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, May 27, 2014

The not-so-sweet taste of revenge

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” ~ Confucius

What would you think if you saw a person run up to another, stab that person in the arm with a knife, then disappear into the shadows and the victim’s response was to cry out in pain…and then start stabbing herself in the same place? You’d think she was nuts, wouldn’t you?

And if you asked her why she was repeatedly stabbing herself and she answered that she was taking revenge on her attacker this way, you’d be sure she was a few bricks shy of a load, would you not?

And yet, that is exactly what we do to ourselves when we focus our minds on revenge and retribution, on vengeance against those who have hurt us. We do not hurt them in the least, but by keeping our wounds alive and bleeding, we repeatedly, continually, hurt ourselves.

We like to think that vengeance is justice. We like to think that we will feel better if the people who hurt us are hurt in the same way. We like to think that thoughts of vengeance will not hurt us, that those thoughts are cathartic, allowing us to have our revenge at least in our minds, if not in our deeds. But, unfortunately, what we like to think, the conventional wisdom, is wrong. Not only is it logically wrong, it is empirically wrong: it has been studied and thoughts, fantasies, and wishes for vengeance actually make us feel worse than if we had turned our minds elsewhere.

Some people cite the Hebrew Bible’s “an eye for an eye...” scripture as justification for vengeful thinking and behaviour, but the same book also says “‘vengeance is mine’ says the Lord” (Deut. 32:35, in the NT, Rom. 12:19), reserving the right to vengeance to God, not giving encouragement to mankind to engage in it. And, as Martin Luther King once said, “That old law about 'an eye for an eye' leaves everybody blind.” 

The American Psychological Association (APA) published an article entitled Revengeand the people who seek it by Michael Price in which he referenced numerous researchers on the topic of revenge.

“Social psychologist Ian McKee, PhD, of Adelaide University in Australia, studies what makes a person seek revenge rather than just letting an issue go. In May 2008, he published a paper in Social Justice Research (Vol. 138, No. 2) linking vengeful tendencies primarily with two social attitudes: right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance, and the motivational values that underlie those attitudes.

“ ‘People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status… They don't want to lose face.’”

“ ‘Rather than providing closure, it [revenge, thinking of revenge] does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh…’

Bryan Robinson, in his article Why Revenge Is Bad and Good,  quotes Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York: “ ‘…everyone has felt the need to extract revenge. From being cut off in traffic by a rude driver and wanting to return the favor, to fantasizing about putting a school bully in his place, we have all felt wronged by someone — and mulled ways of gaining vengeance.’

“ ‘But while the need for revenge can be understandable, experts say it is never healthy… It’s not healthy, but like many other human needs, it’s also normal… Like hate, revenge is something that takes a toll on the person who feels wronged, as well as the [person’s] enemy. It is inherently unhealthy because it takes a psychological and physical toll on the person. Venting those feelings of anger and hostility does not decrease those feelings… It may give you a cathartic feeling, but it doesn’t last.’

Robinson goes on to say “Revenge spawns an endless cycle of retribution. It is not a long-term solution, but a quick-fix. That, experts say, is part of its appeal — it gives a wronged party some gratification, even though it is only temporary.

“Some people equate revenge with seeking justice, but the two are not the same. People who seek revenge are driven by anger and violence and have not thought about how [to] channel their negative feelings into something positive. They have not considered how they could use their negative experience — the injustice they suffered — to bring about change.

“ ‘It doesn't mean that you don’t want to hold people accountable for their actions or that you don’t want to seek justice,’ said William Mikulas, professor of psychology at the University of West Florida. ‘With revenge, you are coming from an orientation of anger and violence or self-righteousness: “I want to get him, I want to hurt them … I want to make them pay.” You’re coming from a place of violence and anger and that’s never good.’”

So, according to the literature, wanting revenge is normal but it’s not healthy for us. Basically, it keeps us stuck, unable to move past the injury for which we want revenge and, if we manage to actually get revenge, it still keeps us stuck, mulling over it. I am not so sure I entirely agree…

I think the desire for revenge, at least in Western society, is based on the pervasive but fatuous notion that life is fair and we are entitled to fairness in everything. Real life couldn’t be further from the truth. If life was fair, no child would be born into poverty…or all of them would. If life was fair, no child would be born with cleft palate or anencephaly or blind or to an indifferent, uncaring mother…or all of us would be. Human life, from the moment of conception, is inherently unfair, some blastocysts implanting to become fetuses, some failing to implant and being flushed out with the next menstrual cycle. We are not guaranteed fairness in life, nor are we entitled to it in the grander scheme of things: women live longer than men, Swedes, Brits and even the Greeks live longer than Americans, and by and large, men are taller and stronger than women…none of this is fair.

But while Mother Nature isn’t fair, there is one place where we can legitimately expect fairness and that is in institutions crafted by our fellow humans: marriage, family, law…things over which we, as humans, have actual control. We can create laws and marriage customs and family structures that are inherently fair to all participants or inherently unfair. And it is within this paradigm, the concept of man-made institutions, where we can create and legitimately expect fairness.

There is a fine line to be drawn between these institutions and the greater society, however. While we can expect to be treated fairly under the law, we cannot expect that the society will treat us fairly because society, by and large, does not reflect a perfect world. Our behaviour and our expectations will have a large part in determining where in the society we will fit and that determines other things, from who will befriend us to the jobs we get to our economic status. While we do have a measure of control with respect to law, we have no control over the behaviours of those around us. The rules of society are not codified, fixed, and enforced like the criminal and civil laws and, unlike law, the rules of social interaction don’t pay the slightest attention to what might considered fair.

Are we really clear on what is fair? Is it fair that one guy dates a string of supermodels but the same women won’t date the engineer at the next desk? Is it fair that one sister has four children but the other sister has fertility issues? Is it fair that your neighbour drives a new Porsche and you can barely keep your 15 year old Saturn moving? And if you believe these things are not fair, what are the viable options to level the playing field? Should the women be forced to date the engineer? Should he be permitted to shoot all of the beautiful women who won’t date him? Should the fertile sister give half of her children to the infertile one? Should the neighbour buy you a Porsche as well? Of course not…the solution is in learning and accepting that life in inherently unfair and that in many instances, there is nothing we can do about it. Accept it, change the attitude that you are entitled to a fair (“everything everybody else has”) shake in life, and that if you don’t get it, you are entitled to vengeance, even if the law doesn’t allow it.

We have two choices when it comes to dealing with unfair situations that are not governed by law: 1) acknowledge it feels unfair, learn a lesson about your part in it, and then accept it and walk away or 2) decide to do something about it. That latter choice also breaks down into two choices 1) take positive action, like exposing an injustice or spearheading a change in law (that is how MADD was formed and our laws about drunk driving got changed) or 2) plot, fantasize about, wish for, and focus on obtaining revenge. The first is a productive, positive way to deal with your disappointment, the second a corrosive, self-destructive, way to stay stuck and never, ever have feeling of closure.

Revenge…even fantasizing about revenge…may seem sweet in the moment but over the long term it is ultimately dissatisfying. It keeps you angry and stuck in the pain, and even if you are able to exact revenge, it keeps you stuck because we, as humans, vastly overrate what it will do for us. Revenge does not level the playing field, it doesn’t make things fair where they weren’t fair before, it doesn’t even make the victim of your vengeance empathize with your feelings—it just makes them feel hurt, unjustly attacked, and may even put them on the path of revenge against you. How do you think vendettas get started?

