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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.

Priming

I have been thinking more about how Cluster B disorders develop and, truthfully, what to do about their effect on myself (because how to cope is always at the core of these musings).

I thought about the constant need for attention that comes with both narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. They have different roots: the narcissist wants adulation, but the borderline just wants to feel real. I began to think they may have something to do with the social experience of seeing oneself via the other person. It’s an automatic function of the brain in social interactions.

And yet, it seems to me, Cluster B personalities shut down this function for fear of the kind of person someone else might see: there is a conditioning that using this function of imagining the self in the eyes of the other person is going to be aversive, and perhaps the child growing up in this kind of family learns to avoid using themselves as a witness, instead staying as much as possible within an oceanic state of mindless doing.

But the mental function of seeing oneself is essential to being human: I wonder if keeping it switched off creates a sense of starvation–a relentless “Look at me! Look at me!”because this is how we evolved to be.

Merging may provide some relief to this: perhaps “we” feels qualitatively different enough from “I” that a positive “we” is possible, even if “I” remains painful. Perhaps the borderline can see “us,” but not “me.”

Meanwhile, the narcissist works hard to control the image of the self the viewer is allowed to reflect back.

For myself, I have been thinking that past experiences of being seen are so negative that it creates a priming which influences how I see myself now: it creates mud-coloured glasses. How do I compensate for or overcome the priming without being blind? The goal is realism–not retreat into a fantasy of perfection.

 

 

Meaning

running partner.jpg

My running partner this morning. She has to brave two packs of dogs to go with me.

I had some more thoughts about the narcissist’s relationship cycle and what can happen when a child grows up with it. It creates, I think, both a self-reliant child and a dependent child.

Self-reliant, because the parent’s views are not open to modification. If mom thinks you’re hungry, you get to eat. If she doesn’t, don’t try to tell her she’s mistaken: this would (I am still imagining) challenge her sense of existence, since the parent’s thoughts and feelings are experienced as being herself due to psychic equivalence.

A dependent child, because the meaning of behaviours cannot be reliably interpreted. There is no pattern, because the parent is, first of all, only paying attention to her transitory emotional reactions and she’s also making decisions based on very little information due to the stress-related pressure to respond quickly.

In other words, the child cannot depend on the parent for support or emotional regulation but must rely on the parent for a sense of meaning. “I picked up my toys. Am I a good girl for being independent and responsible or are you threatened with fears of abandonment and so I am a bad girl and will now be criticized and shamed for reasons I actually cannot decipher?”

The child grows up unable to hold onto a stable sense of self-esteem. Positive regard is unpredictable and transitory and seems to exist within the parent, who must be constantly monitored and controlled so that the child can maintain that sense.

Of course, our regard for ourselves does come from others: it comes from how others have taught us to interpret behaviours (acts of independence are seen positively in most Western cultures, for example) as well as how the person interacting with us seems to be communicating to us how they see us. We develop a stable self-regard because this becomes something we can manage as we get older: as we develop impulse-control and executive function, we can engage in behaviours which are seen as being positive within our culture. We can interact with people who value us and like us.

A child with a narcissistic parent has no coherent way to interpret their own behaviour: is this good? They also cannot choose who they interact with, and even less so because the parent tends to be motivated by jealousy, envy, competitiveness and fear of loss. The child cannot be understood to prefer someone else over the parent, because this invokes fear of loss (another core issue for the kind of parent I am thinking about in this post–someone like my mother) and cannot be observed to be well-liked by other people either, unless the child is seen to be totally subsumed under the identity of the parent, because this takes the focus off the parent.

Normally, we are able to engage in activities which support our positive self-regard. It’s okay to make the occasional blunder, because you can go on to be pro-social and capable. The narcissist’s child can’t, because they do not have internalized meanings for behaviours. They cannot buffer themselves against put-downs and criticism, because they don’t feel confident of whether they will be allowed to interact with people who value and respect them.

None of this is consciously recognized by anyone. None of it is clear. The child just feels very anxious and unsure. Obtaining the parent’s approval–and later, a partner’s–is either preoccupying or hopeless.

Further, there is a meaning to a particular behaviour which has been established: loss of the parent’s regard means you did something wrong. I don’t know that this is always intentional.

