Hope is perceived in our society as noble and inspirational: when all seems lost, the brave and noble hang on to hope and are incentivized by it, while those who give up hope are viewed as quitters, lacking in bravery, and “succumbing” to hopelessness.
Sometimes, however, hope is not your saviour and your best friend. Sometimes hope is an anchor dragging you under and your worst enemy. Benjamin Franklin once said “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” The man had a point.
We are socially conditioned to never let go of hope, that when all else fails, hope can sustain us. But like all things, there is a limit as to how much is healthy and sustaining and how much is not: sometimes clinging to hope is really no more than clinging, desperate denial, a stubborn, pain-fueled refusal to face an unhappy, unwanted reality. Hope is an extension of expectation; it is what expectation devolves to when it has been disappointed too often, too badly. When you no longer expect reciprocity from someone but you are unwilling to accept that it will never happen, you hope.
When I was a very little girl, I suffered from insomnia…I had trouble falling to sleep at night. Keyed up from a day of hypervigilance, I went to bed tense and with a buzzing, hyperalert brain. Add to the fact that my bedroom shared a paper-thin wall with the living room and I could hear every sound in that room…including my mother’s negative characterizations of me to her friends, replete with complete fabrications and self-servingly incorrect assignment of my motives, sleep often eluded me. I learned to silently tell myself stories, rather like soapies, that on following nights I would pick up where I had drifted off to sleep the night before. These stories were fantasies in which I was the hero, the rescuer, the nurturer, and my reward for my good deeds would be the love and devotion of everyone around me, including (and most especially) my mother.
As young as five or six years of age I had absorbed my NM’s paradigm that I had to earn love through my deeds and actions. Being young and unsophisticated, I had the expectation that if I was a “good girl,” i.e., I lived up to the expectations of others, took care of them, sacrificed for them, I would earn their love. Eventually I learned that you cannot earn love any more than you can buy it, but some of us never abandon this behavioural model, setting ourselves up for disappointment after disappointment because we fail to take into account the nature…and social paradigms…of the people from whom we expect reciprocity.
Hope and expectations are singularly self-oriented phenomena. Both have to do with want—what you want: you want something and either you expect it will occur or, if you have given up on expectation, you hope it will. With either one, you may work to do your “part,” expecting or hoping the other person will do his/hers…which will grant you your wish. Unfortunately, we do not all go by the same playbook of life, and those of us who grow up in dysfunctional households often have vastly different playbooks from those who did not. Our expectations, based on what we believed it took to get the positive attention of a narcissistic parent, may not elicit the desired response from others.
I once worked with a very nice woman who grew up with a pair of exacting scientists for parents; she married an emotionally detached man-child and after their second child was diagnosed as profoundly autistic, the husband abandoned wife and family for an old flame. Devastated and feeling abandoned, my friend turned her attention to one of the managers in our department and began knocking herself out to be the best admin he had ever had. She brought him coffee, cleaned up his office, put his work ahead of the others, put a plant on his desk and took care of it. For weeks she bent over backwards to impress and serve this man…seeking attention and approval from an authority figure, seeking some kind of validation from him to reassure her of her value. Her expectation was one of reciprocity: she would be the best secretary he had ever worked with and he would reciprocate with thanks, praise and even the occasional token of his appreciation. When Secretary’s Day came and went without a lunch invitation from him or even a wilted carnation, she broke down in tears, confessing to me her anger and disappointment at him for not keeping up his end.
The problem, of course, was that he was completely unaware that he had an end to keep up. In his world, the way she had been behaving was expected because it was her job and he owed her nothing, not even thanks, for it…her reward—her thanks, if you will—came in the form of a pay check every two weeks. She, of course, was operating from a completely different playbook, the one in which you earn accolades by your devotion and going-the-extra-distance. In her eyes, she had gone above and beyond and therefore deserved praise and thanks for it; in his eyes, she was just performing her job duties.
And this is the curse of hope: our hopes and expectations are too often not based on reality or even generally-held beliefs and experiences. They are based on the missing bits in our own psyches, the damaged or empty parts of our hearts, the holes in our souls. We hope for those things we believe will make us whole, will satisfy that sense of want within us. Even if we are not consciously aware of the chasm within, our hopes and expectations are tailor-made to fit it. Few of us, however, realize that even if we are able to bring those hopes and expectations to fruition, they will never fill the abyss that makes us yearn. Those hopes fool us into thinking they are the great cure for our despair when, in fact, they give us only a temporary, illusory respite, and then we are back to hoping and wanting and yearning even more.
