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.