My last post was about shifting shame into blame. I am interested in this, because I think it’s part of disorganized attachment and the personality disorders that result from them. It’s a regulation strategy, when the shame feels too great.

I think the purpose of shame is to maintain cooperation. Cooperation is what human beings are really great at. I think we feel shame when we depart from the perspective of those around us. Human beings use the feeling of shame strategically (and not always honestly) to shape conscience, so that children growing up internalize those things that other people never like: cheating, for example, or stealing.

Shame gets us back on the track of trying for attunement. I don’t think we should never have to feel shame and I also think adults routinely shame children into behaving without realizing it. I think the difference between what we recognize as emotional and abuse and what people do every day is about intensity. Emotional abuse overwhelms the child, activates fight-or-flight instincts, and shuts down reflection, making behavioural change impossible or at least unlikely. “Healthy” discipline leads to shame, remorse and behavioural change.

When a parent lacks a fully developed Theory of Mind and cannot understand the perspective of their children, then I think the child grows up feeling ashamed of normal experiences: the parent thinks, “I don’t know why you are hungry, because I am not,” as though the parent has never been hungry before and doesn’t know what hunger is like.

Shame becomes about one’s being, not just because your parents tell you that you are terrible, but because you don’t have the ability to regulate the impulses and emotions your parents expect you to be able to control. A young toddler can’t wait until dinner time and probably also can’t stop crying.

What I am getting at is that the pain a narcissistic parent causes begins with the first time a parent’s ability to understand their child’s intentions and desires breaks down, and not the first time the parent hits the child. Normal infants and parents have hundreds of breakdowns in attunement, but the parent has the skills to repair the break. In disorganized attachment, the parent doesn’t have those skills.

I don’t know how to express the extent to which shame feels unbearable to a young child who can’t turn to the parent to help them regulate their self-esteem. Being you feels bad. It makes you want to leap out of your own skin.

So one way of dealing with this is to blame someone else, and I think this happens with disorganized attachment. The original source of shame is the desire for closeness in the first place. Your parent was busy shooting up or knitting or whatever their thing was, and couldn’t understand your need for affection or protection or support, and so you felt ashamed.

As you get older, you don’t know why you feel ashamed whenever you start to feel close. In some people this leads to anger: the drive for closeness is sparking feelings of shame, which hurts, and so there is a desire to lash out at the person who seems to be inspiring the urge for closeness, as though they are the ones hurting you.

You can’t understand yourself as owning the desire for closeness, because then the shame would feel unbearable, so it must be understood to belong to someone else. The downside to this is that you then become a puppet of a person, whose desires and instincts are operated by other people while you stand helplessly by.

The other way to cope with the shame is to try to narrow and particularize it so that doesn’t feel like your whole self anymore. This is probably healthier and more “adult,” but it still leads to a confused understanding of yourself, if the “real” prompt for the shame is attachment, but you think it’s caused by a typing mistake.


Narcissistic Rage

I have not been sleeping well lately. I feel very tired (I have had a cold, anyway) and fall asleep early–sometimes as early as 6:30 pm–and then I wake up in a few hours, frightened. I haven’t known why.

Then today I began to think it’s about my friend. Last week, she sent an email. She had gotten my tax refund at last. (My mail comes to her house: I know she’s not the best choice, but there isn’t really anyone else.) She said she could deposit this for me and could I send her my account number. She has it somewhere, but didn’t feel like digging through things. I’ve been particularly busy, tired and stressed (got the papers together for renewing my contract here last week) and because of the time difference, I read these emails from her in the early morning, before I start cooking breakfast.

So when I sent her the account number, there was a number off. I was hasty in sending it and I’m kind of a klutz with a phone keypad still, so although I realize I ought to have double-checked the number, I wasn’t terribly surprised to get an email from her telling me there was a mistake.

This is the thing: the reason there was a check was that something went wrong with direct deposit and the IRS couldn’t do that. I knew this, because otherwise there would not have been a check. She had not realized it: there was no reason for her to have thought of that.

So she got a letter a few days later from the IRS to this effect. I was also not surprised about this, because this has happened before. I think I get the routing number wrong. But, anyway, I had done my taxes with two high-needs kids in the house who generally cannot let go of my attention for an hour or two, so it was doubly and triply not surprising.

I then got an email from her suggesting I look into whether this error had caused other problems as well. Given that I have been in Country X for nine months now, it’s hard to imagine what other problems my error in writing my account number might have caused. It did not seem tactful to say this. Also, it’s my own feeling that while letting me know of the letter from IRS is helpful and conscientious, suggesting I look into “what other problems this might be causing” steps over some kind of line. I may be wrong.

So I said thanks for letting me know and moved on with friendly small-talk stuff and left it at that. But she then followed up: “It wasn’t clear from [my] note whether [I] understood [her] point that [I] should check other places where I might have given the wrong account number.”

I’m on the other side of the world. Who would I need to give my account number to and why? I am not exactly awash in American financial transactions.

Again, I don’t know how to put this tactfully, and it’s also none of her business what I have or have not done to follow up. Maybe I’m excessively private, but it feels intrusive to me–not to pass on the information (that is decent and considerate), but to tell me what to do about.

The thing is this feels to me like someone ruminating, chewing again and again on this mistake, and finding it impossible to live with. It feels like narcissistic rage brewing. I have been through this with her before. It may be going into the bank with the wrong account number felt embarrassing. She has a Phd from Harvard: she’s not supposed to be stupid, nor would you expect someone at the bank to condescend to you. But they do. Or you imagine they do. I forget to buy things, head back to the shop, and my old landlord (the shopkeeper) who never went to school laughs at me from behind the counter, and I feel something. I want to think it’s indulgent laughter (ah, this adorable Miss Ash, she’s so forgetful), but I am not so sure it is. I don’t mean to put down my landlord at all: I just mean I can relate to this desire not to be seen as stupid and incompetent when you are educated and employed.

I think my friend has been chewing on this feeling of embarrassment for days now, needing to expunge it. And the thing is if we remember that for some people who had caregivers who could not mirror them, feelings seem to be out there. The way to feel understood and supported is to get someone else to have your feeling, so that your feeling is out there where it seems to be real and to exist and not in here, feeling painful.

In other words, the best thing to do is to make sure I feel embarrassed and vulnerable instead.

I think I have been frightened by this sense of rage brewing.




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.

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.

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?

Motor Empathy

We don't copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it's about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.
We don’t copy each other just to fit in or be liked. Really, it’s about all running away from the same lion instead of standing around stupidly until you see it too.

There are actually three systems that work together to help us understand how others are thinking and feeling and that allow us to relate to each other as social beings. The third one, which I haven’t really mentioned up until now, is motor empathy.

Motor empathy is the reason you find yourself looking in the same direction a stranger suddenly turns toward. It is the reason you tend to cross your arms if your conversational partner is crossing hers.

It is probably also the reason my cat smiles after more than a decade of my smiling at her.

Motor empathy is also called mirroring. We do it unconsciously for the most part, although life coaches and job interview tips might advocated doing it on purpose. Mirroring the actions of others makes us likable. It is an advertisement of your success as a social human being. It says you are skilled at understanding how others feel. It says you care about other people. It says you share your toys and play nicely in the schoolyard.

To some extent this may really be true, because motor empathy may be the precursor of affective (emotional) empathy. And you need affective empathy to develop real concern for other people. Cognitive empathy alone doesn’t seem to do it.

It works like this. Someone smiles at you. you smile back. The smile makes you feel happy, and consequently you understand that people who are smiling are happy.

The Russian doll model (that I don't totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.
The Russian doll model (that I don’t totally buy) that moves from simplest to most complex responses.

So motor empathy may be the mode of transmission for contagious emotions. You mimic the expression and the expression creates the emotion that goes with it.

But it’s not entirely clear. Autistic people have great difficulty with motor empathy. However, we don’t know whether they have difficulty with affective empathy. They may not. The jury on that is still very much out.

Even if it is, good motor empathy as an indicator for other kinds of empathy only works for some people–most people, in fact, but not everyone.

It doesn’t work for people with personality disorders. They all have perfectly fine motor empathy skills and major gaps in others systems. Borderlines feel what you feel, but cannot make sense of it. Narcissists lack affective empathy. Psychopaths do too. They do not feel what you are feeling, even if they are doing what you are doing.

Motor empathy is a part of what makes us feel connected to others. There are other elements involved, but motor empathy is one of them. That is why you can develop the most intense feeling of connection to a narcissist or psychopath–they can seem so absolutely in synch with you–but still be dropped like a hot potato.

They don’t feel what you are feeling, even when they look like they are. The connection is entirely on your side.