I’ve recently joined a group of thinkers and writers who are all recovering from contact with people on the crazy-making end of the narcissism spectrum. I have referenced (sometimes obliquely, and sometimes directly) that my father was my initial contact with narcissistic behavior patterns, and that since cutting off contact with him seventeen years ago, I’ve had the occasion to run into a few others who exhibit similarly disordered patterns of thinking, behaving, and interpreting the world. As I shuffled through the threads written by the members of this new group, I paused to reflect how prevalent the focus on perfection and perception was. This is a topic about which I have a great deal to say, so I am going to try to do so in a somewhat artful fashion here. It is likely a topic I will return to, as the anthology takes more shape and becomes more of an active and living project for all of us. With that as a preamble, here we go…
There are times when perfection feels like armor that just won’t fit no matter how hard I try. At my best moments, my response to that is to throw it across the room, give myself a hug, and accept that it’s a stupid trick my brain plays on me to reinforce the veracity of my early and formative life experiences (which were honestly pretty mixed to begin with). During less enlightened moments, I have a wee tendency to beat myself up. I will pull on the zipper of Perfection frantically, sure that if I just wiggle a little bit this way, or straighten up just a bit more, It Will Fit and everything will be the way it was supposed to be. Forget that it has the wrong number of sleeves for the number of arms I have. Forget that I don’t even really like the color. Forget that it is itchy and uncomfortable. Forget that I don’t even remember why I am trying the stupid thing on to begin with. I will wrestle perfection out of myself and Be The Thing That Is Required, just you try and stop me.
I actually probably mean that. Maybe try and stop me, because all of that right there is more than just a little bonkers.
Close contact with someone on the narcissism spectrum will do that to a person, and the earlier in life that it happens the more tenacious and unyielding the attachment to that stupid, ill-fitting, poorly constructed garment will be. Because here’s the message: “the entity that wears this garment? Her dreams will come true.” And so you believe it. You believe that being just right, Mary Poppins style — practically perfect in every way — in all things will earn you the fountain of love, acceptance, safety, affirmation, and adoration you know in your smart little heart, you need and deserve.
There are several problems with this paradigm. Perhaps the most glaring is: it is false. And it is false for so many reasons I am close to Not Even with the Ability to Can in relation to it. It is false because the being you contort into in order to get those things is no longer you, little being who is worthy of love. It is false because the garment is always changing based on the fluctuating needs, desires, and whims of a person not grounded in a shared reality. It is false because the garment doesn’t even actually exist — it’s a collection of carefully cataloged and curated minutiae sifted and panned from the behavior and words of a person who is actively attempting to control others such that they see themselves reflected favorably in their eyes, even when they are cruel, manipulative, and ill. But primarily, it is false because that garment won’t do what you think it will do. It’s a trap. It’s bait. It’s the carrot, and the stick is just behind it. I have often wondered if the person wielding the carrot (and the stick) is aware of that fact, or if, for them, our inability to capture it is not an unfortunate encounter with a fluid, indescribable, and unattainable impossibility, but rather a failure — and more importantly, a failure to adequately ‘love’ them.
I try not to dwell on that particular piece of macabre reflection for too terribly long, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What matters is my realization, dawning slowly over the last few decades, that it is okay to stop talking about too much or too little. It is okay to let go of the idea that a perfect balance of personality traits will somehow insulate me from harm (it won’t). It is okay to look at my flaws and laugh: I wear shoes with no socks, my feet are smelly. I cry easily and often, but sometimes can’t and get grouchy. I forget to eat sometimes, and act like a brat when I do. I will fight bedtime even when I’m tired. I stink at getting up early, and I can’t pack lunch to save my life. These items are just as important as my more admirable and useful traits: I am fierce and resilient. I am clever and loving. I am often joyful and take great pleasure in delighting others. I am grateful. This constellation and all of my too muchness and too littleness, the quirks and winding alleys and hiccups: that’s the little creature who deserves to find all she hopes for. And if I give her up in favor of chasing that stupid carrot, she’ll never have a chance.
And she deserves any chance I can give her. So f*ck that carrot.