Le Miroir d’une Étrangère

I have been spending my free time improving my skills in French. I started the project about a year ago. It’s hard to explain now why I started, but I have improved.

To improve my writing, I started a blog in French at https://lemiroirdunetrangere.wordpress.com

If you don’t read French, I think Google is happy to translate for you. I imagine I will pursue the same topics over there.


I mentioned I have been struggling with depression the last several months. One of the issues is how I feel in my home and how I feel with myself. The typical pattern is that I leave school on Friday and sometimes Saturday excited about my free time, and then I get home and kind of collapse. I can force my way through it, but this doesn’t change the nature of the collapse. I can get things done when I really try, but it’s joyless.

In the US, I used to walk home and begin to feel I was losing my mind as I approached it. My thoughts no longer seemed to make sense to me, and the usual feeling of having opinions supported by evidence appeared to unhinge itself.

I’ve thought for a while it must be that my home is a source of comfort to me, and how I feel.when I reach home relates to how I understand other sources of comfort. In other words, although my home is nonliving, I ascribe to it the characteristics of an attachment figure.

So I’ve been trying to make sense of my reaction through the lens of how (most likely) my mother behaved towards me. I think it may begin to help soon, but it’s difficult to think clearly enough to trace what I am reacting to and then also figure out how to help myself.

Last night, I began to think I feel like a black, squidgy ball. So I wondered to myself how I would help a black, squidgy ball, because if I can bring down the intensity of the bad feeling just a bit, I can start to think clearly enough to understand the sqidginess.

I don’t have a great arsenal of comforting activities, but in the wintertime, getting warm enough to actually feel hot seems to do the trick. I got under the covers with a hot water bottle and pondered the nature of the squidginess.

I feel, reflexively, that no one will believe me, if I describe the nature of the squidginess more precisely.

The sqidginess is submission. My parents lived in a hostile world, as traumatised people often do, and consequently had a seemingly relentless desire for control because, in the short-term, it makes people’s motives appear more transparent and less potentially upsetting. They determined what we would do and therefore presumed they knew the meaning of what we did.

But also they behaved in frightening or threatening ways purposely in order to evoke submissive displays so that they could, in comparison, feel strong. We live by comparison, as human beings. It’s in our DNA.

I now see both of my parents as lacking empathy, and empathy as a brake on human behaviour. No brakes on how cruelly they behaved…so I was flooded by the impulse to submit. It wasn’t a mild urge, but a deluge.

This is my expectation based on my working model of attachment. The flood of submission does not feel good. It feels very bad. So I approached a potential source of comfort knowing I was more likely to feel bad than good.

To a narcissist, anything you have represents a loss to themselves. If I got their attention, this was time spent not getting attention for them. Comforting me represents that kind of threat. All the more reason to be threatening or rejecting: I might, in some sense, steal their attention.

I don’t really know what to do, but it makesit easier to understand.


I had another idea.

People get good feelings from a few different sources. One of them is from experiences of dominance: I won (over others or at a task), I have more (than before, than someone else), I have social status. Another is from being with people we have a bond with (oxytoxin). A third is concentrating on a task (acetylcholine). I watched a very interesting video about introverts that speculated they get more good feelings from concentrating on a task than from the excitement of meeting new people. There are other ways of feeling good, but those are three that are important.

I have an idea narcissists have very constricted ways of feeling good and rely mainly on dominance to do it. There may be many reasons for this, including difficulties in processing emotions and intentions so that it’s difficult to generate a sense of being on the same side unless the intentions are generated by the narcissist and this interferes with oxytocin as a source.

As a child of a narcissist, it may be your role to give this sense of dominance to your parent. Why else do you exploit your flesh and blood except for power? Why else seek power unless it feels good?

This role of supplier of dominance hits may mean for the child (me) that every interaction is a potential to be knocked down a peg. If I don’t offer submissive gestures, they may be beaten out of me or criticised or ridiculed or shouted out of me. In place of a calm, ordered child you have one who obligingly shrinks into himself, but may not do his chores or his homework or get ready on time for school, because he knows the point isn’t to get things done, but to reward you with serotonin. There are other ways this can play out.

