One of the things you hear a lot in support communities for the children of narcissists is, “Don’t go to the hardware store for milk.” It refers to the tempting tendency to continue trying to get what you deserved and needed as a child – love, support, approval, guidance – from a person, usually a parent, who has already shown themselves to be incapable of giving you that thing. You keep going to the hardware store for milk, and you know they don’t have any, never did and never will. That sucks, it’s not fair and it’s not your fault, but the third or fourth – or hundredth – time you go in there asking for milk, it starts to look like self-flagellation. Your hope is killing you.
If you didn’t get a lot of that kind of familial support as a kid, you’ll probably go looking for it in everyone you meet. If you were raised by a narcissist, or an addicted parent who required you to parent them, you were taught to be someone’s emotional crutch. You were taught that someone who needs you to manage their emotions for them constantly is… someone who loves you. You were taught that when you manage other people’s emotions for them, when you determine your value by how much you please others, that’s you showing love.
It hurts to realize that your parents are never going to turn into the parents you needed them to be. It hurts even more to realize that hoping they will is still you judging yourself by their standards. It’s still you conceding that your life needs their stamp of approval. And when you give that up, it feels like being set adrift, shorn of your identity. It feels like all you had was that battered heart they left you with. If not there, where will you live?
Creating an identity, for me, has been a process that works from the edges in, something I perceive mostly as negative space. I imagine a person-shaped void, a starfield with arms and legs, and I imagine that person doing the things I do. Then I try to describe, as objectively as I can, what that person is doing and what I would conclude about that person from their actions. This helps me somewhat sidestep my tendency to judge myself differently from how I judge others.
This person-shaped void has become very important to me. I realized that there is only one person to whom I can safely say things like, “I need you to never leave me. I need you to love me completely, to the exclusion of all other things.” Though those are feelings we deserve and need to have at some point in our lives – ideally when we’re growing – they’re not sentiments that can be safely addressed by an adult to another adult. No other person can or should be the source of all your joy, or self-worth, or drive. So if you need to be loved like that, but no adult can responsibly promise you that they will forever… can you make that promise to yourself?
I was unable to come up with a reason why I couldn’t, so I did. I’ve promised plenty of young guys and girls that I’d love them forever, never leave them, sacrifice all for them. Why should that promise be any harder or less important to make to myself, when I’m the only one in the world who literally can’t leave me?
I can’t leave me, but I can ignore and punish myself. I can fail to love myself. I can fail to sacrifice my momentary comfort and security for the long-term good of the person I’m supposed to take care of. That’s neglect when a parent does it to their child… so it’s neglect when I do it to myself.
Imagining myself as this other person, this star-filled void, makes it a little easier. I imagine vague, bright arms around my shoulders, warmth against my body. I feel the deep love and commitment I make to others and try to imagine this void, myself, feeling that way about me. I know exactly what it should feel like, right? I know I’m capable of it. So to imagine it, in this context, is to create it.
We talk about self-worth, love, belief in ourselves, like those things are rare treasures buried underground somewhere, that we could find if we were only brave, diligent, strong enough. It’s not like that. You have love, belief, esteem. You know you do. You apply them to others all the time. All you have to do is try to apply them to yourself. No matter how stupid it feels.
Turn up your favorite love song, and imagine your own face as hard as you can. Imagine singing that song to yourself, the passionate feelings you’d have if you sang it to another person, but with your actions, your life, YOU in mind. This is easy to do when you’re alone – put on headphones and let yourself mouth the words, let yourself cry if you feel like crying. It’s good for you. Do this over and over until it no longer makes you cry, no longer makes you feel silly. Then pick another song, another tender ballad or sweet jam about someone with your hair color, and do it again.
I found a negative space to love me,
the space between what was and should have been.
Over the years I’ve colored that space in
with starfields I’ve never seen above me.
In its way, it’s no more illusory
than any constellation I could try
to pin my hopes on, plot my progress by –
who drew the lines between the stars but me?
I feel my own fingers inside my head;
I feel myself pressed up against my back.
I swoon and let me take myself to bed,
each kiss and touch returning what I lack.
Who else can promise, even when I’m dead
to wrap my arms around us in the black?