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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Narcissism’s Relationship Trap

Before I knew anything about narcissism, before I entered therapy, before I realized that nothing I could do would make my mother love me, I got married to a man who I thought was a prince among men.

I had already been in terrible relationships with abusive, selfish men and in my 27-year-old wisdom decided that any man I could live with for a year and still feel good about would be The One. I had long since given up the notion that my partner had to be handsome or buff or Mr. Personality…I had settled on sober, dependable, trustworthy, intelligent, reasonably well-educated and having a steady job that paid well as indispensable criteria, and once I found a man like that if, after a year, I had not discovered he was a wife beater or a skirt chaser or mean and punitive, he would be a viable candidate for marriage. Nobody, after all, can hide their true personality for a whole year, ya know?

Well, I was wrong…in fact, not only could he hide the reality of himself for a whole year, in later years I found a friend whose boyfriend concealed who and what he really was for four years. I probably don’t have to tell you that my marriage didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.

What brings this up today is that I realized that, after figuring out that my mother was a narcissist, I recognized that my ex-husband was one too…and this weekend I realized that my present husband shares many traits and tastes with my narcissistic ex-husband.

But this is not a bad thing. You see, during that first year, my ex (who I will call “James” here to prevent any confusion) was exactly what I was looking for: he was patient and accommodating, dependable, trustworthy, and all of those other things I was looking for in a partner. He was an engineer, so he was technically minded, he was highly intelligent, and better educated than I was. His personal interests included finance and economics and politics, and he had little quirks like keeping a logbook of all of the money he spent on fuel and maintenance of his car, recorded with the date, reason for cost, and the amount. He also regularly calculated his gas mileage from this log. He could watch TV movies back-to-back for an entire day, movies he recorded on VHS tape…and he would watch those movies with a magazine in his lap, reading articles on finance and economics while he watched TV. He liked my cooking. He was a good earner and seemed to be good with money…all things that should make a good husband.

But, interestingly enough, everything I said about James in the previous paragraph also applies to my present husband! Even that quirky little thing about recording the costs for the car…James kept a ledger book in the glove compartment, my present husband does it on his smart phone. My relationship with James lasted 13 years and my husband and I have been together for the same length of time. But with James, after a decade I was a crumbling shell of the woman I had been when we met, broken, barely functioning, suicidal. Earlier this month my husband and I celebrated our 11th anniversary and I am looking forward to another eleven and even more.

So, what is the difference? Why would I respond to these two very similar men in such a different fashion? The answer lies not in what is similar between them, but their differences. And not superficial differences but those things that go deep into a person’s character.

One of the problems we ACoNs may face is choosing friends and partners and inadvertently choosing to bring more narcissists into our lives. Narcissists are very good at mimicking normal, they are excellent at making themselves look like the answer to your dreams…until they have you hooked. And they have an almost unerring radar for finding those of us who were raised to be a scapegoat, a provider of NSupply to narcissists near and far. They find us like wolves find wounded prey animals and then they do whatever is necessary to get us into position for the kill. And we, deprived of the most basic love and nurturing during our formative years, are suckers for people who appear to fill our shamefully neglected emotional needs.

James knew I was burned by flaky men who took advantage and then took off. They got what they wanted by pretending to give me what I needed. Raised by a narcissist mother and a largely absent father, I was hypervigilant to the moods of my narcissist and learned quickly that anticipating her needs/wants and providing them before they were demanded was the best way to stave off the explosions of wrath. My mother was extremely volatile, emotionally, and had the terrifying ability to go from sweet and smiling to a full-blown screaming rage in the blink of an eye…and back to sweetly smiling just as fast. Living with her was like living in a mine field with just a few paths of safety mapped out…and one of those paths was to give her what she wanted before she demanded it.

This, of course, set the stage for my “operating condition” for the years that followed. I managed to hook up with men who, like my mother, had volatile personalities and, to prevent explosions, I employed my hypervigilance and anticipatory ways. Whatever, whoever they wanted me to be, I would be in their presence (just like in my childhood, however, the mouse would be and do whatever she wanted when the cat was away). This pattern of behaviour, however, was not conducive to the establishment and perpetuation of a healthy long-term relationship. Once the men got what they wanted from me, they abandoned me or abused me until I left them. By age 26 I had three children and had been abandoned by my last boyfriend when our child was only a few months old.

