A Post that Seems Like It’s Going to Be about Cats, But Isn’t.

It’s really not fair.

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Old age has made her weirdly docile. You’ll see there’s a stuffed elephant there also. That’s because I tried the elephant first.

In fact, the fire alarm went off twice in my building–they’re doing some work and messed about with the wrong wires, I guess. Anyway, it was screeching away. I didn’t know if it was a “real” alarm or not; the guy who used to put things on the stove and then wander off to sleep or shower or have sex seems to have moved out, and they hadn’t warned us about testing anything today, so it might have been.

So I picked her up, covered her ears with one hand, and set about putting on my shoes with the other. That’s when the alarm went silent.

But in earlier days, she would have been under the bed in a heartbeat. With a loud noise screaming in her ears, she would have clawed her way right around my neck and down the other side of me.

It’s totally unfair of me to see what stuffed animals she’ll let me put on her back.

But I don’t feel bad. I’ll tell you why. And I told this to a friend of mine yesterday after lunch, after her cat hissed at me and fiercely batted my hand with her right paw. My cat hisses at me every day. Sometimes, several times a day.

I know exactly when she’s in pain or even just irritated, because she tells me. And if don’t stop–because, for example, I’m trying to get that nasty hangover-like feeling to go away with a little syringed food and water–she bites me. Not hard. Just enough to let me know I should cut it out. And if I still keep at it, like I did when injecting subcutaneous fluids seemed like a good idea, then she starts seeing about how to remove one or both of my hands.

Which is why we have that deal about needles. I won’t stab them in her neck, and she’ll let me keep all my digits and limbs.

In other words, my cat sets boundaries. She tells me clearly and in no uncertain terms what is not okay. She tells me when she thinks I’m causing her pain as well as when she’s deeply annoyed. And that means I know when she isn’t.

That is the foundation for trust between us. That is what boundaries do.

I’ve heard boundaries explained as knowing the difference between ourselves and others, and I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But it doesn’t work for me. I am pretty sure my cat knows the difference between us, but I also thinks she’s not smart enough or social enough to have a self-image that might be separate than mine.

Cats following the "my dish, my food" rule.
Cats following the “my dish, my food” rule.

I do think she understands rights. Because part of being a cat is sometimes negotiating one’s rights with other cats–when there are other cats around. Whether you have the right to eat from all  of the cat dishes, or just your own. Whether you have a right to sleep in the favored spot in the sun. Cats work that kind of thing out. No, they might agree. Someone else can only eat out of my dish when I’m finished with it. Or, they might agree that alpha cat can eat out of whatever dish she damn well pleases, whenever she feels like it. It depends on the cats.

But rights are rules we agree on. Sometimes they are fair and reciprocal, and sometimes they are not. But they have to do with with our security, our well-being and our comfort.

I’ve taken my cue from my cat. For one, you don’t need to jump all the way to drawing blood if someone challenges your boundaries. Try hissing first. Use your words.

Months back, I was sitting on the bus next to a young man who had that familiar problem with his knees. You know, that difficulty young men seem to have in keeping their knees anywhere within 3 feet of each other. He was all up in my space.

Irritating. And I didn’t have brothers, so I’m not all that great at dealing with it. I have a tendency to assume that someone who violates normal social boundaries (like you don’t touch people on the bus if you can help) does so because they don’t care. Which is sometimes the case. But sometimes people are distracted, or just a bit stupid. You know, like me thinking it was a good idea to put stuffed animals on my cat’s back.

And I asked him, “Would you move your knee please?”

“Sorry,” he said. And did. Just like I would have taken the elephant off the cat’s back if she’d hissed at me. I was a person just being a bit stupid, but not malicious.

And I wonder if that’s part of why it’s so difficult for abuse survivors to trust. Our rights have been violated so often and so profoundly, that we don’t know how to stand up for those rights. We don’t know what they are or what we would want them to be. We don’t expect to be allowed to assert them if we knew.

And when we have set boundaries, no one listened. If we started at the hiss, we had no choice but to move onto biting, and then to drawing blood. Often enough that maybe now we start with drawing blood. With an end result that then we both are hurt afterwards.

