Unmaking a Narcissist

This year is when I felt like everything started making sense. All the work I put into my future, whether that was my marriage, career, personal development, it’s all coming to a head right now, and moving forward, I feel like I can live a fulfilling and meaningful life. The combination of the privilege I enjoyed, the suffering I endured, and the choices I made all seem to have converged into this state of balance. Everyone’s “age of convergence” is unique. Even within families, it can differ because of each person’s unique experiences and personalities. I think parents like to think they love and treat all their kids equally, but we all know that’s not true. Looking back, getting it together meant that I had to process what it meant to grow up in a narcissistic home and then to choose how to reconcile that in my own life moving forward.

What does it mean to “get it together?” It’s pretty subjective, but you could relate it to Maslow’s self-actualization. You know what you want to do for a career. You get the education and training you want. You know where you want to live. You have the friends and support you need. One of my mentors said they found their thirties to be their best decade. All the awkwardness and silliness of their teens and twenties was behind them, so their thirties were simply focused on staying the course and smoothing everything out. 30 is not the new 20. I can relate, as many things have lined up for me recently: hobbies, marriage, friendships, living arrangement, work, health.

Some people’s lives never converge. Some kids are shot and killed in gang fights. Children of anti-vaxxers suffer an early and easily preventable death. School buses full of children are blown up by missiles in wartime. Victims of abuse may never find the right balance of treatment, therapy, and other supports in order to survive and live a life of dignity.

I played a lot of catch-up in the last few years. I felt like I was falling behind in a lot of ways because of my dad’s over-emphasis on my success in my career. I was socially awkward, self-sabotaging, mentally and physically unhealthy. Going into therapy and quitting my job all contributed towards me catching up and reaching a balance earlier than fate had in store for me. Essentially, it meant untangling all the implications of living in a home with narcissists, including removing those tendencies within myself.

Normally, I try not to think about my family and their problems. That’s kind of how I grew up, taking on their issues since they didn’t take responsibility and spilled them all over the place, so nowadays I try instead to focus on my own stuff. As one does these days, Carrie was bored, so she went on YouTube looking for something to watch. I don’t know why YouTube’s algorithm suggested it, but there was a video that popped up called “Dating a Narcissist.” She shared it with me, not because one of us is a narcissist but because it shed light on what it felt like to be in a relationship with my family.

One of the lessons I learned from this video is that narcissists are made, not born. One of the conditions for making a narcissist is when a child is both overindulged and underindulged. A parent will cheer on their child at their team’s sporting event but won’t get involved with the more mundane, daily activities of the relationship like helping with homework. It’s both too much emotional involvement in one moment and too little in the next. We felt that in our childhood home, with both my parents working a lot to provide a good life for us. There was always a vacuum for attention. No one was getting the support or quality time they needed. With so many people in the house, and as the kids entered their teenage years, our individual schedules started to fluctuate and diverge. Dad was always away on mission trips, Mom was stretched between working at the hospital and taking care of the home, we mostly attended different schools in any given year. Being the pastor, my dad would always take people in if they needed a place to crash for a while, anywhere from a night to a couple years. It wasn’t all bad, but it certainly contributed to most of us feeling neglected and unheard. My personality developed as the peacemaker, often volunteering to step out of the situation so that others could get their needs met, usually by lending a listening ear, so being ignored is a veritable sore spot for me.

Narcissists feel empty inside. They don’t have a rich inner life where they process emotion in a healthy way and accept who they are and who they aren’t. There isn’t that sustainable, dependable emotional feeding that happens like in normal people, so there’s this feedback loop that grows the emptiness inside while simultaneously increasing how much praise and validation they cultivate from others. You could see this trait in my family through our interactions with strangers, especially with those from the service industry. Because of the natural power dynamic of receiving service, my brothers and I would hold these poor folks hostage with our awkward small talk, pressing and reaching until we received validation that we were funny or charming or witty. When we were in university, many people would say “Oh, I know your brother!” Chris, Josh, and I all had our own forms of popularity, with my circle of influence being the smallest of the three. We became known as The Lê Brothers, an identity I began to shun after I graduated as I started the process of ghosting and eventually ending contact with my family. Even these days, I struggle with this reflex, this learned instinct to demand more attention for my accomplishments. A sentiment that was often repeated in our home was “One day, they’ll see. They’ll all see.” It became ingrained into our psyches that there was this unjust absence of recognition, which I think a lot of us can relate to in this noisy world. However, repeating this mantra too often can over-inflate the ego and turn it into this superhero complex, hence why narcissists’ self-identity can never be fully fed.

I had to shed many of my narcissism early on in my relationship with Carrie in order to keep her around, but there are some bits that remain. Much of the work that I did has been well-documented on this blog over the past three odd years. I still have delusions of grandeur, fantasizing about being famous or world-renown for something, giving interviews like I were a celebrity promoting their latest product. I still struggle with needing far too much praise from those around me. Far too often, I’ve done so much to impress others only too find that their appreciation and praise of me was lacking. In a classical conditioning way, I learned that the only way to get love and affection from my dad was to do and be what he wanted, so I sought that validation in others as well. I’ve written a few times before about how I would fish for compliments from people, and then when I got them, I wouldn’t be able to internalize or accept that praise. Even when Carrie tells me how much she loves me, sometimes my walls shoot up and I emotionally shut down. It’s a reflex where, due to the fluctuating emotional support I received as a child, I have a hard time trusting what people are saying about me. I’m afraid of it being true, that there are people who love me and have good feelings about me. Growing up, my core belief about myself was that I wasn’t good enough, where my dad constantly reminded me that I didn’t meet his expectations. Even though it feels way better to accept these compliments, the skepticism and hesitation comes from the disagreement with my core identity. I’ve struggled over the past five years to change my core identity, so it’s getting easier to accept those compliments. I know in my head that I’m worthy of love, but it’s harder to convince my heart that it’s true and to integrate that belief into the entirety of who I am. It sounds weird, but it can be terrifying to feel good about myself. I think there’s a lot to like about me.

According to Dr. Ramani, she’s rarely ever seen a narcissist turn things around, let alone seeing a relationship with one survive. If you remain in a relationship with a narcissist, she says you have to really lower your expectations from that person, plus you have to get your emotional support from everyone else around you. In my situation, it’s not worth the trouble; I don’t have the energy for them. It’s been about two and a half years since I stopped contact with my family. My parents have been reaching out lately, probably because of our wedding anniversary. People still want us to try to patch things up with my family, but it’s not happening. We were asked if we’d remain no-contact even until my dad dies, and the answer is yes. He’s been dead to me ever since I was a teen, so not much will really change once he physically dies. I will be sad, I might cry, but it’s been over for a long time. They’re not changing. I’d be open to letting them apologize if it were genuine and not just lip service, but even that’s just not happening.

I’ve gotten my shit together lately. My life has converged in a way that I like, and I’m quite happy about that. Many of the components have fallen into place, and the larger theme running through them is how I handled the narcissism I lived with around me and inside me. It’s been some two and a half years since I stopped talking to my family, and nothing’s about to change. I’m still working on the narcissism within myself, and the simple yet terrifying way I’ve been doing that is by learning to accept compliments and to feel good about who I am. Ya, I’m pretty lovely.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le