Let's say you were raised by deaf parents. They had no problem when things crashed on the floor, making a horrible sound. They let you slam the door and they let the dog bark at night and had no trouble with nails on a chalkboard. You could play your clarinet at all hours, so 11:00 PM was a fine time to practice.
And let's say you turned 18 and went off to college and got a hearing roommate. She complained when you slammed your dresser drawers early in the morning when heading off to class as she slept in. The 11:00 clarinet didn't go over so big, either. Sometimes you made a lot of noise and didn't realize it.
Well, if someone paid close attention, they might think you were hard of hearing, wouldn't they? I mean, you just didn't seem to be aware of how much annoying noise you were causing. But you COULD hear; you were just raised in an environment that was shaped by deaf people, and that affected your behavior.
Well, FLEAS are a little like that. When you're raised by a narcissist, you have to do things their way. There are house rules. No questioning. No expressing your needs. Accept the blame. Be a doormat. Criticism isn't allowed. You come last, if at all. Play along. Put on the show they want. Be wrong. Suck up. Don't be yourself. You're a nobody.
All those "rules" hurt. And most importantly, like a glove or a shoe, these rules form the shape of the reason they exist. They take the shape of narcissism. In the home of a person with another PD -- let's say Obsessive-Compulsive PD, the shape would be very different. Your mother would be the type who couldn't rest unless she did everything herself, even things you should have been allowed to do, like making your bed at 12 years old. You'd make it, and she'd come in and tear it apart, making it all over again, because it just wasn't good enough until SHE had done it. You'd put your stuffed animals away, but she'd have to come in and line them all up according to their size. You put them on the shelf the wrong way, and they needed fixing, so she just couldn't rest until that happened.
Now, you may not be narcissistic. Some children of narcissists are, and some aren't. Let's say you aren't. But you were raised by someone narcissistic. So you have some issues that can take the shape of narcissism -- like a shadow or a snow angel, or even an echo. You'll have some issues in the same sorts of areas that narcissism occupies, because you picked these fleas up FROM a narcissist.
Let's take just one possible example to illustrate...
Because of growing up with a narcissist, you're used to being criticized to death, and for the tiniest thing, so when you graduate from your university and get a job, it may hurt to hear negative feedback about your work. Because you've never experienced healthy, well-intentioned and helpful input from others about how you're doing, you only associate feedback with hatred and oppression and shame and rejection and attempts to violate your sensibilities - your dignity - your humanity. Feedback was always to make you the bad one - the wrong one.
Other people -- people whose parents were not narcissistic - give their children positive reinforcement and supportive feedback. Those people have learned to associate feedback with assistance - with helpful kindness. They won't go to "crazy-land" like you will when they get their performance review. They will feel helped. You will feel attacked. They will feel curious. You will feel inadequate. They will feel openness. You will feel fear. They will say, "Thank you, I'll work on that". You will go home and cry.
And you probably do the only thing you've ever seen people do when they're criticized - you get defensive and criticize right back. You have to, right? The person must be out to get you - that's what feedback IS - a personal attack! So maybe you point the finger and refuse to hear them, or else, you're going to be emotionally destroyed by them. You've seen that work.
And that looks like narcissism, doesn't it? You're not accepting input from others about what you could do better. You feel deeply ashamed that you haven't been perfect - that's what you've been taught - if you're not perfect, you're a piece of trash who has to take all the blame for everything that's wrong, and all the blame for those who refuse responsibility.
But you're not a narcissist. What you have is the shadow - “maladaptive behaviors", as psychologists call them. The unhelpful patterns you have been taught, and which you have had to resort all your life. And they are glued in, most often, by the shame you have been made to carry.
What you have is nicknamed "FLEAS". They're the bad behavior patterns and habits we picked up from living with a nutcase who had total and unhealthy control over us. They are the pain and guilt and crazy patterns we had to take on as children in order to just survive. And they're completely un-learnable.
One of the most common issues that newbies to all this face is a tremendous fear that they have their parent's personality disorder themselves. It's a perfectly understandable fear. All human beings do narcissistic things, and when ACONs who aren't narcissists recognize and acknowledge their own self-centered behaviors, they sometimes worry that they're narcissists. They feel guilty about possibly having hurt someone's feelings, been self-centered, etc., and they panic. It can really be upsetting, even terrifying. And they beat themselves up mercilessly for it - because that's what they've been taught to do.
You'll notice that I said, "ACONs who aren't narcissists..."
In order for someone to recognize, acknowledge and feel guilty about their own narcissistic behaviors, they first have to have a level of empathy and sense of emotional responsibility that narcissists, by definition, do not possess.
On the support forum where I moderate, the usual response to such a person is, "If you're that worried about the impact of your behavior on others, and you're willing to publicly share your fear of being a narcissist, trust us, you're not one...you just have FLEAS."