Category Archives: verbal abuse

Conversational Narcissism


I finally have a word for it.

Conversational Narcissism.

This word defines a phenomena that I’ve experienced in my husband’s family pretty much 100% of the time I’ve known them, dominating each and every conversation I’ve had with them.  Something that I’ve come home with, shaking my head, trying to figure out why these holidays, vacations and gatherings seem so hollow and confusing.

I’ve been angry, dismayed, disappointed at the endless spinning of conversation designed around anything and everything THEM.  For years, I sat dutifully as my in-laws laughed and told tales of their vacations, their careers, their homes, the decor in each of these homes, details of friends I’d never met as well as stories of their children, their jobs, where they live.  While I thought I was being polite to my elders by listening albeit feigning interest often, it began to occur to me that they knew NOTHING about me.  It hit me hard one day when one of the in-laws or one of my sisters-in-law (can’t remember which), were listing all the professions represented in the family as a sort of parlor game.  The list comprised of a doctor, several teachers, an engineer, a technical theatre designer, a business owner.  One of the sisters said it sure would be great to have a nurse in the family to round out this list.

I was dumbfounded….I probably even shook my head in disbelief…. I’m sitting right there as a nurse with 20+ years in the field and they didn’t even know that? It would be less embarrassing to say that I’d only been in their family for several weeks or months….and I cringe when I say this, that I’d been married to my husband for over 5 years.  How did they not know anything about me or more importantly, how did they never stop talking about themselves long enough to ask?


Needless to say, I seized the opportunity to enlighten them that they did indeed have a nurse in the family, my background and education. I continued and went on to tell them about my daughter, their new granddaughter and niece, and all of her interests and accomplishments.  But it left the most bizarre taste in my mouth because I’d never, ever met a family that operated like this.  After this awkward informational session, I figured  we had struck new territory, that they indeed had a bit of background now and from then on we’d have healthier, more give-and-take kind of conversations.

I was so wrong.  The dynamics of this family were so well entrenched that nothing changed.  There were no probing questions or interested inquiries.  I continued to find myself listening as a bystander becoming more invisible through each of their never ceasing conversations of self.  His parents would continue to invite us over for a “visit” which meant come over and sit and listen to us talk about ourselves.  Even during tragic moments, suicide of a grandson’s friend, my own heart attack and hospitalization, or the mental breakdown of a cousin, would ANY subject besides themselves be approached.  The invalidation that I and my daughter felt was so palpable that we stopped going to functions and holidays because even though our bodies were there, we simply didn’t exist to this family.

Fast forward to today.

When I found this article featured in Oprah‘s magazine entitled, “The Mistake I Made with my Grieving Friend” by Celeste Headlee, I literally yelled WOW.

I finally have a word for this disrespectful and disproportional soapbox that I witnessed. Conversational Narcissism.

In this article, the author admittedly realizes that she is using the “shift” to make a conversation about her during a moment when her friend is grief stricken by the loss of her father.

Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as “conversational narcissism.” It’s the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious. Derber writes that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America. It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and co-workers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.” Derber describes two kinds of responses in conversations: a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself, and the second supports the other person’s comment.


Here’s what it looks like taken from actual conversations with my husband’s family.

Shift Response:

Laurel: Did you hear that your grandson Ben lost a friend to suicide?

In Laws:  No, I didn’t.  A lady from church just lost her grandson recently in a car accident, it was awful. She’s having a really hard time.

Support Response: 

Laurel:  Did you hear that your grandson Ben lost a friend to suicide?

In Laws:  No, I didn’t!  What happened?  Have you spoken with Ben or his friend’s family?  We need to reach out to him and give him some support during this rough time.

Shift Response: 

Laurel: I’m unable to attend Thanksgiving this year because I just got out of the hospital and don’t feel well enough.

In Laws:  Okay, I’ll just ask my daughters to bring the food that you would have normally brought. We always have so much food at our gatherings.

Support Response:  

Laurel: I’m unable to attend Thanksgiving this year because I just got out of the hospital and don’t feel well enough.

In Laws:  I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were in the hospital again.  We’d love to have you come and don’t worry about bringing food.  If you can’t make it, I’d love to send some food over to you later.  How are you feeling?

You get the idea.

The excitement that I feel when meeting a new person or even getting to know more about an old friend is based on the healthiest of a give and take conversation.  I love to talk but I also love to listen.  And ask questions and probe into the depths of a person’s stories and soul.  You know, meat and potatoes stuff. I can’t imagine it any other way. I want a dialogue, not a monologue.

But for the “conversational narcissist”, the goal is to get their needs met, not to get to know a person.  It is an ego feeding maneuver which is entirely one sided and executed to keep the attention on them.