Why I have so many stuffed animals is a different story...
Why I have so many stuffed animals is a different story…

That process of developing trust doesn’t have a chance. There is never that moment when someone we are starting to care about violates our boundaries and we tell that person to stop, thereby getting to see that he will stop. And this person we are beginning to care about never gets a chance to see that we will tell him when to stop before he’s really hurt us.

You end up with one person who feels continually trampled, and another who is a bundle of nerves wondering when he is going to put a foot wrong. That isn’t trust.

That’s an attempt at mind-reading, and regardless of our amazing capacity to transmit emotions just like looking at each other, we just aren’t that good.

I owe a lot to this cat.


Boundaries and the Self

Click the image for a post about boundaries from a Christian perspective.

The key to coping with difficult people–the leaky ones and the ones who trample your rights–is said to be setting good boundaries.

I’ve always had trouble with this. Not the mechanics of it. I’m a practical person. I’m good at deciding what is and is not okay with me and asserting that. Mostly. Also, I’ve had almost 20 years of psychotherapy.

The idea of boundaries is hard for me to grasp, the language of it. I know what to do, but not really what the word means or what making rules has to do with knowing where I end and someone else starts.

This morning, I think I’ve finally sorted it.

I see what constitutes the self as being radically different from how many other people see it. This is partly because I grew up in a home where I had no rights and then left it to live in a society where I have quite a few  rights and am expected to assert them. Meanwhile, I continue to be essentially the same person.

Consequently, I don’t see rights as being a necessary part of the self. They are culturally mediated and agreed upon. They are like clothes you can take on and off. You are going to be more comfortable in some clothes than others. Some are too tight. Others are suffocating. Some are downright painful–which is why I refuse to wear heels. And most of my shoes lace up. But you are still you even if you are wearing clothes you hate.

Click the image for an excellent post on Muslim immigrants in Spain.
Click the image for an excellent post on Muslim immigrants in Spain.

You are still you even if you have no rights, or don’t have enough rights to be comfortable, or even if you have more rights than you really know what to do with.

I know most people don’t see things that way. They see clothes as being a part of themselves. But I could wear a burqa and still be me. I’d just be hot. And probably trip a lot.

I was still me even when I had no rights.

This is because I see the self as being composed of fewer essential elements. The advantage to this is that I am less distressed by radical changes in my environment or in what is expected of me. I don’t see them as being assaults on my self.

My self persists.

For example, I am not really any different now than when I turned tricks. What is me, what always was me, is that I am a practical person, and I really want to live. I believe in the power of hard work, and I think with some of it, the future can be a lot better than the present or the past.

I'm not the water. I'm the goldfish. I am not even the goldfish. I am the desire to leave the water.
I’m not the water. I’m the goldfish. I am not even the goldfish. I am the desire to leave the water.

There are a few other things that are also essentially me, but that is most of it. That is me in a nutshell.

In a very real way, I have not changed. I have worked hard to change my circumstances, my habits, many of my beliefs and even my feelings, but at a core level I am exactly the same as I was when I was two years old. I am a practical person, and I really want to live. I believe in the power of hard work, and I think with some of it, the future can be a lot better than the present or the past.

If I saw the idea of the self differently, I would need to see myself differently. The changes I needed to make would have been much more difficult. They would have felt like an assault on who I was.

The way I see the self is adaptive. You can borrow it if you like.

A Distorted Sense of Rights

If narcissists believe they have rights society never agreed to, then how did that happen? (As I wrote about in Rights You Don’t Have.)

Mainstream psychologists theorize that unhealthy degrees of narcissism develop to protect a “fragile” ego. I don’t really know what is meant by a “fragile” ego. I am less and less sure what an ego is as time goes by. It’s one of those words we seem to use to describe something we don’t really understand but need a word for, and it also seems to mean different things to different people but is rarely precisely defined. We go around using the same word thinking we are speaking the same language, but maybe we aren’t.

Anyway, I don’t buy it. Like an atheist who is simply not convinced by the evidence that there is a God, I am not convinced that there are egos, or that they can be fragile, or that we really know what we mean when we talk about them. I think we’re faking it.