I was never a stupid person and I tried to learn from the events in my life. What I had the most trouble with was figuring out when a person was fooling me and when he was sincere. The father of my youngest child stayed with me throughout my pregnancy, supported me and was what I considered to be kind and loving. Once the baby was born, however, he began pulling away and by the time I had recovered from my Caesarean enough to return to work, he was gone. For a long time I wondered what I might have done to drive him away, but I later learned that I was the first of three women he did this too…he even married the third one but abandoned her and their baby when the child was just a few months old. Obviously, he had an issue but just as obviously, I seemed to be incapable of determining whether or not a man had an issue that would cause him to leave me—or abuse me—before getting involved with him.

James seemed like a breath of fresh air. He was a professional man, unlike my previous lovers, well-educated, well-read, well-spoken. One of the things I remember finding wondrous about him was his patience, something my mother and previous male partners seemed to have in short supply. I remember James taking me to a pharmacy to fill a prescription and I apologized in advance for the time it was going to take, for taking up his valuable time waiting around for me. He shrugged and said “No problem…why don’t you leave the baby in the car with me while you are in there, then you won’t have to deal with him as well as everything else?” I was amazed and I remember congratulating myself for finally finding a man with some patience and sensitivity. How could I have known it was just an act?

Well, forty years later, I have the answer to that question: if he seems too good to be true, he is. Real people have flaws and they show them. Nobody is perfect…oh, he can be “perfect for you,” as my husband is for me, but that means that he has flaws that you find acceptable, even endearing…imperfections that you can live with or even enjoy. A person with no faults is either faking it to impress you or s/he is a narcissist, being what will attract you until you are hooked and s/he can abandon the disguise.

James managed to last for an entire year and, against my better judgment, I married him. I say “against my better judgment” because I let my logical mind and my need for security overrule my intuition, which had seen—and dismissed—numerous red flags during the year. I had already failed at marriage and didn’t really want to marry again, but I had made the cardinal error of letting him know too much about my inner workings…he knew just how emotionally insecure I was and how badly I wanted a house of my own so I could feel secure (somehow I had equated the two…I believed when I had my own house, I would no longer feel as if the rug was about to be yanked out from beneath me). When I balked at his blandishments about marriage and he finally took on board that I was afraid to get married again, lest I fail at it another time, he bribed me with the promise of a house of my own. And that was the tipping point.

Superficially, James and my present husband are very much alike, but when you analyse them, what shakes out is that my present husband is the genuine article…he is, in real life, what James pretended to be for the year before I married him. My criteria were fine…what I wanted in a husband was not unusual or unhealthy…for the last eleven years I have had a husband who fits that criteria very well. They even share some quirky behaviours, like the log book for the car and where James watched TV with a magazine in his lap, my present husband has his tablet and is reading on-line articles about politics, economics, and finance while watching movies he has recorded on the PVR. The difference between James and my present husband is that I gave James enough information in our early days for him to figure out what kind of man I wanted and he recreated himself to appear to be that man; my husband was himself from the beginning and over time it became obvious that he really is what James pretended to be.

For the longest time I wondered what I did to cause James to change from the loving, patient, attentive man I agreed to marry into the monster I ended up with. For more than ten years I turned myself inside out, trying to find the magic key to unlocking the door behind which was hidden the wonderful man I married. I took the blame for his change, believing it was something I did or said that caused him to turn into a cruel, manipulative, short-tempered, selfish, inhumane excuse for a human being. I believed if I could discover what it was I did or said that caused him to change, I could have the man I married back. It was not until I discovered narcissism that I began to understand that the monster was the real man, the loving partner I thought I married was the fake.

It was an epiphany and the implications were huge. It wasn’t my fault…he wasn’t a monster because of something I did or said…or didn’t do or say…he was a monster because that was the real man, the man behind the mask of kindness and patience and love. Where I was at fault was in letting him know early on what I needed or wanted in a partner so that he could create himself to be that person. In seeking to evoke his empathy with my sad tale of childhood abuse and bad luck in adult love relationships, I gave him a detailed blueprint of what he needed to pretend to be in order to win me. And, in my tales of a life of woe, I confirmed to him that I was a well-trained scapegoat, a well-skilled provider of N-supply, a person who would subordinate the very essence of herself to obtain even the merest crumbs of approval and affection. I was as irresistible to a narcissist as a wounded hare to a fox, and he was determined to not only have me, but to bind me to him through marriage so that I couldn’t just pick up and walk away when his abuse became too much.

