The Tungsten and Coltan of Narcissists

I still like this picture.
I still like this picture.

I am trying to get across to myself that it is acceptable to feel a full range of feelings. I don’t know if I am getting anywhere with this or not. It is as if it is so difficult to move, that it takes every ounce of strength to move two inches.

I am trying to feel ashamed.

I know that is entirely counter-intuitive–most of us want to feel less shame and not more–but the cost of not feeling everything I feel is a flattened existence. That is worse.

And I also have this deeply ingrained belief that if I can feel it, I can fix it. I can make sense of it, I can comfort it, I can heal it. If I have flattened it into non-existence, I can’t do anything about it. I am stuck.

The old saw is that we numb our feelings because they are too painful. I am completely confident that it is not too painful, that I am actually feeling only a small fraction of what is really tolerable for me. I could do better than this.

The difficulty I am having is based on a belief, and that goes back to yesterday’s post, The Balance Sheet, which makes it extraordinarily clear that the most valuable commodity is power. And attachments, shame, fear, sorrow, guilt–all of these things allow someone else to exert power over you. They are liabilities.

I can’t seem to believe that the forces of hell will not be unleashed if I embrace these liabilities. No one will play, “Let’s see what makes you cry” with me. No one will force me to stand on my tip-toes until I faint from exhaustion and fear. No one will kill an animal in front of me to see if I flinch.

I went through Beverly Hills earlier this week. It has been taken over by cupcake shops. Just FYI.
I went through Beverly Hills earlier this week. It has been taken over by cupcake shops. Just FYI.

I can flinch all I want to. I can cry until the sun goes down. I can feel worthless and ashamed and generally throw a pity party for myself and you might bring cup cakes.

It is safe.

The paranoia is hard to let go of.

Narcissists (and others like them) are shameless. They never seem embarrassed. They never admit to mistakes. They do feel ashamed–some say they are easily shamed–but they wriggle out of it so quickly through rage and projection you hardly notice.

Because their images of themselves are unrealistic–no one is that smart, that funny, that beautiful, that anything–the world tends to rip holes in them. But it’s like the couch cushion you keep turning over to hide the stains. There’s always a way not to see that.

Feeling ashamed or embarrassed, caring what people think of you, wanting to be liked and loved and cared about, these are all normal desires and emotions. They are not there for someone to use to exploit you, or ways that someone else can legitimately inspire you to twist yourself into a pretzel just to win some approval. They are there to help us to get along with each other, to place checks on our behavior, and give us reasons to reach out to and connect with one another.

We blame ourselves for being human (and here I am really talking to myself) when the reason these traits in ourselves are making us so unhappy is that someone around us is or was bad at being human themselves. And they exploited our basic human features: shame, guilt, a desire to please and to connect, because for us there is strength in numbers.

They withheld approval and affection. They induced an untenable amount of shame or guilt by suggesting you control aspects of yourself or the world that you couldn’t control: like expecting a child to keep her mentally ill mother calm and happy, that you never feel tired or hungry or sad, or that you never made mistakes. And they violated you in the ways they knew would hurt you most.

Diamond workers in Sierra Leone, post civil war. Photo credit: Lydia Polgreen.
Diamond workers in Sierra Leone, post civil war. Photo credit: Lydia Polgreen.

But that is not your fault.

It is not your fault if you felt ashamed or guilty because of your failures in a violating and overly-demanding set of expectations or that you felt lonely, insecure, and clingy when your needs for affection and regard weren’t met. They knew you would. That was the point.

Because the blood diamonds here, the tunsten and coltan of the narcissists world, are power. And you have needs that can be used to give them what the power they want.

This doesn’t mean the needs should go away. You can’t make them even if you tried. It means the narcissists need to go away, and with a little luck you can get them far enough on the periphery of your life that they don’t matter anymore.

And I think I have.

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Shame and Guilt

I’m still working this out, so bear with me.

Auspicious start to a post, isn’t it? I don’t know what I’m talking about, but listen to me anyway. How many hits does a post get, starting out like that?

Nonetheless, it’s true. I don’t know what I’m talking about, but you might want to listen anyway. You might not. You might prefer to listen to this fantastic performance instead:

And that’s okay too. I rather liked it myself.

Now, since you’re still here, let’s get started, shall we? Let’s get started with this business I don’t have worked out just yet.