In some parents, it is a deliberate punishment. C’s mother won’t talk to her at all for hours at a time if C does some trivial thing that her mother doesn’t like. In others, it’s an attempt to meet the parent’s needs without exposing the parent to vulnerable feelings: playing on the child’s fears of abandonment gets the child’s attention without revealing to anyone, including the parent, that the parent needs attention. In still others, the withdrawal of regard occurs simply because the parent has no reason to have good feelings about the child. The child isn’t at that moment making the parent feel good, so the parent quickly moves on to some other source of narcissistic supply. The child is discarded because her usefulness has ended.

Adults with complex trauma and those on the borderline spectrum have been observed to look outside themselves for regard: this is why. The way in which they have been allowed to use their environments and the people around them to regulate their own self-regard has been disturbed.

 

 

Guest

At C’s parents’ house, I noticed how her stepfather wanted to attend to me, but in an entirely different way than C’s father had just a few days before. C’s father was aware of my feelings and intentions–maybe hyperaware, but I was after all a guest. So maybe he noticed I might be cold and tilted the heater towards me, or he saw me coming out of the bathroom with a wet face and told me where the towel was. I didn’t have to ask for much, because he anticipated what I might want, but the interesting thing about this was that I also felt comfortable telling him what I might want or need, because his attentiveness suggested an openness to my needs.

C’s stepfather, in contrast, seemed to be wanting to meet a need to be special or superior: his approach was more a kind of pampering. So he brought tea in the morning in the very nicest cup the family owned. That’s not really unusual in Country X if you go to someone’s house. And then, thinking I am a foreigner I suppose, he tried to make French toast (which was a bit of a fail). He was concerned with where I sat, whether it was comfortable or not, and the aunt in the family behaved similarly: there was this constant concern with placing me near the heater, although the climate where they live is different, and I was not cold. So a lot of it was misattuned. Not all, but some, and it seemed to be misattuned because it was aimed at meeting a desire for narcissistic stroking which I don’t really have.

What I also noticed was how he sometimes showered the same attention on his only son. There was one meal where we all sat on the floor on cushions taken from the sofa, and he built a little table for the son out of cushions.

The result of the attention with the stepfather was that I felt less and less able to assert my needs and desires, and it was the opposite of my relationship with C’s father, who didn’t do nearly as much to make me feel special and yet responded to how I actually felt or to things I might reasonably have been presumed to feel. Over time, I felt more able to speak up, more able to point out instances of misattunement.

I thought it seemed to me that C’s stepfather was engaged in the cycle of glorification, belittling, and abandonment. I’m not saying he’s a narcissist, although he might be: there is clearly disorder in C’s family, and she has been brought up by her mother and has little physical contact with her father. Her stepfather has had more of a chance to impact her, by far, than her biological father. The odds of the disordered nature of the family including her stepfather are not small. That said, people who have been exposed to narcissists and to the cycle of relationships they engage in may have learned that this is how to relate to people.

I thought of the effect this cycle has on children growing up, because it means the child’s self-concept as shaped by the parent’s view of the child is based on factors outside of the child’s awareness. The child is being groomed to attend to the parent’s desire for safety which comes from being given a feeling of power and superiority, but doesn’t know it. They don’t know what they are being rewarded for. It’s learned through experience, but it’s not within anyone’s conscious awareness, and so it can’t be within the child’s awareness.

I also thought how the narcissistic parent believes in the contents of their own minds more than external reality. There is a mentalizing error, which I think may go with narcissism, in which the individual’s thoughts and beliefs are experienced more powerfully than the physical world. So the child’s real needs can’t be seen or recognized if they aren’t already within the mind of the parent. This disrupts the development of a connection between the child’s experience of himself, sensory input from the outside world, and social norms. In other words this process of figuring out what’s happening, how I am receiving that internally, and what choices I have are closed off.

Only some parts of the child’s experience of himself are allowed to exist, and so there is no development of pathways to respond to them. For example, there is no pathway between “I feel angry,” “Someone is doing things I don’t like,” and “I can tell them to stop or move away from them or even suggest another game to play which I do like, but maybe I am not allowed to hit them or to scream.” It interferes with the development of problem-solving skills.

