Protected: Self-enhancement

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:


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.


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.

Surviving Narcissistic Parents

I have a clearer picture of how my issues developed–nearly all of them, in fact.

I will tell you it took a lot of working at emotional regulation so that when I reflected on these things, there was an internal structure of feelings that allowed me to feel if things “fit” or not. Without more regulatory capacity (and without significant chunks of fear over having feelings chipped away at), it was like trying on hats.

One of the bloggers I read mentioned that the core issue in complex trauma is not fear. Well, I don’t completely agree with that, but she’s onto something. She says the issue is shame. I think you become afraid of shame, but it makes shame the core difficulty.

With narcissistic parents, exposure is never done for the purpose of closeness. It’s always to establish the dominance or the superiority of the parent over everyone else, because narcissists imagine this very malignant world in which everyone wants to hurt them. Everyone seems to hurt them, because their ideas of how the world is supposed to work has become so distorted. Narcissists never notice your vulnerabilities because they want to help you. They may help you, but they help you in order to spend time in this state of superiority. It’s not about participating in shared humanity, and when it is, it’s this immersion in how terrible we both are. I can’t tell you precisely how different this is from what’s normal, but I am sure it must be.

Most people feel this kind of tickle about revealing themselves: oohhh, this could result in connection. Children of narcissists don’t feel that. They know this isn’t about connection: it’s about humiliating the child.

So you sit in a therapist’s chair and reveal yourself and while the attention may feel good, you begin to get into very tender territory and you feel ashamed, because the past has taught you what’s coming and while your therapist may not be intending to humiliate you, it’s not really possible to see inside their heads. You don’t know what their intentions really are. And I will tell you, I’ve sat in that chair and had a therapist feel excited about the drama playing out in my life. (I did not continue to see that one.) But it’s possible, because you are so primed to expect humiliation, to feel humiliated regardless of what the therapist actually says or does or intends.

The thing is we need connection, so we need to reveal ourselves, and there is eventually this anger: why do I keep f*ing doing this? So these emotions become all tangled together: fear, shame, anger. You learn to hate the person who makes you want to be seen, because they seem to do all of this to you. You reveal yourself, and you feel all of these intense negative emotions without knowing why.

The thing is this can happen even when you are alone. If that brain system is switched on which sees you, then the humiliation happens any time you experience yourself as being uniquely you–so when you reveal to yourself your authentic likes and dislikes, your needs, your tastes.

The effect overall is to rob you of the opportunity to experience being yourself in a joyful way: you are robbed of healthy narcissism. Whether or not you can objectively sit down and describe your positive qualities and own them as being yours, there is no joy in possession of yourself, because this equation of exposure with shame destroys it.

It creates a starvation. You can’t enjoy being yourself with yourself, and I think the end result can be a need for attention from others. The internalized experience of yourself is terrible: someone else can inject some pleasure into being you, but you kind of have to borrow them. You either need their gaze all the time–to displace the unpleasantness of your own experience of yourself–or you need to create something like a new self with them. In other words, you can become a selfish and demanding attention-hog, or you can become enmeshed with someone who has a complementary need for attention such that they don’t mind sacrificing their individuality to form a joint self with you.

It’s quite awful.

There’s nothing simpler than saying, “You need to feel good about yourself,” but it’s not so simple to do. It is easy to create a shell of positivity over your true feelings so that you don’t need to engage with the negative emotions. It’s easier to keep a stiff upper lip and begin to deny all of the painful feelings so that feeling bad stops being yet something else to feel bad about than it is to begin to untangle where it all started: which, in my case, is this parent who callously demanded all attention on herself (for precisely the same reasons I outlined above).

Harming me wasn’t really about me: it was about her. It was about revenge or punishment or jealousy. It was about bringing the attention back onto her.


Covert Narcissism

I’m considering some very vulnerable material today.

Yesterday, we did not have to go to school. I didn’t know this, and I got there and everything was locked. I chalked it up to my impatience: Friday, when everyone was hanging around in a typical Country X state of indecision about what to do next, I went home. I assumed the discussion must have happened at that time. However, I ran into someone else running some errands who had made the same mistake. It wasn’t just my Western, for-God’s-sake-get-on-with-it attitude that had put me in this position. There are two online groups people belong to that provide information about school activities. I haven’t joined one of them: I feel tied enough to school without getting another stream of endless messages, the vast majority of which say, “Noted.” The information was relayed through the group I don’t belong to.

I had a mentally productive day, but not physically so. I need to withdraw money from the US for school fees, and the ATM was not working. I meant to mop the floors and I didn’t do that either. I didn’t go jogging because somehow if I don’t go in the morning, I just don’t, and I didn’t get up early enough.