There are some other things I don’t buy either.

In the “defending a fragile self” view of narcissism, the “real” self is vulnerable, frightened, ashamed. It is a false self that acts like king of the world—not the real one. And yet I cannot see any definite evidence of a “real” self existing. I certainly can’t see any evidence for an anguished “real” self  that couldn’t also be used to support a different viewpoint. Again I am unconvinced.

And I realize that pits me against generations of well-read, well-respected people who see narcissism in this way. I’m sure many of them know a lot more about who wrote what and wrote what about whom than I do.

But I won’t be dissuaded from considering an alternate explanation. Growth requires considering other possibilities. It requires considering other ideas, even if they may not be right. This is my idea. At the end of this, you can tell me what you think about it. And maybe we’ll see one day if I turn out to be right. It’s okay if I don’t. It is the act of considering new ideas that leads to growth—not spending your time considering only right ideas.

So, my idea. I think narcissism is more about a distorted sense of rights, and a misreading of the social contract. Part of the reason I think this is that narcissism tends to arise both in people who have been abused and in those who have been over-indulged.  What’s the common denominator? A distorted sense of rights on the part of the parent.

An abusive parent believes he has too many rights—including the right to harm the child—and that the child has too few. An indulgent parent may believe he has too few rights—including the right to discipline or restrict the child—and that the child has too many.

They are both distorted. More importantly, they don’t match up with the social contract the child will need to follow in order to have rewarding relationships or to function well at work or in daily living as an adult. He may be able to function if he can see that he will be punished for exercising his distorted sense of rights and if he has good impulse control, but he’ll be unhappy. He’ll be indignant and angry. He’ll probably die at 50 of a heart attack from all that suppressed rage.

If he has poor impulse control, he may not be able to function at all. He may spend a great deal of time in prison, or he may end up alone and living on the streets, unable to find and keep a job or to support himself.

In other words, narcissists suffer. They cause others to suffer and they suffer. Deeply, no matter how unnecessarily.

Now, you might think the abused child would settle for always assuming he has too few rights. But there are several different meanings you can take from having your rights routinely violated. One of them is the idea that you have no rights. Other people have rights, but you don’t. I did that. I don’t recommend it.

You can also come to believe that there are really two categories of people in the world: People with too many rights and people who have too few. And all you may need to join that first group is to demand them. If that is the meaning you take from being abused, all you need to do is wait until you are big enough to begin to demand your rights. Grow up, and you can switch categories.

Some narcissists also seem to believe there are other criteria you need to meet in order to join that first group. Perhaps they believe you need to be physically attractive enough, you need to follow certain fashion trends, or belong to the right church. Maybe you need to have the right career, the right income, or the right car. Perhaps they think you need to become an expert on something. They will usually decide that they do. They may do the actual work of getting to that place, or they simply imagine they do.

But there is nothing more irritating than the narcissist who thinks you need to be extremely knowledgeable to make the A-list. He will usually know nothing much more than the next person, but he will go on endlessly about it as if what he knows is worth gold.

And there is nothing more frightening than the narcissist who thinks what you need to do is be defend yourself, demand your rights, and make sure you don’t ever get pushed around. This narcissist will beat his spouse and bully his classmates, his employees and his children.

Because key to maintaining that status as one of the lucky, superior few in the top echelon of the narcissists’ world is that there not be too many in that category. And they should certainly meet the right criteria. So, if you need to belong to the right church to be in the group, it should be an exclusive church. If you need to be smart, it’s important to the narcissist that only a small number of approved people be smart enough.

That may be one reason narcissists spend a lot of time verbally abusing those around them. They may be trying to hurt your feelings. Or they may just be trying to prove that, unlike them, you are on the B-list. And the proof of this lies in the very fact of their abusing abusing you. Because if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be abused. It’s circular logic, I know, but that’s how some people think–in circles.

Having grown up in a religion that humbly called itself the “truth” and met in groups of perhaps a hundred (in an area with a relatively large number of members) this is all starting to make sense to me—given that I had parents with strong narcissistic traits. They met the criteria. They were on the A-list. They had extra rights.

