Small abuses

I see my children interact and sometimes VP Ma’am and I start to have an idea of the low-level conflict in my home growing up–the part I don’t remember. I remember the truly traumatic parts, the life-or-death moments, but not the parts that wore away at my small soul.

I see criticism and judgment in moments of stress in order to gain a sense of power, I see competition for no reason other than control, I see smashing someone else’s happiness out of jealousy.

My birthday is on Sunday, and lately I feel particularly sad and also less reasonable than usual. I began to think it’s those small abuses that are likely making me sensitive now. I have trouble reconstructing my mother’s mindset, but I see how my children are often prone to disrupting the other child’s attention, and I think a day when your child has a birthday may be a day you both want and don’t want that child to be the center of attention, and like my children, my mother may have seen me as a rival.



I have been thinking about the empath’s contract with the narcissist: it come from one’s early experiences with other people’s minds–usually your parents’ minds. There are two parts to this: the narcissist’s mind and the way the empath understands the narcissist.

I don’t have a handle on this fully, but I do think the narcissist’s experiences are simply very loud. Other people can’t really compete and the narcissist is also very impulsive, very vindictive.

There are these different attachment styles, and if you don’t have a secure attachment, you work out how best to have your attachment needs met in lieu of that. If your parent is preoccupied–busy, sick, depressed or lacking in warmth, you find the best way to get your parents’ attention is to occupy yourself and wait for the parent to need you, so you become avoidant or detached. If your parent responds to your sense of vulnerability and need, it’s best to go with an anxious style and continually cling.

I think with a narcissistic parent, the most effective way for the child to manage that relationship is to be loud. Meet the parents’ unmet attachment needs by appealing to their own need for warmth or affection or specialness. Satiate their desire for safety by offering control. Or even play on their fears of abandonment or social exile by placing yourself at risk.

Pretzel yourself, and you might get lucky enough to penetrate their self-absorption. But step wrong, and their wrath comes down on you.

I think these are C’s assumptions about relationships.

I am starting to realize I am not that familiar with them. My mother, in my inexpert assessment, was a narcissist or had lots of narcissistic traits with a histrionic streak either from borderline issues or actually being histrionic. But my dad was a sociopath, and that is quite different. Yuri was a sociopath, and I think he functioned as an attachment figure too–since he controlled my life.

Or maybe I am and don’t realize it, but there is this other element that comes with the malevolence: don’t notice me. If you notice me, you can do nothing else other than hurt me.

Standing them on their heads

auntyI like taking old ideas and standing them on their heads sometimes: taking an assumption I have–a notion I believe mainly because it’s been told to me, but which I may not have any other evidence for–and considering the world as if something else were true instead.

Does the world continue to make as much sense seen in some other way? Are there other explanations that account equally well for what I know aside from the old notion?

If a different idea has equal (or better) explanatory power, then it’s time to set the old idea aside, or at least hold it in a sense in limbo–something neither definitely true nor definitely untrue.

The idea under consideration at the moment is that our beliefs are motivated by a preference–perhaps even a need–in a particular way, and that we live to some extent in wishes and fantasy.

Instead, what I’m wondering is if, in fact, we arrive at our beliefs in rather more honest ways: Either our beliefs are received–transmitted to us by family or culture–or are constructed by us in genuine attempts to make sense of our own experiences.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve also been thinking about chronic anger. My mother was chronically angry–homicidally so. Her mother was also–although not at me. I have had plenty of opportunities to observe and be affected by chronically angry people. So, I have a stake in understanding it.

And Aunty is here, seething still in a pouting, a seven-year-old kind of way.  More opportunity.

I was reading Lerner and Loewenstein’s groundbreaking summary of the research on the effect of emotions on decision-making, and of the findings is that both anger and happiness increase feelings of certainty, and most people think less carefully and more implicitly during those affective states. When we feel anxious or afraid, we are more careful with our thoughts, and this is probably why some people end up ruminating.

