No-One Believes My Mother Is a Narcissist: The Narcissistic Façade
By: Beth McHugh 2015
This title could easily apply to Father/Daughter/Son/ Husband/Wife. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) shows no gender bias, but the way in which the narcissist presents to the outside world varies greatly. To be diagnosed with NPD a person must display the required characteristics as per the DSM-V. However there are degrees of narcissism within the disorder itself, and some sufferers show strong traits at all times, e.g. the office “sociopath” or the sadistic narcissist.
Some narcissists are quite good at hiding some of their traits from the casual observer. Hence a child of a narcissist can live a life dominated by watching, observing and pleasing their narcissistic parent and monitoring mood changes so as to modify the resultant effect on themselves, while the neighbour next door has no idea of the presence of narcissistic tendencies. Neither do the local shopkeepers, other relatives, churchgoers or casual acquaintances because they do not interact with the narcissist under a variety of circumstances, so that abnormal behaviour may be unobserved. This phenomenon I refer to as “the narcissistic façade.”
Cassie’s mother, Gloria, is a volunteer at the local children’s hospital and is also heavily involved with the local church and school. She regularly reads to children struggling with literacy skills at the school, and also participates with the organisation of flowers and food for events such as funerals at her local church. Once a week she volunteers at the children’s hospital and is often involved in fund-raisers to help with better facilities at the hospital.
On the surface, Gloria looks like a godsend. Under many conditions, she is seemingly able to “control” her narcissism. However, this “control” is a façade. The reason why Gloria does all of the community work that she does is not due to her desire to help others – it is all about her need to look good to others and to look good to herself. In performing these duties, Gloria successfully convinces others that she is a “wonderful” person – “warm” and “loving”. Hence Gloria gets a lot of praise from the public with whom she interacts. She has even appeared in her local paper on many occasions for the good work she has done. However, in Gloria’s case, she has done this for Gloria.
This is not to say that people who engage in charitable acts are narcissists. Most people sign up for volunteer work for all the right reasons. It is when the narcissistic façade is present that it becomes difficult for adult children of narcissists to convince themselves, let alone others, that their parent is a narcissist because they look so good on the surface. They may even have awards for the work they do.
And this is what makes it so hard for Gloria’s daughter, Cassie, to live a normal life. She has grown up hearing others praise her mother and say what a selfless person she is and an asset to the community. Cassie believed that for years. However, growing up with her mother has been a nightmare. As Gloria radiated her “perfection”, so Cassie had to be “perfect” too. As a child she was perfectly groomed by her mother so that she was a “credit to her mother”. She gained good grades through hours of studying to please her mother. Not a natural scholar, Cassie not only found this treadmill of pleasing very difficult, but she also lived in fear of falling short of her mother’s expectations. Whenever that happened, and it often did, the story was always the same: “Cassie, what do I say to the ladies at the church when they see you in that outfit/with that boy/with a B in history?” Or, “Cassie, I’m ashamed of you. How could you do that?” The requirements went on. As Cassie became an adult she would challenge her mother, whereupon Gloria would exert control by stripping Cassie’s already fragile self esteem by making cruel remarks about her job, her choice of career or her latest partner. Alternatively, she would cry and adopt a more martyr-like stance and demand of Cassie that she change her ways.
Cassie’s life was really an extension of her mother’s needs until Cassie was in her 40s when she first came to therapy because she had no-one to talk to. Everyone in her small town believed that Gloria was a saint, and the few times Cassie had tried to broach the subject with others about how sad she felt having Gloria as a mother, she was met with horrified glances.
On one occasion, this got back to her mother and her mother berated her for saying such things in public. Cassie was in a dark place where, on the one hand, she knew her mother was hurtful and cruel, yet she also knew her mother was good and selfless. Cassie had a breakdown and, ironically, that was the beginning of Cassie’s new life. Once a diagnosis of NPD was made, and Cassie’s need to defend her mother loosened a little, she was able to let in the germ of an idea that her mother was not in fact a saint. And most importantly, that she suffered from a personality disorder. Along with that, it was very important that Cassie not direct her anger and tears solely at her mother, but also look at the roles significant others had played in her life – most noticeably her father, who had failed to provide a healthy home life for her or to stand up against the cruel, controlling and degrading remarks that his wife had made. Cassie’s life has slowly metamorphosed from that of a woman who was a doormat to her mother and to others, to one where she feels more in control. Her life is now her own to live.
Paul has no children to inflict narcissistic damage upon, nevertheless he is a narcissist who promotes himself through seemingly good works. So although he harms no child of his, his relationship with his wife is fraught with difficulties because he is seen to be a community champion and possesses several community awards. However, Paul has done immeasurable emotional harm to his wife, Deborah. Deborah expresses that she “feels alone” in the relationship, and even though she assists Paul in his charitable works, she feels second best to his “projects.”
Paul certainly has such an inflated opinion of himself that many people he comes into contact with would regard him as arrogant and self-seeking, so his behaviour is more obvious. However, before realising that her husband was a diagnosed narcissist, Deborah felt confused about her husband who seemed so caring to others and yet cared so little for her. She also was largely unable to express her inner thoughts to others, who basically believed Paul had his heart in the right place even if he relished the glory. They saw it as win-win. This resulted in Deborah doubting herself and ultimately becoming depressed and requiring hospitalisation because she couldn’t reconcile what she felt about the “real” Paul, to his public face. Again this is the narcissistic façade in action. Once Deborah was in counselling, and realized what she was actually dealing with, she was able to start on the road of rebuilding her sense of self and a belief in her own intuition. Depression lifted in time and Deborah is now leading a fulfilled life of her own where she chooses to assist Paul on occasion, but is more involved in her own interests. She has gone from being Paul’s narcissistic sponge to her own person. She is currently contemplating divorce.
Hence the narcissistic façade is just that – a means to
project one image to the general public while maintaining another within
the home. This double life will dissolve if someone from the “outside”
world challenges the powerbase of the narcissist. Then the true personality
of the narcissist will emerge, but steps will be taken by the narcissist
to minimise damage to their cultivated image.