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.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Learning at the Narcissist's Knee...

If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas, or in Latin, qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent. “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas” has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard's Almanack.

“The quote has a large almost universally agreed meaning of ‘You should be cautious of the company you keep. Associating with those of low reputation may not only lower your own but also lead you astray by the faulty assumptions, premises and data of the unscrupulous.’”

I suspect most people, when they think of teaching children, think of formal teaching, like parents schooling their children in table manners or classroom teachers with a lesson plan. But children learn more by observation and mimicking than by what they are formally taught and so you get children whose parents are mortified (or worse, amused) when sweet toddling Susie opens her little rosebud lips and an obscenity pops out. The little ones learn by observation and imitation much more than they learn from what we tell them.

In narcissistic terms, “fleas” are “…narcissistic-like behaviour traits displayed by a non-narcissist, generally learned behaviours from having been raised by a narcissist and not knowing what is normal for the situation.”  And if you live with narcissists, you’re gonna get fleas…

There’s nothing shameful in that—none of us are perfect, our parents are our first teachers and we, as little kids, believed them implicitly. They are our first gods, our first teachers, our first role models. We are programmed by nature to believe in them and in their benevolence because our survival literally depends on it: in our primitive brain, which is concerned with survival issues, we understand that pandering to and learning from our care-givers means our own survival, and so we ape and imitate them from our earliest years, absorbing their beliefs and prejudices and behaviours right along with their form of communication (language), rituals, and habits. And very little of this is consciously, formally taught or learned.

Children also learn from what they don't see. If they do not see compassionate or courteous behaviour from their primary caregivers, if they don’t see honesty and truth-telling from them, if they don’t see sharing and giving the benefit of the doubt, they don’t learn those things themselves. And when they see these things later in life, demonstrated by others, they not only don’t value and adopt them, they may disdain them because they were not part of the core values they absorbed in their homes of origin.

You see, children are naturally narcissistic. It is a survival mechanism built into the infant. Helpless and unable to do even the smallest thing for itself, the infant lives in a world of only two states: needy or needs satisfied. When it is hungry, it will squall and it will keep squalling until it is fed, no matter the circumstances…not even if its noise brings danger upon it and those around it. The infant operates from its primitive brain and is totally preoccupied with its own needs, having no care whatsoever for the needs of those around it. Programmed by nature to survive and to alert its caretakers when it has needs, there is no sense of shame, compassion, empathy, or consideration for the circumstances of anyone except itself.

As children grow, so does their capacity for seeing outside themselves. But by then they absorb the values and beliefs of their home of origin, and they ape their caretakers. It is natural for children to begin to outgrow their embedded self-centredness, but part of the job of the caretaker is to help the child become aware of the feelings of others and teach the child to respect them, to give them value.

Children, however, remain convinced for quite some time that their experiences define the normal world. Things that are different are potentially dangerous, so they often fear and balk at new experiences, particularly those that do not involve their protectors/caretakers. Lots of kids are clingy and apprehensive at the beginning of their school careers, or when changing schools, for example. And they carry with them that notion their world, their experiences, their knowledge is what is right…meaning that, at least initially, things alien to them are wrong—even bad or dangerous.

School is the great equalizer. I remember being in the third or fourth grade and being tormented by a nasty little boy who reminded me of my own equally nasty little brother. My brother was the GC and even by that tender age, I was nurturing a growing hatred for him as he browbeat me verbally like NM and he physically abused me as well—and if I told NM, she “spanked” me for tattling and let GCBro continue on. This other child would punch me in the arm or back and was verbally abusive, calling me names and inciting other kids to do the same, so I was nurturing a growing dislike of him as well.

Remember, children believe that their lives and their feelings are universal…it is part of the natural narcissism they must eventually outgrow. So when he came up to me on the playground and said something rude to me when I was talking to his sister, one of my classmates, I sincerely thought that she would have as much animosity towards her little brother as I had towards mine. Imagine my shock when she told me “Yes, he’s mean a lot, but I love him. He’s my little brother.”

My own upbringing did not include loving someone whom you did not like. It was inconceivable to me, at that time. Hate was the watchword in my household and, like any child, I just assumed that that was how everybody was—you only loved the ones who were really nice to you, and you hated everybody else. That was what my household felt like to me—why would anybody else’s house be any different, why would any other little girl feel differently from me about a brother who tormented her at every opportunity?