In the modern day, many people advocate turning the other cheek and forgiving the transgressor but I disagree with that, too. If you have been hurt, it is important to acknowledge that hurt and find out why you feel injured. Were you expecting blood from a turnip and now are disappointed, hurt and angry because the turnip didn’t bleed for you? Did you set up a transaction in your mind—failing to get the buy-in of the other person with whom you set up the transaction—and are now hurt and disappointed that the other person did not perform as expected? Are you in denial about another person or yourself and somehow an uncomfortable truth was revealed? Or were you really, truly victimized, taken advantage of, exploited?

When you know why you are feeling hurt, then you can learn the lessons your pain has to teach you and modify your behaviour, your expectations, who you trust. If you were truly victimized, you now know what to expect from the person who victimized you…will you heed this lesson going forward or put yourself in the position to be victimized again? If you created a transaction in your head… “I will do this and he will appreciate it and then he will love me”… and it didn’t work out the way you expected, you can learn to be more honest in your interactions with people or you can learn that this person is either not very perceptive or simply not interested in reciprocation and adjust how you interact with him in the future.

From analysing why you feel hurt and angry and learning the lessons that analysis provides you, you can move on to acceptance: recognize that rattlesnakes have venom, scorpions have stingers, wild animals bite, and some people are no different. They take and do not truly give. They will betray you every time you give them an opportunity and they stand to gain from it. They stab you in the back with one hand while extending the other in a gesture of friendship or love. They cannot be trusted to be benign, only to strike when it suits them. Accept that this is the way they are, be happy they have given you the gift of truth—they have shown you their true colours so now you can protect yourself, and use that knowledge to your best advantage. Vengeance does not evoke empathy in them for you, it does not make them understand how you feel. They merely see it as an unprovoked attack for which they have a right to retaliate. In the long run, revenge never ends well, nor does it give you that feeling of closure.

And it doesn’t heal what is hurting you, either.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The “Identified Patient”

Over and over again I see it written: the scapegoat is troubled, the problem child, the troublemaker, even the household rebel. Psychologists and other writers, from the well-known like John Bradshaw to the most obscure blogger, publish works that make it look like the scapegoat, because of his or her behaviour, might actually deserve both the role and the disdain forced upon him.

My own experience does not bear this out. M. Scott Peck, in his book “People of the Lie,” references the “identified patient.” According to Wikipedia, Identified patient, or ‘IP,’ is a term used in a clinical setting to describe the person in a dysfunctional family who has been subconsciously selected to act out the family’s inner conflicts as a diversion; who is the split-off carrier of the (perhaps transgenerational) family disturbance. The term emerged from the work of the Bateson Project on family homeostasis, as a way of identifying a largely unconscious pattern of behavior whereby an excess of painful feelings in a family lead to one member being identified as the cause of all the difficulties - a scapegoating of the IP.

“The identified patient - also called the ‘symptom-bearer’ or ‘presenting problem’ - may display unexplainable emotional or physical symptoms, and is often the first person to seek help, perhaps at the request of the family. However, while family members will typically express concern over the IP’s problems, they may instinctively react to any improvement on the identified patient’s part by attempting to reinstate the status quo.”

That last paragraph strikes a responsive chord in me. I was not only the first person to seek help in my family, I was the only one. NM’s one foray into psychology for me during my childhood—part of a custody battle with my father in which she wanted a psychologist to testify on her behalf—was abruptly cancelled when the therapist was more interested in talking about her than about me. I don’t remember this at all (part of that blank period in my childhood for which I have virtually no memories), but I clearly remember NM citing this as an example of the uselessness of psychology/psychiatry: she took me to a therapist because I was obviously disturbed (I wanted to live with my father, not her) and the therapist was focussing on her instead of me. NM, who had an agenda that had nothing to do with my emotional well-being, took me to that psychologist as the “identified patient” (a person who is taken to therapy by his or her family, as being a problem or having problems), but the therapist saw right through her. We never went back for a second session.

Peck says this child, the identified patient, is the family member who is identified as the source of the family difficulties. And while some of these children are, in fact, acting out, it is usually a problem in family dynamics that is the true source of problem, and if the child is acting out, it is in response to those dynamics. In other words, the child doesn’t really have to be a problem to be designated the scapegoat, although some children become a problem as a result of their being cast into the scapegoat role. Then, they are blamed not only for their acting out behaviours, but for the problems of the entire family system as well.

I read “People of the Lie” long before I had any notion of narcissism and personality disorders. But I was struck with the similarity between the “identified patients” and my self-identification as a scapegoat. I had come across the term in my reading and it immediately resonated within me: my brother, who was always in trouble at school, at home, even in the neighbourhood, was seldom punished for his misdeeds and his lies…often mind-bogglingly transparent…were always accepted as truth. For me, I was blamed and punished for not only my mistakes (which were interpreted as deliberate defiance) but for his misdeeds—his misbehaviour was my fault because I “allowed” him, I didn’t stop him, I was the oldest and he was my responsibility. This is classic scapegoating and, since I was already being blamed for ruining NM’s life by my very existence, it wasn’t much of a leap to lay everything wrong the family at my feet.

In “People of the Lie” Peck describes the parents of a little boy so deeply depressed he was hospitalized. That year for Christmas they had given the boy a .22 rifle, the exact same rifle his older brother had used to commit suicide. When confronted by Peck and the message their “gift” conveyed…that they wanted him to commit suicide, too…the parents became immediately defensive, dug their heels into denial, and refused to entertain the thought. They became angry at Peck, insisting their son was the sick person, not they. Peck defines evil as “militant ignorance” and the behaviour of these people, angrily defensive and unwilling to accept the truth of their actions and the message those actions conveyed to their grieving younger son, exemplify not only their ignorance but their militant defence of it. To remain blameless, to be able to see themselves as good people and good parents, they sacrificed their son, making him the sick one, the identified patient, the one with the problems, and completely absolved themselves of any responsibility for his depression. No, he was the sick one and the doctor needed to focus on him, not on them. They reacted to Peck’s rejection of their son as the “identified patient” in much the same way my NM reacted to that psychologist rejecting me as the same.

This is not to say that the identified patient is not suffering, does not need some kind of therapeutic intervention. Most likely s/he does. But critical is the understanding that the reasons the IP needs help is not because s/he is the centre of the family dysfunction. Often the child singled out as the scapegoat is the most emotionally healthy, most cognitively aware, most fundamentally balanced member of the household. The child may act out to draw attention to the family in a subconscious hope of getting help…or the child may be so successfully subdued that s/he simply goes along, not making waves, either biding her time until she can escape or becoming so imbued with the family mythology that she buys into it and accepts that she is at fault, even though she cannot figure out how. The identified patient has been damaged by the dysfunctional family system, but she is not the only damaged person and she is not the cause of the dysfunction.

Is it possible to have a dysfunctional person inside a functional family? I believe it is, using my NM and her FOO as an example, but I think it is rare. Perfectly normal families can have a family member who is substantially different from the rest of them. We are not blank slates upon which our parents write: if we were, all of us ACoNs would be the same and we are not. We each bring a unique personality and set of traits with us when we come into the world and it may well be that there is something in our particular make up that strikes a negative note in our NMs and causes them to single us out as the scapegoat.

Identified patient is a psychological term that, in my mind, equates to scapegoat. A dysfunctional family needs someone to focus on, someoneto blame things on, someone to point to when things go wrong… It means that in a sick family system, the group has subconsciously elected one person to act out all the family sickness in a very overt way while the rest of the family acts it out in a covert way. Even if the IP tries to act “not sick,” the family will send messages to “get back where you belong” and set the IP up for failure.” How much does this sound like the family dynamics surrounding the scapegoat?

