Two years ago I wrote an entry entitled “It’s all about choice,” an entry designed to show us how we make choices that keep us stuck on the end of a narcissist’s pin. What I didn’t address at the time, was the choices that our narcissists have.
All too often I come across people feeling sorry for their narcissists, excusing their behaviours with the comment that they can’t help themselves, they are mentally ill, they don’t know what they are doing. I call bullshit. Narcissists have just as much choice as you or I do.
To most of us, the term “mental illness” implies a lack of control or choice on the part of the afflicted. It is generally a term used to describe people who have a chemical imbalance in their brains that renders them incapable of having a functional grasp on reality. Many of these illnesses are treatable with drugs that balance the brain chemistry and return the patient to the condition of having the ability to recognize and deal with reality, should they choose to do so.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, however, differs from the general perception of mental illness in that the narcissist never loses his ability to have a functional grasp on reality. Where the untreated schizophrenic might not recognize that the roaring dragon he just stabbed to death was really a barkng dog and it was wrong to kill it, the narcissist recognizes it was a dog, it is wrong to kill the dog belonging to his neighbour, and he doesn’t care because the dog’s barking annoyed him and that was all the justification he needed to kill it. The mentally ill may not have a firm grasp on the society’s view of right and wrong…the narcissist knows exactly what the society considers right and wrong but considers himself a special case…the rules don’t necessarily apply to him and he is entitled to get what he wants by whatever means necessary. The Mayo Clinic, in its definition of narcissism, carefully avoids the phrase “mental illness” and instead says “Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder…”
It is important for us to be able to differentiate between the kind of mental imbalance that the afflicted cannot help and the personality disorder in which the afflicted is completely capable of shaping his or her behaviour based on the same objective reality we live with. For one thing, recognizing that the narcissist has complete control of his behaviour relieves us of the perceived obligation for making allowances. This is significant because, relieved of that obligation, we no longer have to feel that we must take the crap the narcissist dishes out. The narcissist is not being rude to you because s/he doesn’t know better or because s/he has no control over his or her behaviour, the narcissist is being rude to you because s/he can, because nobody has set any boundaries, because we allow the person to do so out of misinformed and misguided compassion for an affliction we misunderstand.
If you truly believe your narcissist cannot control her behaviour, that she really can’t help herself, give thought to the times she has been sweet and charming, even loving and caring, to other people. My mother could transform into the Mother of the Year in the blink of an eye if there was somebody around whose opinion she feared or valued. She never hit me or went off in a rage in front of her parents, she never called me names and manhandled me in front of school officials, and when we went to court for custody hearings, she was the meekest, most pathetic loving mother who feared losing her child that the court had ever seen. She was a master at minimizing…when I complained that she made me into her live-in maid and baby sitter, she characterized it as “a few chores after school.” When I complained about being beaten almost daily, I was accused of exaggerating some “much-needed discipline” and having an overactive imagination. She was the perfect loving, concerned mother in the presence of anyone who had any power over her or who she felt she had to keep happy (like her parents, who took me off her hands for three months out of every year while she continued to collect my child support).
But behind closed doors, out of sight and hearing of anyone who could bring any kind of consequence down on her, she was a horror. If I had had the ability to video one of her tantrums, nobody who knew her would believe what they were seeing. She chose to behave in the way others would find acceptable and in doing so, accomplished two things: established a public persona that everyone believed and made a liar out of me. I could not tell the truth to anyone because refused to believe me. Their own observations did not match up with my tales, so I “proved” my mother’s allegation that I had an “overactive imagination.”
Mark Twain once said that it is easier to fool someone than for them to ever admit they had been fooled, and that is very much the case with the narcissist: nobody wants to admit they have been hoodwinked, so rather than take my word or even investigate what I said went on in my house, people just wrote me off as a liar…to take me seriously would mean admitting that my mother had fooled them and the only people I ever saw do that were people who incurred her wrath and got a taste of the real her.
My mother’s behaviour was completely volitional. She did what she perceived to be in her best interest at any given time. My N ex-husband was no different…he behaved like a rational professional in meetings at work, then came home and ranted and raved about the “sandbaggers” and “backstabbers” at work, his perception of anyone in the meeting who didn’t agree with him in everything. I would have to spend hours talking him down from his vengeance fantasies that, over time, I came to realize were likely to be more than just fantasies. In those meetings, however, under the scrutiny of his boss, a man he admired and sought to emulate, he was the personification of professionalism.
