An idea

So I had an idea about the effect of narcissistic spectrum on a developing child, which includes both me and my mother. Sort of. It’s in process, so I’m still playing with bits of it. Actually lots of bits. But there are two central ideas that I find tremendously explanatory.

One of them is that the child is chronically deprived of an object who processes emotions well, and so what happens is that emotions appear to be “out there.” The parent does not respond to the child’s emotions, but only her own. It is as though the child’s felt world does not exist, because it does not exist to the parent.

Marked mirroring does not, and it is marked mirroring which creates an awareness of differentiation. (The parent shows she recognises how the child feels, but does not feel that way herself.)

I believe the experience of mirroring is felt as a deep craving, because it serves to teach problem-solving. We may not know why we need it, but we feel the need nonetheless, and not just as children but throughout out lives.

Marked, contingent mirroring shows, “I recognize you have a problem, I know what the problem is, and this is how to solve it.”

Unmarked, contingent mirroring shows, “I have (or we have) a problem, and this is how I will solve my problem (or our problem).”

Lack of contingent mirroring shows, “I don’t know you have a problem or I don’t know what the problem is.”

A child deprived of mirroring may not link distressing experiences to the feeling of distress or to socially viable solutions.

I think marked mirroring is the beginning of the caregiving behavioural system, linking the emotion of the child to its cause and then the solution. Care is in the form of problem-solving beyond the cognitive capacity of the child.

The child with a narcissistic parent must satisfy the need for mirroring in ways other than presenting her emotional state. The child deprived in this way may amplify her emotions in order to prompt emotional contagion, so that the parent shares her feeling (although the solution pursued by the parent will most likely meet the parent’s need and not the child’s).

The child may manipulate the parent into adopting her emotion, even though that creates another situation which will not benefit the child. The need to share an emotional state with others is simply so great.

The child may insist on the parent pursuing a course of action which appears to reflect understanding of the child; I know you understand my hunger if you feed me. This utilises an immature, teleological mentalizing stance

The parent raised by a narcissist parent may come to use coercive strategies on the child in order to force the child to meet the parent’s mirroring needs: in other words, the parent may simply punish the child until the child successfully mirrors the parent, although the child may not have any idea what the parent actually feels. Or, the child may be coerced or manipulated into following a course of action which appears to reflect an understanding of the parent’s state, although the child may have no idea what that state is–just the action to perform.

In other words, it’s a mask, rather than any real understanding of emotions, their causes or their solutions.

The experience of being chronically deprived of authenticity caused by this pressure to merely comply with the parent, causes the child to feel that she is unreal. Only the parent seems to exist, and it prepares the child for an adult life in which she is unable to be authentic. There is a certain degree or range of degrees of vulnerability which is normal to display in different kinds of relationships. The child of a narcissist learns that no degree of vulnerabilities is acceptable or safe.

All of it

Narcissists live in a state of constant competition. I find this hard to imagine–how do you not recognize satiation? But they want it all. If not all, then at least more. Because they live life in a state of comparison. Dominance feels good.

They assume everyone lives like this.

I couldn’t for a long time grasp it. Why would anyone live this way? But they do. Freud describes this, I think, as an infantile state of omnipotence. I have trouble imagining toddlers feeling omnipotent, but narcissists do. I wonder how it happens.

My grandmother–my mother’s mother–was a grandiose narcissist. She wanted more. The children in a narcissist’s family exist to gain more for the parent, but in a pinch they can be used as the source of comparison: I have more than my child. Or, I can control which of my children has more.

My mother, with a covert narcissistic personality that was borderline tinged, grew up with this: I think it played out as a paranoia about having enough. Having two children in my house from narcissistic families revealed a lot: a constant struggle for who has more, who got something better. He got a new umbrella…what about me? But you have an umbrella…A constant self-assessment for woundedness, because that’s how the parent exacts revenge.

Some of my mother’s terrible actions were about re-establishing control in this way: I remember coming home and finding toys given away, cats put to sleep…because my mother felt out of control. I couldn’t connect those dots at 7 or even 10. They make sense now. It’s monstrous.

The narcissistic parent shames others in order to enhance the self. They begin to act as though rules are other than what they are. Confidence in their deliberately twisted versions of reality is designed to fool you. You should have done this. And if you aren’t careful you will never think to ask, “But why would I do that?” You will reflexively feel embarrassed or ashamed based on pure emotion, never thinking that’s not a thing.

One way to have everything is to reject things, even if you want it. I think this plays out for me with C, at least in my head. You have everything, because you are making the rules. It makes me insecure.

But C is not doing it purposely. At least not always. She is afraid of this monstrous person she’s only vaguely conscious of who will punish her for not letting them have everything.

Wounds

It’s been easier for me to remember the big traumas of my childhood, but recently I had a somewhat clearer picture of less vivid and shocking experiences. It came up in the context of thinking about coping strategies in dysfunctional (or addicted) families, so I’ll write a post about that later.

