolding. She had no idea why she was being scolded, what she might have done to deserve it, but she knew she was being found wanting and that woman was hostile about it.

Now, this was a puppy…imagine if it was a child? This little dog had faith in the world and in strangers…up to that moment, her every interaction with people outside the family had been positive, and her little spirit bloomed. She was a happy dog and she projected that and people responded to it by giving her positive attention, which made her an even happier dog. And then that woman happened by and stuck a pin in her balloon.

But she is a dog and she recovered…her detractors were few and her sunny disposition drew positive attention. Even today, at 5.5 years of age, she is still a happy dog, eager to meet new people and exchange greetings with them.

But what about little Violet? What happened that the child grew into a woman who feels vulnerable, exposed, endangered by being directly praised? What occurred that, instead of feeling proud and pleased when the recipient of praise, my first instinct is to feel powerless and imperilled? I also notice that I often give others credit for ideas that were, in fact, my own and that I am pleased when they receive the praise instead of me.

This is undoubtedly linked to my childhood and my narcissistic mother but I can’t, for the life of me, remember a time in which I received negative attention specifically for accepting praise from another. I do know, however, that NM was always give centre stage and that any accomplishments I made were, one way or another, attributed to her. If I got an A on my report card, it was because she “wouldn’t accept anything less and the kids know it.” If I won a prize at a talent contest, it was because of her sacrifices in paying for lessons and the amount of time she “selflessly” devoted to making my costumes, putting on my make up, and fixing my hair. Whatever I achieved, she usurped. Perhaps I divined that objecting to her taking my limelight was a dangerous thing to do, and that the safest course of action was to simply step back and deflect onto her all praise and credit for whatever it was I was being lauded for.

It makes sense but, quite frankly, I have no recollections of anything like this. But, ordinarily, I am not a shy, retiring kind of personality but rather a gregarious sort, known for my ability to tell funny stories…it doesn’t seem to fit with the woman who easily gives credit to others and deflects praise as being uncomfortable. It tells me that there was something in my childhood…probably very early in my childhood…that makes me shy away from positive attention directed at me by others. Something that gave me sense of foreboding from praise, a feeling of being threatened as the recipient of positive attention…as if I were stealing the thunder from a great and powerful giant.

How deeply buried this must be that it is only now surfacing, more than 60 years later…and I still have no clear sense of what it is. But rather like finding a black hole, I can only infer an event…or series of events…from what evidence is available to me: an outgoing personality known for entertaining conversation who systematically deflects praise and avoids taking credit for successes and good ideas. Something is definitely wrong here…even my dog revels in praise and positive attention…why am I afraid of it?


  1. No, I get it. I love to praise others IF I genuinely feel that way, but I too feel jittery if someone praises me, because I grew up with CONDITIONAL love, and knew any praise could be just as easily whipped away, in the blink of an eye.

    I was also conditioned to being put down, that my mother didn't even need to do it anymore, by the times I was an adult. I'd automatically put myself down, if someone praised me, That was my comfort zone. That's what I understood to be right and correct, because my mother had taught me that's all I was worth.

    Besides, if I did get receive a little praise from someone, my mother was quick to 'pull me down a peg or two', as she put it. I was not allowed to feel good about myself. It was not tolerated by either of my parents.

    Actually, it was my ex-husband who picked up on this and taught me how to recieve compliments. It was quite funny at the time. He'd get there and coach me, saying to me, "When someone compliments you, just say "Thank you." That's all you have to do."

    So, I painstakingly learned to do that. And what I discovered was, it made the person who'd just complimented me feel so good. They'd brighten right up, because I'd received their gift to me (the compliment).

    I have a male freind who finds it hard to receive compliments (interestingly, he had a narc mother too, though she is now deceased). Everytime he'd reject a compliment from me, I felt rejected. So, it works the other way too.

    I think the fear of praise, is simply the product of growing up without unconditional love. We learned NOT to trust. To know that any kindness could just as easily be whipped away, and not to open our hearts again. Because the times that we did, we just got stomped on. You learn to close off, to survive (I did), and never really trust anyone or anything. (me by age17)

    My mother used to play this mind game with me as a child and a teen, and it's what taught me to close off. She'd be mean and I'd avoid her. This annoyed her, so she'd act 'nice', but I'd learned the hard way not to respond to this anymore, because if I did open my heart (and become vulnerable), she'd immediately change and go into a rage and do no talkies for a week and freeze me out again, but let me know she was angry by ranting and raving to everyone else in the house about me, and banging stuff around loudly in the kitchen. So, I'd hide again. (In terror)..

