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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Elusive "Normal" - Third of 3 parts

13. Provides Clear Boundaries
We aren’t each other’s friends. A parent is a parent no matter how friendly they may be. Our children are not extensions of ourselves, they are individuals. Do not ‘friend’ them on Facebook unless you talk about it first and they say it’s OK and they mean it.

It’s more than providing clear boundaries, it is about enforcing them and enforcing them consistently and justly.

In functional households, there are clear boundaries, boundaries that to not capriciously fluctuate from day to day, whim to whim. Boundaries may change and evolve with time and the maturity of the children…like curfew…or they may be immutable—like treating your parents and others with respect, but they remain clear and they have consequences for violation that are proportionate to the breach.

And boundaries work both ways…children need to be able to set boundaries—within reason, of course—so that they can have a sense of control of their lives. You cannot allow them to set any boundary they like, however, because they do not have the wisdom yet to do so responsibly. That comes with time and trust…and you must allow them to be trusted until they show themselves to be untrustworthy. You can help a young child set a boundary with respect to body touching, with respect to the kind of treatment s/he will accept from others (no hitting, for example) and teach your child that boundaries apply to others as well as to himself: if he expect other people not to hit him when they are frustrated, then he must not hit others, either.

But with kids, boundaries must have limitations. Years ago a diamond ring set was stolen from my home after our teen baby sitter and her boyfriend had been there. I reported it to the police and gave a sketch of the unique setting. A year later a police officer showed up at my place of work and said “I think I have something that belongs to you,” and handed me my ring. Then he told me what happened: a teen-aged girl (not our baby sitter) came home wearing a ring her mother recognized as being much too expensive for her daughter to have legitimately received from her teen-aged boyfriend (our former baby sitter’s now ex-boyfriend). She took the ring and called the police. The girl, under pressure from her mother, told her where she got the ring and, using the ring as evidence to get a search warrant, went to the boy’s house. There they not only found my other missing ring, they found tens of thousands of dollars of stolen goods stacked up in his closed, stowed under his bed, and even hooked up and being used in his room.

When the police asked his mother how he could have all of this stolen merchandise in his room and she knew nothing about it, she indignantly told the officer that her son had a right to privacy and she respected it. She was fortunate that she was not also charged as an accessory for allowing a massive amount of stolen goods to be stored in her house.

There was a news story some years ago about a disabled low-income woman who was evicted from her apartment in a government-sponsored housing project because her teenaged son was storing drugs in the apartment and dealing from the premises without her knowledge. It violated the lease and when he was arrested, her ignorance was no excuse. She lost her home because she respected a privacy boundary her child had no right to erect and she had every right to deny him to have.

So, it is a fine line we must walk when allowing our children to set boundaries, but they must be able to erect some…and to erect more as they grow older…but not to the point that you can be held liable for a criminal act that occurred because you were more focussed on respect than guidance and monitoring. Functional families find balance and sometimes that balance involves violating someone’s “rights” for the well-being of the whole household. And as the parent, the decision to put family welfare over one child’s self-imposed boundaries is yours to make, not the child’s, just as in the larger society, your right to freedom of movement can be overridden by the authorities if something you are doing with that right somehow jeopardizes the rest of the community. Respect for boundaries is a good thing in general…but it can, of necessity be conditional—but the children are not the people to decide when such a condition exists.

14. Has Each Others’ Backs
Part of resilience – being supportive to each other no matter what, will allow your kid to call you when he thinks he’s in trouble, like needing a ride home from a party that’s gotten too wild.

This one is a true tightrope walk because, on the one hand you want your kid to call you to come get him in a circumstance like the one above…on the other hand, you don’t want your kid to take this as tacit consent to go out and get tanked every weekend and you’ll pick up and there will be no consequences.

We have to be supportive of the person, but not necessarily of the behaviour—and that can sometimes be a tough one to negotiate. My solution was to make sure the kids could get home safely, then supply some onerous chore in the morning (and I did not let them sleep in on the following morning…up at 7!) that made the effects of the hangover even worse…like weeding the garden or cleaning up dog poop or some such job that gets the blood pumping (and throbbing in the hangovered brain).

My daughter was searched by a male member of the faculty in front of 150 other students on the grounds that he thought she had marijuana on her. I came to the school, over her objections, and had a row with the Vice Principal over it. He at first defended the search, saying “If we found drugs on her, you would feel differently!” to which I replied “No, I would not. There was no reason for that man to physically search her body and to do it in front of 150 of her peers. You have a Girl’s Vice Principal, a female school nurse, and this happened in front of the Girl’s Gym, where she could have been taken and privately searched by a gym teacher.” It was not until I threatened legal action and going to the school board that he capitulated.

Later in the year she was searched again but, the VP was quick to inform me that is was done by the school nurse with the Girl’s VP as a witness. And they found a couple of roaches in her purse. She was punished both by the school and by me. Her right to the dignity of her body was supported by me and all but forced on the school, but when she was found to be guilty of wrong doing, she was disciplined for it. I had her back when they searched her in such an inappropriate and humiliating manner, and whether they found drugs or not, I was not going to allow that kind of indignity to be perpetrated upon her: if they had found drugs, she would have been disciplined for it but I would still have pursued changing the policy that allowed fully grown adult men to run their hands over the bodies of nubile teen girls under the thin guise of looking for drugs. I supported her as a person being treated without respect but I did not support the stupidity of bringing drugs to school.

In a functional household (which mine was definitely not, but we had our moments of functionality) parents and siblings support the people without necessarily supporting a behaviour. You can understand that your child is angry or fearful without going along with his expressions of those feelings. Part of being a parent is recognizing when your child is not taking the appropriate steps to deal with a situation and helping…giving them options they did not have before. Hormones are high in teens and they may be thinking revenge scenarios, and their prefrontal cortex is not as well developed as yours and mine, so long-term consequences may not act as a restraining consideration. You have the obligation to notice when your teen is becoming emotionally unwound and to open the dialog and offer acceptable ways he might handle his issues. If you suspect something dangerous might be in the offing, you have the obligation to protect the rest of your family as well as the community so seeking counselling for your child or even involving the authorities are choices you might make. Functional families are concerned for the well-being of their members over their public image so they take those kinds of steps. Imagine that boy who had my ring and a bedroom stuffed full of stolen electronics that his mother knew nothing about…just imagine if those had been firearms?