The very notion that everybody else feels the same way I do is at the core of the narcissist. They lie and manipulate, connive and misconstrue, all without guilt and remorse, assuming everybody else is exactly the same way. And because they believe everybody else is lying, manipulating, conniving and misconstruing, just like they are doing, they feel justified, which eliminates any reason for guilt. This kind of thinking is actually not atypical for young children (along with vengeful notions of payback), but it is something conscientious parents try to help their children grow out of. Some kids respond to those efforts…and some kids do not.

One of the things that narcissists do is they take things for granted…especially things you are expected to do. I learned to say “please” and “thank you” as formal kinds of politeness and, modelling on my mother’s behaviour, usually said them to strangers or to adults outside my family. My grandfather once watched me polish off a huge piece of lemon meringue pie that my grandmother had made just because it was my favourite pie (we had fruit she could have used for a fruit pie, but made this one because of my affinity for it). When I finished it and started to get down from the table, my grandfather very quietly said to me “It might be nice to thank your Nana for making your favourite pie.” It had never occurred to me: nobody ever thanked me for doing my chores, nobody ever thanked me for making sure my surly little brother got to school on time—in fact, nobody ever thanked me for anything. It simply did not occur to me to thank anyone for doing their “job,” including thanking my grandmother for cooking. It was a single sentence, but it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. I ran into the kitchen and hugged my grandmother around the waist and thanked her for the pie and for the dinner, then told her I thought she was the best grandmother in the whole wide world. I don’t think a diamond necklace could have made her smile so broadly!

I still remember that day…brilliantly…and still recall the huge amount of thinking I found myself doing, pondering all the different ways I could apply this newfound insight. Wouldn’t it be great if I could make people beam with happiness, like my grandmother, with just those simple two words, “thank you”?

It inspired me to go to the library and check out books on etiquette and to learn and practice good manners. It inspired me to pay attention to others and their feelings, to say please and thank you for the most mundane acts—if it served me, it deserved thanks. More than half a century later, I still practice it: I thank waiters when they bring the cutlery, I thank shop clerks when they give me my till slip and, even after having her work for me for five years now, I still thank my maid after every shift. Yes, I pay her and for some people that is considered enough, but she saves me from all of the housework, which I hated even before my back issues started and I really do appreciate her work, her cheerful demeanour, her attention to detail, her honestly and reliability. And I thank her every time she goes out the door.

But, as I said earlier, we all have fleas and I am no exception. Deeply ingrained in me, learned from my NM and incorporated into my being from my earliest days, is this failure to notice and acknowledge the efforts of others, the tendency to take things for granted, to expect that some people just know how I feel. And while I know that an appreciation or gratitude, if unspoken, might as well not exist, I have blind spots and I fall into ingratitude, not so much in spirit but in practice. And every once in a while I wake up and see what I am doing (or failing to do) and try to amend my behaviour to fix it.

On Saturday my husband and I were sitting at a red light, getting ready to go into a petrol station. As we sat there I looked at the station’s name and it clicked to me that we were buying petrol here because they had a loyalty-reward program, linked to our bank, that gives us 15% off every fuel purchase if we use that bank’s credit card. Considering that my car is an SUV, that comes to a handsome piece of change! In just few seconds a host of thoughts flooded mind about the many things my husband has done and the many ways he has sought to improve our finances and maximize our income to give us—me—the highest standard of living that I have ever enjoyed in my life. And while I have told him that…my thanks for all of his efforts implied…I suddenly realized that in the nine years we have been married, I have never actually said it to him. All these years and all that effort, and not one word of thanks to the person whose efforts made my comfortable existence possible!

As the light turned from red to green, I put my hand on his thigh and said “I don’t think I have ever told you this, but I want you to know that I am very proud of you and very appreciative of all the hard work you have done to give us the comfortable life style we enjoy. I really do notice and I really do appreciate it…and I am sorry I never said anything before this.”

He pulled the car up to the pumps and turned and looked at me, a bit of surprise on his face, and said, “Why thank you! I really appreciate that!”

I felt shamed that I had allowed him to go all of those years without a word of encouragement or appreciation of all of his efforts. It made me think…and more than that, it made me wonder why I, who never fails to thank the maid for her efforts on my behalf, would let him toil for nine years without ever thanking him. And for the next day or two, I turned it over in my mind until I realized that in the household I grew up in, that was the norm…that nobody rewarded you with thanks, or even a “well done!” when you did what was expected of you. Oh, you got plenty of flak if you failed to do what was expected of you, but no encouragement, no appreciation, no kudos. That rule applied only to members of the household, however…friends, neighbours, even visiting family members were thanked for their assistance—they were even thanked just for showing up at our door!

