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Who do I think I am?

I was reading about the self-conscious emotions. These are jealousy, envy, shame, hubris, pride and guilt. They are also known as social emotions, because they are necessary for becoming a positive member of society.

These emerge after about 18 months, when the child has begun to develop a sense of self.

They don’t all emerge at the same time, and this probably results from the degree of cognition they require. The basic emotions (joy, anger, fear, sadness) don’t require cognition, but social emotions do. Some social emotions involve more complex meaning-making than others.

Shame and hubris come before guilt and pride, most likely because they are global emotions and are about your evaluation of yourself. Guilt and pride are their action-oriented correlates–so there is more to consider: the event, yourself, and your actions.

Narcissists react to the gap between who they believe are or aspire to be and their actual performance with anger rather than guilt or shame, because they attribute the gap to others. (Someone made me falter.) Control is felt to come from outside.

This sheds some light on issues with the Friend last year. Here she was trying to be the long-suffering mother, ready to swoop in and save her children, and the child didn’t entirely want to be saved. The child wanted her own apartment and independence rather than a suffocating dependence on her mother. And there I was, available for culpability.

Something similar happened with C’s aunt. I experienced a gap in my sense of myself as having or at least wanting to have integrity, and instead C’s aunt wanted to rescue me from the difficulty of living up to my commitment. Only I was more reflective than the Friend and understood it may not be anyone’s intention to create that gap. I don’t think I reacted dramatically or damaged my relationships.

I felt shame about the gap, which makes sense: the failure of my self-performance had to do with me (I am too weak and fragile to keep my commitments), but it wasn’t anything I had done. The aunt’s stepping in to save me had nothing to do with my actions.

It makes me thing my major triggers are worth examining for what they say about how I perceived myself and the cause of events when they happened. Generally, I think abused children attribute everything to themselves because the parents seem so inconceivable.

The other thing narcissists do is try to live in this land of hubris–I am always good–but hubris is a very transient albeit pleasurable emotion. One way to get it is to express contempt or to expose the shame of other people, so that you can feel good in comparison. Which makes some other things make sense.

Block

We have a five-day holiday. Three days for a religious event–kind of the local blessing–and then they have started giving us Saturdays off.

I do not like this event. I am grateful for the break (before we have even really started), but I don’t want to attend. I know if I make an appearance, everyone will feel very happy. I thought of going on the last day, which is tomorrow.

I used to feel much less obligation, but as I have become more a part of the community, I understand that it hurts people’s feelings to just blow off their traditions.

I don’t like it because: I’m too bony to sit on the ground for long periods, I can’t understand anything, I spent my childhood sitting on hard benches listening to boring religious instruction and that has given anything resembling a church service a kind of shit-coloured glow, I don’t care what everyone is wearing (which is half the fun for the rest of Y-town), and the monks wearing red masks walk around with wooden phalluses pretending to sexually harrass women and children for a laugh. It’s hard for me to find this funny for somewhat obvious reasons, one of them being that I don’t think the monks cast in that role are really kidding. I think they would like to do that.

tshalling.jpgI went to this same event in C’s parents’ town, and the monks had other ways to liven things up and didn’t do anything sexually explicit. I was surprised. Hard ground is still hard ground, but I didn’t feel uneasy that someone was going to shove his phallus in my face just to see my reaction. A monk in a red mask did try to hit me with his play bow-and-arrow, but I shot him with C’s little brother’s gun, which was quite fun. (No bullets–it just had swirling lights.) I can’t remember, but he may have then taken a turn with it.

In other words, it was actual play.

The peculiar thing about this is that I posted pictures of this event, and since other people experience it as a great time, they assumed I was having a great time. No one guessed someone on white-people time can barely manage to sit and watch a 3-day play they can’t understand, nor that some of the excitement of the event comes from running into people you know and I didn’t know anyone except C’s family.

So I don’t like it, and today and yesterday I did not go. I thought I would be productive, but I am like a top winding down. I went for a jog in the morning today and yesterday: the energy boost it gives me does not last. I want to lie down, and I feel a pain in my chest that I know spells crying, and I don’t know why. Nor do I know what to do about it.

I watched a very interesting series called the Baby Human on Youtube–I’m nearly completely broke and still felt the expense of all that data is a must-have. I may regret it later, when I can’t afford to buy oil or some other necessity.