15. Get Each Other’s Sense of Humor
Functional families laugh a lot. They have ‘inside’ jokes and favorite stories, anecdotes of memories shared that delight and re-enforces a healthy bond.

I have to take exception to this one because you can’t always “get” someone else’s sense of humour. My NM used to tell me I needed to get a sense of humour because I didn’t think laughing at the expense of someone else was funny. I didn’t “get” pratfall humour because my first thought went to whether or not the victim was hurt and I didn’t get cruel teasing for the same reason. My own sense of humour was much drier and more dependent on wit than on banana peels, and she didn’t get that, either.

I think a sense of humour is rather individual and can also depend on the age of the person as well. There is a time when scatological humour is hilarious, but most of us outgrow that by puberty…are Bevis and Butthead really funny after you are old enough to buy booze legally? If it is, maybe the legal age is too low…

All that said, I do agree that shared family stories—with the caveat that the humour is not at the expense of the feelings of one of the family members—are a good thing and re-enforces a healthy bond. But when those stories humiliate a family member, too often those who find it funny feel obliged to further victimize that family member by telling him or her to “get a sense of humour,” rather than acknowledging that they are hurting that person yet again and ceasing their behaviour.

16. Eat Meals Together
So hard to do in today’s society but research does show that communication within a family is enhanced if we take more meals together, even if it’s in front of the TV.

This is another one of those agree/disagree issues. It is not hard to schedule family meal time nor is it hard to enforce it. In a functional family, people care about their fellow family members and they respect them, and that includes respecting the efforts of the family member who had taken time to prepare a meal for them all. It may be the only time in a day that the whole family has the opportunity to be together.

Children in a household are not miniature adults who can decide what to do with their time. They can have blocks of free time granted to them by their parents, but it is up to the parents to see to it that a schedule, however informal, is established so that kids have rules…kids need rules for security. One of those rules can be dinner time. You set a time and everyone is expected to be there. There are consequences for not being there; there are consequences for being late; there are consequences for filling up with junk food at a friend’s house and having no appetite for dinner. And the first consequence is the shortening of the free time period so that if dinner is served at 7, the offending child must be home by 6, or something like that. You are the adult, you set the rules. No eating dinner at a friend’s house without prior permission, no making plans that occur during dinner time without prior permission, and no eating in front of the TV except on very rare occasions (and if you have a way to record it, not even then).

Dinner time is family time and it should be sacrosanct. Families bond during this time, it is your opportunity to observe your family and see how they are doing. Does your teen daughter seem depressed? Is your preteen son preoccupied with something? Is your toddler whiney? Does your husband seem distant and detached? Observe…discuss in private…and make the kids help with clean up so that they understand that a family meal is, in all ways, a family event.

17. Follow The Golden Rule
It’s golden for a reason. “Treat each other as we wish to be treated in turn.” It was true way back when and it’s still true now.

mmmm…not necessarily. In a fully functional family, yes. In a family with dysfunctional people at the head…not so much.

They way we, the children of Narcissists, want to be treated is not necessarily healthy. If we grew up in a household that caused us to be hypervigilant and hypersensitive, then what we want is to not have the hypervigilance and hypersensitivity triggered…which others may perceive as having to walk on eggshells. And, if we give that same treatment to our kids, we may tiptoe tentatively around issues and situations when, if fact, such issues need to addressed head on.

The bottom line is, they are not you. The way you wish to be treated may not be at all they way they need or wish to be treated. You and your feelings and your desires are not the benchmark for your significant other, your kids, or anyone else on the planet: they are yours and yours alone. You are not a universal standard from which to measure the emotional needs of those around you. No matter what level of recovery you have achieved, you were still damaged in your early years and some of your emotional needs come from that damage. Your needs cannot even be used as a standard for measuring the needs of other damaged people, as we are all unique and respond to our tribulations and traumas in our own unique ways.

Better, I think is to adopt a policy of treating everyone with respect and expect that in return…and if you don’t get it, remember that is not a reflection on you, it is a reflection on the person who treats you disrespectfully. If that person is your child, then you have some work to do, some teaching and guidance. If that person is not your child, then you might want to reconsider keeping that person in your life.

But to treat everyone the way you want to be treated seems to be a little narcissistically centred, as if everybody on the planet wants to be treated the same way you do…and there are just too many of us for that to be true.

And I will add my own:

18. Trust and trustworthiness

It is important to be able to trust those in your family and for them to be able to trust you.

You create trust by following through on your promises, but being consistent and even predictable. That may sound awful, but if you have children, they need to be able to predict you to feel secure. If you are all smiles and praise over a “B” on a math paper this week, but thunderously displeased over a “B” paper next week, you are going to confuse your child and he is not going to know what to do to please you. Children feel secure if they feel their parents are happy with them.

Be very wary of making promises and when you make them, let nothing short of sudden death make you break them. I learned long ago to tell my children something less committal: “I’ll see what I can do,” “I will try,” “It’s not in the budget for this month but let me see what I can work out down the line”… They knew this could end up becoming a “yes” or a “no,” but they didn’t get their hearts set on something that would ultimately be a disappointment.

I rarely made promises then, and I rarely make promises now. But when I do make them, you can take them to the bank. People who know me know that if I promise something, it will happen…they can trust.

Was I always so trustworthy? Of course not. I didn’t understand the value of it. I didn’t trust anybody anyway…promises seemed just empty words to me. But time has brought me to the realization that if I am going to expect others to be worthy of my trust, I have to be worthy of theirs as well. I am always forgiving of unforeseeable circumstances, but many others are not, so I promise very infrequently and only when I know that I can deliver. Everything else gets either turned down or with a commitment to see what I can do, but no promises of the outcome.

