Right before the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, I read somewhere that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) had been omitted from the new edition. Supposedly, the APA had decided that narcissism was so prevalent in the American population it could no longer be considered a disorder.
Turns out the DSM hasn’t scratched narcissism off the list of disorders. We may indeed be getting more self-involved as a nation, but that doesn’t change the fact that for some folks, it goes beyond Trump-style egomania. It’s a pathology. A disease. An affliction families are exposed to and shaped by every day. (On second thought, The Donald might just be the NPD poster boy.)
Here’s a taste of the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder outlined in the current DSM:
- Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Relationships are largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation
- Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking
- Personal standards unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional
Sound like a mommy or a daddy you know? Take this quick 5-question quiz to find out if you, too, were raised by a narcissist.
I. You call home from college to report that you made the Dean’s List. Your parent:
- congratulates you, gushing about how wonderful you are and how proud he is of you
- reminds you that he started college at age 16 and graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Deus ex machina
II. Whenever a service person comes to the house (piano tuner, plumber, IT guy) to help him out, your parent:
- thanks the person profusely and doesn’t begrudge them their fee
- waits until the person has left and then calls him a know-it-all, a Mr. High-and-Mighty smarty pants, a cretin whose shoddy work your parent must now correct
III. Your parent calls you on the phone. You didn’t realize he had your phone number. He explains that:
- he just wanted to hear your voice; he’s been missing you and wants to know how you’re doing
- he decided his dog needs a birth date to celebrate, and he couldn’t wait to tell you that he’s giving the dog yours
IV. Your hardworking sister is struggling financially. Your parent offers to give her his second car. A week later he:
- takes the car to be fully serviced and detailed, and pays for the title transfer
- retracts the offer, saying he needs the car to drive his dog around
V. You arrive from the airport late at night, after traveling cross country to visit your parent. He:
- sits up waiting for you excitedly, your favorite snacks at the ready when you walk through the door
- locks the doors, turns off the lights and sets the burglar alarm after changing the code
If you chose the second answer to any of the above, well, welcome to the club. Lots of people probably think your parent is a charming person. They have no trouble telling you so every time you run into them. They sigh reverently, or eye you with envy. Most people will never see your parent the way you do. Because if there’s one thing your parent knows, it’s how to put on a good show. He does this as if his life depended on it.
Eleanor Payson, M.S.W. uses the analogy of the Wizard of Oz to explain narcissistic personality disorder and what it does to families and individuals subject to its exhausting tyrannies. Your parent is a master at using his wizard voice and billows of green smoke to manipulate every situation, monopolize every conversation, suck up every last molecule of oxygen in the room. You exist in his world to enlarge his sense of self, to show him how great and powerful he is. And, as Payson puts it, “to be devoured by [his] unrelenting needs.”
You want a brain, a heart, some courage? You want to go home, little girl? This isn’t about what you want. It’s never about you.
When your parent senses that you’re on to him, when your awareness of his disorder prompts you to start questioning, pushing back, refusing to let yourself get gobbled up by his all-consuming need, things get prickly. He will breathe flames. He will command you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Make sure to get a good, long look at the little operator back there frantically working the controls. Call your brothers and sisters over to look too. Maybe then you’ll be able to start seeing him for what he is: an imposter, a fraud. An old humbug.
It can be one of the hardest things you ever attempt, to break the hold of a narcissistic parent’s spell. Every child, no matter how old, desires nothing more profoundly than to know that her parent is on her side, that he is devoted to helping her get what she needs. Coming to grips with the fact that he has a very different agenda—one that takes zero notice of her self or her wishes—can be brutal.
Get some support. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my therapist about how to set limits. I ordered a copy of Payson’s book and then ordered more copies for my siblings. We spend time comparing notes, reminding one another that our experience is not a dream. We strategize ways to minimize the toxic effects of our parent’s disorder. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. But that’s not the end of our story.