In my epiphany, I further discovered that I was a willing accomplice in my victimization: I told him everything he needed to know to entrap me. I let him know what hurt me, I reacted to probes into my feelings so he knew what my triggers were. I ignored the red flags that popped up regularly, even when my conscious mind knew better…I ignored them because they got in the way of what I wanted. If I acknowledged them, I would have to end the relationship and start all over again with a new man and a new set of unknowns. The idea of going it alone, with no man and without wanting a man in my life, never occurred to me.

It took ten years for me to really wake up and see what had really been going on. Even then, I knew nothing about narcissism, but I knew I had married a male version of my mother and that was a bad thing. My fear of my mother coupled with her hostility and indifference to my feelings led me to contemplate suicide for the first time when I was nine, and to my first attempt when I was seventeen. James and his cruel indifference led me to the same brink. And when I finally put them together, thanks to a heavy hint from an insightful therapist, I was horrified: I had married the male counterpart to my mother and had been trying to resolve my issues with her by trying to find ways to make my marriage work. I had taken on all of the blame and responsibility for the flaws in the relationship, believing I was somehow provoking his gaslighting, triangulating, and fault-finding. And as long as I believed that, I was trapped in the web, a willing but unwitting prisoner.

My present husband, on the surface, is much like my ex. The difference is simply that James was pretending to be what I wanted in a man, my present husband actually is. And at the time I married James, I had neither the knowledge nor the self-confidence to actually see that James was pretending and because I lacked those abilities, I set up a hurdle for him to leap, reasoning that if he could succeed, then he would be a good husband. In theory there is nothing wrong with that, but in practice I made a critical error: the hurdle I created had nothing to do with reality. I could have set up “he can knit potholders” as the hurdle and gotten just as accurate a result.

We who were raised by narcissists are especially vulnerable to them…they can pick us out of a crowd like a cutting horse can cut a calf out of a herd. And we respond to them because we have been conditioned to do so…they fit seamlessly into our “comfort zone,” especially if we haven’t done any real work to redefine that comfort zone. And while we can design little rat mazes for them to run through to prove to us they aren’t going to hurt us, if our little mazes aren’t based on reality, it isn’t going to work. And even if the mazes are based on reality, if we allow ourselves to dismiss those red flags, if we explain them away, then we still end up at the end of a narcissist’s specimen pin.

Coming from a narcissistic upbringing makes us vulnerable to choosing these kinds of partners…and friends, too. We need to learn to put what we want to see in people secondary to what we really, uncomfortably, observe. When we can start acknowledging those red flags and not dismissing them, when we can put the fairy tale relationship we carry in our heads away and stop trying to fit the most recent lover or friend into the role, we begin to make progress. Key to this is to stop trying to find reasons to find a person acceptable…to give up the idea that we can or should remake a person to fit our ideals…and simply accept or reject a person based on whether or not they already fit into our own personal scheme of things.

And that brings me back to my husbands…obviously my criteria and my tastes have held constant and what I wanted was neither unreasonable nor unhealthy. My mistake was in ignoring the red flags and not allowing myself to recognize that James really didn’t fit my needs, he was just pretending to. My present husband, though, fits the criteria admirably: he is, for real, what James merely pretended to be for a year.

In retrospect, it turns out it was not all that difficult to do. If you start with a realistic and healthy set of expectations in a partner, pay attention to the red flags in the people you meet, avoid the temptation to try to change people to fit into your criteria, and have sufficient patience, your odds of successfully avoiding the relationship trap set for you by your narcissistic upbringing are excellent.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Unlearning your Learned Helplessness

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject of Learned Helplessness that applies to many of us. One of the things that struck me most was the idea that you can be fully competent and even confident of yourself in some areas of your life, but exhibit learned helplessness in others. I reproduce excerpts of the article below and, as usual, my comments are shown in violet:
TRIGGER WARNING: The article makes reference to animal testing which involved the injury (via electric shock) and emotional abuse of dogs.

Learned helplessness is a mental state in which an organism, forced to endure aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable, presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. Organisms that have been ineffective and less sensitive in determining the consequences of their behaviour are defined as having acquired learned helplessness. 

In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action.

Have you ever been to a zoo and saw an elephant restrained only by an iron cuff around one leg and a length of chain connected to an iron stake in the ground? I remember seeing that and wondering how, considering how strong an elephant is, that flimsy chain didn’t snap the moment the elephant gave a yank. Well, the answer is childhood conditioning, just as you and I were conditioned by our narcissistic parents.

