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Narcissists and Gifts

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Some context: I wrote this in January, 1993, for a Yahoo forum called "Adults Recovering from Narcissistic Parents." In that forum, "N" was short for "narcissist," and "N-Supply" meant the psychological "fuel" narcissists seek from those they manipulate, their "victims."

If I were writing this today I'd change some things, but I present it here as I originally posted it.

As they use everything else, Ns use gifts as a source of N-Supply. They succeed at this because most people have never given any serious thought to gift-giving, what it is and what it means. Because they hold either undefined or even incorrect ideas about gift-giving, the victim is particularly susceptible to this form of manipulation by the N.

Though much conventional wisdom is wrong, in the case of gifts the old saying gets it exactly right: it's the thought that counts. The essence of gift-giving is the regard of the giver for the recipient. A gift is a tangible representation of that regard. By giving a gift, the giver says, "I value you, and I want to demonstrate that fact by offering you this."

Gifts are primarily spiritual (i.e. emotional) in nature. The giver experiences some form of joy because of the existence and/or actions of the recipient. The giver's regard for the recipient is his "payment" for that joy. Because it is difficult to show "regard" directly, a gift serves as a demonstration of that feeling. While it's natural for the giver to want to give something the recipient will enjoy, the actual item that is the gift is all but unimportant. The gift and the "gift item" are two distinct things.

A gift is a "payment" for joy already experienced. Therefore, nothing is required in return for receiving a gift. There are no strings attached - the "debt" has been settled with the giving. Even so, the recipient will normally feel and express gratitude for the gift. This is an acknowledgement of the giver's regard, a recognition that that regard is appreciated by the recipient. However, "no strings" means no strings: contrary to common belief, an expression of gratitude is not required when one receives a gift. Gratitude can (and usually will) be given as a sign that the regard is mutual, but it is not necessary. An example of when gratitude is not required (and can even be the wrong thing to do): a gift from someone you despise need not be acknowledged at all; it can even be refused without moral consequence or even comment.

(It's important to note that any gratitude expressed by the recipient should be gratitude for the regard expressed by the giver, separate from and far more than for the gift item itself. This is important for deflecting attempts by an N to use the gift item to extract N-Supply, as described below.)

Ns use common confusions about gifts to extract N-supply from their victims. One technique is to equate the gift item with the giver, so that if the recipient does not like the gift item he is made to feel that he has rejected the one who gave it. To avoid this, remember that the essence of gift-giving is the regard the giver feels for the recipient rather than the gift item itself, and accept all gifts in that spirit. There's never a need to reject a gift to the giver's face. The gift item can be appreciated on its own merits, apart from the feeling behind the giving, but that has nothing to do with the act of giving itself. When the recipient accepts the gift in this way, the N cannot induce the guilt because the gift item has not been rejected.

This leads to another method Ns will employ when using gifts: they will, in a sense, retain ownership of the gift item. Different versions of the statement "I didn't get you X so you could do Y" are common in this case:

"Why don't I ever see you in that sweater I got you?"

"Why isn't that figurine on your mantel where everyone can see it?"

"I bought you that Tupperware so you would stop using margarine containers to store leftovers!"

This is an attempt to control the victim via the gift, by trying to make the recipient feel as though the regard that motivated the gift will be withdrawn if the gift item is not used as directed by the N who gave it. With Ns, however, it is unlikely that there was any regard motivating the gift in the first place, only the desire for control. The counter for this is to remember that in a gift properly given there are no strings attached to the gift item. What you have received is yours and, like anything else you own, you may do with it as you please within the bounds of moral propriety. It is not disrespectful of the giver's regard for you to do as you will with the gift item. (Also, conditional regard is not regard at all. Good regard come from things you've already done, not from some expectation of future actions. This relates to the equivocation between gifts and favors, described below.)

Another thing Ns will do with gifts is to use them to put down the recipient's judgment, a sort of "I know better than you what you like/need/want." You might prefer blue slacks to brown, but the N will give brown because that's what he likes, and in his view his preferences are "right." The N may say that you "need" a new dress, even though you think otherwise. The gift is an opening for all sorts of degrading comments intended to make the recipient feel small, incompetent, and self-doubtful. This is an issue of boundaries, and the victim should establish and defend them. You have the right to make your own decisions about what you do. Matters of taste and choice (as apart from things like fundamental moral principles) are neutral - the fact is that there is no "right" or "wrong" about them. Stand up for yourself on those grounds.

