Opinion: My Narcissistic Father Tried to Pass On His Behavior Patterns to Me

Walter Rhein

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It is difficult to grow up in an abusive situation. Children regard their parents as an example. Narcissists make abusive behaviors seem normal.

I often think about the way my dad used to treat my mom. He would say something rude. The statement hurt her. Then my dad would urge her to lighten up.

When my mom was upset by something, that was regarded as a family inconvenience. However, if my dad became angry, he expected us to take it seriously.

Watching this as a child, I sensed that something was wrong. I didn’t realize that my dad was teaching us to act like him.

At the time, my impression was that my mom was asking too much. As an adult, I recognize that she only wanted to be treated with basic decency.

My mom was fiscally responsible. My dad liked to purchase expensive electronics. Sometimes I felt he bought things just to irritate her.

One day he came home with a video camera. My mom asked him why he bought it.

“I bought it so I can record a video of you at your race,” dad said.

My mom participated in an annual cross-country ski race. When dad said he bought a camera to record her, I could tell she felt frustrated.

It seemed like he was making an effort to be nice.

But, his form of being nice included behavior she did not want to encourage.

My dad made the situation complex. He presented himself as the dutiful spouse trying to do right. In private, he complained about how our mother didn’t appreciate his efforts. He acted like nothing he did was good enough.

My mom decided to focus on my dad’s claim that he was trying to do something nice for her.

Our family forgot the conflict until the day of the race.

My mom had the best race of her life. Unfortunately, nobody in the family saw her finish because my dad overslept.

I remember seeing her disappointment after the race. My dad said it was her fault he didn’t get a video because she skied too fast.

Mom became upset and dad said her anger was unreasonable. A few days later, she got over it and normal life resumed.

This episode with the video camera by itself is not a tragic life event. It is something you can forget. However, when something like this happens every few days, you start to become hopeless.

As an adult, my wife and children have entered many sporting events. I can’t understand how anyone could miss a finish.

When somebody I love is competing, I’m too excited to sleep. It’s not normal to engage in hurtful behavior every few days. You can’t expect people to “get over” things that bother them.

Growing up, it was as if every time my parents had a conflict, there was a mini-trial in our household. Dad would demonstrate that mom was unreasonable. We had to accept it before normal life could resume.

These informal trials ingrained a toxic pattern of behavior. I didn’t make progress as a person until I learned to take responsibility when I hurt somebody. It was even more important to not hurt people in the first place.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI
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