[NOTE: I am taking a break on accepting letters regarding personal problems for a while. I have a backlog of email to respond to, which I’ve decided to use as material for blog posts. This is the first of those blog posts. You can still email me for a variety of reasons, including to share or receive book recommendations, ask for clarification of concepts from blog posts, or just to share some insights. But as far as emails asking for in-depth help along the lines of therapy, please refrain from sending me things of that nature, at least until I make it through this series of posts. I’d really like to catch up with the emails I already have, and those types are the most time-consuming both to read and respond to.]
A reader wrote to me for advice, but it was quite long so this is an extremely abridged version (in the future, if you want a response from me, please try to be as concise as possible).
I am an offspring of a narcissistic family, with a very distant, non-emotional father and a deeply depressive mother. While my mother was always very unhappy with her life and especially aging (she is working out every(!) day to stop it and had several plastic surgeries), my father never really cared about me and was more of a loner. What my parents cared about was that I represent them in a proper way (school, behaviour, career). They never really asked for my opinion and got very mad at me when I didn’t want to do the things they intended for me. They called me bad names, yelled at me and in case of my father sometimes hurt me physically (he never beat me up, but hit me on the head with the back of his hand and things like that).
As you can imagine, I also wasn’t the most popular kid in school as I had no self-esteem and even got bullied by my classmates. I was getting obese and lived in my own world, not going out playing and not having many friends, mainly spending time by playing video games and daydreaming.
The happiest time of my youth was when I was in holiday camps, I felt more cared for and in a family there then at home and this was the best part of all year. I lived on like that till I was sixteen and I finally got fed up with being the victim. I started to work out and go out regularly and I got more friends and better looks (while still being very anxious, but even that got better).
I had my first girlfriend when I started the training and it did only last for half a year, but never been loved, I felt like in heaven for that time. Unexperienced as I was, the relationship was an up and down for both of us and she also had many issues and it ended when she dumped with no real reason. I was completely devastated, thought she was the woman of my life and cried for days/weeks. I wanted to have her back for more then five years, but I’ll come back later to this.
When joining university, I also got many real good friends (I have most of them even today) and a new girlfriend. She was codependant. I started acting out as if I would be the greatest guy on earth, being the complete opposite of the shy guy of my youth. I didn’t really want my girlfriend and more or less signaled that to her, but she stayed at my side and I mainly used her for sex. It was always a very troubling relationship and I never regarded her as the woman I would get old with. Nowadays, I guess she was only a source of narcissistic supply for me. All that time, I only wanted my Ex back and even tried it, but I didn’t succeed then. After three years we finally broke up and I was happy that I made that decision. I had two good months, but then suddenly a friend of mine started dating her and that completely fucked me up.
[The letter then goes on to describe all types of toxic dramas with his two ex-girlfriends, both of whom keep re-entering his life and the roles and power dynamics between him and his exes keeps changing. He will be the codependent with one girl and they break up, only for the power dynamics to switch when they reunite years later and he will now be the narcissist to her codependent . Likewise with another girl he will start off as the narcissist to her codependent, they break up, and when they reunite later on he is now very codependent and in the lower power position in the relationship. The email goes on to describe lots and lots of drama and power shifts and love triangle complications between him and his two on-again, off-again exes. He also describes another relationship with a girl who was incredibly beautiful, model beautiful. Their relationship was very toxic also but he admits he was addicted to the narcissistic supply of being with such a hot, hot woman that he tolerated the toxicity for longer than he should have.]
One of the most eye-opening articles of your website was the one about “toxic shame“. I don’t really feel guilt, I only feel shame that someone sees what a fault I really am. When I first discovered this and understood it, I could let this a bit go and even felt guilt for the first time for some of the things I did. I felt guilt the way I treated my ex and it made me feel sad, but this felt a bit like a relieve.
I live right now like a machine. I go to work, then I do sports, then I practice some skills (video games, poker,…). The only thing that really keeps me going is that I hope that I will feel better one day. But I don’t have my illusions anymore and have to fight this false lovesickness every day. I won’t give up and try my best till the last of my days, but is there any way to stop that cycle from reappearing and to finally feel better?
My answer was in the form of two emails, which appear in combined form below:
Hi, a few things:
I think you have a lot of unresolved problems with rejection from your parents, and you tend to relive those issues with your romantic relationships. On some level, you seek out or construct those same dynamics in all new relationships. Your hope is to get it right this time. You get attracted to image conscious or emotionally problematic people and try to win them over, because your parents were image conscious and emotionally problematic, and you couldn’t ever fully win them over. For a conquest to matter in your mind, it has to be over someone like your parents. Also, your problem is your dislike with yourself. You feel fundamentally flawed and on some level unlovable. It’s like the old Groucho Marx saying, “I don’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member.”