One of them can be, for the narcissist, every situation is an opportunity to get a hit. They can always have more than you of something. Not just posessions or status, but more decision-making power, more good feelings, more attention. Any time you have something and they don’t, the narcissist experiences loss at losing dominance.

Consistently, I experience stress over writing, which sucks a lot of the joy out of what would otherwise be my happy pill in life. There may be multiple reasons for this, but one of them may be the three or four times my mother came and created drama over it. It occurred to me today maybe I just seemed to be happy at those times and she wasn’t. She wanted her happy pill, which was my submissive posturing because I was scared of her.

I think it makes « flow » generally difficult for me. I might start to feel.happy and then, suddenly, someone will come and yell at me.

And if flow is difficult and dominance is out of the question, because then there will really be yelling, and oxytocin is in short supply because I have zero trusting relationships, where does that leave me? Drained, flat, energyless and despairing…

Narcissistic Supply

My other thought as I have been learning has been about the role of empathy. When I am watching someone speak and trying to understand what they are saying, my mirror neurons are hard at work imagining how they are making that sound, what the sound actually is, what it means. It’s hard to learn if you can’t mentally imitate the person showing you how something is done.

And I think it’s this system of perspective-taking and imagining that’s somehow broken or distorted in me which creates so much unhappiness and so many relational problems. I don’t think I’m a narcissist, but I think my parents are and it has done something to me that’s short of narcissism and still not fun. I should also say that I believe the source of empathy deficiencies in personality disorders comes first from fear of what you might have to imagine. I don’t think it begins with evil.

I should also say that I think narcissism lies on a spectrum and that it isn’t my parents’ whole problem. My dad may simply be conscience-less. My mother is borderline.

All of that said, let me begin to meander a bit more closely around the point.

I’ve spent the last six weeks or so observing (and often struggling with) how I relate to myself and what happens within that relationship to myself throughout the day. Often, it’s like a ghost. I can’t figure out what just went on in my head, but I am reacting to it. There are times when I’m mentally so ratcheted up it feels like there’s screaming in my head, but I don’t know what started the screaming or what they’re screaming about.

I’ve also been reflecting on my relationships with various people, the kids I care for and others, and what goes on when these relationships upset me.

I’ve been thinking about the drag of depression that seems to have fallen over me since some time in summer and the gradual collapse of my belief in myself this year.

I think narcissism is how I unconsciously assume relationships work. It’s not my conscious belief. There is a gap between behaviour I have learned through experience and what I do as a result of intention. But it impacts how I feel throughout the day, including how I feel in the way I relate to myself. There’s no one here but me, but I suspect I imagine a narcissist at the other end of my mind’s eye.

There are so many implications to this.

The experiment

Today is the last day of winter vacation. Tomorrow (Saturday), we go back to school. The students show up Monday and it may be we will have a series of presentations for them, not all of which I will need to deliver myself. The workload is not that heavy for the first week, but it has its own frustrations. It’s tiring, even if there is not much to do. Certainly, the rhythm of daily life will change: it’s time to reflect and to make a course correction as needed.

The experiment I refer to is French. In August, I had the idea of studying language in my spare time. I’m not trying to write novels anymore–I’ve given that up. I don’t have kids living in my house. I do have time–if not always energy–for things that interest me.

I began by putting time into several languages. French only got 20 minutes a day. I did some research on how many hours it takes to learn a language to some kind of basic level (typically) and I began to realize 20 minutes a day would mean waiting a very long time to see results. This would be all right except that it’s hard to evaluate your methods. It’s like therapy: is this just a long process or is my approach actually not working? How would you even know?

So I switched it up. I think at first I spent an hour a day. It might have been two. When regular classes ended and we just had exams to deal with, I went for three. For part of the vacation, I spent six hours or more on it.