I thought back, trying to think of just one time that NM thanked me for anything (children tend to absorb traits of the same-sex parent more than the opposite sex parent, by the way) and couldn’t come up with a single instance. Instead, I remembered the Mother’s Day card I made for her when I was about 8, and how I brought her breakfast in bed and the card, which I had laboured over for hours, and how the anticipated praise and thank you never materialized…and how I got castigated, instead, for a spelling error.

And I thought about myself and how like my mother I was being, taking my husband’s hard work and his clever, out-of-the-box thinking that gave me a comfortable lifestyle, for granted, never telling him what I was thinking but just assuming that he somehow knew. And I felt ashamed of myself, wondering how I had let such a thing come to pass…

Those fleas are damned difficult to get rid of!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Journaling: helping you to help yourself

Journaling has always been close to my heart although for the longest time I carried around a lot odd, self-imposed “rules” about it that caused me to approach it cautiously. Could it be that you have been resisting journaling for a similar reason? Below are some of the reasons I resisted journaling; how many of them apply to you?
1. Fear of being found out, of someone finding and reading my journal and then, fear of consequences for what I wrote (like being embarrassed or even punished);

2. Fear of inadequate writing skills—fear that my spelling, punctuation, sentence structure—would be less than professional;

3. The task seemed overwhelming;

4. I believed I had to “begin at the beginning,” to go back to my childhood and write the journal in chronological order;

5. Fear of “wasting time” on a pointless endeavour (because time should not be wasted and any time spent on myself was, by definition, wasted);

6. Fear of being “disloyal” to my family, that being truthful in the journal would somehow betray them;

7. Fear of opening old wounds, triggering myself, opening myself to a greater hurt than I was already feeling;

8. A nameless sense of dread would come over me when I sat down to write.

Can you relate to any of these reasons? Did you notice that the vast majority of them begin with the word “fear”? And if fear keeps you from journaling, then you are allowing fear to be in control of your life.

Some of you may think that journaling is pointless, that it serves no purpose, and that you could better spend your time elsewhere. Fine, I accept that as a valid point of view and, if that is your point of view, what are you doing for yourself in the time that you might otherwise be journaling? Are you seeing a therapist? Getting Reiki? Meditating? Hashing it out with your FOO? Are you aware that journaling can be done in addition to all of the above and can greatly benefit you? Just a few of the benefits of journaling:

1. If events are journalled as they happen, they provide a contemporary record of events. Writing while events are fresh in your mind allows to more accurately recall the actual words spoken and gives you the clearest view of the event, especially later, if you ever have to refer to the entry for validation.

2. Journaling helps us to recall forgotten or suppressed events in our lives that are subconsciously affecting us today. Remembering such events can help us identify the causes of current day fears and behaviours that are rooted in those forgotten events. I have a fear that borders on phobia of putting my face in the water. It affected my ability to swim to the degree that I had to take beginner’s swimming lessons twice when I was 12—my terror of putting my face in the water simply halted my ability to learn anything further, even with nose plugs and a face mask! I still haven’t recalled where that comes from, but I am sure it will open a lot of other closed doors in my mind when I do finally get to it.

3. It can help us identify patterns in our lives, either our own patterns or those of others. A good example is the realization I gained, through journaling, that my NM had been taking away from me things that I cared about for my entire life, that it was a pattern with her that went all the way back to my earliest childhood…and continued right into my adult years. Taken away from me were toys, pets, personal belongings, and even family members, like my father and my children. I had not forgotten most of the events, but it was not until I began journaling that I could see the pattern and from that pattern, I was able to see more patterns: she abandoned me as a 2-year-old and was forced to take me back when I was 4. Over the next 20 years I saw her try to deprive three different women of their children, actually succeeding in one case. I still haven’t figured out exactly what was behind that, but it cannot be mere coincidence, can it?

4. The records we keep in the journal can help us keep events fresh in our minds when we start backsliding and thinking “Oh, it wasn’t that bad…” or “She wasn’t really that mean to me…” It returns us to the here and now of exactly how we felt, exactly what transpired, exactly how the other party/parties behaved. It strips away the fog of softness that time and distance put over our memories and brings us nose-to-nose with realities we are better off remembering clearly, especially when a softening of those memories leaves us vulnerable to the predations and manipulations of others.

5. It can be used to open conversations that we cannot otherwise articulate. This can be particularly useful in dealing with a therapist. My first year in therapy I found it very difficult to say what was hurting me because each time I opened my mouth to say something, this huge choking lump would form in the centre of my throat and nothing would come out. I could chat about inanities, but the stuff I was paying a therapist to help me sort out would just stay stuck behind that huge paralyzing lump. I began printing out what I had written in my journal and bringing it to the therapist and allowing her to get the ball rolling. Within a few weeks I was able to push past the lump in my throat and initiate discussions, although a lot of what I wanted to talk about I could not even write about at that time. It was a useful tool in getting my therapy sessions started, rather than sitting there stifled, with tears streaming down my face, my poor therapist unable to help because she just didn’t know where to start.

6. It can be cathartic to just write down stuff that is bothering us. The simple act of reliving the emotions and pouring them out of you can make you feel better, at least in the moment. And you can get that kind of relief each time you write it down.

7. You may find a practical use as well…in some relationships with a narcissist it becomes necessary to take legal action against the narcissist: a restraining order or divorce or other action. In such cases, a journal that includes entries of the narcissist’s incursions into your peace, his/her abuses, your mental, emotional and even physical state as a result of those incursions, can be powerful evidence in your behalf.

8. It may become useful in explaining to friends or family members how/why you went NC with certain other family members. Sometimes when you try to explain, the incidents you can call to mind at a moment’s notice sound lame…and make you seem petty to the person you are trying to explain to. When they can grasp the sheer volume of emotional assault you have had to deal with, however, as they are more apt to do if you can demonstrate with a journal you have been keeping for a long time, you are more easily able to elicit their understanding. (That doesn’t mean you have to show them your journal, only that you have it to refer to, to help jog your memory.)

So what are the rules of journaling and what do you do about those reasons that keep you from sitting down to write? Well, there is really only one rule: each entry has to be about something that was emotionally significant to you. It can be joyful or sorrowful, it can be about depression or about triumph, it can be about events that happened when you were a toddler or feelings you experienced this morning. The only rule is that the entry has to have some emotional significance to you, even if it is only puzzling over something your NM did when you were 12, or speculation about something your spouse has been up to.

And those fears and roadblocks?

1. Fear of being found out, of someone finding and reading my journal and then, fear of consequences for what I wrote (like being embarrassed or even punished). If this bothers you, then you need to make your journal private. Go to Blogger and set yourself up a simple blog and, as you set it up, set the privacy settings so that it cannot be seen on the internet and then put a password on it. Use a password nobody would guess: for example, if you like horses, a family member might guess your password if you choose “HorseCrazy” for a password. If you are afraid of horses, however, they would never guess it was yours. A journal kept in this format gives you not only privacy (there is no book to find under the mattress, no file hidden in the computer), it offers you safety: if there is a flood or fire or other disaster, your journal is safely stored in Google’s servers, ready and waiting for you when you want it.

2. Fear of inadequate writing skills—fear that my spelling, punctuation, sentence structure—would be less than professional. You are writing this for yourself…nobody else. It doesn’t even have to make sense! All it needs to be good is for you to be honest in what you write. That’s all…honest about events, honest about your feelings, honest about how others have behaved. If you decide at a later date that you want to make some entries public, you can always edit them later for publication. But that may never happen, so just write—let it pour out of your heart and through your fingers and out of you.

3. The task seemed overwhelming. The best way to deal with any overwhelming task is to break it down into smaller tasks. In this case, instead of looking at it as a commitment to write a detailed book about your life, view it as a single essay, of any length you choose, about something emotionally important to you. And the next day, view it the same way again. Just one essay today and don’t think about tomorrow until it becomes today. And then you write just one…

4. I believed I had to “begin at the beginning,” to go back to my childhood and write the journal in chronological order. That was a big one for me and it really had me stuck until finally, one day, I just sat down and wrote about an experience that happened when I was about 12 or 13. While I was writing it, other experiences from my childhood popped into my mind…I jotted down notes and the following day I wrote about that. Each time a new incident popped into my head, I made a note and then later wrote about it. Incidents kept coming to mind until I had written down 46 memories in the random order they came to me. Those are the 46 Memories that started this whole blog.

