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, July 13, 2015

Narcissists choose their behaviours

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.

Source materials:


  1. "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."

    Thank you, thank you! I am so glad that others are seeing the pathological narcissism behind racism, especially the revival of racism that we are seeing in the United States. Becoming psychologically literate enables the intended targets of the scapegoating to outmaneuver those who want to do the scapegoating. Thus we become able to "choose, when we can, to be neither prey nor predator," as a wise blogger wrote a while ago.

    1. TH, my husband is a non-white person who grew up in apartheid South Africa. I am an American (Left Coast liberal) who has now lived in post-apartheid South Africa for nearly 12 years. I see the unreconstructed Afrikaaners all the time, listen to their rhetoric, observe their frustrated sense of entitlement. I hear the stories from my in-laws of what it was like living in a country controlled by an entitled few (the architects and perpetrators of apartheid made up no more than 15% of the population) who were absolutely convinced that what they were doing was right, that the ends (safety of the white community and economic advantage) justified their oppressive means. I get it--even as a person raised in California with "white privilege," I truly get it.

      Sadly, I see the same thing growing in America today. People ask me why I left America for South Africa--because they don't get it. But South Africa is post-apartheid and slowly feeling its way into a real democracy. America is headed in the other direction and I am simply past the age where firebrand politics appeals. America is headed in the wrong direction and I refuse to be a part of it.

    2. This connection between NPD and racism is something I have been wondering about too. My mother is NPD, and she has gotten my whole immediate and extended family, and my friends too when she could, to be her flying monkeys. I'm just starting to see that, thanks to this blog and other blogs on scapegoating, gaslighting, and NPD. Long ago, before understanding scapegoating and NPD, I always knew something was wrong, and was very very angry, but did not understand. It was and is much worse than I ever realized. Back then, long ago, I was really interested in hidden ideology (unexposed systems of thought that prevent us from seeing them because they are all we know), and then racism. I studied those problems in college, and connected them in graduate school. Recently, as I learn about scapegoating, gaslighting, and NPD, I'm starting to wonder if NPD connects with hidden ideology and racism too. I have been thinking it does, and now it's kind of exciting to see other people making the NPD/racism link! I have all sorts of ideas about writing about that! And I have a stack of books I'm going to use for research for an academic article I will write and try to get published in a journal.
      I could not see NPD and scapegoating when I was younger, but there was something about hidden ideology and racism that drew me to those problems. Now, I'm reminded of that saying about going through a whole journey, ending up back where I started, and knowing this starting place for the first time. Also, a Korean friend once said that they have a saying about how if one person thinks something, it's a dream. If two people think something, it's a reality. Now that I see I'm not the only one thinking of a connection between NPD and racism, I see that the connection is, indeed, real. I am no longer alone as a scapegoat, and now I'm also not alone in my studies! Not alone! Not alone! Not alone! And I have not wasted my life thinking crazy thoughts about crazy ideas! And now I can continue my line of thinking, and all the reading and thinking and writing, without feeling alone anymore. Thank you Violet, TH, and everyone in the scapegoat community.

  2. Dear SweetViolet, having read numerous blog-posts from people whose parent/s and / or spouses are and / were just downright vicious, have noticed the narcs' on-going (and annoying) chest-pounding and cheating and whatever else they do and think, to get their way. All this slop they sling, the Lord hates. Narcs spend their entire lives on crap that has no eternal value. And they expect us to fall in line with them. They're rattlesnakes.

  3. You're right of course, we all have a choice, but if we are predisposed to take a certain path, how much freedom to decide do we really have?

    Allow me to (hopefully) explain my position.

    "A narcissist will always make the choice that gives her either the greatest advantage or the least disadvantage...", which implies that they do not, in fact, have a choice. Because they are narcissists, they will always take the selfish action. It is a fact of their condition that they are completely selfish and expecting them to be capable of selflessness is akin to expecting a blind person to be capable of sight.

    I disagree completely that you, Sweet Violet, are capable of "making everything wrong in your life the fault of someone else rather than choices you have made." because you, unlike your mother, are not a narcissist. It has probably never occurred to you to engage in the blame game your mother plays; likewise it has probably never occurred to your mother to take responsibility for her own actions. You, Violet, cannot choose to be narcissistic. Your mother cannot choose to be neurotypical.

