From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
1. Thou shalt reinterpret reality to preserve the perfect fantasy.
Sample Situation: This commandment is designed to hide family secrets. If you saw dad stagger and fall down the basement steps because he was drunk, you can’t tell the truth. Instead, reality must be interpreted into an acceptable fantasy.
“Daddy wasn’t drunk; he simply lost his balance and tripped. Poor Daddy.”
Application: Even if you see it, it’s not real. You must have made a mistake. Therefore, reinterpret what you saw to make it nice and respectable. If you don’t, people will think you’re and we’re all crazy. We wouldn’t want them to think that now, would we?
Motto: Always believe the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the alcoholic truth.
In our case that might be rephrased to say “Always believe the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the narcissistic truth.”
Narcissist’s lives are carefully constructed fantasies, houses of cards that cannot withstand the slightest rumble of dissent or disagreement and which are in constant need of monitoring and tweaking in order to continue standing.
If you’ve ever been admonished not to “air our dirty linens (or laundry) in public,” you’ve been expected to play a part in a fantasy designed to conceal reality and promote an image in its place. It isn’t just you and the other family members who must substitute the chosen fantasy for reality, you must live and think and act and speak in such a way that people outside the family believe the fantasy as well.
My NM was the queen of creating this kind of altered reality. And since the people she most wanted to fool were those in her hometown, including but not limited to family members, and we lived more than a thousand miles away, she had ample time away from them to create her little performances of perfection. From spending months making new clothes and refusing to let us wear them until we arrived back in the old home town so they would look new and we would look prosperous, to setting up house in the cheap downmarket section of an expensive, upmarket suburb so we would have a California beach town address, to emulating movie stars in her dress and grooming, my NM was all about image. Substance she cared nothing about…image was everything.
And not just with respect to how she looked or where we lived: she had an image of herself as a hero, an Everywoman who would valiantly rise as needed to save the day—even when the day did not need saving. In fact, the day so seldom needed saving that, in order to make sure everyone around knew how wonderful she was, she would create crises or problems for her to vanquish. Over the years I compiled a list of her “projects” in which she “saved” somebody from some hapless dupe she cut out of the herd of friends, neighbours and family members and tarted up to look like a threat. Even her friends weren’t immune from her predations: people who didn’t agree with her and the image she created for herself found themselves not only removed from her circle of friends, but turned into gossip fodder.
One of the ways NMs reinterpret reality is to change the meanings of things. NM would slap me until my ears rang—but if I looked like I was going to cry, she’d call those slaps “love taps” and if I cried, she would promise to give me “something worth crying about.” Given that those “love taps” reddened my face, made my ears ring and stung and throbbed long after the assault was over, I was terrified to find out what she would do that was worse.
Reality can be reinterpreted in many ways: gaslighting is a useful tool, as are projection and just plain lying. If there was a person in the household—or even among NM’s friends—who might blab the truth about NM, she would pre-emptively strike by using gaslighting, projection, innuendo and outright lies about the person who might one day be a leak, so that when the truth was finally spoken, it would not be believed.
To make sure the narcissist’s reputation and image remain exactly as she constructs it, an N will be hypervigilant for any cracks in the façade. She will have ready excuses for things others might notice, things that could reflect poorly on her except that she twists them to reflect poorly on someone else…like you. Your clothes are shabby because you don’t take care of them and she has decided not to throw good money after bad until you can take better care of your things; GCBro gets to go fishing but you stay home to help your mother with her guests because you like being a little hostess; you enjoy spending your Saturdays standing at the piano singing scales instead of playing with the little girls down the street and you just love your singing engagements, some in bars with air so thick with cigarette smoke you can’t take a deep breath, your bare legs freezing, your little stomach churning with state fright…and if anyone asks you how you feel about it, you crank up a megawatt smile and gush about how much you love the costumes and the makeup and the stage and the singing, one eye always on NM to make sure you are saying the right things to avoid a tongue lashing on the way home and maybe a session with The Strap, that thin strip of leather that left those red, raised, whip-like stripes on your tender 7-year-old flesh.
