I hope you had a wonderful Christmas...
Unfortunately, I have been ill since 23 December with some kind of tummy bug and while I am feeling better today, a week later, I am still not 100%. I am checking email and comments, though, so I am keeping on top of things. As soon as this resolves so I don't feel queasy when I am sitting upright, I will be back. In the meantime, please accept my best wishes for a safe and happy New Year!
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
There is more to being a narcissist’s child than being the helpless victim of a personality disordered parent. Trained to endure the emotional…and sometimes physical…abuse of a narcissistic parent, many of us get stuck in a feeling of defenceless vulnerability, angry and even filled with rage, and wanting badly to strike back.
Believe it or not, this may well be a response programmed into us by our narcissistic parents, a response they taught us through their own behaviours and which served them by teaching us to react in a way from which they could get NSupply. School psychologist Sal SeverePh.D., says “…anger is as legitimate an emotion as joy or sadness and it’s the most common way children express feelings of frustration…” Rather than responding to children with anger, Severe recommends . “Instead, neutralize your child’s anger by acknowledging it with phrases, such as, “I’m sorry you’re so angry,” or “I'm sorry you hate me today, but I still love you” because “[r]eacting angrily teaches children what to say and do to push your emotional buttons in the future when you do something else that hurts their feelings.”
That last sentence is very important because, in my opinion, it lays the groundwork for our anger and rage issues all the way through adulthood. We were taught by example that the appropriate way to respond to hurt or frustration or denial was with anger by a parent who had never emotionally matured past that stage of childhood development; we were further taught that the appropriate way to handle anger is to punish the person who angered us either directly, through retaliation or indirectly, through tantrums or spreading rumours or other passive aggressive acts; and then many of us were denied an outlet for our anger, forcing us to smother it. But anger suppressed is not anger gone, and being forced to suppress anger merely makes us angrier. Under pressure, we find other outlets for the suppressed anger, ways to blow a little of it off…different people choose different ways, but I engaged in fantasies of having enough power and sufficient wit to stand up to my NM when she assaulted and belittled me.
Like many abused kids, as a child I was not allowed to express anger, or even to give any outward appearance that I felt it. As implied by Dr. Severe, my anger was a response to hurt, but neither my hurt nor my anger were ever acknowledged except through prohibition and threat: “What are you blubbering about now? That was just a ‘love tap’ but if you keep up that snivelling, I can really give you something to cry about.” I learned early to show just the right amount of distress at my NM’s assaults…not too little or I would get more, not too much or I would be threatened with further assault…and to suppress all expression of anger and outrage at her treatment of me.
Hand-in-hand with the suppressed anger and outrage came the fantasies of vengeance and retribution, fantasies in which she expressed remorse or begged for my mercy…or both. The rage that fuelled my fantasies made me feel empowered in a Walter Mitty kind of way—in reality I was powerless and unassertive, but in fantasy, I became a powerful, vengeful Fury capable of retribution in mythical proportions. It took years of therapy and introspection for me to finally realize that those fantasies were proof that I was still feeling powerless and repressed by my NM. And it was not until I had stopped having those fantasies, not until I no longer channelled any time or energy into wishful thinking that had her at my mercy and me giving her a taste of her own medicine, that I realized that those empowering fantasies were, in fact, keeping me trapped in my feeling of powerlessness. Instead of doing, I was fantasizing…the perfect procrastination. And for a while, I thought that stopping the vengeful fantasies and taking some kind of liberating action was the healthier choice…for a while…
And then I had a letter from a woman who had a boss who sounded just like my NM. A manipulative, mean-spirited person who scapegoated some of her staff, made GCs out of others, and generally ran her department like a terrorist. The writer asked for advice about finding ways to change how her boss acted—some people think I have a magic wand and can say a few words and make their narcissists behave, I think—and how she could get on the manager’s good side. And I was struck with the conscious awareness that these Ns are everywhere and that we not only have to deal with them in our families, but also in the workplace, and that advice that works for one situation pretty much applies to other situations as well.
I know many of us fantasize about telling our Ns off, others fantasize about writing that final, scathing, cathartic No Contact letter and firing it off to our NParents. A few of us actually do it…and my limited knowledge of this is that it almost universally backfires on us. The woman with the awful boss, I advised her to recognize she can change no one but herself and that her boss behaves this way because it works for her, therefore she has no motivation for change. I further advised her to polish up her résumé (CV), find a new job, and when she left, tell the boss it was “interesting” working for her and that she had “learned a lot,” neither of which was untrue. I specifically counselled her against using her departure as an opportunity to unload upon the manager all of her anger and frustration because none of us can predict the future…she cannot know if she might end up working for the woman again, and to leave under such terms almost guarantees a poor reference…even an exaggeratedly poor one.
And then the penny dropped: if it was unwise to burn bridges with an Nboss, if it was imprudent to provoke the beast even on your way out the door, why should it be any less rash to do so with family members, like our NMs? Considering that the odds of having future dealings with the horrid boss and her minions were smaller than the odds of having future contact with NM and/or family members, why do we think it could possibly be a good idea to put our grievances in writing and hand them to our Nfamily members on a silver platter, thinking it would do anything other than stoke the fires that already rage within them?
Maybe we are watching too many dramas on TV and in movies in which the protagonist tosses off a pithy comment and then walks away victorious. In fiction and fantasy…including our own home grown fantasies…the protagonist walks away smugly triumphant, leaving the antagonist chastised and impotent. The problem with this scenario is that in real life, it doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t end like that. You haven’t ended it, you have merely thrown down the gauntlet and if your NParent is worthy of the appellation “narcissist,” it is only the beginning.
If we remember that we have been trained from the cradle to stifle our anger and rage, and that our failures to do so are perceived by our Ns as opportunities to express some of their own, we have to realize that any action we take to “have our say” is perceived as a shot across the bow, an opening gambit in another battle for supremacy and control. And while we view it as closing a door and walking away, the affronted N is not on the same page we are on. This explains the many reports from ACoNs who report a complete lack of respect for their wishes after they have told their NParents, complete with reasons in agonizing detail, that they are going No Contact.
Even before we reach the point of going No Contact, we have the power to “fire up” our Nfamily members, although we may not consciously recognize it. Often, we feel baffled or confused by the behaviours of our Ns because their responses to us seem counterintuitive. That, I think, is because we largely base our expectations (or at least our hopes) of their behaviour on ourselves. We think “If I do this, she will be pleased or happy or grateful…” or “If I say that, she will be humiliated and will understand how she has hurt me,” when, in fact, it is you who would be pleased or happy or grateful, it is you who would feel humiliated and enlightened, if someone treated you in such a manner. Narcissists do not think or react like we do…your kindness, from which you expect gratitude and/or love, the narcissists takes as her due; your enlightening and humiliating statement, she takes as an affront, and rather than being enlightened by your words and appropriately ashamed of her behaviour, she is insulted and reacts with either outrage or by crumbling into a pathetic victim’s stance.
If your NM is the rageaholic type, you aren’t going to accomplish anything good by rubbing her nose in her messes. In fact, taking any kind of overt action calculated to make her responsible for herself and her behaviour, anything you say or do designed to pry her away from her fantasies, rewritten histories, and sense of entitlement, will be met with resistance and, depending on her personality, could result in anything from a screaming match in which you are characterized as a liar who is picking on her to a full out assault that includes character assassination to not only the family, but to friends, lovers/spouses, in-laws, employers, and even the authorities. You could lose anything from your composure to custody of your kids, depending on how malignant your NM is and how determined she is to revenge herself on you for daring to remember and to expose the real truth (which she will perceive as lies and character assassination on your part).
Like it or not, when we take the tactic of doing a “so there!” moment with out NMs, we are being childish…can’t you almost hear the “neener neener neener” chant in your mind? Taunting our NMs may make us feel better for a brief moment, but it creates opportunities that they would otherwise not have: opportunities for Nsupply (“Oh, my heart is broken…you’ll never believe the terrible things Cynthia said to me…”), opportunities for damaging your reputation further with people who matter to you, for feeling justified in a vengeance scheme against you, for taking steps that make her look innocent and you look terrible. Just this week I heard from a woman who went NC with her family and moved half way across country to be away from them: when she was entertaining guests her doorbell rang and it was the police doing a “welfare check” on her…now in her new town she already has the reputation of neglecting her mother such that the police had to be sent to see if she was dead or alive.
