"CZ, what is the connection with this experience and Narcissism? I've been reading your blog and WoN (both lifelines for so many.) I am gathering information to help me understand this disorder. I am thinking that this nephew is exhibiting narcissistic behavior but is not diagnosed because he is a teen. Can you shed light here? Thank you for this treasure trove of knowledge and experience." ~Geneva
Last week, Geneva posted a comment asking about my runaway nephew. The one who is about as shrewd as the little boy in this image. It took awhile to find a fitting picture for this message, and once again my perseverance and obsessive-compulsivity paid off. So here y’all go: the perfect image of my nephew when he moved in with me about thirteen years ago. 13 years ago, my nephew walked into our ‘safe’ home after his parents divorced. Only a couple of years later, my perfect marriage fell apart and the family construction that appeared to be 'safe and permanent', was proven to be untrustworthy. Again. My nephew had loved his Dad, despite his alcoholism, and he loved my husband (his Uncle) and thus withdrew into himself so deeply he didn't know what was real and what wasn't. Course, neither did I...not for a while. *insert tweety birds here* Narcissists have that impact on other people---they aren't trustworthy but you end up not trusting yourself!
Anyway, this little boy witnessed two men walk away from families both men professed to love more than life itself. That contradiction might thwart a child's self-development, especially when it comes to 'trust'---the foundation to healthy integration and secure attachment.
My nephew lived with me through the darkest period of my life, still needing to be cared for by several adult women who also needed to be cared for, too. It was rough for everyone, most especially for a child who learned early on that adults were first and foremost: committed to themselves and if it meant leaving children behind 'to find themselves', then that was an adult's prerogative. Particularly the man's. Families were mere stepping stones and family members were dispensable.
When my nephew showed signs of an emotional disturbance, it only seemed reasonable considering his life history. When his adjustment period extended beyond what we considered normal, we connected the dots to his behavior as an infant. There were signs of his emotional disconnect when he was two years old. At this point, we took him to a psychiatrist for testing. He has been going to therapy since he was eight years old, initially diagnosed with bipolar. Now that he is eighteen, he is undergoing further psychological evaluations and his diagnosis will likely be changed. Bipolar was a 'tentative' diagnosis at the time, giving direction for treating psychologists who were mostly concerned about preventing a manic episode.
Without psychological guidance for the past ten years, we might have blamed this child, resented him, or even ignored him. I want to say right up front that while a 'psychological label' might interfere with a child's self-perceptions, so do the other labels parents use for kids with emotional and psychological problems. Labels like: lazy, stupid, arrogant, lazy, belligerent, smart ass, lazy, n'er-do-well, defiant, worthless, and did I mention lazy? These are fairly common labels in households where kids frustrate the living poop out of their parents who resort to explanations for frustrating behaviors. Like when my nephew ran away. Was he defying authority like a rebel without a cause; was he replicating the self-centeredness of his father and Uncle; or was he telling us how easily he could be swayed by a friend?
This has been a daunting experience, raising my nephew. I always felt like a pretty good mother with extraordinary patience, understanding, and emotional support to offer children. But this child makes a good mother feel like a failure which is fundamental to the problems between my sister and her son. She is bipolar which means she parents by 'mood'. I'm not bipolar and parent by principle. Putting my nephew's welfare at the top of both of our priorities has required self-examination and constant learning. I am a stickler for consequences no matter how I might be 'feeling' at the time and his mom relents on consequences depending on how she feels. Still, the desire to do the right thing by a child has taken precedence over emotional reactions to his frustrating behavior. We try and we keep trying.
When my nephew first ran away, psychologists assumed he was having a mania which has proven to be inaccurate. Time tells the tale with troubled children, so hard to diagnose because they're such irritating narcissists during adolescence. Which signs of narcissism are normal and which aren't and how do we know the difference?
His psychiatrist cautioned that an accurate diagnosis might not be possible until he was seventeen or eighteen years old. Children change so much during teen-age years. If there is a narcissistic disorder however, it won't disappear. Pathological narcissism is deeply entrenched in the personality and becomes even more obvious during maturation. Not that we didn't worry about him having a Narcissistic Personality Disorder or even worse, an Anti-social character.