For the NM, reality is malleable. It is what she wants it to be and she recruits flying monkeys among siblings, family and friends to help her keep the fantasy alive and obscuring reality. Even when she is outed, when the fantasy is smashed and her flying monkeys wake up from their trances and see reality for what it is, the NM will not back down. She will cling to her alternate reality, recruit new flying monkeys, and rebuild her fantasy bigger and better than before, denigrating those who brought about her downfall and punishing them by any means at her fingertips.
Examples can be small and seemingly insignificant—they can also be huge and life changing. When I was little, my mother told me I was allergic to strawberries and I was not allowed to eat them. Desserts were rare at our house (the cakes I had to bake every week were for lunches and snacks for the adults, not after-dinner desserts) so it was especially disappointing for the dessert to be strawberry shortcake because I couldn’t have any. I would get the little piece of sponge cake and some whipped cream and NM would say, a smug little smile on her face, “Since you can’t have any of the strawberries, Violet, that just means more for everybody else!” as she put an extra-large helping of strawberries on her plate. It was not until years later when I worked for my uncle picking strawberries on his farm that I learned the truth: I was not allergic to them at all and could eat them with impunity. For my entire childhood she had stolen my strawberries, only to eat them right in front of my face.
On the other hand, making her daughter out to be a “congenital liar” (her term) was life-altering for the daughter. And while it shored up her fantasy life to convince everyone around us that if my mouth was moving, I was lying, it damaged me incalculably…and my children as well. My NM seemed very concerned, when I was 17, about the neighbours finding out I was illegitimately pregnant. She didn’t want me to marry, she wanted me to abort (then illegal) or go to a home for unwed mothers and give the baby away for adoption. Although the child’s father, my high school sweetheart, disavowed paternity, I met someone who wanted to marry me and accept the baby as his own. NM was adamantly against it, partly because she thought I should be punished for my transgression by not being allowed to keep my baby and partly, I think, because she didn’t want to be a grandmother at 34 (she was 17 when I was born). But with permission from the court, I was able to marry, although it didn’t last.
I have always been a big one for truth—my NM’s web of lies and subterfuge was so labyrinthine that it was simply easier to keep my head straight by sticking to the truth. So when she was in her teens, I explained to my daughter the story of her parentage. Imagine my shock when she told me that she knew it wasn’t true because Grammi told her my first husband was her real father. WTF?? It took a lot of puzzling it out on my part, but I suspect NM’s saw more value (and less scandal pointing in her direction) by fostering the lie that I had married my baby’s father—that is how things were done in those days, after all.
But 30 years later, NM was still clinging to the lie! And so was my daughter!! Of course her biological father denied paternity…why would he admit it after so many years? But my first husband, my father and my stepmother all supported me, all told my daughter that I didn’t even meet him until I was 4 months pregnant with her. “Why would a mother lie like that about her own daughter?” my daughter asked, using that as the sole basis for believing the lie. Why indeed? Because it shored up her image…because it made me look like a liar to my daughter…because it made her ex-husband and his “new” wife look like liars…and because my being her daughter was simply an accident of birth—there was no love, no care, not one iota of concern for me in her whole body.
Narcissists live lives of deceit and subterfuge. Theirs is a Through the Looking Glass world, just as crazy and chaotic and inexplicable to normal people as the Red Queen’s topsy-turvy world was to Alice and having only one objective: to look perfect to anyone who pauses to look. Only by adopting their alternate reality do we have any hope of them seeing us as anything other than a threat to the maintenance of their fragile little worlds; but only by sticking to the truth and refusing to engage in their madness can we keep our own sanity about us.
And, sad to say, it’s a Hobson’s Choice—whichever way you jump, you land up in the shit.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
2. Thou shalt always send mixed messages, especially when it concerns relationships.
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.