From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
7. Thou shalt be hyper-vigilant (there are actually two #7s in the original document!)
Sample Situation: A child is constantly reminded how dangerous the world is. People can't be trusted either. Therefore, stay aloof, don't get too close to anybody.
Lesson Learned: The only way to be safe in this world is to be careful and insulate yourself from others. Be careful. Always be on guard. They might hurt you. If you need help, don't ask for their help. Do it yourself.
Motto: Always be on your guard. The wise person is always over prepared and distrustful of everyone and everything.
Children are constantly reminded of how dangerous the world is and how untrustworthy people are not so much by dire warnings as by living a life in which the child constantly feels threatened and unsafe. Add being regularly and almost predictably betrayed by those who should love her most—one or both of her parents—she learns for herself that the world is a perilous place and that there are few, if any, who are safe to trust.
If you Google “hypervigilance” you get a lot of overlap with “paranoia,” an unfortunate circumstance since they are worlds apart, even though we sometimes inaccurately use the word “paranoia” to describe what is, in truth, hypervigilance. So what is the difference? Paranoia is “...a form of mental illness; the cause is thought to be internal, eg a minor variation in the balance of brain chemistry” whereas hypervigilance “is a response to an external event (violence, accident, disaster, violation, intrusion, bullying, etc) and therefore an injury.” Some people refer to it as a “psychiatric injury” like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and, indeed, Complex PTSD can be caused by the kind of dysfunctional parenting we received. PTSD, however is something that needs to be diagnosed by a competent mental health professional so if you think you may have it, your best bet is to see a therapist for a diagnosis and treatment plan. But whether your hypervigilance is caused by PTSD or not, it is good to know what it is and what it does to you.
“Those who grow up in an environment that is not safe (whether physically or emotionally) develop a heightened sense of threat. They learn to scan the environment for potential danger, and react defensively. As an adult, this can continue as a chronic sense of fear and a predisposition to overreact and take things personally, especially in intimate relationships. We carry the war with us.” This is the kind of hypervigilance that children, especially the Scapegoat children, of dysfunctional families, learn and eventually internalize—and it gives us a lot of difficulty as we grow up and move into our adult lives.
One of the things hypervigilance leads us to do is to extrapolate: we take the facts available to us and project forward what might happen. I know I was doing this as young as 8 years of age because I can clearly remember an incident. NM left me and GCBro in the car while she went to consult with a lawyer—she and my father were separating…again. She said she would be gone for an hour but when the hour came and went, I began getting nervous. Although I was no longer consciously aware that she had abandoned me to the State for adoption when I was only two years old (but she kept my infant brother), on some level I retained those memories—and fears. The later it got, the more fearful I became until I was convinced she was never coming back. This made me hysterical which, eventually, led to me curling up in a ball in the corner of the car, sobbing uncontrollably. Of course, there was hell to pay when NM got back to the car—two hours late—but I had taken what I knew (she was gone longer than an hour), combined it with what I feared (being abandoned again), and extrapolated them into an abandonment scenario that completely undid me.
I didn’t “outgrow” this but I did learn to not buy into my “catastrophizing.*” Nearly fifteen years after NM died, I still fall into hypervigilance and extrapolation, particularly in times of stress, but I no longer allow it to control or paralyze me. My husband, who is diabetic, had a major seizure last year due to low blood sugar. When he collapsed, he fell into a position that blocked his airway and being unconscious, he was unable to move and allow himself to breathe…and I was unable to move him. I am ordinarily calm in medical emergencies, but I was widowed in 2000 and well I know that after 4 minutes without oxygen, the brain begins to die. I stuck my fingers into his throat and pressed down on his tongue to open his airway, frantically willing him not to die. He had had one of these crashes 18 months earlier and I knew from experience he would eventually regain consciousness (assuming I could keep his airway open) and be ok, but part of me was still extrapolating to having to make that awful call to his mother to tell her that her son had died. I control it, but it lives in my psyche like a cobra, just waiting for its moment to strike…
Another thing we deal with when we are hypervigilant is anxiety. Oh, not the hand-wringing, brow furrowing, looking over our shoulder stuff, but quiet, pervasive, persistent anxiety, like we are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. We become sceptical to the point of cynicism at much too young an age. We cease to trust implicitly and begin to look for the “catch” in even the simplest, most obvious things. When I was a little girl I remember sitting on the floor with my brother, watching TV, when my NM asked me if I would like some peanuts. As a kid who seldom got enough to eat, I eagerly accepted her offer and she handed me a small metal can with the word “Peanuts” emblazoned on the side. As I reached for the can, my brother tried to intercept it, but uncharacteristically, she waved him off. That should have warned me but, truthfully, I was soaking up the “special attention” I never got from her—she was offering me a treat and she wasn’t allowing my rude little brother to take it away before I even got it. I struggled a bit with the tight-fitting lid of the little tin, but finally it loosened up. Suddenly, the lid flew out of my hand and out of the can leapt what looked like a snake—a long tightly coiled spring covered with a reptile-printed fabric. I shrieked, dropped the can and jumped backwards, bursting into tears. NM also had tears in her eyes…from laughing so hard. GCBro was rolling on the floor clutching his sides. I stood there, immobilized with hurt and humiliation, until I was able to pull myself together enough to run to my room. Later, when NM got out the real peanuts, I wasn’t allowed to have any because I “had a stick up my ass” and I “couldn’t take a joke.” You can bet that from that day forward I looked for the catch in anything unexpectedly nice anyone ever tried to do for me.
“The hypervigilant person often has a diminished sense of self-worth, sometimes dramatically so [and] is often convinced of their worthlessness and will often deny their value to others.” People who value themselves do not spend their lives looking over their shoulders, waiting for someone to attack them; we who have lived lives of being the butt of other people’s jokes, the object of their derision, of being invisible or punching bags or both—we know that we are not valued by those closest to us, by those who should see us as priceless treasures. And if our own families find us valueless, who are we—especially as little kids—to naysay them? We assimilate and internalize the messages our dysfunctional parents fed us every day of our childhoods and by the time we are adults, we not only believe those messages, we feed them to ourselves.
Another thing we may do is engage in disbelief and denial. “...the hypervigilant person is aware of how implausible their experience sounds and often doesn't want to believe it themselves…the hypervigilant person cannot bring themselves to believe that the [abuser] cannot and will not see the effect their behaviour is having; they cling naively to the mistaken belief that the [abuser] will recognise their wrongdoing and apologise…” How many of us cling to hope that if we can just find the magic key, we can unlock the door to the heart of the dysfunctional family member(s) who torment (s) us?
This kind of denial can be deeply rooted and almost impossible to eradicate. This is not the simple choice of weighing two versions of the “truth” and choosing the one you wish to believe, this is something buried deep in your subconscious and often out of the reach of conscious thought. Many of us go NC (No Contact) with our abusive, dysfunctional parents and many who do so eventually come to the realization that these people, who are our parents in name only, never loved us because they are incapable of the selflessness that real love requires. And yet, the denial and disbelief that our own mothers, the women who carried us inside their bodies and gave us life, could not love us seems to bury itself in our being, coming to the fore on occasions like the births of our own children or grandchildren, when we realize how much and how effortlessly we love our own. The love was simply there—we made no effort, we did not summon it—it was just there, with our own children. What was wrong with us that our mothers looked into our little faces and were not overwhelmed with love for us like we were for our own children? Despite decades of abuse and therapy and consciously coming to terms with the fact that, through no fault of our own, our mothers didn’t…and never will…love us, somewhere deep in our hearts there remains a feeble flicker of hope that one day she will wake up and realize she does love us after all, and begin to act like the mother we always wanted and needed.
Many of us stay hypervigilant to her behaviour, subconsciously (even consciously) picking apart her every action, looking for evidence that maybe, just maybe, she loves us. We try to find ways to rationalize those things she does or says that are, in truth, hurtful and insensitive. Some of us even redefine things like love to incorporate her unloving and compassionless conduct. The hope, no matter how tiny, that she loves us can be so strong that our hypervigilance picks up on the smallest implication that she might care. Coupled with denial and disbelief, we can be held in thrall to our NMs simply by that faint hope that sometimes we don’t even recognize exists.
I knew from my earliest childhood that something was wrong with my mother. I didn’t know how I knew, but meeting other little girls in school and hearing (and occasionally observing) their home lives made it crystal clear to me that my mother was different, and not in a good way. I, on the other hand, was not so different from the little girls I played with, having the same hopes and desires, beliefs and values as my peers. I was satisfied that I was a normal little girl and that my mother was strange. I knew before I started school that my mother was dangerous—by the time I started school I had long ago developed the hypervigilance that kept me as safe as possible, the knowledge that staying out of sight was safer than reminding her of my existence with my presence, the knowledge that swift obedience was more likely than dallying to keep me out of trouble. I was alert to her moods, her body language, her facial expressions, her tone of voice—all of which helped me to predict what was going on with her and the safest way for me to respond. What I didn’t know until I started school was that other little girls didn’t have to do the same with their mothers—their mothers were safe to be around all of the time. There was something wrong with my mother…really, truly wrong.
And I spent years in therapy coming to terms with this fact, eradicating beliefs and habits and dysfunctional behaviours, learning to be an emotionally healthy person, even learning how to “be my own mother.” And my life improved, my relationships improved, my sense of self improved and I was even able to be in my mother’s presence without fear (although that hypervigilance was awake and quiveringly alert the whole time!).
And then she died. It was an unexpected death and I had not seen or heard from her for several years—I had become invisible again, and my daughter had become the daughter NM had apparently wanted me to be…her Mini-Me. I had felt some vague unease—and a feeling of unfairness—when my daughter made it clear that NM was in regular touch with her, that she received a five-figure cash gift from my NM so she could put a down payment on a house, and that NM was planning to disinherit me in her favour. With her every phone call, with her every visit and reporting on NM and her activities, my hypervigilance grew…something was definitely wrong here and I felt I had to be on guard.
And then NM died and the expected sense of relief enveloped me—but something else as well. The death of a hope I had not even known I was still harbouring. For the death of that poor, feeble little hope I wept—for the death of my mother, I felt only a release from the bondage of apprehension and anxiety—the other shoe had finally, irrevocably, dropped.
We develop hypervigilance as a protective mechanism. We develop it to be like an “early warning” system, a subconscious process that instantaneously assesses threats and risks and projects their likely outcome based on our past experiences and our worst fears. And for some of us, it was a useful—even essential—tool in surviving our childhoods at the hands of dysfunctional parents, but it becomes a liability in our adult lives, where we are not daily living with and under the control of dysfunctional emotional predators. Hypervigilance, misplaced and allowed to rule our lives, makes us dysfunctional. As adults, it is time to put childish ways behind us, and hypervigilance is one of those things.
* Loretta LaRoche
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
8. Thou shalt not let anyone do anything else for you. Do it all yourself.
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.