The first approach psychologists took with my nephew after his runaway fugue, was to talk to him about the 'anti-social' personality. "Do you know what anti-social means?" the therapist asked him. He replied, "That you don't have lots of friends?"
"Well, not exactly," she said. Then she described a fork in the road. She asked him to picture himself standing in the middle of a path with one road leading to jail and the other path leading to freedom. "Where do you want to end up?" she asked. "Because making choices like the one you just made, ultimately lead to social alienation. Living in a jail cell without any freedom is inevitable if you don't start making different choices today."
After this therapy session, my sister was frantic about raising a psychopath and talked with me extensively about the signs of psychopathy. "He's not a psychopath", I told her. "He doesn't know how to manipulate people and he's about as cunning as that kid in the posted photo." You see, my nephew ran away in the cold of winter without carrying a coat or stealing money from the household. It was an impromptu, impulsive choice and in my understanding, psychopaths are too devoted to 'creature comforts' to do something like that. They'd steal the teacher's parka, rob classmates' backpacks, or hold up the local 7-11 for a six-pack of Red Bull. Instead, those two kids nearly froze to death and slipped inside a local church to sleep in the coat room overnight while curbing their hunger with peanut butter from the frig.
Disclaimer: As a layperson using psychological information to provide a template for better parenting, there is a lot I do not know about mental illnesses, character disorders, neurological disorders. This is why I rely on treating psychologists to pinpoint my nephew's problems. In the interim, when psychologists are doing their best to understand what makes him 'tick', we are still living and parenting and loving this child. It is not easy and I hope I don't sound Pollyanna-ish about raising a child with emotional problems. Some people can handle it; others cannot which is why those of us who can oughta step up to the plate. I didn't write out a pro-con list of reasons WHY I ought change my life and raise this child when he needed a place to live. I just did it because it 'felt' like the right thing to do and yes, I believe it was. And thus, my continued interest in learning about the narcissistic continuum in the hopes of intervening with behaviors before they become patterns ultimately leading to pathology. (I will list some of the sure signs of narcissism on this post and then follow-up with a second post about what I have done to interrupt developing patterns before they became engrained.)
Many people write about the narcissist’s lack of empathy as the crucial definition of this disorder. I don’t see it that way. To me, the most compelling distinction of the narcissistic pathology is: MANIPULATION
Though everyone, to some degree, uses manipulation in our image-conscious society, the narcissist's manipulation requires DECEPTION on a level most people could never sustain. Narcissists adapt to whatever people expect to see, even appearing to be successful, competent, trustworthy, intimate, highly moral, and 'good' people. In my own experience, narcissists ARE competent, talented and successful people. They excel in a competitive society that rewards Individual excellence, not communal values.
The narcissist’s deception is in the 'fragmentation' between image and substance. For instance, a narcissist will appear to not only be successful and skilled, he or she will also mimic empathy, consideration, tenderness, and commitment to family (or other intimate relationships). The narcissist manipulates everyone and everything in a game of subterfuge that even deceives him or herself. The image of the invulnerable and superior narcissist is maintained AT ALL COSTS---other people being inevitable, even lamentable losses that are justified in the narcissist’s mind. The narcissist scans his or her environment to meet their own needs, exploiting people like objects. You cannot exploit people if you aren't clever at deception, manipulation and cunning.
What you see is what you get is how most people describe themselves, yet with the narcissist, what you see is NOT what you get. The discrepancy between the image of this person (what we expect to see) and reality (what the narcissist masks from others), is a sure sign of a self-disorder ranging from unhealthy to pathological narcissism, even the most severe: psychopathy.
People withdraw at times, especially in times of crisis. We might be extremely self-absorbed for awhile. Some folks might call that 'narcissism' and in a perverse way, diminish the severity of the narcissistic disorder by equating self-absorption with psychopathy. What I am writing about is not situational withdrawal in response to trauma/crisis. I was broken-hearted and believe me, everybody knew it.
