Marcy is a bright and beautiful woman. She often says that her main goal in life is “to get to the top of the heap, and stay there.” Marcy puts her all into everything she does, and doesn’t mind stepping on a few people on her way to the top. When she meets new people, she usually leads off with her accomplishments, which impresses some, but turns others off. Marcy has very little compassion for herself and very little for others. Her biggest, most carefully guarded secret fear: that she is actually a nothing.
Bill is living a life of contradiction. He is loved by many, but he feels unworthy of love. From the outside, his life appears full; on the inside, he feels empty. Bill does fine in his work, but he never feels successful enough. He has plenty of compassion for others, but little for himself. His biggest, most carefully guarded secret: that he is deeply, bafflingly different from everyone else; that he is deeply, bafflingly flawed.
Marcy has narcissistic personality disorder, and Bill is living with the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). They seem so very different. What could these two personalities possibly have in common?
In many ways, people like Bill who grew up with CEN are the opposite of narcissistic.
Unlike narcissists, folks who grew up in households where their feelings are ignored (CEN) tend to be overly selfless. They have difficulty saying “no,” asking for help, and depending on others. Because they’re not aware enough of their own preferences and needs, they tend to go along too easily with other people’s needs and preferences.
Often those who grew up feeling invisible (CEN) are most comfortable feeling invisible as adults. And yet they have a deeply buried, natural, and very human need to be seen.
On the other hand, narcissistic folks like Marcy are known for being self-centered and for their tremendous call for attention. Because of their lack of compassion for others, it’s easy for narcissists to put their own needs first.
The CEN person feels uncomfortable IN the limelight, and the narcissist feels uncomfortable OUT of the limelight.
The amazing thing is that Bill’s issues and Marcy’s share a common root cause: Childhood Emotional Neglect. The difference is this: Bill’s feelings and needs were simply ignored when he was a child; Marcy’s emotions and needs were ignored as well, but she was also, at times, punished for having them.
The CEN child grows up largely unseen and unheard. Even if his parents were loving and kind, it was toward a generic child, not the specific one they had. There may be no abuse or harshness; there is simply an emotional vacuum.
The narcissist also grows up unseen and unheard. But her Emotional Neglect is more extreme. Her emotions and needs are ignored, yes. But they are also at times actively invalidated.
Child Bill and Child Marcy
No one noticed when 8-year-old Bill came home sad and afraid from being bullied at school. He knew that he had to handle it himself, so he did.
No one noticed when Marcy was bullied either. But when she came home sad and afraid, her mother sent her to her room until she could “stop sulking.”
Child Bill was overlooked at his large family’s annual reunions.
At Child Marcy’s family reunions, she was displayed by her parents for the relatives to admire her beauty; then she was essentially pushed to the side and ignored. At one reunion, teen Marcy refused to put on make-up. She wore old jeans and a ripped t-shirt. Her parents were so enraged at her refusal make them proud that they totally ignored her at the reunion and refused to acknowledge her existence for weeks after.
Bill’s childhood taught him that his feelings and needs didn’t matter. So he pushed them down, and lost access to his own emotions. He is living his adult life without a major source of connection, stimulation, and information. This is the “flaw” which he senses deeply, but has no words to describe.
Marcy lives her life in the grip of a terrible fear; a fear of being unnoticed. “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”, she calls out with her every word and her every act, “I matter! I matter! I matter!” Marcy only feels okay when she is in the limelight. She learned early and well that when she is not under a spotlight, she is nothing.
Yes, Bill and Marcy are very, very different. But deep down, they share this common core:
I am empty.
I am alone.
I don’t matter.
I can’t let others see me too closely.
Because then they will see that I am nothing.
Bill and Marcy’s paths to recovery share some common threads, but they diverge. Bill must accept the true cause of his struggles: the painful realization that his parents failed him. He must recognize that he is not flawed; and go through the process of regaining access to his emotions, accepting them as valid, and listening to what they are telling him. Only then will he begin to feel loving and loved, and grounded and filled. Only then will he realize that he matters.
Marcy’s path is most likely longer and more complex. She must do everything that Bill must do. But she also must see that the spotlight she seeks is killing her. Marcy’s true self does not reside in the limelight. Instead it lives deep within her, amongst the true feelings and needs that were punished and squelched when she was a child.
If Marcy can see that something is wrong in her life, she may begin to seek answers. She may begin to see that her own feelings, and other people’s feelings, are real and valid. She may begin to feel guilt when she hurts others.
She may realize that being admired is not the same as being loved, and that there is no love in the limelight. She may realize what real love is, and that she is worthy of it. Only then will she know that she matters.