However, I will say, I realized one of the strategies in my family that I played into was to be the scapegoat. Now, the scapegoat allows the other members to discharge negative emotions without needing to engage in more difficult problem-solving skills.  There are other elements to this, but it’s the one that comes to mind for me.

Parents on the borderline or narcissistic spectrum are angry about all kinds of things based on their dysfunctional views of what should be happening, distorted views of situations, and unrealistic expectations. So they have all of this uncomfortable anger they are trying valiantly not to express to someone who may have the power to retaliate.

Scapegoating also allows a parent to compensate for feelings of helplessness by creating an even more helpless other to give himself a sense of strength via comparison.

The child is unlikely to question this, because what he knows of himself, he learned first from his parents: the abuse is likely to be taken for reality. Accepting the role of the scapegoat may benefit the child as well, in that it protects him from grasping the malevolent intentions of his parents.

There were two very consistent putdowns when I was a child: one mostly from my mother and one mostly from my father. The first was some variation on being physically unattractive–these were mostly small comments, not dramatic attacks on my self-image. So, my mother dressed me in a lot of brown: I really found her choice in clothes for me ugly. Then there were my crooked teeth, my hair color, my freckles, and my thinness.

So the weird thing about this when I was growing up is that absolutely no one in any other area of my life remarked much on this. I remember my mother telling me once that when she was growing up, they called kids like me “carrot top.” No one ever said that to me, although they did pull my braids. (Nothing like being a 2×2 wearing out-of-style dresses to school to make you feel like a social outcast.)

Some people liked my hair. The rest of humanity didn’t care. My mother used to call me Boney-Maroney. There was a whole song about this. When I got older (post-college, I think), people did eventually notice I was very thin. When I was 10, no one gave a damn.

I didn’t draw any particular conclusion about this as a child: I don’t remember what I felt. As a adult, there seems only one possible conclusion I might reasonably have drawn, given that my parents teased me over flaws no one else saw: my mother is mean to me.

I had never realized until this year how deeply this had seeped into my consciousness. I would never have acknowledged I had this belief feeling previously, but now I can’t look at myself without thinking I am ugly.

I think now that maybe I was striking in my appearance and the thing about narcissistsis that the child of one is supposed to look good, but never steal the spotlight from the parent. It might be that, whether I was pretty or ugly, my mother was angry at me for being noticed.

The other consistent emotional abuse came in the form of criticizing my strength: this was really frustrating to me. It was something else which seemed to be a big deal only at home. My family frequently called me “Wimpy.” (My given name sounds something like that.)

It made no sense to me: for the youngest and smallest child in the family, it seemed mysterious to me that they seemed surprised I wasn’t as strong or coordinated as they were. In my own life, I didn’t feel weak. I could do the things a little kids might want to do. Compared to other children my age, I didn’t feel any difference.

This one came mostly from my dad, and I suppose he saw in me a reflection of vulnerability and fragility he didn’t want to be reminded of from his own childhood: he was on the small side himself.

The last one had to do with intelligence: “You think you’re so smart…” was something I heard a lot. I didn’t mean to show off. I just lived in my own world of big words and interesting ideas and those things leaked out into my dealings with actual, living beings.

I wonder if that too was about outshining my mother: It had never crossed my mind, but my mother went to college. She majored in English and Spanish. She was the first college graduate in her family. Her younger sister also went to college, but she majored in music: my aunt got to be the “creative” one, while the oldest of the three sisters joined the navy.

My mom was meant to be the “smart one.” I wasn’t expected to be precocious.

Hopelessness

I remember with my ex being in couple’s therapy and feeling very depressed that particular week and having my ex remarking that her week had been the best she’d had in a long time. It was difficult not to connect these two dots, and I seem to recall that the therapist did: No, of course, my ex wasn’t happy that I was depressed, but the implication couldn’t be expunged once it had begun to enter everyone’s minds, no matter what words she spoke

Looking back on this, those two dots remain connected for me, not just about her, but about my mother: my father had a different kind of narcissism. I don’t think either one of them wanted me to feel hopeless. My feelings were a side-issue.

I do think they had a hostile world view that is convoluted and tangled, in which my individuality was a threat. My feelings of depression stemmed from a state of feeling I did not exist in the mind of someone else and that it was hopeless to continue to try to assert this existence.

The thing is: it was hopeless and remains hopeless. I was reading about our unfortunate president this morning and some expert had remarked he cannot process information which conflicts with his aims.

I think of C’s family and the lack of comfort and soothing provided by the parents to the children, which seems to stem from the parents’ lack of confidence in their ability to provide it. The kids get what they want in the end, because the parents seem to feel unable to offer any tools for coping with loss or disappointment. These feelings cannot be tolerated: they must either be surrendered to or suppressed.

The result, it seems, is a fear that feelings must necessarily be overwhelming and are to be avoided at all costs. It sets up future relationships in which differences are very threatening: if you believe that not getting your way will lead to total overwhelm–either externalized and visible or internalized and hidden, then differences are like rocky seas, threatening to drown you at any moment.

Is this why attention must be kept on the narcissist at all times? Looking at someone else invites an awareness of the presence of an enemy. The threat may not be intended, but the narcissist’s ability to cope is so fragile that liking blue instead of red may be too much to manage.

One of the abilities babies develop fairly quickly (I think–I’m no expert on this) is the ability to shift attention away from unpleasant stimuli. There are these experiments of children resisting temptation–they are given a marshmallow and promised more marshmallows if they don’t eat it–and the strategies the children use include not looking at the marshmallow and moving the marshmallow further away from themselves or moving away from the marshmallow. Some of them distract themselves singing or playing games, but the main strategy in young children for not eating the marshmallow  is to keep the attention off the marshmallow.

Faced with a child’s behaviour that the parent does not like, the parent may remove their attention from the child in order to manage their own feelings of anger or shame if they have no other resources to cope. This may be especially true if the child’s behaviours are not easily identifiable as “wrong,” and so aren’t something the parent feels empowered to act on in normal disciplinary ways.

What the child feels is the painful sense of not existing within the parent’s mind, because the parent’s attention has been deliberately withdrawn in order to maintain self-regulation. The impulse is to attract the parent’s attention again in order to relieve this pain, but the parent is angry. The more the child has the parent’s attention, the more the parent loses control of their angry impulses. It’s not a great leap for the child to feel that their bids to regain the parent’s attention are causing the anger.

This withdrawal of attention can be done punitively: I know losing attention is painful and so I am going to punish you for whatever I don’t like by withdrawing my attention without telling you what I don’t like, because actually I am not supposed to dislike it, so the punishment must be indirect: I can’t send you to the naughty chair or ground you for something that isn’t really wrong. Or maybe the parent never learned what rights adults have in society or what children are supposed to be allowed to do, and so they don’t feel confident about asserting their own rights: they don’t know when to set limits and when to let it go, so they aren’t overt or clear about what is allowed and what isn’t. I know this is the case with my mother: she had no more clarity over what to do when we were disrespectful to her than when we merely expressed a different preference.

I think it creates an anxiety: am I being punished? Did I do something wrong? The child grows up wanting constant contact in order to avoid feelings of shame associated with removal of attention and perhaps also having difficulty accepting boundaries related to separation.

I was thinking the end result of this for the child is to feel this removal of attention is always a punishment, even if it only sometimes is, and so all losses reflect back on the malevolence or shamefulness of the child. The child both frantically seeks the return of attention and forgiveness and is afraid of it (because what if the parent is still not regulated?)

Yesterday was a holiday, and in the evening beforehand I got excited about this, imagining how I might spend my free time. Not long after, VP Ma’am called me up, inviting me for lunch and then also breakfast. I didn’t want to go. The thing is these are Country X holidays. I don’t sit at home feeling neglected. The Lunar New Year has no sentimental meaning for me. I think I finally have some free time. I have no social obligations. I have no school work. I can just have fun. But Country Xers generally never imagine this: they don’t imagine I have things I want to do, nor do they imagine I enjoy my solitude.

So it’s a not completely unusual for VP Ma’am to imagine that my aloneness might be anything other than unpleasant. I felt an immediate sense of dread that I ought to unpack. It’s hard to avoid the sense that people exist solely to spoil my happiness or that my pleasure in life is constantly under attack from people who willfully want to destroy it. I am trying to be aware of my immediate assumption that all activities I don’t initiate are going to be unfun. I know that some measure of that is a distortion, based on my mother’s sense of threat over my developing autonomy: the only way for her to get her needs met by me was if I needed her.

I also thought I don’t know how to refuse VP Ma’am’s invitation without being rude. There is no way to get someone to understand that I’d rather play with pictures and wash my windows than talk to you, and this is not actually a reflection on you. Anyway, I told her I wouldn’t come for breakfast, because I had some “work” (the phrase here), but that I would come for lunch. I thought her granddaughter is there, whom I taught years ago, and I actually do like her. Of course, she didn’t come and talk with us much, but eventually she did. Her son was also there, and I really dislike him. The more I talk with him, the less I like him. He believes that money–more specifically, material possessions–will buy him happiness and finds it nearly impossible to imagine others might not agree with him.

Actually, he probably does find objects provide him with joy, because what he’s really seeking is dominance: in a society just opening up to the glittering world of consumerism, having an object someone else doesn’t have is pretty great. He can’t really understand in a more developed society having “things” doesn’t pack the same punch, because everyone else has things too.

VP Ma’am talked without allowing for much intrusion of my own thoughts. It’s sometimes clear that she just doesn’t take in what I say. I didn’t enjoy my visit, and the hard thing about this is that I find it hard to recover.

Anyway, it was fine, but not pleasant. But I can’t shake the despair.

 

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.