A narcissistic lens

I have been thinking about narcissism, although not really directly. I have just been thinking about how we interact with each other. People interacting with each other form a system. I imagine how you feel and think and I respond to that. You imagine how I feel and think and you respond to that. We respond to our imaginations of one another. This is felt. I imagine your feelings by briefly reconstructing them in my own body. I look at you feeling successful, for example, and I feel a little bit of your joy at success within myself. That’s empathy. Part of it, anyway.

I think narcissists don’t do this. There are many much more complex ways of explaining why narcissists behave the way they do, but this seems simpler to me. They feel their own feelings. They do not feel these little copies of other people’s. So if someone does well, they just feel inferior. They don’t feel someone else’s joy in success.

It means they respond essentially only to whatever consequences there are to themselves. If there are no consequences, they aren’t motivated to restrain their behaviour in the same way someone else might, because they don’t feel sad at someone else’s sadness. Not even briefly.

It leads to a lack of effort at learning how to get along and how to compromise. They restrain their impulses to avoid consequences to themselves, but that’s it.

One thing I have learned throughout the process of integration is basically the impulse to punish is tied to anger. When someone hurts us, we feel like punishing that person for it. The narcissist restrains this impulse when it seems there will be consequences to themselves.

Otherwise, they will hurt the other person however it seems easiest to do so. I feel like hurting myself when i am reminded of traumatic experiences.

I feel that way because I was imagining the perpetrator’s mental state. And that person wanted to hurt me. My impulse is a piece of that memory.

I was feeling particularly horrible today after school. I didn’t know why. I could point to a lot of ways I have fucked up in my life both recently and in the more distant future. I couldn’t really say it was about that. That’s been my attitude through healing. Okay, it seems to be this, but it might not be. It might be something else. Just an openmindedness to ideas.

I suddenly started to connect that up (a friend sad with me, virtually, while I did that–thanks). I did something or said something or appeared in some way that wasn’t exactly the way my parents wanted, and they responded to, “I don’t like that,” by punishing me. But also, there was no opposing feeling inside them caused by imagining my emotions. They might imagine themselves in my place, but not my feelings. So they didn’t look at me and think, “Okay, I don’t like bubble gum ice cream and when I imagine eating it, I get a kind of grossed-out feeling, but she sure is happy and her happiness makes me happy.” They just verbally and emotionally assaulted me for eating ice cream they didn’t like.

I don’t know how that huge gap in imagining others happened, but it somehow did.

The thing is my parents weren’t like me in so many ways, so nearly everything I did was not to their taste. I was met with disdain, contempt, and disgust nearly all the time for nearly everything.

It created in me a sense of being bad, defective, and wrong that was pervasive. I don’t really think they thought of me at all: I mean, if you asked them, “Do you think Ash is bad, defective and wrong?” I am not sure they would say yes. I have no idea what they would actually say. But their behaviour did communicate that viewpoint.

And i am not stupid and also not lacking the ability to empathize. I did imagine their feelings within me. I felt disgust, contempt and disdain for myself. Basically, because i am not broken. My mind works the way it is supposed to.

The hard part about this (aside from the obvious shittyness of it all) is that without other people to discuss this with and piece this together, it made no sense at all. Just these little fragments of crappy feelings–someone described having parts as being like bubbles of feelings. Yeah, like that. Because I didn’t know how they fit together or how to understand them.

The other thing about it is that my sense of how I appear to others is drawn largely from my parents. So I look at myself, and that kind of “observing ego” acts like a narcissist. It’s not exactly what it wants–I fell short at something, I don’t like something I did, I failed in some major or minor way–and I expect punishment to follow. I did have an attachment to them. I did learn to construct how they saw the world and can imagine their view even in their absence. And it’s totally miserable. I can only look at myself with the same disgust, contempt and disdain they felt for me.

I don’t think I can get rid of that necessarily. But I think I can step away from it. Seeing myself as defective, wrong and bad is one view. Other views are possible. A negative view of myself may not be the most important view or the one I want to linger on the longest.

There is a grief involved in this. It’s how my parents saw me. They will probably always see me like that. They aren’t ever going to like me. To put it another way, I will never have parents who like me or are proud of me or feel joy at my joy. I will never have parents who celebrate my successes or feel wonder at my uniqueness.

And that’s just how it is. The world is round, gravity makes things fall, and my parents don’t like me for the person I am.

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A mess

My mind is a little bit of a mess. Anyone surprised? Not particularly? Okay. Yeah, me neither.

My mind is in one of those places where connections seem to almost be made. But not quite. Synapses are being forged, perhaps, but not quite.

It’s been a really hard week. I do think there are anniversaries all through the spring that are hard, and it’s hard to grieve the losses these anniversaries remind me of when I am wired to feel afraid to have feelings or to remember. Difficulties get intertwined.