We all recognize that our Ns are emotionally arrested, that they are stuck somewhere between toddlerhood and primary school. Anger and retaliation are the stock in trade of young children who have not yet matured to the point of being able the deal with disappointments with equanimity…and of adults whose emotional development has halted far short of maturity, like narcissists. We are the adults here…we can deal with disappointment and frustration in the real world without having a public melt down…our Ns? Not so much. And yet, when faced with dealing with those Ns, when mulling over their bad treatment of us over the years, somehow we sink to their level, wallowing in revenge fantasies and sometimes even striking out either verbally or by taking some kind of action calculated to cause them to step out of their complaisant comfort zones. Why?
When I was a young adult I drove across country with my new husband to meet his family. The closer we got to Boston, the stronger his accent became. By the time we got to his mother’s house, I could barely understand…or recognize…him. Within a day of crossing the Massachusetts state line he stopped being a man and my husband and became a child and her little boy. His speech changed, she bossed him around like a kid and he was obedient…he acted like a child again.
The next time I had occasion to be in the presence of my own mother on her turf, I noticed I did much the same thing: I reverted to my childhood ways of relating to her: my fear of her uncurled from my belly and became a live and tangible thing, making me wary of what I said or what expression I allowed on my face. Even when I emphatically disagreed with something she said, I did not speak up and voice my views, I simply allowed her to believe I shared hers. Being around her changed me, and not for the better.
I tried not to think about her when I was away from her but I was not always successful, especially after she stole my children. When she would come to my mind, I would revert back to that rage-filled 8-year-old who hated her with everything in my skinny little stick-figured body. I fantasized about finding her and shooting her dead and running off the Mexico with my kids. I fantasized about kidnapping her as she had kidnapped my children, then torturing her the way she had tortured me. I imagined her apologizing for her predations, her infliction of terror and pain on me, swearing she really did love me, and me rejecting her as firmly and irrevocably as she had rejected me. The fantasies were dark and violent and vengeful…and all they did was keep me angry with her and did nothing to make me better.
In therapy I examined those dark fantasies and my therapist brought up something that had never occurred to me: what had I done that provoked my mother’s vengeance upon me? At first I was hurt and offended at the implication that I had brought this upon myself, that my NM was justified in her actions against me, but my therapist hastened to explain that I was imputing a rational motive to a psychopath, a person whose rationale is rational only to herself. An even though I had done nothing wrong, from an objective point of view, what had I done wrong from her peculiar, twisted, psychopathic point of view?
And suddenly, the confusion fell into order. Until that point I was unable to fathom exactly why my own mother had committed such horrible acts against me and why she compounded them virtually daily by not recanting her lies to my children and other family members. She was taking revenge upon me for the wrongs—real or imagined—I had committed against her from the moment she knew she was pregnant with me. And specifically, the vengeance she extracted by stealing my children was related to my first act of triumph over her: when I became pregnant at 17 she tried to force me to have an abortion; when that didn’t work, she tried to force me to give the baby up for adoption; she refused to give me permission to get married and I had to go before a judge to get consent. I thwarted her—I did exactly what she forbade me to do—I got married and I had my baby and I kept her. And that gnawed at her for years, until she found a way to finally get what she wanted, a way to get my child away from me without simultaneously burdening herself with the responsibility of raising kids again.
How had I provoked her? By living a lifestyle she did not approve of (I was a hippie) and making several critical errors: 1) allowing her to have any contact with me and my kids at all; 2) not pretending to live a normal suburban life when she was present; 3) (and most critical) assuming I had won an irrevocable victory over her when I got married and kept my baby. It simply did not occur to me that there might be a rematch in the future and she, with a helluva lot more money than I had, along with her defeat stuck in her craw, might actually win it.
When we deal with NParents, particularly malignant NParents, we need to be careful about poking the hornet’s nest with a stick. We have to push past that habit of falling back into our old patterns of relating to our NMs and craft new, healthier, more mature ways of dealing with them. We need to stop perceiving ourselves as vulnerable and weak with respect to them and recognize that revenge fantasies and smart retorts are not only immature on our parts, they act as triggers to stir the pot and provoke drama with the very people we are trying to disengage from. Writing a letter laying out our every grievance never gives us the hoped-for result: it does not lift the scales from our NM’s eyes and trigger their compassion and empathy and provoke feelings and protestations of love. If it does not make them see what they have done to us and how much we are hurting from it. It does not even serve to justify, in their minds, our turning our backs on them and walking away. Ns perceive such a missive as an attack upon them…an unwarranted attack…and with their stunted emotional systems, their response to our attack is to mount their own counter attack, often using the blue print we gave them in the form of revelations of what they have done in the past…and can do in the future…to hurt us.
No matter how good you think it might feel, no matter how satisfying you imagine your retaliatory fantasies will feel if you could just them into practice, it doesn’t work. First of all, you’ll feel guilty…we always feel guilty when we hurt someone, even our Ns. And secondly, it only stirs the pot, provokes drama, starts more shit. I cannot count the times when I would have been better off, in the long run, to simply put the phone down or say to my NM at the door, when she arrived unexpectedly (with the intention of snooping to try to get “dirt” on me) “Sorry, Mom, this is not a good time. Next time, call ahead so I can clear some time for you, ok?”
One of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to work towards long term goals and forego immediate gratification. We need to sharpen our abilities to do this, we need to learn to be satisfied with what is good for us, not what feels good to us in the moment. The ability to sacrifice short term gratification for long-term gains is what sets us apart from the immature, and those short term gratifications we have to give up include not only putting in the little digs and smart remarks, slamming down the phone or back-sassing our NMs in our child’s voice, it includes giving up the revenge fantasies that keep us hooked into the conflict, feelings of vulnerability and helplessness, that keep our thinking as petty and retaliatory as the very people we are trying to escape.
Instead we need to begin seeing ourselves as strong and capable, achieving our goals and being happy in our lives. To imagine such things in detail, to try on and become accustomed to the feelings of satisfaction and happiness that such things bring, helps us to achieve those things by programming us for success and strength and independence of mind.
You have the choice to stay stuck in gloomy, painful helplessness, reinforcing it with your dark and childish retaliation fantasies, but if that is your choice, you have no one but yourself to blame for being stuck, in pain, and battling drama after drama with your Ns…or even yourself. Or you can begin today to thrust those imaginings away and being reprogramming your mind for joy and happiness, satisfaction and success. If you can dream it, if you can imagine it, you can do it.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
This is one of the hardest posts I have ever written. It is the reason I have written only one post in the last month…because I have been struggling with this one. I keep shying away from it…I open the page and write a few words and then find something to distract myself. I procrastinate opening the page…I feel ambivalent about writing it…I simultaneously want to write it and don’t want to. Avoidance keys in big here…I am avoiding it emotionally, even though the mature adult in me makes me keep coming back to it, like a parent saying to a reluctant kid “do your homework!”. All this tells me that this is an issue I, personally, have not yet resolved.
When I was a kid my NM used to tell me “Children should be seen and not heard,” “Silence is golden,” and that I should only “speak when spoken to.” I quickly learned that the safest place for me to be was in my room, doing something she would approve of if she happened to look in on me…something not messy, like reading a book or doing homework. If I was playing with my toys on the bedroom floor, I would be told to “clean up this mess,” even if I was still playing with the items (assuming this was before she decided to “clean my closet” while I was at school one day and give the majority of my toys to the Goodwill). It was not until I was in high school and living with my father that I learned this was not a natural state of affairs: my stepmother became very angry with me for retreating to my room after I finished the after-dinner clean up. She found it very anti-social of me whereas I was doing my darndest to be on my best behaviour, which I defined as being “out of sight and out of mind,” as I had learned from NM was the proper way to behave.
But I wasn’t just invisible physically, disappearing into solitude when my household chores were done. I felt invisible on a deeper, more fundamental level, unheard, unseen, as if nothing I thought, said, or felt was taken into account by others. I was emotionally isolated, feeling disconnected from everyone else. My feelings or desires were seldom elicited and even on the rare occasion when they were, I do not recall them ever being taken into account: if decisions were made that were in sync with my wishes, it was coincidental, not by design. People talked over the top of me, behaved as if I was not in the room, would not allow me to finish articulating a thought without either interrupting me or changing the subject mid-sentence. It was as if I was the only one who knew I was there and felt or thought anything.