I studied French because it seemed like I had the best chance of success: it’s the easiest language for an English speaker to learn and I already had some background. I mentioned before I felt I had something to prove to myself, partly about being able to learn, partly about being able to pursue a goal and succeed in it. In the process, I learned some things about myself as well as about learning.

I almost succeeded, I should also say. Initially, I had the goal of being able to understand ordinary conversation to a reasonable degree, the kind of thing you hear on TV. I thought it would be great to be able to watch a French TV show and follow the plot well enough to enjoy it. Yesterday, I didn’t think I was anywhere close to that, but then I watched something today and I understood very clearly maybe a third of the time. At other times, I was floundering still or scanning the action carefully for clues. So I didn’t reach my goal in 6 months, but I may get there in another few weeks. That’s pretty good, in my view, and I feel proud of what I was able to do.

It changes how I see myself in ways I haven’t digested yet. They may not stick. It’s sometimes hard for me to tell the difference between a mood and a paradigm shift. I’ll let you know.

(I didn’t finish the post. It’s Sunday now. I had a stressful morning for complicated reasons, couldn’t understand anything and don’t feel the same kind of pride. It may come back…I’m just not sure what I accomplished.)

At a simple level, since I’m a teacher it interested me to observe the balancing act of challenge. Too much challenge, and we don’t enjoy learning and aren’t able to stick with it–we may not even learn. Too easy and we lose out on a sense of accomplishment. We did it, but what we did has no meaning. I’m sure this varies from person, and also perhaps from day to day, but everyone has a sweet spot where effort pays off in meaningful ways. I learned to expect this kind of variation. On some days, more challenge felt good and was productive. On others, I couldn’t hack it.

I had some observations about myself as a learner. Some of it may be true for other people. Some of it is probably about being gifted and some is about trauma.

The hallmark of giftedness is uneven development and a need for complexity to sustain interest. I once had a gifted student who couldn’t solve simple equations accurately, but he was much more competent if they were long and difficult. I’m sure he got bored and his mind wandered. So I worked at the highest level of challenge I could sustain, and not where I actually was. It means I sometimes lack foundation. There are gaps and holes in what I know. But you have to keep wanting to learn. And I accepted I am like this.

My performance from day to day is not consistent either. This is probably about trauma. It’s hard for me to keep my brain working well. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost ground. In my life, this is my single greatest frustration. More than most people, sometimes I am great at things. Sometimes I am really not great at those same things. It’s not just a matter of perspective.

But I can learn.

More toadies

This relationship, which Laura Evans refers to as « the teddy bear, » becomes the working model of relationships.

This isn’t news to me, but I hadn’t realized it felt a certain way or the long-term impact.

For a child with a parent who constructs relationships in this way, there is something true about abandonment causing abuse.

The scenario goes, « Because I couldn’t perform well enough as my parent’s toady, they threw themselves into a relationship with a better toady. »

Then terrible things happened. My mother’s partner molested me, she stopped taking basic physical care of me in favour of getting wasted.

There are these markers of belonging and care, which confer protection on the child. Conscienceless people recognize when the way is clear to exploit a child. They recognize the absence of adult protection.

So, the child in their way, is right. Being unable to maintain the attention of a parent themselves traumatized in childhood carries on the cycle, even if the parent is not abusive, because it clears the way fot someone else to.

What it feels like, though, is being used and discarded. It’s a very different feeling than ongoing care and attachment. I would go so far as to say it creates identity disturbances in the child, who does not develop pro-social ways to seek support or gain attention and cannot really create a coherent set of explanation for why they succeed sometimes and not others.

The feelings of success and failure seem to be disembodied in a sense, like being possessed…not feelings attached to behaviours.

I think this is one of the reasons for my low self-esteem. Feeling exploited was so pervasive, it became a part of me but, like a disease, it felt so bad it had to be quarantined.

The toady

Another idea relates to how traumatized people make sense of their traumas and the way this impacts future relationships, such as with their children–me, for example, or my mother.

If you think, as a very young child, that terrible things happened to you because you failed to keep your parents’ attention, then you are likely to grow up seemingly irrationally terrified of abandonment and compelled to stay engaged, but you may also be afraid of the power those you engage with have over you and or have impairments in your ability to process emotions or make sense of motivations and you may compensate by seeking control.

