Do you ever find yourself asking this question? Do you worry that, because you grew up in a household with one or more narcissist dominating it, you might have “caught it”? Perhaps you have caught yourself displaying some kind of narcissistic traits and you are suddenly brought up short by the fear that you, too, are a narcissist like your mother or father or other family member.
Let me put your mind at ease: the very fact that you are asking that question, the very fact that it concerns you that you might be a narcissist, pretty much proves that you aren’t. The psyche of the narcissist is so constructed that the simple act of self-reflection is highly unlikely, and rather than engaging in self-doubt, the narcissist will simply find ways to rationalize or justify those behaviours that have you worried you might be one of them.
It doesn’t mean you cannot be displaying narcissist-like behaviours, attitudes and traits, however. We learn at the knee of the narcissist, and we learn such fundamentals as right and wrong, good and bad, honesty and deceit…and if we learned them from a narcissist, our take on them may be a little...well…out of the mainstream. These narcissist-like behaviours, attitudes and traits, when displayed by the non-narcissist, are known as “fleas,” (narcissistic-like behaviour traits displayed by a non-narcissist, generally learned behaviours from having been raised by a narcissist and not knowing what is normal for the situation) and you get them from being around and adopting them from the narcissist, just like you get real fleas from laying down with a flea-ridden dog.
Most of us get our fleas from our narcissistic family members as we grow up, but we can also acquire them later on in life as well. Sometimes we acquire them subconsciously but sometimes, when we see certain behaviours or attitudes working for others, we adopt them consciously, wanting to get the same benefit. It is a kind of “follow the leader” or even “follow the herd” principle at work, and can lead to an attitude change in which something previously viewed as wrong eventually becomes seen as a right or entitlement, like stealing office supplies or spreading rumours about or bullying a co-worker. It is good for our egos because it makes us feel accepted, like one of the gang, and if we can set the standard for others to follow, it feels even better to be the trendsetter to whom others look for direction.
If you are a normal human being with a normal conscience, you are eventually going to feel bad about doing things you know are wrong. This puts you on the horns of a dilemma because the human psyche doesn’t like cognitive dissonance…and feeling guilty just doesn’t feel good. You basically end up with two choices: 1) stop doing what is making you feel guilty (which means you will have to give up the benefits you are getting from it) or 2) find a way to stop feeling guilty about it (which means you will have to rationalize and/or justify what you have been doing). Now, the difference between you and a narcissist is simple: the narcissist never feels guilty and never even considers #1—the narcissist automatically invokes #2. You may also invoke that second option, but your reason for doing so will be very different from the narcissist’s: you will be doing it to quiet your conscience; the narcissist doesn’t have a conscience to quiet, she feels truly justified in whatever she does.
I used to know a woman who took the most outrageous chances at work, chances I would never dream of taking because I just knew I would get fired for it. She often came in late to work, took long lunches, left early, even took whole days off on a whim and even though she was only an admin, acted like she was one of the managers. And you know what? Instead of counselling her to work the hours she was getting paid for, she got promoted! Sure enough, one of the other admins tried to follow the first one’s lead and wound up getting disciplined. When she tried to defend herself with “But Tessa has done that for over a year!” she was told “You are not Tessa.” Who told me this story? Tessa, laughing gleefully at the other woman’s predicament, not a shred of responsibility tainting her amusement. She found it hilarious that the other woman was disciplined for following her example, and in true narcissistic fashion, the incident reinforced her self-perception of being special and above the rules.
This happened years ago, before I knew anything about narcissists, but I remember being surprised and appalled at Tessa’s reaction. Putting my self in her shoes, I would have been chagrined at having set an example for my co-workers that resulted in one of them receiving disciplinary action, I would have felt bad about it and that would have motivated me to be more circumspect. The last thing I would have felt was amused at the other woman's plight!
We can pick up fleas anywhere. I have seen things on FaceBook, people saying really hurtful, mean things about LGBT people, about people of colour, about the poor and disadvantaged, about women, and they are absolutely shameless about it. Some of these people are narcissists, but others have picked up fleas from narcissistic politicians, pastors, or other authority figures they either revere or fear. Taken out of that environment and shown how their words and attitudes actually hurt other living, breathing human beings, some of these people will feel shame for what they said and the hurt they caused. Others will not, and they will rationalize and justify what they said, even blame their victims for their hurt (I have actually seen someone say that feeling hurt by the words of a bully is a choice, that you can choose not to be hurt and therefore what the bullies say and do is OK!): these people are most likely narcissists. Some of them not only have no shame or remorse for their unkind words and thoughts, they advocate violence ranging from beatings to rape to death. Those people are probably narcissists, too, but malignant narcissists who may be comorbid with another personality disorder like Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is “characterized by ‘...a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.’”
Fleas are things you usually acquire at home, as a young child, by accepting the values of your narcissistic parent and emulating her/him. It is possible, however, to get them from working with someone like Tessa and copying both her entitled behaviour and adopting her self-serving lack of compassion. We can suppress our guilt and our remorse through justification and rationalization, so if you find yourself acting like an N, you may need to sit down and think about how you really, truly feel about something. If you can’t penetrate the rationalizations and justifications, if you can’t see how something you did or said that caused harm to someone else was wrong, then you just might be a narcissist.
The key, then, is whether or not you are capable of feeling remorse. If you have a conscience, if you have empathy or compassion for other people, if you can feel guilt and remorse for actions you have taken that end up somehow harming someone else, then the odds are strongly against you being a narcissist and just as strongly in favour of you having a case of fleas.
And truthfully, if you even ask the question, you most likely just have fleas.
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.