It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Ending Toxic Relationships: it's not easy

Ending relationships is hard. It doesn’t matter who we are ending it with—a friend, a spouse, a sibling or parent—the very act of terminating a relationship is emotionally daunting. Well, I should amend that to say that if you have a modicum of compassion and empathy, ending a relationship is hard. For those who have little or no compassion and empathy, it can be shockingly easy.
We imbue our relationships with values greater than their intrinsic value. Suppose you, in childhood, spent a summer in a camp of some sort, and each room contained four children and an adult chaperone. And let’s further suppose that the chaperone for your room was not a warm, nurturing personality but, rather, cold and stand-offish. But she still provided adequate food, shelter, and protection for you and your roommates. During your time under her care, you would find your chaperone to be the adult you trusted with fulfilling your most basic needs, right?
Now, let’s suppose that you return home to a mother who is much like your counsellor: cold, aloof, unemotional. She provides you with those things necessary for you to survive: food, shelter, clothing, medical care, the means to meet peers and make friends but, like your camp chaperone, she gives you nothing of herself. She is the adult you trust with fulfilling your most basic needs. And yet, despite both women being much the same—cool, aloof, detached, unemotional, unengaged—you will have different perceptions of and different expectations for each one.
There are things called “loaded words” in our vocabulary. A loaded word is one that conjures up emotions when the word is read or heard. The word “plant,” for example, is emotionally neutral whereas the word “flower” has positive connotations and the word “weed” has negative ones (my father once told me that a “weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place—a rose bush in a veggie garden is a weed”). Words like “new” and “improved” are positively loaded words, and words like “dirty” and “grime” are negatively loaded ones.
There are other words that we imbue with additional meaning, words that evoke more than just negative and positive emotions. The word “woman” is fairly neutral (unless you are a misogynist) but the word mother, for most of us, evokes a sensation of safety, warmth, love, and comfort. Even those of us who had distant, unloving mothers can find a longing for those qualities. If you are single, the word “husband” or “wife” may evoke feelings of everlasting love, security, and happiness, in keeping with the fairy tales both ancient and contemporary that hold marriage as the Holy Grail of human interaction—“and they got married and lived happily ever after…” Or it may produce feelings of intense longing or even loss, even if we have never been married, because we feel deprived of the kind of relationship that would lead to that Holy Grail and the feelings we expect it to spawn.
Of those words we can identify as being loaded, “Mother,” perhaps, is the most loaded word in the lexicon, particularly for those of us whose mothers were toxic. The internet is awash with maudlin paeans to mothers and motherhood, women who are less-than-stellar human beings are perceived to have acquired social sainthood through the expedient of giving birth. Women who spend their lives being bitchy, demanding, overbearing and toxic are eulogized as saints due to the singular fact of their having achieved motherhood. And even women who, prior to giving birth, would have been considered potential candidates for Death Row due to their anti-social tendencies, find themselves being given the benefit of the doubt based solely on their status as mothers. The public expresses disbelief that any mother could deliberately inflict harm on their offspring, and mothers who kill their own children are viewed with literal disbelief: “She was his mother—how could she do such a thing to her own child?”
People who express such disbelief—that a woman could deliberately inflict harm on a child to whom she had given birth—exemplify a large segment of the population. They believe in the myth of sainted motherhood: all mothers automatically and without reservation love their children unconditionally and would sacrifice all, including their own lives, for the well-being of those children. The virtually universal belief in this myth makes it tough on the survivors of such women, particularly if the survivors did not suffer permanent physical damage to which we can point as proof. If we have no burn scars or broken bones or permanent lash marks, our ordeal becomes a mere “he said/she said” in the eyes of mother-worshippers everywhere. And, because we don’t believe and we cast a shadow on their belief, those of us who speak out are often greeted with disbelief and scorn, our feelings and experiences invalidated by people who, for whatever reason, are unwilling to entertain the idea that their belief in the universal sanctity of motherhood might be in error.
