Mike (not his real name) was sitting in the front office, talking to his 8th grade history teacher. It was a heated conversation, a contentious conversation. The conversation went something like this.
“Yes, but I needed it.”
“So, you just took it. Even though it didn’t belong to you. And even though you hadn’t asked.”
“Cuz I needed it.”
Taking something without asking is usually called stealing. It is against the law. As a society, we have decided that you do not have the right to take someone else’s stuff. Even if you think you need it. You may like it that way or not like it that way, but that’s the agreement.
Mike didn’t like it that way. He hadn’t agreed to anything. Mike believed he did have the right to take something from someone else. He didn’t believe anyone else had the right to take something from him, but he did think he had the right to take something from someone else. If he thought he needed.
Mike isn’t a thief. He’s just on his way toward growing up to be a narcissist. He believes he has rights society in general does not agree that he has.
Kids sometimes get confused. So maybe Mike was just being a kid. But I see this kind of behavior over and over–not just in kids, but in adults. People who believe they have rights others haven’t agreed they have. Special rights. And I don’t mean gay rights, or transgender rights, or some other kind of rights some politicians will say are special rights.
I mean the right to take someone else’s stuff. Or to go to the front of the line. Or to not pay your bills. Those rights. Rights that would lead to total anarchy if we shifted our ideas around about them.
I was in what you might euphemistically call a bad relationship for a long time. Nine years to be exact. We spent a lot of time in couples counseling trying to fix things. We talked a lot about boundaries, about where one of us began and the other ended. I got that. I didn’t feel confused about who she was or really who I was or that we weren’t the same person.
But I didn’t understand what my rights were. I assumed I didn’t have rights I actually do have. And she assumed she had rights she didn’t. It could have worked out perfectly, except that she kept stealing things from me: my time, my dignity, my safety, my well-being, my comfort, my mojo. And I let her. Because I didn’t understand it was theft. I thought people were allowed to do that. I just couldn’t figure out why she kept wanting to.
It seemed mean. Why would you keep wanting to do something mean? Aside from the idea that you don’t care that it’s mean or that it hurts someone else, you do it because you think you have the right to.
It doesn’t usually bother us too much if we do something that hurts someone else as long as we feel it’s within our rights. Mostly, we think they should probably just deal with it and move on. Eating a healthy diet when I know others are hungry doesn’t really bother me, although I might be able to help if I gave my grocery money away. But I feel entitled to eat. So I do.
Narcissists, generally, believe they have rights no one else has agreed to. When you complain about it, they mostly seem to think you should suck it up and deal.
The following is a list of rights some of them may believe they have:
1) The right to be comfortable–to not be inconvenienced, feel pain, or have unpleasant emotions.
2) The right to be entertained. Constantly. Boredom is a clear violation of their rights. This goes back to #1.
3) The right to attention, admiration, and uninterrupted positive regard–both from themselves and from others. They should not ever need to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or like a failure–although the rest of us do from time to time. This goes back to right #1.
4) The right to have what they want when they want it–without working for it, asking for it, waiting their turn for it, or sharing it.
5) The right to exact revenge.
Understanding this has provided me with immense clarity for why my mother in particular behaved the way she did with me when I was growing up. You see, what is most remarkable about my memories of being physically abused by her is her well-articulated sense that she was being victimized in some way. She might be hitting me over the head with a chair, but she seemed to believe she was the one being hurt. Now, I understand.
I may have violated her right to be comfortable. If my behavior cast doubt on her parenting skills, and she found herself feeling an uncomfortable emotion about it–say guilt, or shame–then I was clearly violating her right to be comfortable. If I was busy playing by myself, I might be violating either her right to be entertained or her right to continuous positive regard.
Obviously, she would be upset. Anyone who believed their rights were being so terribly infringed upon would be. And she had the right to exact revenge. So she would.
It’s a warped way of looking things, but that view makes my world growing up make sense. Absolute sense. In a way that nothing else has.
I grew up with a distorted view of what my rights and the rights of others were. I had no rights, and others had far too many.