A man diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder explains how living with NPD is very different from what one might expect.
I am a narcissist. Or, rather, I have been “officially” diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I put that in quotes because it is not the first diagnosis I have received; however, I can say that it is by far the most appropriate. Of course, the popular concept of what a narcissist looks like is actually quite different from the reality of a person with NPD. It is true that “pure” narcissists are every bit the arrogant, blindly self confident, self-centered, and manipulative individuals that most people fear. With that said, there are numerous other subtypes for people with NPD that do not fit this mold, many of which are almost completely opposite of what most people expect a narcissist to be. I can only speak for myself, but I hope that understanding how it affects the way I view the world will make others less hostile.
There are many factors that go into developing a mental illness, but in my case, a truly nightmarish childhood pushed me over the edge. Abuse of all kinds—neglect, tragedy, poverty—you name it, and I experienced it as a child. I was—and still am—extraordinarily gifted; however, lack of appropriate nurturing and care as a child resulted in coping mechanisms that were less than healthy. For example, the severe neglect and either complete dismissal or punishment for being anything less than perfect left a feeling of worthlessness.
When you get a 92% on an exam as a 10-year old who skipped a grade and are asked, “What went wrong?” you learn to adapt and praise yourself. Empty self-praise does not come close to filling the hole where actual self-worth should be, but as a child starved for praise and attention for my accomplishments, I learned to feed myself. Because I was so gifted, I was expected to be perfect by teachers, my mother—everyone. Anything less was worthless.
Malignant perfectionism is one of the other primary facets of NPD. This idea that anything less than perfect was worthless was seared into my mind. Not perfect? Unlovable. Terrible. Disgusting. Repugnant. I used all these words to describe myself regularly. What began as a healthy desire to improve became an unhealthy need to be perfect in every way, or appear to be perfect to others.
And so a character was born. When I was beginning of high school, we moved to New York City, and I was able to lie about major facts of my life. I needed to control my image so that other people wouldn’t see me as the worthless, unlovable, grotesquely flawed individual that I was. If the real me was so repulsive that even the people who were supposed to provide unconditional love couldn’t be bothered to show any affection, why would anyone else? Compulsive lying became the norm. To this day, I still sometimes lie about completely random things for no reason whatsoever. Anything I could control, I did.
I developed an obsession with being perfectly dressed, from making sure that my shoelaces were all perfectly flat with perfect bows, to ensuring that just the right amount of cuff peeked out from beneath my sweater. I would not leave the house until every detail was perfect. I wouldn’t turn around on the street if I walked past where I was going, because I didn’t want to look like I made a mistake. I would walk around four blocks to make sure that no one could witness my blunder.
I am able to turn around now; however, I feel so much shame that I will feel physically ill. This obsessive need to be perfect prevented me from asking questions in school—it would show people I didn’t know something; it prevents me from practicing languages with native speakers—I don’t want to sound like an amateur; I won’t play a piece of music unless it is perfect, and I will never practice in front of someone. I hide my learning and improvement from the world, because revealing any imperfections would leave me open to certain rejection and reinforce my worthlessness … or so I believe.
My relationship with rejection is completely out of sync with reality. This is all quite easy to understand from an intellectual/logical perspective, but knowing something and feeling something are two very different things. Any rejection or perceived rejection—and I’m hyper-vigilant to spot any potential rejection—is crushing. When you believe you are completely worthless, any “no” or rejection isn’t a simple thing—it is an emphatic statement that you have absolutely no value as a human being. It doesn’t have to be anything of consequence, it can be something as simple as asking to borrow a pen.
Me: “May I borrow a pen?”
Other person: “No, I need it.”
No big deal, right? Not to me. I hear, “No, because you are worthless and have absolutely no value as a human being.” Having to ask a direct question where someone can say no or reject me creates profound levels of anxiety, and it quickly spirals out of control. Any rejection results in a truly savage tirade against myself. Normal people probably don’t think, “Of course they said no, because you’re worthless. Just like every time you were rejected as a kid. There’s a reason people say no to you. Haven’t you learned not to ask for things? You are such a dumb, worthless, piece of trash. Kill yourself.”
Intellectually, I know that’s not a normal emotional response to being told no for a basic request. This hyper-sensitivity would be even worse if I put myself out there socially and in relationships, but I don’t because there can be no certainty. I can’t bring myself to take the risk of being rejected on such a personal level. In eighth grade, I had a friend of the girl I had a crush on come up and tell me, “So-and-so wants you to know that she really likes you.” Even with such a clear indication that someone liked me, I didn’t do anything, because I knew it had to be a trick. How could she like me? Not even my mother likes me. She must be tricking me.
I’ve adapted to my fear of rejection by avoiding asking direct questions. I don’t manipulate people out of malice or to get something out of them, but to intentionally avoid situations where I can be told no or be rejected. It is easier to make them think they are doing something for me of their own volition than for me to ask and risk them saying no. With that said, I also will never say no to any request by anyone else. I habitually do other things for other people in an attempt to build up “request equity” in case I have to ask something of them.
I will ALWAYS do whatever anyone asks, and I will remember everything that I do for every person. I assume that if I do X, Y, and Z for Billy, then when I need something and ask for it, he will remember all the things I did for him and say yes. Keeping a mental ledger of every single request I’ve fulfilled and every single request I’ve made with every single person I am in regular contact with is an immense waste of brainpower. In a sense, I don’t do things for other people to be nice; I do them to make sure that if I ever need anything they are happy to help.
As a consequence of living life as a character at center stage with the whole world watching, I don’t have many close relationships. The amount of time it takes for me to actually start letting someone know anything about the real me generally prevents me from having real relationships. They know the character I play, but the real me is kept chained in the dark recesses of my mind. Having the character I play get rejected is bad enough, but revealing my real self and exposing my incredible fragility could very well be a matter of life and death. There are three people who know the real me, and I still cannot comprehend why they still associate with me. I have extreme difficulty believing them when they tell me they value my friendship and view me as a strong person with worthwhile accomplishments. How can someone like the real me when the very thought of it makes me sick?
Even though they know the real me, I am unable to make a real emotional connection. Twice in the past 13 years, I have made a physical and emotional connection with someone, and it felt like my soul was being torn asunder. I bawled uncontrollably, the emotion pouring out until I was physically unable to move. And beneath the dull, hollow ache that I feel at all times, there is the swirling maelstrom of agony waiting to be unleashed.
Even if by some miracle I manage to find a woman who is willing to date me, I feel confident it will only last until the first feelings of affection. At that point, I will once again become a revolting, blubbering mess.
In the end, chances are good that I will remain alone, as I have been for so long; the aching emptiness will remain. Love is food for the soul, and I have been starved forever.
Photo credit: Flickr / Jake Putnam