“It’s not that the identified patient is any sicker than the rest of the family, in fact they probably aren’t, but they are the one through whom the family channels all of its “stuff.” The family dynamic is to keep things status quo, to keep its eyes trained on the IP.” Have you tried going NC—or even LC—only to find members of your family going out of their way to suck you back into the drama? That isn’t because they love you and miss you (as they may well say) but because they need you to be there to take the blame, to be the negative focus, to be the disappointing one against whom they can all compare themselves and come away superior.

Some of us disappear from the family scene and we don’t get hoovered. This is the function of the “ignoring types,” the family dynamic that treats you like you are invisible until something is needed from you. In such situations “…the identified patient, or IP, is viewed as a troubled individual or, in extreme cases, as someone with whom the family would be better offwithout.”You are still the IP or scapegoat, but in this case, the family had decided that your absence makes them whole as they can continue to find ways to blame you even at a distance.

“Usually the one who gets help first in the family is the IP. They get out of the family and find out what is wrong because they are tired of being blamed for everything and everyone. Usually their acting out is a normal response to an abnormal situation and they want help.” Some of us seek therapy, others of us seek self-help through books, websites, on-line groups, journaling. Some of us don’t seek help at all and just escape the FOO but continue to replicate our dysfunctional emotional relationships with others, seeking to “get it right” this time…the next time. And some of us just get out and withdraw, licking our wounds and living in a cocoon of hurt.

But we all want that hurting to stop. “…part of recovery is identifying who you were in the family and how you have carried that role into adulthood. See how your role in the family plays itself out in your current relationship and ask yourself if it’s time for a change.

“Being the IP or the one that doesn’t belong can be a [hidden] blessing. If you’ve never belonged, it’s easy to take a step in another direction. Take refuge in exile. It can be a good thing.

“If you’ve been the IP, realize you’re never going to win their approval, so stop trying. You have a role to fill and they’re not going to be happy if you’re not filling it. If you’ve brought it into your relationships, chances are you will not be validated and acknowledged in those adult relationships either.

“Stop seeking approval from people who don’t have it to give. Throw off those old messages…get rid of the negative messages from the family…get rid of “get back where you belong” everytime you try to save yourself.”

Yes, you might fail. You might even fail repeatedly in your efforts to get away, to resist being sucked back into the drama by empty promises and your own broken heart. But if you don’t keep resisting you will get absorbed back into the drama and become nothing more than a broken gear in their dysfunctional machine. They aren’t going to change –there is too much in it for them to keep you in your assigned role—and nobody is going to rescue you. To escape and have your own life, a life of fulfilment and devoid of their drama, you have to shrug off the role they have imposed on you. You have to do it yourself. 

You have to be your own hero.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

“Why Me?” Why were we chosen to be the scapegoat?

I think many of us make the presumption that our NMs reject us because we are somehow flawed, even if that flaw is the simple fact that we were the result of an unplanned pregnancy and we were therefore unwanted. But a cursory glance at history tells us that simply is not the case: for aeons women became pregnant without planning because no reliable means of contraception existed. You had sex, you had kids…and as long as you kept having sex, you kept having kids. Virtually all of those pregnancies were unplanned and certainly many of them were unwanted…but once those babies arrived, it’s pretty certain that the majority of mothers loved and nurtured those infants despite their unplanned and initially unwanted status.

Our mothers were different.

My maternal grandmother was born on an Iowa farm in January of 1910, the first girl of what would become a family of 11 children. She grew up to be a tiny, deceptively fragile-looking young woman and in March of 1926, she married a local farmer. Just days before her 17th birthday she delivered her first child, a boy. At less than 5 feet tall and under 100 lbs, her labour with her second child, my mother, in June of 1929, was arduous and she was warned against having any more children. But contraception was a hit-or-miss affair in those days and within three years, she delivered a second son. This child weighed nearly 10 lbs and my grandmother nearly died in his delivery. There were no more children after that one.

In May of 1946, just weeks before her own 17th birthday, my mother eloped with a 20 year-old sailor she barely knew in order to escape the authority of her father. Ten months later she gave birth to her first child: me. Her plan to escape the controlled life her father imposed on her did not include a child or even a husband-in-residence: no, she had expected her husband to go overseas for a year, a year in which she planned to live it up on the stipend she received from the Navy, free from the authority of both husband and father. But her husband got an early discharge and she fell pregnant within a month of the marriage, effectively scotching any chance of an annulment and destroying her plans for freedom.

Today, many people have the notion that because contraception is reliable and the ability to plan your family is commonplace, our parents and grandparents had choices similar to our own with respect to bearing and raising children. But when my grandmother was young, sex education, at least for girls, consisted of a brief, awkward chat with Mama just before the girl got married. Contraception was not reliable and many people were completely unaware it existed…and in many places it was even illegal.

My mother eloped so there was no opportunity for my grandmother to have “The Talk” with her daughter when she got married and apparently my parents were either unaware of contraception (which, by this time was legal but still not very reliable), or were too young and full of lust to care. It was not until 1965 that a really reliable form of birth control—The Pill—hit the market. Not only did it change women’s options, it changed the whole outlook of society with regard to family planning: for the first time in history, women truly had the choice of being sexually active and limiting the number and frequency of their pregnancies.

When I hear someone moan that if their mother hadn’t wanted children, she shouldn’t have had them, my first instinct is to ask when they were born…because if they were born prior to 1966, there’s a good chance that their mother had no choice in the matter except, perhaps, the choice to have sex. If they were born in the late 60s through early 70s, more choice was available, but that lovely contraceptive pill wasn’t as reliable as subsequent formulations (I was on the Pill when my own second child was conceived). They were also expensive and required a doctor’s prescription, something not easily obtained by many young and/or low income women. And, depending on your location, other forms of birth control were often available by prescription only, and those prescriptions were not available to unmarried females: doctors simply would not...or legally could not...prescribe for them.

Many of us presume we were mistreated by our NMs because we were unplanned and/or unwanted but I don’t think that is the deciding factor: none of my grandmother’s children were planned and her third and last pregnancy was “an accident.” And yet my grandmother loved and nurtured all of her children anyway. Additionally, she loved and nurtured her grandchildren, whose conceptions she had no control over.

My grandmother’s “accident” grew up, went to college, married and he and his wife used contraception to put off child bearing until they were financially able to provide well for children. When they tried to have a baby, it happened that the wife was infertile…so they adopted. These people truly wanted children…they planned their family and when my aunt couldn’t fall pregnant, they found another means to have kids. And yet, those “wanted” children, the ones they adopted, were not loved and nurtured and, six years after they were adopted, the children were returned to their birth mother and the adoption rescinded because one of the kids had behavioural problems my aunt and uncle were unwilling to (foot the bill to) address.

Rejection by your parents, whether they be biological or adoptive, is a bitter pill. Because as children we are hard-wired to please our primary care giver and because our very survival depends on nurturance from that care giver, we can be reluctant to accurately identify the care giver as the true source of the problem. From our own life experiences we understand the concept of rejecting something imperfect, flawed, substandard; we also understand that mothers “naturally” love their children. So, when our own mothers treat us in less-than-loving ways or even reject us outright, our natural instinct is to view ourselves as defective. What else, after all, could overwhelm a mother’s “natural love” for her child?

Unfortunately, when we make such an assumption, we prevent ourselves from fixing the problem: you can’t fix a leaky tap by changing the locks on the doors. Unless you can accurately identify and address the source of a problem, you can’t fix it…you can’t even tell if it can be fixed…accurate diagnosis of the source of the issue is critical to healing.