I learned: very young children are aware of false-beliefs earlier than we used to think. They experience separation anxiety around 7 months and it’s associated with crawling. I usually subsides by a year and a half. By around a year old, they are aware that someone can act based on incorrect information. They understand the difference between unable and unwilling and recognize the people have intentions around the same age. By two, they have a sense of self and feel the social emotions of pride, shame, and embarrassment.

In other words, the beginnings of mentalization and understanding thoughts, feelings and intentions begins at around a year and becomes really possible (with the start of an awareness of the self) at around two. It made me think this period of toddlerhood is when things really went wrong for me. Abuse at younger ages was frightening, but it did not make me feel ashamed. Shame probably did not come before 18 months: rejection in infancy made me sad, but not ashamed. However, I did at some point in the middle understand intentions and I did have an idea of when mommy or daddy might be hurting me on purpose. I might even have begun to understand when they were hurting me on purpose, but lying about it.

I feel I do have a lot to mull over.

Wounds

It’s been easier for me to remember the big traumas of my childhood, but recently I had a somewhat clearer picture of less vivid and shocking experiences. It came up in the context of thinking about coping strategies in dysfunctional (or addicted) families, so I’ll write a post about that later.

However, I will say, I realized one of the strategies in my family that I played into was to be the scapegoat. Now, the scapegoat allows the other members to discharge negative emotions without needing to engage in more difficult problem-solving skills.  There are other elements to this, but it’s the one that comes to mind for me.

Parents on the borderline or narcissistic spectrum are angry about all kinds of things based on their dysfunctional views of what should be happening, distorted views of situations, and unrealistic expectations. So they have all of this uncomfortable anger they are trying valiantly not to express to someone who may have the power to retaliate.

Scapegoating also allows a parent to compensate for feelings of helplessness by creating an even more helpless other to give himself a sense of strength via comparison.

The child is unlikely to question this, because what he knows of himself, he learned first from his parents: the abuse is likely to be taken for reality. Accepting the role of the scapegoat may benefit the child as well, in that it protects him from grasping the malevolent intentions of his parents.

There were two very consistent putdowns when I was a child: one mostly from my mother and one mostly from my father. The first was some variation on being physically unattractive–these were mostly small comments, not dramatic attacks on my self-image. So, my mother dressed me in a lot of brown: I really found her choice in clothes for me ugly. Then there were my crooked teeth, my hair color, my freckles, and my thinness.

So the weird thing about this when I was growing up is that absolutely no one in any other area of my life remarked much on this. I remember my mother telling me once that when she was growing up, they called kids like me “carrot top.” No one ever said that to me, although they did pull my braids. (Nothing like being a 2×2 wearing out-of-style dresses to school to make you feel like a social outcast.)

Some people liked my hair. The rest of humanity didn’t care. My mother used to call me Boney-Maroney. There was a whole song about this. When I got older (post-college, I think), people did eventually notice I was very thin. When I was 10, no one gave a damn.

I didn’t draw any particular conclusion about this as a child: I don’t remember what I felt. As a adult, there seems only one possible conclusion I might reasonably have drawn, given that my parents teased me over flaws no one else saw: my mother is mean to me.

I had never realized until this year how deeply this had seeped into my consciousness. I would never have acknowledged I had this belief feeling previously, but now I can’t look at myself without thinking I am ugly.

I think now that maybe I was striking in my appearance and the thing about narcissistsis that the child of one is supposed to look good, but never steal the spotlight from the parent. It might be that, whether I was pretty or ugly, my mother was angry at me for being noticed.

The other consistent emotional abuse came in the form of criticizing my strength: this was really frustrating to me. It was something else which seemed to be a big deal only at home. My family frequently called me “Wimpy.” (My given name sounds something like that.)

It made no sense to me: for the youngest and smallest child in the family, it seemed mysterious to me that they seemed surprised I wasn’t as strong or coordinated as they were. In my own life, I didn’t feel weak. I could do the things a little kids might want to do. Compared to other children my age, I didn’t feel any difference.

This one came mostly from my dad, and I suppose he saw in me a reflection of vulnerability and fragility he didn’t want to be reminded of from his own childhood: he was on the small side himself.

The last one had to do with intelligence: “You think you’re so smart…” was something I heard a lot. I didn’t mean to show off. I just lived in my own world of big words and interesting ideas and those things leaked out into my dealings with actual, living beings.