You see, the trainer places a cuff and chain around the baby elephant’s leg and attaches the other end of the chain to something too big for the baby to move, like a tree. At first the baby will fight the chain but eventually it will decide that it is stronger than he is and stop fighting. From that day forward, the elephant will believe the chain is stronger than he is and he will not challenge it. The chain restrains an adult elephant not because of its intrinsic strength, but because of the strength of the elephant’s belief.

In [an] experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs.” A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in series with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever did not stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently “inescapable.” Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

I have been suicidally depressed several times in my life. In all cases I was trapped in an untenable situation from which I could see no viable way out. The first time I was only nine years old, the last time I was in my mid-thirties. In each case, I believed myself to be helpless to change the situation and that the situation could only be resolved in a way that would make matters even worse for me. In hindsight, there actually were other resolutions available, but I either could not see them or, if I could see them, I was unable to take advantage of them. For example, I was trapped in a terribly emotionally abusive marriage with a narcissist. I was unemployed and too depressed to find and hold down a job. I was very clear on the fact that he was emotionally abusing me…I even pointed it out to him in one of our many rows. His response was to increase the abuse. I refused to consider divorce as an option: I was in my late 20s when I became clear on his abusiveness and I had already been married and divorced twice…I could not bear the humiliation of three divorces at such a young age and so I stayed, becoming more depressed with each passing day. A feeling of helplessness, whether actual or learned, leads to depression.

There seems to be only one cure for the helplessness in dogs. …the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that no instrumental response [nothing that they can do] will produce shock termination. To change their expectation and to recover the dogs from helplessness, experimenters had to physically pick up the dogs and move the legs in a close replication of the physical actions the dogs needed to take to remove themselves from the electrified grid. This had to be replicated at least 2 times before the dogs would exhibit the functional response of jumping over the barrier to get away from the electrified grid. Threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no observed effect in helping the dogs to independently move away from the shocks. (Emphasis mine.)

This is really important…no amount of threats, rewards, or observed demonstrations helped with the recovery: the animals had to actually take the steps...they had to make an effort, even though the initial efforts were guided…before they could begin recovery. Those of us who sit back and read the books and the websites and join support and discussion groups are just spinning our wheels because until we actually make an effort…and make the effort more than once…we don’t even have a shot at recovery. In practical terms, this means that you can read, write, and talk all you want about your situation, but until you actually do something…and keep doing it…you will remain stuck right where you are.

Other experiments were performed with different animals with similar results. In all cases, the strongest predictor of a depressive response was lack of control over the aversive stimulus. So, basically, if you are depressed, it is because there is something negative in your life over which you feel you have no power. So how do you become UNdepressed? You find a way to empower yourself and use it to regain not only your own personal power, but to overcome the situation that is depressing you.

There is a strong caveat in that, however: we must not empower ourselves at the expense of the well-being of others. Our GCs are people who found a way to feel empowered by joining forces with and even adopting the personas of our Ns, giving themselves permission to hurt others en route to getting what they want. Aileen Wuornos was an abused child who grew into a woman who believed herself powerless and who tried to take control of her life in the most devastatingly negative way possible: she became a serial killer. We have to recognize that we must take control of our lives and empower ourselves without exploiting other people in the process. 

Does that mean it is not ok to hurt our Ns and GCs and their flying monkeys in the process? No. Your Ns and GCs and their Flying Monkeys have no right to hurt you in the first place, no right to impose their wants over your needs, no right to dictate your life, violate your boundaries, or hurt or shame you. The law does not allow you to steal from others, nor does it allow you to keep that which has been stolen by another…even if you did not steal it. The law will not come into your house and take from you legal items that you acquired legitimately…they do not have the right to do that. But they do have the right to reclaim, over your objections, property to which you have no right. And so it is with Ns, GCs, and Flying Monkeys: whatever parts of you they have laid claim to, you have every right to take back, over their objections if necessary. And I doesn’t matter if those objections are framed as anger, hurt, outrage, or defensiveness, your right to reclaim the stolen and co-opted parts of your Self is absolute and the only rights they have over you are those you allow them to take.
Fighting with the humans, biting, attacking, might have felt good to the dogs but it would do nothing to heal them. The only path to healing was to go through the guided motions of the right way to escape the electrified grid and then to do it on their own.

In 2011, an animal study found that animals with control over stress exhibited changes in the excitability of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex…Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit an increase in excitability and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety. In other words, it is a physiological response…your brain synapses and your brain chemistry are altered by being in a situation of forced helplessness. But when you take control of those things that stress you, your synapses and brain chemistry alter again. You can fix it…but you can’t do it by sitting around thinking, reading, and talking about it.

