People who have not lived with a narcissist cannot understand what a remarkably crazy-making existence it is. People who have (knowingly or unknowingly) lived with a narcissist for any length of time can all agree that living with one is something akin to living with the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass: “All the ways about here belong to me.”

In my years of living with one (my mother), I have learned that the primary thing is that the Narcissist is Always Right. Even if it means contradicting something they just told you two seconds ago. Even if it makes no logical sense whatsoever. Even if it leaves the narcissist lost in a mental back alley, blind drunk and looking for the keys to their imaginary Chevrolet Lucid.

Let’s start with food. If ever there was a subject more ripe for a narcissist, I don’t know what it is. Well, except for your appearance, comportment, and life choices, just for a start, but let’s keep this simple. Food is such a glorious subject because it allows the narcissist to dive into those other areas by default. If your weight is wrong, it’s the food. If your health is poor, or you just have pimples, that, too, might be your food. If you boil eggs for 6 minutes, then the narcissist can point out that you should boil them for 8. If you eat sugar, you should eat Splenda. If you eat Splenda, then you should eat sugar. Food has so many ways to make you wrong, that it can make your head spin.

As you might imagine, being raised by a narcissist meant growing up with — ta da! — food issues. If I cried as a child, or really expressed any need for emotional comfort at all from my mother, she gave me food. Food was the signal for “Stop crying, please.” So food also became comfort. But as I grew older, there were years when I apparently had a little too much comfort, because I was FAT. Looking back at the pictures, I wasn’t really so fat, but I certainly knew that I was FAT with a capital F. It really is a pleasure to be critiqued in the third person by family members who are sitting right in front of you. “She has such a pretty face, it’s such a shame…” So, Logic Lesson #1: Comfort yourself with food, but don’t get fat.

As I described in the preface of my book, my mother found a new religion when I was about 12 years old: FOOD Religion. Out with the sugar! Out with the white flour and white rice! Whole grains, low fat, and absolutely NO sugar, which is the Devil’s Work and will kill you. Of course, this isn’t really all bad. Whole grains are great, and eating less processed food in general is what we do today. But here’s where the narcissist’s logic comes in. My mother loved pizza. Therefore, pizza was not junk food. It was never really discussed, and lord knows that Pizza Hut doesn’t exactly use whole grains, but pizza was still okay.

My mother’s big secret, however, is that she is a closet sugar addict. So while she imposed the NO SUGAR rule on my father and I, she had a secret stash of Snickers bars in the freezer. In later years, when she came to visit, we also observed that certain treats would “go missing.” Case in point: we had a brand new jar of chocolate truffles from Costco on our counter when my parents arrived. The first evening, we each had a couple of them for dessert. The very next morning, we came out to the kitchen to discover that the entire 32-ounce jar of them had been eaten — except for one. Yes, this particular chocolate thief very thoughtfully left a single truffle after consuming the contents of a nearly full jar. Cookies, cake, and anything else that was sweet also had a tendency to disappear in the night. My wife and I still laugh at that. And yet, my mother will be a guest in someone’s home (mine or any relative or friend I’ve ever visited in her company) and immediately start to criticize them for serving, much less eating, a dessert of any kind. (Rudeness is never a problem to the narcissist. After all, they’re not being rude; they’re doing you a favor by setting you straight.)

There are other loopholes in my mother’s food religion. You’d think that a woman who swallows several dozen vitamins a day (I am not exaggerating), promotes whole grain foods, and claims to avoid sugar would also eat organic produce and fresh vegetables. But my mother doesn’t like to cook, and she likes the convenience of frozen vegetables and, naturally, buying whatever is cheap. For most people, this would be a valid reason, but she has to square it with her sense of righteousness. It is not enough for the narcissist to make a simple lifestyle choice. No, it has to be the Best and Only Reasonable Lifestyle Choice in the World, one that everyone really should make if they care about anything at all. Therefore, my mother has argued, inelegantly, that frozen vegetables are actually healthier than fresh, and that conventional, pesticide-laden produce is actually better for you than organic — by virtue of the fact that it simply looks better.

Now, here is where the inexperienced person makes a mistake. Upon perceiving the faulty logic of the narcissist, most people would try to argue with them. No, no, no. It will never do. You might as well try to convince the sun to set in the east. You might as well try to convince the academy to stop giving those little statues to Meryl Streep. It just won’t happen. The narcissist thrives on argument. If you say black, they will say white. If you say gray, they will just blink at you and change the subject. The narcissist knows nothing of gray, but they will say the opposite of whatever you say until you die of old age or until you agree with them, whichever comes first.

