I am painting my townhouse, and the act of painting has plunged me back in time, forcing me to recall how my ex-narcissist began his campaign of diminishment. It began with our home renovations.
I planned all the renovations. I came up with creative design ideas to maximize space, I chose all colors, light fixtures etc, and I did all of the procurement. He did the physical labor.
Naturally, when people came over, they would compliment him on a job well done. A loving, supportive spouse would have used this as an opportunity to compliment his partner. He could say “I couldn’t do it without her help; I don’t know how she keeps everything going with the house and the kids while I’m painting” or “isn’t that a cool idea? She came up with that.” The narcissist though, uses this as an opportunity to diminish his partner. If he acknowledged me at all it was to say “yeah, she does a good job buying things online”.
A similar exploitation occured when we opened our 1st restaurant. I helped design it, choose the paint colors and other design features, and even picked the tables and chairs. We had a soft opening – a night for family and friends during which we did everything the way the restaurant was to run. He did the cooking, I handled the front of the house. After the meal was over he was received rave reviews, while I was ignored. I anticipated this, and I was proud of him, so I needed no recognition. Later though, he decided to compliment me by telling me what a great job I did unwrapping the chairs. The chairs arrived 2 hours before the event, so it was a big job unwrapping and setting them up, but certainly not the highlight of my contribution.
I wasn’t really sure what was happening at the time, so I mentioned it to some of my family members. Being huge fans of his, my family told me I was being overly dramatic and ridiculous. I could never figure out what exactly he did to make me feel diminished, I could never adequately describe what was happening, so I dropped it. As the years wore on, my sense of competence, my sense of accomplishment, disappeared. Eventually, I felt so incompetent and ridiculous, I stayed with him despite the fact that I knew he was cheating on me, stealing from the business and generally not a good guy.
It wasn’t until I survived a brutal chemo regimen that I was able to reclaim my sense of strength, and put an end to things.
When we 1st separated, my family was still inclined to believe he was a great guy, and I an overactive drama queen. That is until my sister experienced it first hand.
My ex moved out about 2 months before our sons high school graduation. My sister came to help me prepare for the graduation party. We decorated the house, touched up paint and scrubbed the outside deck and driveway, created a cupcake display with custom decorations matching my sons’ interests, and completed all of the set up for the big day. My ex came in with the food the restaurant had prepared, and put it out in the places we had prepared. As he was doing so my sister was fanning paper napkins to place next to the silverware. He looked over at her and said “you’re really good at fanning those napkins”.
I missed it, but she told me later that at first she was thrilled that he had both noticed her, and taken the time to compliment her. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that she looked around and realized what a ridiculous, demeaning compliment it had actually been. She went on to say that once she realized this she felt diminished. She found herself wondering if her only real contribution to the day had been fanning napkins, and if that was really all she was good at.
She apologized for not understanding what he had been doing to me and I, for the first time, began to understand the power of a few well chosen, demeaning compliments.
I spend a lot of time at baseball games with my boys, so I think this is a good analogy. Let’s suppose a major league team had a great game, and the coach is being interviewed. If he is a raging, covert narcissist, he might say something like “well we couldn’t do it without the batting coach picking up the balls after practice”. He wouldn’t say “we couldn’t do it without the batting coaches skills”, which would be an actual compliment. In noting that the batting coach “picks up balls after practice” he is diminishing this coaches role, essentially making his role irrelevant.
As I paint my townhouse, I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I am doing this myself; no one else can take credit for my work (or blame for my mistakes!!). I can now look back over the years that I felt incompetent and recognize them for what they were – years of being held hostage by a covert narcissist.
I am compelled to remember the damage he did, because I will live with the remnants of his abuse for the rest of my life. My default reaction will always be to wonder what I did wrong, how I screwed things up, how I failed. As the years go by without him whispering in my ear, I am increasingly able to evaluate circumstances more accurately, but it is really hard work. On certain days though, I’m able to look at something that went wrong and not assume responsibility, and damn – it feels amazing!
So for today, let yourself off the hook! Hop off the crazy train and take a good, hard look at what is really happening. I’m betting it isn’t what you’ve been told.