Tristian is slightly narcissistic. This means he has made to feel such shame for the person he was, for a long period during his early years that he has been left with a great lack of certainty about his own goodness and ‘lovableness’. Tristian needs, more than most people, to feel liked by people he cares about and when the people close to him hurt his feelings, he struggles to physically tolerate the feeling of shame the hurt triggers. All people have some measure of narcissism and everyone is familiar with the kick in the guts certain types of emotional hurt can cause. But for people on the narcissistic spectrum, the hurt is often significantly more of a visceral, physical experience, usually felt in the gut.
Tristian’s parents often didn’t accept him for who he was. They were inconsistent in their role modelling. They were the kinds of people who could change what they considered to be ‘good’ suddenly, for example when they became religious fanatics in Tristian’s early teens. They expected Tristian, in his childhood and after, to follow suit and poured derision on him when he didn’t. In order to keep up with his parents’ changing versions of loveable, Tristian had to become a ‘chameleon’ personality, able to assess and adapt at the drop of a hat.
Tristian also suffered a minor trauma as a very young child and this combined with his unresolved childhood need to be loved drove him to find his own answers about the things that frightened him when he was tiny and also to be as successful as he could at anything he did so that whoever he met had the greatest chance of being impressed by him (aka loving him).
Crucially, he had to make it all look easy and also to feel easy. Tristian not only needs to be seen to feel calm and confident, he also needs to actually feel calm and confident. It pays for him, more than most therefore, to be healthy, to get enough sleep and to be generous and charismatic since these things are highly valued by others and more likely to maintain calm in himself and his interpersonal relationships. Most of the time, because he’s only slightly narcissistic, Tristian is more or less genuinely who he purports to be, but his darkest fears and deepest secrets are buried far below his likable uber-successful shell. Violent or loud confrontation with Tristian and starving him of his physical wellbeing routines are Tristian’s largest sore spots; they touch on his deep dark insecurities and resentments which remain too hard for him to bear if brought to the surface.
Narcissists are often seen as bad people which is a shame because treating them in this way double-punishes them for their fundamental vulnerability. To dislike a narcissist is to make them even more narcissistic. They will defend themselves the only way they know how.
‘High functioning’ narcissists like Tristian are often multi-talented and serial high achievers. Tristian’s excellent physical condition and huge scientific and commercial successes have their feet in the shade of his early childhood fears and his parents cruel and constant rejections.
But Tristian also experienced the stabilising influences of a tight-knit group of school friends including Joanna. His regular visits to Joanna’s parents’ home also supported him in a more loving way than his own parents did. Children cling to these things and a single calming, validating influence can go a long way toward redemption for a struggling narcissistically wounded child. This is why Tristian is only slightly narcissistic. He gained plenty of validation outside his home.
Tristian’s other key vulnerability is the sheer energy he needs to invest in maintaining the external successes he places so much of his sense of identity in. To feel good about himself, Tristian needs to stay ahead of the game which means he’s always pushing hard on all fronts to move his successes to new heights (it’s common that such ‘narcissist-lites’ burn out physically with the onset of middle age because their bodies just can’t take the strain of maintaining their multiple fronts any longer).
In his late 20s, as he’s just about to pass his physical prime, he’s becoming aware of the physical toll his way of coping with the world and his psychological processes take on him. It’s thought that all sufferers of narcissism in any more than a healthy trace quantity are prone to respiratory illnesses and back injury because of the cumulative stresses brought on by postures they adopt throughout life to hold in their emotions and this is manifested when pressure on Tristian from Joanna and Aroha begins to tell as shown in the story.