We all exhibit a degree of narcissism. We must if we are to maintain a measure of self-confidence, independence and simply self-preservation. But like so many things in life, narcissism has a spectrum and carried too far it can create alienation with loved ones and even constitute a personality disorder which is not readily treatable.
My narcissist was my father. As a young child and then teenager I did not realize this. At those ages you just accept that your parents act the way they do for no other reason than that is the way they act. Psychological insight is far into the future.
In my case it was not until after my father’s death that in a conversation with my brother I received that insight. The conversation occurred in the context of discussing my father’s behavior described in my memoir/family history Examined Lives. My brother was four years younger than myself and, being male, had spent more time with my father in addition to having worked with disturbed children early in his career. He perceived and knew more than I.
My father was not so far on the scale that he had a personality disorder, but his level of narcissism was much higher than normal. It was this simple insight from my brother which allowed me to better understand my father’s attitudes and behavior—his viewing himself as “the goat” in the relationship with my mother, unwilling to look at his own role; his projecting lack of love onto my mother when in fact he was the one who manifestly did not love her and told her so; his holding grudges for years that would suddenly burst through his façade of optimism; his taking little interest in visiting his far-flung grandchildren—out of sight, out of mind. And the actions he took regarding me, as if at times I was a thing to be used, such as his taking my hard-earned savings out of my savings account without telling me so he could buy his heart’s dream of a weekly newspaper.
This insight helped me better understand but it did not make me regret my decision to pull away from the family he had created with my step-mother, who was easily dominated by him unlike my mother and who in the end had her own psychological difficulties. It was a “soft” estrangement—no big scene, no stoppage of communication—we still exchanged letters and phone calls occasionally. And I have always recognized the opportunities he opened up to me, fostering my intellectual curiosity and love of history and ultimately my independence. He always said I had a good head on my shoulders and should use it. I am grateful that he told me that.
Studies which have been conducted of twin pairs show that narcissism has a high heritability rate. So seemingly there is a genetic basis here. But environment also plays a role. My father had a very devasting moment in childhood when his mother and father were fighting. His mother announced that she was leaving and taking his sister with her. There was then a pregnant pause and his father stated that he would take “him.” That moment burned in my father’s psyche and the wounded child that he was became ever present in his life. He kept this wounded child bottled up inside rather than coming to terms with his troubled emotional life with unfortunate consequences for my mother, my brother, myself and him. May he now rest in peace.