It’s very hard to go to bed at night and to wake up in the mornings. These seem to be points of very painful triggering. I am having trouble sleeping also, but at the same time it seems like things get done at these times–in my mind, I mean. The sleeplessness and the upset seems at least somewhat productive.

One idea I have had very loudly and clearly has been how very frightened I felt as a child. It’s really only as I feel that fear in my body and start to be able to connect it to myself that I really realize the intensity and the realness of it. It’s hard for me to think as an adult about what it is like to be a child who literally cannot trust or rely on anyone, but when I actually feel what it was like to be that child, I get it profoundly.

I am starting to have some empathy for myself, meaning I can construct mentally my own child’s mind at times in a way I haven’t been able to in the past. I have thought of myself as a child in a way that’s almost like an object, and that’s mainly goal-oriented and functional, rather than felt or real.

I have in the past been told and probably myself tried to think in this way: “You were trying your best to survive.” And that seems almost like someone sitting at a desk, mapping out survival strategies to see which ones might work or be most effective. And that’s not at all what happened. I was in the grip of emotions and impulses of various kinds, many of them conflicting. If I didn’t reach out for help as a young child, it is because my mouth and my body felt literally paralyzed. There was no part of me mapping that out in a coherent way. It was felt, not thought out.

It has also been on my mind how much one’s own experiences must–there is no other choice–form the basis of one’s reality. So if I personally have witnessed murder, for example, then that is a part of my personal reality. And it’s not part of someone else’s felt reality who hasn’t experienced murder up close, even if they know intellectually it happens. It is not real for them in their decision-making process in the way it is and was for me.

In the past, I think I have assumed my own reality is faulty. It’s based on my experiences, and my experiences are beyond the pale. It’s like I thought I need to base my decisions on someone else’s life, which is more typical, because that’s going to be more likely to fit reality now.

Yet you can’t. Our brains don’t work that way. I really do need to trip through murder as a possibility on my way to other thoughts, and I absolutely have to be able to regulate whatever emotions come up for me as that happens.

I have also been thinking that typically we use others to help us regulate ourselves. That impulse to make other people see our perspectives so that they can either help us understand it or take some action about it, is normal and healthy. It’s called co-regulation and pretty much everyone I see around me does it.

My perspective is incomprehensible for most people a fair amount of the time. They have no understanding of why I would be feeling or thinking the way that I do in many moments. It’s pretty hard for me to grasp and I live with it every day. I cannot use co-regulation as a strategy very often, because what happens when I try to do that is my perspective is invalidated–either I am interacting with someone who can’t see why I would be feeling that, or I am interacting with someone who might feel the same way under the same circumstances but doesn’t understand any better than I do why it feels that way. I really need to go through a lot alone.

But when I can regulate myself, it starts to be able to connect better to other people. It’s sort of horrible, because I need more support and I get less of it.

That’s just how it is.

I have a third thought, which is about probability. Our automatic mental processes understand probability. If something–like rejection, for example–has happened frequently in the past, your unconscious mental processes will know that, and your emotions will reflect that. My conscious mental processes can modulate that, but I don’t think they can replace it. I am going to go into situations where a certain outcome happened frequently in the past, and my emotions are going to reflect that, even if it’s not likely now. And I have to deal with that. I have to cope with whatever feeling that brings up for me while doing whatever I cognitively understand I need to do.

Another thought has been about how a feeling of connection is achieved. It’s achieved through being understood and responded to as well as being able to understand and respond to someone else in an automatic way. If a lot of stuff inside me is incomprehensible, and if my looney-toons parents make it so that I can’t really figure out what other people are thinking and feeling, that sense of connection will be hard for me to achieve. It will be even harder if I have been more or less programmed to feel ashamed of revealing myself to others–hard for them to respond to me if I can’t reveal anything authentic about myself. Harder still if what I do end up revealing doesn’t make any sense.

So the feeling of starving for connection–that intense longing I sometimes feel–I don’t think it’s entirely about the past. I am starving for connection now, and I am going to get connection only when I can manage my own feelings enough that what I do end up revealing to other people is comprehensible to them.

Last thought: When I do trust someone, as I am starting to, that is going to feel very risky for me. Whenever you begin to trust that you could connect to others, after a life-time of not being able to because you just couldn’t work out how, it’s the first one and the only one. What I mean is, you have to start somewhere, and that first try doesn’t feeling like someone losing one of many. It’s like losing all you’ve got. And when you know what it is to lose the only source of connection and comfort you have–because that has happened to me twice at least–it’s pretty frightening. That loss is overwhelming to risk, just the sheer amount of pain involved. It’s hard to even imagine thinking about going through that again.

