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.
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.
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.
After last night’s grappling with reality, I began to think I need to develop ways to like myself–things I can do where I like being myself and also things I like about myself. I take care of my needs, but staving off pain is not the same as enjoying life, and I while I am not suggesting that running after pleasure will ever lead to any degree of satisfaction, I think those sparkles of pleasure sustain you through tough times. I cannot just relentlessly slog through.
I was thinking, too, that taking care of my emotional or trauma-oriented need for stability is often related to parts: the parts are endearing because of how I imagine them. They are not endearing in an adult body. I used to feel repelled by some of The Girl’s displays of dependency–it seemed to me that dependency was part of her role at home, being the unexpected child born to older, empty-nester parents. There are behaviours that are appealing or at least developmentally appropriate in a toddler that are just not cute anymore at 13. What I am getting at is that I need to take care of myself when all of these needs are no longer sequestered in “cute” packages: I need some kind of affection for my actual, adult self.
It led me to thinking about why this affection and pride never developed in the first place. I don’t just mean because my parents abused and neglected me: that’s too unhelpfully vague. I mean specifically what about how they interacted with me did that?
At the same time, I came across some information about covert narcissism, and I have been thinking about my mother and the role of anger in her relationships. First, I watched a video on YouTube about the 3 levels of covert narcissism. It may have been from Dr. Daniel Fox, whom I have recently found very helpful, and it seemed to me I recognize scapegoating as something familiar from my childhood–like maybe there wasn’t always something necessarily wrong with me. Maybe people were just angry for various reasons and looking for an acceptable receptacle for all of this anger, someone powerless enough that there wouldn’t be repercussions.
How did that shape me? By making me unsure of what to expect from other people or how anything about me might be perceived. Is this good or bad? Most things can be perceived in different ways, admired or ridiculed. Very few things are good or bad to everyone. And I think this creates an enormous amount of anxiety and a compulsion to check things out: I don’t follow through on that, because I know better, but I suspect there remains this little needy part of me inside wanting to be told the correct way to see things.
My mother had and probably still has an immense need for attention, for comfort, and soothing and what I have realized since is that this isn’t a lack of independence. The soothing she demands is a vehicle for attention-seeking. It’s not that she can’t do these things for herself–although it’s possible that she can’t. It’s that pain seems a legitimate way to grab the attention she wants.
So she becomes this kind of leaky vessel of needs. What she is really trying to do is displace a tyrant of a voice within herself who is constantly critical, constantly dissatisfied, constantly displeased: in other words, the same voice she directed outward at all of us. She turned it outward to save herself from it, but it operated within her too. The result of this kind of voice in a parent is a feeling of constant failure.
I think how easily pleased I am at the successes of children. “Oh, look, you kicked a ball. How wonderful!” “You washed the dishes just like I told you to do.” “You managed to look like you bathed this week.” My standards are really low. It’s just so wonderful for kids to be growing up and becoming more capable of doing things and being independent. I’m happy at pretty much everything.
And then I imagine a parent who never feels this: who feels, first of all, mostly in relation to herself. My mother didn’t want me to be a responsible member of society: she wanted me to pay attention to her, and paying attention to her was so awful. It was like drinking a bottle of pure despair. There are people who can’t look at train wrecks and people who can’t look away. I am among the former: my mother was too overwhelming for me. But the litany of slights and injustices and needs kept my attention on my failure to satisfy her: it created in my mind a history of failures, which led to an unconscious bias towards expecting failure later.
I also thought about jealousy: it’s an important part of covert narcissism and a part of of borderline as well and I suspect my mother had both. Is it possible that my mother was angry at my successes and my good qualities? Or maybe she simply felt that if I did things I was good at and succeeded at them I would see how inadequate she was and abandon her. Maybe she was angry over a rejection that hadn’t happened yet.
I think of this in terms of writing–this was one of the triggers I have wanted to work on. I am more and more sure that writing itself, in addition to the personal nature of what I usually write about, is a trigger. There were a few memorable times I remember explosive, painful arguments with my mother over writing. I don’t remember her doing this when I drew or painted: I suspect visual art was an approved activity. Being creative or artistic was admirable, but plumbing the depths of the human heart was not. The thing is, although art was my college major, I don’t actually believe I am very good at it. This has been my evaluation as an adult. I think I’m good at writing. I don’t think I am good at drawing or painting. I like art, but I should never have believed it was something I could devote my life to.
I suspect my mother was angry I had this thing I liked to do, this outlet that I enjoyed and made me feel good because I was good at it: she may not have been able to tell whether I was good at it or not, but she might have been able to recognize the sense of goodness I had about it, that doing it allowed me to feel a sense of mastery in my world that was pleasurable. She may have felt jealous of that. It’s not that my mother had no talents: she did. But if you feel you must be the best to count, if you are constantly comparing yourself and then inevitably falling short, then I think you lose the joy of having that talent. If what you are aiming for is the attention being good at something gives you, and there is no pleasure in the “flow” of doing it, then you can’t enjoy the talent.