In later years, I married a malignant narcissist and his behaviour exacerbated my feelings of tenuousness and invisibility. The child of an immature, self-interested mother who nagged and harangued her weak, unassertive husband endlessly while wrapped in her martyr’s cloak, he was ambivalent about his father: on the one hand he despised him for meekly submitting to his mother’s constant demands, on the other hand, he identified with his father and was outraged on his father’s behalf. It took several years of marriage to this man to come to the realization that I did not exist in his world, that I was simply a female body upon which he projected his mother and interacted with me as if I were she, while he behaved as he believed his father should have.
This was absolutely dehumanizing. Just as, when I was a child and I was unacknowledged as anything other than an extension of my mother (and a nuisance when I asserted myself as anything else), that which was me did not exist. He saw me as his mother…even though she and I were as different as chalk and cheese…with a different face. He and I once had a row over…well, I didn’t know what it was over: he came home from work angry and I assumed something had happened at work (something was always happening at work to tick him off) but it turned out he was angry with me. As it happened, on his commute home he had held a conversation in his head with me, and the responses he attributed to me were things his conservative mother would have said, not the kinds of things that would come out of my uber-liberal mouth. By the time he got home, he was angry with me because of him attributing his mother’s attitudes to me. Somewhere in all of this, the beliefs and values and attitudes and feelings that were mine went completely unacknowledged. Why? Because to him, the person who was me was never acknowledged, did not exist. I was a convenient blank upon which to superimpose the persona of his mother.
The problem with this is that when you are not acknowledged, when you cannot see yourself mirrored in others, when they do not reflect back to you, like answering your questions or laughing at your jokes or responding to your greetings in an appropriate way, if your sense of self is not immensely secure, you begin to lose it. Jack’s anger at me, based on his fantasy conversation, was wholly inappropriate and so to snarl at me with that anger when I said “Hi, babe, how was your day?” was not only wholly inappropriate, it negated my very existence and focussed instead on the projection of his mother on onto me. To ignore my existence or, as my NM did, my achievements in school, by refusing to attend the choir concerts in which I was a featured soloist, failing to attend my high school academic awards ceremonies, even my high school graduation, is to act like the person does not exist, as if she were invisible. And if you get enough of that kind of treatment from the significant people in your life, you begin to feel invisible, too…you begin to wonder if there is really anything to see, since nobody else seems to see it.
It goes deeper than that, even. Have you ever said something in a group of people and nobody even acknowledged you spoke? Have you ever asked a question and the person to whom it is directed acts as if you were not even in the room? Have you ever been in a group and what you have to say is not ignored so much as it is not even heard? Absent strong self-esteem, such experiences can make you feel disconnected, unbalanced…as if you exist only at their pleasure and the rest of the time you don’t. It makes you feel unimportant, devalued, diminished, invisible, shunned.
Shunning is “…the act of social rejection... Social rejection is when a person or group deliberately avoids association with, and habitually keeps away from an individual or group. This can be a formal decision by a group, or a less formal group action which will spread to all members of the group as a form of solidarity. It is a sanction against association… Targets of shunning can include …anyone the group perceives as a threat or source of conflict. Social rejection has been established to cause psychological damage and has been categorized as torture.
“Shunning is often used as a pejorative term to describe any organizationally mandated disassociation, and has acquired a connotation of abuse and relational aggression. This is due to the sometimes extreme damage caused by its disruption to normal relationships between individuals, such as friendships and family relations. Disruption of established relationships certainly causes pain, which [may] be an intended, coercive consequence. This pain, especially when seen as unjustly inflicted, can have secondary general psychological effects on self-worth and self-confidence, trust and trustworthiness, and can, as with other types of trauma, impair psychological function.
“Shunning often involves implicit or explicit shame for a member who commits acts seen as wrong by the group or its leadership. Such shame may not be psychologically damaging if the membership is voluntary and the rules of behavior were clear before the person joined. However, if the rules are arbitrary, if the group membership is seen as essential for personal security, safety, or health, or if the application of the rules is inconsistent, such shame can be highly destructive. This can be especially damaging if perceptions are attacked or controlled, or various tools of psychological pressure applied. Extremes of this cross over the line into psychological torture and can be permanently scarring.
“A key detrimental effect of some of the practices associated with shunning relate to their effect on relationships, especially family relationships. At its extremes, the practices may destroy marriages, break up families, and separate children and their parents. The effect of shunning can be very dramatic or even devastating on the shunned, as it can damage or destroy the shunned member's closest familial, spousal, social, emotional, and economic bonds.
“Shunning contains aspects of what is known as relational aggression in psychological literature… Extreme shunning may cause traumas to the shunned (and to their dependents) similar to what is studied in the psychology of torture.”
A key word in this explanation of shunning is “rejection.” Ignoring someone, treating them as if they do not exist, is a passive aggressive form of rejection. In very young children, this is perceived as being life threatening: if their primary care giver does not acknowledge their existence, they cannot be entirely sure that their survival needs will be met. If the passive rejection is habitual, is it any wonder the child becomes habitually anxious with respect to his survival and even questions his existence? When you don’t seem to exist to another person, when you are acknowledged in only the most necessary ways…and when that acknowledgement often includes a negative or critical component…a child’s self perception is inevitably damaged. Such children may become shy, withdrawn, fearful. But not always…
“… sometimes the Invisible Child can hide behind an effective façade of the bubbly center-of-attention favorite friend. In private the Invisible Child puts the mask away feeling more unseen and unknown than before. The Invisible Child often feels alienated from society and from what they refer to as ‘normal’ people. It is difficult to claim the physical body, to make opinions known and to voice feelings. Thus, the poser becomes the preferred method for surviving in a social world. The Invisible Child becomes masterful at creating an image that others find acceptable and to behave in a way that others approve of in order to be seen. This only engenders feelings of inadequacy and self-rejection…” The best analogy I can think of for this is the Invisible Man: it is not until he puts on clothes that he is visible to others, and even then, he is not visible, only his clothes; when an Invisible Child put on a mask, assumes a public persona, the Invisible Child is still not seen, even though the faux personality may attract both attention and even admiration.
This pretty accurately describes how I lived most of my life and, to some extent, still live it today. If you were to meet me in person, you would find me friendly, effusive, outgoing, even funny. I am known to be an entertaining storyteller, a thoughtful hostess, and fearlessly assertive. You would never guess that I actually prefer to spend hour upon hour of quiet time alone, that I am “on” when others are around, but I am actually quietly introspective and prefer quiet, solitary pursuits over loud socializing.
Psychologist Joseph Burgo, PhD, writes about a patient who does not wish to terminate therapy, even though he believes she is ready: “Lately, I’ve also been thinking about a parenting style that isn’t overtly abusive but vacant or largely withdrawn instead. In such a case…the person also develops a sense of unreality, as if he were invisible. It’s as if she looked into the mirror of her mother’s face and found no reflection whatsoever…On some level, she’s afraid that without me and my attention, she would cease to exist. As a child, she must have felt that way in the absence of parental involvement: as if she were invisible, a ghost child without physical substance.”
I can really relate to this feeling: when I was about 7 years old, my mother drove a very distinctive car…my father had had it painted hot pink for her. I remember walking home from school one day, along a very busy road, and seeing my mother’s car pass me en route home. I jumped up and down and waved and screamed “Mommy! Mommy! I’m here!” but she drove on past. Obviously, she didn’t see me trudging along the bridge, and I was crushed. How could she not see and recognize me? I cried for the next block or so, feeling painfully invisible, but dried my tears and put on my “cheerful, ebullient” look before entering the house…I might only have been 7, but I knew I was not allowed to be sad, hurt, or unhappy about anything in front of her…to do so was to invite punishment.
Many of us carry this invisible feeling with us into adulthood and as a result, many of us see rejection where it does not exist. One of my most formidable tasks of recovery has been to puzzle out when I am being consciously, intentionally ignored and when I am simply being part of the background, like everybody else. I have learned that I tend to insert value judgments where they do not really exist…like when a conversation is going on and my contribution is not acknowledged, I default to “I am not important, what I have to say is not important, they don’t want to hear what I have to say, they act like I’m not here, they don’t like me…” this can escalate mentally and emotionally, to an extreme degree (i.e. “nobody likes me, I am a terrible person nobody likes”) unless I consciously step in and stop that train of thought and remind myself that it is simply a conversation and my contributions are not, at this time, especially relevant to the rest of the group…which is a normal thing for everybody from time to time. Sometimes I have to consciously remind myself that I am not being intentionally marginalized, rejected, or shunned, however much my emotions default to that sad place. And sometimes it is hard…really hard…to force myself to seize reality from the despair my early conditioning foist upon me.
