Self-Destruction: Growing Up With a Narcissist for a Dad, Part II
My parents don’t love me — only the idea of me. They want me to achieve and to strive. These are noble aims. But I fear, and have always feared, that should I ever stop achieving and striving, they too would stop loving me.
This fear has rooted itself in me. I feel it in the daily hum of anxiety. Anxious feelings are my permanent companion — at times, in the past, my only companion. In these moments, when I have had only unwanted thoughts and feelings to keep me company, I have wanted to die. Rather, I wanted no longer to live.
Now that I am a parent I can understand my parents’ vicarious anxiety. They wish to see me succeed. They study my actions for perceived weaknesses and strengths. They hope to nourish the latter and extinguish the former. When this becomes the overriding goal — the basis of a relationship, which by nature is conditional — then all is lost. The relationship is spoiled.
That is where things stand now, between them and me. They want me to succeed. They are blinded by this ambition. I want them to leave me alone. I want them to love me but not the way they know how. Since they know no other way, and seem incapable of changing, I want them simply to stop. Stop talking to me. Stop bothering me. Stop trying. Leave me alone.
I have decided in the last year that I am happiest when I am not talking to them. When I talk to them less I think about them less. When I think about them I grow angry and sad. It is better for me to keep my distance. Then I can breathe — my mind and body can breathe. It can find its own footing. It is less beholden to my parents’ wishes.
Even when I reject their design for my life I expend energy still, on their behalf. I’m caught in their web. My mind spins thoughts of them and their desires for me. Inevitably, this state revives my great anxiety that I’m disappointing them. This remains my great anxiety, even now, thirteen years after leaving home for college, because of who my dad is. He is a narcissist.
When I was a child, my dad insisted on his point of view as the correct point of view. In every conversation throughout my childhood I was told, often subtly through nonverbal cues, that I should listen to him. By listen he meant obey. He found me smart — brilliant, he occasionally said — but often because I said something he agreed with. He never praised me outside the context of something I’d done. I was never simply good enough, as I was. Rather, I felt loved on the basis of my latest accomplishment. In effect, his refrain with me was: “What have you done for me lately?”
When I stopped performing well, he loved me less. The difference was sometimes subtle and sometimes not. But it was always appreciable. Sometimes he wore disinterest on his face. I had not impressed him. Other times he withdrew from my life entirely. In high school we went months without speaking to each other. We did this periodically, over several years.
The reason — so I deduced because he never told me — was that in his estimation I had stopped playing soccer to my ability. I had disappointed him. This enraged him, and drove him to obscene, mean-spirited action. Once, he told me he and my mother were planning to divorce. Later he told me it had been a lie. He just wanted to inspire me to play better at soccer practice.
One big lie my dad told me through his actions and his words was the lie of masculinity. He liked to act tough and expected toughness in me. When I was in second grade, a bully — really, a friend who was having a bad day — taunted me about something. I did not fight him. I was terrified and hurt. I just let it pass. My mom later told me that my dad had been disappointed in me because I did not fight the kid.
In sixth grade an actual bully said an anti-Semitic joke to me. He was about my size but he stood next to a giant. The two belonged to a small group of delinquent boys — not quite a gang but the closest thing to it in our town — so again I did nothing. My mom again told me that my dad had wished that I had fought him. That was her role: to communicate his frustrations and disappointments to me. She did not challenge his authority, especially not in this domain. She trusted his expertise on how to turn a boy into a man.
In third or fourth grade I asked my dad what it was like to fight someone. He told me that a fistfight was war. Not like war — but the thing itself. He told me that if I ever fought someone my goal should be to ensure that the person was unable to get up off the ground. I should use surrounding objects, such as a fork, he said, to strike my opponent with.
During the long bad years where I sat out whole soccer games, my dad insisted that I wasn’t tough enough. That was the reason I wasn’t playing, he said. One game, when I was 15, I injured my elbow in the warm-up. I told the coach I couldn’t play. At halftime, realizing my ruse, my dad charged across the field. He wagged his finger. His face twisted in a grimace, he said, loud enough for my peers and coach to hear, “Get your ass in the game or we’re going home.” Despite the humiliation I played the second half. I was a dutiful son.
I did not know it then, but I resented my dad. I felt only shame about my behavior. I was embarrassed by my failures. I was anxious about “who I was,” as I put it at the time. I had internalized his idea of me. I was my own worst enemy. I was self-defeating. I allowed myself to be intimidated. I was afraid to take chances. I never lived up to my potential. I failed because I was anxious and I was anxious because I’d failed. Stop failing and you’ll feel better. Do better. Just be — you have the potential to accomplish anything. Now just do it. Keep doing it. Never settle.
As self-help slogans these imperatives are relatively harmless. But when they come from a parent who is emotionally and physically abusive they are damaging. They damage because they are manipulative. You begin to think that the failure — if one can even call it that — begins with you. You grow convinced that you are the problem when the problem is the parent.
It is doubly worse when you are young. As a child you know no better because you know no different. You develop a sense of self fundamentally at odds with your interests and intrinsic worth. The experience of personal growth and development is compromised. You live to please another person, other people. Anything else is preempted — there is nothing else.
The gap between realizing that the problem is the parent and feeling better — feeling like you are okay — is long and arduous to close. It has taken me fourteen years. When I was seventeen I realized that the thoughts running through my head, putting me down and doubting my abilities, were not my own. They had a source. They belonged to my dad. They also belonged to a recent soccer coach who inspired his players to perform through fear, by threatening humiliation and abuse.
I remember the moment of realization well. The idea that I was a person distinct from my thoughts was ground-breaking. I was a person who had thoughts and feelings. I was not my thoughts and feelings. I was not the sum of my attributes. I didn’t put it that way at the time. But looking back it is clear that was the nub of the insight. At the time I felt the ground shift. I didn’t understand what was happening. But I knew it was transformative.
That was also the moment I started to feel deep resentment toward my dad. Realizing he was responsible for my condition — for years of depression where I felt cut off from humanity — he became an intolerable presence. I despised him. I pitied my mom for having to endure a monster like him.
It took many more years to realize she was the problem, too. She not only loved him but, worse, she liked him. She enjoyed his company. She approved of his behavior. She shared his perspective. Put another way, my mom enabled my dad — she shielded him from the consequences of his actions. That he has alienated his son and destroyed his trust. That his son has good reason for wanting nothing to do with him. She facilitated the delusion.
That is where things stand today. I despise my dad and my mom because I feel I must. I’m bound to. It is not a choice. They live a lie and want me to live it with them. They don’t love me — only their idea of me. Like a war, the lines are starkly drawn. You must know your enemy. The survival of my idea of myself is at stake.
It cannot be otherwise, at least not while my dad is alive. He sustains the illusion that he is right and just; that all that is right and just in the world flows from him and his validation. Thus all who disagree with him — like me — have done wrong, have hurt him. I refuse to live that lie. I remember what it was like. I have no place there.