But I thought I had some things worked out, and it felt sort of good and then the Aunt chatted with me a bit, and since I was mysteriously and unreasonably hurt and angry with her, I’m trying to be careful about how I interact so that our relationship is not impacted by feelings I don’t even understand.

Her husband has gone to report to school–he’s also a teacher–and she missed his help with her new baby. Her sister (C’s mother) is with her, but she does not help Aunt very much. Aunt says C’s mom goes to get blessed from an important priest every day and does not do much in terms of helping with the baby. The Aunt wishes someone would help her with the laundry, but feels afraid to ask.

I am not surprised by this, as I have seen that C’s mother doesn’t do much in her own home either. It’s something that makes me feel very sad to think about. I don’t want to look down on C’s family, because family is part of one’s identity and basic respect and acceptance of people as less than perfect is something I expect of myself, but I can also see that, in a society ruled by rigid gender roles, C’s mother fails to live up to those expectations without being actually forward-thinking. Her rejection of her role of homemaker is not based on conviction or a sense that there are other kinds of work that women can do: she just doesn’t like it. She doesn’t seem to like her children very much either.

The Aunt asked if C had called me. No. I said she did not answer the phone. This typically happens when C goes home: she just stops answering the phone for a while, and eventually I call her mom and often C answers that phone. Her mom isn’t home right now, and I feel less and less comfortable doing this. The Aunt said she would tell C to call me. I didn’t expect anything to come of this especially and went on with my day.

But later, while I was making dinner, C messaged and said she was sorry–she would respond to my call. So I called and she didn’t answer. I felt really upset by this. I don’t know why. I made dinner and went to bed more or less at the usual time: I can’t get up in the mornings still after the long holiday and I keep hoping if I can stick to an early bedtime, it will make my mornings easier.

In bed, I felt really agitated. I think I may have been angry, but that may have come later. C came online and read something I had written earlier–nothing terrifically important, just signs of life. I said, “Do you have anything to say?”

She said my phone was off. Indeed it was. The battery was empty. I was charging it, but turned to my laptop to entertain me, because I couldn’t sleep.

I asked if she had called. She had. I was at this point really angry, like furiously angry and wanting to say hurtful things to her: not things that I actually believed, but hurt for the sake of hurt. I don’t remember feeling this way about her before.

I went and turned on the phone, but I didn’t really want her to call, as I didn’t know whether I could keep control of myself–I was that furious. I told her she could call if she wanted to. She didn’t. I said it was terrible that someone needed to force her to call. I have intense, mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I think even at 17 she may need some prompting to be polite and considerate of others, including of me. On the other, I also feel she is old enough to decide who she wants to talk to and who she doesn’t, and just because I’m trying to help her out, doesn’t mean she has to actually like me. It touches very close to my trafficking issues, especially since money is involved. Dinner doesn’t buy a man sex, and even private school tuition should not buy me a conversation.

I fell asleep. In the morning, I thought about this. I’ve never really been angry at her to that extent before, outside of situations where I felt she had made poor decisions which might affect her own well-being. It did cross my mind that I am integrating emotions, and that sometimes I may feel things at an intensity which catches me by surprise because I am not used to it. I’m finally sorting out separation anxiety, for example, but it has taken years of feeling pain I didn’t understand even after I knew what it was.

Well, I think it has something to do with my mother. I am angry at my mother, or I am angry at myself for being like my mother, or I am angry at C for the same reasons my mother would be angry at me.

My mother was floridly borderline and may be less so now, but I think she is one of those borderlines who is also a narcissist, only I think her narcissism took the form of covert or inverted narcissism, which is slightly different. Her narcissism had to do with an understanding of herself as being uniquely fragile and therefore deserving of the constant attention narcissists crave. Her sense of brokenness–rather than her grandiosity–was the source of her specialness, and her cover for demanding attention.

The attention was an escape from the cruelty of her own self-image, but knowing the reason for its tyranny in our lives does not make it seem more benign. I was unrelentingly angry at her when I was growing up: it’s a bit surprising to realize I am still angry and that none of it actually feels resolved to me. I think I was more or less right about a lot of how I understood my mother, or at least I still agree with it, but its clarity in my mind did not magically dispel it.

I was asked to ignore a really intense degree of physical and verbal abuse, because she was so “sick.” There was never any resolution or change in her behaviour. It repeated endlessly. It was never acknowledged that the motivation behind the abuse was to extract something from her children we were developmentally incapable of giving, which was emotional and social regulation, nor was it acknowledged that she was forever going to be frustrated in doing this because screaming can’t change reality.