I wonder if that too was about outshining my mother: It had never crossed my mind, but my mother went to college. She majored in English and Spanish. She was the first college graduate in her family. Her younger sister also went to college, but she majored in music: my aunt got to be the “creative” one, while the oldest of the three sisters joined the navy.

My mom was meant to be the “smart one.” I wasn’t expected to be precocious.

Hopelessness

I remember with my ex being in couple’s therapy and feeling very depressed that particular week and having my ex remarking that her week had been the best she’d had in a long time. It was difficult not to connect these two dots, and I seem to recall that the therapist did: No, of course, my ex wasn’t happy that I was depressed, but the implication couldn’t be expunged once it had begun to enter everyone’s minds, no matter what words she spoke

Looking back on this, those two dots remain connected for me, not just about her, but about my mother: my father had a different kind of narcissism. I don’t think either one of them wanted me to feel hopeless. My feelings were a side-issue.

I do think they had a hostile world view that is convoluted and tangled, in which my individuality was a threat. My feelings of depression stemmed from a state of feeling I did not exist in the mind of someone else and that it was hopeless to continue to try to assert this existence.

The thing is: it was hopeless and remains hopeless. I was reading about our unfortunate president this morning and some expert had remarked he cannot process information which conflicts with his aims.

I think of C’s family and the lack of comfort and soothing provided by the parents to the children, which seems to stem from the parents’ lack of confidence in their ability to provide it. The kids get what they want in the end, because the parents seem to feel unable to offer any tools for coping with loss or disappointment. These feelings cannot be tolerated: they must either be surrendered to or suppressed.

The result, it seems, is a fear that feelings must necessarily be overwhelming and are to be avoided at all costs. It sets up future relationships in which differences are very threatening: if you believe that not getting your way will lead to total overwhelm–either externalized and visible or internalized and hidden, then differences are like rocky seas, threatening to drown you at any moment.

Is this why attention must be kept on the narcissist at all times? Looking at someone else invites an awareness of the presence of an enemy. The threat may not be intended, but the narcissist’s ability to cope is so fragile that liking blue instead of red may be too much to manage.

One of the abilities babies develop fairly quickly (I think–I’m no expert on this) is the ability to shift attention away from unpleasant stimuli. There are these experiments of children resisting temptation–they are given a marshmallow and promised more marshmallows if they don’t eat it–and the strategies the children use include not looking at the marshmallow and moving the marshmallow further away from themselves or moving away from the marshmallow. Some of them distract themselves singing or playing games, but the main strategy in young children for not eating the marshmallow  is to keep the attention off the marshmallow.

Faced with a child’s behaviour that the parent does not like, the parent may remove their attention from the child in order to manage their own feelings of anger or shame if they have no other resources to cope. This may be especially true if the child’s behaviours are not easily identifiable as “wrong,” and so aren’t something the parent feels empowered to act on in normal disciplinary ways.

What the child feels is the painful sense of not existing within the parent’s mind, because the parent’s attention has been deliberately withdrawn in order to maintain self-regulation. The impulse is to attract the parent’s attention again in order to relieve this pain, but the parent is angry. The more the child has the parent’s attention, the more the parent loses control of their angry impulses. It’s not a great leap for the child to feel that their bids to regain the parent’s attention are causing the anger.

This withdrawal of attention can be done punitively: I know losing attention is painful and so I am going to punish you for whatever I don’t like by withdrawing my attention without telling you what I don’t like, because actually I am not supposed to dislike it, so the punishment must be indirect: I can’t send you to the naughty chair or ground you for something that isn’t really wrong. Or maybe the parent never learned what rights adults have in society or what children are supposed to be allowed to do, and so they don’t feel confident about asserting their own rights: they don’t know when to set limits and when to let it go, so they aren’t overt or clear about what is allowed and what isn’t. I know this is the case with my mother: she had no more clarity over what to do when we were disrespectful to her than when we merely expressed a different preference.

I think it creates an anxiety: am I being punished? Did I do something wrong? The child grows up wanting constant contact in order to avoid feelings of shame associated with removal of attention and perhaps also having difficulty accepting boundaries related to separation.

I was thinking the end result of this for the child is to feel this removal of attention is always a punishment, even if it only sometimes is, and so all losses reflect back on the malevolence or shamefulness of the child. The child both frantically seeks the return of attention and forgiveness and is afraid of it (because what if the parent is still not regulated?)