If you don’t believe me, think about this. You are here, reading this, because you have a painful relationship with a narcissist…most likely your mother. You feel unloved, maybe even unwanted by her. What if, tomorrow morning, you got a phone call from that narcissist in which she said she loved you, she had always loved you, she was sorry for how she had treated you, and she wanted to make amends. Wish granted, hope fulfilled…now, how do you think you will feel?
The expectation you carry with you today is that if your narcissist were to do that, you would feel filled with that love, soothed by it, your pain and doubt and anxiety melting away. So why are you feeling sceptical, cynical, maybe even angry or anxious? Why are you expecting her next breath to reveal a falling out between her and your GC brother or sister? Or for her to pause, then laugh shrilly, and announce she was kidding, of course? Why are you wondering what she is up to, what the catch is, when the other shoe is going to drop? Having our fondest hope come true is not always what we think it will be, and sometimes we end up even more unhappy as a result.
In June of 2011, Psychology Today published an article by Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D., entitled "The Power of Hope, and Recognizing When It's Hopeless." Dr. Lamia says “In relationships, there are times when abandoning hope is psychologically healthier than holding onto it…In ending a relationship, relinquishing hope means coming to terms with your failure. In a rescuing relationship, hope may have led you to assume that you could help your partner achieve his expressed goal: be it financial success, sobriety, security, or happiness. Yet despite your efforts, you could not control whether or not he would be inclined to pursue your perception of a desirable path. Perhaps your hope was that your partner would become the one you wanted or wished him to be, and he would then need, love, and appreciate you. Relinquishing hope is hard to do, because it means that you have failed to get what you expected from your relationship. The feelings associated with giving up hope in a relationship are often the very same emotions you sought to avoid in the first place, including helplessness, despair, depression, or yearning… Yet giving up hope can also be very constructive and positive, depending on your attitude.
“Giving up hope is sometimes prudent… Continuing to pursue a particular direction where you invariably encounter roadblocks, whether in a relationship, career, or business venture, can obscure other avenues that may lead to achieving an objective. In our culture there is a particular glamour attributed to those who persist, and win, in spite of limited hope for success. At the same time, having the strength to recognize when hope should be relinquished, and the courage to acknowledge your helplessness, can point you in an unsullied direction that is accompanied by new hope.”
Notice that Dr. Lamia specifically refers to us having an expectation—a hope—that the other person does not necessarily buy into. Like my co-worker, when the other party does not reciprocate, is not “inclined to pursue your perception of a desirable path,” you are faced with a choice: continue or quit. And while she likens giving up hope to a perception of our having failed, I think this is less true for the children of narcissistic parents: for us, giving up hope is to finally acknowledge that we will never be loved in a way that is meaningful to us by the very people from whom we are truly entitled to receive that love, our parent(s). This is the pain we seek to avoid, the helplessness, despair, depression, the yearning for our birthright, parental love. To give up hope here means that we must not only embrace that pain, we must give up the whole idea of ever having that expectation, that entitlement fulfilled. It means we have been cheated and we can do nothing about it except accept it and walk away empty handed. And so, unwilling to do that, we cling to the feeblest hope…
And yet, keeping a futile hope alive just makes us stuck: we cannot move forward when we are stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for our narcissist to wake up and see what wonderful, worthwhile, loving people we are and how deserving we are of love and appreciation. Frozen in time and space, arrested emotionally, trapped by futile hope, we hold ourselves back and determinedly allow opportunities to pass us by while we continue to hurt ourselves with our drive to find that magic key, that special phrase, that perfect gift or deed that will open the door to the narcissistic parent’s love and fan our feeble flame of hope into a joyful reality. Hiding from the pain of helplessness, despair, depression and yearning, we simply mire ourselves more deeply in them.
Like so many other things, there can be too much hope. Do you have a realistic goal for yourself? A goal to find or create happiness for yourself is realistic; a goal to find that happiness through eliciting a specific behaviour from another person is not. You cannot manipulate yourself into being loved, nor can you obtain it by doing, over and over again, the things that did not convey it to you in the first place. You simply cannot dredge from the depths of another human being that which is not there. And the longer you wait for that person to find that which is not there in order to salve your soul, the longer you will remain stuck.
We do live in a culture that glamorizes those who cling to hope and ultimately succeed. But that is the stuff of fairy tales, romance, glamour. In real life, the odds are stacked against you: when an expectation degrades to mere hope, the odds of your prevailing diminish. And the longer you hold onto a hope despite no signs of that hope coming to fruition, the more your odds of prevailing diminish. In other words, the longer you hope with no reward, the less likely you will get what you want. And if that hope is keeping you stuck in some way, it is working against you, actually preventing you from achieving what you want.
