Better

The holiday is over and now Monday is drawing to a close.

I am in pieces.

What I mean by that is it’s evident to me that I cannot manage my brain anymore and my sense of myself is rapidly switching between states. So I want to die and then I feel fine. This does not actually sound better, but I do feel better.

It was a long day. I didn’t go to class or teach. They are holding a principal’s meeting and we were in charge of decorating the hall where it was held, which is rather an elaborate affair as there aren’t, for example, curtains hung permanently and these had to be borrowed and temporarily hung with plastic twine (after long discussions about what to do.)

I was on my feet a lot, so I am tired, and I also spent all day working out how to pitch in and help when I can’t understand what people are saying.

They were providing dinner at school, but I left a little early. It seemed as though the work was wrapping up and I had already cooked in the morning. There was something I needed to buy and I knew I would forget later. So I went.

I feel better because, although my brain is falling apart, I feel I may know something of the cause and I also think I can get through the evening alright like this.

I have been reading a lot about self-conscious emotions–especially shame and guilt–and I feel it gives me more to work with at those times when I feel bad and also more ways of understanding early trauma.

First of all, guilt develops much later than shame. Guilt doesn’t show up until around 7 or 8, probably because guilt is connected to negative experiences and internal, controllable, unstable causes. Shame shows up by 3 and is linked to negative events and stable, internal, uncontrollable causes. However, young children feel ashamed of all negative events with internal causes. They don’t distinguish between outcomes within their control and events outside their control, probably because they lack the cognitive capacity to hold so many elements in mind long enough to to figure all of that out. They may also lack the experience to know what is stable about themselves and what is unstable: you feel guilty if normally you can do something and flounder, but ashamed if you regularly struggle with it. That’s the difference between a mistake and a character flaw. Very young children also don’t distinguish well between internal and external causes. They expect others to feel proud over lucky breaks and ashamed over bad luck. (Although they themselves may feel more visibly proud over success in difficult tasks as compared to easy ones.)

What that says to me is those very early traumas which now stimulate washes of shame felt that way to me when they happened, because I could not reason well enough to know what caused them. I just knew they were bad. Shame was the best sense I could make of things. I really could not do better. Even in situations which repeated at later stages in my development, I don’t think I could revise my understanding of them, because they were so overwhelming to think about.

Something else I ran across is that toddlers feel upset about lost, broken or messy things. Rules about intactess are adopted quite early. My memories of distress about bodies being dismembered and believing parts of them could get lost makes sense in this light. I didn’t understand murder, but I knew about the importance of wholeness.

I was also reading that shame (adult shame) comes from deficiencies which are core to your identity. So if I see myself as an independent person or I aspire to be independent, then I will felt ashamed at instances of dependency. But I won’t feel ashamed if that’s not an important goal for me. The things that spark the worst s1q

hame act as clues to my values and my views of myself. I suspect they also serve as vulnerabilities for someone who uses attacks on the self to win in conflicts, as I think my ex did.

Hysterical

We have had a four day holiday, but I forgot this was a holiday in which the prayer festival going on down at the Holy Site would be blaring from a powerful sound system like it’s Coachella going on down there and not something serious. This is partly about my Western (perhaps) presumptions about religion—certainly the imprint of the 2x2s: seriousness is communicated via quiet, restraint, perhaps self-reflection, not deafening noise that begins at 5 am and is counterbalanced by competing music and an announcer advertising gambling at the nearby fun fair.

So I have not enjoyed the last few days. I wear ear plugs a lot of the time: I still hear everything, but my ears don’t ring.

C has been with her dad—quite unusually—the last few days. She is still less responsive than she used to be. She doesn’t answer the phone, doesn’t reply to messages, sometimes reads, sometimes doesn’t. I used to be more forceful and call someone else in the house when she was clearly not responding, because she really did sound happy to talk to me once she got on the phone. It seemed to be about permission. I no longer feel I know what it’s about.

I have been thinking that narcissists maintain positive images of themselves regardless of reality, because they are unable to tolerate the ups and downs in emotions that happen when considering different aspects of themselves, and I am reluctant to construct my image in ways that might be overly positive.

Because she would not answer the phone last night, I began to think about her reluctance to take my calls, because I think it’s about having an intense emotional experience—rather than the lack of one. I don’t know if it is fear or if it is shame. It’s one of those two. I said I would call her if she wanted me to. She read the message and did not respond, so I didn’t call her before she left her dad’s house. I eventually sent her a text around the time she would have left, telling her to take care and I love her.