Yesterday was a holiday, and in the evening beforehand I got excited about this, imagining how I might spend my free time. Not long after, VP Ma’am called me up, inviting me for lunch and then also breakfast. I didn’t want to go. The thing is these are Country X holidays. I don’t sit at home feeling neglected. The Lunar New Year has no sentimental meaning for me. I think I finally have some free time. I have no social obligations. I have no school work. I can just have fun. But Country Xers generally never imagine this: they don’t imagine I have things I want to do, nor do they imagine I enjoy my solitude.

So it’s a not completely unusual for VP Ma’am to imagine that my aloneness might be anything other than unpleasant. I felt an immediate sense of dread that I ought to unpack. It’s hard to avoid the sense that people exist solely to spoil my happiness or that my pleasure in life is constantly under attack from people who willfully want to destroy it. I am trying to be aware of my immediate assumption that all activities I don’t initiate are going to be unfun. I know that some measure of that is a distortion, based on my mother’s sense of threat over my developing autonomy: the only way for her to get her needs met by me was if I needed her.

I also thought I don’t know how to refuse VP Ma’am’s invitation without being rude. There is no way to get someone to understand that I’d rather play with pictures and wash my windows than talk to you, and this is not actually a reflection on you. Anyway, I told her I wouldn’t come for breakfast, because I had some “work” (the phrase here), but that I would come for lunch. I thought her granddaughter is there, whom I taught years ago, and I actually do like her. Of course, she didn’t come and talk with us much, but eventually she did. Her son was also there, and I really dislike him. The more I talk with him, the less I like him. He believes that money–more specifically, material possessions–will buy him happiness and finds it nearly impossible to imagine others might not agree with him.

Actually, he probably does find objects provide him with joy, because what he’s really seeking is dominance: in a society just opening up to the glittering world of consumerism, having an object someone else doesn’t have is pretty great. He can’t really understand in a more developed society having “things” doesn’t pack the same punch, because everyone else has things too.

VP Ma’am talked without allowing for much intrusion of my own thoughts. It’s sometimes clear that she just doesn’t take in what I say. I didn’t enjoy my visit, and the hard thing about this is that I find it hard to recover.

Anyway, it was fine, but not pleasant. But I can’t shake the despair.

 

Free Day

The teachers have gone back to school, but our principal is not that demanding and has let us go home at lunchtime. The students will come back on Thursday.

The beginning of school feels very chaotic to foreigners, and I am used to it, but it’s still odd. Instead of greeting the students on the first day feeling totally in control because the classroom is beautifully decorated, and I have a roll sheet and a seating plan and classroom rules tacked on the wall and getting straight down to business, because after all we are all there so that students learn, we start school sort of feeling our way around in what almost appears to be the dark.

You find out who is in your class by asking them. I mean, there is a “class teacher” who has a list, but she gets this by asking the students. Then the students clean the classroom and arrange the desks. They may then get their textbooks, or possibly this won’t happen until Day 2. We now have a week at the start of school when we try to cram coping skills and culture down their throats in groups of 2 or 3 grades at a time, but it’s still more or less like this.

It flies in the face of all of my Western excitement at starting something new, and I think it has to do with deep differences in our respective experiences of new things. Country Xers will stand around acting aimlessly at the beginning of every activity, no matter what it is.

It’s a major issue in my classroom management, because I have to reduce the number of activities in order to avoid the lost time at the transition point. In other contexts, my students have done this if I let them, but it’s actual laziness: I have taught a lot of students who have not had good experiences in math, they don’t like math, and they don’t expect that they will be successful at whatever is up next.

This is not laziness. It’s anxiety about starting anything. I think. The anxiety makes it difficult to make decisions: first, we agree on teaching assignments and then the next day someone points out that it won’t work, and we do it again. We adopt a calendar, and throughout the year, authorities from on high issue proclamations which change our actual teaching lives. I plan as though somewhere in the middle, two weeks of school will simply get lost, because they will.

Anyway, the excitement about a new school year is still there for me and, I suspect as is the case for other teachers, my new year actually starts now and not on January 1st. But it is, in fact, the Lunar New Year.

So I have begun to decorate my house. This is part of the plan to work on enjoying being myself as well as recognizing the qualities I like about myself. I have some pictures from old calendars I brought with me last year and I bought some construction paper kind of stuff to give it a border and I’ve just kind of rearranged things so that they look nicer and maybe the result will be a bit more pleasing to the eye.

Last night, I went around rearranging nails–they sell nails in the shop by kilogram, and I want about five–because I started to realize it’s not that difficult to get them out and pound them in somewhere else.

