Some time ago, I was invited to discuss the psychological themes in the play Lies My Father Told Me, with the director for a production at a local theatre.
Without getting too much into the story – “Lies” revolves around a family growing up in post-depression Montreal, where the father could be classified as suffering from “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. According to the DSM IV, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is described as being “excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power and prestige and includes a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy”; this lack of empathy being the hallmark, in my opinion, of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
In Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic Parents by Alan Rappoport, he states that a large percentage of the population that come for therapy are people who have had a parent or partner with narcissistic tendencies if not outright disorders, thereby speaking to the universality of this experience.
I wonder if readers can relate to Annie’s (the wife) experience when engaging with Harry (the Narcissist) in “Lies My Father Told Me”. Annie is always shown to be “caught up” in Harry’s “energy”. Narcissists are like that, aren’t they? Charismatic, entertaining, boisterous even, looking for you to see them, recognize their greatness, cheer them on. Narcissists get excited, they love to be in the spotlight, to be the centre of attention, they crave it as a matter of fact. Their excitement is often contagious. You see Annie dancing, joyful, excited … when Harry withdraws and begins to sulk, she is left hanging. In one scene she even breaks down and weeps. I think Annie speaks to the universal experience of emptiness in a relationship with a narcissist, which is most often the reflection of the narcissist’s own deep emptiness. Narcissists can not feel empathy – so they can not really connect emotionally, or engage. This feels to the “co-narcissist” as uncaring, selfish on the narcissist’s part, and empty.
I had a colleague who was definitely a narcissist. I very much used to like this person. Of course I would, their energy was what I grew up with. I was comfortable around the gregariousness, the excitement, the self-aggrandizement. And yet, and yet – after every exchange with this person, I felt flat, empty, and sad. Because no matter how I spun our exchange and interaction, it was never between us – it was never for me, it was never reciprocal. After a while I had the clear image in my head that as soon as the person turned away I was out of sight, out of mind, and out of heart – presuming I was ever there in the first place – and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t.
Many of us who grow up with a narcissistic parent grow up with this emptiness inside ourselves. We question our own value and worth. I remember my own experience, always feeling like I needed some “hook”, some incentive, for a person to want to be in a relationship with me. I needed to offer something, give something of myself, little regard what I got in return. A dear friend and colleague of mine saw through this. When we first began our relationship I remember offering her my help with her computer, I could do this for her or that for her. Please, I begged, let me do something. I remember one day, clear as a bell, being on the phone with her – offering, offering – and her saying “No Heidi-Pie, I don’t ‘need’ anything from you, wanna go for coffee, wanna talk?’” – and I remember the image in my head of me standing there, in my mind’s eye naked – that is how vulnerable I felt being looked at not for what I had to offer but just for me. That was a pivotal moment in my life. That someone would want to engage with me, just for the sake and loveliness of engaging with me, that was a real gift. That I allowed myself to engage, feeling that vulnerable, was possibly my first real gift to myself. I know now I am worthy and deserving of real connection. Know that you are too.