My dad was more-or-less a narcissist. By "more-or-less" I mean he was never diagnosed by a clinician, but he met the criteria as explained to me by more than one practitioner. When you're the child of a narcissist, there are a number of common problems you face (google "children of narcissists" for dozens of fascinating articles). But one that is not so often discussed is that narcissism is one of the things that you know, inside out. If you have the right personality, and apparently I do, it can lead to what one therapist defined to me years ago as the "narcissistic overlay."
If you have a narcissistic overlay, you're not technically a narcissist, but you have a way of dealing with the world that certainly looks and feels like narcissism, a way that you picked up without realizing it from living with a narcissist. Not all children of narcissists have this problem (for example, neither of my siblings do), but I did.
That therapist held my hand and helped me break through the narcissistic overlay, which was very difficult and painful at the time, but so worth it, because it's like a totally new life. You can feel and understand things that were, well, murky before. (And by the way, if this is a problem that you share, you'll only compound the problem if you react with self-judgment and self-hatred. It is what it is. You get out of it by accepting it and dealing with it.)
For years now I've been grateful to that therapist, but I thought I was done with it. I was grateful to him in the past tense, because wow, was it awesome that he helped me get rid of my narcissistic overlay.
But as I worked my way through my sense of failure and disappointment with my life, it became more and more clear to me that I haven't really finished dealing with it at all. A lot of the hopes and dreams that have not happened for me turned out to have, on further examination, that same sort of murky, ill-defined feel that the narcissistic overlay had.
For example: I always, my entire life up until about ten years ago, dreamed of being a novelist. But I discovered that I hated writing fiction. Every time I tried, I hated it. Writing here comes naturally to me, writing fiction felt like I was trying to pull out my fingernails by the roots.
But I still had this just-below-conscious idea that if I were a novelist, everyone would love me (narcissistic clue #1). And when I tried to define what level of writer success would have made me feel I had achieved my dream, it wasn't just getting a good story written down on the page. It was that everyone I know would love it (clue #2) and it would be a monstrous best seller (clue #3) and an enormous critical success (clue #4).
That's a bit of an exaggeration so you can see what I mean, but not much of one. In other words, it wasn't about writing at all. It was about hubris, about the black hole that underlies all narcissistic thought, that everything should be about me me me, and everything around me should feed the vast, unmeetable needs of my inner narcissist for approval and validation. Narcissistic goals aren't just simple statements of things you want to accomplish, they're hazy dreams of worship-inspiring success.
So step one for me in dealing with life disappointments has been learning to be very specific, very literal, about what exactly it is that I thought I wanted. What exactly would make me happy? What precisely is it that I wanted? Because when I can define it very carefully, very precisely, it often turns out that it's a) not something that I really care about after all (like writing fiction), or b) something that I've already accomplished but not given myself credit for (because I have written stories. I do write in this blog. I am a writer. I'm already there.)
N.B.: What is not included in this mental exercise is whether or not my dreams were/are realistic. It is the nature of dreams to be at least a little unrealistic, a little out of reach, a little crazy. I'm not worried about whether or not I could have "realistically" achieved my dreams. I'm talking about that endless need underneath, that ability that I have to inhale my smaller successes as if they were nothing, and to berate myself for not having achieved some huge other thing.
The reason I've been hesitating to post this is-- well, there are two reasons. One is that my disappointments are fairly small. I have not had to deal with the death of a child or spouse/partner, or their incarceration. I have not had to deal with bankruptcy or homelessness or prejudice. I'm not going to belittle my own heartbreak, but on the other hand, I'm not going to claim that what I'm dealing with is nearly the scale of what others are dealing with.
And secondly, I don't think that this particular aspect of dealing with disappointment and heartbreak is all that common. There probably aren't that many of us who have this hidden narcissistic need. I have no idea if this will resonate with a single one of my readers. But just in case it applies, this is step one: be specific. Get rid of the murk. Figure out what you really wanted underneath all the bluster. It may not be quite what you think.
(apologies about the weird gif, I don't know how to create them myself and that was the only one I could find that was clearly meant to be borrowed. Thank you to @anonymous who created it.)