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.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Boundaries are for us, too

We talk a lot about setting boundaries to make our narcissists respect us, to create limits to their behaviour, to manage them. But have you ever thought about setting boundaries for yourself?

One of the great difficulties we have with our narcissists is finding ways to limit their incursions into our lives and minds. We look for ways to encourage—or coerce—them to control or redirect their urges, to treat us with at least a semblance of respect even if they don’t feel it. But they aren’t the only ones who need boundaries…we need them too.

I am not talking about the kinds of boundaries that we set with others, like our narcissists or our children or even our neighbours and co-workers. I am talking about boundaries with ourselves, for ourselves. We, who are raised by people who overstep our natural boundaries at every opportunity and have none of their own, often find it very difficult to exert what others call “self discipline” when it comes to ourselves. Oh, we are often very respectful—even too respectful—of the boundaries of others, so much so that we don’t assert ourselves or, if we do, we do not do it appropriately.

You may not have thought about it this way, but when you learn to say “no” to your abusers and exploiters, you have set a boundary with them…but have you learned to say “no” to yourself? What boundaries do you set for yourself and how good are you at exercising and maintaining them?

When we set boundaries for others, sometimes it is difficult for us to make those boundaries stick. If you have a child who has learned that if he is persistent enough, you will break down and give in, then you have not made the boundary stick. If, after you say “no,” he continues to wheedle and beg, threaten or rage, your child is not respecting your boundary. And if you eventually give in, just to shut him up, you aren’t respecting it either. All you have taught your child is that you don’t mean what you say because persistence pays…he can get what he wants if he just nags you long enough.

Do you do that to yourself?

Going “No Contact” is a boundary that you set with your narcissists…you might tell them not to contact you anymore or, you might just fade away from their lives, but either way, you have drawn a line in the sand you do not wish them to cross. But that boundary is yours as well! It is almost inevitable that you will have to enforce the boundaries because your Ns will not respect either your wishes or your silence. But do you respect your own boundary with respect to NC? Or do you read their boundary-breaking emails, open the letters and cards they send, give yourself angst over the gifts and invitations they send? Do you violate your NC by listening to other family members tell you how hurt your Ns are, how much they miss you, or how selfish, cruel and ungodly you are being, cutting off contact with people who love you so much?

Boundaries work both ways. And often, when we set boundaries, we fail to realize that. Boundaries have goals…there is a reason you set the boundary…so if you set a boundary and then violate it yourself, how are you attaining your goal? Aren’t you actually sabotaging yourself?

We lack boundaries in many other ways. How good are you at stopping those voices in your head? Have you ever set yourself a boundary for them, a boundary like “When I start to tell myself that I am a failure, I will stop and say ‘shut up, Mom, and get out of my head,’ or ‘That’s a lie, Dad, and you know it. The problem is you and the fact that nothing, no matter how good it is, is good enough for you.’” Have you ever even thought about setting boundaries on yourself, for what you do or say or believe about yourself?

Do you have a bad habit, like smoking or nail biting or over eating? Have you set yourself a boundary to stop those behaviours? Think about it…when you set boundaries for others, you expect them to change their behaviour towards you…can’t you do the same for yourself?

When you set a boundary for a narcissist, what you are asking that narcissist to do it to control, restrain, or redirect her urges. This is not an unreasonable expectation but narcissists are childish and, like small children, often impulse-driven. But we expect adults in our society to control their impulses…it is part of the social order and those who refuse to control certain of their urges run afoul of the law. The courts really don’t care why a man fails to control his sexual urges and commits rape or paedophilia, they don’t care that it is easier to steal a phone or a car or a diamond ring than to earn the money to buy it. The law, which is really nothing more than a codified set of boundaries, cares only that we respect those boundaries in order for our society to operate smoothly, or we suffer the consequences for violating them.

So the law expects that we control our urges to rape, to steal, to assault, to kill. It pretty much doesn’t care about our reasons for not controlling them, and fully expects us all, regardless of colour, faith, gender or economic advantage, to exert the necessary self-control to refrain from those activities. Why do we think, then, that we don’t need to control our personal urges inside the confines of our own personal lives? It is, after all, just that mind set that allows narcissists to prey on us—they see no reason to control their urges as they have no respect for the feelings or rights of other people and, unless we set boundaries and provide consequences for violating them, we give them free reign. But aren’t we doing the same thing to ourselves?