At the same time, you may be able to empathise with the desire other people have for control and surrender for the sake of avoiding abandonment. You may not always insist on being on top.

This dynamic of avoiding abandment at any cost along with maintaining an imbalance of power explains, really, most of my life with other people.

How do I get to the heart of that? What I mean is that The Boy once lay listlessly on the bed until I became alert and interested in something C was saying, and then he began to blow on a high-pitched whistle. I mean that’s one example, but I could listen thousands of them over decades with different people. He couldn’t bear the feeling of abandonment he had when I paid attention to someone else.

It explains one of my complaints in my long-term relationship, which I could never clearly articulate in couples’ therapy, which was that my ex wanted me to carpool with her, but she didn’t want me to talk in the car. Why sit in a car with someone and listen silently to talk radio?

Because a radio show will not make you stressed or anxious. It won’t make you wonder what to say in response. You won’t get your feelings hurt or have to follow a story that’s overlong. It’s distant and predictable in a way. But she wanted me there because abandonment terrified her.

It leads to families that crave proximity, but feel afraid to interact. It’s the core of many types of abusive relationships, and it also sets you up for more.

The threads

As I go through the day, trying to continue to function (which I am not), I pay attention to how bad I often feel and I wonder why this happens. I find it mysterious.

I am not, as some people do, having harsh internal dialogue with myself, but I feel dramatically hopeless anyway.

I suspect my relationship with myself reflects my relationships with cruel or neglectful others. So I’ve just been watching it, trying to figure it out.

On the one hand, I think one part of it relates to extremely inconsistent parenting and an anxious-ambivalent attachment that results in the child.

My idea about anxious attachment relates to something I read recently about signals of stress abating before the problem is actually resolved because you feel so confident it will be resolved. For example, you drink water and stop feeling thirsty although the water is still sitting in your stomach, because you anticipate being hydrated soon.

This is the core of secure attachment. Your mother holds you and you already feel better because you already have reward chemicals released in your brain, because she has relieved your distress so msny times before.

An anxious-ambivalent child does not get so much of that because the reward of being attended to has not consistently happened. What happens instead is the hope of reward is offered, and the child intensifies their signals of distress in hopes of getting it. What this can look like is the child rejecting comfort, because the child is trying to avoid being dysregulayed by their own intensification of distress.

I think this happens within me. I offer myself comfort, because I am my own attachment figure, and my distress actually intensifies. What happens after that is me spinning through ways I learned as a child both to express and contain the intensification of distress.

This is one thread.


I’ve been meaning to write a post for a long time. I have started to write and then abandoned what I was writing.

They aren’t interesting to anyone. A dog bit me in the face–not hard. He was trying to lick my tongue, as dogs do. There was a bruise and slobber, but no blood. I wasn’t hurt, but it scared me, given the rabies scare.

I feel like catching up on the newsy part of life and I also have long threads of analysis of inter-relatedness I want to dive into. The thing about living alone and in some degree of isolation is that there is no one to share ordinary life with–the small bits.

The next day, I got sick. No idea if these two facts are related. A sore throat, which is worse today. Every time I get sick, I am terrified, because I understand that rabies in humans starts out as a headache or a sore throat, and then there was a 10-day delay before I got vaccinated, because I thought the risk was small. The paranoia is not total. It comes and goes.

Not this dog, another one…

I spend my days, oddly you might think, studying French, taking walks and trying to carry on with daily life. I feel like my self-esteem tanked this year. I am discouraged. And yet I also think this may be a part of integrating my personality and seeing negative and positive parts of myself at the same time, rather than separately and incoherently, as happens in childhood trauma. I am not sure how bad I feel about myself is actually a bad sign.

