Power

I was watching these videos by Dr. Abdul Saad, an Australian clinical psychologist. He describes the dynamic between a narcissist and what people have been calling an empath.

When I look at the description of an empath, it sounds like a person with a typical experience of empathy who has trouble regulating emotions, so this experience of emotional contagion is very upsetting and difficult to manage. When you have regulation problems, you can try to control everything about your life so that events don’t lead to difficulties, but you can’t control everyone around you and they have feelings too.

Anyway, when I listen to him talk about a narcissist and an empath, that’s what I assume he is talking about: a narcissist and someone with a more typical capacity for empathy who has difficulty managing emotions. I think these pairings can be common, because the narcissist actually doesn’t catch the empath’s dysregulated states. It creates a container. If someone with trouble regulating is around other people, the contagiousness of the dysregulation can be explosive.

That said, he talks about the empath’s unspoken agreement: that the empath will give in hopes of eventually having unarticulated needs seen and acknowledged. It’s a pattern that works with a narcissistic parent: your best hope of getting them to meetyour need for attention and interaction is to appeal to their grandiosity. It’s the only way to keep them engaged with you.

I don’t think I am like this. I think I learned to give only late in my life, because nothing I gave was ever right or good enough for my mother. I became afraid to give anything at all. Part of the experience–the healing–of giving to C is that I have to live with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about what I am giving long enough to choose something that might please her. I have to be brave over and over and deal with my shit.

But the narcissist does demand control, and if you have grown up with one, that’s what you learn: people want control. If you want people in your life, you are going to have to allow them control. I am familiar with that one.

The psychologist says the only way out of this is for the empath to stop giving, so that the contract isn’t entered into. I think regardless of what you actually do in relation to the narcissist, the only thing that helps is to become more aware of your own internal states so that your needs and desires eventually become apparent to you.

But the Boyfriend makes me think of something else, because he seems to be emotionally about three. He apologized without ever being able to say what he was apologizing for. He seemed to believe I had a lot of hurt feelings. It made no sense to me.

However, if I began to imagine that he had not progressed to a moral level where general principles are at work and it is instead the whim of a powerful person (I threatened him with the principal’s wrath if he didn’t behave), then what he wrote made sense. Just beg for mercy.  I have displeased you is reason enough.+

Well, then, the point is to gain power so that it is your whim which counts. To me, this explains the empath’s behaviour. If I want your affection, I can gain it by conforming to your whims. In a world like that, everyone will want to have their whims granted. It’s like a smile. Can’t go wrong.

I am going to break off here and say it’s incredibly hard to concentrate on writing this, because it is really about my dad and to some extent also about Yuri. My whole torso is tense, waiting for some kind of blow.

In that case, where right and wrong are determined by power, it becomes important to be in power. I remember the sense of competition with my ex–why did my attempts to clear the air and communicate always seem to lead for tit-for-tat exchanges? Because if I was wounded, she needed to be more wounded. She might publicly be proud of my accomplishments, but privately undermine them.

I remember reporting to a couples therapist that I was never allowed to speak in the car. My ex always wanted to listen to the radio, and she was angry at me for trying to discuss the events of the day on the way home. (We worked at the same school and earned various rewards for carpooling.) I was chided for using absolute terms, and yet I am precise in my language. I meant there is no give-and-take in this whatsoever and that is weird to me. I understand sometimes not wanting a conversation or even preferring it, but I don’t understand not relenting ever, just out of a sense of fairness or decency.

That pattern was about power. I had no conscious idea of why having power was important, but if I think of my homelife, oh, yes, then it makes sense. The person in power gets to have what they want. That is your moral sense when you are three. It is bad because I was punished.

If you believe that as a grownup and especially as someone who experienced abuse, then it means you privately live in fear that someone more powerful will come along and punish you viciously for all the things you did before they noticed you were not complying with their wishes.

I can imagine my dad as a frightened man-toddler, torturing me to prove how much power he has to someone who doesn’t even really exist.

It’s a pretty terrible image.

 

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System

My mind is a strange place.

I woke up from a nap again today–I just seem to be so tired lately. My sleep pattern sucks. Anyway, I slept away the afternoon somehow, after a long walk in blazing hit.