People in functional families can trust each other because they come through for each other. Sophistry such as I employ…promising only when I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can deliver and “I’ll see what I can do” for everything else is not really necessary because functional people in functional families understand and forgive those unforeseeable circumstances. People in functional families are not blindsided by the unexpected. To those of us raised with high drama and low blows, functional families may actually feel boring because they are pretty predictable. Your parents will still love you if you are unmarried and pregnant, gay or transgender, get an abortion, marry a person of a different faith or colour, commit a crime. They may not approve of the actions you undertake, but you know in the depths of your heart, that they will not stop loving you, no matter what acts you have committed. You trust that love…and they trust yours.

And that is what we, the adult children of narcissist parents, were most deprived of…the ability to trust. Because when you cannot trust your parents, when your entire life you live in fear of a rejection even deeper than that you endure as a scapegoat, trust simply does not exist. And that is the furthest from “normal” that you can get.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Elusive "Normal" - Second of 3 parts

8. Gentle on Teasing and Sarcasm
Teasing can be OK as long as the teased is in on the joke. Same with sarcasm. A functional family won’t use either as a poorly masked put down.
Nobody likes to be the butt of a joke. And nobody likes being the perpetual fall guy. In dysfunctional families, it is common for people to poke fun at the Scapegoat and if the Scapegoat expresses hurt by crying, complaining or even walking away, then the offense is often compounded by claims that the Scapegoat “can’t take a joke” or has no sense of humour.

Make no mistake, this kind of behaviour is passive aggressive. It is thinly-veiled hostility. It is not funny and those who find amusement at the expense of another person’s feelings are demonstrating insensitivity and even sadism.

But even people who grow up in functional families may engage in this kind of so-called humour because today, unfortunately, to be viewed by your peers as clever and witty, you may have to engage in such behaviour, either as the so-called wit or as part of the laughing entourage. Popular culture endorses this behaviour with insulting, sharp-tongued television hosts on game and competition shows, reality TV divas indulging in verbal cat-fights, even movies in which the “winner” is the person with the sharpest tongue and most devastating wit.

Wit is a good thing, as is cleverness, but when it is at the expense of the feelings and dignity of another, the witty one is nothing more than a glib bully. In functional households children grow up learning the value of respect, not only for themselves, but for others as well. If they engage in this kind of socially-sanctioned bullying, calling it to their attention will make them feel guilty and even ashamed of themselves. In functional households, parents do not use sarcasm and verbal bullying on their children and do not allow their children to do it to each other. Teasing, when it happens, is affectionate and the teased is part of the joke…he is not hurt by the teasing but views it as one of the ways his family shows affection. And if he expresses hurt, the family not only stops, it apologizes and tries to make amends.

It is through this respect for the child’s feelings that the child grows up to be an adult who can take a joke…but doesn’t mistake veiled hostility for humour.

9. Allows People to Change and Grow
It used to be people in the family were labeled the smart one or the pretty one, the funny one or the shy one. While that’s not done so overtly any more, labeling is still something to watch. A functional family lets people define themselves. Individual differences are appreciated even celebrated. It also lets the kids become independent when it’s appropriate and come back to the safety of the family when they need nurturing.

The adults in the family need to be allowed to grow as well. A mother may want to get a graduate degree, or a father may decide to retire early and start something new. These changes merit discussion on how they will effect everyone in the family, adjustment, perhaps negotiation, but again, if done with respect every one can be satisfied.

This is actually a very important aspect of functional families. Think, if you will, of a family of birds. The role of the parent is to provide the young with a home and food and to teach the young one the necessary skills to fly the nest and not only survive, but be able to perpetuate the species by doing the same for its own nestlings. If you were to come across a dove that refuses to teach its little ones to fly, that thwarts their every effort to gain independence, or that keeps the young ones tied to it in a way that does not facilitate their own independence and autonomy, wouldn’t you think there was something really wrong there?

The role of human parents is little different, although more complex due to the length of time the young ones are under their care and the demands and expectations of the society. But ultimately, the role of the human parents is much the same: shelter and nurture the little ones and facilitate their learning the skills and lessons necessary to survive in the society. These lessons range from learning to walk and talk to learning to drive and shop, cook, and take care of themselves. Inherent in the latter years is increased freedom and autonomy so that by the time the young one is launched, he has the basic skills and some experience that will help him survive…even thrive…independently. Unfortunately, dysfunctional families often thwart this drive towards independence because the dysfunctional parents may wish to maintain the status quo. Even if the young leave the physical presence of the family, the dysfunctional parents wish to keep the ties the bind intact so that their emotional needs are met, even if it is at the expense of their children.

I have heard more than one daughter of a narcissistic mother echo my own complaint that NM refused to acknowledge our puberty by refusing permission for us to engage is the normal grooming rituals of developing teen girls. No bras or other feminine underthings, permission denied to tweeze unruly brows, shave legs and underarms, or begin using cosmetics or hair styling products. We were kept in childish clothing long past the time it was appropriate, and we were limited in our permission to associate with our peers and explore our surroundings in the same way we were limited at age 10. At age 14, I was wearing clothes from children’s department at Sears with the seams let out and the hems let down, rather than be allowed to choose my own clothes from a more adult section.

But it goes further than that. By refusing to teach a child the skills s/he will need for survival in the real world, the narcissist binds the child to her by necessity. If it is a malignant narcissist, the withholding of life skills training may be part of an ultimate revenge: if the narcissist is insulted by the child’s natural drive towards autonomy and independence, the narcissist may intentionally withhold training and even forbid the child from learning certain skills necessary for independence, not to bind the child to her, but to “teach her a lesson” about how important the narcissist is to the child’s survival. My own mother was a master at this: I was not allowed to cook, to use the washing machine, sewing machine or learn how to grocery shop, pay bills, balance a check book. I was told to do certain grunt-labour jobs that to relieve her of the drudgery, but never taught how to sort laundry, choose a good steak, determine if an avocado was ripe or not. I was even forbidden to attend junior college after high school, despite the fact that I graduated only 3 months after my 17th birthday and had nearly a year to fill before I turned 18. No, to let me learn any more might make me competent to manage my own affairs and the plan was for me to turn 18 and be shoved out the door with a couple of suitcases, no money, no job, and no life skills. This was to be my payback for daring to not need her, to be preparing to move beyond her control.

A functional family wants their children to succeed as independent adults and give the kids increasing responsibility and autonomy as they grow older and demonstrate their ability to handle it. My own kids had to learn to do laundry, get the groceries without me there to pick out the meat and produce, and even to fix their own food. They may not have liked learning it, but they all went out on their own with the knowledge to make it independently. Whether or not they used it, of course, was up to them.

In a functional family, the parents encourage growth and autonomy and the eventual launching into independence. Those who had such parents may find it difficult to even fathom what it was like with our families. If you grew up having privileges taken away because of something you did wrong, when a friend tells you she spend most of her adolescence shut in her room, it is natural to wonder what the friend did wrong to get restricted to that degree. Why? Because capricious parents who put their own desires ahead of the developmental needs of their children are simply outside their frame of reference.

10. Parents Work as a Co-Parenting Team  strongly believe that a functional family is one where the adults are at the center of the family, in charge and pulling together in the same direction. In a functional family parents, divorced or married, take responsibility. Kids need the assurance that a firm hand (not too tight and not too loose) is at the tiller, even if they may not thank you for it.

This can be a tough one for some people to grasp, the idea that a home with two parents in it is not necessarily healthier or more functional than a home with only one parent or a blended family. It comes down to the functionality of the people who are heading up the household.

Some people get smart fairly early in a relationship with a dysfunctional person and bail out before they become stuck in victimhood. Unfortunately, sometimes there are kids involved, when that happens, the children may be stuck in a dysfunctional family even if they are living with the more functional parent. If one of your parents was dysfunctional and the other is not, your home may become a battleground as one parent fights for what is best for the children against the other parent who is fighting (or sneaking around) for what she or he wants. The more functional parent often is left on the horns of a dilemma: keep objecting and thereby keep the conflict alive; opt for peace but let the dysfunctional parent exploit the child; get out and continue the fight through court. There is no easy answer for the functional parent married to a dysfunctional one.

In a functional family, both parents put the well-being of the parents ahead of their own desires and even needs. If they differ on what constitutes what is best for the child, they don’t degenerate into screaming or tantrums, threats, or sabotaging the other parent. They will work together for the well-being of the children, putting aside their personal animosities and desires and working toward a common goal. One parent will reinforce the other, even if they personally disagree, and take up the disagreement with the other parent privately. Functional parents say things like “Did you ask your mother? What did she say? Well, let me talk to her for a minute before I make up my mind…” so that they don’t inadvertently undermine the other parent.

In a functional household, parents are less concerned with themselves, less concerned with trying to be your buddy, less concerned with displeasing their kids, and most concerned with doing the right thing, even if it disadvantages them or upsets the kids. Children, to survive in the real world when they enter it as adults, need to know how to deal with disappointment and that they don’t always get what they want. Parents who ease their own wounded souls by never saying “no” to their kids or who satisfy their need for control through regimenting their children are not functional and do their kids no favours. Functional parents may deny their kids things they want but never what they need: dysfunctional parents often cannot tell the difference.

11. Courtesy at Home First
An ounce of a well-placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘I’m sorry’ is worth a pound of explanations, defensive arguments and misunderstandings.

This, again, is about respect (are you noticing a trend here?). Functional people will step out of themselves, even if just for a moment, to acknowledge another. My father used to tell me “Courtesy is contagious…infect somebody.”

I think I would have dropped over in a dead faint if my mother had ever said “please” or “thank you” to me…and on one occasion, when I had mustered up the courage to ask if she was going to apologize to me for punishing me for something she later learned my brother had done, she laughed and told me “Consider that punishment for something you did do and I never found out about.” I was crushed. I felt this was just one more example that she didn’t love me, didn’t care about my feelings. In functional families, members do care about the feelings of the other members, and they respect them.

People who are treated with respect and courtesy by family members while they are growing up learn that behaviour. If they observed the role models in the household treating the family members with courtesy and respect…including the children…then this is what they will tend to learn. And when you grow up with the experience of being treated with respect and courtesy, this is what you expect to get from others…and when people don’t behave that way, you don’t doubt yourself, you know there is something wrong with them.

Growing up with the kind of self-worth that comes from being treated with respect all of your life makes you less emotionally vulnerable, more confident. You have a greater tendency to treat yourself with respect, as well. Children who grow up in a household where their feelings and rights were disrespected and courtesy was a one-way street (from child to parent but not from parent to child) may develop hypervigilance or hypersensitivity, and even anxiety; children from a functional household in which their feelings and rights were respected will have a more positive sense of themselves and the world around them.

12. Encourages Siblings to Work Together
Brothers and sisters have a unique relationship and it’s a dead shame when it is not nourished. Functional parents encourage siblings to play, work and problem solve together, enhancing inter-sib communication, instead of interfering with their arguments. That way siblings feel empowered and their bond is closer when they find a solution by themselves.

When parents compare one child to others or pit children against each other, when they demonstrate favouritism or don’t explain apparent favouritism, they are creating a dysfunctional environment.

When my sons were 17 and 10, we went to Hawaii for a week. After breakfast each morning the older boy was told what our plans were for the day and given his choice of coming along or spending the day on his own. If he chose the latter, he was given $10 for pocket money (enough to buy lunch and rent a surfboard) and told to meet us back at the room at a certain time so he could clean up and go to dinner with the family.

The younger boy was outraged because he was not given the same choices as his brother. He characterized it as “unfair” that we wouldn’t give him $10 and let him spend the day running around Waikiki without supervision. And although we tried to explain to him that, when he turns 17, he will have the freedom to go and do on his own for the whole day, his anger did not abate. I finally told him that the subject was not open to debate, he was 10 and he was not going to get the same privileges as his 17 year old brother until he, too was 17.

Without the explanation, both of my sons could have taken the decision as favouritism shown to the older boy…with the explanation, it became clear that this was not a case of favouritism but one of what was appropriate for a certain age and responsibility level. Dysfunctional parents, however, will not see any reason to make such an explanation, just simply cite their own authority and demand that their authority not be questioned.

My mother showed favouritism towards my younger brother so blatant that even family members who did not spend much time with us both saw it and remarked on it. She pitted us against each other and made immaterial comparisons, then doled out privileges or treats based on the results of those comparisons. For example, I was two years older and three grades ahead of my brother. When I was struggling with fifth grade math and he was sailing through second grade math, my mother conveniently forgot that my math scores in second grade were stellar…instead, she accused me of laziness, stupidity, daydreaming and not applying myself as the reasons my math grades were poor (not that I’d never learned my multiplication tables because she had me skipped a grade mid-year and I missed that in school) and he was rewarded for his grades and I was punished for mine. I was also told that he was smarter than I was because his grades were better, even though we weren’t studying the same things at the same levels.

In any comparison with my brother, I always came up short. Not only did this cause me to resent him, it caused him to think he was superior to me. This led to a whole other kind of conflict between us. The last time I saw him was at my grandmother’s funeral, 20 years ago. He was arrogant and condescending to virtually everyone in the family. It was not until years later, when I began to study narcissism, that I began to understand what kind of person he had become. It stuck out all over him, but I didn’t know what I was seeing at that time. But, thanks to my mother’s failure to nurture a bond between us and her delight at setting at each other as competitors or judging us as if we had been in a competition, there has never been any love lost between us.

This is what it means to have a dysfunction relationship with your siblings that was created and fostered by a dysfunctional parent. In a functional family, however, the kind of posturing my brother would do…encouraged by our mother…would result in an admonition to be nice to the sibling, to be a good sport, to have a care for the other child’s feelings. Pride in accomplishments of the siblings would be encouraged from the standpoint that everyone is a part of the whole…the family…and that the family sticks together and cares for each other. Bonding between siblings and between parents and children is a given, trust and love and respect taken for granted because it is how these families work. Of course there will be conflict and strife, but they are not taken as blood feuds or excuses for extended animosity. In a functional family, members of the family love and respect and support each other, even when they disagree.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Elusive "Normal"-First of 3 Parts

People who grow up in dysfunctional homes often long for a normal family, a normal home, a normal life. But just what is meant by “normal”?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines normal as “Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” Right there, we run into the first problem because what is “usual, typical or expected” most definitely varies from one person to the next. Even “conforming to a standard” is problematic because there is no objective standard for a functional family and even dysfunctional families can conform to a standard for dysfunctionality. The truth is, there is no such thing as a “normal” family, home or life.

So, are we pining over, yearning for something that exists only in our own imaginations? To a degree, yes. There really is no such thing as a “normal” family or even a “normal” parent. We create in our minds what we each define as “normal,” and your definition is, of necessity, different from mine. Our personal definitions of being normal, having normal family members or a normal family life are based on both our observations of others (people who we perceive as “normal”) and on our own needs and wants. Your version of normal may include an effusively loving stay-at-home-mom who bakes cookies and listens, rapt, while you described your school day whereas my definition of normal could include a working mom, but one who didn’t hit or scream and who allows me to close my bedroom door. A better term for what we want is “ideal” and that right there creates another set of problems: ideals are goals to shoot for, but not always realistically achievable.

What might be a better examination is the difference between functional and dysfunctional family interactions, recognizing that even this is an ideal, but at least some of it is achievable. Rare is the family that achieves all of the benchmarks of a fully functional family, and even families that achieve some of them…well, sometimes those qualities can be faked. It’s not an easy thing to nail down.

Then there is the question: why do we even want to know what is normal? Why chase after it, want it, hunger for it? If you’ve never had a pony you can’t miss having one, so if you’ve never had a functional family, can you miss it? And knowing that we cannot change anyone but ourselves, are we not creating for ourselves a whole new world of pain by focussing on and wishing for something we not only have been denied, but something we can never have, a functional FOO?

I think the value in knowing what an ideal functional family looks like is that most of us go on to have families…children…of our own. It is doubly difficult to create something if you have no idea what it should look or feel like. People who grow up in reasonably functional families know…they may even subconsciously recognize each other, much as dysfunctional people can subconsciously recognize and be drawn to people with similar or complementing dysfunctions. If we have any hope of breaking the dysfunctional cycle that we grew up in, the first thing we have to do is know what functional looks like…not our personalized, idealized version of functional but an achievable, real-world kind of functionality…so that we can create something approximating it for our kids.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Elvira G. Aletta wrote an article on just what qualities are present in functional families. What Makes aFamily Functional vs Dysfunctional? outlines 17 points that are common to functional families. Dr. Aletta’s points are presented below and my comments are, as usual, shown in violet.

1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Respect is the Holy Grail of functional families. All people in the family, brothers to sisters, mothers to fathers, parents to kids must be respectful as consistently as possible. Being considerate of each other is the tie that binds, even more than love. I think too much emphasis is put on love in general. I’ve heard of many atrocities done within families in the name of love but never in the name of respect. Just about all the things on the list come out of respect first.

Respect is paramount in all functional relationships. The idea that people have to earn respect is logically absurd and emotionally destructive. We are owed respect from everyone until we do something to earn disrespect and we owe respect to everyone until that person earns our disrespect. It is very simple to respect another person if don’t confuse respect with approval or love or even liking. You don’t have to like a person or even approve of what he does or says or is in order to respect him. Respect does not mean putting a person on a pedestal, looking up to him, or even admiring him. Respect is simply caring about others, about their feelings and their rights, regardless of whether you like or admire or approve of them or not. And this includes our kids.

