My Mother is a Narcissistic Parent Part 2: “Why can’t you?”

In my previous blog, I described some situations early in my life where my Mom was acting as a narcissistic parent. Most of these situations arose from her need to feel fulfilled, to “live vicariously through her children”. There is one other ploy she used that was quite effective – so effective, in fact, that it is hard wired into my brain today. It’s the classic, “Johnny played a solo on stage” or “Johnny got an A”, or “Suzy earned an award” “Why can’t you do the same?” question. She may have only wanted my siblings and I to achieve goals in our life, but constantly comparing us to what other kids were doing was wrong.

Ultimately her comparisons to other children made me constantly compare myself to others, to the point that it was self defeating. When I saw another child acknowledged for doing something beyond what the average kid could do, I asked myself, “Wait a minute, why can’t I do that?” This nagging question was helpful in some ways: it helped me push hard for good grades, practice my musical instruments, and compete on the athletic field. What it didn’t do, however, was create a positive foundation for authentic self motivation that comes from within, not from the outside.

Sometimes my Father used the same sort of tactics with my brothers and I, although he did so much less often than my Mother. Furthermore, in many cases, my Mother probably asked him the same question, “Why can’t our kid be like Joe?”, and he then asked us directly. Again, he may have wanted to promote a competitive spirit and create drive within us, but the way he and my mother went about it was manipulative and ultimately not productive in terms of establishing real confidence and self esteem.

One night after a music concert during my Sophomore year in high school, as my family and I all piled into our car, my Father suddenly said, “I’m tired of watching Jake bouncing around on stage, why don’t you join the jazz band?”. Up until that moment, the thought of joining jazz band was remote, because I wasn’t fully committed to studying music during High School. At that time, I was content with just being a regular student in the band, not a standout or soloist.

Well, after his comment – plus other variants on my Dad’s question from my Mother – rattled around my head, I decided that I was going to be the top “instrumental” dog at school. I asked my band teacher if I could join the jazz band, and was allowed to do so. Next, I found a local trumpet teacher and began taking lessons, once a week. I also gave myself a very strict practice regimen, lasting no less than one hour, sometimes up to an hour and a half of non-stop trumpet playing. This was particularly tiring, because I was also involved in sports and had to practice my trumpet at the end of the day, when all I wanted to do was eat dinner and sleep. All of this was in hopes of being better than Jake, the other player.

As the months progressed, I pushed harder and harder. I decided I wanted to solo in the jazz band. I wrote my own solo and was featured in the school concert. Then, during my Senior year, I decided I was going to make a regional honor band and/or jazz honor band. This required that I practice my trumpet EVERY day, regardless of how I felt. I had to not only learn 2 distinctly different pieces of music (one classical and the other a transcribed jazz solo), but also improve my trumpet range and technique. After weeks of practice and a fortunate audition, I actually made the regional jazz band, and suddenly was the lead player in my own school’s jazz band. I was tapped to play during every solo opportunity, and I relished in knowing that all of this was at the exclusion of Jake, my competition. It felt good…

Sadly, however, that feeling of beating the other person vanished the minute High School ended. Now, I was headed off to college with proven musical abilities, but missing a source of motivation. Jake was history: If wanted to play well in college, I would have to motivate myself and step up my game.

This is why the parental comment “Why can’t my child do this…?” is so damaging. It may work to motivate your kid for a year or two, but when the environment changes, your child will be lost and without any source of positive, true motivation. In my case, I did regard making the regional honor band in high school as an important achievement, but the drive for doing this wasn’t 100% from my heart and soul. Instead, part was in order to gain my parents’ affections, and part was the smaller voice inside me that would have been happy if I made the honor band or not.

That was the voice that my parents needed to nurture, not the “competitive for the sake of parental pride” voice. Being the best trumpet player at school in spite of someone else is not really a positive experience. True, it did drive me to go above and beyond my own expectations, but it was at the expense of a lot of time, energy, and negative mental energy. This process also preyed on my perfectionism, making a battle of “me vs. him” as I practiced various pieces of music over that 2 year period.

So what happened in college in terms of music, specifically playing the trumpet? I actually burned out my Junior year, in part due to my BPD and depression, but mostly because I had no motivation to lock myself inside a practice room alone for 2 hours a day. I felt I had other needs that had to be met, and music practice wasn’t fulfilling them. Instead, I moved towards music composition, and ended up minoring in it, despite the fact that I was a below average music performer and screwed up many times live on stage.

Please don’t ever ask your child “Why can’t you be like Jane?”. It is a cruel question. It immediately invalidates them as a person, casts off their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and pushes them towards satisfying parental ego needs over their own. During formative years, it is important that children learn to find positive motivation within themselves for the things that THEY like to do, not what the parents want.

Ultimately, I learned that my motivation was based on shaky ground: it was based on negative drive and feelings of inadequacy, instead of a true love of music and performing. I already mentioned the result, I burned out my Junior year in College and put my trumpet down. In the end, that’s what probably happens to most kids with similar situations. Suddenly and obtrusively, there are needs that have to be met, and when they’re not backed by parental pride or self motivation, it creates a vacuum that leaves the child adrift and lost.

Don’t let this happen if you can help it. Love your child regardless of what “John” or “Sue” does.