That is not to say that there are not people who deliberately treat us this way, and that has been my big challenge: to differentiate one from the other. My second biggest challenge is, when recognizing someone is marginalizing me, to not fall into that feeling of invisibility but, at the same time, not overreact and become over the top in my response. It is a balancing act that, fortunately, I am not called upon to deal with every day but when I am, it remains a challenge to me. I am particularly called upon to exercise this when out in public and someone steps in front of me in a queue, as if I was not there, or someone steals a parking place that, with turn signals blazing, I intended to take. I am especially provoked when someone makes assumptions about me or my motives, refusing to listen or acknowledge my assertions and preferring to substitute his own perceptions. This happened not too long ago when the spring in the door of my SUV (luxury SUV with super-heavy doors and a heavy duty spring) got away from me and bumped the mirror cowl of the car I was parked beside. I immediately snatched the door back and was examining the mirror for damage when the owner showed up and started screeching at me, accusing me of intentionally damaging her car (it was unscathed), and telling me she paid for the car and I had no right to damage it! I said “It was an accident, the door popped out of my hand,” and she just continued to shriek accusations and abuse right over the top of me. And I felt, simultaneously, invisible and the recipient of an unwarranted public tongue lashing. And so I said, in a voice calculated to be heard over her unending tirade, “It was an accident and your car is unhurt! You don’t have to be such a bitch about it!” and walked away.
That may not have been the best way to handle it, but I was suddenly visible to her, perhaps for the first time since she opened her mouth. It was not characteristic of me…I am a person who would die before creating a scene in public…but at least I was not paralyzed, standing there silently for her unwarranted public dressing down. My husband was shocked…this was the first time in the 12 years of our acquaintance he has ever seen me speak out in such a manner…usually I apologize if warranted or if not, I ignore the person and complain quietly to him later on. But I am working on not falling into that passive, accepting-of-abuse childhood pattern that was forced upon me in childhood, working on learning how to tell when I am intentionally not being heard/included/acknowledged and when my “invisibility” is just a normal thing for the time and place.
And that has been one of the big realizations: that everybody gets ignored, overlooked, disregarded from time to time, not just me. And they don’t react to it with anger, like Jack would, or a feeling of humiliation, like my husband, or by feeling shunned and invisible, like me. No, they roll with it, wait for another opportunity, and try again. They make themselves known in ways that do not embarrass or attack or offend others, they look for a way to fit into the situation seamlessly…to neither stand out unnecessarily or to be noticed for their reticence. And while I tend to be adept at this in social gatherings…that false persona of mine is very adept in social situations like the office or at parties…it is much harder in one-on-one or very small social groups, like with another 3 or 4 people at dinner.
I don’t feel invisible like I did when I was a kid, but I would be lying if I said I was past that problem at this stage in my life. It was not until I saw a thread on Facebook, however, that I became consciously aware of this, that I still struggle to deal with it, that the feeling of invisibility still creeps over me in some situations and I have yet to master it. I can only be thankful that my NM is long dead and not adding to it with her drama…
Monday, November 25, 2013
Some of you have asked me if I knew what happened to Lisette and her blog, House of Mirrors. Well, apparently she has been on hiatus, but now she is back! If you want an energetic, no-holds-barred look at narcissism through the eyes of another narcissist's daughter, I highly recommend clicking the link (words in purple in this paragraph) above and having a good, long, entertaining read!
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Despite having Low Contact and No Contact available as tools to help us deal with our NMs, many of us do not take advantage of them. We continue to expose ourselves to their toxic ways, perhaps hoping “this time it will be different” or justifying our complicity in our own victimization with such rationalizations as “I don’t want to miss my sister’s wedding,” or “how can I deprive my kids of their grandparents?” or even “I won’t let her push me out of this family and win!” I have to wonder: if you had it on good authority that someone had put a contract out on you, if you attended that wedding, that reunion, that Christmas dinner, there would be a sniper lurking with a gun pointed right at your heart and he had been paid to shoot you dead in front of all and sundry, would you go anyway? Would those “reasons” for going still motivate you, despite the certain knowledge that would be shot and either seriously wounded…maybe even killed…if you showed up?
Ok, some people are so sunk in denial that they would go anyway, but wouldn’t the majority of us stay away, fearing for our lives? We would fear physical wounding, even death and take steps to protect ourselves, even though we know that, if only wounded, we would eventually heal. Despite that knowledge, however, we still fear the pain of injury and the possibility of death, the painful healing process, the potential for being maimed and even permanently crippled by the injury. We shy away self-protectively, preferring to protect our bodies…and our kids and spouses from any potential stray bullets…over contact with our families and NMs.
So I have to ask: why is your psyche…and the psyches of your kids and spouse…not as important as your physical body? Why would you protect yourself from being shot and maimed or killed, but not protect yourself from the predations you know, from long and painful experience, will be an inevitable part of having contact with your NM and her flying monkeys? Why is it not OK for her to kill your body, but it is not only OK for her to kill your spirit, it is so OK that you help her by serving yourself up, like a Christmas turkey, for her consumption?
Have you asked yourself this? Have you ever even thought about it? Are you thinking about it now? Why do we do this to ourselves?
The answer is simple: we expect them to change, to be different this time. Why we expect that change, however, is not so monolithic.
It isn’t really hope that keeps us stuck in the earlier stages…the “living in hope” stage comes later, when we have exhausted everything else and hope is all we have left. Once the penny drops and we realize we are dealing with a parent who is dysfunctional, before we reach that “living in hope” stage, we first go through many of the stages of grieving…and we may even get stuck in some of them.
Wikipedia reports “Studies of pedagogy, the process of teaching, suggest that the patterns of grief are one way of describing the basic patterns of integrating new information that conflicts with previous beliefs.” How apropos this is for us! In becoming aware that something is wrong with our mothers, in processing the information that they are not the loving, nurturing beings we expected them to be—and realizing that their negative behaviour towards us was not our fault—don’t we follow the Kubler-Ross grief dynamic? Remember the stages do not have to occur in any strict order…and they can happen simultaneously. I found it fascinating too learn that the stages of grief are virtually identical to our patterns of integrating new information that conflicts with old. We get stuck when we are unwilling to let go of the old information and accept the new…when we cling to denial and a preferred belief rather than embrace a new and painful truth. Sometimes we want to have our cake and eat it to: to acknowledge intellectually that our NMs are cold and unloving and did not love us in the way we deserved and needed but, at the same time, emotionally cling to the notion that she does love us, “in her own way,” despite abundant evidence to the contrary or…more tellingly…that we have the power to win her love if we could just figure out the “right” thing to do or say or be.
Denial, the first stage of grief, is something we are all familiar with. We somehow feel compelled to protect our NMs at our own expense, to take blame for her cold and unloving behaviour and attitudes towards us, to deny that her unloving behaviour comes from an unloving heart. We would rather believe we were not compliant enough, obedient enough, loving enough: we committed an endless litany of sins that turned our otherwise good and loving mother against us. We are at fault and we feel guilt for it. If you look at this notion rationally, it makes no sense: a truly loving mother will love her child no matter what…and most definitely through the natural mishaps and mistakes of childhood. You do not have to earn your mother’s real love with perfect behaviour and anticipating her every whim: mothers who require that of their children do not love the child, they love the behaviour.
We, as a people, find it difficult to say…and accept… “I don’t know” as an answer to anything. Myths are spawned by this inability, as we naturally fear the unknown. To name something is to potentially have power over it…or at least over yourself in its presence. Early man knew this…their priests and shamen came up with stories to explain lightning and tides, storms and seasons, even the transit of the sun across the sky. “Knowing” the cause of these things, even if such knowledge involved magic hammers, horses and chariots pulling the sun, and thunderbolts being hurled from a mountaintop, was less frightening to the people than not knowing at all. And so, when we face the sad fact that our mothers did not have a natural mother’s love for us, it is less frightening, less painful, to blame ourselves than to admit we don’t really know why. It also gives us a feeling of control over something that, in fact, we have no control over at all.
How is that? Because if we believe that we have some fault in an on-going event, we also believe we have the power to influence it by changing our faulty behaviour. And it is this belief that keeps us stuck, stuck, stuck.
