In 1997, PBS broadcast the tenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. I was transfixed. Mesmerized. The joyful virtuosity of winner Jon Nakamatsu’s hands racing up and down the keys of the Steinway piano enthralled me. The cheeky humor of James Conlon conducting the Forth Worth Symphony Orchestra and commenting, “Let’s assume the conductor is the worst part of this equation” was enlightening — especially when the orchestra got out of sync! In many ways, 1997 changed my life. That was the year I turned seventeen, parentification started, my growing up process stopped, the year I chose the names of my future children, selected my future wedding ring — and fell in love with Steinway pianos.
I read everything I could find about Steinways. My favorite book, My Life With The Great Pianists, was written by Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons. Born in 1927, Herr Mohr was a violinist until a wrist injury made that dream impossible. He lost both of his brothers in World War II and somehow, through the seemingly tangled skein of the underside of God’s beautiful embroidery, Herr Mohr found himself in the magical and mythical basement of Steinway and Sons piano factory that the New York Times called “The little room where Rachmaninoff practiced.”
In addition to the tuning of the pianos, it was Herr Mohr’s job to give the Steinway concert grands the “color” desired by the particular virtuoso who would be playing that piano, whether it be Horowitz, Rubinstein, Gould, Serkin — I could go on name dropping, but I’m already resembling Dr. Frasier Crane way too much.
“What does all that about Steinways have to do with False Guilt, Lenora?” you ask, rolling your eyes so loudly I can hear it from here!
“Hang on! Don’t rush me! I’m getting there!” I holler back with a wink.
One aspect of the “color” of a piano is the softness or hardness of the felt-covered hammers that strike the strings. If the pianist wants a harder, more brilliant tone, Herr Mohr would apply hammer juice to the felt, hardening it and changing the color of the piano.
If the pianist desired a softer, more mellifluous tone, Herr Mohr pricked tiny holes in the hammer felt, softening it.
Isn’t that EXACTLY what narcissists do to our consciences!?!
It rarely has anything to do with morals or ethics. The narcissists’ conditioning of our conscience has everything to do with other considerations than right or wrong. The projection of their own vices onto us. Their paranoias, phobias and pet peeves. Their own particular likes and dislikes. And their constant angst at themselves which they take out as criticism, sniping and irritability towards us.
I’ll give you a silly example. My father couldn’t stand how I walked. For years, he censured me for my hard walk. “Look at your mother,” he’d always say, “mimic her gracefulness.” I learned to glide through the house like a whisper, making no noise. I wanted to be invisible, like a mouse behind the baseboard or an unseen spider in a corner. Fast forward almost twenty years. Suddenly, I met a bunch of people who all walked like a herd of elephants, booming across their hardwood floors. No one noticed. No one cared. No one criticized each other. It was wonderful!
Apparently, having a “hard walk” wasn’t wrong at all. It was merely an opinion, a pet peeve. By criticizing my walk, he’d pricked a bunch of holes in the felt of my conscience, softening it, creating False Guilt. See how that works?
But what about the other way round? How do narcissists harden our conscience? Sometimes their narcissistic agenda forces us to do something we know is morally wrong. Here’s an example.
When I was fourteen, my school required all eighth graders to do a science experiment. In our written report, we had to include a variety of research sources — books, magazines, periodicals. When the time came to write my report, I realized that my “periodical” source wasn’t. If anything it was more of a booklet or pamphlet. To use it as my “periodical” would have been cheating.
I’d heard of a moment like this. “Two roads diverged in a wood” and all that. I had a moral decision to make, perhaps my first “adult,” independent decision. A character-defining decision. Would I kinda’, sorta’ cheat and use the periodical that wasn’t a periodical or would I skip that resource entirely and take a lower grade.
I chose the high road.
I went to my father and told him I would take a lower grade rather than cheat by using a periodical that wasn’t a periodical. Barely raising his eyes from his book, he said, “It’s a periodical. I know about these things and it’s a periodical.” Still, I refused. Perhaps I came off as high-handed, but really I was trying to be strong and ethical. If I thought he’d be proud of me for taking a strong moral stand, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Flying into a rage, he rose from his chair and came at me. Frightened, I flattened myself against the living room wall, still pressing my point. That’s when he balled up his fist and hit me on the jaw. Not hard. But that doesn’t matter. From the age of five I’d been expecting his rage to become physical and now it had. He punched me in the face, later gaslighting me that it was merely to shut me up and it wasn’t really a punch and not to tell my mother.
Needless to say, I was scared into doing what I considered to be wrong. That’s an example of “hammer juice” being applied to toughen the felt of our conscience to real guilt because it’s convenient for the narcissist. Perhaps they make us lie for them. Perhaps they made you pretend to be sick or poverty-stricken to get free food and stuff. Perhaps they made you cheat for them. What did your narcissist make you do that you knew was morally wrong?
Here’s another example. In the late 1990s, I worked for Dayton’s and received their employee credit. The rules were strict. You could only use your employee card to receive a credit for stuff you purchased for yourself. They specifically forbade buying the stuff your relatives wanted and then having them pay you back!
But my mother took it foregranted that I would do just that. And when I objected, the hammer juice was flowing hot and strong that day. She was very offended that I chose to do the ethical thing, which cost her a little bit more money. In time, she came around, grudgingly, to respect my position on the moral high ground. But first, she ladled out the hammer juice, trying to harden the felt of my conscience, to save herself a few dollars.
Now it’s your turn. How has the felt of your conscience been pricked to create False Guilt or hardened to overlook actual wrong-doing? Please share in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading!