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.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Triggering—good for you?

If someone approached you on the street, someone you did not know but whom you had seen numerous times, and asked you for money, would you give it to him? If he tried to guilt-trip you into giving him money or acted like he was entitled to some of your cash, would you feel guilty for not handing it over? If you knew, from observation, that the person had a substance abuse problem and anything you gave him would probably end up buying more substance to abuse, would you give him the money anyway?

Some of us just automatically hand a bill out the window to street corner beggars or toss coins into their proffered cups. We don’t really give much thought to the fact that we might be enabling a substance abuser with our mindless contributions. And we may be put off by the demanding, guilt-tripping, or entitled beggar, but many times we give anyway, perhaps because we wish to ward off the possibility of ending up that destitute ourselves.

Even those of us who refuse to enable another person’s addictions and don’t guilt-trip easily may find ourselves mindlessly giving to someone who seems to be more needy than we are. It is easier than stopping and hearing the person’s story and then giving suggestions that probably have been heard before and summarily dismissed.

For as long as I can remember, we have been warned about “triggers.” I suppose it began with such things as allergies where avoiding a triggering substance could mean the difference between life and death…some allergies, after all, can provoke a swift and even fatal reaction. Those of us with less lethal allergies know that avoiding certain triggers, like cat hair or certain pollens, makes our lives more comfortable. Over time the whole idea that avoiding triggers is good for us has grown to encompass not only physiological triggers but psychological triggers as well. And here is where I part company with the commonly-held belief that avoiding psychological and emotional triggers is a good thing.

A few weeks ago I got sharply faulted on line for using the word “inappropriate.” It seems that the word was a “trigger word” for my critic, although I was unaware of it. Up to that point, like most people who simply and mindlessly accept the notion, I had never given much real thought to emotional trigger words. I just went with the flow, trying to warn people when my writing contained something I thought might trigger them. Even in on line discussions, I had made a point of avoiding or warning about things I thought might be a trigger. But this time it was different.

I did not use an emotionally-laden word like “hit” or “beating,” nor did I describe a harrowing episode in evocative terms. I simply stated that something “seemed inappropriate to me” and Bang! the sh!t hit the fan.

In a discussion a person had revealed something he was doing that I felt very uncomfortable about because it felt inappropriate…a betrayal, actually. I asked him a specific question at least three times for the purpose of clarification and none was forthcoming. Thinking that if I explained why I needed that specific bit of information, I said that what he was doing seemed inappropriate to me (owning my feelings and not putting them on him), and could he please clarify so I could lay the issue to rest. I did not say that he or his behaviour was inappropriate, and was careful to use language that put the onus on me: I wasn’t quite clear on exactly what he was doing and could he please elaborate.

Instead of the anticipated explanation, however, I got “‘Inappropriate’ is my trigger word!” I don’t recall exactly what else was said, but I do know this took me aback, as his reaction to an ordinarily innocuous word used to describe my confusion was very strong and defensive.

This set me to thinking about trigger words and how we all act around them. It seems to be perceived as being insensitive to not “respect” triggers and refrain from speaking them in the presence of those vulnerable to them and yet, how sensitive was this person to my feelings when he jumped all over me for saying a word that I could not possibly have known might be a trigger word for him? I felt assaulted…for an instant I was that little girl again, backed into corner, NM blistering my ears with a verbal assault for doing something I had no idea was wrong. It was only momentary but it was, in the very least, insensitive and at worst, abusive. All I did was ask for clarification and then give the reason I needed clarification, using ordinary words that described my feelings on the subject, projecting nothing onto him. The response felt wrong, too much for the circumstances, too vehement. And so I started doing some research.

The first thing I found was a Wikipediaentry that cited some bona fide researchers on the topic. “The efficacy of ‘trigger warnings’ has not been methodically addressed by scientific study, however in an interview about Trigger Warnings…Professor Metin Basoglu, a psychologist internationally recognised for his trauma research, said that ‘…Instead of encouraging a culture of avoidance, [the media] should be encouraging exposure. Most trauma survivors avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That’s not good’. Another expert, Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard…discussed the scientific merit of trigger warnings noting that ‘Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.’ [W]hile citing several academic studies conducted on PTSD sufferers. Frank Furedi, a former Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent described trigger warnings as a form of ‘narcissism’, with the concerns not really being about the content of a book or work of art but about individual students asserting their own importance.”

That last sentence really clicked with me. A torrent of images and half-formed thoughts cascaded through my mind, images of people walking on egg shells and tiptoeing around a sleeping dragon. And I realized what it was about my experience and the whole concept of trigger word avoidance and warnings that was bothering me: it put onto others the responsibility for something inside one’s own self. You do not have to learn to cope with and deal with those things that distress you, I have to watch my words around you. I even have to figure out what words might distress you and if I guess wrong, you get to sharply rebuke me for it…and in a public forum, no less. No wonder I felt flung back in time, recoiling under the verbal barrage that was my mother’s prelude and run up to a beating.

I can see what that professor said about it being more about an individual asserting her own importance than the actual issue. How much more control can you have, how much more important can you be, than to be able to control how other people speak? And if you control how they speak, it’s a very short step to controlling how they think. And the big taboo that surrounds “triggering” someone is proof of that: somewhere we went from the courtesy and compassion of not wanting to wantonly elicit painful memories in another person to the tyranny of another person’s sore subjects being cause to dictate how we speak, lest we be thought insensitive boors.

Before you tag me with that label, let’s give this a little thought. Contemporary psychologists think that tiptoeing around those trigger words do more harm than good. When we refrain from using trigger words around a person, we actually help entrench their problem by helping them commit an avoidance behaviour. And trigger warnings, apparently, are even worse…not only do they help commit the avoidance behaviour, they key it to a conscious awareness of the issue the trigger warning is about. In other words, we give them an additional episode of thinking about the trigger and then avoiding it, further entrenching the avoidance.

Now I am not advocating dumping the basics of polite interaction by intentionally using trigger words to affect those who are avoiding them. But I do advocate not being suddenly guilt stricken or feeling ashamed when the word comes up in conversation and someone jumps on you with “That’s my trigger word!” or something similar. How is this different, at its most essential level, from that panhandler who is attempting to guilt you into enabling his addiction rather than find a better coping strategy? In both cases, the person relies on others joining into the process to keep it going and avoids taking the steps necessary to resolve their issues. Enabling an avoidance behaviour, regardless of the compassion and empathy behind it, is still enabling an unhealthy act and therefore becoming a part of it.

What is most tragic about this blind adherence to the avoidance of trigger words is that they, and the unpleasant feelings they evoke, can be defused…like defusing a bomb…so that they have less power, whereas avoidance give them more and more power over time. So each time we blindly obey the social imperative to not utter that trigger word or we post that trigger warning, we are actually doing exactly the opposite of what we intended to accomplish. Instead of sparing the person emotional pain, we are simply entrenching it more deeply…and denying that person the opportunity and impetus to learn new coping strategies such as defusion.

The online dictionary, Wiktionary, defines “defusion: as “the separation of an emotion-provoking stimulus from the unwanted emotional response as part of a therapeutic process…” This unwanted emotional response is generally a form of anxiety, which can be expressed in an infinite number of ways. The problem is that we are unwilling to tolerate those feelings of anxiety, so we do something to distract ourselves from them and that distracting behaviour is, in and of itself, a contributor to further anxiety because it is a kind of avoidance. Like all of our other issues, the way to deal with them it to face them because until we do, they simply cannot go away.

This requires coping strategies. If your only coping strategy is avoidance, invoking the sanctity of trigger words and expecting everyone to tiptoe around you verbally so as to avoid provoking your anxiety, is behaving like a narcissist. I did not say you are one, I said you are behaving like one. You are failing to deal with your issue and you are requiring other people to take care of you…and not just take care of you but to alter their speaking and even their thinking to accommodate you, while you do nothing to deal with your issue save demand that others tiptoe around it. As long as other people don’t trigger you, then you are fine and why should you do anything? Isn’t this how our narcissists think? To make their little lives comfy by requiring other people to walk on eggshells around them and not say something to provoke them? How is this fundamentally any different?

Dr. Alice Boyes, writing for Psychology Today, lists three ways to stop avoidance coping:

1. Recognize that it doesn't work.
What have you been trying to avoid? Feeling awkward? Feeling anxious? Thoughts of not being good enough? Do you still have those feelings or thoughts? So…has avoiding them helped any?

2. Recognize the costs of avoidance coping.
What has avoidance coping cost you? How much time and mental energy has avoidance coping sucked up? How has it impacted your health? How has it affected relationships? How has it affected your sense of yourself as a competent person?

3. Learn to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
You need to learn how to tolerate experiencing thoughts and feelings you'd prefer not to experience until they naturally pass (thoughts and feelings are by their nature temporary). If you can do this you won't need to use avoidance coping. Being prepared to experience anxiety will overall lead to less anxiety. 

Okay, I agree…all of this is easier said than done. But there are ways to make it easier. Dr. Boyes recommends:
  1. learning to soften rather than tense in response to triggering thoughts and feelings or when you catch yourself doing a self-defeating behaviour;
  2. learning physiological self-soothing skills (teaching yourself how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system by doing things like slow breathing, which in turn slows down your heart rate and makes it easier to think more clearly).
  3. learning to recognize that thoughts are often distorted so you can't actually trust any negative thoughts you have.
  4. building up your capacity to self-regulate e.g., if you're prone to overeating then setting a schedule for eating that meets your energy needs. Then, only eating at these times - not eating outside these times or skipping scheduled eating times.
  5. using ‘defusion’ skills to reduce the psychological grip of intrusive thoughts. For many people defusion skills are highly effective but at first glance they seem quite odd. For example, singing your intrusive thought to the tune of a familiar song.
 Dr. Barb Markaway, a clinical psychologist, published an excellent article in Psychology Today entitled Stop Fighting your NegativeThoughts. In it she outlines numerous ways to defuse those thoughts rather than repress or avoid them. She first recommends asking yourself Is this thought true? Is this thought important? Is this thought helpful?”

Additionally, Dr. Markaway recommends the following tips to help defuse negative thoughts:

Label your thoughts. Instead of saying “I'm a loser,” say, “I'm having the thought that I'm a loser.” Instead of saying, “I'm going to blow this test,” say “I'm having the thought that I'm going to blow this test.” The difference may seem subtle, but it can help you gain the perspective that you are not your thoughts.

Thank your mind. If you're having anxious thoughts such as, “I hope this plane doesn't crash…I hope the pilot knows what he’s doing…” say, “Thank you, mind. Thank you for trying to keep me safe. But there's nothing that you really need to do right now. I’ve got it covered.” I’m big on notes to myself, so sometimes I write my mind a letter of appreciation for its efforts, but also let it know it can take a break.

Let them float away. This one involves imagery. You put each negative thought on a leaf and imagine it floating down a stream. When you have another thought, as you will, you put it on another leaf and watch it float by.

Sing your thoughts. Try singing your thoughts to the alphabet song or to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Your thoughts will certainty sound absurd this way, which is the whole point.

Say them in a funny voice. Try saying your thoughts in a funny voice. Maybe do an imitation of a cartoon character. 

Name your stories. Many times our thoughts are repetitive and involve the same stories. My story frequently is, “I don't really know what I'm doing.” When thoughts come up along that storyline, I can say, “Oh, here’s my I’m Incompetent story, and just let it go.

Do it anyway. Perhaps the most important tip is to remember that you can have a thought and perform any kind of behavior at the same time. If it’s something you care about, it’s worth it to let the thoughts simply be. You don’t have to do anything about them. When I work with clients on their anxiety using exposure therapy (face-your-fear therapy) the most important thing they report learning is, “I can function even when I’m anxious.”

Dr. Markaway says it “takes a little practice to get the hang of ‘defusion’ techniques, so don’t give up. Many of my clients use them, and each person develops their personal favorites. I’ve tried all of the above except for saying my thoughts in a funny voice. I’m pretty sure it would be helpful, if I could only get my mind to stop telling me how silly I’d sound.”

There are more ways to deal with anxiety and negative feelings and thoughts than by expecting other people to tiptoe around you verbally and censor themselves in order to spare you discomfort. That kind of an expectation is narcissistic in nature in that it expects others to sacrifice their “normal” in order to accommodate your “dysfunctional.” This is a really big flea because of the way it impacts others around you: it requires them to censor themselves beyond the level of normal conversational courtesy and demands they adapt their speech…even their thoughts…to oblige you. It’s not a healthy way to deal with anxiety either for you or for those who pander to you.

So the next time you are tempted to publish a “trigger warning” or admonish someone with “That is a trigger word for me!”, give it a think first…will you be hurting someone by helping her to continue her avoidance game? Are you expecting that others alter their language or thoughts in order to accommodate you? What would happen if you left off the warning or if you took responsibility for your negative thoughts and implemented some of the techniques above?

The choice, as always, is yours to make.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

I have limitations, too...

We seem to have had a bit of confusion both here and in the group over the last day or two. I'd like to clear it up.

Like you, I am not at my computer 24/7...I am on it a lot, but I do need to take time to live my life as well, which includes shopping, spending time with my husband, sleeping and, in the case of this weekend, entertaining a visiting relative. When I am awake and away from my house, I keep in touch using my smart phone...I have both FaceBook and Gmail on the smartphone.

I do not, however, have PM (FaceBook Private Message) on the phone and that is by design. I installed it and uninstalled it the same day because it notified me of every update to my FaceBook account...not just the PMs...and the constant pinging was making me nuts. It interrupted my writing and research, relaxation and time out with Hubby...and there was no way to turn the notifications off.

What this means is that if you see me posting to the group, it does not mean I am home and on my computer. If I am logged in to my account, I could be logged in by phone and if that is the case, I can respond to posts in the group, but I will not even see PMs until I get home and log in on my laptop.

Also, I cannot do any group management from the phone, so I cannot add people to the group or do anything like that until I get to the laptop. I also cannot approve comments to the blog until I get home and get to the laptop.

Additionally, my phone has been acting like a prima dona this week--it is showing me emails when it damn well feels like it, NOT shortly after they were sent: today I received emails on my phone that arrived to the laptop last night... Also, I don't know if it is the phone, Gmail, or Blogger, but I am supposed to get Gmail notification when somebody comments on the blog...I got an unhappy email from a blog member this morning wanting to know why I haven't approved her comment from a day or two ago...well, the answer is, Gmail didn't tell me somebody made a comment, so now I will have to go into the blog and search for it so I can post and respond.

I need you all to know and understand that I am as limited by the needs of being human--and by the whimsy of technology--as much as you are. I do NOT ignore you or your messages or comments, I respond as soon as I can. I know how it feels to be ignored, especially when feeling upset, but I have no control over the technology and I MUST sleep and shop for groceries and keep my marriage alive and healthy. I need some patience and understanding from you guys because I really am doing the best I can with what I've got.

Hugs to you all.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

No Contact—Should I?

Suppose you woke up one Saturday morning and realized you were sick. You had a headache, abdominal pain and constipation, your joints and muscles hurt, and your fingers and toes tingled…worst of all, your brain felt like you were in a terrible fog and you seem to feel cranky most of the time. First you think it is flu but, upon reflection, you realize that you have been feeling this way for a while.

You make a point of checking your family and find that your husband, your teen daughter and pre-teen son are complaining of similar problems…only the toddler seems unaffected. A good mother, you go onto the internet and Google your symptoms and, of course, you get lots of hits…most of them for infectious viral illnesses that eventually go away.

Cup of tea in hand, brewed in your favourite mug, you go back to the internet, determined to find something more fitting…you’ve felt like crap much longer than any flu virus would keep you sick. You finally find something that looks like it might fit—lead poisoning—but you reject it because you cannot think of any sources of lead that you and your family might have been exposed to. Just to be on the safe side, however, you go to your doctor and when your tests come back, you nailed it…you are suffering from lead poisoning, as are your husband and two older kids. Only the baby is unaffected.

After some investigation you think you have figured out what the source of your lead poisoning is. On vacation in Mexico several years ago you bought a beautiful set of handmade dishes and for the last couple of years they have been your every day dishes. You drink a lot of tea and coffee, and your mug, part of the set, is seldom far from your hand. Your husband, whose lead-levels are lower than yours, only has coffee at breakfast. The rest of the time he prefers cold drinks from glass tumblers. Your older children have even lower levels of lead…they don’t drink any hot beverages and are only exposed to the dishes for breakfast cereal and dinner. The baby has his own “Winnie the Pooh” set of dishes and doesn’t use the Mexican ceramic ware at all. You take the dishes in for testing and, sure enough, they have a glaze containing a high level of lead, which is leaching into the food and drink that you serve from them.

So, what do you do? The dishes are obviously the cause of the illness…you are the sickest because you have had the most exposure, your husband and older kids aren’t showing much in the say of symptoms…yet…and the baby isn’t affected at all. But you love these dishes…they are beautifully designed and made and they are brightly, cheerfully coloured. And you have a lot invested in them…you bought a set for eight, complete with serving dishes, platters, and other accessories. But they are making you sick…and if they continue using them, they are going to make your kids as sick as you are, maybe worse.

You have a lot of choices:

1) Denial. Nah, it’s really not the dishes, it must be something else. Whoever heard of dishes making a person sick?
2) Stop using the dishes everyday: put the dishes in a display cabinet where everybody can see how pretty they are but only use them on very special occasions, like serving the turkey on Christmas Day. A little bit won’t be that harmful, right? Of course, putting them up doesn’t mean your kids won’t sneak them out to use, either. They can’t see the contaminants, so they may not even believe you.
3) Give them away: you could give them to charity or to a friend who likes them…but will you feel responsible if someone else gets sick from using them? Oh, you can give them away with a warning, but do you have any guarantee that your warning will be believed or passed on to others who may find the set attractive?
4) Stop using them altogether and get them out of your home and your life: Break the pieces of the set so nobody else can use them, and throw them away. Buy new dishes, this time by a reputable manufacturer, so you are sure there is no lead in the glaze.

I don’t know about you, but I would choose the last option. Those dishes are potentially harmful to not only me, but to my entire family. My children having contact with them without me knowing can harm them. If my baby starts having contact with the dishes…maybe his brother or sister leave a dish down where he can reach it, he is going to start picking up particles of lead, too. The safest thing for my family is for me to put aside my own reservations…I paid a lot of money for them and I really, really like them…and get them out of our lives, permanently. It makes no sense to knowingly harbour such a danger to the well-being of my family.

Would you feel guilty about throwing out a set of dishes that was giving your family lead poisoning? Would you be tempted to keep them because of what you had invested in them, or would you simply decide your family’s health outweighs that investment? Would you keep them around, knowing your kids might take them out when you aren’t looking, or that baby sitter might use them or that a visitor might? Or would you get them and their contaminating lead out of your house and out of your lives forever?

Now, suppose that set of dishes were a bunch of narcissistic family members? You know they have mistreated you and they will continue to do so, as long as you have contact with them. And they aren’t going to be any better to your kids…the damage may be different, but it is still damage. Keeping you in an anxious state and upset, they aren’t helping your marriage, either, are they? And yet you keep them…you have a lot invested in them and you are afraid of losing that investment so you may put them in storage and only have contact with them on special occasions. But they are there, lurking, tempting your children to have contact without your knowledge, and inflicting their sickness on them.

What do you do?