Living in the Shadow of My Narcissistic Parents – Part 1

I wanted to be excited about my father’s visit this week. Even though my dad and I aren’t what you’d call the best of friends, I was looking forward to his visit. Ill with terminal cancer, the last time he was supposed to visit, three years ago – when a show I was directing was being performed – he fell ill and was unable to make the trip. That illness turned out to be late-stage cancer, and he was given the prognosis of two years to live.

Three years later, he’s still alive, noticeably weaker, but his other health issues including obesity and diabetes also contribute to his fragile state. And it’s perhaps a miracle that he is healthy enough to have made the trip across the country today, on his own.  And – although I see him maybe twice a year when I visit back east – I was excited to have him visit me in California, on my turf, to “show him” how far I’ve come.

But spending time with him is always futile to my psyche. He’s just a bitter, stubborn man with a quick temper, underneath a shallow layer of narcissism where everything done by anyone else is someone either due to his brilliance or out to get him. I honestly don’t think any interaction I’ve had with him in my life hasn’t been on one of those two extremes. Today was no exception.

My first interaction with him this trip — I know he’s on a flight that gets in around four, and he’s told me that he’ll call me when he lands. It’s 5:40pm and I still hadn’t heard from him, so I call him. He’s driving and trying to find his hotel. Instead of explaining this calmly, he is frustrated that I called him when he’s driving and yells at me. “I’m driving! I’m trying to find signs. I’ll call you back when I get to the hotel.” Ok, that’s fair, but he didn’t have to be so rude about it. Even though at times I really dislike my father, I was excited about his trip — he hadn’t been out to visit me here in over four years. This was a big deal to me, in the way I’d wish the relationship to exist in my mind, where my dad would be excited to see me also, call me when he landed letting me know he’s here, making plans to meet for dinner, or – at least not yelling at me when I called him to find out his whereabouts.

Fast forward an hour, still no word from him. I hesitate to call him but it’s getting late, I’m still at work, hungry, tired, and know that it’s impossible it took him that long to get from the airport to the hotel. So I call him and he has just checked in. He half apologizes to me for being so “terse” before and says he’ll call me back when he gets in his room.

Eventually we sort out dinner plans. We’ll, it’s impossible to explain any plans to him because he won’t listen, so I tell him I’ll walk over to his hotel and meet him there.

The walk is short and I arrive in 15 minutes or so and knock on his door. As always, the first thing out of his mouth is something to do with how I look — never really a compliment — either on the end of “you’ve put on a few pounds” or “you look good” which is somehow said in such a manner that comes off as shocked. Today was the latter. A surprised you look good, which was largely due to the fact that I made a very conscious choice today to wear a business skirt and sweater — to look more professional — despite the fact that at the startup I more often wear a t-shirt and jeans and still hold the same title. But to my parents, appearances are everything, and so, I wanted him to be impressed with me (better than dealing with the opposite), and I played dress up.

My father is confused about his emotions — as he says he misses me, and I’m sure he means it, because he misses being able to feel like he has some sort of huge influence on my life (ie either I’m failing because I’m not listening to his brilliant advice, or I’m doing well because clearly I am.) That’s one of the biggest reasons why I had to move so far away… without that distance, I’d never feel like I could take credit for my own successes and failures. Somehow, he’d take credit for all the wins, and I’d take the blame for all the losses.

He asks me for a hug and a kiss, which is odd, because we’ve never been an affectionate family, but my dad tends to be more affectionate in his old age, as he wants to believe whatever stories of family tenderness he has in his head, but doesn’t want to support those with any actual empathy. That would be impossible.

Dinner included the typical conversation we have every time we see each other. Topic #1 — how’s the job? Not anything about how I like my role, or what I do on a daily basis, but it’s all about business — he looked at me and asked, “is this a company that’s going to be around in five years?” Granted, I understand he comes from a world where people kept their jobs for most of their lives, if not all of their lives, but every time I see him I have the same conversation about how today people keep their jobs for 2-5 years, especially in the startup world, and it’s not a bad thing that there’s a bit of risk in the potential of my company. Besides, we’re fine, we have VCs clamoring for a piece of our company, and overall the outlook is good. It’s still a startup, and in that sense, nothing is ever certain. But he doesn’t get that. He goes on to ask me about if part of my income is in stock, which I explain, for the thousandth time, that it is — in options, not stock. He asks about the kind of stock, and it doesn’t even matter what I say because he isn’t listening, he’s just making conversation so he can tell me what he thinks and what I should be doing. But I always have a comeback, and eventually he decides I’m doing fine enough in the job category. On to the next topic.