I just felt strange–like I couldn’t wake up or like I was hypnotized. Waking up is always hard for me, and this was more devastating than usual. I try not to fight this state unless I really have to do something, just try to work at it gradually instead of doing some kind of hard shift out of it. I think a gradual shift is regulation, but the hard shift is a form of dissociation. Just my idea.

Anyway, still in this state, a leaf-blower started up. As you remember, this is a pretty strong trigger for me. I was trying to breathe and stay with the feelings. I have started to note the time when it starts up. These things are pretty common around here, so that it can feel like there is always a leaf blower or some kind of machine going, a hedge trimmer or something, but in reality that’s not true. And they don’t really go on for long periods of time usually. If I can notice the time, I can hold out knowing that it ends.

I was doing that and I thought, you know, I can block it out. I don’t really need to go through this. So I put on headphones and turned on some music.

I was listening to the song, and wondered about the words. It is a very evocative song to me, but I don’t really understand the lyrics. But sometimes I think actually a part of me does understand and responds and does not inform the rest of me.

I looked them up, and there is one line like “it’s not time yet” and a line that repeats, “I’ll give you a sign.” Well, that struck, because there are little parts of me that seem to be waiting for Nata to come back. She’s dead, but that doesn’t connect and they are just waiting.

I looked at the video again, and I thought there is something about this that’s familiar. It’s a pretty sexualized video. One of the young women has teeth like Nata. It’s evocative.

It was really, really painful to look at it and to feel the sadness and the grief and longing that came with it.

And then I suddenly felt, “Oh, yes, I’ve got it. I know what’s familiar about it. This feeling of being a system with someone, as though we are both part of one another.” It’s a very free feeling, as though I can be myself. The sense of constriction is gone. I’m not walking on eggshells. I don’t have to hold my breath to maintain a sense of connection to this person.

That’s what it was like to be with Nata, connected. It’s not how it felt when I was younger, but it’s how I felt when I was older.

I felt a huge relief, like I can stop waiting around for her to come back. I found her. She’s dead, but in remembering her, I feel like I know where she is.

I’m not that surprised i am thinking about this. C’s escapade made me realize to see her, I have to remember what young love felt like. I have to remember romantic relationships, period, and that’s so overwhelmingly painful. I don’t know that I can do it. But I have to, or she will not get the mirroring she needs. I won’t be able to compare her experiences to my own and in that way see how ours overlap or how they differ. I will only know how I feel as an adult, viewing her experiences from the outside.

It gave me some other ideas, but it was an interesting little meander.

 

 

Letter

I wrote a long letter to C about abusive partners. I hope she will read it. Who knows. I can only offer what I know or what I think I know and allow her to decide. I mean, I could handle it differently, but I don’t think that would accomplish much that is value.

My mother was the rager in our family. The dynamic was different. I think now that my dad deliberately wound her up. I think he numbed his emotions so much he felt dead inside, and watching other people’s anguish was the only way he could feel alive. It wasn’t safe for him to reveal his anguish to anyone, but it was okay to sneer at other people’s. So he intentionally created anguish.

I suppose it had an effect on us. I don’t think I remember much about it. Just a feeling of constriction and of not being able to move. There were no clear boundaries, but the consequences of crossing a boundary were so great. It created a sense of tiptoeing–walking on eggshells, as people say. I wasn’t aware of walking on eggs shells–just the sense of quiet.

I didn’t write to C about my mom, but I wrote about the constriction that happens, the feeling of boredom and despair because you can’t do anything. Very little feels safe to do. It sucks the joy out of your life, and also makes you dependent on the person who rages. Joy becomes something that can happen only at their discretion, and you forget that joy is even possible without them.

I explained the reasons this happens to some extent, that the person learns rage is an effective strategy to get the sense of goodness inside that is lacking and ought to be part of the person’s sense of self and isn’t.

I didn’t write about jealousy or the feeling that goodness is actually not even possible and so everything that seems good and joyful needs to be destroyed. That seemed too hard to grasp, too extreme, and too hard to apply to a human being in front of you who seems to care.