Narcissists see nothing amiss in this two-faced approach to life. In fact, being narcissists and prone to projection, they think we are all this way. This explains, I think, why my NM used to accuse me of behaviours and motivations that hadn’t even crossed my mind: it was how she behaved when she was my age, it was what would have motivated her. So, when my tiny 7-year-old fingers couldn’t adequately grip a slippery plate and it crashed into the porcelain sink in pieces, since because she would have broken the plate out of spite for being made to do the dishes, that was therefore the reason I broke the plate and deserved to be punished, both for the destruction of the plate and for my perceived defiance. That the plate was too heavy and too slippery for my little hands to hold it would never cross her mind because, since her behaviours were calculated to either advantage herself or punish others, mine must be as well.
Narcissists have a choice. They can choose to be empathetic or they can suppress the empathy. Narcissists consider empathy and compassion to be weaknesses that can be exploited by others…people like themselves. They don’t want to be empathetic because that might end up with someone taking advantage of them and they couldn’t take that. Instead, they shut down their own empathetic responses so that they can be the ones to take advantage. A narcissist lacks a conscience: it is part of their belief in their own entitlement. Racism is difficult to rationalize without at least a soupçon of narcissistic entitlement underpinning it. You are better than “those people” and therefore you are entitled to better than what they have and, to make sure they don’t encroach upon your entitlement, you will disadvantage them at every opportunity, all the while claiming to not be a racist. You are simply better than they are and therefore deserve better than they have…or can ever get.
The problem with this kind of entitlement and lack of conscience is that it can lead to criminal behaviour. If my scapegoat sister drives a BMW, then I am entitled to better than that…so I will commit some kind of fraud to get my hands on a Ferrari. Narcissists continually play this “one upmanship” kind of game, are constantly in competition with others, and refuse to take a backseat to anyone they have chosen to be part of their circle. So a narcissist might not envy Donald Trump’s money but he might envy the new Cayenne one of his co-workers just bought. But he has another choice: he can choose to be happy that his five year old Honda is paid off and he can spend what he used to fork out in car payments for something else, like paying down his mortgage or making some investments for a college fund for his kids.
Narcissists choose their behaviour. If your narcissistic mother is capable of being nice to anyone, then she is capable of being nice to you. She simply chooses not to. Why has she chosen not to? Because she gets something out of it. What? Well, that depends on a lot of things, but mostly it is because she has found a way to make herself blameless: if everything is your fault, then nothing is hers. My mother actually managed to make every bad decision she ever made my fault by virtue of the fact that I had been born (I was her first child): her reasoning was that if I had not been born her life would have been different, therefore the unsatisfactory life she was leading was my fault because I precipitated it with my birth.
Could she help blaming me? Could she have made another choice? Of course: all she had to do was to take responsibility for her own choices and behaviour. You choose to have unprotected sex, you stand a high risk of getting pregnant. How is that the fault of the baby that results from it? But, to make herself blameless, to make herself into my victim so that she could feel justified in penalizing me, she blamed me.
Narcissists have choices…they have the exact same choices you and I have. You have the choice of making everything wrong in your life the fault of someone else rather than choices you have made. And make no mistake, despite having a narcissistic parent, from the moment you were enlightened and you kept making the choice to maintain a relationship with your narcissist and allow her to continue her blaming games, you now bear some responsibility for your own victimization. If you throw your head back and remove your neck scarf and stand still for the man with the blade, it is still his fault for killing you but you are complicit when you didn’t run as soon as you spotted the knife.
We all have choices…you have the choice to permit the abuse to continue or to put a stop to it…and the narcissist has exactly the same choice…she can continue abusing you or she can stop. But you can only change yourself…you cannot change another person, no matter how righteous or well-intentioned you are. A narcissist will always make the choice that gives her either the greatest advantage or the least disadvantage and if you want to stop the agony of being in a relationship with a narcissist, you have to acknowledge and internalize that.
Narcissists have the same choices we do but, unlike us, the narcissist will always make the choice that advantages her the most, regardless of the fall-out others may have to deal with. The narcissist has no conscience and simply doesn’t care if anyone else gets hurt as long as he gets what he wants.
Empathy Is Actually a Choice http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/12/opinion/sunday/empathy-is-actually-a-choice.html?_r=0
Narcissistic Personality Disorder Definition http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/basics/definition/con-20025568