An article entitled “Mother Damned-est” by Terri Apter, Ph.D, in Psychology Today states “A difficult mother presents challenges that a difficult father or other relative does not. That’s because, starting in the earliest days of life, a child’s relationship with her or his mother is the foundation of a sense of self. Through maternal attachment, we begin to learn who we are and what we feel and to acquire the ability to interact with others... A difficult mother…uses a [child’s] continuing need for responsiveness to control or manipulate the child. The repeated threat of ridicule, disapproval, or rejection is experienced as a choice between life and death…A child does not have the option to say to a mother, I don't care whether you think I'm bad, or, I am not frightened by the prospect of your leaving me. A primitive panic at rejection lasts long after the infant's physical helplessness comes to an end.

To reassure ourselves that our mothers are not at fault (because if the mother is at fault, she has the potential to reject us, which triggers that primitive survival panic), we long refuse to acknowledge that she is the defective one. For one thing, we know we can change how we behave, what we say, what we do, which gives us a feeling of control over the issue: “I can prevent my mother from leaving me if I stop doing this or start doing that…if I just try hard enough I can find that magic key to unlocking her love for me…” To acknowledge even subconsciously that it is the mother who is defective is to acknowledge that we are helpless to influence the situation and that mother could or might walk out of our lives at any given moment…a situation that will inevitably provoke a serious and pervasive anxiety.

Many (most?) ACoNs walk around feeling like they are somehow at fault for their lack of closeness with their mothers, even though often they cannot identify how. Some of us subconsciously assign a reason because it is easier than not knowing, and if you know that your conception and birth were unplanned, it is easy to assume that because you were unplanned, you were also unwanted and that explains your mother’s distance.

But that’s not necessarily the case. My conception was unplanned, but my mother claims that once she knew she was pregnant, she hoped for a baby girl and spun all kinds of fantasies about what it was going to be like to have a baby of her own. Unfortunately, her fantasies were the benchmark against which she measured me and I fell very short. When I was 14 she told me, her voice hard and bitter “Nobody told me having a baby wasn’t like having a doll, that I couldn’t put you back on the closet shelf when I was tired of playing with you.” So I was a disappointment because, in essence, I called the shots: if I was hungry or wet, I cried and she had to get off her duff and do something, no matter what it was she wanted to do at that time. Add to the fact that I had colic and eczema covering large parts of my body and it became clear that she was disappointed in me from the very beginning because I did not live up to her fantasies and expectations. She wanted a baby girl and she got one…but the reality of motherhood was nothing like what she expected.

When she made this revelation, I had to ask about my GC Brother—why, if she felt so imposed upon by my demands, did she have a second child. Her answer? “When you already have one child clinging to your skirts, what’s two? Your life is already ruined, so you might as well have another.” So he came along with no fantasies—or disappointments—attached. He also didn’t have eczema or colic. All the way around, he was a much more satisfactory child than I was. So much so, that shortly after his birth, my mother abandoned me to the state for adoption. I was two.

Such an event triggers a pervasive fear of abandonment. In my case, I was reunited with my mother when I was about four, having spent the intervening time with her parents, but the fear of abandonment never went away. I came to expect it not just from her, but from everyone…friends, boyfriends, employers. Wholly impersonal things, like my entire shift being laid off, I took as a personal rejection. I was programmed very early to look for rejection and abandonment and I found it every place I looked.

The fact is, when my mother found out she was pregnant, she wanted me. Like many pregnant teenagers, she expected me to be like a doll, to be played with and cared for on her schedule and according to her moods. She also was shocked at labour and then an emergency C-section: she had not anticipated 48 hours of unproductive labour (and the associated pain) or the surgery. She also blamed me for ruining her figure: the stretch marks and sagging boobs on her 17 year old body were my fault. And when I proved to be incorrigible in my demands for food, clean diapers and attention, she felt deceived and hard done by.

Did she love me? I think she thought she did. In a nasty letter she once wrote me, she told me “I do love you…I am just not very good at showing it.” To which I replied “How was I supposed to know? I was a child. When you don’t show love, or tell your child you love them, how is the child to know what you feel?” Typically, she gave no answer.

So, according to my mother, she both wanted and loved me, but within two years she gave me away like a puppy who had outgrown its cuteness and was shunted aside by the arrival of a new one. I gave a lot of thought to this over the years, and I don’t think the way she treated me had anything to do with wanting or loving me, but more to do with herself and her own processes. In the end, I became a convenience: the older and bigger I got, the more chores I could relieve her of, so she could return to her fantasy world of doing what she wanted when she wanted while I did the dirty work of minding her other child, cleaning her house, and absorbing the blame for anything that displeased her. Being wanted or unwanted, loved or unloved, had no bearing on how I was treated…it was never about me and who or what I was…it was always about her and how my presence impacted her life and the way she wanted to live it.

Whether or not your parents wanted you or loved you is, peculiarly, not necessarily the reason you were assigned the role of scapegoat. In functional families, an unplanned child is not assigned a negative role in the family dynamic, it is welcomed and loved as much as its planned siblings. In dysfunctional families, even a wanted child can end up the scapegoat because of the dysfunction in the parent(s).

How is this possible? Well, suppose you wanted a pet. You fantasized about a puppy you could train and raise and love. You had a specific image of the puppy in your mind: a cocker spaniel with floppy ears and lots of curly hair. You imagined yourself with your cocker spaniel and how other people would admire your great little curly-haired puppy, how it would lick your face and cuddle with you and love you more than anybody else in the whole world. Imagine how you would feel when your parents said you could have a pet for your birthday…and even though your birthday was months away, you would be waiting with anticipation for your puppy. And the big day comes…and the pet is a goldfish.

You wanted a pet…you got a pet…but it wasn’t what you expected and, in fact, the fish in its stinky aquarium that you have to clean out regularly is not what you wanted. But now you are stuck…this is your pet, the one you asked for. And there is a good chance that you are not going to like the fish, even if you accept the responsibility for its care.

My mother wanted a baby but I was not the baby she wanted. She wanted a cute little baby with blonde curls, and a dimpled smile and a quiet, cheerful, malleable disposition—and that is not what she got. I was bald as an egg, no dimples, screamed night and day from colic, had eczema marring my tender skin, and she had to tend to me on my timetable not hers. Heavens, the reason she ran off and married a near stranger was escape other people—her parents—controlling her life and here she was with a person who weighed under 10 pounds and didn’t speak her language controlling her night and day and punishing her with incessant screaming if she didn’t do as she was bid.

So if you are thinking that because your conception and birth were not planned and that is why you became the scapegoat, you may well be off base because one does not necessarily lead to the other. Wanted, anticipated babies grow up to be scapegoats and accidental pregnancies end up as Golden Children. Being a wanted, planned-for child does not guarantee you will be a loved and cherished child: I am living proof of that. But the reverse is not necessarily true, either: being unloved and cast as the scapegoat does not necessarily mean you were unwanted, at least in the time leading up to your birth.

Having a baby is a bit like getting a pig in a poke. You know what you are getting, but you get no say in what it is going to be like. You can’t custom-order a baby, you just have to take what arrives on D (delivery)-Day. For most of us, that is just fine. Regardless of how it was conceived or its gender, hair colour, or even state of health, we gladly welcome the new arrival into our hearts and homes. It is the dysfunctional personality who rejects a child and assigns him a role in the family dynamic that diminishes him rather than nurtures and uplifts him.

It isn’t your fault, no matter what you have been told, no matter what you have been led to believe. The fault lies with those who cannot accept their child for who and what he is, who blame the child for not popping out carrying a full load of fantasy-fulfilling traits. It is that adult’s lack of maturity that is to blame, her expectations that you be the fulfilment of her fantasies and punishing you with rejection when you are simply yourself…which you have every right to be. And this disappointment and rejection begins long before you are cognizantly capable of doing anything to deserve it.