I do think both of my parents felt this way, and this is a part of so much that I struggle with. I reflect some days that the moments when it seems I am likeable, I am lively and people enjoy being with don’t actually feel like me. I feel like me when I am not acting like this, but I don’t think my likeableness is an act. I think I am numbing, because the fear is so great. And that’s my parents’ residue, causing me to feel it will be devastatingly dangerous to do anything that leads to joy and a feeling of aliveness. So the numbing makes it feel far away, and as though it’s not real. But that is me.

In the letter, I wrote to C, I spent a lot of time explaining how the child with a good enough parent (I didn’t say it quite like that) develops a sense that he is good, because the feeling of goodness that comes from being understood and responded to by his parent happens so much that it feels like it is him.

In contrast, the child with a parent who cannot understand his needs or meet them, experiences that feeling of goodness that comes with attunement as an event that happens to him, as though he can be made good, but his natural state is not good.
The lack of consistent parenting affects the way he experiences himself, not just his conscious beliefs about himself, but his felt experience of himself. It creates a baseline state of badness–anxiety, fear, boredom, despair and longing feel like the normal state of things, with goodness coming along as an occasional sparkle which can come and go without warning.

I did not say anything about narcissism or how the parent sometimes cannot understand and respond to the child because she is so occupied with her own feelings she doesn’t really notice the child’s needs a great deal of the time. That seemed a topic for another day.

But I do think that plays a part in later unhealthy relationships. The person who isn’t a narcissist just sort of waits around for the planets to align in order to be attended to, because that is how her needs were met in the past. The narcissistic parent suddenly had a wish or desire that coincided with her child’s needs, and so the child’s needs were met.

I did talk about how that sparkle of goodness seems like something other people can confer on you, rather than something that is a part of you and can be consistently returned to, and that creates less resilience to stress. The technical way of talking about this is to call it self-esteem, but I don’t use words like that with C as much as possible. I try to use ordinary language with her. There is something about psychological terms which can feel very abstract. Everyone talks about self-esteem, but what is it? A feeling of joy that is a part of you seems more tangible. That said, without this feeling that goodness is a part of you, stressful times becomes very difficult to manage, because they seem interminable. A child with low self esteem does not know when he will ever feel good again. It’s unpredictable and also something he feels he has no control over.

Consequently, goodness is located outside the self, it’s unpredictable, and life is terrible and unmanageable without it. So the child growing up like this can be very desperate to attain it. If you become the purveyor of goodness to that young person growing up or to that adult as a partner or a spouse, then it’s pretty important that you be caught and kept. At the same time, this person never feels secure, never feels safe or able to relax. There is a rage about the unpredictability of the goodness that is hard to contain, and when it is finally unleashed feels very frightening, so people learn to be frightened of his rages and careful to give him what he wants.

None of this is probably exactly news to you, but it made me think of the times I feel grief when I am reminded of my own losses, and sometimes these are times of joy for C. I don’t want that to infect how she feels about her joyful experiences. I feel sad about the joys I missed out on as a child, and even the losses I still experience now, but I don’t want her to come to believe that her joys are the cause of my sadness. They sometimes spark my sadness, but they didn’t cause it.

My experience of having joy be a fleeting experience and one that I was perpetually uncertain of caused it, and she did not do that to me. My parents did.

What I am getting at, really, is I need to keep working at resolving my feelings of grief, because they bleed into my life. Grief holds me back in many areas of my life, because I feel I can’t do those things or I will be overwhelmed by grief. It can’t be vomited out or cathected, although Freud claimed this. It becomes resolved as you form comprehensible narratives of your life that allow you to understand and communicate what happened to you. I think there will always be times when I feel grief, but it will lessen.

The thing about parents who are unable to love you is that you cannot accept this or come to terms with it. You have to keep trying, because you need them. I am an adult, and I do need them, but not so much I can’t begin to stop trying to make them do something which they cannot do. I can accept the things that are not attainable in my life and not feel that life itself is hopeless and not worth pursuing.

There was a point last night when I though to really have a full and completely fulfilling life, I need to grieve for Nata and accept that she is also not here. And it just felt so devastating, like I cannot even touch that grief. I don’t know how I will ever be able to accept that she is dead or to make sense of it.

