I have trouble forgiving myself for things I did in the past — but they’re things nobody else even remembers. They’re things I shouldn’t remember, either, but they’re still lurking in the back of my mind — like silent fingers pointed toward me in shame.
We all grow up emulating our parents or the other adult figures in our lives. We don’t have much choice, even if we consciously don’t like some of the things they do. We grow up believing that what we experience is normal in some way. We don’t decide to be like them. We just act that way without thinking about it.
I had no idea how dysfunctional my family was. I had a inkling — at times — that we were somehow different, but I vaguely felt proud of that. I thought we were better than other people. Whatever we were, well, that was the way things ought to be. Our way was right.
So I grew up emulating a narcissist. I had never heard of narcissistic personality disorder, of course. But I learned his ways and I acted like him. Every now and then, some tiny incident from the past comes to mind because of a tiny trigger — and I feel shame and embarrassment.
Tonight, the trigger was mashed potatoes.
I was a junior in college. I had invited a couple of friends — a married couple who I knew from high school — over for dinner. I don’t recall exactly what else I cooked, but it involved mashed potatoes. I thought I was a pretty good cook — at least for the simple food that I cooked — so I was happy with whatever it was.
We sat down to eat and in a couple of minutes, my friend asked if I had some butter on the table. He wanted to put some more butter into his mashed potatoes.
It was a simple request. There was nothing unusual about it. The reasonable and polite response would have been for me to get some butter from the refrigerator. But I couldn’t do that. I had to explain why he didn’t need any butter.
I explained that I had put plenty of butter in when I mashed the potatoes, so they wouldn’t need any. He explained that he was accustomed to putting some more butter into his potatoes at the table. Incredibly, I continued to explain that the potatoes were already the way they ought to be — so he didn’t need any more butter.
I have trouble telling this story without feeling humiliated. I feel shame now at having been so pig-headed — so determined to prove I was right — that I would make an issue of the matter. He was polite and didn’t pursue it further. He didn’t get any more butter.
One of the reasons I feel ashamed to tell this story is that it paints me in such an ugly light. If I were in such a position today, I would gladly get a guest what he asked for. At the time, though, I had been taught that there was one way to do everything — and it was always the way I had been taught. I didn’t even know to be embarrassed by the way I was acting.
I doubt my friend would remember this, but I wouldn’t want to ask him about it today. Just in case he does remember.
I rarely have mashed potatoes anymore, but when I made some tonight, I was suddenly humiliated as I melted butter into the potatoes. In that moment, I was back in the mindset of who I used to be — but I know today that this isn’t decent behavior.
If I took the time, I figure I could come up with dozens of ridiculous stories just as embarrassing as that one. In all those cases, the problem was that I had internalized the idea that my way was the right way — about everything.
I used to do this at work. I did it in dating relationships. I did it with friends. I never even questioned myself. I just knew that whatever was my way was obviously the right way.
Today, I recognize this as the narcissistic behavior that it was. It was controlling. It was arrogant. It was pointless. And I learned it all from emulating my father.
I understand now that he didn’t realize what he was doing, either. I can look back on times when he forced me to do ridiculous things his way and know that he was somehow programmed to do the same thing. (I remember struggling with him over how I swept our driveway when I was a little boy. I could use a small broom more quickly to get the job done, but he insisted that I use a large push broom, because he said that was the right way to do the job.)
Even when we consciously detest certain things about our parents, we can internalize things they did — even things they did to us — and then do those to other people. That’s what happened to me. That’s why I acted in ways that I now understand were narcissistic.
I was incredibly fortunate to learn this through good counseling and to figure out how to change myself.
Not everybody is as fortunate as I was. Most people continue acting out the dysfunction they learn from their parents long after their parents are dead — and they never have a clue what they’re doing.
This is why it’s so incredibly important to get our own mental health in order before we inflict our emotional damage on our children. We’re not going to be perfect parents — nobody is — but the more we’ve done to get ourselves emotionally healthy, the more our children will be healthy as adults in their own futures.
It’s easy for you to listen to stories of what I did — things I learned from my father without realizing it — and think I should have known better. But you’re probably doing the same things, at least in your own way.
You’re passing on things to your children that you never learned to overcome. You probably even chose the other parent of your children to inflict the kind of damage you were programmed to accept. If you’re like most people, you’re completely unaware of what you’re doing — and you consider yourself to be perfectly reasonable and normal parents.
My father would have said he was a great father. I thought we were a normal family, too.
The emotionally healthier version of myself today still has trouble accepting what I used to be. I have trouble accepting that I could make an issue over table butter. I have trouble accepting that I acted in controlling and narcissistic ways with women I dated. I have trouble accepting that I insisted everything be done my way when I supervised people at work.
I know I need to forgive myself for the ways I used to act, but I find that difficult. Another part of my programming also tells me that I’m supposed to be perfect — so I have trouble allowing myself to be imperfect enough to forgive myself for not being perfect.
Yes, I know that’s still a little crazy. Maybe I’ll never be over all of my old programming. I’m still trying, though. And if you ever ask me for some extra butter for your potatoes, I’ll gladly get some for you.
I’m slowly learning things I should have learned as a child. I’m really trying.