It’s not fair…but by now we have learned that life is not fair. So, rather than expecting fairness from an inherently unfair situation, we have to find other ways to resolve our issues. But in order to heal, in order to move on, we need to be clear that nothing you are capable of doing between the time of your conception and today justifies rejection by your parent(s) and being cast in the role as family blame receptacle. Even if you have been a bad person at times in your life, there is still no justification to load you with blame for anything other than wrong acts you have knowingly, intentionally committed.

So if your perception of your mother or other family member is that she doesn’t love you, that is entirely possible but it is pretty much impossible for that to be your fault.

Think about it…and if you must assign blame, then put it where it really belongs so that you can begin to heal and move forward.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How we were set up…and how we may be setting up our kids…Part 2

5. Punish independence and separation. When we punish our children for growing up, we make them feel guilty for having normal developmental needs and desires which often causes deep insecurity, rebellion, cutting and other forms of behaviors that indicate failure to be able to branch out and be themselves as independent people.

Oh, I got this a lot. My GC Brother was allowed to live by the tenet “If it isn’t specifically forbidden, it is allowed.” I, on the other hand, got “If it isn’t specifically permitted, it is forbidden.” This pretty much kept me isolated and alone. When my peers were wearing make up, I was given a clear lip gloss; when I developed breasts and wanted a bra, I was ignored. I was forbidden to shave my legs and underarms, pluck my eyebrows, or any of a host of other grooming regimes that happen as a girl enters her teens. No hair curlers or hair spray, no salon cuts, no deodorant…and for sanitary needs, I had to use what NM had available. For clothes, NM merely lengthened and let out my “little girl” dresses from the previous year, even adding gussets under the arms to accommodate my expanding bosom rather than admit I was growing up.

Fortunately, at 14 I went to live with my father and my stepmother took over. When I went back to my mother a year later I had clothes, underwear, shoes and grooming supplies and skills commensurate with a 15 year old…having arrived at my father’s a year earlier stuck at about age nine. But the punishment of independence and separation didn’t stop there: I could go nowhere without permission, even at age 16 and 17. If a boy asked me to a school dance, before I could accept, I had to ask permission…and when granted, walk on eggshells and be the perfect obsequious servant lest she change her mind before the dance. I could not go to the library, the beach, shopping, hang out with my friends at the Frosty Shop…even when I had an after-school job, I wasn’t even allowed to cash my own paychecks!

While Campbell warns that this can cause insecurity, rebellion, even cutting, it can also cause depression and fearfulness, anger and resentment. At age 12 I prayed for the time to pass quickly until I was 18. I was obsessed with turning 18 and getting out from under my mother’s authority. I had no plans for my life after that magical date, but from childhood onward, my primary goal was to turn 18 and get away.

But I was an independent minded sort of kid who had feared and hated my mother quite consciously for as far back as I could remember. Some kids will become fearful and dependent, afraid to take risks or any kind of chances, afraid to make decisions for themselves. These kids can easily grow up to be timid, fearful adults who remain under the thumbs of their Nparents for the rest of their lives.

The teen years are a natural time for your child to individuate and begin to gain both independence and separation. Even if we do not squelch that drive because we wish to control and manipulate our children, if we are over-protective and don’t allow our kids to make their own mistakes (within reason, of cannot give an inexperienced teen no boundaries or limits), we inhibit their development just as surely as Ns hindered ours.

6. Treat your child as an extension of you. If, as a parent, you link your own image and self-worth to your child's appearance, performance, behavior, grades and how many friends they have, you let them know they are loved not for who they are but for how well they perform and make you look good. This turns them into pleasers rather than doers, and they will always worry about being good enough.

This is probably more common in engulfing Ns than in ignoring Ns, but we can be guilty of such things as well. When we are determined to raise our families just the opposite of how our Ns raised us, for example, we are not looking to the individual needs of each of our children. Instead, we are parenting our children in the way we wished we had been parented, which is all about us and our needs, not our kids and their needs. This makes our children extensions of ourselves because we are focussed on what our needs were as children, not on the needs of our children as individuals.

This may be hard for us to hear because we have convinced ourselves that doing the opposite of what our NParents did is the right thing to do, but the truth is, neither end of an extreme is a good thing. Unthinkingly doing something because your mother wouldn’t do it…or reactively refusing to do something because you mother used to do it…has nothing to do with your child and everything to do with you.

It is natural for us to be proud of our children when they achieve and healthy for them to feel our pride in them. But we can overdo both the pride and praise, especially when the child has not put a good effort into something. Our parents too often put value on things that had nothing to do with our wants, needs, feelings, desires and everything to do with their own. We must love them and be proud of them for who they are, not for what they do or how they look. Yes, we must have standards, like cleanliness, and we can’t allow them to mutilate their bodies with tattoos and body modifications before they are of an age to understand the permanence and implications of such things, nor can we ignore achievements…there is a balance to be struck between replicating the dysfunctional parenting we received and inflicting an opposite but equally dysfunctional parenting style on our children.

7. Meddle in your child's relationships. Directing every action your child takes in their relationships -- from friends to teachers -- inhibits their maturity. For example, if your child gets in trouble at school and you immediately rush to talk to the teacher to get them off the hook, or you are constantly telling your child how to be a friend, as your child grows he/she will never learn to navigate the sharper edges relationships bring on their own.

This one needs to be handled with kid gloves…because as a responsible parent, you sometimes must step in.

One thing we as parents don’t want to hear is that our children actually are more influenced by their peers than by what we, their parents, provide for them in the way of home life, nurturing, values, and discipline. As our kids get older, however, their peers have more and moreinfluence over them, particularly with regard to the social life: drinking, drugs, premarital sex, clothing, social attitudes…as your child grows up, the attitudes of his friends on these subjects becomes more and more important. You simply cannot tell your child “you are not to see Jimmy anymore” because that stimulates resentment and, in some kids, inspires defiance. Reason may help but kids are often ruled more by emotion than reason. What is probably most effective is to shape your child’s peer group when he is very young so that when he starts school he is not drawn to the troubled, trouble-making kids in a desire to emulate them but out of a desire to help and befriend them. It’s too late to change your parenting and get the desired results when your child is already in the grip of adolescent hormones: by then, the die is pretty much cast.
Once your child is of school age it becomes very important to listen…to really listen…to them. If your child is being bullied, then you need to step in: for each child, the meaning of “step in” is different…one kid might need karate classes, another kid might need parental intervention at school, and yet another might need to be moved to a different school. There is no “one size fits all” solution…or even a blanket criteria as to when to step in. But taking a completely “hands off” approach is not being respectful of their privacy, it is abandonment. And jumping in at every little incident is not good parenting either, it is engulfing. Kids need to learn to handle their own issues, yes, but within limits—and those limits are set by the parents, not the kids.

8. Over-protect. When we protect our children from every problem and emotion, it creates a sense of entitlement and inflated self-esteem that often crosses the line into narcissism. They expect life to be easier than it is. They want everything done for them no matter how they behave. They then become depressed and confused when they don't get what they believe they deserve.

I don’t like the “child-centred parenting” that seems to be so in vogue today for just this reason. For one thing, I think it is misused by some parents to justify ignoring their children’s behaviour and their own responsibility for teaching, guiding and training their children to join the larger society as productive members. And for another thing, I think it gives other parents a way to infantilize their children in a quasi-socially acceptable way. Either way, self-absorbed parents win, the kids lose.

Judith Rich Harris, independent researcher and textbook author says “…The belief that parents have a great deal of power to determine how their children will turn out is actually a rather new idea. Not until the middle of the last century did ordinary parents start believing it. I was born in 1938, before the cultural change, and parenting had a very different job description back then. Parents didn’t feel they had to sacrifice their own convenience and comfort in order to gratify the desires of their children. They didn’t worry about boosting the self-esteem of their children. In fact, they often felt that too much attention and praise might spoil them and make them conceited. Physical punishment was used routinely for infractions of household rules. Fathers provided little or no child care; their chief role at home was to administer discipline.

