When the psychiatrist who eventually abused me, said I was a narcissist, it pretty much stopped me in my tracks. I have always had difficult and complicated relationships with men. I feared them and desperately sought their approval. Somehow my slavish efforts to win my therapist’s approval paradoxically led him to make what felt like a stinging attribution about me.
All through grade school my hand was up no matter how much I got smacked around by my father and later by his surrogates in parochial school. I knew the answer and wanted badly to show it. I was smart, right? And for a kid struggling to believe something good about himself, desperate to have it confirmed.
I didn’t know then that the badness of the self is the ubiquitous experience, the hallmark, the perverse badge of honor of humans mistreated as children. I didn’t know then that the sense of this core badness is an intolerable experience that leaves one constantly agitated and behaving in ways to disengage from, obliterate, fight off and/or overcome that feeling.
All I knew was that I wanted the teacher to call on me and to show that I knew something. Even the sometimes evident exasperation of the teacher did not dissuade me because there was the promise, however unpredictably it might be fulfilled, of their smile. And the pleasure of learning something propelled me as well to want to tell someone what I had learned as soon as possible.
That smile, or sometimes just a grin, told me “I see something in you, something of value.” And for me it was like a drug. I didn’t care about all the criticism, verbal and physical abuse my agitation might elicit because I sensed my enthusiasm and intensity might eventually win that smile.
I didn’t know that the good feeling inside was supposed to take root and grow in the fertile soil of my need for connection. Perhaps the earth of my inner world had been made barren by mistreatment earlier in life. For whatever reason, I was unable to grow anything like a positive feeling about myself. I depended on others to reflect back on me something that suggested positive regard. Even that need contributed to feeling ashamed because I knew according to the macho code of my Brooklyn neighborhood, one shouldn’t care what other people thought of you.
I cared badly and still do, but I was and am willing to work for the approbation of others. A major part of me goes through life with my hand up hoping someone will call on me so I can tell them what I just figured out.
And so I write.
I write to that person who peers over their glasses when they look up from their notes and says, “Mr. Mallouk is there something you’d like to contribute?” I suppose a more mannered person would wait for a question to be posed before putting up their hand but it seems to me questions, often unspoken, are proliferating faster than answers or insights can be produced. I write to that person I sense is also curious and a little perplexed over the meaning of things that seem nonsensical, who is more able than me to sit silently with their confusion. For most of my life, the urgency to make sense out of things has been as visceral as hunger and the threat of denying that need as ominous as starvation.
I know enough about attachment and early life to realize how threatening confusion can be for those of us whose early attachment figures were also sources of threat. The simultaneous push toward an appealing source of connection and pull away from the threat of that other leaves little psyches all bollixed up. It makes sense that confusion would be threatening for me and that making sense of things would be a comfort. But why is it not enough to do this in the privacy and safety of my own mind? There is something about telling this to you who are, after all, at a safe distance and who, I can imagine, is nodding in silent acknowledgment that is deeply satisfying. Oddly you, in your anonymity and at a distance, seem safer to me than the wayward and sometimes punitive nature of my own mind.
It’s occurred to me that my need to imagine someone smiling on and at me in response to something I’ve said is one of the core aspects of religious devotion. The idea of a loving God blessing a devotee with an open hand and heart is close to what I hope to elicit from my imaginary professor who is trying to get through his notes at the lectern or my perplexed cohort pondering life’s mysteries. But the idea of grace (that unearned blessing from a benign deity) does not square very well with my need to earn approval. It’s at odds with my experience to be loved simply for existing and the prospect of it strangely unappealing. The idea of a deity showering me with grace seems entirely too one directional. I need to engage with my imaginary other, get their attention and track their responses in order to gauge how to proceed. When I see them nod or smile in recognition, chuckle at an irony or joke, I know to continue in that vein. When I sense them nodding off or checking their cell phone, I quickly changed track, shift emphasis or directly comment on the lost connection in the hope of re-engaging them.
Mostly, my imaginary other is not saying anything but I can sense they are strongly biased to approve and encourage me to go on. This, for me, is the closest thing to grace I can imagine. It says “I welcome you. There is room in this heaven and I want to make room for all of you as you grow.” It says “I see you growing right now and the sense you are making makes room not only for you but for all your fellow travelers would’ve struggled on these same paths.”
In my quiet moments of reflection and writing, I feel a strong sense of fellowship with an undefined community who has invited me to speak on their behalf. On the occasions where I have been asked to eulogize people dear to me: both my parents, my in-laws and best friend, I have felt the same sense of speaking for the community. It’s not just my ideas that are being expressed but what I have to say is a product of the empathy for all of us who have lost so much.
It is that spirit and that relationship to a larger community I hope to access in my writing. To the extent, I realize that ambition we will have made a connection and forged a little further on the great project of making sense out of our experience. As a consequence, you, dear reader, will have helped me heal some of the shame and isolation of my early relational traumas.
I still wonder about narcissism and try to understand and manage my need for attention: to be seen, heard and understood. But I don’t wonder about the hostility in my former therapist’s comment. Name calling is just another form of abuse. I have found in writing someone, my imagined other, who wants to pay attention and would never shame me for wanting to speak or for what I have to say.
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