“Trust isn’t just given. It must be earned.” If I had a a dollar for all the times I’ve heard that! Unfortunately, that (very erroneous!) dynamic didn’t just apply to trust. It applied to e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, from physical items to age-appropriate milestones to relationships. Everything must be earned. That’s how narcissists think. Nothing is a “given” because it’s “normal” because there is no normalcy in their world. The narcissist’s version of reality operates like some Cosmic Vending Machine that must be impressed before it’ll dispense.

Everything Must Be Earned

This concept was brought home to me when I was a ten or twelve in the silliest situation with the most innocuous item: a nail clipper.

That’s right. My nail clipper was taken away from me. Confiscated.

“We’re confiscating your nail clipper,” the narcissists told me. “because we can’t trust you with it. You’re cutting your nails too short. Until we can trust you with it, your Mommy will cut your nails for you. We will determine when you can have it back.” Later on, when I was eighteen, they confiscated my makeup to shame me for dermatillomania, as if shame ever trumped OCD.

Like you, I’m shaking my head at the memories. Of course it’s all utter rubbish and errant nonsense, but the dynamic was established in my mind at that tender age: Everything Must Be Earned (even nail clippers and L’Oreal liquid makeup). Nothing  is granted “just because.” I must impress the Cosmic Vending Machine with my perfection before it’ll dispense what I want. “Impress to dispense” I call it.

(And how the Hell can you learn how to be trusted with an item if the item itself is confiscated!?!)

What Must Be Earned?

The narcissist’s belief that “everything must be earned” applies to everything from physical items to milestones to relationships. In the normal world, a lot of those things are granted as a matter of course. Take age-appropriate milestones for example. Turn sixteen and it’s time to get your driver’s license. Attain the Age of Majority and, come Hell or high water, you’re an adult, must be respected as such and have total freedom. Along the way, there are a lot of smaller milestones that are our right, not our privilege. For females, some of these milestones are getting your first bra, shaving your legs, wearing make-up and having your first boyfriend.

But not when your parent is a narcissist.

You gotta earn everything. And guess who decides whether you’ve earned it or not? That’s right. They do!

Ingrained Stinkin’ Thinkin’

The upshot of a lifetime of having to “earn” everything is that this stinkin’ thinkin’ gets pretty damn ingrained. It becomes our “go-to” mindset that if we want something, and don’t have it, then we must not be good enough. We must not have tried hard enough. We must not be smart enough, selfless enough, hard working enough, wise enough, moral enough, good enough for the Cosmic Vending Machine to dole out what we want.

While I was single, my parents were quick to point out that it was my fault I hadn’t yet met my husband. Overtly or obliquely, it felt like I was to blame for being single. I wasn’t religious enough. I wasn’t “proving” myself “serious enough.” They almost seemed to delight in saying, “You’re not ready to be married” from time-to-time regardless of the acute agony this caused me. Blah, blah, blah. But the message was clear. I hadn’t impressed the Cosmic Vending Machine enough for it to dole out a husband. Other women were worthy of matrimony. I was extremely unworthy.

(In one way, they were right. I wasn’t ready to marry…a narcissist. No one is ever enough of a doormat to please a narcissistic spouse!)

It’s All A Lie

This “impress to dispense” concept began to crumble after I met Michael, a mere ten months after leaving the narcissists. Meeting him made me realize that the reason God had finally sent him into my life was not because I was more religious, more hardworking, more impressive. Heck no! I hadn’t changed. But I had escaped narcissism…and that made all the difference!

That made me wonder if the whole concept of “everything must be earned” might just be flawed.

Take respect for instance. Do narcissists respect other people as a matter of course or must that also be earned? I respect everyone I meet immediately! As a matter of course. It’s a given. But they can lose my respect. It can be betrayed. Then and only then must it be earned…earned back.

Ingrained Unworthiness

The ramifications of this dynamic is that a deep and abiding sense of unworthiness resides deep in the heart of narcissist’s victims. We simply don’t believe we are worthy of the good, normal things most people take utterly foregranted.

We’re the folks who look in salon windows, but go home to cut our own hair in front of our bathroom mirror.

We’re the folks who are afraid to get a makeover or a massage, even though our muscles are knotted in post-PTSD “body armor.”

We’re the folks who choose dowdy clothes in drab colors when we long to be hip and chic, but don’t dare.

We’re the folks who long for a spendy, lovely item at a store, but put it back because we “don’t deserve it.”

We’re the folks who avoid singles events because we just know we’ll be the wallflower anyways.

We’re the folks who give sex too easily because we’re amazed that anyone would want to sleep with us.

We’re the folks who believe that we don’t deserve to have children. (But wonder why God sends children to narcissistic parents like ours when we would be much better parents than they ever were! We’re haunted by the narcissists impressing upon us how much they sacrificed, how hard they worked, how much they gave to bring us up…super-parents!)

We’re the folks who let friendships go without a fight because we were surprised and incredulous to have a friend in the first place.

We’re the folks who die a thousand deaths of guilt when we take a day off from work lest a coworker have to cover for us.

We’re the folks who guiltily call ourselves “hedonists” if we take a hot bath or enjoy a glass of wine.

We’re the folks who feel so rotten about ourselves we breathe shallowly, eat lightly and get dehydrated because we feel we don’t deserve air, food and water.

We’re the folks who don’t take our medications, our multi-vitamins or even headache med, cause we don’t want to waste them.

We’re the folks who never go to the doctor, or even the ER, because we don’t want to cause any fuss or worry.

We’re the folks that speak so softly, no one can ever hear us.

We’re the folks who feel guilty for spending money on ourselves. Heck! Even buying groceries makes us cringe with guilt. We may “sneak” small amounts of money to spend on inexpensive items for ourselves, but never, never make large purchases.

We the folks who walk softly and quietly, sneaking invisibly through life, so as not to disturb anyone because we don’t feel worthy to be alive.

We’re the folks who wonder why everyone else has been granted, and then takes foregranted, all the stuff we desperately want. We’re the folks who wonder what others did to earn the good, the normal things in life. What did they do so right!?! What makes them so much better!?! Why do they never cringe at merely existing, at the sound of their own voices?

We’re the Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse who are constantly trying to impress the Cosmic Vending Machine. And here’s the kicker. We’re probably the kindest, most generous, most giving, selfless, God-fearing people you’ll ever meet. If only we could realize it!

Photo by DocChewbacca