There is a long story about why I am studying French in my free time, and it relates to my low self-esteem. On the one hand, I was labelled in school as gifted. On the other I grew up with a mother who would hear me use precociously big words and probably say other unconsciously « smart » things and tell me, « You think you’re so smart. » And at the same time, nothing seems to come more easily for me. I don’t really know what to think of myself. Sometimes, I feel being intelligent is only isolating, that I have ideas no one else has the patience to listen to or understand and will usually dismiss as simply wrong. At other times I feel outright stupid.

I have been here in Country X for five full years and I understand hardly any of the languages. I can follow conversations sometimes mainly because they are predictable. I catch five words of English sprinkled in and piece the rest together for myself. Stupid.

The other element is that I took French in high school, but the teacher (who was really wonderful) left after my second year and the students essentially fled after that so that I spent Year 3 and 4 in the library with two other students mostly fooling around, because there weren’t enough of us to have a class.

I got to college then without knowing much of anything, was placed in a French course that was not where I might have ended up had I studied seriously or known how to study a language independently, and felt overwhelmed by the trauma surfacing and dropped. I never went back to it, although that was my initial intention. I studied Hindi in India, which I was not very good at, and I took a semester of Spanish my senior year–basically for fun.

I may have mentioned one of the areas I wanted to look at this year was effort. I have given up, I feel, too quickly on some things and persisted too long in others, as though my ratio of effort-to-result barometer is broken.

French is this kind of failure in my life. There are many, many other things like this for me. French is just one.

Last year, I began to think, « Well, let’s see. Let’s see if I can learn. It may not need to be like this. »

I set myself a deadline to see how far I could get by then. The deadline is in less than two weeks.


So I am in Capital City for the annual ritual of immigration work. I don’t like most of this process, although there are parts of it I feel I am supposed to like and don’t.

This may be a whiny post. I’m sorry about that, if that’s what it turns into.

It is this little dip into luxury in some ways, but some of it makes no difference to me and some if it makes me stressed.

So there is this feeling of wrongness, as though I am wrong.

Let me dive into that for a second. Many people actually feel the same way as I do. The big cities here are exciting, because there is stuff. You can buy all kinds of things. I had an Americano this morning and back in Y-town, you can’t even find ground coffee. For $2.50, I can sit in a cafe that plays soothing music, sit in a soft chair, and be warm. In Y-town, my borrowed chair will be reclaimed by its rightful owner, because she’s moving away, and its cold all day long inside my house. I can drink Nescafe, because that’s all there is.


But I earn about $300 a month. $2.50 is a lot. The visa extension is about $80. My laptop broke and luckily it could be repaired for about the same amount. I bought a year’s worth of coffee because it seems to be a major comfort to me, and I need to buy new underwear. After 2 years, they are getting holes…I need to buy conditioner because in Y-town, it’s hit or miss. The stocking up for the year feels like I am just bleeding money.

And this is what other people complain about. I am not alone. So why the sense of wrongness?

Because it is only some people who feel this way. Rich people don’t complain about it. Even upper middle class people don’t complain about it.

I have mixed feelings about my expected role in society here. There is this assumption that everyone from a developed country is rolling in money and your contact with development alone will put you in the same bracket as their 1%. But I am not rich and I also don’t want to be rich. I have found wealth often spoils your personality and encourages people to lose their capacity for empathy and their resilience in the face of struggle. I am not interested.

For example, I got a lift out of Y-town with some important head engineer and I had the distinct impression he felt we were somehow the same, but we aren’t the same.

Imposter syndrome at its finest…

Being white is weird.

But I think this is also about my experiences of reward generally–i.e., attachment. Situations which promise pleasure may be risky or downright dangerous.

The thing about this all is that some people (maybe traumatised people, maybe those from narcissistic systems) is they reach out as though they intend to respond to you when in reality they are responding to themselves. As someone deprived of warmth or relationships, you seize the chance only to find put that what they want to do is something thay harms you or frightens you or humiliates you. That may not have been the plan, but the need for control or dominance or simply a stress-induced collapse of empathic capacity leads to this.

I think my past experiences lend themselves to this as a present experience, whatever the current situation: pleasure cannot be enjoyed, because of the degree of fear.