Slowly, I guess.

Hitting home

I woke up from a nap–these days I seem to be overwhelmed merely by getting through the day, let alone actually accomplishing anything.

Anyway, I woke up feeling terrible. Actually, I fell asleep feeling terrible and hoped sleep might solve, since I felt tired anyway. I made some tea, swept a bit, sat with shame for a while.

It is weird how this happens. I try very hard to be with something, various random things drift through my head that don’t quite make sense, and I mainly work at breathing and suddenly an idea hits me. There is no real connection between the random thoughts and the idea that hits me and brings with it a feeling of clarity and generally lower levels of awfulness.

I thought Boyfriend reminds me of my dad. The superficial charm and the rage, the abrupt switch into childishness.

The thing is that my dad is for sure and certain a psychopath, and you don’t imagine a psychopath having an inner life of any kind. I remember other states, when he seemed like a desert to me–no feelings at all. But this boy makes me remember that he wasn’t like that all the time.

My dad had very real feelings and inner life of his own, and a lot of that inner life was organized around destruction. An idea of himself of so bad, that he could not have anything good, and so his life was organized around destroying what was good or at least represented good to him.

He felt the envy and rage I am talking about, and when I think of him with this in mind, I remember what that incomprehensible envy and rage felt like.

I know survivors of childhood abuse are victimized, because it is too painful to recognize the indications that something is wrong. It seems like something you kind of remember and oh fuck I cannot go down that rabbithole of pain. You never make sense of the present, and you don’t respond to it effectively.

I don’t know what to do about Boyfriend, but I know I have to come to grips with my father. He was my father and he brought me up. I am not a psychopath, but the memory of being alongside that mind will never go away.

I thought this brief snippet was on target. Diane Langberg speaks from a Christian perspective that I don’t always understand and I kind of have to skip over it, because it doesn’t make any real sense to me, but I think she overall has some very helpful things to say.

I feel very sad and mournful today.

I chatted for a long time with C and she came out and said things more than Ya than usual. She was quite angry during a lot of it, and sometimes said things deliberately to wound me.

It was helpful to think this is what she knows. It’s the only way she knows how to communicate anger, because that is what she learned at home about how you communicate anger. No one has taught her about I-statements or non-violent communication in any form. She knows coercion, and her anger right now is expressing to me her awareness that she feels she has been violated in some way and needs to set a boundary, and she has no idea how to understand her feelings of violation or how to effectively set a boundary.

There was one time I just stated what was happening: that was said to hurt me. It does hurt. She apologized and we moved on.

Towards the end of the chat, she very aggressively pushed me away. We were talking about her family situation, because she asked why I had adopted her and kept her in Y-town and not her siblings. So I told her the things I knew about her situation at the time and what motivated me then. She said, “I know better than you. Now leave me.”

I heard this as, “This does not feel safe and I need to get this person away from me.”

And I thought about the clip above, how much it hurts to be alone with the trauma inside you and how desperate you feel to be helped with the pain of it, and at the same time how very frightening it is to even approach the edges of that, and I also thought about Diane Langberg’s advice that work with people with complex trauma needs to be the opposite of the trauma. The trauma victim was alone, was not seen or understood as themselves and was helpless in the situation. And I acknowledged these things are painful to talk about and told her she is not bad and that I love her. She said, “I know. Now don’t chat with me.”

I said we could stop talking about things when they are too difficult, and we could change the topic or not chat at all. She did not say anything after that, and she kept reading. In my mind, she is really free not to click on the chat. Maybe I am assuming too much, but it seemed to me that she might be angry at feeling overwhelmed rather than really wanting me to leave.

I talked to her a little about strategies for self-soothing, without naming them that way. I asked if she was listening to music and encouraged her to listen to music she liked. I asked how the blankets felt and whether the house felt peaceful. I told her she was safe in her grandmother’s house and all was well.

There was this moment in my class last year with Wild Boy when I had set a boundary about throwing things in the classroom and he really was feeling the urge to do it. I could see it in his body language. He said suddenly, “I feel like you are in my head controlling me and I don’t like it.” So my opinion of throwing things was something he felt. He felt an urge to comply with my wishes, and that felt to him like having me in his head.