The impact on me is to then be frightened to enjoy anything, because my pleasure may spark a jealous rage: only, I know I didn’t recognize it as jealousy at the time, although it fits now. I couldn’t fathom the pattern which emerged in my unconscious mind of pleasure in myself and punishment for feeling that way. I had no way to explain it, but I felt it. I suspect I still do.
I read something else, which has to do with the excitement of a relationship with an overt narcissist that covert narcissists feel. I don’t understand this one exactly, but it made me wonder if this is why I internalized this sense of myself as boring: I lacked that sparkle for my mother. I wasn’t a narcissist.
I have been thinking more about how Cluster B disorders develop and, truthfully, what to do about their effect on myself (because how to cope is always at the core of these musings).
I thought about the constant need for attention that comes with both narcissistic and borderline personality disorders. They have different roots: the narcissist wants adulation, but the borderline just wants to feel real. I began to think they may have something to do with the social experience of seeing oneself via the other person. It’s an automatic function of the brain in social interactions.
And yet, it seems to me, Cluster B personalities shut down this function for fear of the kind of person someone else might see: there is a conditioning that using this function of imagining the self in the eyes of the other person is going to be aversive, and perhaps the child growing up in this kind of family learns to avoid using themselves as a witness, instead staying as much as possible within an oceanic state of mindless doing.
But the mental function of seeing oneself is essential to being human: I wonder if keeping it switched off creates a sense of starvation–a relentless “Look at me! Look at me!”because this is how we evolved to be.
Merging may provide some relief to this: perhaps “we” feels qualitatively different enough from “I” that a positive “we” is possible, even if “I” remains painful. Perhaps the borderline can see “us,” but not “me.”
Meanwhile, the narcissist works hard to control the image of the self the viewer is allowed to reflect back.
For myself, I have been thinking that past experiences of being seen are so negative that it creates a priming which influences how I see myself now: it creates mud-coloured glasses. How do I compensate for or overcome the priming without being blind? The goal is realism–not retreat into a fantasy of perfection.
I have been wondering about feelings today–specifically why different emotions seem to be people to me, or at the very least different selves. I know it could be that my development was simply delayed, and young children experience emotional states as so overwhelming that these seem to be their entire selves. And yet it seems to me that I can manage my emotions fairly well once I know what they are. It’s sorting them out that’s so difficult.
I have been wondering if there are other possibilities that might have equal explanatory value.
I considered an idea I read when thinking about the role of the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex in self-processing, which has to do with our past (and future) selves having less emotional resonance than our present self: we treat our past self much like we do someone else.
Tangentially, I wonder if people are overwhelmed by past memories, because they have lost the balanced mode of thinking which allows for both sensory information and an awareness of sequencing and causality to occur, and so there is no distinction between the past and present self. I also wonder if this is the reason for dissociative parts to develop: we aren’t so emotional about the experiences of others as we are about ourselves.
I had this other idea in the morning about the lack of empathy I experienced growing up: I was at the sink, and I wondered if I didn’t understand as a child that I wasn’t the only one who experienced fear or cold. The adults around me didn’t seem to know that being nearly drowned was frightening or that the cold in the freezer was unbearably painful even when it wasn’t deadly, and maybe that’s because they didn’t have those feelings. Their lack of empathy may have led me to believe that they didn’t have the same feelings I did, and that there was therefore something wrong or aberrant about mine.
This doesn’t directly connect to the idea I had about emotions seeming to be different people, but it feels related to me.
I wondered today also whether it was so difficult to grasp my parents’ malignancy that I separated how I felt from what they were doing. I seemed to be worthless, rather than intentionally discouraged or belittled. At best, it seemed to me they were placing this worthless person inside me. I suppose I may have had no way to understand that abuse makes you feel bad. This is why it’s considered abuse. Not that other people must be expected to tiptoe around our delicate feelings all the time, but abuse isn’t wrong just because it breaks certain rules. The rules are there to protect individuals.
It crosses my mind that perhaps this was the reason why couples therapy was a disaster for me: I had no vocabulary for talking about the impact of emotional abuse on me.
I’m not sure this is a very clear post, but this is hitting me rather hard. I may never have entirely taken in that my parents understood they were hurting me, and they hurt me because doing things that hurt me made them feel better–not always in a sadistic way, but in the sense of collateral damage. Making me feel powerless (for example) made them feel powerful. Human beings live according to comparisons, and a disregarded child may be a byproduct of a pampered adult.