But I think it also makes the child’s self-concept seem fragile and transitory. The child sees himself as the parent sees him: there is not adequate development of Theory of Mind yet for the child to see himself differently than the parent seems to see her. The parent’s view of the child is who the child truly seems to be. If the parent is glorifying the child, then the child experiences himself as very powerful and very “good,” both in the sense of experiencing pleasure (because power is pleasurable) and in the sense of morally good. Then suddenly the child isn’t good, and it’s not actually clear to the child why, because the reason the child is being belittled has to do with an experience within the parent that the child has no real access to or awareness of.

The child grows up then experiencing herself as someone she suddenly loses. Her “good” self disappears as quickly and mysteriously as it comes. The child is made dependent on the parent to provide her with a feeling of goodness, because the transitory and unpredictable nature of that feeling of goodness prevents it from becoming something within the child’s power.

In a more normal power, the feeling of goodness is more explicitly linked to behaviours and is not obscured–both morally and in the sense of pleasure–so that the child learns how “goodness” can be obtained and can begin to independently seek it. There are certain activities which the child engages in which bring pleasure and a sense of mastery. There are behaviours which invite the approval of the parent (I can dress myself, I can put away my toys, and so on). There are behaviours which invite pleasurable interaction between the parent and the child which the child can initiate. So there are all of these sources of goodness for the child, which are still there even when the parent is not present, because those positive experiences become memories. The child will grow up to be an adult who feels good when she can, for example, earn her own living or take care of her own living space.

For the child raised with this narcissistic cycle, these sources are not available, because there’s no pattern between signs of independence and responsibility (for example) and reward. She may be rewarded sometimes and discouraged at others (because her independence may be seen as looming abandonment.

I believe that this cycle does two very important things (among others, no doubt). One of them is that it removes potential sources of pleasure and reward from the life of the adult she becomes, because connections between behaviour and positive experiences are not formed. The parent’s response is only connected to how the parent happens to feel in that moment and how the parent happens to feel is unpredictable. I don’t know whether to feel good about picking up my toys or not. It’s not been consistently rewarding enough to spark good feelings when the parent is not there. It also creates dependency: since the patterns are too unpredictable, the parent must actually be there to have her response check. I don’t have any contact with my parents, but I think it leaves me anxious about everything I do: is this good or bad? Am I allowed to do this? How might this be perceived by someone else? And it creates an anxiety about relationships, because that stage of having the self existing within someone else is never outgrown: the parent’s view of the child is too unpredictable for the child to internalize it and then make it her own.

The cycle

I have been thinking more about how the narcissistic relationship cycle of glorification, belittling, and abandonment has affected various parts of my life, how I might perceive things now because of my experiences with that cycle, and how it may have impacted my family.

My mother has other issues, but I imagine this cycle playing into things: maybe it’s what she grew up with and expected. Maybe she was hyperalert for it. I wonder about the interplay between the a borderline’s assumption of malevolence and childhood exposure to narcissistic lack of empathy and splitting. Of course, it’s complicated by the borderline’s mentalizing errors: what is inside the mind is more compelling than the world outside the mind. In that state, if you feel bad, it’s your whole self.

Stress with your child activates fears of abandonment more legitimately than one could possibly guess: if, historically, you were neglected in response to inadequately satisfying your parent’s desire to be provided with a particular experience of the self, involving grandiosity.

I think about how I sometimes react to triggers by feeling like a failure: these are never actual failures. They are always linked to trauma, so that there seems to be no logical link, and yet when those events happened, I felt I had failed at something. I failed to keep Nata alive–that’s a big one–and realizing this expectation on the part of my mother (if not others) that I needed to provide her with emotional regulation and positive sense of herself which she couldn’t do, I understand the core issue. That was the original task I failed at.

One might respond to this by saying there is no need to feel guilty about this: it wasn’t a reasonable expectation. I have to tell you I felt guilty over failing because I didn’t know what the failure was. Not forming those links kept them activated. As a child, my mother believed I did something wrong, and as children that’s part of how we learn right from wrong: someone else believes it first. The thing about an “enmeshed” family, and here I am using the definition of enmeshed which I can better relate to, which is not “overly close,” but confused: cause and effect are obscured. So my mother presented not meeting her desire for grandiosity as wrong, but she didn’t tell me that. I didn’t know.