I know I have not come to any particular point in this post. I apologize for that. But I’m just wondering about some things here. I promise to get a point at some time in the future. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after. I’ll do my best.

Rights You Don’t Have

Mike (not his real name) was sitting in the front office, talking to his 8th grade history teacher. It was a heated conversation, a contentious conversation. The conversation went something like this.

“Yes, but I needed it.”

“So, you just took it. Even though it didn’t belong to you. And even though you hadn’t asked.”

“Cuz I needed it.”

Taking something without asking is usually called stealing. It is against the law. As a society, we have decided that you do not have the right to take someone else’s stuff. Even if you think you need it. You may like it that way or not like it that way, but that’s the agreement.

Mike didn’t like it that way. He hadn’t agreed to anything. Mike believed he did have the right to take something from someone else. He didn’t believe anyone else had the right to take something from him, but he did think he had the right to take something from someone else. If he thought he needed.

Mike isn’t a thief. He’s just on his way toward growing up to be a narcissist. He believes he has rights society in general does not agree that he has.

Kids sometimes get confused. So maybe Mike was just being a kid. But I see this kind of behavior over and over–not just in kids, but in adults. People who believe they have rights others haven’t agreed they have. Special rights. And I don’t mean gay rights, or transgender rights, or some other kind of rights some politicians will say are special rights.

I mean the right to take someone else’s stuff. Or to go to the front of the line. Or to not pay your bills. Those rights. Rights that would lead to total anarchy if we shifted our ideas around about them.

I was in what you might euphemistically call a bad relationship for a long time. Nine years to be exact. We spent a lot of time in couples counseling trying to fix things. We talked a lot about boundaries, about where one of us began and the other ended. I got that. I didn’t feel confused about who she was or really who I was or that we weren’t the same person.

But I didn’t understand what my rights were. I assumed I didn’t have rights I actually do have. And she assumed she had rights she didn’t. It could have worked out perfectly, except that she kept stealing things from me: my time, my dignity, my safety, my well-being, my comfort, my mojo. And I let her. Because I didn’t understand it was theft. I thought people were allowed to do that. I just couldn’t figure out why she kept wanting to.

It seemed mean. Why would you keep wanting to do something mean? Aside from the idea that you don’t care that it’s mean or that it hurts someone else, you do it because you think you have the right to.

It doesn’t usually bother us too much if we do something that hurts someone else as long as we feel it’s within our rights. Mostly, we think they should probably just deal with it and move on. Eating a healthy diet when I know others are hungry doesn’t really bother me, although I might be able to help if I gave my grocery money away. But I feel entitled to eat. So I do.

Narcissists, generally, believe they have rights no one else has agreed to. When you complain about it, they mostly seem to think you should suck it up and deal.

The following is a list of rights some of them may believe they have:

1) The right to be comfortable–to not be inconvenienced, feel pain, or have unpleasant emotions.

2) The right to be entertained. Constantly. Boredom is a clear violation of their rights. This goes back to #1.

3) The right to attention, admiration, and uninterrupted positive regard–both from themselves and from others. They should not ever need to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or like a failure–although the rest of us do from time to time. This goes back to right #1.

4) The right to have what they want when they want it–without working for it, asking for it, waiting their turn for it, or sharing it.

5) The right to exact revenge.

Understanding this has provided me with immense clarity for why my mother in particular behaved the way she did with me when I was growing up. You see, what is most remarkable about my memories of being physically abused by her is her well-articulated sense that she was being victimized in some way. She might be hitting me over the head with a chair, but she seemed to believe she was the one being hurt. Now, I understand.

I may have violated her right to be comfortable. If my behavior cast doubt on her parenting skills, and she found herself feeling an uncomfortable emotion about it–say guilt, or shame–then I was clearly violating her right to be comfortable. If I was busy playing by myself, I might be violating either her right to be entertained or her right to continuous positive regard.

Obviously, she would be upset. Anyone who believed their rights were being so terribly infringed upon would be. And she had the right to exact revenge. So she would.