How many times have you thought that if you were only smarter, prettier, more compliant, less clumsy or forgetful, more able to read her mind, she would love you more? It is amazing what a love-starved child…or adult…will do to gain what she identifies as love from an unloving parent: a 14 year-old-girl in England allowed her mother to artificially inseminate her so that her mother could have a fourth child to raise because “If I do this . . . maybe she will love me more.” As long as we think our behaviour influences the dispensation of love from our narcissistic parent, we willingly participate in the manipulation believing, like the English girl, “If I do this…maybe she will love me more.”
The second stage of grief is anger. Many of us engage in both denial and anger simultaneously, angry that our siblings are treated better than we are, angry we are denied that which our peers take for granted, angry that our expectations are repeatedly disappointed. If we have ventured a step or two out of denial and realize the truth of how we are being abused, our anger may escalate into rage and hatred. Too often, however, we feel guilt for our anger, guilt for thinking “badly” about people we are, according to our cultural norms, supposed to love and trust unconditionally.
The third stage of grief is bargaining, and this is where we fall into that false sense of control: “if I do what she wants, she will reciprocate by doing what I want.” The problem is, she won’t…and then you have a disappointed expectation to deal with, which may well trigger more anger. But if you are stuck in the bargaining stage, you will be wracking your brain for new and better ways to elicit the desired response from her, keeping the cycle of denial, anger, and bargaining going indefinitely.
Depression is the fourth stage of grief and it precedes acceptance. Depression is, in itself, a kind of denial, a final refusal to accept the truth even while knowing what the truth is. During this stage you are perceiving the truth but not yet ready to embrace it. A lot of people get stuck here, vacillating between it and earlier stages, all in an effort to put off embracing the final stage. This is where getting stuck in hope happens: unwilling to embrace the finality of acceptance, unwilling to fully acknowledge the truth of an NM’s lack of emotional connection to the child, we get stuck here, relying on hope to come to the rescue, clinging to a futile and childlike hope for our wish…that our NMs will magically morph into loving, caring mothers…to miraculously come true. It is not until we are willing to relinquish that wish, that hope, that we can move on to the final stage of grief:
Acceptance. Here, you come to terms with the unpleasant and unhappy reality of your mother. You know that she is the one who is at the root of her lack of love for you, not you. You accept that nothing you can do will elicit love from her because she doesn’t have it to give. You stop trying, you stop feeling guilty, your anger begins to wane. No longer hiding behind anger and rage, no longer shielding yourself with denial, you stop bargaining and you start actually feeling the hurt that you have been hiding from for so long…and it feels good and cleansing to feel those feelings, weep over them, and purge them. You may not entirely give up hope, but you now relegate it to a faint flicker in the place where you keep your latent belief in magic and miracles: you know it probably will never happen and your life is no longer held hostage to it.
And you feel free. You feel free to walk away or to stay: her barbs no longer have the power to wound you to your very soul. You may even feel sorry for her, knowing how inadequate she really is and how desperately she tries to conceal that from everyone, including yourself. You no longer feel compelled to bargain for something that does not even exist, you don’t have the desire to deny the reality of who and what she is, and if you are angry with her, it no longer controls and interferes with living your own life.
Why do you stay? Because you continue to expect, in one way or another, that she will change. As long as that is a part of your beliefs, you cannot be free. As long as you harbour the belief that she will one day, through a mechanism still unknown to you, realize she loves you and then will be motivated to communicate that to you, you stay. Locked in a prison of pain, you hold the key to your freedom in your own hands, if you would but use it. It is your belief that she has love for you and you have the power to somehow release it that keeps you where you are. And only you have the power to let that go.
Friday, October 25, 2013
I received a mail the other day from a bright and articulate young lady introducing a topic that had never occurred to me: the children of a narcissist’s scapegoat. We spend a lot of time and energy working out the dynamics between us and our NM’s but something we seldom address is the impact of our dysfunctional FOOs on our children. Many of us do not go NC, or even LC with our narcissistic families and, as a result, our children are exposed to them but in much different ways than we are.
Eve, my young correspondent, sent me a touching inside look of what it feels like to be the daughter of a scapegoat who continues to have contact with her FOO. With Eve’s permission, I share it with you here:
It’s incredibly hard to write about this subject, because coming from a classic dysfunctional family I start everything I do with an unhealthy dose of self doubt. Were they really that bad? And the answer I come to time and time again, relentlessly examining every situation is … yes they were.
My dysfunctional family was set up like any other: The grand narcissist (my maternal grandfather) at the head of the family, his helpers/enablers and my mother was the scapegoat.
Her life was affected badly by being the ‘bad child’. She could never do anything right, nothing she did was pleasing or perfect and her life seemed to be to perpetually help others. The scapegoat is usually chosen because she/he is the most sensitive, the most caring, the most creative/talented the one that is the easiest to affect; the easiest for the narcissist to ‘feed’ on. The scapegoat is the family dumping ground for everything that they cannot face in themselves.
“The people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters....The evil attack others instead of facing their own failures.” – M. Scott Peck
Even as I write this I can hear my family on my shoulders whispering that ‘This is how she wanted to appear!’ and ‘She always loved to play the victim!’ This is how their insidious words reach their goal. I know my mother - I have witnessed her pain and suffering and they insist that I haven’t seen anything. The mantra they gave me at a very young age seemed to be ‘You either agree with us or you will be ignored’.
They either couldn’t or didn’t want another scapegoat in the family, that role was already filled and I was not going to join them in the systematic abuse of my mother, as my brothers had done. I had no role, I didn’t serve a purpose in the dysfunctional set up and so I was ignored. This gave me so many issues, so many paranoid thoughts and I could not get to the bottom of why I was so completely ignored. They would rear their ugly heads every couple of years when they felt they had an opportunity to ‘take me away from my evil mother’ trying to impress upon me that they had always been there for me - this tactic never worked. However much they tried to show me the ‘proof’ of how horrible my mother was, it paled in comparison to their hated and abuse of my mum and their total disinterest in me or my life. A perfect example was when my mum and I finally decided to leave our dysfunctional family for good after a huge row with the head narcissist. The whole family wanted me on the narcissist’s side, and wanted my mother completely abandoned. My brother was recruited to ‘talk me round’ and rang me almost every day. This all went sour when I pointed out to him that I was 22 years old and he had never once rang me for a ‘chat’. I asked him what had suddenly changed. I knew exactly what had changed, I was suddenly of use and I was being used as a pawn– he got angry that I had pointed this out and insisted that of course he had rang me before, and then stopped talking to me altogether.
Unfortunately my mum attracted men that thrived on her low sense of self and my father and his family adopted the dysfunctional set up of my mum being the scapegoat and I was ‘the nobody’. They divorced when I was young and he and his family have done their best to vilify my mum and ignore me, all the while insisting that it is me that has ignored them.
I would not turn against my mother and side with my father, therefore I was dismissed. My father is a nasty human being who is neglectful of his children and delights in lies and causing misery. Another perfect example of how I was cast as ‘the nobody’ in my father’s family is when my grandfather died (my dad’s father). My mum and I were at my aunt’s (my mum’s sister) house for a wedding the next day. My aunt came in and told everyone that my brother’s granddad had died – it took me some moments to realise that my ‘brother’s granddad’ was obviously also my granddad! No one said anything to me, they all said how sorry they were for my brother. My granddad and I had not said so much as two words to each other in my entire life so his death meant little to me but it amazed me how cruel is was that everyone dismissed it. It also struck me some years later that my aunt had been informed of his death before me! My brother had told my mum’s dad and he had informed my aunt! I was not even in the equation.
I have found in other pieces about dysfunctional families the role known as ‘The Lost Child’ – I seem to fit this role extremely well. In family situations I blended into the background, every achievement was barely even mentioned. I had very low self esteem, a very low opinion of myself, my voice when I defended my mum was to be either ridiculed, muted or used against her as she was ‘influencing my opinion’. Even now at the age of 28 I still don’t have an opinion in their eyes. One Christmas when I was in my teens every time I walked into a room my brother would walk out, it was as if my presence was toxic to him. I was desperate to prove to him that I was worth talking to, that I was interesting, but in his opinion I was ‘just irritating’.
I have trawled the internet over the past few years and I cannot find anything about how scapegoating affects down the family tree. I cannot find anything relating to being the child of a scapegoat. The model seems to be set up as a narcissistic mother or father and how this affects their children - real families are more complex and just because I am further down the generations from the original dysfunctional set up and the narcissist, this does not mean I have not been affected. I have watched these ‘people’ who professed to love my mum and me, rip her to shreds and then turn to me with a bloody smile and an outstretched hand. I am not emotionally dead – they made me feel sick.