“All these things have changed dramatically in the past 70 years, but the changes haven’t had the expected effects. People are the same as ever. Despite the reduction in physical punishment, today’s adults are no less aggressive than their grandparents were. Despite the increase in praise and physical affection, they are not happier or more self-confident or in better mental health. It’s an interesting way to test a theory of child development: persuade millions of parents to rear their children in accordance with the theory, and then sit back and watch the results come in. Well, the results are in and they don’t support the theory!”

This doesn’t mean that Dr. Harris or I endorse fathers ignoring their kids except to discipline them, nor do I advocate corporal punishment as a routine method of disciplining children. But it does mean that I think letting children run the household is ill-advised, whether it is by default or design. Children who lack boundaries (and enforcement of those boundaries) often become more and more extreme in their behaviour until they find the limits. And if there are few or no limits, the child grows up believing it is his right and due to behave however he wants, with no respect for the rights or boundaries of others.

It is my firm belief that purpose of parenting is to raise a child who, by the time he reaches the ability to care for himself, is able to integrate into his society. This means he must learn the rules of his culture and the limits his culture places on him and his behaviour. It means he must learn respect—for himself and for others as well. People who do not learn respect for the rights and feelings of others, who grow up believing the feelings and rights of others are not important, grow up to be insensitive, rude, and self-centred. In a word: narcissists.

Dr. Harris makes it very clear that a child’s genetic predisposition is a significant contributor to a child’s personality: “…personality resemblances between biological relatives are due almost entirely to heredity, rather than environment. Adopted children don’t resemble their adoptive parents in personality. I’m not particularly interested in genetic effects, but the point is that they have to be taken into account.” But regardless of the basic personality a child inherits, socialization is something that is learned, and if you don’t prepare your child for the real world because you have protected him from every form of disappointment and displeasure he encounters, when you launch him from the nest he is going to be ill-prepared for what he finds out there in a world who have no vested interest in inflating his self-esteem, tiptoeing around his feelings, and smoothing out the rough patches for him. Children need to learn coping strategies just as much as they need to learn to not touch a hot stove, and when you deny them the opportunity, you infantilize them, making them dependent on you rather than independent.

Regardless of a child’s inborn personality, he needs to learn the basic rules of his society and why it is important to abide by them. He needs to learn about respect: that other people have feelings and rights and that they are just as important as his. My kids used to moan about being taught and expected to use table manners but my theory was a simple one: when he lives on his own, he can eat with his fingers if he wants, but if he is ever in a situation where he needs nice manners, like having lunch with a prospective employer or being seated at a banquet table with the rich and powerful, he will have those manners tucked into his memory banks to be trotted out when he needs them.

And you have such a very short time to begin inculcating them with the values that help will them become happy, productive people for the rest of their lives. Once a child starts school, he begins widening his peer group and new influences, influences over which you have little or no control, will start coming into his life. And the older he gets, the stronger those outside influences will be. You have the first five to seven years of your child’s life to give him a good foundation. From then on, you are still a teacher, coach and guide, but your child will be weighing what you say against the information he gets from other sources. And this is not a bad thing: it is the beginning of critical thinking, an invaluable life skill. But children do not have the life experience and wisdom of their parents, nor are they as capable of making intelligent choices over emotional ones…and that is where you come in. You have to learn…and learn early…to tell them “no” and make it stick. It helps them to learn how to deal with disappointment and helps you to steel your heart to their tearful pleas.

Parenting: the most difficult job in the world to do right!

Monday, May 19, 2014

How we were set up…and how we may be setting up our kids…

I read…a lot. Virtually every week day (weekends belong to my husband), I am perusing one article or another on the web and in magazines, or ploughing my way through another book…or revisiting a book I read some time ago but reread periodically to keep the insights fresh in my mind. Most of the things I read I find interesting, but few of them do I find worthy of sharing with you. But when I do find one, you get it, my thoughts on it, and a link so that you can go read it in its original context.

And so I have found another one to share with you…this one about how to screw up your kids emotionally. Reading it from the standpoint of an ACoN, I am seeing it from two perspectives: what our narcissistic parent(s) did to us and what we may inadvertently be doing to our own kids. Sherrie Campbell, PhD and licensed Psychologist, recently published an article on Huffington Post entitled “8 Guaranteed Waysto Emotionally F*ck Up Your Kids,” and I thought it was nothing short of brilliant. Dr. Campbell opens her article thus: [as usual, my comments are in violet]

“Our children are the lights of our lives. We all start off as parents envisioning nothing but success, love and happiness for them. However, these dreams often do not manifest because they are not getting the important things they need to become disciplined, mature and motivated adults. The following are eight parenting f*ck-ups that will guarantee your child will suffer from depression, anxiety, anger, tense family relationships, problems with friends, low self-esteem, a sense of entitlement and chronic emotional problems throughout his or her life.”

1. Ignore or minimize your child's feelings. If your child is expressing sadness, anger or fear and you mock them, humiliate them, ignore or tease them you minimize what they feel. You essentially tell them what they feel is wrong. When parents do this they withhold love from their child and miss opportunities to have open and vulnerable connections teaching them to bond and to know they are loved unconditionally.

It is my guess that we have all experienced this at the hands of our Ns; some of us were even told outright that our feelings were wrong, that we did not hate our mean cousin, we loved him, or that we were not allowed to feel or express in any way sadness or anger or hurt or fear. I can remember flinching as my NM raised her hand for some innocuous reason…but I was within striking distance, and I unthinkingly flinched. Once she could get me alone, I was informed on no uncertain terms that I was never to do it again, under penalty of a beating. No expressions of emotion were allowed, including fear, except as permitted by my NM.

But what about us as parents? We are so hypersensitized to criticism that we hear criticism from our children in the form of their anger, fear or sadness? While we may not mock or humiliate or tease our kids for their feelings, do we ignore them by refusing to address them, by trying to kid or bribe them into a “better mood” or by taking their emotions so personally that we feel assaulted by them? Kids can pick up on that last one and quickly learn to hide their feelings from us for fear of making us upset…how fair is it of us to parentalize them in such a way?

Children need to perceive their family as a safe place to express their true feelings. We can teach them acceptable ways of expressing themselves…no hitting or name calling or tantrums past an appropriate age for them, for example. It is part of our job as parents, after all, to teach kids how to deal appropriately with their emotions, not to stifle or deny them, or be afraid to show them. We may not stifle our kids in the same ways our parents did to us, but are we discouraging emotional honesty in our kids in different ways?

2. Inconsistent rules. If you never talk about your expectations, you keep your child from knowing how to behave appropriately. Children live up or down to what you expect. Rules give them guidelines and boundaries to help them define who they are, good and bad. If you keep your child guessing and life is vague, they will begin to act out to find the boundaries themselves, which leads to low self-esteem and problem behavior.

This has to be my all-time pet peeve as a child: inconsistent rules. Not just inconsistent from one day to the next, but inconsistent from one child to the next without explanation. I recognize you can’t give your 8 year-old the same freedom you give his 16 year-old sibling…but does he know the path to earning that freedom for himself? Or does he view it as an arbitrary and capricious dictate from you or his other parent?

Are your expectations of each child reasonable? How do you handle having different expectations for different children? My NM would tell me, as I struggled with 8th grade Algebra, than my 5th grade brother was getting an A in math…so what was wrong with me? Do you expect your artistic child, who took two years to memorize the multiplication tables, to get the same math grades as your technokid who taught himself quadratic equations from the internet? Do you take the time to explain to each child why you have different expectations from each of them? Or do you simply create a “one size fits all” set of expectations and reward those who achieve and penalize those who don’t?

