What happens if a vampire bites your neck? Vampire mythology tells us the victim can become a vampire, too.
What happens if a narcissist raises a child and programs him for life? Psychology tells us there’s a very good chance that child — once the victim — will grow up to be another narcissist and will victimize others.
I was bitten by a narcissist in my formative years — if you’ll forgive me for mixing metaphors — and I’ve spent the last 10 or 12 years trying to make sure I don’t become a narcissistic vampire myself.
I’ve been terrified to realize how close I came to becoming what I most feared.
Until a psychologist explained narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) to me about 10 or 12 years ago, very little about my childhood made sense. What’s more, many things about my own life as an adult hadn’t made sense. I hadn’t understood things I’d done. It wasn’t until I was desperate enough to ask hard questions — and accept hard answers — that I could hear the truth.
Narcissism isn’t binary. It’s not a yes or no. It exists on a fairly wide spectrum. In fact, many psychologists say that some mild degree of narcissism is necessary even in healthy people. (That is debated in psychology and it seems to come down to definitions.) The thing that surprised me the most is that narcissism was nothing like what I thought it was. When my therapist brought up narcissism — and applied it to my father — I protested that it couldn’t possibly be his issue.
I thought a narcissist was the guy who went around admiring himself in mirrors and constantly bragged on himself. After I started reading the books recommended by my therapist — and then continued to read all I could find about the subject — I discovered that narcissists were nothing like the common stereotype, at least in the clinical sense.
I discovered that a narcissist is a person who is terrified of not being good enough, terrified of being abandoned, terrified of being embarrassed. To compensate for his overwhelming fears, he has grandiose fantasies of unlimited success and achievement. He thinks he’s better than everybody else. He lies about what he’s done. He lies to get the attention he wants. He does a million things to get some form of validation to allow himself to believe he’s not what he fears he is.
A narcissist uses people and discards them. A narcissist doesn’t know how to love in a healthy way. Instead, he takes whatever attention and admiration and love he can get from another person. He might keep the person around as a continuing source of what’s called “narcissistic supply” or he might dump the person and move on to fresh sources of supply. It’s complicated.
According to the very first book my therapist had me read about narcissism — the book was “Why Is It Always About You?” — the child of a narcissist grows up too fast and is required to be a little adult in a child’s body. And that child usually grows up to become a narcissist, too.
When I started learning about narcissism in the clinical sense, I was horrified to discover that some of my internal patterns — my fears and needs — were similar to those of a narcissist. As part of my therapy — which involved looking at my childhood and also looking at my own adult behavior — I was forced to see ways in which I had picked up some of the behavior I had seen modeled as a child. I hadn’t picked up the worst of what I’d experienced, but the internal fears and needs were there.
Could I turn into an actual narcissist? That question haunted me.
I’ve spent the years since then continuing to study the psychology around personality disorders — especially those in what the DSM calls Cluster B. The more I understand them, the more I understand my childhood — and the more I understand how to be an emotionally healthy person.
If you’ve been bitten by that mythical vampire, you might keep some of that vampiric nature in you. Let’s say you didn’t get enough of it to become a vampire, but you got just enough to make you understand the craving for the life force of others. That’s what it feels as though I’ve gone through.
A narcissist is desperate for you to admire him and give him attention. He’s desperate to hide his flaws. He’s desperate to keep you from knowing anything is wrong with him. Even worse, though, he is unable to see his own issues — because knowing the truth would be too painful to him.
Over the last decade, I have become radically open with my flaws and vulnerabilities. You see, I’m good at deceiving people. I learned from a master. I know how to be charming and present the best parts of me. And this is why I go out of my way to be vulnerable — especially to those whose love I ask for.
If I proactively show you my faults and I open myself for you to see my vulnerabilities, I am unable to present myself to you as the perfect person I want you to see in me.
This is difficult for me, but I’ve gotten better at it. The last time I was getting involved with a woman I loved, I even wrote a long letter to her about my flaws and vulnerabilities. I wanted her to see my worst. Especially with someone who I love — with someone whose love I crave — I don’t want to win affection and admiration because I’ve projected something that isn’t real. I want her to know the worst of me — and for her to think I’m worthy of love just for being myself.
A real narcissist is far too proud and far too humiliated by his flaws to admit his vulnerabilities. By projecting the worst of what I am — or what I fear I am — I try to make sure the one who I love doesn’t fall in love with a lie.
For many years, I wasn’t ready to have my own children, because I was afraid I would pass along to them some of the programming that I learned in childhood. It’s only been over the last 10 years or so that I’ve become mature enough — and healthy enough — to know I could be a good father and raise emotionally mature children. I finally know I’m ready for that.
I don’t ever want to become complacent about the programming that was built into me many years ago. Even though I’ve learned to “route around the damage,” some of that damage will always be there. Part of my way of dealing with it is to be honest — to be vulnerable and to proactively self-disclose — about all those things which my fragile, wounded ego might want to hide from you.
I will always have a deep core fear of not being good enough. I will always have to fight off the desire to feel self-loathing and the desire to trick you into loving me — because part of me doesn’t feel worthy of love and doesn’t feel you would choose to love me unless I trick you.
But being open and vulnerable with you — by self-disclosing what I fear for you to know — keeps me from trying to deceive you.
I want you to know the best of me and the worst of me — and I have to trust that you will love me and believe I’m worthy, just for being who I am. That is a tremendous gamble, but the alternative is to turn into a narcissistic vampire — and I refuse to allow myself to go down that path.