Shame and guilt figure prominently for abuse survivors. Traumatic stress is not just about fear, but about guilt and shame as well. Person-perpetrated harm is more likely to lead to ongoing distress than natural disasters, although those cause distress as well. Trauma is a social experience as much as a physical one.

We need our troop to protect us. And when it doesn’t, or when it turns on us instead, we’re vulnerable. We’re terrified, and rightly so.

And we also have socially-mediated emotions as well: shame and guilt. Because interactions with other human beings are social experiences, even if what they are doing is highly anti-social.

Dogs are social animals and seem to feel shame. Cats aren't very social and I'm not so sure they do.
Dogs are social animals and seem to feel shame. Cats aren’t very social and I’m not so sure they do.

There are many sources that talk about shame and guilt as destructive emotions. I disagree. They are part of being human, like having teeth and nails or a complex digestive tract. But other people sometimes use our biologically mediated emotions against us. Or, they disregard them, in the same way they might disregard the fact that without water, we’ll die. In those cases, it is the disregard that is so terrifying.

But they are difficult, just as anger and sorrow are, but I don’t think they are inherently destructive. They are important, however, and I do think they are worth understanding.

I’ll tell you what I see as the defining difference between shame and guilt: control. Shame, to my mind, arises when we believe we lack an appropriate or expected level of control. When someone harms me, and I cannot protect myself or escape, I feel shame.

Often, we feel shame when we feel we aren’t in adequate control of ourselves. I might feel shame if I forget an appointment, leave my zipper down after using the restroom, or pass gas in public. That kind of mild shame we usually call embarrassment, but I don’t think it’s fundamentally different than the more intense shame we feel when we drink to excess or can’t seem to stop being gay.

Shame is useful. It prompts us to assert more control–either outside or inside myself. Shame urges me to check my zipper after using the restroom and cut down on the broccoli and beans. It motivates me to strike out against my attackers.

But shame is crippling when what I understand as an appropriate level of control is not appropriate at all. Being gay isn’t like being gassy. I can’t just cut down on the interactions I have with attractive members of the same sex, or spend more time looking at straight porn. And if I can’t overpower my attackers, I am just left with shame.

And it may also tell others to stop. The distress I feel at my lack of power is transmitted via affective empathy, and should cause my attacker distress as well.

Shame is useful for people living in large groups: most often, it urges us to exert self-control. But it is misused as well, when we are encouraged to see situations and personal traits as matters we should be able to control when we simply can’t. And it’s problematic when our attacker lacks empathy and is unmoved by our distress.

Guilt, in contrast, arises when something goes wrong and we feel we do have control over it. So we are harmed, or someone else is harmed, or a moral taboo is broken and rather than feeling helpless, as we do with shame, we feel we caused it.

Guilt is overall a good thing. It is the foundation of conscience. Just as shame exhorts to exercise better self-control, guilt makes us think about consequences. Guilt tells us, “You have power. Use it well.”

We have problems with guilt when we overestimate our degree of control. I think we do this willfully at times. It is so much less terrifying to feel guilty than powerless when someone harms us deeply.  And sometimes we are misled by others about the degree of our own power either deliberately or because they rely on emotional reasoning and magical thinking themselves.

emotional-reasoningGrowing up, I heard regularly how much I was torturing my mother by “making” her feel bad in one way or another. As if I controlled her thoughts and feelings. I didn’t. But she used emotional reasoning. She felt bad. Therefore I must have done something to cause that.

Or, she used magical thinking. If I had a negative thought, that was something that had the power of action, and my negative thought alone was dangerous.

She told me I had far more power than I had.

And many perpetrators have distorted ideas about power. They believe themselves to be both less and more in control than they really are. They are both helpless victims caught in the clutches of others putting bad thoughts in their heads, forcing them to act in ways they’d rather not and also god-like figures capable of manipulating the world through thought alone.

Confusion about power leads to confusion about shame and guilt. And that’s only one problem.

Empathic Distress, Guilt and Moral Reasoning

A Chinese vendor selling halal meets. Photo credit:  Aaron D. Feen
A Chinese vendor selling halal meets. Photo credit: Aaron D. Feen

I’m wondering something today.

I’m wondering something that I don’t have any answers to yet. But let’s just play with some ideas for a while, shall we? Let’s just hypothesize today.

And tomorrow, if I have time, I can read like hell and see if I’m right.