So that’s where I am now. There is this nexus between the past and the present, where I am identifying emotions and perceptions I have had that recur in the present and I am just seeing that is the same thing. It’s the same emotion or experience, and this is why I might be having it again. I might be reminded of it because some tangential element is the same, and I just need to process that memory so that things make sense, or it might be because human beings just have only a finite emotional experience and sadness is sadness, fear is fear, and anger is anger. Those emotions tell me about my present too.

In other words, sometimes it’s something like I was shopping for fabric yesterday and I suddenly felt really sad and suddenly I realized the guy behind me seemed to be speaking Farsi on the phone. I don’t entirely know why that connection is there in my brain, but it is. It’s tangential, but I do feel a sense of longing when I hear it. Or it might be that as I continued to shop, I felt that clenching in my heart, that is just terrible sadness and I know that’s about wanting connection. I was shopping for C. I wanted to buy fabric she would like and as it got closer to either finding a fabric that she would like or striking out on the whole thing, I was feeling what it might be like not to be able achieve a sense of connection with someone. That’s not tangential. It’s the same feeling, because it’s the same thing. She’s not my mom, but it’s not just my mom I have failed to be able to understand or please and I don’t always know what C likes, and not being able to connect to her because I can’t imagine her tastes does make me sad.

And it makes me that sad because connection is the emotional life blood of human beings.

 

 

Connection

Well.

I had some thoughts today.

I was thinking (partly) about my family. How did this happen? Where did it start? My father’s mother had a biological illness. Who knows what her own upbringing was like, but she could have had the happiest, most nurturing child possible and still been a completely inadequate mother. But what about my mom? Her mom was (to me) an obvious narcissist. Why?

So I have been thinking that somewhere along the line, someone–a mother–was overburdened physically or emotionally and wasn’t able to adequately nurture her child. It might have been anything: war, famine, long hours at work, a sickness in the family, biologically-based mental illness, overwhelming loss. But the parent did not have enough resources to care for her child either physically or emotionally.

And what would have been missing then was the back-and-forth interaction that allows the child to learn how to accurately imagine herself and of others and then to respond to that mental image in a way that communicates understanding. That is what creates the feeling of being connected in human beings: you can imagine someone else’s mind and you are aware that they are imagining yours, and those imaginings are being communicated between the two of you.

So my grandmother did not learn to imagine the minds of others, and what happens when you struggle to imagine the minds of others, is that you lose that feeling of connection. What can happen in those cases–and frequently does–is that it can seem to the person struggling to imagine the minds of others is that the only way to restore the connection, which is vital to human life, is to force the other person to be someone you can better imagine.

Enter my mom.

So maybe she is hungry. My grandmother is trying to get the laundry done. My mother is crying because she is hungry. She is trying to communicate the urgent feeling she has that she needs to be fed, that something is wrong, and she needs attending to. And my low-empathy grandmother feels that the connection is lost. Can’t she see I am trying to finish up  the laundry right now?

No, my mother is two. She can’t. She just knows she feels like crying. She might not even know why she is crying. Just something is wrong.

My grandmother experiences that loss of connection as catastrophic, because she doesn’t have the skills to restore the connection between herself and her child. She has not been taught those skills. The only way to restore the connection that she knows about is to force her child to present an image of herself as though she does understand my grandmother’s desire to finish up the chores. In other words, get her to stop crying.

If she stops crying, it communicates, “I get it. You’ll finish this up and feed me. I understand.”

Of course, my mother understands no such thing. She understands I have to stop communicating my feelings and needs. My mother wants me to stop crying.

Enter shame. Shame is the emotion that tells us we have crossed a boundary. It isn’t bad. What might not be good is the boundary itself. In this case, it was a boundary not to communicate hunger at inconvenient times. There might be a problem with that, but there isn’t a problem with my mother’s perception of it. She got it. I am not supposed to cry right now, and it’s hard for me to keep to that boundary, so she felt ashamed.

I don’t know where I am going with this. It gets to me, it feels so resonant.

Part of the point for myself is to explain the loneliness: when you cannot imagine the minds of others, because your parents lacked the skills to teach you and because their minds were so confusing, it’s lonely. If they are trying to force you to stop communicating about your own mind and to present a face that allows them not to need to know that your minds have momentarily parted ways, then differences of opinion or perception are dangerous situations, because your parent uses force to restore the sense of connection.

 

A bit of insight

I have been pondering some things this week.

One of them is about the need for control among teenagers with attachment disorders. It came up in that context, but actually that is what everyone does who grew up not feeling safe: the way to be safe is to make oneself safe. If people around you have no interest in your safety and can be presumed to have goals that compromise your safety, then you will only be able to relax if you feel you have control over other people and over your surroundings. This might be especially true if you feel you don’t have control over your internal state. The only way to cope with your inner world, in that case, seems to be to control what your inner world is responding to within the outer world.