As ACoNs, every one of us can look back and find examples of disrespect from our families. Caring about the feelings of others is not the same as being controlled by those feelings, either. When I was very young I came home from school and found most of my toys missing. Thinking our house had been robbed, I ran to my mother only to learn that the Goodwill truck was in our neighbourhood that day and she “cleaned” my closet. I remember feeling shocked that she would do that. I was well aware that children were obligated to follow the dictates of their parents and if she had told me earlier that she would be giving away my old toys, I would have accepted her dictates…but to come home and find it a fait accompli was shocking…it was my stuff! In retrospect I can see that I was feeling disrespected, that she had usurped what little autonomy I had, by taking and giving away that which I believed to be mine. It reinforced my feeling that she was not to be trusted, and that it wasn’t a good idea for me to get attached to anything because it could be gone in a heartbeat. Her lack of respect for my feelings…indeed, her failure to acknowledge that my feelings were valid and deserved respect…characterized and defined our relationship.

If your relationships with your FOO, your partner, your kids, lack reciprocal respect, you are already in dysfunctional territory. You cannot have a functional relationship or home without it.

2. An Emotionally Safe Environment
All members of the family can state their opinions, thoughts, wants, dreams, desires and feelings without fear of being slammed, shamed, belittled or dismissed.

This is less about permission to express emotions but more about feeling free to express yourself without fear of being emotionally injured as a result. I can remember telling my mother I wanted to take French in the 9th grade and being called “pretentious” for it. If I told anyone about getting an A on a test or received an academic award, I was “showing off.” When I said I wanted to go to college, I was simply laughed at. When I said I wanted to go live with my father, she took it as a personal affront. She was fond of saying “There are three ways to do anything: the right way, the wrong way, and my way…and my way is the only way that counts.” This translated into every aspect of life: I could not like something she didn’t, and if I didn’t like something she did (like liver), it was a personal affront. It was not safe to like, feel, want or even need anything she did not also like, feel, want or need. And the punishment for diverging from the “party line” was emotional excoriation.

In a functional household, people are allowed to hold and express their own opinions, feelings, wants, and beliefs without fear of being punished for them. They can speak out and if their opinions differ from others in the household, they are not subjected to ad hominem attack, even if those beliefs and opinions come under rigorous discussion. In a dysfunctional household, any deviation from the approved or expected leaves you open to personal attack…and even agreeing may result in the same if you can’t parrot the party line as to why you believe as you profess. Members of functional households are not controlled or punished with fear.

3. A Resilient Foundation
When relationships between and amongst people in a family are healthy they can withstand stress, even trauma, and, if not bounce back, at least recover. Resilience starts with encouraging sound health, eating and sleeping well, and physical activity.

Resilience implies flexibility and strength; its opposite is rigidity and inflexibility. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that functional households, while possessing structure and boundaries, also are resilient, flexing to accommodate new situations and circumstances, and in dysfunctional households, there are rigid roles and no flexibility to accommodate the members of the household.

Children learn more by observation that by what they hear. What you, as a parent, demonstrate to them, is what they absorb. So, if the parent as a rigid personality, is stubborn and intransigent, won’t make exceptions when they are warranted or, conversely, is so chaotic that no kind of grounding is provided, it is difficult for children to learn to roll with the normal punches of life. If your partner leaves and you become mired in grief or rage or react with a sudden desperate siege of all of the local single’s joints, you aren’t teaching your kids resilience, you aren’t demonstrating for them that first you grieve, then you pick yourself up and resume life.

Resilience is learned and you can learn it young, through a family that practices emotionally healthy responses to stressors, or you can spend a lot of money and time in therapy as an adult to learn it. Functional families give it to their kids for free.

4. Privacy
Privacy of space, of body and of thought. Knock and ask permission to enter before going through a closed door. All family members are sensitive regarding personal space and aren’t insulted if someone needs a wide berth.

This has to do with boundaries. In the dysfunctional household, boundaries are set by the people who are in control of the household and, as a rule, only they are allowed to have boundaries. Privacy is a boundary that the dysfunctional parent finds threatening: they only feel safe if they can know what you are doing at any time they feel they need to know. It comes from fear and distrust: control makes them feel safe and they fear that if you have privacy you might be doing something forbidden…and the fact that you might do something forbidden is dangerous to their control.

In a dysfunctional household, people do get insulted if someone needs a wide berth or personal space. You might be doing something that goes against the controller’s wishes or, worse, you might be doing something that threatens his control. If you are perceived as “hiding something,” you are suspect. You are expected to be an open book but, at the same time, you are expected to respect the privacy of the household controllers.

Functional households allow children to set their own age-appropriate boundaries (parents must still have some idea of what their minor children are doing in order to keep them safe…an Australian mother recently discovered her toddler had brought a bunch of eggs that he found outside into the house and stashed them in his closet—turns out they were eggs of the most venomous snakes in the world and they hatched inside the closet! Imagine if she didn’t think she had the right to go into his wardrobe because of privacy issues and therefore didn’t find the snakes before her child was bitten!). In dysfunctional households, the ability to set boundaries is reserved to the people in control. Your privacy is at their whim, not your right.

It all boils down to respect and dysfunctional households, that is in very short supply.

5. Accountability
Being accountable is not the same as planting a homing device on your kid or abusing the cell phone to track her whereabouts 24/7. That’s not much better than stalking. No, being accountable is (again with the respect thing) respectfully and reasonably informing people in the family where you are and what you are doing so they can grow trust and not worry.

This can be a touchy one because for safety’s sake, parents need to know where their children are, and the younger the child, the more important it is for the parent to know. In a functional home, however, children are granted more and more freedom and autonomy as they mature and demonstrate that they can make good decisions (or have learned from their bad ones) and be trusted.

Dysfunctional households tend to go to one extreme or the other: either the kids are simply turned loose to fend for themselves and allowed to run wild, or they are rigidly controlled and given no autonomy that does not benefit the controlling parents. There may be even be a situation where some children are allowed to run wild while others are rigidly controlled. Either way, the children do not come up in a household in which they gradually learn responsibility and are given guidance such as how to learn from a mistake.