Many times people will ask the eventual recipient what he would like as a gift. For some, this is simply a way to ensure that the gift item will be something the recipient likes. For others, it's a kind of laziness because they don't want to put any effort into coming up with their own ideas. For Ns, though, it's one way to cause perhaps the biggest confusion they can induce concerning gifts - turning a gift into a favor.

A favor differs from a gift in that there is an expectation of repayment at some point in the future. On the other hand, a gift is a repayment, for feelings already felt. (In a sense, a gift is itself an expression of gratitude, another reason why gratitude is not required when receiving a gift.) By treating a gift as if it were a favor, an N hopes to induce a feeling of obligation in the recipient. That feeling becomes a source of N-Supply later on.

To stop this in its tracks, remember this: a favor is something you ask for. Even the phrase "do me a favor" indicates this. You're saying, in essence, "Do something for me now and I will repay you for it in the future." You are taking on an obligation, willingly, by asking for it. If you didn't ask for it, it's not a favor. So if an N parent, for example, cleans your kitchen while on a visit, without any prompting on your part, that's a gift. You have none of the obligation you would have if you had asked the N to clean the kitchen. If the recipient initiates the action, it's a favor; if the giver initiates it, it's a gift.

If an N asks what you want for a gift, he is turning the gift into a favor. By stating what you want, you are, in effect, asking for it. That makes it a favor (a real favor, for which you now have an obligation) and not a gift. Don't fall for that bait-and-switch maneuver. A gift is about the regard the giver feels - the gift item doesn't matter. Let the giver choose any gift item he likes, and accept it in the name of what he feels for you.

Ns may use other variations on these manipulation techniques. They key to thwarting any of them is to remember the essentials of gift-giving:

1. A gift is an expression of the regard the giver feels for the recipient, initiated by the giver.

2. The gift item itself, while perhaps valuable on its own merits, is merely a tangible representation of that regard and has little to no significance outside of that role.

3. Because a gift is a "payment" for joy already experienced by the giver, the recipient has no obligation to give anything in return, including gratitude (although, when the regard is mutual, gratitude is normally felt and expressed by the recipient).

Whenever you are presented with a gift, simply assume (to the point of insisting, if necessary) that the giver is "following the rules," and don't allow him to manipulate you via the gift. If you do that, it will be very difficult for an N to use a gift against you.

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Correction: I wrote that in January, 2003. Wasn't watching my fingers when I typed that.

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Could you add some more examples to this. I find it hard to connect the theory in your post to real life examples. By the way I find this subject very fascinating and relevent.

I recently became interested in N's because I was trying to figure out if somebody I knew was one. It was a painful relationship and I forget how I ended up choosing to investigate the person as a 'narcissist'. I had heard the term before but had a very poor understanding what it really means to be one.

From my reading, to be a nascissist is a serious flaw and I cannot see how the person I was trying to analyse could be that way. For a few weeks I was seeing narcissism in everybody (myself included). If you look hard enough you can find such traits in all of us.

In my case, the person in question never gave gifts. His wife did. His wife did all the shoping, letter writting, wrapping, mailing. With any card or letter he would add a short one sentence "PS." to the end of what his wife wrote and sign next to her name.

Does your theory mean that you can use somebodys gift giving behavior to diagnose narcissism?

Also, the narcissist, should have importance to Objectivists (something I did not appreciate until I did my amature psycho-analaysis of this person). I can now appreciate how people incorrectly call Howard Roark a narcissist. Thus, Objectivists should be interested in this personality type and have good arguments why it does not apply to the person with a self-sufficient ego.

(See... it's all about me and my interests! :) Ha!

My psychologist said I was the best narcissist he has ever encountered!!! So there!!!! Take that!!!! :) )

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Could you add some more examples to this.

A definition of what, exactly, a narcissist is would be quite helpful right about now...

I apologize - somehow I completely missed these replies until now. I'll put something together and post.

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I apologize - somehow I completely missed these replies until now. I'll put something together and post.

Since the Member Essays forum isn't really intended for discussion, I'm going to create a new thread for this elsewhere.

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Since the Member Essays forum isn't really intended for discussion, I'm going to create a new thread for this elsewhere.

Just to be clear about policy, discussion in the MEMBER ESSAYS forum is fine, as long as the discussion is about the essay.

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