Could you have underestimated just how grandiose your Narcissist really was?
“All Narcissists are grandiose in their own way” – to misquote the great Leo Tolstoy. Still, not all of them aspire to be King of the World (unlike a recent, tousle-haired British Prime Minister). But all of them, even the coverts, insist on being exemplars of unparalleled excellence as regards their own claim to fame. They all work their signature victim and/or hero story to establish their precious uniqueness.
Where does that leave you?
I ask you this because of a recent thought-provoking conversation that I had with a client of mine, let’s call her Susan.
Now, Susan is an extraordinarily smart woman. She achieves exceptionally high standards in a number of fields. She has a high level of innate ability. But beyond that she puts in the work and reaps the results.
That feeling of not feeling good enough
This week, Susan was talking about her doubts about feeling good enough in the workplace.
Hardly surprising, you might say.
You would be right, of course.
Not feeling good enough is endemic among survivors of narcissistic abuse. For a reason.
Narcissists are generally quick to tell you – endlessly – how worthless you are.
In that respect, at least, Susan’s husband tended to be more subtle than that. He always told Susan how “wonderful” she was. He established that as her baseline.
Theoretically, that might have meant that whatever she said or did met with his unconditional love and approval.
In reality, it didn’t work like that.
The problem with narcissistic approval
The problem with narcissistic approval is the way in which the Narcissist will weaponize it and use it as another stick to beat you with.
Since being wonderful was Susan’s – alleged – baseline, her narcissistic husband could discount every “wonderful” thing that she achieved. Being wonderful was merely her norm. There was, in his eyes, nothing to celebrate about it.
It was like having, say, beautiful hands. That was not a proof of exceptional personal merit. It was just the way that she was made.
Do you see where this is going?
Susan’s narcissistic husband never stopped comparing her alleged accident-of-birth “wonderfulness” with his own humble self.
He was not in her league…
He was just a simple guy…
He could not compete…
He could only be her support act….
He could only walk in her shadow…
You see, Susan’s husband was real and had to toil through the minefields and sloughs of despond in living every day. Whereas Ms Accident-of-Birth Wonderful only ever needed to show up.
The strait-jacket of narcissistic “admiration”
Susan’s husband was – according to his self-serving narrative – a real, regular person who had to toil through the minefields and sloughs of despond in living every day. Whereas Ms Accident-of-Birth Wonderful only ever needed to show up.
On the one hand, Susan’s husband devalued everything that she could right have felt proud of, that could have given her a sense of her own worth. This is, remember, a woman who married a Narcissist. So, she clearly did not start from a strong sense of her own worth.
On the other hand, he turned her “wonderfulness” into a strait-jacket. He dictated the standard of wonderfulness that she needed to live up to, in all things, to even break equal. In his eyes. He also determined when she had failed to reach it.
He was an exacting judge.
He made very sure that her sense of any value she brought to anything remained very, very fragile. When other people acknowledged her “wonderfulness” (his shorthand for all her accomplishments and personal qualities) he engineered it so that her conditioned self-doubt kicked in: if she wasn’t able to go way beyond her baseline, was she actually any good at all?
Can you relate?
Narcissists target your areas of accomplishment
I was certainly not a star performer like my client. My small areas of “wonderfulness”, like my light, were well hidden under the proverbial bushel, while I was married to my horrible husband. That did not stop him targeting whatever he could. My cooking was always an easy target.
On one occasion, when I was making dinner for two friends who adored my food, my husband threw down his fork and announced that he couldn’t eat what was on his plate because it was “disgusting”.
Clearly, my alleged “wonderfulness” in the kitchen had fallen far short of his expectation.
Our two friends, who had been chomping away happily, found themselves faced with a terrible dilemma: should they carry on eating something that their host had labelled “disgusting? Or should they join in acknowledging that their hostess’s wonderfulness had been revealed as a sham?
And guess who had now totally hijacked the evening and was the only one with the power to set it back on track?
Their (un)gracious host, of course, the man who had, hitherto, so proudly basked in his wife’s culinary wonderfulness. Until “honesty” (or a grab for every last available scrap of attention) had compelled him to speak out and ensure that all eyes were glued to him.
What a great little hero/victim story he created out of that pointless incident!
What a great way to let me know that even my perceived wonderfulness could turn into a crock of s**t (a favorite saying of his) at any moment.
Both my client’s horrible husband and my own reduced us to a one-dimensional “wonderfulness” which they then revealed to be illusory. They created a grandiose persona for us, which they appeared to endorse, only to make us feel profoundly inadequate about our apparent strengths.
To the outside world, most of the time, it might have looked as if our Narcissists were modestly taking a step back and allowing us to shine. The reality was that they used their signature grandiosity as another way to put us down. The best that we could ever hope to achieve was the wrong kind of wonderfulness, the kind that – unlike the Narcissist’s – has no real value.
That wonderfulness reduced us to meeting with the Narcissist’s approval – or being nothing, at all. It was another formulation of the Narcissist’s usual black and white thinking, according to which, as ever, we fell on the side of the terminally un-worthy.
Above all, it dehumanized us. Since we were not sufficiently wonderful to be wonderful (surely an oxymoron) we were nothing. We were not allowed to be human and, therefore, a curious and constantly changing mix of strong and weak, wonderful and flawed, thoughtful and ditzy, silly and serious, independent and helpless, rational and irrational etc etc.
Could you have underestimated just how grandiose your Narcissist really was?
Human beings are not unvarying. We may hold true to our values and our core characteristics. But we slip in and easily in and out of different ways of responding to stimuli. That is what makes us human – unlike Narcissists who seem to live in a constant state of terminal pomposity.
Who do you need to be to be valuable? You just need to be your authentic, ever-fluctuating self. You certainly don’t need to live up to the absurd standards a Narcissist sets for you.
But you could hardly expect a Narcissist to know that. Narcissists don’t show up well on the authenticity scale. They attempt to do everything – including nastiness – on an epic, narcissistic scale because authenticity is just too modest a claim for them to make for themselves, or you. Bearing that in mind, could you have underestimated just how grandiose – and pathetic – your Narcissist was really?
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.
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6 thoughts on “Could you have underestimated just how grandiose your Narcissist really was?”
Wow I sooo wish I would have known all of this many years ago when I was trying to figure out why any human being would treat another like they do. I would have ran but I stayed and kept trying to figure it out and had hope because I didn’t know such a thing (narcissists) existed! Now I’m knee deep in it. So so much to write about I did start taking notes back then so now I see exactly what’s happening and poor thing they just can’t help themselves ITS ALL ME ! Related to wonderfulness I had a very stressful important role in my company while trying to raise a young child and balance a blended family ~ all he could say was why
Don’t you go for management ! I didn’t want management I wanted less stress and to raise my family he desired a management role as titles are very important to him. I’ve tried for years to have conversations about what was happening with us (like normal people do they communicate and grow) not knowing that it was just ammunition to use against me and say how messed up my thoughts were never making any progress
Awful. It is hard to figure it out because no normal person thinks the way a Narcissist does.
This explains why I cringe at receiving compliments from others! There was always a hidden demoralizing comment behind the compliment! Thank you for this!
So glad it resonates. The adroit use of the subtext is such an art form for Narcissists. Every compliment is really just the first half of a character assassination.
My Ex narc liked to tell other people how smart I was. I guess it made him feel special so he wanted everyone to know. But behind closed doors he was always putting me down and then it was my fault when I got upset because I was too sensitive.
That sounds quite typical. They will claim public credit for your qualities and then, privately, trash you either for those same qualities or the opposite.