Since you don’t love or respect yourself, you have trouble appreciating anyone else who loves or respects you, because you think someone has to be defective themselves on some level to want you so unconditionally. That’s why that one ex-girlfriend only gained value in your eyes once she rejected you and chose to date your friend.
Your biggest obstacle right now, I think, is to stop thinking of yourself as flawed and to stop focusing on “fixing” yourself. The obsessive desire to look for the right answer to fix yourself just drives the point home harder that you’re fundamentally flawed right now. It’s what I talk about in my most recent posts, you are oscillating between an idealized false self and a despicable false self and believing those are your only two options. Unless you step out of that vicious cycle, you’ll keep repeating the same mistakes. Instead of fixing yourself, I would focus more on accepting yourself as being fine the way you already are, and then improving yourself from there. If I were you, I would start with finding small things to appreciate about yourself regularly. Keep a notepad if necessary to write them down. If you don’t learn to love and respect yourself, and you’re the one who spends the most time with yourself, then you will always expect other people to eventually feel about you the way you feel about yourself the better they get to know you, and you’ll even start self-sabotaging in order to speed the process along.
You have to realize that any rejections your parents did of you were due to their own issues, not yours, and make peace with that. Then you have to fix your relationship with yourself before you can have a good one with other people. Maybe it involves finding little ways to be of service to other people without expecting anything in return. Maybe it can be getting involved in a spiritual practice with a community of like-minded people who are supportive. Maybe it can involve getting some therapy to help you understand your issues with your parents and putting them to rest. The most important thing is that you have to stop focusing on fixing yourself, and focus more on accepting then improving yourself.
The idea of getting better by not trying so hard to improve is very counterintuitive and difficult. I highly recommend the book A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle in regard to that. I had to read it a couple of times to wrap my head around it. Also, whenever you do think about how to improve yourself, focus more on how to improve your relationship with yourself rather than improving superficial aspects, such as your looks, your social skills, how you dress, how witty your banter is, things like that. Not that that stuff isn’t important, because it definitely is, but if your foundation, which is your relationship with yourself, is faulty, it’s the equivalent of putting a new paint job and rims on a run down jalopy, a short term solution.
Some more food for thought: if you were selling something extremely defective and of low value, what kind of people will you expect to find such an object extremely desirable? Only two types of people would place high value on an object that is defective and pf low value: people who are desperate and of even lower value themselves, so they want it even if they’re aware of what it is, or people who are high value but are under the mistaken belief that the defective and low value object is actually an exquisite, high-value object, either because they were lied to or because they haven’t gotten a chance to examine said object closely enough or for a long enough time under a variety of conditions.
The same logic goes for when that extremely defective and low value object you’re selling is yourself. If you think of yourself in such a way, you will slot all highly interested buyers” in the same two categories: (1) people who may or may know how defective you are, but are only interested because they’re desperate and of lower value, or (2) people of higher value that you have to keep up a front around and constantly use a false idealized self to impress, for fear that if they ever discovered your true self they’d realize they got a defective product and leave. Even though both cases will give you narcissistic supply, it won’t be fulfilling. In the first case the narcissistic supply isn’t fulfilling because you’re getting it from what you regard as a degraded source, someone even lower than you. In the latter case the narcissistic supply isn’t fulfilling because you have to get the supply under phony pretenses, using the lie of a false, idealized self. The catch-22 of false idealized self is that they create a barrier of defense that keeps our true self from getting hurt, but they also create a barrier that keeps us from getting true, genuine connection. Just as one requires vulnerability to be hurt, one also needs vulnerability to be loved. So while huge false selves keep up from getting hurt to a degree, they also keep us from being fully loved also.
My personal recommendation would be to take a break from dating for a few months and spend a lot of time doing introspection and building a friendship with yourself. Make people with your past, make peace with yourself, forgive yourself for whatever you tend to beat yourself up for. Your relationship with yourself is important. If your new therapist is good, keep seeing her and doing the personal work to grow. After that I would spend six months or so just dating, with no aims of getting in a relationship. Date as much as you can, and have fun, and try not to take yourself or anything too seriously. When you feel more confident in your relationship with yourself, then and only then would I say to worry about a girlfriend. You strike me as being fairly young, so you have time to have serious relationships.