How about the boyfriend? The clock is ticking. I excitedly tell my dad that next week marks the five year anniversary of dating my bf. Instead of a smile and a congratulations, that’s wonderful, he says disapprovingly, “that’s too long.” I know what he means, what he’s saying, as if the simple fact that I have a good relationship with a guy that I love doesn’t matter — what matters is does this guy know what he’s doing with his life? Does he have a solid job? Is this relationship going to turn into marriage and kids? It’s not like I’m ignoring these questions entirely (if you read my blog, you know they all come up a lot in my mind) but what I’d want from a father is for him to be happy for me that I’ve found such a good relationship with a truly good, sweet human being who is giving and will always be there for me in a way that no one in my family ever could. My dad doesn’t give a shit about that. He just wants control over my life and my successes in a way that he understands. He definitely doesn’t understand my life.

Then he goes on to tell me how worried he in about my sister for the nth time. She’s turning 21, and somehow or other doing well in college (she has a learning disability and he thought she shouldn’t even go to college, so again, he’s stunned that she has been doing so well), and she needs to get a jaw operation to fix her face because she’s just not attractive and unless she gets the jaw surgery she’s never going to find a boyfriend or husband (here is when I bite my lip and avoid screaming at him that she has been seeing women lately AND that either way she is attractive and there are plenty of girls who are less attractive than she is who find people to love them for more than just their looks regardless.) He tells me I need to convince her to have this surgery and teach her things about being a respectable adult (/female) to which I respond (and this is true) I’d love to help my sister and provide her with advice, but she doesn’t listen to anyone including me, and she’s a very secretive person. He seems to blame me for not having more influence on her, not being able to make her agree to have this operation, and give her advice on how to make men chase after her. So even her life (which is going quite well) is my “fault.” Not only that, he added in that my cousin, who is a few years younger than me and suffers from detachment anxiety since she has very loving parents and doesn’t want to travel or leave them, needs me to be a role model for her so she can get better. Because that’s apparently something I could magically do as well, if only I lived near her, I’d – poof – fix all her issues.

My father seems to be so talented at putting blame on anyone but himself. He has such splitting going on in how he sees the world. This year, I’m successful. He’s succeeded. But there’s a lot I’m doing wrong that I need to work on.

During dinner, the waitress put something on the table and accidentally knocked over his cane that he had just purchased at Walgreens to replace the nice one he left at the rental car place.  I went to grab the cane and just caught it as it was falling, but lost grip and it fell over, somehow hooking around the bottom of the table. The poor waitress saw me struggling trying to tug it loose, and got down to help get it out. Meanwhile my father — who I’m not sure even noticed that the waitress was down under the table — started getting angry — “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” he steamed furiously — as if I wanted to hurl his cane down, have it get stuck under the table, and spend a whole 15 seconds with the waitress getting it unstuck. Clearly, that was my evil plan. But there is never any use explaining anything rational to my father when he wants to blame you for something. Luckily the waitress and I got the cane out from under the table fairly quickly, and my father moved on to the next topic, forgetting the situation entirely. Earlier in my life I would have been embarrassed about the way he treated the waitress and myself, now I just felt sad, and a bit angry. But no use wasting anger over the way he acts. I still wanted to enjoy my time with him — I wanted to be able to have good conversation, to connect with my father, because I know he isn’t going to be around much longer, and I want to have moments and memories I can look back on that are happy, that aren’t filled with him yelling at me and a waitress under the table attempting to unhinge his cane from under the table, or him screaming at my mother calling her stupid, throwing water at her, or any of those many, many memories of him blaming me and my mother for just about every failure – real or imagined.

Instead, I realize this is impossible. That my dad is just who he is – angry, bitter, insecure, and unknowingly projecting his own self-doubt and disappointment on to anyone he feels he has the right to control (namely myself, my mother and my sister.) We all play different roles in his mind, and I probably make him the most uncomfortable because I’m doing well and it doesn’t fit ANY of his definitions of doing well. I feel good about that, but I still wish that he could just be happy for me, instead of being “not worried about me because I’m doing fine, it seems.”

There is more to this story, but it’s late, and I’m tired of thinking about it, and generally upset about the reality of this story that is 27 years in the making, so I’ll return another day to write more if anyone is interested in hearing the details of why I’m such a bipolar disaster who also happens to be an occasional success.


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5 thoughts on “Living in the Shadow of My Narcissistic Parents – Part 1”

  1. I also don't like visiting with my parents. I've never had a good relationship with them (although my sisters have) and it's just always awkward when I go visit. Not quite as bad as your dad, but it gets there, especially with my mom.

  2. Wow can I relate to this. I've pretty much made the decision that I do not want a relationship with my father. The most I can take is a call every few months or a card, because the supposid caring is artificial. Most people would not see it for what it is, and may not understand why kids of Narcissistic Parents act the way that they do. Coming from such a loveless family, I can relate. Who in their right mind wants to be around someone who belittles them and makes them feel bad, yet we as children had no choice. As adults we do have a choice, and I for one will not tolerate it!!!

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