I recently found someone online who spoke openly about dysfunctional/narcissistic families and seemed to have some expertise. I emailed him about my situation asking if he had ever come across this set up and if he had any advice. His response (bear in mind I had given him the slimmest of details and I was generally looking for a discussion not a diagnosis) was that my mother had probably taken on some narcissistic behaviours and I was her victim because the children of scapegoats “should not be affected.” This sent me into an absolute rage! I didn’t know how he could make such a sweeping statement based on what I had given him, but he had simply dismissed all my mental health problems that came about because of my family or he had deemed my emotionally bruised mum as a narcissist herself! I do know that children who are the scapegoat can become a narcissist and carry on the abuse to their own children, but this is not the case in my Mum. I think this experience was the final straw in pushing me to writing this piece. I want to say loud and clear; I am the scapegoat’s daughter and I have suffered too.
While I see rather a bit of enmeshment between Eve and her mother, and perhaps even some parentification (Eve defends her mother rather than the other way around), the effect of the narcissistic generation upon the children of the scapegoat is all too clear. Conflicted, narcissistic flying monkeys like Eve’s brother, angry, compassionate, seeking “lost children” like Eve…all the direct result of the children not bring shielded from the narcissistic parents of the scapegoat. Sadly, this is an outcome to which I can personally and painfully relate, my own daughter having become a flying monkey to my NM and ultimately taking on NM’s mantle of narcissism and controlling.
Eve’s tale rings too true…I can remember wishing my children—anybody, actually—would stand up to my mother and champion me. It was an inappropriate wish because it is not the place of children to defend and protect their parents…at not until the parents are aged and frail…but being so beaten down, I was desperate for any kind of emotional sustenance I could secure. My “us against them” fantasy was easily demolished by NM’s bribery: an excess of toys when they were little, money and promises of coveted gifts/bequests when they were older. My mistake…as was Eve’s mother’s…was not stepping into the breach when my children were barely toddling and either tightly controlling my FOO’s access to my kids or, better (with hindsight being what it is), disappearing with them into the night and never, ever, making contact with the FOO again.
What we don’t realize until too late is that we are actually put in the position of making a choice between maintaining contact with our FOOs or doing what is best for our children. Too often we think we can compromise or that the children aren’t affected because we are the targets, the scapegoats, and the kids are not. But a perceptive, empathetic child like Eve sees it, feels it, and is damaged by it just the same. It may not be the same kind of pain, but it is no less painful.
We sometimes agonize about “depriving the kids of their grandparents” or suffer guilt from “depriving my parents of their grandchildren.” Think for a moment: if grandpa was a paedophile and grandma refused to acknowledge it and protected grandpa by making excuses or even lying for him, would you want your kids around them? Why should the fact that the harm they represent to your children is psychological rather than physical/sexual make a difference? Eve stands like a beacon here, telling us exactly what we expose our children to, how it shapes their lives and their psyches, when we allow them to be exposed to narcissistic grandparents.
I think it is something we should all give some serious thinking time to.
Monday, October 14, 2013
It’s something I have heard over and over again…and something I have said myself: “I just do the opposite of what my mother would have done…” And just as I did, we often say this with a touch of pride, as if mindlessly doing the opposite of what some personality disordered person is doing somehow mysteriously conveys some kind of superiority or correctness upon us.
The truth is, when we choose an action primarily because it is the antithesis of what someone else would do or would want us to do, we are rebelling. It doesn’t matter if we are choosing a partner, a lifestyle, a personal style, or our parenting techniques, if we make choices based on opposing someone else, we are engaging in unthinking rebellion rather than making wise, well-considered, adult choices.
In some ways, this may appear to work out okay, but if you really think about, living your life in reaction to someone else is not really living your life, is it? It is living the opposite of someone else’s.
When I was a kid, I used to envy one of my classmates, a boy I will call Kevin Greene. He was obese and dressed like a miniature old man, and always had his hair slicked down like the stereotype of a budding actuary or accountant. He was pasty-white as if he never saw the sun, ungainly and lumbering in his gait and unpopular and shunned by the other kids, but his mother doted on him. And, being a child who was largely invisible to her mother (and grateful for it because that meant she wasn’t finding new ways to hurt me), I found myself very envious of Kevin because his mother quite obviously adored him.
In a time when even first graders walked to and from school unaccompanied by an adult, Kevin’s mother drove him to school. It was obvious that his family had money because Mrs. Greene wore fur coats and Kevin emerged from a big black Cadillac in front of the school in the morning…on the days he attended. He was absent a lot: all he had to do was tell his mother he didn’t feel like going to school and she called him in sick. I don’t think I took really sharp notice of Kevin until the morning he arrived shortly after the bell rang and he and his mother walked into the classroom after lessons had started. I remember her being tall and draped in what I was sure was a mink coat that reached down past her knees, and lipstick as red as my mother wore. Kevin stood a bit behind her, dressed in his ubiquitous brown trousers and white dress shirt and boy-sized necktie, an ice cream cone in his hand. Ice cream for breakfast!?! I hardly ever even got ice cream for dessert! I was instantly smitten with his mother…she must love Kevin very much to not deny him anything, I thought. Today, I find myself wondering what Mrs. Greene's mother was like...
When I had my first child, I was immediately determined not to treat my precious little baby the same way my NM had treated me: whatever she had done, I was going to do the opposite, and that, I believed, would give my child a much better start in life than I had had. It’s probably a good thing I was dirt-poor in those days and couldn’t afford to spoil her because I had no real parenting plan outside of doing the opposite of what my NM had done with me. I was fortunate to have had a good role model in my step-mother, so I could imagine her in my situation and try to figure out how she would respond to certain challenges, but still: my primary parenting plan was simply to do the opposite of what my mother had done.
This, it turned out, was a really bad idea. First of all, in taking this tactic, I was rebelling against my mother and her ways, not addressing my child and her needs. I had an ignoring mother whose positive attention I would have done almost anything to gain: my daughter was not nearly so needy as I was and, in retrospect, I am sure she found my attentiveness perhaps a bit engulfing. My decisions regarding my children were not necessarily based on what was appropriate or good for them at a given point in time, but on what my mother would have denied me. Sometimes that was a good thing…they got an open and honest and age-appropriate sex education…sometimes it was not, as they were indulged to the degree my budget could stand and deprived of any sense of responsibility in their early years.
This living my life in the opposite direction of my mother backfired on me in other ways. Rather than make decisions about my own life based on thought and weighing the pros and cons of a possible choice, I made quick, easy decisions were based more on what NM would not have done or what would upset her if she knew. “So there!!” I seemed to be saying with my actions, “You can’t control me! I can do what I want!”
Well, I could do what I wanted, but I wasn’t necessarily doing that. Instead, I was doing the opposite of what she wanted, not the same thing at all. It literally took me years to figure out that my mother was still controlling my life, but now I was the one who was doing it to me: she put in the programming and years and miles later, I was executing the programming without any input from her…just in reverse. I was still locked inside that little box she constructed around my mind and my spirit, still making choices within her paradigm, still seeing my life through her set of filters.
It can be difficult to conceptualize that, in doing the opposite of what your NM wants or expects, you are still being controlled by her. But when you live your life in a way that is calculated to give a giant middle finger to someone else, you are not controlling your life and your choices, you are making choices centred around sending a message to another person. I found that I vacillated between trying to be the good daughter and mother and being the shocking rebel: neither persona was really mine, neither had my heart really in it, neither was what I wanted to do…except, of course, that I wanted to show her!!
You begin to live a truly independent life, you begin to be your authentic self, when your choices in life are not influenced by the censure or approval of another person. That doesn’t mean you reject input from others: others may see things you do not, may have input you really should consider before making up your mind. But when you do make up your mind, you do not do it with the reaction or feelings or expectations of others as a consideration: you do it because you have given the decision due consideration and made a choice that works for you, regardless of how others may think.
When I was a young woman, miniskirts were just coming into fashion. I wore them because a) they were in fashion and b) I had great legs that looked good in short skirts. If I had thought about it, I might have worn them…and worn them even shorter…because my NM would have been scandalized by the abbreviated length. But NM was not really into fashion and had never allowed me any forays into it, so I had no idea what she might think or say (she wore shorts in hot weather, so why would I think she would be scandalized by miniskirts?). Years into the trend she came to my house and I was wearing a very short shift dress and she tut-tutted about the “appropriateness” of my hem length, so I later discovered that she thought such short skirts were “trampy.”
