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The way that we learn to interact with the personalities of our parents usually set the stage for how we accept the personalities of those we form intimate bonds with later in life.
As a child, I remember that my mother had been admitted to a hospital that was about a half an hour away and, for an entire month, we lived in what might best be described as a severe latchkey situation.
My dad owned a retail store that he never wanted to be away from, and so we were pretty much on our own. I remember it feeling like an adventurous period—mainly because we spent our days after school doing whatever we wanted and we all took the drive to see her every night—but we were kept in the dark about what it was exactly that she was doing there.
I believe, if I’m not mistaken, that she revealed to me, as I became older, that she had a “nervous breakdown.” This is, of course, antiquated language and we, as a society, no longer refer to time spent in a psychiatric hospital as a nervous breakdown, but—semantics aside—we all know what it meant.
We were indoctrinated, as a family, to do the so-called “right” thing, which was to provide an endless supply of pity and patience for our parent who, through no fault of her own, fell into pieces emotionally and could no longer cope with the life of American motherhood and marriage. She was suffering from depression.
I will admit, though, that there was always something inside of me that was a little suspicious.
I did not have the language to express it as a young person, but I remember that something about it felt unfair. I was no stranger to the feelings of emotional overwhelm and yet, as is the case so often in these sort of family dynamics, there was no room for me to lay it all down and rest. There were just too many kids and not enough parents. That is to say, our parents were young when they started a family and just far too preoccupied to deal with anything like that.
My father was, as I mentioned, gone most of the day working and providing for our family. My mother, on the other hand, spent much of her time tending to her own emotional discomfort.
When I found myself, later in life, involved with a partner who seemed to possess many of the same qualities as my mother, I couldn’t help but feel a familiar resentment. At that point in my life, I was much better at identifying the world around me and so I was better able to name what it was that irked me about it. It was narcissistic and self-indulgent. Needless to say, the relationship ended rather quickly.
Anyone who has ever studied the teachings of spiritual leaders like Ram Dass or the Dalai Lama knows that one of the most basic tenets of human happiness springs from the act of service to others.
It’s obvious that we are healthiest when we are able to get outside of ourselves, and most healthy when we do this by helping other people less fortunate than ourselves. There is no secret why that is. Think about it like this: if you get a papercut and you sit in a room for hours thinking about nothing but the pain that you are feeling from that papercut, it isn’t too difficult to imagine that that pain is the worst pain anyone has ever felt. If you ignore your papercut and, instead, help someone who just lost a limb, you put your papercut in a much different perspective.
Medical science bears out what I have always suspected. This type of pathology is known as “vulnerable narcissism.” We never really hear too much about it because modern thought generally dictates that we pity and care for those who spend a majority of their time “down in the dumps,” but I’m willing to put myself on the chopping block to call attention to it.
Through genetics, or even perhaps environment, I possess many of the attributes of vulnerable narcissism, so I know it when I see it.
According to best-selling author and therapist, Dr. Les Carter, there are 12 attributes to vulnerable narcissism:
1. Emotionally hypersensitive
2. Highly critical of others
3. Quiet smugness
4. Constant need for reassurance
5. Very passive-aggressive
6. Prone to sulking
7. Victim mentality
8. Poor listening skills
9. A drain of emotional energy
10. Cynical regarding another’s success
11. Holds grudges
As they say, knowing you have a problem is the first step to fixing a problem. Addressing this issue has been the sole focus of my recovery from addiction over the past 10 years. I have never been the type of person who expects the world to keep pace with what I happen to be doing to address my own issues, but at the same time, I was not at all successful at maintaining a romantic relationship with someone who suffers with this. I found it maddening.
Because we, as a society, are so sensitive to those who suffer from depression, this pathology almost has a built-in gaslighting aspect to it. If you’ve ever been in contact with it, you understand. You know you’re being manipulated and abused somehow, but it seems so unpalatable to call it out or get angry.
Perhaps in our relationships, it may not be our place to do so. We can, though, at the very least recognize it for how toxic it truly is and feel okay about removing ourselves from the presence of it. It is clearly one of the more covert types of narcissism and it is for that very reason that it is likely the most destructive.
We never really feel bad about telling a grandiose narcissist to stick it, but nothing feels ickier than shunning a vulnerable narcissist.
I can assure you though, from firsthand experience, you have every right to do so.