Later research discovered that the original theory of learned helplessness failed to account for people's varying reactions to situations that can cause learned helplessness. Learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation, but at other times generalizes across situations. This is what I found most interesting: your learned helplessness you may not even recognize because it is confined to one area of your life, one situation. Or, it can be pervasive and your entire life is an exercise in learned helplessness of which you may or may not be aware. 

An individual's attributional style [attributional style: a person's characteristic tendencies when inferring the cause of behavior or events, that may be based on three dimensions: the internal-external dimension (whether they tend to attribute events to the self or to other factors), the stable-unstable dimension (whether they tend to attribute events to enduring or transient causes), and the global-specific dimension (whether they tend to attribute events to causes that affect many events or just a single event)] or explanatory style is the key to understanding why people respond differently to adverse events. Although a group of people may experience the same or similar negative events, how each person privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.

So, if your tendency is to blame yourself, see negative events as long-term (rather than of brief duration) and view negative events as having an over-arching cause, such as bad karma, an evil government, a punishing god, cursed with bad luck, or an evil, controlling person in your life rather than discreet, individual events with equally discreet, individual causes, you will have what is known as a “negative attributional style” or “pessimistic explanatory style.” 

People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it's my fault”), and pervasive (“I can't do anything correctly”)—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy…can often help people to learn more realistic explanatory styles, and can help ease depression.

Apart from the shared depression symptoms between human and other animals such as passivity, introjected hostility [to turn against oneself the hostility felt toward another…in other words, the unacknowledged hostility you feel towards your parents or other abusers you turn onto yourself], weight loss, appetite loss, [I believe weight gain and comfort eating should be included here] social and sexual deficits, some of the diagnostic symptoms of learned helplessness—including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation—can be found and observed in human beings but not necessarily in other animals. In non-human animal models, control over stress conveys resilience to future uncontrolled stressors and induces changes in the function of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex. 

Regardless of origin, people who see uncontrollable events…who see events as uncontrollable by themselves…reliably suffer disruption of emotions, aggressions, physiology, and have difficulties with problem-solving tasks. These helpless experiences can associate with passivity, uncontrollability and poor cognition in people, ultimately threatening their physical and mental well-being.

Learned helplessness can contribute to poor health when people neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment, falsely believing they have no power to change. The more people perceive events as uncontrollable and unpredictable, the more stress they experience, and the less hope they feel about making changes in their lives. 

Stressor controllability is one factor that contributes to physical health when it comes to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when an animal or human is exposed to stressors that they cannot control. If these stressors are controlled, the phenomenon of learned helplessness does not occur. [Emphasis mine.]

Too often we who grew up in rigidly controlled environments go to the extreme other end of things: where we were controlled too much by our parents, we control our own children too little, making them feel adrift, unanchored, and entitled. My mother bought my clothes for me until I took a summer job while living with my grandparents and spent the entire proceeds on school clothes before NM could get her hands on it…I took control. I was 16 and entering my senior year and up to that point, I had no control over my wardrobe whatsoever. But rather than turn me loose in town with a fist full of cash, my grandmother took me shopping and had the knowledgeable sales clerks select a variety of suitable outfits, giving me choices. And when my own daughter needed school clothes, I would choose half a dozen suitable dresses (that were within my budget) and let her choose two or three…and started this with her from the first grade. I have never felt helpless or incompetent when it came to fashion…I took control of my own wardrobe at 16 and had competent help those first few forays, then passed the skill on to my own daughter. But this was not true of all aspects of my life…in fact, until therapy, it wasn’t even true of much of my life.

Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style are often more likely to suffer from depression. People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic explanatory style also tend to have weakened immune systems, and not only have increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g., cold, fever) and major illness (e.g., heart attack, cancers), but also have a less effective recovery from health problems. 

…helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by prejudice (i.e., “deprejudice”). In this context, I do not believe the author is referring exclusively to the kind of prejudice addressed by the Civil Rights Act. Prejudice, after all, means “bias,” and a narcissistic parent can develop a bias against one of her own children without race, gender, ethnic origin or any other Title V conditions coming into play. Your parent or other family member may be biased…prejudiced…against you for no discernible reason at all: you have simply been assigned the role of family scapegoat and abuse will inevitably issue forth from that. Psychoanalyst Elizabeth Young-Bruehl uses "prejudice" in this context: "Listening to my adult patients in psychoanalysis who were maltreated as children, I have heard basically three stories: they were not wanted, they were controlled and manipulated or they were not allowed to be who they felt they were. So I have come to think in terms of childism that intends 1) to eliminate or destroy children, 2) to make them play roles no child should play or 3) to dominate them totally, narcissistically erasing their identities. Survivors make it clear that the worst part of their experience — the most difficult to heal from, the least forgivable — was that no one protected them from it. They often make it clear, as well, that they have internalized the prejudice and direct it toward themselves."