My initial decision to wear miniskirts was based entirely on my own thinking on the matter: I never even considered what my NM might think. Had I known, however, that my NM thought them “trampy,” and I decided to wear them anyway, that would not necessarily be a rebellious act on my part. But, if I knew she thought they were trampy and I filled my wardrobe with them and made sure they were short enough to give her palpitations, then that would have been an act of rebellion against my mother rather than a choice purely made for my own reasons.
When we live our lives in reaction to others, we are living for them while our own lives pass us by. We make choices based on them, not on us. Rather than look at the banquet spread before us, we focus on the rye bread that NM loves: she loves it so I will hate it. She hit me when I was little so I will not discipline my child; I never got the toys I wanted so my child will get every toy she wants; my NM hated red, so I will wear red whenever I can, even though it doesn’t look so good on me; NM was stingy with money and lived in a crappy part of town so I will live in a great part of town, even if I can’t afford it; NM had to have a brand new car every two years so I will make a virtue out of making mine last as long as I can, even if it looks like hell, breaks down every week, and costs me more in repairs than car payments on a new one. She was profligate, so I will be parsimonious; she wore expensive jewellery so I will be superior by refusing such unnecessary and showy adornment; she thought higher education made her better than anyone else, so I will drop out of college after the first semester… Whatever she values, you devalue; whatever she holds in low esteem, you elevate. And in the meantime, your real life passes you by while you live in reaction to hers.
Becoming proactive with respect to your own life is not an easy thing. When you have lived your life in reaction to someone else’s, you don’t really know what you like and dislike, what you want and don’t want, not even what you need and don’t need. You have not done the life experiments to determine your own tastes and what appeals to you, and in many respects, you have not explored life outside of your NM’s paradigm. Have you looked at the gray area between NM’s position and your completely opposite stance? Have you looked beyond the two choices you have given yourself—be like NM or be her opposite number—to see what other options you had?
I was fortunate to have spent time with my stepmother and my grandmothers and through observing them (as well as being under their control) I became aware that there were more choices than beating children in the name of discipline or abandoning discipline altogether. I became aware that there were other choices than making my children into household slaves vs absolving them of all responsibility. I learned that there are other ways to talk to children than barking orders like a drill sergeant, that there is a difference between clean enough and impossibly spotless, that that unstructured time is good for a kid, even if it makes me a little anxious.
In exploring my own life, I discovered I had to take those assumptions I inherited from NM (and was rebelling against) and examine them consciously: to literally sit down and say to myself something like “NM doesn’t like lamb so we never got it at home: I must eat some lamb to see if I really don’t like it or I am just adopting her prejudices.” I had to apply this attitude to virtually everything in my life, to all of my likes and dislikes, until I created for myself a body of tastes and preferences, values and ideals, that actually reflected my own rather than aped or resisted hers. I learned I’m not too fond of lamb, either…and I really don’t like fish. I learned that I really don’t care what ethnicity or colour another person is, but I care very much what kind of human being s/he is. I discovered that assuming everybody else is stupid, like NM did, put me in a position of not being able to learn from them. I learned that I liked ethnic food, I didn’t like really high-heeled shoes or very tight clothes…or baggy ones, either. I discovered I liked to think and that humour based on humiliating or hurting people really isn’t very funny. I discovered that money is important but it doesn’t necessarily buy you the life you want. And I learned that you not only can’t change other people, if you want to, there is something wrong with you that you are unwilling or unable to accept people as they are.
Some of the things I learned were in direct opposition to NM’s attitudes and beliefs and behaviours; some of them agreed with her (like the lamb); still others weren’t even related to her ways…I discovered life outside her box, things she had never considered, had no experience with, expressed no opinions on.
You really do have more choices than toeing NM’s line or flinging yourself in the opposite direction: there is a whole life out there that is uniquely yours, a life in which some things are in parallel with your NM, some things are the opposite, and everything else doesn’t even relate to her. And to be truly free of the control of your narcissist, that is the life you must live.
You can live this life even if you aren’t NC or even LC with your N: all you need to do is break the bond in your own heart and mind, the bond that keeps you acting either in accordance with your NM’s expectations or in defiance of them. That is a choice you can make at any time, the choice to live your life through your own likes, dislikes, tastes and choices. To do otherwise is to live under your NM’s thumb or to live in a continual state of rebellion and defiance and, believe me, that gets tiring after a while.
Your life belongs to you and you should live it for yourself, not for your Ns, not even for your spouse or your kids. There will come a day your kids fly the nest and your NM has passed on and if your spouse predeceases you, and your whole life has been lived for someone else, you will be alone, bereft, empty. I found myself in just such a situation in 2000: my kids were on their own, my NM was dead, and my husband unexpectedly died. But I was not bereft or empty. I had long since become my own person, knowing myself well enough to be able to weather those first months of grief, then going on to rebuild my life. I was not empty or bereft because I had an identity of my own rather than one predicated on my service to husband and children or in rebellion to my NM. And this is what you deny yourself when you live for others or in reaction to another: your own independent identity, your own life, your own self.
Self examination is a good thing: narcissists don’t engage in it because they deny the possibility that anything in their lives needs changing, but for the rest of us, it is a productive endeavour. Ask yourself: am I living in reaction to someone else in my life? Or am I living a life created though my own independent choices? You might be surprised what you learn!
Thursday, October 10, 2013
It’s no secret that I am a fan of therapy. Since it literally saved my life, what’s not to like? But in reading the comments on this blog and my emails from readers, it has become crystal clear to me that not only does everyone not feel the same way about therapy that I do, there are some serious misconceptions out there about therapy and therapists, particularly with respect to clients like ourselves, the offspring of narcissists.
Each one of us, for all that we have a common background, is unique. And that means that we will have differing agendas in entering (or even contemplating) therapy. And yes, you have an agenda—we all do, whether we recognize it or not. Mine, when entering therapy, was to cling onto something that might lift my suicidal depression…and the agenda evolved as the therapy evolved. Each person who reads this has his or her own agenda with respect to therapy, and that depends on our mindset.
Some of us are so entrenched in our victimhood we don’t really want therapy to work. Our personal identities are as victims and we don’t really want to change that. If being a victim is all you know, when you go into therapy and it works, who will you be then? The security of the familiar but unhappy known is threatened by the unknown. When we go into therapy with this mindset, we subtly sabotage not only the therapy, but ourselves. Hiding behind labels like PTSD or rationalizations like “I didn’t create this, why should I have to fix it?” we find fault with the therapist, the process, the very idea of change. This is undoubtedly caused by fear because to keep ourselves safe, we tend to be very control-oriented…and therapy and the changes it brings are not within our control. It is frightening to contemplate the loss of our identity, the transformation into something, someone else, when we have no overt, conscious control over that transformation.
Many of us are still very angry with our parents and others who victimized us without remorse. We want vengeance, pay back, to inflict on them the kind of hurt they inflicted on us. Our anger makes us feel powerful and strong…and safe. We hide behind it like a shield, unwilling to give up anger and revenge fantasies, resisting therapy in the mistaken notion that it will render us impotent and vulnerable again.
We sabotage ourselves with resistance…and few us undertake a therapy journey without engaging in resistance at some point. I was desperate for someone to listen to me and validate me, so I attended my therapy sessions eagerly…you’d think there was no resistance there, right? Well, I was clear on my NM and what a cruel, manipulative, sadist she was…but completely resistant to recognizing my husband was just like her! My therapist led me to the realization several times, but I simply did not see the connection. Then one day, after listening to yet another litany if complaints about my narcissistic husband, she said “Who else treats you like that?” I shook my head in puzzlement. “Who else in your life discounts and devalues you, lies to you, ignores your feelings and treats you like you don’t matter?” And suddenly I saw it and I said “Oh my god…I married my mother!” But it took her practically beating me over the head with the truth before my resistance was overcome and I could see it myself.
Too often we go into therapy with completely unrealistic expectations and when those expectations are disappointed, we blame the therapist or therapy itself, without ever looking inward to see what part we had in the lack of success. Therapy is a relationship and we are conditioned by our positions as the children of narcissists to blame the narcissist for our failed parent-child relationship, but it is not accurate to extrapolate that experience to every relationship we ever enter into.
