Did a Narcissist Steal Your Self-Esteem?

He watched his mother talk—about her hair, her friends, her car—for twenty minutes. When she paused for breath, he said: "I got promoted at work. They're sending me to—"

"Hey," she said. "Have you seen that new TV series about Brahms?"

"No," he sighed. "By the way, my friend Jed is going blind."

"That reminds me," she said. "I need new glasses."

He wanted to punch himself, but he did not know why.

Hearing the stories of those who were raised by narcissistic parents, knowing some such parents in the flesh, has sparked some of the fiercest loathing I have ever felt.

I've come to see such parenting as outright theft.

Narcissists steal their children's self-esteem.

They shred, stomp, squelch and siphon it away.

Did this happen to you? Was your childhood a crime scene? Were you robbed?

Did someone you loved rob you by not listening to you, by gazing instead blankly into space as soon as you opened your mouth to speak?

Did someone you loved rob you by demanding all of your attention, always, while giving you none?

Did someone you loved rob you by feeling no joy when you were joyous, by not hurting when you hurt?

If so, this robbery began when you were too young to know what theft even was, much less to know that stolen goods can be material but also metaphysical: Faith in oneself, autonomy, resilience can be stolen clean away.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a serious condition, cited in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Considering narcissists sick, as helpless victims of their own mental illness, makes us feel compassion for them.

Even so, forgiveness is entirely optional.

Knowing you've been robbed, even knowing by whom, does not undo that robbery or magically restore your stolen goods. Forgiving narcissists, walking that landmined maze, requires sacrificing precious time, attention, care—of which you've already given them so much. Forgiveness also tricks us into toxic expectations: Does my forgivee sufficiently appreciate what this forgiveness cost me? Does he or she now appreciate me more?

These are dangerous questions when it comes to narcissists.

Focus instead on what they stole and how to get it back. First, understand that thieves—burglars, carjackers and self-esteem stealers—as a rule neither apologize nor tearfully return the stolen goods.

So if you want your stolen stuff back, or at least its same-value equivalent, don't ask the thief. Don't beg, plead or prevail upon the thief. Why not? Because thieves are thieves. So are narcissists. And thieves, while your emotions distract you, will just steal more.

The savvier among them sometimes mimic concern or even regret: stroking your hair, making a vow, their blank stares giving them away only to viewers jaded or experienced enough and/or acquainted with enough non-narcissists to know.

You want what was and is rightfully yours? You'll never get it from that sick, deluded, cares-only-for-him-or-herself criminal.

Get it from somewhere else.

Not that self-esteem stores exist. (I know; I've looked.) Nor self-esteem-replacement databases. (Those too.) This is a highly subjective search, different for everyone—but, to get started, seek self-esteem in your own accomplishments, healthy relationships, life's random glories, well-placed love both without and within.

And remember: If narcissists raised you, they robbed you.

Was their love conditional? Were their promises false? Did they demand that their dreams, desires and dogmas also be yours? Were you their unpaid, always-on-call counselor, doctor, friend? Did they live so vicariously through you that you barely lived, yourself? Did their rage and fear paralyze you? Did they break your heart?

If so, lacking points of comparison, you thought you deserved this. Assuming that those narcissists who raised you represented all humanity, you thought you really were that boring, worthless, ugly, extraneous, irritating and invisible.

You started conscious life believing this, feeling it reinforced day after soft, hyperabsorbent childhood day, bringing it with you, in you, everywhere you went.

What if other theft victims remained unaware that they'd been robbed? Observing their ransacked, half-empty houses and the vacant pockets that once held their wallets, would they swear that they'd discarded all those things at their own will, themselves?

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