What I’m wondering is if empathic distress leads to guilt, or is part of what leads to guilt. Specifically, I’m wondering if the equation for guilt is this: suffering —> empathic distress –> cognition, “I did that,” –> guilt.

There are two kinds of morality, two categories of things we tend to feel guilty about. The first of these involves harming others: Thou shalt not kill; Thou shalt not commit adultery; Thou shalt not steal, and so on.

The other involves following rules that don’t obviously result in harm to anyone else: Remember the Sabbath Day, for example. Many of these are dietary or involve hygiene rules, such as keeping kosher or halal. When I was growing up in the 2×2s, we had a thousand different rules with very strong moral implications: don’t own a TV, don’t watch movies, don’t go to dances, don’t play on organized sports teams, to name a few.

Tharold Sylvester, Eldon Tenniswood, Ernest Nelson, and Howard Mooney, ca. 1970s.
Tharold Sylvester, Eldon Tenniswood, Ernest Nelson, and Howard Mooney, ca. 1970s.

If you really want to know all about them, you might enjoy a sermon I heard as a child from one of our most respected ministers, Eldon Tenniswood. He may have missed a few things, but it’s rather hard slogging anyway.

They seem different, but I’m not sure they are. What will happen if you are an orthodox Jew and fail to keep kosher? Well, bad things, right? God will be angry at you. He may be angry at your family. You will most likely be punished, or at the very least, he’ll turn his back on you when you most need him. People will be hurt in the long run by what you have done. You will be hurt.

And in the short-run, you will wound the hearts of those closest to you, who will take your failure to support your shared traditions as a personal betrayal.

I know I felt that way, leaving the church. My grandmother probably had a heart “episode” over it, as my mother always called them. Like it was TV.

Certainly, I would be hurting those around me in the long term. They were very clear about this. Car accidents came up a lot, as did drug and alcohol use.

Eldon gave this example in his sermon that night in 1982, “There was a young mother in Ohio who was quite angry when I went there for a visit.  She said to me, “When my little girl ( five years old) goes to school, she is going to be like other little girls.”  She told me about her parents, how hard they had made it for her.  Twelve years later it was my privilege to visit the same mother who sat in the same rocking chair.  Tears were streaming down her face when telling me about her 17-year-old girl.  She was just like other very rebellious girls and now the mother wanted her to be different.”

Guilt isn’t just about fear of punishment, even when the cause seems to be a bunch of silly rules. It’s not even about disapproval or rejection. It’s about not wanting to hurt our parents, our siblings, our children, or even God. It’s about feeling we have caused someone harm or will cause someone harm and we regret it.

It’s about empathic distress: seeing someone in distress and feeling it as if it were our feeling. With one additional element: a sense that we are the agent of that distress.

People who feel the most painful guilt are the most confused about their own agency, what power over others they really have, and what others can and should be expected to do for themselves.

Borderlines are famous for this. Individuals with BPD typically have difficulty regulating their own emotions and consequently expect everyone else to do it for them. People who spend a lot of time around them usually end up with the same belief–that we have a control over others we simply don’t have. If the BPD is experiencing distress, someone else must have caused it, or should have acted to prevent it, or should be able to stop it.

No, no, and no. The distress is partly just a normal part of being alive, partly about the deficits in cognitive empathy associated with BPD, and partly the result of difficulty with emotion regulation: the BPD may be no more distressed than anyone else would be in the same situation. It’s just that she can’t calm down.

Alcoholics have similar beliefs.

If you feel an unreasonable amount of guilt, you can deal with it in one of three ways: act to minimize the harm you feel you have caused (make amends), reconsider the extent of the harm you caused or might be causing (maybe it’s not such a big deal), or reevaluate your role as a cause (maybe it’s not your fault).

“It wasn’t your fault,” is necessary and so powerful.

I started thinking about this all a few days ago, watching Longmire. This is just a trailer, but you might like it anyway.

There is an episode in which a young girl with a developmental disorder is gang raped by four boys. One of them, it is later discovered, was not a willing participant, but he is nonetheless racked with guilt and rage. Another boy held a gun to his head. What else could he do?

A deputy tells him, “If someone threatens you with violence and makes you do something you don’t want to do, that’s kidnapping.” In fact, it isn’t. Not unless it’s a felony. But rape is a felony.

It’s not your faultIf someone threatened you, directly or indirectly, into taking off your clothes so that someone could more conveniently rape you, if they told you to go to an isolated area so that no one one would hear your screams, if they made you harm someone else, if someone said hold still or I’ll hit you harder, that’s kidnapping.