Someone facing inescapable prejudice (e.g., abuse) may develop learned helplessness and depression as a result. “Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks. ” 

Abnormal and cognitive psychologists have looked at the correlation of depression and anxiety with learned helplessness over the years. It has been shown that the symptoms shown with learned helplessness have corresponding symptoms in depression. The symptoms most [people] feel when depressed give the feeling of helplessness and uncontrollability that have been correlated with learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness can also be a motivational problem. Individuals who have failed at tasks in the past conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance. This can occur even when you have not failed, but when failure is assigned to you…and that situation is crazy making. You can also be set up to fail, even when it looks like you have not. In the early 1970s my Nhusband and I got into a dispute about buying a second car: I had a sickly baby and did not want a used car that might break down on my in an emergency; he was adamant that I buy second hand. To end the argument, he gave me a budget of $2500 and said if I could find a new car for that money, he would buy it. Well, it took me several months but I did find such a car…brand new for $2442…and he bought it but, instead of being pleased at having a brand new car for so little money, he was furious with me. It turns out that the whole thing was a set up to teach me a lesson and instead of learning the lesson (he is always right) I made, in his eyes, a fool of him. He was furious…livid…that I failed to fail. It became very difficult for me to determine if I was supposed to succeed or fail at a task he set before me and, because my focus was on pleasing him and getting his approval, I found myself convinced I could do nothing right…

Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences. However…people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, resulting in a situation that reinforces the problematic thinking. Think “nerds” and other socially inept people…how do we, in the larger society, think of them? Girls don’t want to date them, won’t dance with them when asked at clubs, and generally shun them. Nobody likes being rejected and those who have not mastered the art of social intercourse find themselves repeatedly shut down in their attempts to integrate. That fear of rejection and the feeling of humiliation that comes with it, keeps them socially isolated because they buy into the idea that they are somehow defective…which is, in itself, problematic thinking.

Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable…Learned helplessness in response to experiences can be prevented or minimized by “immunization” and, when present, may be reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome. Therapy can instruct people in the fact of contingency and bolster people's self-esteem. But when we become convinced of our helplessness, when we believe that the world will not change and we are powerless to make any changes in our own worlds, we begin to live the belief, and that inevitably leads to depression.

So, are you afflicted with “learned helplessness”? If you are the child of a narcissist, you probably are. But too often we take this on without clarity: we think we are helpless to change our situation because we think that to change the situation we must somehow get the authority figures to change…and then when we hear we cannot change anyone but ourselves, the message we take away is one of hopelessness because if we cannot change our narcissistic parents, siblings, bosses, spouses, and others, we are doomed to be their scapegoat for all time.

But extracting yourself from learned helplessness is not a matter of changing the people around you, it is a matter of changing yourself, a matter of changing your attitudes, your beliefs, your paradigms. Your choices are not black and white, change the narcissist or remain in the same trap. Your choices are infinite: leave the narcissist to be what she is, but change the idea that you owe her your allegiance, change the idea that you must do as you are told, to fulfil the role she created for you. You can choose to change the frequency and nature of your communication, you can choose to set down boundaries and even choose what those boundaries will be and what the consequence for violating them will be. You can choose to see the truth of your FOO or you can choose to continue to believe the fictions you have kept all this time and which keep you depressed and helpless. You can un-learn this helplessness if you truly want to, but it involves taking off the rose-tinted lenses, giving up the myriad of excuses you use to rationalize your N’s behaviour (which, inevitably, lays blame on you and makes you feel guilty), and proactively seeking out the truth and embracing it, along with all of the feelings of hurt, outrage, and disbelief that you may have stored away in hopes that your worst fears are wrong and that your narcissists really do love and value you, not for the role you play in their dysfunction, but for the warm, real, loving human being you really are.

It means embracing reality, in all its ugly glory, and changing yourself, your beliefs, your responses, your feelings to match the objective reality of who and what your Ns are, rather than clinging to the hopes that have kept you a helpless hostage for so long.

Easier said than done, I know…but it is the only way to wholeness and leaving your learned helplessness behind.