For myself and my daughter, we simply had enough of these experiences and now are a no-show to family functions which interestingly, aren’t even really noticed.  As long as enough of the audience shows up, this family can conduct their usual lopsided interplays and never be the wiser to the fact that we’ve ditched them. Actually, they still haven’t stopped talking about themselves long enough to notice.


boiling frog

I had been carrying the Patricia Evans book, “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” around with me in my purse, it being my current bible that I poured through, reading until I assimilated her thinking as my thinking.  I was doggedly determined to end this cycle of abuse with me.  This short but incredibly powerful story was one that shocked me out of my stupor, nudging me toward the next step of leaving an abusive relationship.

If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.

This passage knocked me senseless as if I’d been punched in the gut. Oh my God, this was me!  I needed it spelled out in graphic details to get it to sink in.  So far everything Patricia Evans said made so much sense and felt right so I put my head down and never looked back. That was 15 years ago.

The passage came back to me recently because I feel my stepson is slowly being boiled to death.  I’m not sure what I can do about it, he is allowing himself to be conditioned, relegating his happiness to someone’s else and she is abusing him and his good nature.  I’m seeing him in a tranquil stupor, lolling around in the increasingly warm water, not aware of warning signs going off all around him.  

So, its  the age old parental dilemma, when do you jump in?  How far do you go with your child that is post college age but still could require some parenting.  I do know, that when I almost boiled to death, I would have appreciated some intervention.  When we talk to him this weekend, we hope he appreciates it too…

surviving is my life’s work…

march 7, 2011

surviving is my life’s work.  thriving is my life’s goal.

it is what i do, my day, my life is spent in every way possible to rid my body and my psyche of the wounds of of violence, betrayal and daily torture. imminent death was always around the corner, three times that i recollect right now. i didn’t know that kids didn’t grow up like i did until i was older and actually had contact with the outside world.  i’m thinking probably high school at some random athletic event where our dump of a town would meet up with another small town to match our team against theirs.  i’m comparing notes the entire time, assessing and noting the behaviors of their best and brightest so i can compare against myself and my peers.  once i had concluded the fact that my growing up wasn’t the healthiest way around and that my environment sucked,  it became my mission to change that.  it gave me a goal, a drive, something to work toward instead of stagnating in that cesspool of a town.

i was born in ignorance, poverty, rampant incest.  after spent a good part of my adolescence and beyond being pissed for even being put there which i did, i spent a lot of time medicating my anger with alcohol, pot and white cross cursing the universe and god and the goddess and whoever else was responsible for putting me in this hellhole.  obstacles were everywhere, relief was nowhere…my beautiful, insightful thoughts could be interrupted in a flash by me walking outside for some sun to find my 300 pound brother, flipping out his partial plate of dentures for inspection and swatting flies.  oh yeah, he had a cigarette in the ashtray on the picnic table where he parked his fat ass with a cup of coffee that my mother made him.  oh yeah, he’s almost forty years old.  what the hell is he doing here?  why isn’t he working or living somewhere else, that is a whole nother chapter.

i craved intelligent life forms, people who read, who thought, who did the right thing, those who made a life around taking care of their bodies and health and families, i willed them to come to me, relying on the sheer desperate hope that life had to be better and there was something out there that could show me what better looked like.  i searched everywhere for the new life forms and while it took me a while to find them, i finally did.

i spent every minute like a hypervigiliant animal protecting its nest, with my eyes catching every behavior, every response, down the littlest detail so that i could review it later and file it away in its proper category.  i was margaret mead, i was jane goodall, i studied the apes and their idiosyncracies but it just so happens that they were my parents and siblings, not monkeys. i knew that i was tense and unhappy but so was everyone.  i modeled and lived my life like i  watched the elders live theirs, in a state of blank, empty dudgery.  they walked in their sleep through chores that had to be done, animals that had to be fed, social obligations that needed a covered dish.  we would all attend, stay our allotted time, eat, clean up and start packing up.  it was almost customary in my family to know when you were leaving an event before you even got there.  it was like a rote, mindless church service, the minister opens the doors, pray, sermon, sing, pray, leave.  quick, no frills, no room for creativity, just done, check it off the list and trudge to the next thing. the rare exception to the blankness was the occasional and poorly disguised sexual innuendo, reference to getting drunk or having been drunk, or a piece of gossip that encompassed both.  it was then that i saw some flicker of personality, albeit freaky and unhealthy, but it it blipped off the radar when it happened and certainly got my attention.

unfortunately because i wasn’t a seasoned researcher, my data was accurate but my conclusions erroneous.  i came to believe that engaging in drinking, carousing, sexual activity, getting high was the answer, the outlet, my salvation.  for it provided an opposite and polar action to the numb, blankness of the holy and meek.  acting out became my religion, and rightfully so, it provided an outlet, i could be noisy and rowdy,  spewing all the angst that i felt from years of torture and assault on my soul.  now i know it wasn’t healing but it was at least movement.

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