It’s a warped way of looking things, but that view makes my world growing up make sense. Absolute sense. In a way that nothing else has.

I grew up with a distorted view of what my rights and the rights of others were. I had no rights, and others had far too many.

Did you?

A Question of Rights

A decade ago, I was involved in a relationship that would best be described as emotionally abusive. I was in therapy for this and for a while the whole thing made me terribly depressed. But when I walked away in the end, it was easy.

We were in the car when my partner and I decided to end it. She said in an off-hand kind of way, “I don’t think you’ll ever be happy with me.”

I said, “No, probably not.”

And that was the it. A relationship I had spent all of my adulthood making was over. It wasn’t hard. I never missed her. I did not feel lost without her. I felt angry over the lost years I had given to the task of trying to make one thing into something it never could be. But that was all.

We think of rights as the right to success, but do our rights include the right to fail?
We think of rights as the right to success, but do our rights include the right to fail?

Now, from the perspective of that part of my life being in the rather distant past, I recall most clearly the question my therapist kept asking me, “What do you get out of staying?” Because the answer really was nothing. I didn’t know I could leave. No one told me.

We live in an age of entitlement, but I was raised to be a possession. Years later, I continue to wonder what my legitimate rights are. Do I have the right to make mistakes? To lack the skills I need to achieve my goals? Do I have the right to be imperfect, to fail, to give up? Do I have the right to say, “Enough. Enough of this. I don’t like it and I want to do (or be) something else?” Do I have the right to not know the answers to my own questions, to be uncertain and unsure, to lack confidence, or to be afraid? Do I?

And I suppose the answer is yes.

Is it?



This is a difficult post to write.  I’m not sure why.  My admonishment to myself is, “Just try.”

So I’m trying.

Sharon Saffold says about girls and women in the sex industry that, “The majority of these women have been molested before, so there is no sense of ownership to their bodies anymore.”  That’s a powerful thing.  When we talk about the consequences of sexual and other types of abuse, we often talk about victims feeling ashamed and lacking self-worth, but we don’t talk about simply lacking a sense of ownership.

It isn’t just that victims of mistreatment feel that they don’t deserve much, but that they lack something more fundamental–a simple sense that every toddler has naturally, a sense of “mine!”

I’ll tell you something else.  My cat had an accident over a decade ago, back in her carefree youth when I didn’t live next to a freeway and would let her outside.  One night, she fell off the roof onto some pool equipment, breaking her leg in a very unfortunately unsplintable way, bruising her bladder, and damaging her spinal cord.  As a consequence, she has no feeling in her tail.  I can step on it, and she’ll just give me a puzzled look, like, “What are you tying me to the floor with?  Why can’t I move?”

The cat, doing well, trying out a new basket.  She didn't like it.
The cat, doing well, trying out a new basket. She didn’t like it.

The vet’s prediction was that a tail-ectomy might be in her future, as she was likely to leave her tail lying in the way when she used the catbox and then not groom it, leaving it vulnerable to sores and infection.  We tend not to take care of things as well if they aren’t ours, and what the vet was saying is she was likely to stop seeing her tail as her own.

The good news is that she didn’t.  It’s a funny-looking tail because she can move it, but can’t feel it.  So, if she’s in a good mood, she holds her tail arched over back instead of straight up, the way a normal happy cat would.

But, unlike my cat, I don’t have a clear sense of ownership–over my body, my life, my future, my career, my relationships.  Not a lack of worth–I think I’m a pretty good person at this point–but I lack that all important sense of “mine.”  At least a lot of the time.

I’ll tell you why.

Nothing was ever mine.  I was not seen in my family as a person with rights or needs.  That’s the mindset that allowed those around me to violate me in the first place.  My possessions were routinely taken away–suddenly, without warning, the ones I valued most.  I lost the foster parents who cared for me.  I was told not to have emotions–those weren’t, I suppose, mine either.

Nothing.  Nothing was mine.

I admit now that I’m guarding myself against experiencing loss–not so much potential losses in the future–as the painful losses of the past.

It’s debilitating.  I’m working on it.