Are your expectations consistent from one day to the next? Do you contradict yourself and leave your child to figure it out? In the 1950s, when I was a child, working mothers were rare and those who had a full time job, like mine, worked in environments where their kids couldn’t call them on the phone multiple times per day. My NM would call home at the time she expected us to be home from school (and woe betide me if I was not there to take her call!). She would then issue instructions and we were expected to follow those instructions and have them done before she got home from work. If her instructions were not clear, I couldn’t call back for clarification and I quickly learned that that which was correct yesterday was not necessarily correct today: yesterday I could go out after my chores to play with a neighbour child…but today I am in trouble for doing it, and with no warning that the rules have changed.

In an environment where little or nothing is predictable, where everything seems to hang on the moment’s mood of the parent, children become stressed. They have to learn to be hypervigilant because their world is capricious and unpredictable, inconsistent and therefore frightening. There are more ways to be inconsistent and capricious than the ways our NMs did it…are we doing it differently, but doing it just the same?

3. Make your child your friend. Never share all your worries, concerns and relationship problems with your child or ask their advice. If you act helpless and defeated to your children they will never learn to respect you and will treat you as an equal or an inferior because you have used them for your own therapy. You must show your children you can stand up to problems, face your challenges and handle life through all the stress and come out on the other side. Be real, have your emotions, but do not burden your children.

This is a peculiar one because some of the things we say to our kids…or our NParents said to us…don’t sound like we are parentifying (or being parentified) but if you think about how a child perceives “We can’t afford it,” or “Your mother is a spendthrift,” or “Your father left us because he’s a faithless jerk,” you may get it.

We are not our children’s friends, we are their teachers and guides. We can be compassionate and kind in that role, but sometimes we have to be tough and immovable. One of places we must do that is in setting boundaries and one of the boundaries we must set is the one between adult things and children’s things. When we fail to set and enforce that boundary, when we allow our children to be our confidantes and give them information about the household and family that is outside both their ability to control or even truly comprehend, we unburden ourselves by burdening them.

If you have ever worked in a company you know that, unless you worked in certain departments, knowledge of the company’s finances was none of your business. And if you did work in finance, accounting or purchasing, you also knew that the information you knew from doing your job was confidential and not supposed to be shared with other people outside of a “need to know” basis. There was a firm boundary drawn between the executive management and the regular workers, too…because they did not need to know because the knowledge was not part of their jobs.

In a household it is little different. You, as the parent, are executive management and some of what you do or know simply should not be shared with your children. If finances are tight, why worry your kids any sooner than absolutely necessary? It is enough to let them know at the time a change has to be made, and probably not wise to explain changes in terms that can worry them. “We can’t afford it” may be the truth, but children have no control over the income or expenditure and kids tend to blame themselves… “maybe if I ate less…” “maybe if I sold my dolls and gave the money to Mommy…” Be careful how you explain changes in their world because they can take on guilt that does not belong to them.

If you discuss your marital or relationship woes with them, you are parentifying. Contentious discussions between you and your significant other belong in private, not in front of an audience, even if that audience is only your kids. Complaints about your partner belong in the ears and on the shoulders of your age-appropriate friends, not your kids. Kids perceive this as a requirement that they take sides and if your kid takes a side and then you and your lover make up, the kids still has taken a side and is unlikely to ever be a neutral, uninvolved kid again. It also makes them insecure: in a society in which half of all marriages end in divorce, your kid likely has friends from divorced families. When you fight in front of your kids, when you burden them with adult concerns—even if you have convinced yourself that because they are members of the family and should therefore know—you make them worry that their home may break up as well. And again, kids take on blame for this, thinking if they only behaved “better” (as opposed to normally), their home would not be on the verge of disintegrating.

There are times we must all unburden ourselves, but our kids are not the ones to dump it on…that is why we have family, counsellors, friends, and journals. Kids should have bad news over which they have no control handed to them only when the event is imminent: “Daddy and I are not getting along well right now, so he is going to stay with Uncle Pete and Aunt Sue for a while…” Announcing it too soon gives them time to suffer and brood and, if you call it off at the last minute, they will have not only suffered needlessly, they will now find the foundations of their world irrevocably damaged. Your children are not your friends, they are your charges, you have responsibilities towards them and authority over them: exercise them both.

4. Put down your child's other parent. If you never show affection and love to your partner/spouse in front of your child, the child does not develop a barometer for what love is or what it looks like. If you are always putting your spouse down and rejecting him/her, threatening divorce, you create a chronic state of anxiety for your child. If you are already divorced and you remain cold, distant, bitter, angry and blaming of your ex-spouse, you are sending the subtle message to your child that your ex-spouse is the cause of the divorce and you need to be the preferred parent. This is parent alienation.

There is a further aspect to this: children know they are part of you and a part of their other parent. Even if your partner is not the child’s biological parent, if your child has bonded with this person, you put the child on the horns of a dilemma when you start making noises that denigrate your (former) partner. The child may feel that if Daddy is an evil, cheating bum, then if he is half Daddy and half you, then he, too, must be, at least in part, evil and cheating and a bum; if the child has bonded with a step parent or long-term live-in love and now that person is an evil, cheating bum, the child now questions his ability to choose good people to bond with and may have difficulty with later attachment. You can alienate your child not only from his absent parent but from all emotional attachment later in life. And you can even alienate your child from you if you are not careful.

When I was a kid, my parents separated numerous times (although I don’t remember most of them). But I was afraid of my mother and I loved my father because he was the parent who, despite having limited home time, spent positive time with me. I was not afraid of him, I trusted him, I loved him. My NM was good at the boundaries thing, at least when it came to kids making incursions into her privacy, and all we knew about their separation was what she told us. And what she told us was uniformly bad…what an awful man our father was, how he moved out of the house and left her with no money, how he abandoned us and paid no child support, didn’t send anything for birthdays or Christmas, never called to see how we were.

I never believed a word of it and the more she talked against my father, the more I despised and distrusted her…pretty strong emotions for a 10 to 12 year old. When the truth finally came out, I learned I was right to have trusted my father because virtually everything she had said was a lie: either a twisted version of the truth (yes, he had gone off with another woman…but she wasn’t a cheap chippie who lured him away from his happy little family, she was someone he had met during a previous separation and dumped when Mother wanted him to come back home…and picked up with again when NM threw him out yet again) or an outright lie—he had sent cards, money and presents for birthdays and Christmas and NM had kept the money, destroyed the cards and rewrapped the gifts and said they were from her. In the end, all of her poisonous remarks against my father merely backfired: I hated that she said such awful things about someone I loved (even if they might possibly be true) and I hated her, once the truth came out and I discovered just how much she had lied to me.

My oldest boy did not know his father growing up…we moved across country when the boy was two. When he was 16, he flew to New England to stay with his grandmother for a few weeks and to reacquaint with his dad. When he asked me about his father I was very careful to not follow in my mother’s footsteps. When he asked, I merely said that we were much too young to marry and we were very incompatible, me being from a laid-back California lifestyle and him from a more patriarchal old school New England culture. We just did not get along and we eventually separated, then divorced. I did not tell him that his father drank overmuch, barely brought home enough money to support us (he drank half his pay check up at the corner bar before he even got it home), that he was as free with his fists as he was with his foul language, that he had tried to kidnap the boy when he was a baby, to be raised by his alcoholic mother, or that he had a violent, controlling streak. We lived 3000 miles away…he didn’t need to know this. When he went to New England to see his father, I had not seen the man in 14 years…who knew what kind of person he had become in the intervening years? He could be sober and own his own business, for all I knew…why taint the boy’s mind with expectations that could be 15 years out of date? Why tell him that his father had only agreed to our divorce if I would exempt him from paying child support? What good would it have served?