For a long time, I have felt angry at the mental health care providers she saw, because there are effective treatments for bpd, and it seemed that she didn’t get them: Marsha Linehan just never came up. It’s possible she just didn’t see the right providers, but now I think it may not have mattered much anyway: Borderline personality disorder is one of the most treatable of all the psychological illnesses, but narcissistic personality disorder is the among the least. If she had both, it may not have mattered what treatment she received or whether it was appropriate or not. She wasn’t going to get better. She might stop trying to kill herself to get our attention, but she wasn’t going to just let us be kids either, nor would she be able to work through how to address our fear-based reactions to her. Relationships become impoverished when people are too scared to be around you or to authentically connect, and so those relationships are less likely to meet your needs.

I have been thinking this year about what normal family relationships might be like, and considering that being with your children does meet some of the needs of the parents: it’s not 50-50, but family time is not actually joyless obligation. I have thought about this, because I see how I enjoy spending time with students. I can’t do it all the time, but it is genuinely satisfying.

It seems to me my mother never resolved or addressed her unmet need for positive regard, which wasn’t met because the self she developed within her family was itself formed by a narcissist who was less histrionic and neglectful than she was, but no less controlling and lacking in empathy. Later in life, when much of what we think about ourselves is based on past experiences and not moment-to-moment interactions, she still had no real self of her own, because the self she developed in her family was one viewed very negatively by the rest of society: dependent, self-sacrificing, people-pleasing, anxious. None of the traits you develop after a childhood with a narcissist are likely to be seen positively in Western society. Your uncertainty and emptiness won’t make you feel good about yourself in any context outside of a relationships with another narcissist (hint–my father), who treats you with lack of regard and respect all over again so that even what you have become to accommodate the narcissist won’t feel good–ever.





My mother

After last night’s grappling with reality, I began to think I need to develop ways to like myself–things I can do where I like being myself and also things I like about myself. I take care of my needs, but staving off pain is not the same as enjoying life, and I while I am not suggesting that running after pleasure will ever lead to any degree of satisfaction, I think those sparkles of pleasure sustain you through tough times. I cannot just relentlessly slog through.

I was thinking, too, that taking care of my emotional or trauma-oriented need for stability is often related to parts: the parts are endearing because of how I imagine them. They are not endearing in an adult body. I used to feel repelled by some of The Girl’s displays of dependency–it seemed to me that dependency was part of her role at home, being the unexpected child born to older, empty-nester parents. There are behaviours that are appealing or at least developmentally appropriate in a toddler that are just not cute anymore at 13. What I am getting at is that I need to take care of myself when all of these needs are no longer sequestered in “cute” packages: I need some kind of affection for my actual, adult self.

It led me to thinking about why this affection and pride never developed in the first place. I don’t just mean because my parents abused and neglected me: that’s too unhelpfully vague. I mean specifically what about how they interacted with me did that?

At the same time, I came across some information about covert narcissism, and I have been thinking about my mother and the role of anger in her relationships. First, I watched a video on YouTube about the 3 levels of covert narcissism. It may have been from Dr. Daniel Fox, whom I have recently found very helpful, and it seemed to me I recognize scapegoating as something familiar from my childhood–like maybe there wasn’t always something necessarily wrong with me. Maybe people were just angry for various reasons and looking for an acceptable receptacle for all of this anger, someone powerless enough that there wouldn’t be repercussions.

How did that shape me? By making me unsure of what to expect from other people or how anything about me might be perceived. Is this good or bad? Most things can be perceived in different ways, admired or ridiculed. Very few things are good or bad to everyone. And I think this creates an enormous amount of anxiety and a compulsion to check things out: I don’t follow through on that, because I know better, but I suspect there remains this little needy part of me inside wanting to be told the correct way to see things.

My mother had and probably still has an immense need for attention, for comfort, and soothing and what I have realized since is that this isn’t a lack of independence. The soothing she demands is a vehicle for attention-seeking. It’s not that she can’t do these things for herself–although it’s possible that she can’t. It’s that pain seems a legitimate way to grab the attention she wants.

So she becomes this kind of leaky vessel of needs. What she is really trying to do is displace a tyrant of a voice within herself who is constantly critical, constantly dissatisfied, constantly displeased: in other words, the same voice she directed outward at all of us. She turned it outward to save herself from it, but it operated within her too. The result of this kind of voice in a parent is a feeling of constant failure.

I think how easily pleased I am at the successes of children. “Oh, look, you kicked a ball. How wonderful!” “You washed the dishes just like I told you to do.” “You managed to look like you bathed this week.” My standards are really low. It’s just so wonderful for kids to be growing up and becoming more capable of doing things and being independent. I’m happy at pretty much everything.

And then I imagine a parent who never feels this: who feels, first of all, mostly in relation to herself. My mother didn’t want me to be a responsible member of society: she wanted me to pay attention to her, and paying attention to her was so awful. It was like drinking a bottle of pure despair. There are people who can’t look at train wrecks and people who can’t look away. I am among the former: my mother was too overwhelming for me. But the litany of slights and injustices and needs kept my attention on my failure to satisfy her: it created in my mind a history of failures, which led to an unconscious bias towards expecting failure later.