There are two parts to that. One of them is that my mom was, a lot of the time, responding to her inner world. She was, most likely, having flashbacks of a neglectful and abusive childhood, just as I am, and trying to manage or prevent those flashbacks by controlling the world outside her. By, for example, pushing me away so that she wasn’t overwhelmed by shame at her inadequacy as a parent, or rejecting my affection so that she could avoid paired experiences regarding being loveable when she was a child. Things like that.

I am not excusing her, but it makes a lot of her behaviour make sense. It makes her lack of empathy for me make sense. She wasn’t thinking about me. She was just thinking about how to get herself through the day in the absence of basically every emotional tool.

The other element of this is that someone like my mother—and probably I have done this, as has C—is that one starts to be able to experience connection only when you are in situations of power or have control, rather than being in relationships of reciprocity. But that isn’t usually going to remain comfortable for the other person. I think this is the real foundation of “codependent relationships.” It’s not about needing to rescue someone to distract from your own problems, nor is it about giving up your autonomy and becoming enmeshed. It’s about settling down in a relationship where there is a kind of illusion about having more power—maybe because the other person is not functioning well, or because there is a real difference in status (like myself and C). The rescuee feels, for the moment, nurtured while the rescuer feels safe enough to attach. Only later, as the relationship starts to develop, does the power struggle develop as both people end up needing to maintain a feeling of having control over the other in order to maintain the ability to feel safe enough to experience intimacy.

I was thinking about this recently because there was a news item, at around the same time as I needed to undergo training about child abuse reporting, about a female teacher who initiated a sexual relationship with a child about C’s age. I couldn’t imagine someone doing that, and yet it happens. I remember how C thought we were having a romantic relationship, and I just can’t fathom how a woman in a position of power over a teenager could forget that there is no way for an adult to have an intimate relationship with a teenager without their being an abuse of that power. There is no way not to betray that young person, not to create confusion within them, or to raise the question within about whether they actually have value or whether they are simply being used as an object.

I can’t imagine how that couldn’t kill an adult’s sexual desire.

So I was thinking about this need for power, and how the illusion of control over someone would cause anyone with an attachment problem to feel safe enough that they might be able to relax enough to form a relationship and to begin to attach.

I think that leads to the cycle of abuse as well: at some point, the person seeking control realizes no matter how much power he or she might have, there are still two full-fledged human beings involved and the other person lies outside their control. I have power over C, but I don’t have control. I learned that fairly quickly—that I needed to let go of any sense that I have control over her, and work at building trust with her instead. I also realized that I needed to work at being aware of my vulnerability with her: not splitting from it out of shame and allowing her to caretake my vulnerability, and not abandoning myself either, but realizing at every moment I was dealing with complete, separate human beings who have rights and feelings I need to be sensitive to and who have within their power the ability to reject me. And just cope with that. Be aware of how it feels within me to be vulnerable in that way—how ashamed and frightened it makes me feel—and also maintain an awareness that the people around me of whatever age are not objects for me to use.

Because that’s one coping strategy: I don’t want to be triggered by all of the feelings I have about vulnerability or the events these relate to, and so I am not going to acknowledge within me that I am vulnerable or that I am asking for help even a child has a right to refuse to give me, or to be uncomfortable giving (in which case, I need to set the boundary for that child on his or her behalf and not ask for the help they don’t feel comfortable in offering). That’s a strategy: just to pretend that the child has no feelings and must do what you tell to do without having any feeling of annoyance or inconvenience.

At a practical level, what this meant is that I needed to say thank you to the kids who brought pancakes and other items up to C. I needed to take note of whether they seemed perhaps annoyed about it and accept that maybe they could be annoyed. I needed to sometimes give that young person some item they might like too, so that they would see that I was grateful for their help and understood they had the right to refuse me. I needed to treat them like human beings with feelings.

The thing about grasping for control is really it allows you to avoid what happens inside you in reaction to feeling vulnerable. It isn’t so much that someone might hurt you, as that you might be reminded of times you were hurt.

The growth for me came from that. I had to be so vulnerable in order to build a relationship with C. I had to let everyone see my affection and warmth for her, because otherwise she would not be able to see it, and I knew she needed it. I had to be brave. I had to ask for help, and deal with how I felt at asking for help, because I knew I couldn’t treat the people who were helping me—mostly other young people—as objects.

Thinking about this is kind of rearranging things in my head, and I feel better. I feel better about myself. I always had my shit to deal with. There was never a time it wasn’t there. It’s good when someone comes into your life and makes you realize you have to do that.