What I am writing about is pathological narcissism: a core disturbance of the self, resulting in a fragmented identity. Or no identity at all. Narcissists are always 'looking for themselves' out there somewhere over the rainbow, leaving other people with the distinct impression that they have no self to find. And maybe there isn’t. Until they find this illusive self however, narcissists borrow other people’s identities, mirroring a perfect image of the person you expect to see. Someone so like yourself, it's uncanny.
The question on our minds after my nephew returned home was this: Would my nephew's week in juvenile detention be a Corrective life Event, or a Corrosive one? Would he blame us, society, school, the police? Would he justify his antisocial behavior as ‘normal’ considering his pitiable circumstances? A boy in a house of women without a father, what could anyone expect? These questions remain in my mind and heart with no way to predict the outcome. His future was up to him and yes, that's an uncertain place for parents to be.
One last comment about the narcissistic character and I'll use a television actor to hopefully point out the distinction. Did you ever watch Leave it to Beaver? Well, there was this very narcissistic friend named Eddy Haskell. Eddy was the most polite teenager on the block manipulating parents’ perceptions to gain their trust and approval. One tip-off to Eddy’s disorder was his superbly over-the-top manners. Narcissists mimic the right behavior but go to the extreme. Beware the obsequious teenager who makes your own kids look like degenerates.
Then of course, there's The Bad Seed. Watch that old movie and notice how the little girl manipulates her mother saying, "You are the best mother. The prettiest mother." Just what every mother would love to hear. Gosh, just writing about little Rhoda Penmark raises goose bumps on my arms. She was a psychopath, a callous and ruthless extreme of narcissism.
Signs of Unhealthy to Pathological Narcissism
Manipulates people and situations to serve himself: ruthless and exploitive
Enjoyment 'fooling' others; pulling the wool over someone's eyes
Sadistic pleasure in other people pain, mocking ‘vulnerable’ others
Plays on people’s emotions, often aware of how they’re feeling. This appears to be empathy but it’s more akin to observation than mutually shared emotions. Plays on people’s emotions, often aware of how they’re feeling because this is HOW the narcissist has learned to get what he wants.
Successful social adaptation (fitting in to 'pass' as normal or superior)
Suave, charismatic, MANIPULATIVE and shrewd
Shows enmity towards others; malicious intent to harm, subjugate, and destroy objects of their ‘envy’. Puts others down to build themselves up (regulating self-esteem by feeling superior to others)
Behaves 'one way' at school, another way at home, without internal consistency (some variation is normal but the extreme is a sign of fragmentation). Even though everyone conforms to the social situation to some degree, the core self with values, principles and morals remains the same.
Blame, blame, blame with no remorse, guilt or ‘insight’, frequently snaring other people’s pity to escape negative consequences
Assumes rules are for others, not themselves. That they are entitled to special privileges in a world that revolves around themselves
Extremely competitive as if their self-worth depended on winning. Narcissists are bad losers and equally bad winners
High-risk activities generating a pseudo-excitement warding off inner deadness and chronic boredom, proving their mastery (control) over life and death
Splitting people and objects into either GOOD or BAD (this might be evidenced by quickly attaching to 'idealized' friends and abruptly ending friendships by 'devaluing' formerly perfect friends)
Grandiose fantasies about power, brilliance, superiority, wealth, beauty. Promoting themselves as Superior, Gifted, and Skilled while not doing the necessary work to achieve their dreams. Pretentiousness is the key description, even more fitting than ‘arrogant’ for a teenager
Sexual promiscuity (lack of emotional connection) and addictive behaviors
Shallow relationships with numerous friends. Quality is what matters, not quantity
Entitlement beyond a teenagers usual cluelessness. For example, expecting to be given an “A” in class just because they treated the teacher to their presence
Rage reactions, anger and out-of-control temper tantrums, hatred and a desire for revenge towards anyone threatening their self-esteem (their Image)
* * *
As the picture on this message suggests, my nephew is not manipulative, cunning or shrewd. He is what he is which means he appears to be just as 'aloof' as he really is. An odd little duck, there's no mistaking his quack.
I will narrow down my approach to parenting my nephew in the next post. As with any psychological disturbance, I am very aware that despite my best of intentions, there may be very little a parent can do. We have to try, don’t we?