I’ve talked before about my moment of awakening.
A fellow dating coach told me to look up the word gaslighting, which sparked a quest to understand everything I could about narcissism and verbal abuse.
At some point in my research I stopped and started thinking back over all the guys I’d dated over the years.
It was like a bucket of cold water in the face when I realized that a fair percentage of them could qualify as full-blown narcissists.
Even worse, I knew that about them.
I knew they were self-centered and self-important, but I didn’t mind.
I just accepted them as they were.
What was it in me that made me get along so well with narcissistic guys?
That set me on a new quest.
The quest to find out why I was so comfortable with narcissism that I didn’t see the red flags.
Because I knew that if I didn’t heal this part of me, I would continue to attract narcissists… and I was done with that.
When Narcissism is Normal
Why was I so attracted to narcissists?
Really, the answer is simple.
Because narcissism was normal to me.
I didn’t see anything wrong with it because it was all around me.
Narcissism was part of my culture.
It didn’t spark any red flags because it was normal behavior in many of the people I knew. It was even celebrated. So why would I judge a guy just because he was focused on himself?
When I met someone and he started talking about being better than everyone else, or wanting to move to the middle of nowhere so he doesn’t have to interact with people, or how he’s misunderstood, I was accepting and supportive.
I felt that it was my job to accept people where they were at and not judge them.
Today, I can see it should have tipped me off when I encountered that distinctive mix of self-entitlement, victimhood, and the need to feel superior to everyone else.
But for most of my life NOTHING triggered me about that combination. It just felt familiar.
And it felt familiar because it was part of the air I breathed growing up.
Narcissism in Family Culture
I joke that I grew up with the motto, “We’re better than everyone else.”
My family inherited a tradition of keeping itself apart, not mixing with a lot of other people, and controlling every aspect of its world very tightly.
To be clear, this was a culture that had been passed down to them and continued through them – it wasn’t their individual choice.
When I look back, I see that so many of the elements of my relationships with narcissists were present in my early environment.
Such as this idea that we were right and everyone else was wrong. If there was a disagreement, WE knew all the facts and had come to the correct conclusion, while the other party was the enemy who “made us” fight them because they wouldn’t see “the truth.”
Or this idea of presenting a perfect face to the world and then talking about everyone behind their back. That’s the narcissist’s favorite game.
Again, I don’t think that anyone saw what they were doing as wrong. It was just the way things were.
Narcissism Can Be Adaptive
Which is why I differ from many experts in my refusal to see narcissists as bad people who choose their poison.
I believe that narcissism is less of a choice than it is an adaptation.
You adapt to the culture and environment you find yourself in. You do what works. You do what everyone else is doing (or what you think they’re doing). It becomes the way you live your life. It just feels normal.
I hear about families where kids grew up hearing about the importance of walking a mile in other people’s shoes and seeing things from other people’s point of view and honoring other people’s choices even if they’re different, and I cannot even imagine what that would have been like.
The world we grow up in shapes us. And that world is not just limited to your family.
Your wider culture teaches you lessons about narcissism and empathy and which quality is valued most.
In my local culture, narcissism was a prized trait. The redneck in his pickup truck who holds his ground and never apologizes to anyone and goes his own way? That was the local hero. If a guy refused to compromise or listen to anyone or show any manners and made people mad as a result, then he was respected and even applauded.
That culture was embedded in a larger national culture of rugged individualism, where the heroes were pioneers and cowboys and men who turned their backs on society and struck off on their own.
You Choose What’s Familiar
When I started to make these connections, I realized that there wasn’t some fault in me that was leading me into these relationships with narcissists.
Nor was it that narcissists were tricking me by lovebombing me and hiding who they really were.
Rather, I was choosing these connections because they felt familiar. It was a dynamic I was used to.
And in love we always gravitate towards the familiar, even if it’s toxic.
So this is my question for you.
If you’ve found yourself dating narcissists, what is it about them that feels familiar, like you’ve seen it before?
Where have you encountered those qualities before?
Now, I want to emphasize that you cannot make this inquiry if you hold the point of view that narcissists are evil, or that they choose to be this way because of their badness.
Because then you won’t want to look too close at your past, because you might find out something you don’t want to know.
When we see narcissism as something that evolves in a specific culture where those traits are adaptive and possibly quite successful, then we start seeing the shades of gray.
The Lessons of Narcissism
Today, my more nuanced understanding of narcissism has helped me become a better parent, because I can see the long-term effects of the lessons I teach my daughter.
And it’s helped me envision the kind of world I want to live in.
A world of direct, honest communication.
A world without fake social masks.
A world where our humanity matters more than our usefulness.