What this made me wonder is whether chronic anger–as well as mania–leads to a baseline state of an almost unnatural degree of certainty. And if this feeds–or even gives rise to–a sense of grandiosity.


I was writing this post when angry Aunty came in and began to yell about light switches. That was yesterday.

Walking on eggshells

Female life expectancy. Source: UNDP Human Development Report, 2009.

Aunty is chronically angry. From time to time, she is relaxed and jolly, but not often. Mostly, she is angry. In fact, she is angry so much of the time that anger seems to be her personality.

At the same time, she also had her 60th birthday this week, and I don’t think she likes getting old. Sixty is not old, but she lives in a country where the mean life expectancy is only a few years away from that. So for her, it is.

She has been a black cloud ever since.

I think I also drive her particularly crazy. Because I refuse to be drawn in. If she doesn’t feel like talking, I don’t talk to her. But otherwise I go about my daily tasks in the same calm and cheerful way. “Good morning, Aunty,” I say with a smile, when she comes into the bedroom where I’m writing in order to start on the laundry. She mumbles something unintelligible back or, if she’s really in a bad mood, scowls in a fixed kind of way–looking, but without making real eye contact. As if you aren’t a person and hadn’t spoken.

I am relentless, in fact, my tone never changing, the smile always there. If I were her, I’d be thinking of murdering me. What right do I have to be so happy? Especially when she is feeling so glum.

You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

Life, clearly, is just not fair. I say that with a degree of irony. She grew up pampered and spoiled–“kept in cotton wool” she says. And you know how I did. My happiness was not a gift, handed to me. I fought for it–tooth and nail. That’s one reason I won’t let go of it.

I’m also using the medium chill technique on her: polite, upbeat, steady, distant. And I’m not doing it specifically to yank her chain, but for the benefit of my own sanity.

However, I am also inclined to placate her, to be careful of her preferences, and to do exactly what she says even if I’d rather not or if it makes no logical sense. Now, this is not my house, and my own belief is that you should be able to have things done as you like in your own home. But in addition to that, I’m also aware of the pull to not make things worse, or to try not to make things worse if it’s possible.

The effect is something like walking on eggshells.

Nearly everyone walks on eggshells with her. And this makes me think.

People who are chronically angry tend to exploit others for the benefits they can provide rather than engage in caring, reciprocal relationships. They often see others as objects and use them accordingly, the way you would use a coffee maker or a car. Perhaps their anger makes any other kind of relationship impossible, or perhaps their view of others as objects is what is making them so  angry in the first place–after all, I’d get really frustrated if my coffee maker started making its own decisions about when and how it wanted to make coffee. So I can understand.

But when we tiptoe around difficult people, it make objects out of them a well. It is as if we are saying, “You are not a person, but something like a delicate machine or a rickety bridge–something to be careful of rather than engaged with.” And I wonder about that.

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.

God’s Gift to This Green Earth

grandiosityI think I have something worked out this morning.

Drum roll please…

I think I understand now why some people–despite any and all evidence to the contrary–go on thinking of themselves as God’s gift to this green earth.

This wouldn’t be puzzling if I believed our culture’s received wisdom about this, but I don’t. It is just not supported by my own observations.

The old idea is that people who think too much of themselves are really covering a deep-seated insecurity. That’s possible, yes. Grandiose people do seem to get very upset when they are cut down to size again.

But we all get upset when our most cherished views are called into question, don’t we? If you were a Michael Jackson fan, weren’t you just a teensy-tinsy bit disturbed when allegations sprang up that a little more than wonder was going on in Wonderland? And if Martin Luther King Jr inspires you, aren’t his infidelities a hair troubling? And what about the idea that Mother Teresa was a cold, heartless…, well, I can’t actually bring myself to use the appropriate word here. Or Gandhi-ji. Not much of a father, according to at least one of his sons. Those are upsetting allegations as well, aren’t they?

We don’t like our beliefs disturbed–our beliefs about anything, including our beliefs about ourselves. And since that explains the distress people feel when their grandiose ideas about themselves are challenged, I can’t see any reason to assume there is some painfully inadequate-feeling “real” self inside them they are trying to suppress.