    1. There is a considerable difference between one's nature and one's behaviour. If a narcissist was incapable of choosing his or her behaviour, then that narcissist would behave with the same selfish self-aggrandizement in all situations with all people. They don't. They CHOOSE when to throttle it back and behave in such a way that they look normal. And they CHOOSE to whom they show their true selves.

      Nothing is said here about narcissists changing their narcissistic natures, only that they can and do choose when, where, and to whom to reveal it through their behaviour. If they were not capable of duplicity...if they displayed their true natures at all times, the children of these people would have no difficulty getting others to believe the horrors their narcissistic parents visit upon them. And yet, one of the most common comments from the children of narcissists is that when they told others about the truth of their lives, nobody believed them because THEIR experience of the narcissist in question was different from the child's. They simply could not grasp that the person behaved so differently to their children, so they chose to believe their own perceptions--and those perceptions were based in observing what they saw as "normal" behaviour. Narcissists are like chameleons...they change how they behave to fit the circumstance. They are capable of changing their BEHAVIOUR, capable of behaving normally. And if they can treat one person well, they can treat others well, too--they just CHOOSE not to. They are no more stuck in selfish behaviour than they are from Mars...they may have immutably selfish natures, but they can and do behave like normal people when they choose to do so, and they can treat their children well when they choose to do so. They just choose to single out some children for abuse while continuing to treat the others well.

      That you don't grasp this very fundamental fact of narcissists, that they can show one face to you and another face to me, tells me that either you have no narcissists in your life or that you have them but are deep in denial. Either way, you are one of the ones who doesn't "get it."

    2. Thank you for your reply, Sweet Violet.
      Firstly, may I say that after my first comment, I went and read about some of the terrible things your mother did to you and realise that I may perhaps have come across as insensitive and that I ought to have been less abrupt. Your use of capitals would indicate this is indeed the case, if so I apologise unreservedly. Alternatively, since I’m autistic I might be misreading the signs and if so I apologise for that too.
      Secondly, I am more than aware that narcissists and psychopaths have this chameleon-like ability to change their face on a whim. What I am arguing is that is part of the disorder. Your mother wasn’t nice to some people because she liked them, or because she respected them, or because she thought it was the right thing to do. She did it because they had something she wanted, or alternatively to hide her true nature so nobody knew what a dreadful parent she was. But she only did it, indeed would only be capable of doing it, because she was / is a narcissist. This normal, charming, convincingly deceptive behaviour is part of being a narcissist.
      Just so we’re clear, I’m not attempting to minimise the damage she inflicted on your life, nor am I suggesting you should forgive and forget (how could you? I know I couldn’t). I am merely arguing that in the case of severe personality disorders, the question of free will is not a black and white case.

    3. It IS black and white. The narcissist cannot change his nature but he CAN change his behaviour. It is part of the selfishness of the disorder that the narcissist can and will change his behavior to gain the greatest advantage. This is not necessarily conscious behaviour, it may be habituated.

      Think of it like a toddler: three year olds are very selfish--it is part of their survival instinct. If you tell a three year old that he can't have a cookie unless he says "please," if the child really wants the cookie, he will modify his behaviour so that he can get the cookie. He will change from demanding "Gimme cookie!" to asking "Please gimme cookie!" provided her already understands that the former doesn't work and the latter does. Changing from demanding to asking doesn't change the selfishness of his nature, but it is a change in behaviour, motivated by the goal: getting a cookie. Narcissists are much the same.

      My own mother was a malignant narcissist. She combined the selfishness and lack of conscience of the narcissist with the malice of a sociopath. And even SHE was capable of tailoring her behaviour to show the face she believed would advantage her the most. Her nature never changed but her behaviour most certainly did.

    4. I agree with you Violet. They are performance artists, and that is how they take other people in, and reel their family victims back in to, periodically. That's the hardest thing for people to comprehend, I think--that the performances may change, but the nature of the person with NPD never does. It's crucial to build up resistance to the performances, the "shows" of good behavior, because they are always, ALWAYS, temporary, manipulative, and intended to make the Narc feel better about him/herself in front of other people. Or even in his/her own eyes. But reversion always recurs. It takes a very long time and repeated emo beat-downs to finally believe this. Great post, and useful distinctions. Thanks. CS

  4. It seems we are practically on the same page. We are in agreement they can and do change their behaviour, and you proved my point yourself: "It is part of the selfishness of the disorder that the narcissist can and will change his behavior to gain the greatest advantage."