I think when we are abused by our parents, that person in our head whose opinion we always feel at least somewhat aware of seeks to destroy and we can try to silence the thoughts that go along with that and ignore the feelings it brings up for us, but that malignant attachment figure is there in our minds and we need to contend with it.

There needs to be a benign figure in our head, someone who seems to be watching us–the other–who instead encourages regulation, and that means seeing us, seeing how we feel and encourages us to be responsive to that. This is a person who needs to not ever feel that she has gone away. She cannot abandon us for bad behaviour, because then what that signals is it’s okay or even desirable to spiral into dysregulation.

I felt this very acutely the last few nights, having these difficult chats with C over her escapade with her boyfriend and also with her boyfriend who seems to be operating at the level of a tired 3-year-old.

My brain has to keep telling me, “Okay, this is the limit. Things got out of hand just now and it’s time to reel the upset in.” I need someone who sees the boundaries of what I can take emotionally–not so much outside, as inside–and is a cheerleader for staying grounded and calm during difficult times. And I need that person to never say, “You are worthless and hopeless. Torture yourself with distortions and out-of-control emotions, and for an added bonus, threaten yourself with abandonment by hacking away at the foundations of your relationships.”

This is the Parent Voice, right? Everyone needs one. So that was my thinking. I am just bumbling along, hoping I am not doing more harm than good

The chats were intense, because the subject matter was, and C also spoke up more than she often does–I content myself with a lot of  Ohs and Yas. I realized during parts of our chats that this was very pleasurable. It was very pleasurable to hear her opinion and it felt good for it to seem like she might be interested in mine. I found myself at various points wanting to ask permission to speak. I thought at those points that there are times when I need to stop and ask if the conversation is okay with her, but I need to disentangle that with my wish to be able to speak with an assurance that she will like what I am saying. I can’t save myself from the discomfort of having to sit with uncertainty around her responses by asking for assurance she will want to hear what I have to say. That deprives her of choices. It says she is not free to respond authentically to me. She has to either like what I am saying or be silent, and that is not fair.

Fully half of my problems are with regulation and the way I have needed or wanted the world to help me with regulation because I did not have enough skills on my own. Only half is about memory. For certain, my parents’ unpredictability gave me more reasons to fear how people might react to me, but it’s also that I want other people to help me avoid the discomfort of uncertainty–for example.

Anyway, I feel mournful now, and maybe it’s just because the pleasure of that conversation is over, as difficult as it was. The thing is I am realizing being able to communicate is the real pleasure I was deprived of. That is the greatest pain for me: not being able to comprehend other people, their motives or their states–especially their motives–and being able to communicate about mine.

I don’t think when I was in a long-term relationship, I ever realized this. There is a need to be heard and understand and also to be able to hear and understand. It is not just that you have needs to have someone do something in particular. It is not necessarily that you need nurturing, for example, but you need to have someone understand you need nurturing and then have a comprehensible response to that. Silence or disorder leaves you starving. When someone meets your need, you feel they must have understood it, but they can understand you need nurturing and be busy, be anything and there are ways to communicate that your need can be seen and you can be seen.

On another note, I was hit by really severe shame after the chat tapered off and I told her to sleep well and it seemed then that she had gone to sleep. And I just wondered to myself is this because I am experiencing the loss of the connection as a response to exposing myself, or is this because I am now alone and free to reflect on having exposed myself? I suspect mainly the latter. It has been on my mind that shame or guilt is most likely to result from signs of my existence, these lingering indications that my existence could not be destroyed by my parents’ malevolence, and these feelings will get better not if I respond to them as my parents responded to my feelings, which was to silence them, but instead to try to calm them. Just dial them down.

 

 

 

Dirty

This is hard to write about.

The statement that envy is the core emotion of narcissism came back to me in a different way, that the narcissist seeks to destroy every good and beautiful thing save those things which serve him. It hooked into some other thoughts.

I had a nap–3 hours sleep last night, my own fault–and woke up again. Realizing that I felt terrible, and went and got some lunch. I was eating and felt overcome with shame. I started to tell myself slow down, be curious. Is this because of something done to me or something I am doing?  Where is this coming from.