A good example is the “other woman” who engages in a long-term affair with a married man whom she expects will leave his wife for her. Years pass and there is always some reason he can’t go: a child is sick, the wife’s parent died and he can’t leave while she is so fragile, he must wait until the child graduates high school, college…always an excuse, always she accepts the excuse and lives on the hope that someday the time will be right and they will be together. Meanwhile, she turns a blind eye to other men, other opportunities for love and marriage and a family, until she is set aside in favour of a younger mistress and she walks away middle-aged, alone, with nothing to show for her years of devotion but a broken heart and a biological clock that has nearly run out. Hope did this woman no favours but kept her confined in a relationship with a selfish man who thought only of himself.
Hope, too much hope, hoping too long, hoping for the impossible or even just the improbable, can do this to you. Clinging to hope when the prudent move would be to let it go and move in another direction, works against you. There is no shame in giving up hope when it is futile, there is no shame in embracing reality and recognizing and accepting that hope is futile. The shame is in sacrificing your life and your emotional well-being to futile hope, like the hope that a narcissistic parent will “wake up” and find the love for you hidden in her heart. Reality check: if she didn’t love and adore you when you were an adorable, cooing infant, a chubby-cheeked toddler, an admiring young daughter, what makes you think she will find some loving emotion for you now, at this late date, when your life no longer revolves around her and you are no longer the uncritical, loving, adoring child you once were—and for whom she could find no love?
Harsh? Yes. Reality is not always pretty, nor does it spare our feelings. Reality is a harsh taskmistress, giving us the unvarnished truth without regard to our emotions. And the reality of this is simply that if she did not love you then, what makes you think she will love you now? If she didn’t love you when you were innocent and open and emotionally untarnished, what makes you think she will love the adult, distrustful, wounded person her indifference created? If she didn’t find you good enough to love when you adored her uncritically, how does your present state of mind and emotions improve on that and elicit love from her?
Reality is, you cannot squeeze blood from a stone…and you cannot squeeze love from the stony heart of a narcissist. Reality is, the fault is not with you and it never was: the fact that your narcissist could not love you when you were a tiny little child proves that, for what can a baby do to disengage the heart of a loving mother? Hoping for her to change…and expecting that change to fill the hole in your soul, is futile, it keeps you stuck, it prevents you from progressing. And, whether you want to admit it or not, you are stuck because you have chosen to put your life, your wholeness, on hold while you wait for her to do what you want.
Well, she’s not going to do it. If she hasn’t done it by now, she never will. You have put yourself in a holding pattern and as you wait, peace of mind and wholeness of heart pass you by. As you sit by and hope, you are waiting for someone else to take action. On some level you are not only believing that person will, some day, come through, you are also giving control of your life to that person and, in doing so, abdicating your own responsibility to yourself. You offer yourself up like a sacrificial lamb, vulnerable and powerless, when you continue to hope long past the time to read reality and take control of your emotional life. You can only stop being at the mercy of the merciless when you wake up and embrace that harsh but liberating reality: narcissists have love only for themselves…there is no room in their hearts for anyone else, not even the GC, who is merely manipulated in ways different from the ways you experienced.
So what do you do? You have to fill that hole, that gaping chasm of want and emptiness that yawns just inside your ribcage. If you cannot have hope that your narcissist will fill it, if you must give up the hope that someone else will come along and fill it for you, what do you do? You fill it yourself.
And that is much easier said than done…I know this from my own painful experience. And you can’t fill it in a day, or a week or even a month. It is not a once-off deal, like filling a bucket of water from the hose, it is an on-going, daily, even hourly, change in how you think, what you think, the messages you give yourself, your sense of responsibility for yourself. It is a change in how you live, how you believe, it is becoming your own best friend and hero. It is you waking up to the reality of your NM and accepting that which you do not want to believe: she does not love you, not because you are somehow at fault or defective, but because she is defective and cannot love anyone but herself. It is stepping away from the childish notion that wishing will make it so and embracing the adult’s perception of reality as it is…ugly and unsatisfying, but real.
There are times when hope does you no favours, when it is time to realize that what you are clinging to is a false hope, and in doing so, you are harming yourself more effectively than anything she can ever do to you. There are time to just step away and close the door and turn your back. And that time is when you open your own eyes and allow yourself to finally see that if she was unable to love and care for you when you believed the sun rose and set in her, she doesn’t have it in her to love someone who is less perfect, less adoring than your infant self. She has been telling you for all of your years, in countless ways…it is time for you to step away from your denial and listen to her…really listen. And put those false, misleading hopes that just keep you stringing along, to rest.
“He who has never hoped can never despair.”
George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950), Caesar and Cleopatra (1901) act 4