    They do what they do because they are narcissists. Their choices are made through the prism of narcissism, meaning that if they were not narcissists they wouldn't make the same choices. Therefore their choices are determined by their disorder. Therefore they do not have free will in the same way that you or I do.

    You're right, it is black and white. It's very simple.

    1. Sophistry doesn't work with me. When faced with my brother's misdeeds, my mother did not punish him, she punished ME for "letting him" misbehave. Narcissism or no, she had a CHOICE in who to punish.

      Narcissists cannot change their natures but they are perfectly capable of changing their behaviour. If they can treat one of their children well, they can treat them ALL well. They simply choose not to.

  5. It's not sophistry, but a rational argument, something which you unfortunately lack.

    I'm not going to waste any further time speaking to you, not because we disagree but because, despite my best efforts to not offend you and apologising when I thought I had, you have been consistently rude in return. It's entirely your choice as to whether you publish this comment; just knowing you read it is enough for me.

    1. For those following this exchange, I would like to point out that when James’ argument was repeatedly rejected, he went on the attack. This is a typically narcissistic behaviour and something to expect when refusing to accede to a narcissist’s point of view.

      Now I am not saying James is a narcissist—he claims to be autistic and one of the most common characteristics of autism is difficulty with empathy and being very literal…subtlety often escapes them. Another common characteristic of autism is becoming fixated on something and having great difficulty with change…even the changing of views and perceptions. So I am going to be generous here and write off James’ rudeness to autism and an inability to grasp concepts that do not support his personal perception.

      But I would like everyone to be aware that if this exchange was between two neurotypicals (and a narcissist is considered to be neurotypical), James’ behaviour would be characteristic of a narcissist. When I disagreed with James’ perception, he tried to present his argument by twisting mine (which is what I characterized as sophistry). When I rejected that attempt, he got rude, essentially saying I was irrational because I wouldn’t accept his point of view, which was that he was right and I was wrong. That is unacceptable.

      No more of James’ correspondence will be published. If a person can’t get his point across without attacking, then they don’t get space here.

  6. I too would love to live in a world where there could be no such thing as cruelty, sadism and pain inflicted on purpose. It would be so confortable to think that if somebody has hurt me on every possible occasion in my childhood, and felt such deep pleasure from deshumanizing me, they just had no other choice, poor little them, they were just puppets manipulated by their pathology. That talk is just utter rubbish. People support those views are just busy protecting themselves from a very painful awareness : there IS evil is this world. For the same reason as there is good, and this reason is called freedom. We ARE free to choose, however bad or even desperate the circumstances we face.

    Thank you so much for your blog. I live in France (I'm French) where there still relatively
    remains a taboo on the subject of parental narcissism. There has been a lot of research in my country about harassment in the workplace (Hirigoyen) and beetween spouses, but I think that our catholic past makes it very difficult for the general opinion to conceive that there can be monstruous parents and that all mothers are not as sweet as Virgin Mary. Just as I write this, a remembrance of Victor Hugo occurs in my mind : the Thénardier couple are monstruous, but the child they torture, Cosette, is not their own. It's so difficult to imagine parents as torturers because it challenges our whole view on humanity.
    By the way, in French criminal courts, when a defendant is diagnosed as narcissist ("pervers narcissique"), he/she IS HELD RESPONSIBLE for his actions.
    So yes, there is choice.
    My best wishes to you, your blog is really helpful.

    Marie, escaped daughter of narcissistic mother and narcissistic father.

  7. One thing I did not notice you mentioning. If a narcissists would not know that they are doing wrong, they would not have a need to lie. If they are lying about what they did, they know that they did something wrong. Otherwise they would not have any need to lie.

    This is important point IMHO, because it tells us that they were KNOWING what they did, KNOWING that it was wrong, and then doubling the wrongdoing by hiding it with lies. That makes their actions concious choises, two times.


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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