    Then when she realised I'd closed off, she'd start with the hoovering again, acting nice. But I'd hold out for as long as possible, knowing what she would do if I responded to her being 'nice'. Finally, when I did respond, she do the same explosive anger and no talkies all over again.

    I learned not to respond to niceness from her and not to trust it. I learned not to allow myself to be vulnerable to anyone. Not to trust compliments.

    So yes Violet, I totally get it.

    Like I said, my ex-husband taught me to just say thank you when compilmented, but the first few years, I could barely croak the words out. He was my coach.

    I think it was from your mum shaming you. My mother did that too. We're taught that we should only feel shame, for our very existence.(my mother deliberately fell pregnant with me, but I wasn't a boy) and all my life all I heard was "The trouble with 'Jane' is......." and how she wished she'd never had me.

    If you're feeling ashamed on some level, it's hard to accept compliments.

    I think your mother shamed the hell out of you.

    1. My mother was not big on shaming...that was too subtle for her. She was more direct and aggressive. It would be more like her to say something like "Shut up or go to your room," or "this is an adult conversation and nobody asked for your two cents worth." If an adult complimented me directly, I was not permitted to say more than "Thank you," because anything further would be construed as engaging an adult in conversation and I was not permitted to do that--god forbid I should say something that would give another adult a clue as to what kind of horrors went on in our household!

      It would be more likely that, upon hearing an adult compliment me, my mother would horn in and go into a monologue about how she was responsible for whatever it was that I had accomplished. I learned to appreciate the second hand compliments..."Your daughter has a lovely voice..." because it was unlikely I would be allowed to receive them first hand.

      Interestingly, this may be some of the reason she avoided such things as awards ceremonies and choir concerts when I was in high school: she might have to sit with other adults saying things like "Oh, we are so proud of Joe winning third place in the clarinet must be SO proud of Violet..." That is what she would have called "saccharine" and she would have hated it...especially since there was no way she could take credit for my academic or music awards once I was in my teens.

      It really IS all about them, isn't it?

    2. That's so interesting. That's a whole other dimension I didn't encounter. My mother didn't need to take all the credit. She was just more focused on crushing me so I never felt good about myself. And that involved getting in first and running me down to others, if they went to compliment me. It would be like. "Ohhhhh, you don't know what she's really like......".

      So, your mum more just muscled you out of the way, so SHE could step in and take all the credit, like a smiling Cheshire cat? And you were meant to just disappear or be invisible?

      I don't know about you, but I preferred being invisible. It was the only way I could feel safe and protect myself from my mother rage. I got so good at being invisible, I became that way at school too, and hated any focus on me, as it made me feel exposed, vulnerable and afraid.

      My class teacher noted it when I was 15, and asked my mother to come to the school and talk about it, as she was worried about me. My mother went, and spent the evening running me down to my teacher, and saying to forget about me, that I'd always been like that and no one could do anything with me. That I was hopeless.

      Your mum functioned slightly differently than mine, but the end result seems the same. I prefer to be invisible and hate the spotlight, and feel as vulnerable as a deer caught in the glare of the headlights of a car, if someone focuses a compliment on me.

      I have to admit, I still love to keep a low profile. Even posting on here, is scarey for me. But everyone seems so nice, so I'm beginning to feel safe here. I couldn't have done that, a year ago.

  2. Well put, Venus. Also, perhaps we distrust compliments because we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. In my family, compliments were only given as a means to buttering someone up before asking them for something. So whenever anyone gives me more than a very simple compliment, I think, "So what do you want?"

    1. Interesting you should bring this up, Shiela. My NM always suspected that she was being buttered up whenever someone did or said something nice and it wasn't her birthday or some such occasion.

      When I was in junior high and taking home ec, we learned how to set a formal table. When I got home, I set the table according to how we were taught in class that day and NM immediately asked "what are you angling for?" She simply did not believe this was the result of something new I learned in school.

      Unfortunately, it was Girl Scout meeting night and later, when I asked her to drive me to the meeting, she pounced on my request as the "reason" I had tried to "butter her up" with the formal table setting. That she had to drive me every week apparently did not enter her mind...and she refused to take me! That was so I would "learn a lesson" about trying to manipulate her into doing something for me. I have come to the conclusion that people like my mother, who are very manipulative themselves, project that onto those around them and cannot see a genuine gesture when it is extended. So a child's innocent attempt at using some new information to please her mother is perceived as an attempt at manipulation.

      She pulled this so often on me that I was eventually dropped from the Girl Scouts because I missed so many meetings...