Some of us had unloving fathers but, because fathers in our society are less imbued with saintly qualities, and because our mythology and history are full of frightening fathers with belts and with “dead-beat dads” who abandon their offspring, we have less difficulty in getting people to believe our fathers were difficult for us to survive. In my case, I had a good father and a narcissistic mother and some people excused their disbelief of my history in maintaining that if it was “that bad,” surely my father would have interceded. But they completely overlooked a few salient facts: 1) he didn’t know; 2) my mother was not one to be controlled; and 3) my mother was spiteful—had he known and attempted to do anything about it, she would have rained even more hell and damnation on me in retribution…which exactly why he didn’t know—I didn’t tell him and she never went completely off the rails on me when he was home.
It takes a lot of personal insight and work to come to the realization that the reason your relationship with a person is toxic is not your fault and the closer the relationship—the more “loaded” the word that describes your relationship status—the more difficult it is to recognize that you are not the cause of the toxicity. Be it a parent or spouse or sibling or long-time friend, you can be in an unsatisfactory relationship with a toxic person and not realize that the difficulties in the relationship are not due to you. In particular, if that toxic person is your mother, you may see yourself as the cause of the dissention because you are viewing her through the lens of hope.
You can use this lens of hope on anyone. If you feel that the appropriate relationship between sisters is to love and support each other through thick and thin, to be BFFs, to always have each other’s back, you are going to be thoroughly shocked when you finally realize that your sister does not see the relationship the same way. One of the biggest mistakes we make in life is that we expect others to treat us the way we treat them and, in our closest relationships, for people to feel about us the same way we feel about them. We can live for years—decades even—in denial, pretending to ourselves that these people (who might even be our own children) love us like we love them, and puzzling why they treat us in ways we would never dream of treating them. So when we focus the lens of hope on someone and expect their behaviour towards us to mirror our behaviour towards them, we set ourselves up for repeated disappointment—and a long-term toxic relationship.
When we reach the point of enlightenment—this relationship is toxic and it’s not my fault—we are faced with a decision: continue the relationship as it is (because the toxic person is not going to change) or exit the relationship. Many of us opt for continuing the relationship simply because are unwilling to “give up” on the other person—in other words, we continue to harbour hope that the other person will change in order to accommodate us and a healthy relationship will then ensue. It is a false, futile hope because people—all people including emotionally healthy people—make changes for themselves, not others. They don’t change to accommodate others, they change because they feel a change is needed or will be beneficial to them in some way. And so, in order to have a healthy relationship with you, your toxic person would have to perceive the relationship as toxic, recognize herself as the toxic one, and take matters in hand to change that. Has she done so? Has she taken even the first step, to recognize that the relationship is toxic? Probably not because, for her, it isn’t—and that means she either doesn’t believe it is toxic for you or she believes that if you think it is toxic, then you must be the one to make changes.
And in a way, she is right. If the person with whom you share a toxic relationship cannot recognize or acknowledge that it is so or, she recognizes it but writes it off as your problem, then you will be the one who has to take the steps to rectify the problem. And because you cannot change anyone but yourself, you are going to have to do the hard work of determining whether or not you can endure—for the rest of your life—this person being how s/he is right now. Or, you are going to have to start marshalling your inner resources for ending the relationship and setting yourself free.
If anyone tells you that this is easy, don’t take advice from him or her. If the other half of this relationship can be described by one of those loaded words—mother, father, spouse, grandparent, sibling, etc.—then unless you have reached the “thoroughly fed up” stage, this is going to be hard…possibly the hardest thing you have ever done.
What is necessary for success is for you to harden your heart and put yourself first. As the child of a narcissist, you may find this to be a very difficult thing. We are conditioned from birth to put others first and as a result, many of us end up in care-giving jobs and/or choose partners who need nurturing and caring. It feels like going against our nature to put ourselves ahead of others, especially a significant one like a parent, spouse or sibling, but do it we must. If you are looking out for your narcissist’s best interests and she is looking out for herself (and she is), who is looking out for you? You need to step away from the toxic person and start looking out for you. It will feel uncomfortable and alien at first, but start doing for yourself all of those little things you used to do for him/her—and stop doing them for him/her. Don’t call once a week or once a day or whatever your schedule is—let her call you. Don’t make his coffee, pack his lunch, or do things that you aren’t also doing for yourself (like cooking dinner). Let him iron his own shirts, let your mother’s call go to voicemail, tell your sister “No!” when she wants you to babysit her untrained, destructive dog (or kid). Start letting go of all of those thoughtful little (and big) time-and-attention-consuming things that you do for them and turn that time and attention on yourself.
Start loving yourself. If standing up for yourself starts fights, then don’t start a fight. Keep silent, smile, remind yourself that this what you are giving up—THIS—whatever it was that made you feel defensive or hurt or stressed—is what will be in your past.
If you live with the toxic person, either move out or make that person move out. Don’t call the person, don’t accept calls from him/her. Don’t read texts (but save them for evidence) but respond, just once, “Please stop contacting me.” If you are married, file for divorce. Get a restraining order if they won’t leave you alone. Take every step necessary to separate your life from his/hers because if they cannot see that they are toxic to you before you reach the “fed up” stage they are never going to see it.
We are often tempted to write that final “what you did wrong and how you hurt me” letter but, in truth, they don’t care. You will only be giving them a blueprint for how to hurt you again in the future. Many times they will make attempt after attempt, either personally or via flying monkeys, to reel you back in. They are without honour and think nothing of lying to you, telling you the lies they think you want to hear, the lies that will bring you back to their side, the lies they will use to bind you to them.
The biggest of those lies is the profession of love. It is what we all want—we want the words but even more, we want to be the recipient of the deeds and the demeanour and the attitude that says we are loved. Beware when professions of love and unaccustomed attention begin to arrive as you are pulling away—they are the ultimate lies, the big guns, trotted out to guilt you back into harness like a tame pony walking in endless circles for their benefit rather than your own. Those words of love, were they true, that attention, were it sincere, would have been caressing your ears and warming your heart all along, not just trotted out like the good china for a special occasion.
You have to harden your heart to the very things you have yearned for all of these years. It sounds counter-intuitive to do so, but the truth is, it is all deception. You will not be hardening your heart to the love you have always wanted, you will be turning away yet another onslaught of fakery, of being taken advantage of, of being snookered and rooked and taken in by a toxic con-artist. The fact that this person shares blood with you or spoke vows with you or has been at your side for uncounted years is actually immaterial: this person has taken advantage of you, betrayed your trust, and treated you like an afterthought for most—if not all—of your relationship and now it has to stop. And, unfortunately, the only way for you to ensure that the toxicity stops is to remove that person from your life.
This is not something to view lightly or undertake in haste. This needs to be a decision for the remainder of your life, not a position to take as you wait for the toxic person to change. This is a permanent step, a platform from which to launch the rest of your life, a life that will not include the toxic person. No birthday or Christmas or Mother’s Day greetings, no watching the person’s Facebook or Instagram to see how she is doing or if he has moved on. It is the locking of a closed door and the utter destruction of the key. It is the first step in more than a new chapter in your life, it is the prologue to a whole new volume.
It is not easy and, as someone who has removed both toxic family members and a toxic spouse from my life, I can tell you that it is worth every tear shed, every urge squelched, every overture repudiated. You can come away whole from a toxic relationship, even one of many decades long—but you can only succeed if you refuse to drag bits of it with you.
It isn’t easy but weaker, less determined individuals than yourself have done it and succeeded. Remember to love yourself first, make choices based on what is good for you, not for the toxic person you are leaving behind. If s/he truly loved you, if the relationship had the barest chance of being healthy and mutually rewarding, it would never have become toxic…the other person would have put you and your well-being and happiness so far ahead of his/hers, that the toxicity could never have gotten a foothold. With two people giving to each other, thinking about the welfare and happiness of the other, a relationship thrives. When both people in a relationship are focussing on the happiness and well-being of only one of them, toxicity is the inevitable result.
The relationship may be beyond saving, but you are not.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Your N is long dead—now what?

Mostly we talk about Narcissistic Parents from the standpoint of those who are still living and tormenting us. Some of us have deceased NPs, but we were already aware of their negative impact on our lives before they died. But there are those among us who do not realize the negative impact those parents had on our lives until they are long dead.
So, what if your NP is long dead and you are only just now realizing the fact that the problem was not you, after all, it was that now-dead parent? What are the implications of such a realization and how do you deal with it, cope with it, heal from it? The situation, while sharing many elements with those whose parents still live and torture them, is quite different when the parent is dead, particularly long dead.
There are two distinct advantages to embarking on this journey after the NParent has passed on: 1) because they are gone, they are not regularly adding to your burden of pain, and 2) you can no longer cling to the hidden hope that if you could come up with the right word or deed, the door to your NP’s stony heart will open to you. These are issues for many ACoNs whose narcissist parent still lives: they continue to add to the adult child’s pain and the adult child often continues to hope—often subconsciously—that there is a chance the parent will “wake up” and see the pain their child is in and step in to assuage it. When your NParent is dead and gone, neither of these issues are on the table.
On the other hand, the adult child of a dead NP has to deal with guilt, both self-imposed and often from well-meaning (or not-so-well-meaning) outsiders for “speaking ill of the dead,” for telling unpleasant truths about someone who is no longer about to “defend him/herself.” And while those of us whose parents were living as we wrestled with our demons, did have them to go to, to ask “why?”, to call to account, the truth is, very few of us ever actually do that. Not only do we recognize the futility, we also recognize that it is in just such a scenario that the NP flourishes the weapons of fear, obligation and guilt—the dreaded F.O.G.—to obfuscate truth and send us fleeing, confused by gaslighting and rolling in guilt for not “honouring” our parents.
So how do you approach this if your parent was already long dead when you figured out that you were the adult child of a narcissist? You start by recognizing that none of the abuse was your fault no matter what your parent told you and no matter how you have reframed it to make it your fault. It was never your fault. Ever. It was the responsibility of your parent to correct and discipline you, yes—but it was your parent’s choice as to how to do that, and the choice to use abusive methods rests solely on that parent.
You cannot excuse your parent making those choices because “she had it tough” or “he didn’t know better.” Unless that parent was isolated from the rest of the planet—no books, magazines, newspapers, television, radio, internet, movies or personal visitors—your parent had the opportunity to learn new ways to discipline. Even if s/he was raise in an authoritarian cult with no connections to the larger world, if your parent was sufficiently emotionally engaged with you, s/he would feel empathy for the pain and fear s/he inflicted on you. That s/he did not feel that empathy, that s/he did not wish to protect you from the pain and fear, is more germane than the fact that s/he may have suffered the same kind of treatment as a child. The very fact that you were her child and she was not motivated by her love for you to find methods other than the hurtful methods used on her is critical because she did not hurt with you. An empathetic parent will suffer pain for inflicting pain on his child; that pain will motivate the parent to find another way to shape and mould and discipline the child without abuse.
Understand that hurting you in the name of correction and discipline was a choice your parent made: there were other choices to be had and an abundance of resources, even “back in the day” before the internet. I had my first child in 1965 and there were magazines and books available even then. My mother was a brutal authoritarian who raised me with slapping, beating with a belt or strap or stick or shoe or whatever came to hand; she browbeat and humiliated me, shamed me, and set up situations in which it was impossible for me to succeed and then punished me for my failures—that is the kind of behaviour that passed for discipline in my mother’s house and I could have very easily just adopted it. But I went to the library and read voraciously during my first pregnancy, everything I could lay my hands on for ways to raise a child without hitting and screaming and humiliation and shame—and I was only 17 years old. If a 17-year-old girl who was raised with brutal physical discipline and crushing emotional abuse could grasp that there were other ways to raise a child, ways that did not damage the child emotionally, and pro-actively seek out information about those alternatives, then what excuse does your parent have? The truth is, your abusive parent had every opportunity I had (and likely more), but s/he simply had no interest because s/he was not sufficiently emotionally engaged with you to want to guide you without hurting you.
Once you realize and accept that it was not your fault that your parents abused you the next step is to assign responsibility where it belongs: on the deceased parent and his/her choices.
Cue the guilt goblins: this is where you become overwhelmed with guilt for thinking so badly of this person who did the best she could with what she had and now you are thinking bad things about her and she’s not here to defend herself…guilt! guilt! guilt! Icky, terrible, awful-feeling guilt! Are you going to shed those guilt feelings by excusing your parent for choosing abuse over compassionate discipline? Or are you going to shed the toxic guilt that has been programmed into you to keep you away from the truth by embracing that truth?
Ask yourself: how do you know she did the best with what she had? Could others have done better with the same? Or with even less? (Remember—1965—I had no TV, no radio, no newspaper subscription—and there was no internet—I haunted the library and got answers that way.) And how do you defend the indefensible? This person emotionally abused and manipulated a little kid—someone who was incapable of self-defence—for her own advantage.  
Author Anne Lamott once said “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write [speak] warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Notice she doesn’t make an exception for “people who can’t defend themselves because they are dead.” It is my thought that if someone is okay with going to their grave without acknowledging or apologizing for their transgressions against you—which means those transgressions have not been resolved—then it is not only acceptable but healthy and normal for you to seek resolution on your own, after they have died. Their life is over—even if their reputation is stained by your telling the truth, their life is over—and yours is not. And the life and reputation of a living person is far more important than the reputation of someone who can no longer feel the sting of humiliation or the pain of rejection or the emptiness of feeling unloved.
It is wrong to shame and guilt a person for telling the truth. And that holds true whether that truth telling is simply admitting to yourself that your NParent abused you and s/he was wrong to do so, or if it is telling your entire family what s/he did to you. It is wrong to guilt yourself and it is doubly wrong for others to lay guilt and shame on you for telling a truth they would prefer not to hear. It is doubly wrong because 1) shaming someone for telling the truth is, in effect, demanding that the person lie and 2) expecting someone to lie about their lives in order to protect you from unpleasantness is reprehensible—it expecting someone to sacrifice their integrity so that you can be live comfortably in denial, so that you don’t have to face something you don’t wish to acknowledge.
Some of us will feel angry at that departed parent, others will find themselves going through the stages of grief again. Yet others will try to cling to our denial, to keep the parent alive in our hearts and minds by emulating or at least defending the deceased. Some of us were devoted to our parent, we loved them—he was your Dad, she was your Mom. But part of waking up to the reality of having an N parent is realizing that the parent we believed we had was not necessarily the person s/he really was.
Denial is a powerful thing. We use it to make the unbearable tolerable. Some of us forget the stuff that hurts, others remember things differently from the ways they actually occurred. Still others will simply remember a saint where, in fact, the late parent was an egregious sinner. How we live with the spectre of the deceased parent is as individual as we are, but too many of us sanitize our memories lest we feel guilty about speaking ill of the dead and betray the commandment about honouring our parents. But healing is about truth and at some point you are going have to face up to it and make a decision: move on or stay stuck? Do you want to heal or do you want to keep your illusions intact? Because they are mutually exclusive.
Truth about someone means acknowledging the bad as well as the good. It means letting go of that protective layer of illusion that has allowed you to believe that your parent loved you as much as you loved him. It is recognizing that actions tell the truth and when words and actions conflict, believing the words is the path to denial, believing the actions is the path to truth…and the truth, when you are dealing with a narcissistic parent, is seldom pretty. It is painful—really gut-wrenchingly painful—to come to the conclusion that your parent didn’t love you, that his convenience, his football game or his bottle of whiskey or his cronies were all more important that you were. I divorced a man who used to call and set up a visit with his two little kids and then just simply not show up. Two little pre-schoolers dressed up and waiting for Daddy, excited to see their father, and he just doesn’t show up. When asked later why he didn’t come, his excuses would range from “car trouble” (then why didn’t you call?) to he overslept and then it was too late (then why didn’t you call??) to he didn’t want to miss the playoffs (then why not call rather than leave the kids just hanging?). His words said “I love my kids,” but his actions clearly showed that they were the last item on his list of priorities. Where did you fit on the list of your deceased parent’s priorities?
My mother would rather have bought herself gaudy cocktail dresses and heaps of flashy costume jewellery than take me to the optometrist; she got her teeth cleaned every six months—I did not see a dentist for the first time until I was 14 and had massive cavities. On the one hand, one could argue that we didn’t have much money and kids in that kind of household often have such things as glasses and dental work put low on the household priorities. But on the other hand, in a household headed by a fully functional, loving parent, such things as cigarettes, liquor, and revealing evening wear do not take precedence over the health and welfare of the children.
One of the advantages of coming to this juncture after your NParent has died is that you can stop collecting evidence. Oh, you may have to do some brain work to recover suppressed memories, but there is no new—and potentially confusing—evidence being manufactured daily, which is very much the case for people whose NPs are still living. Dealing with a static situation is much less confusing than dealing with one in which the dynamics can change at the drop of a hat.
But, there are disadvantages to dealing with this when the NP is dead—you can’t test the situation to see if your discoveries are, in fact, correct. You can’t ask questions to see if your NP has a plausible reason for their behaviour and, of course, there are always those who make it their business to criticize and find fault with your search for inner peace because they think the dead should be enshrined as saints and you are busy exposing their idol’s feet of clay.
I don’t really have any answers here—my NM was very much alive and in fine fettle when I went into therapy. She had another dozen or so years to inflict herself and her maliciousness on me and the rest of my family. It was clear that there was no love lost between us, that there never had been. She was a predator and I was her favourite prey—that began before I can remember (and I can remember a few things back to age 2) and it continued until after she died, her Will a document of both generosity (to some) and character assassination ( of others). But I continued processing my experiences of being her daughter for many years after she died and I found it was somewhat easier, since I wasn’t constantly fending off new assaults or trying to integrate her latest inconsistent behaviour into my picture of her.
What was not easier, however, is the lack of reinforcement after she died. In her last years we had contact once or twice a year and each time I came away from a visit or put down a letter from her, my tank was topped up: I was reminded, sometimes forcefully, of why we were estranged and why we would always be so. Once she died, I found myself in the amazing space of second-guessing myself, my convictions, my own memories. I became less emotionally engaged (probably due to lack of reinforcing provocation) and the distance that brought caused me to start thinking of excuses for her. It was hard, sometimes, to remember just how awful she was to me. Time may not heal all wounds but it does dull the pain and therein lies the trap: as the pain dulls, so does your conviction of the need to protect yourself and that can lead to new pain.
My best advice in this is to journal. Especially is s/he has died. Write an account of your experiences with your NP—the experiences that hurt you, why it hurt, how it hurt, what s/he should have done under those same circumstances. Funny thing, when I did that, I realized just how much choice she had, how many options she had at her command, and it made me seriously question why she invariably chose brutality, both physical and emotional. She did not learn this from her parents—her brothers confirmed that as well as my experiences of living with them for multiple summers. Writing things down kept them accessible to me as I puzzled out seemingly conflicting things: her ability to scream at me and, in half a second, be speaking sweetly and calmly to a friend on the phone. Write things down so that you collect the body of evidence that your subconscious will quietly sort for you, kicking up little “aha!” moments and the occasional big epiphany.
Remember that none of their behaviour was your fault, it was their choice, and you have never had any power over their choices. In the long run, it is easier to sort out the dynamics of the parent who died, leaving a fixed legacy for you to work with, than the living parent who continues to add insults and injuries, but neither is stress-free.