There it was again. That odd feeling that something was wrong with my outfit. Looking down, my heart sank into my boots. Yes, the very boots whos zipper had caught the lace trim of my satin slip, no, make that my Mom’s Favorite Slip. Already the lace hung loose and limp.

Just hours before Mother had lectured me, “Yes, you may borrow my slip, but be careful of it! It’s my favorite slip. Don’t ruin it!”

I was “for it” and no mistake.

Of course, this was nothing new. As a teen, I had a knack for ruining things. Well, I still do. Only now, they’re my things and I can ruin ’em if I like! (It’s terribly liberating! How well I remember my husband saying, “Enough! I’m not gluing any more of your broken crockery. If you break something, just buy new!” Gotta’ love that man! Alas, I digress.)

But in my teens, my mother got awfully upset every time I ruined something. “If I stay very calm when I confess what I’ve done to her,” I reasoned, “perhaps she’ll stay calm too.” Putting my strategy into place, I was almost catatonic when I told her, “Your slip caught on the zipper on my boots and ripped.”

Did the strategy work? You bet your sweet life it did…not!

“I can’t believe it! I borrow you the one slip that I really like,” she cried. “I told you to be careful with it. And you ruined it. Worse yet, you don’t seem to care!”

Suddenly, light glimmered. It wasn’t the slip she cared so much about. That could easily be mended. What upset her so much was my apparent lack of empathy. She was desperate for empathy from someone. All children of narcissists are desperate for empathy…if they even know what it is!

I’ve seen those who are starved for empathy “act out” in two different ways. Either, they’ll demand empathy and throw a fit trying to get it. Or they won’t even know what it is and be puzzled when they finally receive it.

As a newlywed, I’d be sympathetic when my husband got an owie. I’d coo, say “poor baby,” kiss his boo boo and offer to fetch him a Band-Aid®. And he couldn’t figure it out. He found my behavior puzzling.

“That’s empathy, dear,” I had to explain. But it was foreign to him. Even when he extended care and sympathy to me, the emotion, the action and the word “empathy” were disconnected in his mind. Not surprising, I suppose, for a man “raised” (if you can call it that) by parents so cruel that they refused to bring him to the hospital when his appendix became inflamed. Finally, after twelve hours of begging, they took him saying, “Fine! We’ll take you in. But if it turns out you’re not sick, you’ll get the beating of your life.”

But my mother knew what empathy was. She’d watched her mom extend it to her “poor little fella” Golden Child brother. But little of that empathy filtered down to her! Years of narcissistic abuse took their toll, and still there was no empathy from her mother. When Mom became virtually a shut-in, her own husband called her “a chicken-shit afraid of her own shadow.” I made sure she got out of the house from time-to-time. Oh yes! Mom was dying for empathy.

From then on, I used a new strategy. When I ruined things, and I still did, I used empathy. “Oh Mom, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to. I know how you feel. I’m dreadfully sorry I ruined {fill-in-the-blank}.” Oftentimes, I started crying. Empathy made all the difference. She stayed much calmer.

Did you ever receive empathy from your narcissists? Do you even know what it looks like, feels like, sounds like? Are you so desperate for empathy that you demand it at the top of your lungs?

How have you coped with not receiving empathy from the narcissist(s) in your life?

Photo by Neeta Lind