I also thought about jealousy: it’s an important part of covert narcissism and a part of of borderline as well and I suspect my mother had both. Is it possible that my mother was angry at my successes and my good qualities? Or maybe she simply felt that if I did things I was good at and succeeded at them I would see how inadequate she was and abandon her.  Maybe she was angry over a rejection that hadn’t happened yet.

I think of this in terms of writing–this was one of the triggers I have wanted to work on. I am more and more sure that writing itself, in addition to the personal nature of what I usually write about, is a trigger. There were a few memorable times I remember explosive, painful arguments with my mother over writing. I don’t remember her doing this when I drew or painted: I suspect visual art was an approved activity. Being creative or artistic was admirable, but plumbing the depths of the human heart was not. The thing is, although art was my college major, I don’t actually believe I am very good at it. This has been my evaluation as an adult. I think I’m good at writing. I don’t think I am good at drawing or painting. I like art, but I should never have believed it was something I could devote my life to.

I suspect my mother was angry I had this thing I liked to do, this outlet that I enjoyed and made me feel good because I was good at it: she may not have been able to tell whether I was good at it or not, but she might have been able to recognize the sense of goodness I had about it, that doing it allowed me to feel a sense of mastery in my world that was pleasurable. She may have felt jealous of that. It’s not that my mother had no talents: she did. But if you feel you must be the best to count, if you are constantly comparing yourself and then inevitably falling short, then I think you lose the joy of having that talent. If what you are aiming for is the attention being good at something gives you, and there is no pleasure in the “flow” of doing it, then you can’t enjoy the talent.

The impact on me is to then be frightened to enjoy anything, because my pleasure may spark a jealous rage: only, I know I didn’t recognize it as jealousy at the time, although it fits now. I couldn’t fathom the pattern which emerged in my unconscious mind of pleasure in myself and punishment for feeling that way. I had no way to explain it, but I felt it. I suspect I still do.

I read something else, which has to do with the excitement of a relationship with an overt narcissist that covert narcissists feel. I don’t understand this one exactly, but it made me wonder if this is why I internalized this sense of myself as boring: I lacked that sparkle for my mother. I wasn’t a narcissist.

Today’s Question

I have been wondering about feelings today–specifically why different emotions seem to be people to me, or at the very least different selves. I know it could be that my development was simply delayed, and young children experience emotional states as so overwhelming that these seem to be their entire selves. And yet it seems to me that I can manage my emotions fairly well once I know what they are. It’s sorting them out that’s so difficult.

I have been wondering if there are other possibilities that might have equal explanatory value.

I considered an idea I read when thinking about the role of the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex in self-processing, which has to do with our past (and future) selves having less emotional resonance than our present self: we treat our past self much like we do someone else.

Tangentially, I wonder if people are overwhelmed by past memories, because they have lost the balanced mode of thinking which allows for both sensory information and an awareness of sequencing and causality to occur, and so there is no distinction between the past and present self. I also wonder if this is the reason for dissociative parts to develop: we aren’t so emotional about the experiences of others as we are about ourselves.

I had this other idea in the morning about the lack of empathy I experienced growing up: I was at the sink, and I wondered if I didn’t understand as a child that I wasn’t the only one who experienced fear or cold. The adults around me didn’t seem to know that being nearly drowned was frightening or that the cold in the freezer was unbearably painful even when it wasn’t deadly, and maybe that’s because they didn’t have those feelings. Their lack of empathy may have led me to believe that they didn’t have the same feelings I did, and that there was therefore something wrong or aberrant about mine.

This doesn’t directly connect to the idea I had about emotions seeming to be different people, but it feels related to me.

I wondered today also whether it was so difficult to grasp my parents’ malignancy that I separated how I felt from what they were doing. I seemed to be worthless, rather than intentionally discouraged or belittled. At best, it seemed to me they were placing this worthless person inside me. I suppose I may have had no way to understand that abuse makes you feel bad. This is why it’s considered abuse. Not that other people must be expected to tiptoe around our delicate feelings all the time, but abuse isn’t wrong just because it breaks certain rules. The rules are there to protect individuals.

It crosses my mind that perhaps this was the reason why couples therapy was a disaster for me: I had no vocabulary for talking about the impact of emotional abuse on me.

I’m not sure this is a very clear post, but this is hitting me rather hard. I may never have entirely taken in that my parents understood they were hurting me, and they hurt me because doing things that hurt me made them feel better–not always in a sadistic way, but in the sense of collateral damage. Making me feel powerless (for example) made them feel powerful. Human beings live according to comparisons, and a disregarded child may be a byproduct of a pampered adult.