Running From Narcissists While Learning From Them

High School me and Me now. YES. This was hard to post.

nar·cis·sism

/ˈnärsəˌsizəm/

Noun

excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.

Me, The Rocks, Sydney, Australia

I would argue that during all of my High School years I spent an excessive amount of time in front of a mirror. Interest in my physical appearance was an understatement. I was consumed. Most days you could find me in one of the high school bathrooms reapplying my Maybelline Thick Pencil Teal Eyeliner or my Cover Girl Translucent Pressed Powder. I had combination skin. The powder, or so I thought, toned down the oily places. (It only made me look more like a ghost.) The teal eyeliner, or so I believed, made my aqua-green colored eyes pop. (My family often called this make-up application, my “Racoon Eyes” look, stating things like, “Are you really going to leave the house looking like that?”) On a really bold days you may have also witnessed me in the school bathroom. You would see me pull out a large can of hairspray (Aquanet), which I hid under my shirt as I traveled the distance between my locker (where it was stored) and the bathroom. Then I would bend over, vigorously apply the hairspray, leaving a sticky dust cloud in my wake.

And if I were being super honest, I would also suggest that during my teen years I spent an inordinate amount of time performing finger surgery on my unclear skin (I know — gross). In fact, I can still hear both my mom and my grandma often proclaim,

“Beth, stop picking on your face!”

As I swiftly and insecurely pulled my hand off of my face I would blurt out,

“I am not picking on my face.”

And way back then I believed people when they said, “You are not as pretty as your sisters and you definitely should lose weight. Have you tried Weight Watchers?”

The boys & I, Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia


Probably the most damaging things said, however, were about my intellect:

“Beth, you are not smart enough,” stated a friend (ha ha, not a friend), “there is no way you could take honors classes like I do.”

And said by many adults:

“Beth, you know (insert issue here) means so much more to them. You also know they are much better at that thing than you are. You should step back and let them have the light.”  (By the way, ultimately, I always stepped back.)

My personal favorite (said by a professor):

“Beth, I don’t think you are very smart. A university is probably not the place for you. Have you considered a vocational school?”

Me, The Hague, The Netherlands

As a result, I would suggest that with me there was no self-love or admiration. And when I did come up for air, my self-love and admiration was told to sit on the sidelines, (because someone needed it more). I tried to convince myself that my stepping back was a noble strength. Most times it stung. I wondered why we all could not share the light.

Consequently, I wonder if any innate narcissism I had was conditioned out of me. I looked in the mirror and what I saw was an awkward, misshapen, dumb person. When I did see beauty (usually my eyes — I like my eyes), I always told myself, “your sisters are much prettier.” So, applying a literal layer of make-up and a hairspray veneer was the best I could do to shield the world from the likes of me. Harsh, biting sarcasm became my wall. When the focus was too much on me (positively or negatively), slinking back became my move. Consequently, checking out and stepping back kept me safely away from the “Beth, you are not good enough” perception that seemed to fill my brain. Early on I figured that being an emotional support human/cheerleader was the closest (noble cause) I could get to personal success (without having to feel the sting of failure or my own reflection).

Us, Gouda, The Netherlands

Ok. Wait. Do not feel sorry for me. Life is not black and white. I am sure my siblings would say something like how I was “Mom’s favorite,”(we all know it is Brian), or how I was super dramatic, or how I punched first and then ran to my mom and told on them. Two of those things may be true. Also keep in mind that home is where I felt the safest being myself.

Regardless, it took me straight up living, a lot of therapy, a husband who believed in me (still does); super mean, arrogantly neutral and straight up use-y friends to knock some sense into me; great mentors, some loving family members, unconditional friends, and a lot of deep breaths to peel away the layers, remove the hair product and make peace (mostly) with the face, body and brain I was born with. (I am still working on finding love for my upper arms — for real.)

I am slow.

Us, Berowra National Park, Australia

Finally, and after so many bureaucratic hoops, as a middle aged woman, I was readmitted to a university and finished my last semester of college with nearly straight A’s. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in English. Woot! (It is never too late, by the way.) During this time I also started doing something important to me: travel. And I have been determined to be a mom who apologizes often, encourages my sons to follow their dreams and often encourage them not to let people tell them who they are (that is the big one). I am not perfect. I see myself criticize them. Then I try to stop myself, even if it means biting through my tongue. I apologize often. Thank goodness they are forgiving.

Us, Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia

All this preamble is to get to bring me to the conversation Dave and I had last night. We were on a walk (of course). See, over the weekend we went to at an art show where our friend Mark was displaying his art, where we ran into an old friend. The encounter, in which we discussed at length our interactions with someone we both know, prompted so many thoughts. The biggest one is that for some reason I am like a magnet to narcissists. Or better, narcissists know I make a great audience. I am a good caretaker. I love stepping back and giving them the spotlight. Ok. No. Not really. And often eventually I cannot take it and piss off the narcissist, leaving them screaming something like:

“You should have paid for my fucking Starbucks!” or, “Beth, your apology is not good enough. Try again,” or, “He was my best friend, I don’t know why he married you. You are nothing like me,” or (at the end of hosting someone for a week and paying for all of their food and watching their kids all week), “Beth, you better not think I am paying for your museum entrance,” or, “Beth, your writing embarrasses me,” or the pièce de résistance, the woman who shrieked at me repeatedly, “Beth, you are an embarrassment!”

Dude, I know. You nailed it. I am an embarrassment. I stepped aside and took crap from all of you. And when I tried to defend myself, things only got worse. I made you sad. I am sorry. I suck at being a comfort human. Ok. Wait. I cannot make anyone sad, but you told me you were sad because of who I am.

It is a weird place to be in. I admit. I stepped aside to give others the spotlight. Then I felt sad when you did not see me. Does that make me some sort of narcissist variant? Maybe. See, I think my brand of narcissism is that I am the person who thinks her actions are powerful enough to make others happy and successful. I thought my actions could break your gaze.The weird thing is that narcissistic people do not change whether I step aside or cheer louder. As a result, I am continually reminded (humbled) that I am not powerful enough. I cannot break their excessive interest in themselves. Oh man! I WASTED SO MUCH TIME trying to prove my worth to others (via the comfort human route). And now I actually feel sorry for all of us. How could I expect you to see me when all you can see is yourself? Again, I am not that powerful.

Us, Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia

What I keep relearning is that life is healthier when I put my oxygen mask on first. I cannot be a good friend, cheerleader, or human if I am not breathing. It is not about excessive admiration. It is about balance. When we share the air, doesn’t it seem like we can all breathe easier? Does that make any sense?

At this point, I recognize that the only person who benefitted from me stepping aside was me. Really. And the only benefit I received was staying out of the path of abuse. Hey, that is not a bad thing. I also realize that had I been more brave, had I fought harder, had I held my ground, and had healthier boundaries, that my path may have been different. Who knows. It is on me.

And that is a revelation.

Me near Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia