My running partner this morning. She has to brave two packs of dogs to go with me.
I had some more thoughts about the narcissist’s relationship cycle and what can happen when a child grows up with it. It creates, I think, both a self-reliant child and a dependent child.
Self-reliant, because the parent’s views are not open to modification. If mom thinks you’re hungry, you get to eat. If she doesn’t, don’t try to tell her she’s mistaken: this would (I am still imagining) challenge her sense of existence, since the parent’s thoughts and feelings are experienced as being herself due to psychic equivalence.
A dependent child, because the meaning of behaviours cannot be reliably interpreted. There is no pattern, because the parent is, first of all, only paying attention to her transitory emotional reactions and she’s also making decisions based on very little information due to the stress-related pressure to respond quickly.
In other words, the child cannot depend on the parent for support or emotional regulation but must rely on the parent for a sense of meaning. “I picked up my toys. Am I a good girl for being independent and responsible or are you threatened with fears of abandonment and so I am a bad girl and will now be criticized and shamed for reasons I actually cannot decipher?”
The child grows up unable to hold onto a stable sense of self-esteem. Positive regard is unpredictable and transitory and seems to exist within the parent, who must be constantly monitored and controlled so that the child can maintain that sense.
Of course, our regard for ourselves does come from others: it comes from how others have taught us to interpret behaviours (acts of independence are seen positively in most Western cultures, for example) as well as how the person interacting with us seems to be communicating to us how they see us. We develop a stable self-regard because this becomes something we can manage as we get older: as we develop impulse-control and executive function, we can engage in behaviours which are seen as being positive within our culture. We can interact with people who value us and like us.
A child with a narcissistic parent has no coherent way to interpret their own behaviour: is this good? They also cannot choose who they interact with, and even less so because the parent tends to be motivated by jealousy, envy, competitiveness and fear of loss. The child cannot be understood to prefer someone else over the parent, because this invokes fear of loss (another core issue for the kind of parent I am thinking about in this post–someone like my mother) and cannot be observed to be well-liked by other people either, unless the child is seen to be totally subsumed under the identity of the parent, because this takes the focus off the parent.
Normally, we are able to engage in activities which support our positive self-regard. It’s okay to make the occasional blunder, because you can go on to be pro-social and capable. The narcissist’s child can’t, because they do not have internalized meanings for behaviours. They cannot buffer themselves against put-downs and criticism, because they don’t feel confident of whether they will be allowed to interact with people who value and respect them.
None of this is consciously recognized by anyone. None of it is clear. The child just feels very anxious and unsure. Obtaining the parent’s approval–and later, a partner’s–is either preoccupying or hopeless.
Further, there is a meaning to a particular behaviour which has been established: loss of the parent’s regard means you did something wrong. I don’t know that this is always intentional.
In some parents, it is a deliberate punishment. C’s mother won’t talk to her at all for hours at a time if C does some trivial thing that her mother doesn’t like. In others, it’s an attempt to meet the parent’s needs without exposing the parent to vulnerable feelings: playing on the child’s fears of abandonment gets the child’s attention without revealing to anyone, including the parent, that the parent needs attention. In still others, the withdrawal of regard occurs simply because the parent has no reason to have good feelings about the child. The child isn’t at that moment making the parent feel good, so the parent quickly moves on to some other source of narcissistic supply. The child is discarded because her usefulness has ended.
Adults with complex trauma and those on the borderline spectrum have been observed to look outside themselves for regard: this is why. The way in which they have been allowed to use their environments and the people around them to regulate their own self-regard has been disturbed.