    2. Yeah, it's soul destroying to a child, when a narc parent does that. Boy, do they like to project their issues onto others! My parents are BOTH like that. You can't win for losing. Even kind gestures go against you. :-(

  3. Your darling Yorkie is adorable. I might have been tempted to tell that hateful snot that she is a poor example of a cow and should never have been allowed to live. :)

    My husband and I have two fur-babies, both are rescued dogs and neither could come close to being show dog material, but who cares? They bring joy to our hearts every day.

    Violet, as I read about your puzzlement as to why you are so uncomfortable with receiving compliments, I had a thought -- could it be that you detest being complimented because your mother seemed to LIVE for admiration? Is it a feeling of ''OH NO -- I don't want to enjoy this too much, else I might become like her!''

    I am only guessing, of course. There are some things I do not like to do, cooking for example, and I think the main reason I hate to do it is because my mother liked to cook. Yet, we must eat... luckily I am married to a man who loves to cook and he does it very well, too. Too well, actually.


    1. That wouldn't be unheard of, Alaina...when I went into therapy one of the things my therapist said, early on, was that when we were finished with my therapy, I would be "strong." I recoiled in horror...and apparently I recoiled visibly. It turns out that I identified my mother as being "strong" and I told the therapist I would rather die than be like her! (We had to redefine my perception of strong after that!)

      My grandfather used to tell me that virtue was its own reward. I didn't understand it as a kid, but as an adult and the writer of this blog, I get it. I put this stuff out there with no expectations off reward and the simple fact that people follow the blog and write comments is the unanticipated reward...maybe the compliments seem OTT.

      But it isn't just in context of this blog or my writing...IRL I don't do more than a cursory positive comment with comfort. "Cute haircut!" works for me where something longer and more complimentary puts me in squirm mode.

      I would really like to get into one of those black holes in my memory, where entire portions of my childhood were swallowed up whole, and drag out where this discomfort of mine comes from.

  4. As a person who has read most of your blog articles and has been helped more than you will ever know by them, it doesn't surprise me at all that you have that reaction. You had to spend so much time anticipating what might happen for every little thing you did or didn't do as a child, you probably felt it was safer much of the time to just keep a low profile and not get too noticed. I recall in at least one of your 46 memories you talking about how you would try to look emotionless since you didn't know what was the appropriate expression to have on your face - you couldn't just be "yourself" - the need to be hyper vigilant and on guard all the time. Since narcissists are so manipulative, in my case I often feel like someone may be giving me praise so they can set me up to ask me for something or take advantage of me - as if I connect with them too deeply I won't be able to protect myself when they turn on me. In my case, my NM always told me that people were just using me because I was too nice and tried to convince me that no one would just be giving me praise because they genuinely liked what I did or I (God forbid) actually deserved it! And for me, it's pretty easy for me to say a light thank you, but I get uncomfortable when it starts to get more in depth too - almost like I start feeling smothered and need to escape or like I'll now owe the person something if I take it any deeper than the superficial level. I sometimes wonder if it has to do with the maternal jealousy thing that Dr. Karyl McBride talks about in her book and how that makes daughters so viscerally freaked out and uncomfortable, especially since it's usually our gifts and qualities that bring joy to others that the NM is so jealous of and denigrates. Then other people are (of course) very appreciative and genuinely touched by the gifts we share with the world. Thus, it's so very confusing for a young girl to get such mixed messages, one doesn't even know what to make of it.

    I've uncovered several squirmy feeling issues of my own by doing an exercise a therapist taught me called "Black Blob". Sit or lie comfortably and close eyes. Visualize your adult self walking into your right eye and you should see a big room. Turn and face the left side of the room and you should see a little girl sitting in the corner. Tell the little girl it's safe to come out and tell you what is bothering her. She may tell you just why she feels this way. I have found out the most interesting things and so many times it's a seemingly "small" thing, but to the little girl it was a big thing - but once it's conscious, then it no longer has the same hold (I"m sure you already know this!) If it doesn't work the first time or it's too uncomfortable, certainly don't feel that you have to push and it doesn't mean a person failed if it doesn't work perfectly. As with anything, it can take time.

    Thanks for this article. As usual, very enlightening.



  5. I feel exactly the same sometimes - in particular, some part of me cannot suffer the words "intelligent" or "talented"

    Maybe that's because all the put-downs made me afraid that I can't live up to praise?
    Or, maybe it's because everything I was good at would be appropiated/co-opted/poisoned with unrealistic expectation by my father until I'd lost all joy & energy for it. Praise, for me, was associated with a threat to my identity, like a thing I enjoyed was gonna be dragged into the public & taken from me - and unfortunately, this has deprived me of the ability to feel pride.

    I suppose it also taught me the importance of giving appreciation to others.


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