6. An Apology
It’s sad when people hold out for an apology on a point of pride, never acknowledging their part in a dispute. How many times have you heard of rifts in families that last for years because someone feels they are ‘owed an apology’?

A functional family will have conflict. It’s very cool when we can have an argument and get to the other side of it still friendly and satisfied with the outcome. But let’s face it, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we say things that we regret. If we can feel and show remorse for our part, quickly apologize, ask for and receive forgiveness, no harm is done. You may even become closer for it.

I have to take some exception to this. While it does, on the surface, seem a bit absurd to remain estranged for an extended period of time while ostensible awaiting an apology, this might also be the tip of a huge narcissistic iceberg.

Many of us go No Contact with narcissistic family members for our own well-being and sometimes that decision is based on an event in which someone ends up feeling s/he is owed an apology. Most of us shy away from painful introspection…we don’t want to dig into our past pain and re-experience it and come away with the devastating realization that our parents are narcissists who have never loved anybody but themselves. Subconsciously, if we are not emotionally ready to accept and deal with it, we protect ourselves from that kind of shattering insight with less devastating “reasons” that still allow us to take the steps that shield us from the damaging people in our lives.

Whether or not breaking contact with a family member is a dysfunctional thing depends entirely on that family member and the relationship with him/her. If it is a narcissist who constantly gas lights you, exploits you, and generally runs you down and the schism occurred when you stood up to the abuse, one or both of you may expect and apology from the other and remain estranged while awaiting it…and in such a circumstance, I don’t think that is a bad thing!

7. Allow Reasonable Expression of Emotions
When I was growing up I wasn’t allowed to be angry at my parents and my father would walk out on me if I cried. I was determined to not do that to my kids. It hasn’t been easy. The main thing for me was to teach them to state their anger in a managed manner and to teach myself not to fly off the handle when they did. I had to learn that their telling me they weren’t happy with something I did or said could be done with respect. And, very importantly, vice versa.

The key word in this point is “reasonable.” My kids were allowed to express their feelings but they weren’t allowed to be abusive in the process: they were expected to respect the feelings of others even while expressing their own. That meant that tantrums that disrupted the peace of the rest of the family was not allowed…a child having a tantrum was sent (or taken) to his room until the tantrum was over and s/he could rejoin the rest of us and state his/her frustration in a manner that we could all deal with. That meant that being angry was ok, but name-calling, insults, throwing or breaking things, screaming and hitting were not.

Reasonable expressions of emotion, both demonstrated by the parents and allowed to the children, do not include abuse. They respect the rights and feelings of another, which can be a fine line to walk when your child wants something desperately and the parent must say “no.”  Sometimes we have to hurt our children (or do things they perceive as hurtful) in order to protect them. We are not their buddies, after all, we are their teachers, mentors, guides and protectors. But in fulfilling that role, we cannot squelch their expressions of emotions, we must help them learn the appropriate, acceptable means of expressing them and in functional families that is done both by example and by instruction.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Flying Monkeys in Your Life

If you’ve got an N parent, you’ve probably got Flying Monkeys in your life. What are flying monkeys? To paraphrase the Glossary, flying monkeys are people who do the N’s bidding, whether to inflict additional torment or to simply spy on the victim or spread gossip.

Flying monkeys are people who take your NM’s part in the family drama and act on her behalf. They may be obvious or they may be so subtle that you react with utter shock when you discover their betrayal. But make no mistake: flying monkeys never truly have your best interests at heart because if they did, they would refuse to play secret agent for the narcissist.

In my experience, flying monkeys fall into two basic categories: willing, complicit partners and well-meaning dupes. The willing, complicit partners also fall into two categories: those who believe that you just need to forgive and forget and they are going to help you do just that, and those who just don’t like you and are therefore quite happy to spy on you for your NM, and to do her bidding. The dupes also break down into two categories: those who are fooled by her drama into helping her violate your boundaries and those who believe all of the lies and half-truths that NM and her minions have spread about you and who want you to see the error of your ways.

The complicit partners have their own agenda that they are going to satisfy through helping your N while the dupes are basically people who are fooled by your NM into helping her. I am not going to let the dupes off the hook, though…by stepping in as one of the N’s flying monkeys they are making one critical…and very disrespectful…error: they don’t bother to come to you and ask you for your side of the story. Any rational, truly well-meaning person wants to know both sides of an issue before they agree to assist one side against the other and they have a thirst for truth. Anyone who sides with your narcissist against you without having contacted you first, anyone who takes it upon himself to violate your boundaries after you have clearly stated them, is not your friend, no matter what s/he tries to get you to believe. You are not obligated to tell another person…not even a close member of your family…why you do not wish to communicate with another person. If it is not enough that you don’t want to, if the person refuses to respect your boundaries unless she agrees with your reasoning, then this is a person you cannot trust to have your back…and a person who is a potential flying monkey.

So, just what do flying monkeys do? Basically two things: act as a source of information to the NM and act against you on the NM’s behalf. Maybe your sister will call you and ask seemingly innocuous questions, draw you out, even sympathize and commiserate with you about your mother’s behaviours. But when you hang up the phone, Mum is the first person she calls and unloads everything she heard. It may go further than that…the flying monkey may send you emails or texts, may phone you, and say terrible things. If the flying monkey is also an N…and I believe many are, based on the basic premise that to be a flying monkey, one must be willing to disrespect the person targeted…then the flying monkey may go further: she may attempt to seduce the scapegoat’s husband or boyfriend, tell lies (or highly embroidered and biased versions of the truth) to the scapegoat’s children, even tell unflattering stories to the scapegoat’s coworkers or employer. The flying monkey may resort to outright threats: “if you don’t be nice to your mother, I will tell everyone you tried to seduce my ex-husband when we were still married” (when you did nothing of the sort). Or the flying monkey may try persuasion and guilt-tripping, telling you your mother loves you and how much you have hurt her with your refusal to speak to her…and anything else that may get the NM what she wants.