After a while, I began to think about the girls and really also myself, how what motivated my dad was this desire to destroy their innocence. It is not just that he could. It was deliberate and intentional. What he felt inside himself was terror, perversion and hopelessness and he did what he could to make others feel that too. It wasn’t just that this rubbed on on others, he could not abide goodness to remain.

He hated their goodness so much, he literally cut it into pieces. It’s hard to face that malevolence. It’s one thing when I have frightening, confusing things in my head that I can’t quite understand. It’s another thing when I do understand them, when they all make sense, because I understand my dad.

The other piece of this, I think, and this will take a while to sort through is that this malevolence is impossible to actually live with. There is no way you can live with the terror this causes, and so there are fantasies you retreat into.

I know some of the stuff in my head that otherwise confuses me is that. They might be fantasies my dad spun to make me more compliant, but they might be my invention–because how else do you live with someone who physically, literally wants to destroy you except to pretend that this is not the case?

I just feel so sad.

 

Everyone has an angle

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Last night was terrible.

Until 2 am, I tried to talk to C about having gone to meet her boyfriend. I know for us this is not necessarily a big deal, and Country Xers have moved beyond stoning girls for this, but it’s not good.

Her parents never came to Y-town to see her. I know boys are this desperate thing she does to get some kind of warmth and affection. I made zero headway, and mostly she was angry and defensive.

She was telling me that it was essentially my fault, and I realized this is how she knows how to talk. It’s what she grew up with and what she learned at home, and literally this is all she knows. She feels angry. This is what she knows to do with anger.

I don’t know why that had never hit home for me before–maybe because the dynamic in my household growing up was just so confusing. I had never been able to see how it actually worked, because it was just so dysregulated–mostly my mom was dysregulated. All I saw were very frightening behaviours, a mind at the nether edge of reality. Just like I couldn’t see my mother’s intention to wound me, I didn’t realize you learn to establish boundaries by wounding when you hear that.

And probably the everyday snarkiness I must have heard, I don’t remember. I just remember the explosions.The ones that spiraled out of control into breaking all the dishes in the house, or a suicide attempt.

Anyway, it never connected that I have learned how to talk to people like we are human beings, but that has happened over 20 years of being an adult. What C knows is if you are angry, you blame and punish. You wound.

I know things, but reality can take a long time to sink in.

Between the video I was watching yesterday, and the way she responded to me trying to talk to her, I realized something about the imprint that having a narcissistic parent leaves on you in terms of your assumptions about what motivates people. Because of the narcissist’s envy–that they really seem to want to destroy everything about the child that doesn’t directly serve their needs–it can seem to the child growing up that basically people want control. They want to be attended to and they want control.

It’s not conscious. None of this has ever been articulated or discussed or named, so there is little connection between one’s unconscious beliefs and what your emotions and impulses are doing. It doesn’t even seem believable.

I read this dumb thing on the internet about crappy parenting, and one of the anecdotes shared was about a kid bouncing a little rubber ball. Just enjoying his little rubber ball. His mom snatched the ball and said, “If you don’t stop bouncing this ball, I’ll break your face.” Or something like that. Envy. It works out to manifest itself as total control. Of course, people who don’t feel safe use control to cope anyway. Works out to, “I can’t even bounce a ball.” There is absolutely no legitimate way for me to get my needs me.

So if you’re in a relationship and this is the pattern your parent has left in your mind of what people typically want and how they behave in close relationships, some part of you understands the cost you can expect to have closeness. You can either try to control people so they are forced to meet needs you are not legitimately allowed to have, or you can surrender control. In a lot of relationships, you can just lock yourself into struggle over this and fight for control.

I was trying to chat with C and thinking about this. Everything I say she assumes is intended to get some sort of reaction out of her or to manipulate her in some way to give me what I want. Nothing is assumed to be noncoercive–this is what I think or feel; make of it what you will. For her, it can only be a contest. I never thought about that before. I never understood that about her or about anyone else or presumably my past self in relationships.

I felt really sad. It’s terrible not to be able to trust and to not know that anything else is really possible.