And it wasn’t your fault. If you still think it was, it’s because you won’t admit how powerless and terrified you really were.

Distributed Responsibility

When Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death, 38 people heard her screams. No one did anything. Anything at all.
When Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death, 38 people heard her screams. No one did anything. Anything at all.

If you are ever desperately in trouble and need help, and there are other people there, don’t make a generic appeal. Look at one person. Make eye-contact. Direct your appeal to that person.

Why? Because when responsibility is distributed, we all feel less accountable.

This is the bystander effect. The more people who are present as witnesses, the less likely it is that any one person will intervene. At all.

But we are also swayed heavily by the actions of others. If that one person you appeal to for help does, in fact, come to your aid, everyone else may too.

I’ve experienced that personally. Years ago, a fight broke out in my class. I went immediately to intervene. So did nearly everyone else. Two kids fighting, 15 trying to break it up.

It’s not the only fight that has ever broken out in my class. It’s not the only time I acted to intervene. And they didn’t all work out in exactly that way, so having one person act isn’t the only factor in how the rest of a group of people behave. But it is an important factor.

I mention this not in hopes of saving you from street violence, but because I am thinking about distributed responsibility and other ways in which we can be dissuaded from feeling responsible for wrongdoing.

And I’m thinking about that because of Carol Ann, and probably Candy, and most certainly my mother.

Unlike Karla Hormolka and unlike my father, these women were not psychopaths. They may not have had their heads on entirely straight. They may have been mentally ill, in fact. But they had a conscience. They had some degree of empathy.

What my dad needed to do, since they were part of his arsenal of loaded guns, was get them to shut if off. Distributing responsibility is one way of doing that.

A yellow star worn by the Meninger family in Vienna.
A yellow star worn by the Meninger family in Vienna.

The bystander effect is one form. Get a crowd of people together, all of whom will not speak up for one reason or another–guilt, fear, shame, whatever, doesn’t matter. And commit a crime in front of them, get one of them among them to commit it also, and you are home free. No one will say anything. Most of them will join in.

That is how gang rapes work. It starts with silence.

Oh, and one way of gaining silence is to get your confederates to do something wrong. Evil is a slippery slope. You need people to take that first step.

Yellow stars first, then…genocide.

There are others ways of relieving people of their natural inclination towards taking responsibility for their own actions. One of them is to give orders. That makes it easier on everyone. It makes it easier on the person giving the order–“Who me? I never touched her…”

It makes it easier on the person who acted to commit the crime. “But it wasn’t my idea. He told me to…. I had to….” No, sweetheart. You didn’t have to do anything. You made a choice. But it makes it easier.

A lot of sociopaths work alone. My dad didn’t. He liked other human beings to be his loaded guns. He needed to know these things.

Happy Father’s Day: Hitler’s Children

This is Rainer Hoess, the grandson of Rudolf Hoess. In case your history was atrocious, or some other things came in the way, Rudolf Hoess was the commandant of Auschwitz. He was responsible for the deaths of at least 1,200,000 people.

Rainer Hoess with a family photograph of Rudolf, his wife, and his children--including Rainer's father.
Rainer Hoess with a family photograph of Rudolf, his wife, and his children–including Rainer’s father.

I remember reading a very lengthy biography of Hitler in 8th grade. I think it ran upwards of 800 pages.

Despite all those words, it never answered what I most needed to know: how is it that anyone can be so unspeakably cruel and, at the same time, so petty, so ordinary? How is it that we create these monsters and how is it that we don’t notice who and what they are?

But Holocaust narratives were the first place I really saw my own world reflected. That told me, whether we want to see it or not, whether we find it possible to understand or not, monstrous men walk around in the ordinary world, hold down jobs, pick their noses, read the funnies just like everyone else does. They are here with us. And we don’t even know what they are.

If Eichmann was real, my father could be too.

I watched Hitler’s Children last night, a documentary about Rainer and other descendants of prominent Nazi war criminals and their struggle to come to terms with their family’s histories.

And it made me think I was not just my father’s victim, but his descendant. Half of my genes are his. I might resemble him, just as Bettina Himmler resembles her grandfather. But I don’t really know. I saw a photograph of him not long ago. I didn’t recognize him.