5. Fear of “wasting time” on a pointless endeavour (because time should not be wasted and any time spent on myself was, by definition, wasted). That is a false belief that somebody else planted in your head. Not only is writing a journal not wasted time, time spent on yourself is well-spent, particularly if it leads to healing on your part. Anything you do to improve the quality of your life is time well-spent. You deserve it. And if this particular fear is one of yours, it affords you the topic for your first journal entry: Why I feel unworthy of healing…

6. Fear of being “disloyal” to my family, that being truthful in the journal would somehow betray them. OK, this was a tough one for me, right up to the moment I remembered that the conspiracy of silence was what so damaged me in the first place. Ask yourself this: do you owe loyalty to those who have no loyalty to you? Of course not. You do not owe loyalty to people who don’t care about you, who exploit you, who hurt and manipulate you to advantage themselves. If you think you do, then your loyalty is misplaced because you owe no more loyalty than is shown to you. (And doing their job, like feeding and clothing you and providing you with medical care as a kid is not a sign of either loyalty or love, it is discharging their duty to you. They have to do it or get arrested for child neglect.)

If you cannot wrap your head around this concept just yet, bear in mind that a) your writing is absolutely private and b) you can delete it when you are done writing. You will get a benefit—catharsis—simply from the act of writing it out, even if you feel you must delete it when you have finished.

7. Fear of opening old wounds, triggering myself, opening myself to a greater hurt than I was already feeling. This was a touchy one for me, because with almost every entry I wrote, I had to put a box of Kleenex next to the computer. I bawled through almost all of them, including the ones that were based more in anger than hurt. If this happens to you, when you are writing, it is a good thing! It means you are reaching those places within you that are hurting, dragging out into the light of day things that have been hurting you since they happened.

If the fear is too strong, let me give you a tip I got from my therapist: sometimes we are too close to the story and it is necessary to distance ourselves a bit in order to embrace it. It is easier to write about “her” than to write about “me,” as writing about me can really stab into the heart. So, use a distancing technique: give new names to all of your family members, including yourself, and write the events as if they happened to someone else. Give your own emotions and perspectives, viewpoints and feelings to the character who is playing you, and give full voice to the feelings. Once I began doing that, it was much easier for me to write and be wholly honest in what I was writing.

You may find yourself having “symptoms,” like crying or trembling hands, a blocked throat, headache or a host of other things. Try to push through those things—don’t suppress them or try to control them, just experience them and keep on writing. Write about them… “as she wrote in her journal her hands shook so badly she could barely type and tears flooded her cheeks. A thick lump formed in her throat as she remembered being silenced by her own mother and not allowed to even speak in her own defence against the lies her sister had told…” Push through it, keep writing: some of the best insights and epiphanies come at times like this.

8. A nameless sense of dread would come over me when I sat down to write. I carry this nameless dread around with me like my cell phone—it goes everywhere I go. Anytime I embark upon something that might not turn out perfectly, anytime I try something that someone might take issue with, anytime I start something new, I suffer from this dread. When trying to write, it manifests as writer’s block: blank mind to match the blank screen. Which is why I keep a list of topics to write about, ideas that pop into my mind while I am writing on some other topic. Right now, my list of topics for this blog has 14 items on it, 14 topics yet to be written about…and by the time I reach the last of those 14, I will have added probably another dozen or more. The only solution to that nameless sense of dread it to simply ignore it and get started anyway…it has a peculiar way of fading out once the writing (or whatever else I am doing) gets going. I think it is a holdover from the days when I was expected to do everything perfectly, even the first time I did it. My NM made no allowances for lack of knowledge or experience and an innocent error was punished no less severely than a careless mistake or even intentional sabotage.

Journaling is an excellent tool to get at what’s bothering you, a safe and private way to de-stress and unload some of the burdens you’ve been carrying around in your psyche for years. It allows you to work at your own pace, stay with an issue or event until you are ready to move on to the next one, move ahead or backwards as you see fit. It is cathartic, it provides you with a record of events and your reasoning behind the actions you took and gives you insights where you never had them before. At the very least, it is a safe, private place to blow off steam when you are stressed and when nobody you know really “gets it.” It is cheap, safe, and easy to embark upon.

Why not try journaling today? The only thing you have to lose is some stress...