As I anticipate finishing up this project today–I started last night–I ponder the idea that I have done this before, many years before. After my ex moved out, I painted the walls of my apartment colours I liked, I framed pictures, I arranged things exactly how I wanted them. It didn’t fix things then and it won’t now. Not that I didn’t like my apartment–I did. But I remained myself, with all of my vulnerabilities and struggles, and I fairly quickly became triggered beyond what I could very easily cope with.

I’m hoping the way I go about doing things will create change for me, and not actually what I am doing. Putting up pretty pictures may add some pleasure to my life, but what of cultivating an awareness of how it feels to be doing that? I think that may actually help.

Surviving Narcissistic Parents

I have a clearer picture of how my issues developed–nearly all of them, in fact.

I will tell you it took a lot of working at emotional regulation so that when I reflected on these things, there was an internal structure of feelings that allowed me to feel if things “fit” or not. Without more regulatory capacity (and without significant chunks of fear over having feelings chipped away at), it was like trying on hats.

One of the bloggers I read mentioned that the core issue in complex trauma is not fear. Well, I don’t completely agree with that, but she’s onto something. She says the issue is shame. I think you become afraid of shame, but it makes shame the core difficulty.

With narcissistic parents, exposure is never done for the purpose of closeness. It’s always to establish the dominance or the superiority of the parent over everyone else, because narcissists imagine this very malignant world in which everyone wants to hurt them. Everyone seems to hurt them, because their ideas of how the world is supposed to work has become so distorted. Narcissists never notice your vulnerabilities because they want to help you. They may help you, but they help you in order to spend time in this state of superiority. It’s not about participating in shared humanity, and when it is, it’s this immersion in how terrible we both are. I can’t tell you precisely how different this is from what’s normal, but I am sure it must be.

Most people feel this kind of tickle about revealing themselves: oohhh, this could result in connection. Children of narcissists don’t feel that. They know this isn’t about connection: it’s about humiliating the child.

So you sit in a therapist’s chair and reveal yourself and while the attention may feel good, you begin to get into very tender territory and you feel ashamed, because the past has taught you what’s coming and while your therapist may not be intending to humiliate you, it’s not really possible to see inside their heads. You don’t know what their intentions really are. And I will tell you, I’ve sat in that chair and had a therapist feel excited about the drama playing out in my life. (I did not continue to see that one.) But it’s possible, because you are so primed to expect humiliation, to feel humiliated regardless of what the therapist actually says or does or intends.

The thing is we need connection, so we need to reveal ourselves, and there is eventually this anger: why do I keep f*ing doing this? So these emotions become all tangled together: fear, shame, anger. You learn to hate the person who makes you want to be seen, because they seem to do all of this to you. You reveal yourself, and you feel all of these intense negative emotions without knowing why.

The thing is this can happen even when you are alone. If that brain system is switched on which sees you, then the humiliation happens any time you experience yourself as being uniquely you–so when you reveal to yourself your authentic likes and dislikes, your needs, your tastes.

The effect overall is to rob you of the opportunity to experience being yourself in a joyful way: you are robbed of healthy narcissism. Whether or not you can objectively sit down and describe your positive qualities and own them as being yours, there is no joy in possession of yourself, because this equation of exposure with shame destroys it.

It creates a starvation. You can’t enjoy being yourself with yourself, and I think the end result can be a need for attention from others. The internalized experience of yourself is terrible: someone else can inject some pleasure into being you, but you kind of have to borrow them. You either need their gaze all the time–to displace the unpleasantness of your own experience of yourself–or you need to create something like a new self with them. In other words, you can become a selfish and demanding attention-hog, or you can become enmeshed with someone who has a complementary need for attention such that they don’t mind sacrificing their individuality to form a joint self with you.

It’s quite awful.

There’s nothing simpler than saying, “You need to feel good about yourself,” but it’s not so simple to do. It is easy to create a shell of positivity over your true feelings so that you don’t need to engage with the negative emotions. It’s easier to keep a stiff upper lip and begin to deny all of the painful feelings so that feeling bad stops being yet something else to feel bad about than it is to begin to untangle where it all started: which, in my case, is this parent who callously demanded all attention on herself (for precisely the same reasons I outlined above).

Harming me wasn’t really about me: it was about her. It was about revenge or punishment or jealousy. It was about bringing the attention back onto her.