And what does your NM want? Well, whether or not you are LC, NC, or in full contact with your NM, what your NM wants is control of you, and for you to play your role in the family drama without any thought of backing out. The flying monkey is around to gather intelligence to help the NM further her agenda. When I was the young mother of two, I had not seen or heard from my brother, the Golden Child, for several years…he had been overseas with the military and when he came back, he didn’t tell me. One day a man showed up at my front door, a man on a blue Kawasaki motorcycle, and when I opened the door, it was my brother. Since this was before my knowing anything about narcissism and dysfunctional family structures, I was delighted to see him and invited him in. In retrospect, it should have been obvious to me that he was snooping and asking a lot of personal questions, but being a person who was largely invisible during my childhood, I was delighted he was finally taking an interest in me. It never occurred to me that he was snooping on my NM’s behalf because I couldn’t imagine what would motivate that. My naïveté was to come back to haunt me, as this turned out to be NM’s opening salvo in taking my children away from me and giving them to her childless younger brother to adopt.

The court was full of flying monkeys as witnesses: an uncle, NM’s older brother who lived in another state and hadn’t seen me in seven years (before my children were even born), testified that mine was an unfit home, that he had seen it with his own eyes. A probation officer, who had never even been to my house but who had interviewed my brother, uncle, and mother in addition to interviewing me, described a house that I had never seen before, let alone lived in with my children. I cannot speak to the motives of the lying civil servant, but my uncle and brother’s motives were clear: they wanted my mother to have custody of my children. Why? Because she had convinced them I was a bad person, a bad influence, a bad mother. Did they know her real plan was to kidnap my kids and take them across country to give to her younger brother to adopt? I really don’t know, but I do know that is what happened and that she managed to rope my entire FOO into being flying monkeys for her because every time I called or wrote one of them and asked about the whereabouts and well-being of my children I was either stone-walled or yelled at. That is what flying monkeys can do.

I doubt the majority of flying monkeys are as pernicious as mine were, but it isn’t the big gush of water that wears a hole in rock, it is the steady, unrelenting drip-drip-drip of small drops over an extended period of time that wears down even granite. The small predations into your life, the constant awareness that you cannot know who to trust, the endless violations of your boundaries, the ceaseless little moments of disrespect…they all count, they all add up to the chipping away of your confidence, your self-esteem, your peace.

I know of a man who lives half the continent away from his parents and brother. A kind and compassionate man, when he decided to go NC, he tried to do it gently so as not to upset his mother, and told her that he was going to be out of contact for a while, that he needed some space from his family. His mother agreed, in her sweet way but, within weeks, she was back to sending him emails and texts, often closing them with something like “oops! I know I wasn’t supposed to contact you, but I thought you would want/needed to know this…” Within a month, his NM had violated his No Contact boundaries as if they didn’t exist.

When he stuck to his guns and didn’t respond to her violations she changed tactics and began sending in the flying monkeys. Out of the blue, a cousin he hadn’t heard from in years called him to “catch up.” Cousin asked a litany of nosy questions about his life, his plans, his work, his projects, and even mentioned the mother back home who was hoping everything was OK with him. Sneakily, while professing not to want to know what was wrong, the cousin made it clear that he thought the lack of contact between mother and son, initiated by the son, was wrong and that it made the mother so terribly sad. It was a combination flying monkey attack and hoovering session, all in one!

You can be pretty sure that when you interrupt communication with your N and within a month or two you begin hearing from people who have been off your radar for a long time, these people are flying monkeys. They may be a sibling who is invested in keeping your NM happy and therefore a complicit assistant, they may be old friends or relatives with whom you were once close but have grown away from, who are now dupes, but any way you slice it, these people have come back into your life at this moment for a reason, and the reason is not your well-being.

When I was 14 I lived with my father for a year while my mother was off gallivanting around the country with her latest boyfriend. When she returned, she decided she wanted me back home with her…I was not only her personal maid and housekeeper, I was a source of income in the form of child support. She showed up at the door one night and asked me to take a ride with her. To my surprise, we both got in the back seat. Expecting her boyfriend to be at the wheel, I was delighted to see it was my old singing teacher, whom I had adored.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have gotten right out of that car and gone back into the house. But for the next hour the singing teacher drove us around and the two of them played me like a violin. They trotted out every cliché, every platitude, every conceivable reason I should go back to live with my mother. They succeeded and I made one of the worst decisions of my life: I went back to live with my her. And once I was there, nothing changed. My NM and her flying monkey successfully hoovered me, and I went back to live in the emotional Badlands with NM.

This is what flying monkeys do: they advance the cause of the N at your expense. They could be anybody, even your old grandmother…after my mother put me through 8 years of hell by stealing my children, lying to the whole family about me, and giving my children away to be adopted…my grandmother begged me to “bury the hatchet” with my NM. She was old, she told me, and she didn’t want to go to her grave with all the hostility between her only daughter and her favourite grandchild. I succumbed and, like everything else I do, I did it with a sincere desire to make peace. To me, that meant trusting and being honest and aboveboard…both of which were used against me yet again. But who would think my grandmother—and I always had been her favourite and we all knew that—would act as a flying monkey for my mother and set me up to be exploited and hurt by her yet again?

Whether you are NC, LC, or continue “normal” communication with your N, beware of flying monkeys. They are the people who will criticize you for not doing what your NM wants, will try to sway you towards her agenda and away from your own. They will sabotage, undermine and undercut you without compunction if it furthers the NM’s agenda. They may do it out of blind loyalty to her, animosity towards you, or simply well-meaning interference, but their reasons aren’t really important: what is important is that they are more than willing to put your NM’s wishes ahead of your own rights, feelings and autonomy. If you aren’t doing as your NM thinks you should, then they side with her against you with no thought to your right to self-determination or even your feelings.

Flying monkeys come in all shapes, sizes, ages and from every possible walk of life but they all have this in common: they unquestioningly further the agenda of the Ns in your life and they have no respect for you whatsoever. No matter what they say, they are not on your side.

Don’t pay them any attention.