Think about things you allow yourself to do that work against you: succumbing to irrational fears without taking the time to think them through, breaking into “fight or flight” panic mode without stopping to apply rational thought. Worrying over things you cannot control. Tempting yourself to break NC by keeping emails from your Ns on the computer where there are there, beckoning you. I’ll bet you can think of a thousand other instances in which your own lack of boundaries for yourself get you into painful situations.

You might want to think about setting some boundaries for yourself and see how that works for you.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Triggering—good for you?

If someone approached you on the street, someone you did not know but whom you had seen numerous times, and asked you for money, would you give it to him? If he tried to guilt-trip you into giving him money or acted like he was entitled to some of your cash, would you feel guilty for not handing it over? If you knew, from observation, that the person had a substance abuse problem and anything you gave him would probably end up buying more substance to abuse, would you give him the money anyway?

Some of us just automatically hand a bill out the window to street corner beggars or toss coins into their proffered cups. We don’t really give much thought to the fact that we might be enabling a substance abuser with our mindless contributions. And we may be put off by the demanding, guilt-tripping, or entitled beggar, but many times we give anyway, perhaps because we wish to ward off the possibility of ending up that destitute ourselves.

Even those of us who refuse to enable another person’s addictions and don’t guilt-trip easily may find ourselves mindlessly giving to someone who seems to be more needy than we are. It is easier than stopping and hearing the person’s story and then giving suggestions that probably have been heard before and summarily dismissed.

For as long as I can remember, we have been warned about “triggers.” I suppose it began with such things as allergies where avoiding a triggering substance could mean the difference between life and death…some allergies, after all, can provoke a swift and even fatal reaction. Those of us with less lethal allergies know that avoiding certain triggers, like cat hair or certain pollens, makes our lives more comfortable. Over time the whole idea that avoiding triggers is good for us has grown to encompass not only physiological triggers but psychological triggers as well. And here is where I part company with the commonly-held belief that avoiding psychological and emotional triggers is a good thing.

A few weeks ago I got sharply faulted on line for using the word “inappropriate.” It seems that the word was a “trigger word” for my critic, although I was unaware of it. Up to that point, like most people who simply and mindlessly accept the notion, I had never given much real thought to emotional trigger words. I just went with the flow, trying to warn people when my writing contained something I thought might trigger them. Even in on line discussions, I had made a point of avoiding or warning about things I thought might be a trigger. But this time it was different.

I did not use an emotionally-laden word like “hit” or “beating,” nor did I describe a harrowing episode in evocative terms. I simply stated that something “seemed inappropriate to me” and Bang! the sh!t hit the fan.

In a discussion a person had revealed something he was doing that I felt very uncomfortable about because it felt inappropriate…a betrayal, actually. I asked him a specific question at least three times for the purpose of clarification and none was forthcoming. Thinking that if I explained why I needed that specific bit of information, I said that what he was doing seemed inappropriate to me (owning my feelings and not putting them on him), and could he please clarify so I could lay the issue to rest. I did not say that he or his behaviour was inappropriate, and was careful to use language that put the onus on me: I wasn’t quite clear on exactly what he was doing and could he please elaborate.

Instead of the anticipated explanation, however, I got “‘Inappropriate’ is my trigger word!” I don’t recall exactly what else was said, but I do know this took me aback, as his reaction to an ordinarily innocuous word used to describe my confusion was very strong and defensive.

This set me to thinking about trigger words and how we all act around them. It seems to be perceived as being insensitive to not “respect” triggers and refrain from speaking them in the presence of those vulnerable to them and yet, how sensitive was this person to my feelings when he jumped all over me for saying a word that I could not possibly have known might be a trigger word for him? I felt assaulted…for an instant I was that little girl again, backed into corner, NM blistering my ears with a verbal assault for doing something I had no idea was wrong. It was only momentary but it was, in the very least, insensitive and at worst, abusive. All I did was ask for clarification and then give the reason I needed clarification, using ordinary words that described my feelings on the subject, projecting nothing onto him. The response felt wrong, too much for the circumstances, too vehement. And so I started doing some research.

The first thing I found was a Wikipediaentry that cited some bona fide researchers on the topic. “The efficacy of ‘trigger warnings’ has not been methodically addressed by scientific study, however in an interview about Trigger Warnings…Professor Metin Basoglu, a psychologist internationally recognised for his trauma research, said that ‘…Instead of encouraging a culture of avoidance, [the media] should be encouraging exposure. Most trauma survivors avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That’s not good’. Another expert, Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard…discussed the scientific merit of trigger warnings noting that ‘Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.’ [W]hile citing several academic studies conducted on PTSD sufferers. Frank Furedi, a former Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent described trigger warnings as a form of ‘narcissism’, with the concerns not really being about the content of a book or work of art but about individual students asserting their own importance.”