Also, research on bullies indicates they do not necessarily have low self-esteem. Most bullies have quite positive self-views. Again, that challenges the received wisdom about bullies: that they are also compensating for low self-esteem.

In fact, I suspect our assumption that pompous, manipulative, and malicious people secretly feel bad about themselves is really there mainly to make us feel better. I’m not sure how it makes us feel better, but I think it does.

What I think I have worked out is that people with inflated and unrealistically positive views of themselves do so not to compensate for a negative view of themselves, but to compensate for the negative views they hold of others.

Whatever your views on the man, you have to admit he sneered a lot.
Whatever your views on the man, you have to admit he sneered a lot.

And it mainly comes out of this thought: connections with others seems to be inversely related to positive self-views. The more connected people feel, the less they seem to need to think well of themselves. The less connected they are, the more they need to believe they are God’s gift to this green earth.

Which probably explains why Americans so often seem to behave like jackasses as soon as they leave the country, and George Bush (both of them) alienated most of the rest of the world. We have the most individualistic national culture in the world. We are the least connected to larger groups outside of our immediate families, and we also seem to think a lot more of ourselves than is really reasonable.

Narcissists aren’t compensating for low self-esteem. They are compensating for a lack of connection to others, and the sense that they cannot rely on others for help or support. Others will help, but only if there’s something in it for them, or because they have been tricked. Or, and this is where the drum roll should be repeated, because they are God’s gift to this green earth.

That’s settled. Now I can get on with my day.

Today, Feeling Unimportant, and Trying that on for Size

A completely different take on what it means to be unimportant.
A completely different take on what it means to be unimportant.

Today is not a good day.

It is one of those days when nothing in particular is going wrong and it feels terrible anyway. I feel terrible. Just, you know, because I’m me and I’m alive and that’s how being alive feels today.

Specifically, I feel useless, unimportant, and irrelevant. Beside the very point of life.

And sometimes, when I feel particularly bad, I try the thoughts that are making me feel so bad on for side. So what if this is true? What does that mean? How does that actually feel?

Because I know where it’s coming from. It’s an old sense about myself, derived from being treated as if I really were beside point, and deserved no consideration, respect, or care. And I could simply be used.

I know there are some people who grow up with abuse and come out of it feeling that the world is fair, and conclude that they must be bad people to be treated that way. I didn’t though. I grew up feeling the world is not fair. It is capricious and arbitrary. And I am not important enough to be protected from its capriciousness.

And the end result is not that I don’t feel deserving of anything at all.

But it’s all part of this sense of unimportance. That I’m sitting with now. And playing with for a while. Because I have decided it doesn’t matter that much what I think. And so I am not afraid of what I think, and this frees me up to simply play with those thoughts. (There is a method to this madness.)

Because, see, people with a grandiose sense of themselves–which most people who harm children have–harm those they see as lacking their special status. Average is their worst enemy. Average is the worst kind of character flaw. Average triggers their rage. Not being grossly defective, although they may make it sound that way. Just average.

Which is handy, actually, because it makes most of the world a fair target.

Of course, I’m really not quite average. I would not fall close to the median of most measures. So there’s a bit of problem there. But let’s keep going with this anyway.

Because I am still basically unimportant. I matter profoundly to one or two other people. And I matter some to several others. But to the great majority of the 8 billion people on the planet, I matter not at all.

My life or death make almost no difference.

There. How does that feel?

Actually (and feel free to listen in to this little conversation I’m having with myself) it feels fine. It feels rather fine. It feels like I can do whatever I want. Which isn’t quite true. I am not so unimportant that I can stop paying the bills and still have the lights come on when I flip a switch.

The electric company would eventually notice it was time to cut me off.

So I’m not quite that unimportant. But close enough.

No, being unimportant is okay. It does not need to hurt. The flaw is in thinking what being unimportant means: that other, important people have the power and the right to harm me.

They don’t. Because they aren’t very important either and have no more right to harm others than I do.

What do you think of that?