Just like in any other relationship, in order to be successful the people in it must be working towards the same goal, pulling in the same direction. If you have a subconscious agenda of undermining the therapy, there is no way it can work. Why would you want to do that? Well, some people want to prove they are right—they say therapy won’t help them or it is bunk, and by sabotaging the therapy by being uncooperative, they prove themselves right. Some people don’t want to change, they want the people who hurt them to change: they have no motivation to cooperate with therapy. Still others want to be in control: they feel unsafe putting their emotional lives in the hands of others, so they thwart the therapy and therapist in order to keep feeling safe, even at the expense of healing. I am sure there are many, many other reasons that people are unwilling to really engage with the therapist, reasons that aren’t truly the therapist’s fault, that stymie the therapeutic process.
Our expectations, often subconscious, can also be a major cause of disappointment or disillusionment. Some of us expect the therapist to be some kind miracle worker: we sit passively and tell a little about ourselves and the therapist magically heals us. It doesn’t work that way, I am sorry to say. Therapists don’t heal us, we heal ourselves with our therapists as our guides. They prod us when we are reluctant to open doors, console us when we finally face heart-wrenching truths, point us in the right direction when we seem lost and don’t know how to proceed. But they do not fix us…we fix ourselves by facing up to painful, long-suppressed emotions and truths, by going through the pain we have been avoiding, by examining long-held—but false—beliefs about ourselves and our families. Our therapists are there as guides to help us along, throw us a lifeline as needed, give us encouragement and redirect us when we wander off the path of healing. They do not have magic wands and they cannot cure us without our wholehearted participation in the process.
I have heard complaints about therapists and how they act in session but seldom have I heard someone acknowledge his/her part in the situation. I have heard of therapists who spent the therapy hour talking about themselves: but who acknowledges that therapists are human beings who might be made uncomfortable with a prolonged silence on the part of the client? Is there any recognition that a valid technique is to toss out some tidbit about one’s own self in an effort to prime the client, as an attempt to get the client to reciprocate? Some therapists appear to be inattentive and uncommunicative: perhaps this is a style of relating that is supposed to encourage the client to ruminate and even feel uncomfortable enough with the silence to speak up. I have heard complaints about therapists who don’t know anything about narcissism or who refuse to acknowledge such things as personality disorders. So…does the client keep coming back, after hearing from the horse’s mouth, that s/he is not knowledgeable about certain things that are important to the client and shows no interest in learning? How is that the therapist’s fault? If you went to a Porsche dealer wanting to buy a Ferrari and the dealer said “Nope, no Ferraris here, we don’t carry them or even talk about them,” whose fault is it if you keep hanging around the Porsche dealer, expecting a Ferrari to somehow appear? Shouldn’t you say “OK, thanks for the info,” and go in search of a Ferrari dealer?
One of the ways we sabotage ourselves and our therapy with unrealistic expectations is to think that all therapists are alike, that they all have the same amount of insight and the same ability to connect…and that they are all equally competent in all aspects of their field. But if you believe this, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Think of therapists like houses or apartments for sale or rent: what are the odds that, without doing any research whatsoever, without making any calls or inquiries, the first place you see will be not only in perfect condition, but exactly what you are looking for? Slim, eh? Is anything more frustrating than house or apartment hunting, trying to get the right size place in the right location for the right money in the right condition? When I was last house hunting, I swear we saw at least ten houses per week for three months before we found the house we bought—and this house needed a shipload of work to counter the previous owner’s seven years of deferred maintenance.
Why should finding the right therapist be any different? Are human beings any less unique than houses? If you were looking for someone to guide you through the Everglades would you take someone whose expertise is the Rocky Mountains, just because they are both guides and you therefore perceive them to be interchangeable? Whose fault would it be if you got lost if you insist on hiring a guide who has never been in the Everglades and who tells you “this is not my area of expertise”?
The success of therapy depends on several things, but choosing the right therapist for you is the first and most important step. And you cannot be expecting your therapist to not be human, to not have human faults or foibles. Therapists are humans just like we are and act and react just like we do. Faulting another human for being human, expecting your therapist to be superhuman, works against you and the success of your therapy. Furthermore, a therapist with a background of overcoming personal difficulties, someone whose life has not been a perfect bed or roses and who has conquered his demons is probably a person whose life is more likely to have given him the experiences that allow him to empathise with you and be a better guide than someone who has lived without angst and personal turmoil. Do you want a guide who learned the route through books or one who has already trodden the path himself and knows where you are going?
Before you choose a therapist, consider what attributes are important in the right therapist for you: experience in helping adults who had abusive parents? Experience in dealing with the victims of people with personality disorders? Specific training or experience with narcissism? You should find out if the therapist adheres to any specific type of psychotherapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Imago Relationship Therapy: some therapies address only superficial reactions rather than address the underlying causes of our angst and some therapists are so rigidly bound to their chosen form of therapy they will try to shoehorn you into their paradigm rather than listen to you and help you find your own way, using their insights as guides.
You should book an appointment with a therapist who you think is a possibility and spend that hour interviewing the therapist, asking the questions to which you need answers. It is ok to bring a list of questions. If the therapist balks and tries to control the time and topics, this is a clue that with this person, you are going to have to do therapy according to his/her agenda, not yours. Will that work for you? If not, don’t book a second appointment. You should specifically ask if they ascribe to any particular type of therapy. If they do, write it down and when you get home, go to this website, http://www.goodtherapy.org/types-of-therapy.html , look up the therapy and read up on it. If it doesn’t seem like a fit to you, move on to interviewing the next therapist. You may have to visit several before you find someone you can work with but don’t reject someone simply because s/he is not perfect: you sabotage yourself that way because nobody is perfect. You just need a therapist with whom you can feel comfortable and who is willing to work with you, which includes not forcing you into a therapy model s/he feels comfortable with but makes you feel unheard, and being willing to stretch his or her own knowledge and expertise by learning more about narcissism and its effects upon victims. No matter how great the therapist seems otherwise, if those two essential elements are missing, you are not going to have the best opportunity to cure what ails you.
There are no shortcuts. There are no shortcuts. No magic bullets, no miracle cures, no magical techniques to fix what ails you. You can engage in “alternative therapies” that tap into the placebo effect, but they will not cure you. The only cure for what ails you lies within yourself: you must come to terms with what you have been avoiding, with what you fear, and realize that you will not die either from the pain or from the loss of a toxic family, but you could die from your avoidance: addiction, alcoholism, suidical depression, high risk behaviours...
Therapy works for everyone…that’s right, everyone. But it only works with your participation and your own hard work. It doesn’t work if you don’t choose an appropriate therapist, it doesn’t work if you sit by passively and expect the therapist to fix you, it doesn’t work if you don’t cooperate in the therapy and stretch yourself, it doesn’t work if you sabotage it, either consciously or subconsciously. It only works if you really want it to and you put your comfort on the line: successful therapy is painful and it takes time, but in the end, you come out a happier, more whole person.
All of this said, it would be unjust to neglect the subject of bad therapists and quack therapies: they do exist. Chief among the quack therapies, in my estimation, is EFT (Emotional FreedomTechnique). First of all, it is not meant to fix the underlying cause of your pain, only to temporarily banish it: it is like putting a Band-Aid on a melanoma. Secondly, any effectiveness a patient may feel from its use is attributable to “…well-known cognitive and behavioral techniques that are included with the energy manipulation. Psychologists and researchers should be wary of using such techniques, and make efforts to inform the public about the ill effects of therapies that advertise miraculous claims.”A wise practice, when encountering any “alternative medicine” or “alternative therapies” is to look them up on Quackwatcha site dedicated to investigating and reporting the truth of these alternative methods.
Bad therapists are people who do not resist their own urges to exploit or take advantage of their clients. This can range from passivity to unwillingness to learn about your situation (victim of narcissism) to trying to force you into a specific therapeutic mould that is inside the therapist’s comfort zone but not appropriate for you, to more overt, psychologically damaging behaviour like treating you and your issues dismissively, betraying confidences, even behaving in sexually inappropriate ways with you. Bad therapists do exist…some of them are narcissists themselves, people who found an endless source of Nsupply in the profession. But, this is true of virtually any profession: they all have their share of bad apples and we simply have to be cautious and prudent in selecting the practitioner we will use.
So, is therapy right for you? Yes!! But it is up to you to find the right therapist and then give it your own best effort. And if at first you do not succeed, try, try again!