And so my son went off and had his holiday and he came home and didn’t say much for the first few days and then he took me aside and said “My dad wants me to move back and live with him…” I started to come up with reasons that wasn’t going to happen but before I could get further than saying “Well, maybe I can sent you out for the summer next year…” he interrupted with “You don’t understand…I don’t want to go…why didn’t you tell me he was such an asshole?”

My son felt nothing but contempt for his father, but none of it was my doing. He had seen with his own eyes that his father was controlling, irrational, and a brutal drunk…he had hit his latest wife at the dinner table in front of him and her four kids. I never had to say a word against the man…he showed his true colours when given a chance and while my son is aware of what kind of a man his father is, he knows that he is his own man and not like him at all.

Never undermine your child’s love for his or her other parent. Not only is it unfair to the child and reflects badly on you, it could backfire on you as it did on my mother. And if your ex truly is the ex from hell, raise your children with love and reason and they will most likely figure it out for themselves.

Tomorrow: Parts 5 through 8

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What if she said she was sorry?

It is probably our favourite fantasy: something happens that awakens our narcissistic parents to the reality of their treatment of us, they realize how much they have hurt us, and they feel remorse…and then they apologise.

What if that really happened?

We are all at different stages of recovery from growing up with a narcissistic parent. Some of us are just realizing that our peculiar parent is a narcissist, some of us are well beyond that gut-wrenching discovery and are busy learning how to perceive and react to the world from a place other than that of victim. But some of us get stuck in a particular place, a place borne of denial and futile hope: we somehow believe that if our narcissistic parent would just “wake up” and see how they hurt us and then make amends, all would be right with our worlds.

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but if that is where you are, it is time to pull up those stakes and get unstuck because it ain’t gonna happen. Ever. No matter how long you wait, no matter how paralyzed you are, no matter what you say or do, your narcissistic parent/spouse/sibling/boss…whoever the chief narcissist in your life is…will never, ever accept responsibility, never, ever, feel bad for hurting you, and never, ever, give you a sincere, heartfelt apology. It just ain’t gonna happen.

How can I be so sure? Because if that person does accept responsibility, if s/he feels remorse and then is motivated to issue a true apology and undertake sincere efforts to make amends, that person is not—cannot be—a narcissist. Narcissists have no empathy, no capacity for remorse, and no motivation to humble themselves for the benefit of anyone save themselves. If the person is capable of compassion and empathy for the pain s/he inflicted on you, then that person simply is not a narcissist.

Assuming the narcissist in your life truly is a narcissist, then, you have to start examining your own expectations and why you have become stuck in this fantasy that “If she would just say she was sorry, things would be OK.”

Would they? Maybe in the beginning, while the euphoria lasted but eventually, you’re going to come back to earth and the resentment and questions will begin. “What took you so long?” “If you acknowledge now what you did was wrong, why did you do it in the first place?” “How is it even possible to make amends for decades of emotional abuse?” “What is in this for you?”

Do you expect that apology to be a magic balm that will cure all of your pain, your anxieties, insecurities and maladaptive behaviours and beliefs? What are you going to do when your narcissist apologizes…really, sincerely, apologizes…and after the initial elation wears off, you still feel suspicious, wary, guarded, and hurt by all of the past transgressions? What if your phobias and anxieties don’t melt away, what if your fears and pain stay right where they are? Then what?

Hopefully, enlightenment—and ultimately the realization that you just can’t sit by passively and wait for someone else to make it better because, no matter what your narcissist does or doesn’t do, nobody can make it better but you.

I know this isn’t the message most of us want to hear. We know we have been victimized and we look to the perpetrator to make it right. But can it ever be made right? There are no “do-overs” in real life and neither you nor your narcissist can turn back the clock and do it again. The point you are at today, the dysfunction, the pain, the anxiety—all are a product of what has gone before today. It has shaped you and conditioned you, given you your values and beliefs. No amount of apologies or “doing better” from your abuser can take that back or change what is inside you today. Just as you cannot change another person, nobody else can change you…only you can do that.

Some of us embrace the idea that we have control over our recovery, but I think most of us go through a period of believing that if our abuser(s) would just step up to the plate and acknowledge wrong doing and say they are sorry, everything would magically be all right. And some of us get stuck there, believing that they can go no further until that acknowledgement and apology are forthcoming. But we control what we believe and believing that it is someone else’s job to fix our hurts is not only untrue, it is self-defeating. The longer we cling to the belief that an apology will magically fix us, the longer we insist that it is the therapist’s job to make things better, the longer we will be stuck and miserable in the legacy of the narcissistic parent.

We have to take responsibility. Not for the acts that hurt us, of course, but for our recovery. It may feel wrong…after all, you didn’t create the situation so why should you have to fix it?...but in real life (not our perfect fantasies), we often get stuck cleaning up other people’s messes. To refuse to do it is to accept the mess as part of your life…and if you are choosing to accept it, then you really don’t have any business complaining and feeling ill-used about it. You have made the choice to tolerate the situation and do nothing to change it, and the consequence is that at some point, people you know will start rolling their eyes when you start to talk about it. If you don’t like something in your life, it is your life and therefore your responsibility to change it.

Narcissists abuse and they don’t take responsibility for the hurts they inflict. It is what they do and, just as you must accept that dogs bark and cats meow, you must accept that narcissists hurt people with no sense of guilt, remorse, or responsibility. Even if your narcissist did have a sudden flash of insight and conscience, what can s/he do? Drop a plate on the floor and break it…now say “Oh, I am so sorry!” to the plate. Is it fixed? Of course not…and getting an apology—even a sincere one—from your narcissist won’t fix what is wrong with you, won’t assuage your pain or feeling of emptiness, anymore than your apology to that plate made it whole again.

What I am saying here is that you don’t really need an apology or even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing from your narcissist because receiving one improves nothing. What you really need is to get up and take action: look at your beliefs, challenge and change the ones that are holding you back; change a pattern of behaviour that victimizes you, like calling your mother every day and letting her rant at you; stop thinking you are helpless or that someone else is going to rescue you from your unhappiness—only you can do that, and you can only do that when you take action.

Don’t worry about doing it wrong: as long as you are not hurting yourself or anyone else, you aren’t doing it wrong. The exception to that, of course, is the narcissist and her flying monkeys and other minions. Some narcissists will feel hurt (or enraged) that you are changing the balance of the relationship, that you are no longer playing the role of doormat, whipping post, scapegoat that was assigned to you. They will use anything to push you back into your role and restore the balance of their lives, regardless of the cost to you. Their feelings, their comfort zone is paramount. But the truth is, your feelings are no less important and deserve no less respect than theirs. And if they won’t take care not to hurt you, if they disrespect you as if it is their right, then you are absolved of the admonition to not hurt them. Oh, don’t go to an extreme and bully or physically assault them—of course that is out of bounds. But what is not out of bounds is for you to refuse to allow yourself to be manipulated by their rage or cries of distress. You are under no obligation to subordinate your feelings and well-being to theirs, especially when they have been sacrificing your feelings and well-being in order to make themselves feel good.

Would you feel remorse for smacking a blood sucking insect as it feasted on your flesh? Then don’t feel bad about disengaging from the soul-sucking leech that is your narcissist and put your respect and concern where it belongs: on you. Only by focussing on your own well-being can you escape, and they know this: if they can keep you focussed on them, their feelings and how you are hurting them, you’ll never be able to focus on yourself long enough to escape them. And that is just how they like it.