But I read the paper with him on Sundays. I ironed his shirts. I made him sandwiches and coffee. He taught me how to use a saw and the difference between a phillips and a slot-head screw driver. I’d like to think he has nothing to do with me. As far as I am concerned, he might as well be dead. He might as well have never lived.

But I was his daughter. I am his daughter. Like Rainer, I need to make sense of that too. And maybe the sense he has made out of it can help me as well.

At the end of the film, Rainer asks himself, “Why am I alive to carry this guilt, this burden to struggle with it?” He answers that question this way:”I think that must be the only reason I exist. To do what he should have done.”

Maybe he simply means to feel guilty, but I take it to mean he exists to make things right again.

And maybe that is also why I exist. To be kind when my father was cruel. To treat others with dignity when he lived to degrade them. To have compassion when he had none. To be decent when he was monstrous.. And in that way to make things a little more right again.

Self-blame

I feel like my head is one sideways today.

Some ideas are really that big.

This is today’s big idea. But I have to preface it a little, give you a bit of context. So here goes.

I’m talking about child abuse again. Bear with me. I will think about other things again in a few years. Until then, I hope you aren’t too bored.

Image by Maura Luna.
Self-blame. Image by Maura Luna.

Abuse makes us feel ashamed. I’ve written about that before in Thinking Like the Enemy: Why Victims Blame Themselves. There are lots of reasons for it. But we all know it doesn’t feel good, so it’s one of the main things that survivors work at changing–that uncomfortable feeling. When we are abused as children, we typically blame ourselves as well. That’s closely linked with shame.

We generalize along these lines: I feel bad, I blame myself for whatever has caused my bad feelings, therefore who I am must be bad to be causing this.

So, that’s the context.

Here’s the big idea. It was easier to blame myself than the perpetrators. Now, we know that that’s what kids do and we know they do it for that reason: It’s easier. Nothing new there.

But no one has mentioned this part before, so I thought I would: I had more control over myself than over the people who were hurting me. It was more effective for me to numb unbearable feelings than to prevail upon the abusers to stop. Exercising an extreme degree of self-control made more sense than expressing feelings that would never be heard and that would probably result in being abused further.

Holding myself accountable for dealing with life as it was allowed me to function much better than trying to change a situation I couldn’t. That is still the case. Luckily, I have more tools. And life is a lot easier to deal with.

But I think that is also a part of why we sometimes blame victims as a larger society. We feel we have more control over the decent people who are kidnapped, beaten, or raped than the monsters who do it. We don’t know how to control the monsters among us, that look like us, act like us, speak like us, but don’t think like us. And when they get the chance, prey on us. That needs to change.

And on Guilt

Despair and guilt both have a particular meaning for me. Their meanings are fairly similar. So, for a second uplifting reading, you can check out On the Nature of Despair. They go together.

In the the course of the harm that was done to me, I was forced to harm others. In one particular case, a younger child. In another, a kitten. There were most likely others, but those are the ones that return to me as events that require understanding.

I wasn’t responsible for those acts, and yet I feel I am. I am unable to let go of feeling guilty about them.

It’s tempting, to focus on my distorted sense of responsibility and power, but I suspect those are distractions. Because, after a closer look, what I start to think is that I don’t feel I made the wrong choice within the context of the limited choices I had.

In both situations, I was very young–between 4 and 6. It’s possible I didn’t have the capacity to make choices. And yet I recall myself as someone making choices, and someone keenly aware of the consequences of my actions.

In the case of the child–let’s call him Billy–it seems to me I knew that harming him would expand for him the range of possible perpetrators, making everyone a possible source of fear in his life. If even a four-year-old will abuse you, then who is safe? And that’s a terrible thing.

But I also recall myself as someone who knew what would happen if I refused, and a part of that would be forcing Billy to harm me instead. And I saw myself as more capable of managing that horror better than Billy would be able to. It’s a terrible thing to begin to identify with perpetrators of terrible acts and to come to feel that you are as evil as they are.

In the case of the kitten, I knew that my father would continue to torture it and leave it for dead. Better that I simply kill it.

I could, I think, forgive myself if I was simply unable to do anything other than what I did. Children often simply do what they are told, regardless of how terrible the deed. But I feel that I chose, and that I chose the better of the horrific choices available to me. I don’t regret them. I am deeply saddened by them, but I don’t regret it.

Guilt merely reminds me that what I did was wrong. It reminds me that I still knew right from wrong, even if I never had the power to do what was right. Guilt isn’t my enemy, but a friend.