That last sentence really clicked with me. A torrent of images and half-formed thoughts cascaded through my mind, images of people walking on egg shells and tiptoeing around a sleeping dragon. And I realized what it was about my experience and the whole concept of trigger word avoidance and warnings that was bothering me: it put onto others the responsibility for something inside one’s own self. You do not have to learn to cope with and deal with those things that distress you, I have to watch my words around you. I even have to figure out what words might distress you and if I guess wrong, you get to sharply rebuke me for it…and in a public forum, no less. No wonder I felt flung back in time, recoiling under the verbal barrage that was my mother’s prelude and run up to a beating.

I can see what that professor said about it being more about an individual asserting her own importance than the actual issue. How much more control can you have, how much more important can you be, than to be able to control how other people speak? And if you control how they speak, it’s a very short step to controlling how they think. And the big taboo that surrounds “triggering” someone is proof of that: somewhere we went from the courtesy and compassion of not wanting to wantonly elicit painful memories in another person to the tyranny of another person’s sore subjects being cause to dictate how we speak, lest we be thought insensitive boors.

Before you tag me with that label, let’s give this a little thought. Contemporary psychologists think that tiptoeing around those trigger words do more harm than good. When we refrain from using trigger words around a person, we actually help entrench their problem by helping them commit an avoidance behaviour. And trigger warnings, apparently, are even worse…not only do they help commit the avoidance behaviour, they key it to a conscious awareness of the issue the trigger warning is about. In other words, we give them an additional episode of thinking about the trigger and then avoiding it, further entrenching the avoidance.

Now I am not advocating dumping the basics of polite interaction by intentionally using trigger words to affect those who are avoiding them. But I do advocate not being suddenly guilt stricken or feeling ashamed when the word comes up in conversation and someone jumps on you with “That’s my trigger word!” or something similar. How is this different, at its most essential level, from that panhandler who is attempting to guilt you into enabling his addiction rather than find a better coping strategy? In both cases, the person relies on others joining into the process to keep it going and avoids taking the steps necessary to resolve their issues. Enabling an avoidance behaviour, regardless of the compassion and empathy behind it, is still enabling an unhealthy act and therefore becoming a part of it.

What is most tragic about this blind adherence to the avoidance of trigger words is that they, and the unpleasant feelings they evoke, can be defused…like defusing a bomb…so that they have less power, whereas avoidance give them more and more power over time. So each time we blindly obey the social imperative to not utter that trigger word or we post that trigger warning, we are actually doing exactly the opposite of what we intended to accomplish. Instead of sparing the person emotional pain, we are simply entrenching it more deeply…and denying that person the opportunity and impetus to learn new coping strategies such as defusion.

The online dictionary, Wiktionary, defines “defusion: as “the separation of an emotion-provoking stimulus from the unwanted emotional response as part of a therapeutic process…” This unwanted emotional response is generally a form of anxiety, which can be expressed in an infinite number of ways. The problem is that we are unwilling to tolerate those feelings of anxiety, so we do something to distract ourselves from them and that distracting behaviour is, in and of itself, a contributor to further anxiety because it is a kind of avoidance. Like all of our other issues, the way to deal with them it to face them because until we do, they simply cannot go away.

This requires coping strategies. If your only coping strategy is avoidance, invoking the sanctity of trigger words and expecting everyone to tiptoe around you verbally so as to avoid provoking your anxiety, is behaving like a narcissist. I did not say you are one, I said you are behaving like one. You are failing to deal with your issue and you are requiring other people to take care of you…and not just take care of you but to alter their speaking and even their thinking to accommodate you, while you do nothing to deal with your issue save demand that others tiptoe around it. As long as other people don’t trigger you, then you are fine and why should you do anything? Isn’t this how our narcissists think? To make their little lives comfy by requiring other people to walk on eggshells around them and not say something to provoke them? How is this fundamentally any different?

Dr. Alice Boyes, writing for Psychology Today, lists three ways to stop avoidance coping:

1. Recognize that it doesn't work.
What have you been trying to avoid? Feeling awkward? Feeling anxious? Thoughts of not being good enough? Do you still have those feelings or thoughts? So…has avoiding them helped any?

2. Recognize the costs of avoidance coping.
What has avoidance coping cost you? How much time and mental energy has avoidance coping sucked up? How has it impacted your health? How has it affected relationships? How has it affected your sense of yourself as a competent person?

