Living With A Napoleon Complex


Napoleon Complex: A domineering or aggressive attitude as perceived as a form of over-compensation for being physically small or short.

For the majority of my cognizance, I have been notably smaller in stature than those around me. I think I’ve always been aware of this, but I don’t think I ever fully accepted it. Maybe it’s because when I was a little, my parents always told me that I was going to be tall one day because my dad was short, and when he reached his growth spurt, he shot up to six foot two, so it was just a matter of time.

Nevertheless, back in elementary school, when they used to make us take those class pictures, I was in the same place every year, the bottom right corner, with all the other shorties, waiting patiently for my day when I too would spring up to six feet tall and tower over all my peers. The day when I would no longer need to ask people to reach the highest shelf for me, the day when people would stop feeling justified in lifting me up off the ground without my consent. 

Me, a short child

And sure, I grew incrementally during this time. In fact, I had some gnarly growing pains, some that got so bad that I remember having to sit out of P.E. class (though maybe I just hated P.E. class), but they were never enough to bring me up to my goal. Then came middle school, seventh and eighth grade. These were the years it was supposed to happen for me, when I was supposed to grow that foot and finally be the tall person I was always meant to be. So I waited, patiently. And I remember watching my best friend, who was the same height as me when we met, grow from five-two to five-five, and so on, and I remember thinking “just you wait. That’s gonna be me pretty soon,” but it never happened. 

Me, waiting on my growth spurt

And here I stand today, five-feet and two inches tall, a full foot shorter than the height I always thought I was going to be. I have not grown more than an inch since the seventh grade. I haven’t even gained much weight, I’ve only gone up one pant size. And maybe it’s because I stopped drinking milk when I was ten or eleven because it’s disgusting, or maybe it’s because I started drinking coffee every day when I was twelve, or maybe it’s because my family is full of liars who derive pleasure from lying to innocent little girls and getting their innocent little hopes up, only to watch them fall when their big growth spurt which they have been waiting for their whole lives never comes to fruition.

It really could be any of these, but regardless of any of that, I am a short, little person.

I first learned the phrase “Napoleon Complex,” when I was in the ninth grade taking English 2. We were reading Of Mice and Men and discussing the character Curly, whose own Napoleon Complex is somewhat central to the plot. I remember thinking “well, I may be short, but this isn’t me, I’m not as pathetic as Curly from Of Mice and Men, and surely, SURELY my growth spurt will come ANY DAY NOW.” But little did I know, or rather little could I possibly admit to myself, I was harboring my very own Napoleon Complex, and I had been harboring it since the very beginning.

Almost everything I have done in my life has been done with one goal in mind: Pure Intimidation. Even in that very English class, where I was one of only two freshmen in a room full of Sophomores, I was doing the absolute most, because even if I was not physically smaller than all of them (though I was still probably one of the shortest people in that class, as I am in every class) I was smaller than them, younger than them, and on a lower social rung purely by the nature of being a freshmen.

All of my work had to be the best, all of my projects had to shine above all of the others. And before that, in elementary school and middle school, I was always unbelievably rowdy, always challenging the boys to bike races and tree climbing competitions, telling any fool who dared to doubt me that I would defeat them in a scrap without hesitation. When I started utilizing curse words in my daily vocabulary, I would drop them into every sentence because nothing says “don’t mess with me,” like a little girl, grubby fists up, dropping the f-bomb between every other word she speaks.

And I write all of this because today, as I was pouring my morning coffee, I realized that even if I am no longer that angry little preteen out to start fights, I have still altered the way I exist in the world in very minor ways that I have believed would intimidate people. Like the coffee.

When I was seventeen years old I made the switch from coffee with lots of cream and sugar to coffee black, because what is more intimidating than black coffee? I exclusively use Altoids cinnamon breath mints because I am of the belief that those are the most challenging to eat, and I derive a lot of pleasure from the sadness, the fear, in people’s faces when they ask me if I have any mints and I pull those babies out. 

And is it sad that I am living my life this way? Possibly overcompensating for the stature which I can not control? Maybe. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think I have finally accepted that I am and will always be a little shorty who has to climb on counters and shout to be heard. It suits me, Napoleon Complex or otherwise.

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Lia is a senior here at New England College and hails from Denver, Colorado. She is studying Creative Writing and Philosophy.
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