As you wise up and realize that arguing with a narcissist is as productive as slamming your fingers in a door, you begin to back off and disengage. Nothing infuriates a narcissist more than a person who 1) cannot see that they are right, and 2) refuses to allow the narcissist the opportunity to convince you of how wrong you are. Ignoring the narcissist seems like a really good idea, but the narcissist just thinks that you have gone deaf, and they will repeat themselves to you about 50 million times until you acknowledge that they are right and that you plan to take their expert advice. For some, this may be an acceptable compromise. Others grow weary of this “ear abuse” and eventually state their feelings: “Thanks for the advice, but I have no intention of doing that.” But wait! The narcissist will want to know why you won’t do that. And many a weary traveler has fallen into this pit of tigers by actually answering this question.

It is important to know that there is no answer in the Universe that will satisfy a narcissist if it is not the answer they want to hear. Albert Einstein, the goddess of wisdom, and a team of rocket scientists and M.D.s could back you up, and it wouldn’t matter. There is only one answer that they want to hear, which is, “What a wonderful suggestion! I will do everything just as you have advised, you incredibly intelligent and brilliant human being! THANK YOU for saving me the trouble of thinking for myself.” That last bit is okay to add, because narcissists are absolutely incapable of recognizing sarcasm in any form.

Sadly, there are people who have become so beaten down by the narcissist in their lives that they have, in fact, chosen to let the narcissist do their thinking for them. This seems an easier road, but much is sacrificed, and the poor Tin Man who follows these bricks loses whatever heart he had. Even for those who have seemingly given up, resentment boils beneath the surface, rusting their joints until they can barely manage to move their mouths enough to ask for the oil can.

I have watched my father give up his autonomy over the years. First, the music went. My mother found his instruments annoying and talked him into getting rid of them. Music’s only function was to be soothing in the background somewhere, largely unnoticed. Then my father’s airplanes went. They were thrown out of the house, figuratively, and landed in his workshop, out of sight and out of mind. Narcissists only want to look at what is pleasing to them. If you love something that they don’t, then that is your character defect. They will tolerate that (barely), but they will wear you down until they convince you that you no longer want it.

And then my mother took control of my father’s food… My father loves good food. He is a sensual fellow, and left to his own devices, he would be a serious foodie. Alas, this does not fit into my mother’s food paradigm. Food is meant to nourish you (but not make you fat), and really, enjoyment doesn’t enter it into it all. I can attest to that, having eaten some of her sugar-free cakes.

The last time my parents visited, we observed that she had taken control of everything that went into my father’s mouth. She would not even allow us to make him a sandwich. She did that, no doubt because she was such a superior sandwich-maker to the rest of us.

One evening, on our anniversary, we served filet mignon, perfectly cooked at medium rare. For my mother, this was the equivalent of serving her live rattlesnake wrapped in a mantle of poisonous bacon. Always knowing how to make a cook feel appreciated, she put hers in the microwave and then reached for my father’s plate to do the same. My father leaned over his plate and wrapped it protectively in his arms. Had he been a German Shepherd, he would have growled. As it was, he stood up for himself for the first time in many years. He must have paid for it later, though. Sooner or later, the narcissist always makes you pay for standing up for yourself.

A few weeks later, my mother declared that since no one appreciated the granola cereal she had brought with her, she wasn’t going to leave it for us ingrates. Therefore, she and my father would eat it for the next three days of breakfast, before they returned home. She never asked my father if he wanted to eat this for the next three days. It was implied imperial command, however, and he did not argue the point. So I did something that could be considered devious in some quarters. In others, it could be considered wicked. But I did it anyway. For the next three days, I made my father his favorite breakfasts. First up: waffles. My father cannot resist waffles. So I was curious to know if he still had a backbone in there somewhere. Would he stand up for himself? Or would he grudgingly eat the granola that Her Majesty had commanded that he eat?

Sadly, he ate the granola. Oh, he looked longingly at the waffles, the biscuits and gravy, and the blueberry pancakes. But he ate the granola. I’ll bet it tasted like cardboard. Mom is naturally attracted to that kind of food.

The primary thing to understand about the narcissist is that there are two kinds of people in their world: GOOD people who cater to the narcissist’s every whim and need, and who implicitly agree with everything the narcissist says; and BAD people, who don’t listen to the narcissist and who disagree with them. Basically, if you don’t validate the narcissist’s fantasy views of themselves, then you’re shit.

So, if you often feel that you are walking on eggshells around a certain person, or that nothing ever seems to make them happy, or that the more you make yourself happy, the unhappier they become with you, then you might be dealing with a narcissist. If you are, then you have my sympathies. But realize also that you aren’t the one with the problem. Oh, they have tried to make it all about you being the one with the problem. Because they are Perfection Made Flesh. But really, it’s not you. It never was you.

The main thing is to find your own happiness, which is probably going to make the narcissist unhappy. So what else is new? Whose life are you living? Live for yourself. Do not live like the White Queen: “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day.” The narcissist won’t mind if you live in a state of self-deprivation, but you should. Eat your jam to-day. Eat it every day. With relish.

Alice and the Red Queen

Writer, painter, cat fancier, troublemaker, democratic socialist, & antifascist.

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