3. Learn to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
You need to learn how to tolerate experiencing thoughts and feelings you'd prefer not to experience until they naturally pass (thoughts and feelings are by their nature temporary). If you can do this you won't need to use avoidance coping. Being prepared to experience anxiety will overall lead to less anxiety. 

Okay, I agree…all of this is easier said than done. But there are ways to make it easier. Dr. Boyes recommends:
  1. learning to soften rather than tense in response to triggering thoughts and feelings or when you catch yourself doing a self-defeating behaviour;
  2. learning physiological self-soothing skills (teaching yourself how to activate your parasympathetic nervous system by doing things like slow breathing, which in turn slows down your heart rate and makes it easier to think more clearly).
  3. learning to recognize that thoughts are often distorted so you can't actually trust any negative thoughts you have.
  4. building up your capacity to self-regulate e.g., if you're prone to overeating then setting a schedule for eating that meets your energy needs. Then, only eating at these times - not eating outside these times or skipping scheduled eating times.
  5. using ‘defusion’ skills to reduce the psychological grip of intrusive thoughts. For many people defusion skills are highly effective but at first glance they seem quite odd. For example, singing your intrusive thought to the tune of a familiar song.
 Dr. Barb Markaway, a clinical psychologist, published an excellent article in Psychology Today entitled Stop Fighting your NegativeThoughts. In it she outlines numerous ways to defuse those thoughts rather than repress or avoid them. She first recommends asking yourself Is this thought true? Is this thought important? Is this thought helpful?”

Additionally, Dr. Markaway recommends the following tips to help defuse negative thoughts:

Label your thoughts. Instead of saying “I'm a loser,” say, “I'm having the thought that I'm a loser.” Instead of saying, “I'm going to blow this test,” say “I'm having the thought that I'm going to blow this test.” The difference may seem subtle, but it can help you gain the perspective that you are not your thoughts.

Thank your mind. If you're having anxious thoughts such as, “I hope this plane doesn't crash…I hope the pilot knows what he’s doing…” say, “Thank you, mind. Thank you for trying to keep me safe. But there's nothing that you really need to do right now. I’ve got it covered.” I’m big on notes to myself, so sometimes I write my mind a letter of appreciation for its efforts, but also let it know it can take a break.

Let them float away. This one involves imagery. You put each negative thought on a leaf and imagine it floating down a stream. When you have another thought, as you will, you put it on another leaf and watch it float by.

Sing your thoughts. Try singing your thoughts to the alphabet song or to Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Your thoughts will certainty sound absurd this way, which is the whole point.

Say them in a funny voice. Try saying your thoughts in a funny voice. Maybe do an imitation of a cartoon character. 

Name your stories. Many times our thoughts are repetitive and involve the same stories. My story frequently is, “I don't really know what I'm doing.” When thoughts come up along that storyline, I can say, “Oh, here’s my I’m Incompetent story, and just let it go.

Do it anyway. Perhaps the most important tip is to remember that you can have a thought and perform any kind of behavior at the same time. If it’s something you care about, it’s worth it to let the thoughts simply be. You don’t have to do anything about them. When I work with clients on their anxiety using exposure therapy (face-your-fear therapy) the most important thing they report learning is, “I can function even when I’m anxious.”

Dr. Markaway says it “takes a little practice to get the hang of ‘defusion’ techniques, so don’t give up. Many of my clients use them, and each person develops their personal favorites. I’ve tried all of the above except for saying my thoughts in a funny voice. I’m pretty sure it would be helpful, if I could only get my mind to stop telling me how silly I’d sound.”

There are more ways to deal with anxiety and negative feelings and thoughts than by expecting other people to tiptoe around you verbally and censor themselves in order to spare you discomfort. That kind of an expectation is narcissistic in nature in that it expects others to sacrifice their “normal” in order to accommodate your “dysfunctional.” This is a really big flea because of the way it impacts others around you: it requires them to censor themselves beyond the level of normal conversational courtesy and demands they adapt their speech…even their thoughts…to oblige you. It’s not a healthy way to deal with anxiety either for you or for those who pander to you.

So the next time you are tempted to publish a “trigger warning” or admonish someone with “That is a trigger word for me!”, give it a think first…will you be hurting someone by helping her to continue her avoidance game? Are you expecting that others alter their language or thoughts in order to accommodate you? What would happen if you left off the warning or if you took responsibility for your negative thoughts and implemented some of the techniques above?

The choice, as always, is yours to make.