My father is a narcissist.
Like any good narcissist, he is unable to recognize these traits in himself. He denies, deflects, and derides. In fact, a true narcissist would never admit to being one.
I was in my early 40s when I came to the complete realization of what my father is. It wasn’t even me that realized this–which is very common among children of narcissists. We have been blinded by so long that we just see the parent’s narcissism as reality.
It wasn’t until after a three hour, intense phone conversation between him, my wife, and myself–one that was full of self aggrandizing, gas lighting, and manipulation–that my wife told me “your father is a narcissist”. I had to look up what it meant to be an actual narcissist and after reading multiple descriptions of a narcissistic parent, I could not believe it. I was reading actual descriptions of my dad as well as my own childhood.
Shortly after that event, I started seeing a therapist. Through therapy and reading, I was able to see my father for who he really is. It doesn’t make it any easier or any better but at least I know that many of my faults as an adult can be directly attributed to being the son of a narcissist. I read that “many have suffered from lifelong inner loneliness due to growing up in a family in constant turmoil and/or lacking emotional closeness”*. That statement is probably one of the best ways to describe my childhood. Those feelings always bubbled under my surface–never to be fully recognized by me and to never be recognized by my father.
One of the worst things that I have taken from my childhood into adulthood are feelings of inadequacy. I feel unworthy of love. Amanda has told me time after time after time that she loves me unconditionally. I believe that with my head, but deep down I tend to doubt that because growing up, love was always conditional.
This past Sunday, I had another intense two hour conversation with my father where I laid out everything I was feeling and why I have distanced myself from him. Over and over again, he would bring up all of the “positive” (read: monetary) things that he has done for me and my family over the last 20 years–and every one of those instances was conditional. I did this for you, therefore you should do/feel this way about me. The coup de gras was when he asked me if I wanted to be included in his and my mom’s estate when they die. In other words, I needed to shape up or I would not be a part of his inheritance.
According to the DSM-V, one of the qualities of a narcissist is that they have a “grandiose sense of self-importance” and “requires excessive admiration.” Something else I read said that “Dad was charismatic. Everyone wanted to be around him and he relished admiration from others. He loved being in the spotlight. No one had an imagination like Dad. Grandiosity is alluring, and so were his fantasies of success, prestige, and brilliance. He would often exaggerate his achievements, and his ambitions and goals bordered on unrealistic.”
Growing up, I just always thought my dad was very creative and outgoing. He would always be the one to be in front of a crowd: entertaining, speaking, generally being in the spotlight. He has always been very creative–something I viewed as a strength of his growing up–but with that creativity there was always the need to show off his current creation to any willing audience. It would only be as an adult that I realized that this was just a part of his show (starring him!).
Being a pastor and a missionary intertwined with being a narcissist offered a whole other level of fuckedupedness. As a pastor he was always in front of people preaching and being a spiritual leader. As a missionary he was “in charge” of saving people’s souls. I now realize that was one way to feed his ego. I remember a story he told of a professor he had in seminary that taught his students the proper way to say “God”. It was this very elongated, exaggerated pronunciation. He would tell this story as a joke–a silly anecdote of something that he would never do. But I also remember one specific Sunday, where during the altar call, he started saying the word “God” just as he did when he was making fun of his professor. I raised my bowed head and just looked at him. I was shocked by his own hypocrisy. In all honesty, without me realizing it at the time, that was probably the moment my deconversion started.
Everything always has to revolve around him and his needs. He will politely listen to what you have to say, but then he will immediately subtly make it about him somehow: I harmed him with my actions, my wife harmed him with her actions, it’s so-and-so’s fault that he had to do this thing, his health is not good and he doesn’t know how much time he has left. It is always about him.
I recently went back and read a letter that I wrote to him 3 years ago as an exercise my therapist suggested. The intent was to be able to write everything out knowing he would never see it. In it I say, “For the first time in my life, I realized that my entire life has been colored by your commentary.” Even as I’m writing this, I was shocked at how true that statement is. My life pre-marriage was indirectly controlled by him. Every major decision I ever made–where I would go to college, where I would get my first job as a teacher, what car I bought as my first car was made by his influence on me. I was never allowed to think for myself–thinking for myself created doubt in my ability to make decisions. So I would naturally turn to him and while I thought I was “just asking for advice” in reality he was the one doing the deciding. When I brought this up to him a few years ago, he attempted to gaslight me in every way imaginable. Yet another trait of a narcissist. And on our call this last Sunday, the gaslighting was getting so out of control that it was almost funny–yet infuriating at the same time. Numerous times during that conversation, he would deflect what I was saying and either change the subject, go off on a tangent, or flat out tell me I was wrong and that he was right. At the same time as conveniently forgetting details of the things he did or said to me.
A narcissist doesn’t handle criticism well and they get angry very easily. On our phone call this last Sunday, my father was stating that I should forgive him just like Christ’s blood was spilled…I interrupted him mid sentence and told him that he should just stop because I don’t believe in any of that anymore. He immediately lashed out and said, “I know! Because you are a heathen!” I could hear the venom in his voice–he was truly angry with me for my beliefs. I didn’t know if I should burst out laughing (Amanda started calling me her heathen afterward) or feel offended. It didn’t bother me that he said these things, but I found it very interesting that he went from talking about how I should forgive him to calling me a heathen.
By the end of our conversation, we did not reach any sort of agreement or conclusion. The only suitable conclusion for him was to get me to admit that I was wrong and he has been right all these years. I summed up and told him what I needed from him to be able to move forward and I would wait to hear from him on the things that he needs from me. As of yet, I have not heard anything.
(On a side note, it was interesting that as soon as we hung up, he started texting me, twisting the events that we just talked about around as if everything was my fault. Thankfully, I’m now aware that this is a classic narcissist move).
So where do I go from here? Knowing these things about my father allows me to protect myself and those that I love because I now recognize what he is doing. Though I have to admit, I have done a pretty shitty job of that. Knowing these things about my father does not make any of it easier. I’m not sure if a continued relationship can be maintained. I just don’t know. He can not admit to his faults and he wants me to take the blame for things I did not do–something I might have done even 10 years ago. But not now. I continually struggle with self doubt to the point of gas-lighting myself–maybe he isn’t all that bad, maybe it is me, maybe things can be different . And then I talk with him and I am reminded that he won’t change. He can’t change.
There is a song we used to sing in Sunday School that goes “He’s still working on me. To make me what I ought to be.” While the song is referring to God working on and making me what I ought to be, I don’t accept this. What I do accept is that I’m working on myself, and regardless of my upbringing, I’m making myself who I should be.