Having identified the failure, the sense of failure evaporates. I find this happens a lot: my adult self doesn’t hold me accountable for my mother’s illness. I know it is difficult to parent traumatized children. I know my mother was doubly challenged in doing this, as she was mentally ill and the source of some of the original trauma. I also didn’t start that particular fire. I did the best I could. However difficult I was, it’s all good.

To return to emotional reasoning (or psychic equivalence, as Fonagy calls it), I think it’s actually the degree of vulnerability and anxiety which does this and not an immature nervous system: those feelings seem really big, because feelings of vulnerability turn your attention inward, to the feelings coming from inside you: Have I been hurt? Do I seem to be okay? It’s like checking for broken bones after a fall. But then not understanding what you are doing.

That said, I wonder if watching for the onset of the belittling stage created this alertness for shame, because being shamed was prelude to being abandoned, and if it also contributes to the unstable sense of self. Of course, not every borderline has a narcissistic parent, but I am fairly certain my mother did have one. Given my mother’s anxious attachment style, she didn’t watch for whether my grandmother was being unkind: she watched for whether she felt, “wrong.” Not as though she had done something wrong, but as though she were the wrong itself. Because that is how it would have felt for her.

Not, “My mother is grumpy,” but “I am bad.” Of course, part of that focus on the self is actually to regulate the fear caused by the malevolent, punitive mother. If I don’t look at you, I don’t need to know you are there. What’s left is the “bad self,” but that’s okay. Maybe mom will help…if you understand mom as the cause of the bad self, then the whole situation is hopeless.

But what of me? The third generation of this kind of splitting. My mother certainly went through this fussy demand for attention and soothing from my father: it’s entirely possible she did it with my sister and me, but that I disengaged from her before I was really old enough to remember the dynamics. She may have stayed in this fussy place, but I suspect it built up into a storm of rage, as this demand for attention didn’t result in the kind of positive feelings she hoped to have.

I also imagine this kind of cycle could contribute to an unstable sense of identity–both my mother’s and my own. Who am I now? Am I wonderful or am I evil? And you have to constantly watch for little things that could conceivably be linked to whether you were on the naughty list or not. That’s what I imagine.

Of course, the difference with me is I had learned there were reliable rules in life: there weren’t, but my mother was somehow consistent enough that I relied on cause-and-effect more than my internal state. So I have it stored in my head, “I am bad,” and it ought to be linked to experiences of shame, but I haven’t made that link–or not until recently.

I was in the bathroom today–I mentioned, coincidentally, I have another red-floored bathroom. This one is not bright red, it’s kind of a brick colour. It’s more the colour of old blood, not fresh blood, and I was doing my laundry and feeling really bad. I am at a point now where this is linked to actual feelings. This is progress.

Anyway, I was thinking about this, trying to stay in a balanced frame of mind and I thought, “You know, I think this is about differentiation.” Remember shame is about an expectation of social isolation. It’s my personal belief that shame is also about submission: I am alone, and I may not win this fight, and I need to present myself in the least threatening way possible. Imagine the dog with a tail between his legs.

I thought about differentiation: My dad wants me to do something–or did, in some of the experiences a bloody floor is linked to–and I don’t want to do it. Remember the difference between guilt and shame. There is no fault involved, only power and isolation. It separates me from my father, or it separates me from society. Because what he wanted me to do was not decent.

I have been thinking about values recently, as well–about defining for myself my own values. This is mainly because I’ve been thinking about this question of “goodness” and what it means when I feel “good,” and the difference between morality and pleasure. So I was taking a bath, and I felt good. I had a feeling of goodness, so I wondered is it “good” to be clean?

I think it is. Good hygiene helps us to be healthy (as I should know, given the challenge of staying healthy here sometimes). It also expresses a certain pride to the world: when we value something–whether our bodies or a possession–we take care of it. We keep it clean. Leaving something to fall into decay and disorder expresses disinterest at best and abandonment at worst.

So I think it makes sense to feel “good”–not just pleasure, but a sense of goodness that is moral and related to values when one is clean. It leads me to the “badness” of my father’s perverted acts with me. Some of these things began–and may actually have ended–when I was too young to understand much about their complexity. I may only have understood they felt “dirty.” I don’t mean in a more mature sense. I mean they were slimy and sticky and they don’t feel like what you might do with a nice, little girl in a pretty dress. I think at that age I understood the “good” and “bad” sense of cleanliness