I’ve sorted a few things.
It was a big piece of the great puzzle of life to understand that it enhances one’s self-esteem to put someone else down. It ought not to news, but I didn’t really grasp that it feels good. I was familiar with the mechanics: make you feel bad, I feel better. But that didn’t compute. I don’t feel better. If I put someone down, I just feel sad.
When I started to read about it as being part of something that happens in terms of dominance behaviours: being higher in the social hierarchy gives you a feeling of well-being. Being lower in the hierarchy makes you feel stressed. This is innate and something that happens physically in your brain.
And that made it make sense.
I have in my head someone who can’t really navigate life, doesn’t have the social skills to form connections that she needs in order to feel supported and fulfilled: this person might fall back on the quick-fix of establishing dominance.
I have had a chance to reflect on this here at my friend’s house, because it seems like she does this sometimes. Not frequently, but in moments of vulnerability. She says something out of the blue that makes me feel attacked, but also seems puzzling to me. Like suddenly, indirectly criticizing the mustard I use. What difference does it even make? It’s mustard.
My friend has a life history and a set of ideas she has been exposed to that I don’t entirely have access to. But she grew up with critical parents who were also trying to position themselves socially as academics and, perhaps, distance themselves from blue-collar roots, without being snobby elites.
Because that’s bad too.
It’s hard to explain this exactly. I am just saying these things happen and I know, actually, her intention is to put me down, but I can’t really figure out why what she is saying is a put-down. It’s painful and confusing when it happens.
This isn’t about the mustard incident though. This is just about thinking I grew up with parents who did this to establish some kind of equilibrium for themselves, and it is also about noticing that when you haven’t shared someone’s history or their biases, you don’t always get their put-downs.
Because it turns out almost anything can be an indication of status which can be used to promote one’s own sense of dominance. Not wearing cool clothes, having a problem at home, being less competent at something, having the “wrong” physical characteristics.
Also, being in a position of dependence. I need warmth, for example, and if the other person pretends they don’t need warmth, they have a way of being dominant.
I was reading something about gender relationships and it was something along the lines of a man saying men don’t all feel women’s bodies need to be perfect. Men who body-shame are assholes. It was something like that anyway.
This idea carried over into the idea that my parents were assholes. My mother’s illness and difficulties in coping are so prominent that I had not quite registered the emotional abuse. The physical abuse I remember. I remember her screaming things that did not quite make sense. I remember the near psychosis. But I hadn’t put together that she said mean things to me during periods when things seem to be perfectly fine just to feel better, nor did I put together that I understood the intent but not always the mechanism.
Like the mustard, the ways she put me down were not always things I understood. What’s wrong with that? Whatever that was.
There is a very great sense of loss to this, where I realized I was to a large extent this object in her life and not someone whose well-being she felt connected to. I was there for her to use as a source to get her own needs met, but not someone who felt on the same side as me. Not someone who felt diminished when she diminished me.
There is something else I didn’t get: I do know what these things were, kind of generally, the things that made her think putting me down. There were quite a few. But what I get now, the missing piece, is that these were often seen as opportunities. I did something “wrong” and this was a chance to feel better.
It might also be a time when she felt she needed to distance herself from me: I am doing something “bad” so she wanted it to be clear she wanted no part in it. C has done this. Her aunt called her up in a video call and she complained that her aunt always does that, as though she doesn’t like it. I just kind of nodded. Then I said some things about this aunt that were positive. The next call, C received and we both chatted with her aunt.
C thought I might not like her aunt calling, so she distanced herself from it. My mother has invisible, unhappy people in her head. She sometimes might have distanced herself from some “bad” thing I was doing in order to escape that inner critic.
My mother is an asshole.