C is 17. She is the age Nata was when she died. This may be relevant to how I am handling this, because I do not feel rational. It is, in fact, the least rational I have felt in a few years. I was so angry at the noise I punched the wall last night. Today I am crying a lot and thinking C doesn’t like me, and there is an equally prominent part of me who doesn’t understand why I can’t just get on with things. Not everyone is going to like me. I try things out and not all of them are going to work. The Boy still steals. The Girl still throws tantrums when she doesn’t get what she wants. And C doesn’t like me. Shit happens. Pull up your socks and try something different, for God’s sake. Wash the windows. Use the free time that just opened up to write the book you always wanted to write. Do something.

The thing is I have an idea about this. Having an idea has not pointed me in the direction of solving the problem, but maybe eventually it will. So I am imagining a relationship between a child and a parent, much like my relationship with my mother, and in this relationship, reunions frequently involve frantic exchanges of unregulated emotions which crescendo into a kind of collapse of rejection: the parent has finally freed herself from the overwhelming demands of her child, or the child has finally escaped the frightening dysregulation of the parent. (I presume it begins with the first, and evolves into both, as the parent repeats the pattern learned with her own parent with the child.) The abandoner feels freed—victorious over the other whose upsetting emotions became distorted into those of an enemy who must be defeated totally.

For the child—as well as the parent who has never revisited this dynamic with an adult understanding of it—her parent’s desire to quiet her is imagined as not existing within the parent’s mind: my parent does not want to be aware of me anymore. And this sense of desiring the absence of awareness feels like not existing, because a young child does not have sufficient working memory to imagine herself as an absence in her parent’s mind and her presence within her own mind. This may be inadvertently reinforce if the parent resurfaces and is again threatened by the activity of the child and suppresses that activity—as all attempts to cope involve a return to a state of activity and aliveness. What the parent seems to want is sustained dissociation, because ultimately this is what the child does. This is the response that the parent is finally appeased by. But it feels to the child as though the parent wants her to cease to exist, because the parent wants to avoid awareness of her, because the child’s emotional state is too upsetting for the parent to cope with and feels threatening.

At the same time, because there is a conflict with an important other, the child feels immense pressure internally to understand the parent’s perspective and to try to comply with it. Despite the sense of annihilation that goes with the parent’s desire to cease to be aware of the child or her upset, the child feels compelled to know about it. And knowing about it feels like reality, because the child cannot hold multiple images of herself within her head at one time.

The sequence of events gives a meaning to losses and separations later that have nothing to do with it. I think this is most of what is playing out in my mind now, and I am enacting it with C, because she knows about this dynamic. This is what played out in her own childhood. I think this, because I saw a little of that dynamic with her brother, who is four. There is inherent in it a chance to feel mirrored, as the parent begins to express the same distress as the child—and the reverse is also true: a dysregulated parent may come to her child, and feel some relief in sparking the same distress in her child that she feels: her inappropriately intense emotions (which she has been suppressing because they are too overwhelming and upsetting for the child) can finally be seen out in the world and take on a sense of reality again, so that the parent feels herself to be real at last.

Only, as already stated, the display of emotions is inappropriate. The child is out of control. The parent is out of control. Everyone knows this isn’t how you are meant to behave, and the parent rejects her emotions as played out in the child with disgust and disowns her own part in it: stalking triumphantly off, perhaps, having it seems defeated the enemy by having wound the child up into a state of paralysis. Or, conversely, the child may seem to win the contest and the parent will withdraw in shame at being unable to control her child or even herself. Once it’s learned, I think these kinds of emotional explosions can be carried out by both parent and child as a way to regulate emotions and self-states.

To go back to the meaning of departures and separations, I think they can continue to feel as though these kinds of massive ruptures have happened, even if they haven’t, and as though a loss means the absent person desires a cessation of your existence.

I have been thinking about how I am sensitive to any indication of control. It doesn’t seem to take much. I wanted to wash the windows and put up some pictures cut from an old calendar in the kitchen to brighten things up, and because VP Ma’am disrupted my plan by inviting me over for the day, I haven’t gone back to it. I think this is because I now experience it as a prohibited activity. Because during the last holiday, I was met each time by students asking me why I was jogging and not attending the festival, I haven’t gone jogging at all this holiday although it’s something I really enjoy. I can tolerate disapproval, but it’s as though I don’t expect it to end there. Borderlines, after all, are known for failing to de-escalate or resolve conflicts. Instead, they fight to the death, and so perhaps I have been trained to think that the battle had better be one worth fighting.

I don’t think this is good for my life. I think it translates into a tendency toward inaction and depression, as well as a restriction of vitality and absence of pleasure or joy.

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.