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, October 25, 2013

The Scapegoat’s Daughter

I received a mail the other day from a bright and articulate young lady introducing a topic that had never occurred to me: the children of a narcissist’s scapegoat. We spend a lot of time and energy working out the dynamics between us and our NM’s but something we seldom address is the impact of our dysfunctional FOOs on our children. Many of us do not go NC, or even LC with our narcissistic families and, as a result, our children are exposed to them but in much different ways than we are.

Eve, my young correspondent, sent me a touching inside look of what it feels like to be the daughter of a scapegoat who continues to have contact with her FOO. With Eve’s permission, I share it with you here:

It’s incredibly hard to write about this subject, because coming from a classic dysfunctional family I start everything I do with an unhealthy dose of self doubt. Were they really that bad? And the answer I come to time and time again, relentlessly examining every situation is … yes they were.

My dysfunctional family was set up like any other: The grand narcissist (my maternal grandfather) at the head of the family, his helpers/enablers and my mother was the scapegoat.

Her life was affected badly by being the ‘bad child’. She could never do anything right, nothing she did was pleasing or perfect and her life seemed to be to perpetually help others. The scapegoat is usually chosen because she/he is the most sensitive, the most caring, the most creative/talented the one that is the easiest to affect; the easiest for the narcissist to ‘feed’ on. The scapegoat is the family dumping ground for everything that they cannot face in themselves.

“The people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters....The evil attack others instead of facing their own failures.” – M. Scott Peck

Even as I write this I can hear my family on my shoulders whispering that ‘This is how she wanted to appear!’ and ‘She always loved to play the victim!’ This is how their insidious words reach their goal. I know my mother - I have witnessed her pain and suffering and they insist that I haven’t seen anything. The mantra they gave me at a very young age seemed to be ‘You either agree with us or you will be ignored’.

They either couldn’t or didn’t want another scapegoat in the family, that role was already filled and I was not going to join them in the systematic abuse of my mother, as my brothers had done. I had no role, I didn’t serve a purpose in the dysfunctional set up and so I was ignored. This gave me so many issues, so many paranoid thoughts and I could not get to the bottom of why I was so completely ignored. They would rear their ugly heads every couple of years when they felt they had an opportunity to ‘take me away from my evil mother’ trying to impress upon me that they had always been there for me - this tactic never worked. However much they tried to show me the ‘proof’ of how horrible my mother was, it paled in comparison to their hated and abuse of my mum and their total disinterest in me or my life. A perfect example was when my mum and I finally decided to leave our dysfunctional family for good after a huge row with the head narcissist. The whole family wanted me on the narcissist’s side, and wanted my mother completely abandoned. My brother was recruited to ‘talk me round’ and rang me almost every day. This all went sour when I pointed out to him that I was 22 years old and he had never once rang me for a ‘chat’. I asked him what had suddenly changed. I knew exactly what had changed, I was suddenly of use and I was being used as a pawn– he got angry that I had pointed this out and insisted that of course he had rang me before, and then stopped talking to me altogether.

Unfortunately my mum attracted men that thrived on her low sense of self and my father and his family adopted the dysfunctional set up of my mum being the scapegoat and I was ‘the nobody’. They divorced when I was young and he and his family have done their best to vilify my mum and ignore me, all the while insisting that it is me that has ignored them.

 I would not turn against my mother and side with my father, therefore I was dismissed. My father is a nasty human being who is neglectful of his children and delights in lies and causing misery. Another perfect example of how I was cast as ‘the nobody’ in my father’s family is when my grandfather died (my dad’s father). My mum and I were at my aunt’s (my mum’s sister) house for a wedding the next day. My aunt came in and told everyone that my brother’s granddad had died – it took me some moments to realise that my ‘brother’s granddad’ was obviously also my granddad! No one said anything to me, they all said how sorry they were for my brother. My granddad and I had not said so much as two words to each other in my entire life so his death meant little to me but it amazed me how cruel is was that everyone dismissed it. It also struck me some years later that my aunt had been informed of his death before me! My brother had told my mum’s dad and he had informed my aunt! I was not even in the equation.

I have found in other pieces about dysfunctional families the role known as ‘The Lost Child’ – I seem to fit this role extremely well. In family situations I blended into the background, every achievement was barely even mentioned. I had very low self esteem, a very low opinion of myself, my voice when I defended my mum was to be either ridiculed, muted or used against her as she was ‘influencing my opinion’. Even now at the age of 28 I still don’t have an opinion in their eyes. One Christmas when I was in my teens every time I walked into a room my brother would walk out, it was as if my presence was toxic to him. I was desperate to prove to him that I was worth talking to, that I was interesting, but in his opinion I was ‘just irritating’.

I have trawled the internet over the past few years and I cannot find anything about how scapegoating affects down the family tree. I cannot find anything relating to being the child of a scapegoat. The model seems to be set up as a narcissistic mother or father and how this affects their children - real families are more complex and just because I am further down the generations from the original dysfunctional set up and the narcissist, this does not mean I have not been affected. I have watched these ‘people’ who professed to love my mum and me, rip her to shreds and then turn to me with a bloody smile and an outstretched hand. I am not emotionally dead – they made me feel sick.

I recently found someone online who spoke openly about dysfunctional/narcissistic families and seemed to have some expertise. I emailed him about my situation asking if he had ever come across this set up and if he had any advice. His response (bear in mind I had given him the slimmest of details and I was generally looking for a discussion not a diagnosis) was that my mother had probably taken on some narcissistic behaviours and I was her victim because the children of scapegoats “should not be affected.” This sent me into an absolute rage! I didn’t know how he could make such a sweeping statement based on what I had given him, but he had simply dismissed all my mental health problems that came about because of my family or he had deemed my emotionally bruised mum as a narcissist herself! I do know that children who are the scapegoat can become a narcissist and carry on the abuse to their own children, but this is not the case in my Mum. I think this experience was the final straw in pushing me to writing this piece. I want to say loud and clear; I am the scapegoat’s daughter and I have suffered too.

While I see rather a bit of enmeshment between Eve and her mother, and perhaps even some parentification (Eve defends her mother rather than the other way around), the effect of the narcissistic generation upon the children of the scapegoat is all too clear. Conflicted, narcissistic flying monkeys like Eve’s brother, angry, compassionate, seeking “lost children” like Eve…all the direct result of the children not bring shielded from the narcissistic parents of the scapegoat. Sadly, this is an outcome to which I can personally and painfully relate, my own daughter having become a flying monkey to my NM and ultimately taking on NM’s mantle of narcissism and controlling.

Eve’s tale rings too true…I can remember wishing my children—anybody, actually—would stand up to my mother and champion me. It was an inappropriate wish because it is not the place of children to defend and protect their parents…at not until the parents are aged and frail…but being so beaten down, I was desperate for any kind of emotional sustenance I could secure. My “us against them” fantasy was easily demolished by NM’s bribery: an excess of toys when they were little, money and promises of coveted gifts/bequests when they were older. My mistake…as was Eve’s mother’s…was not stepping into the breach when my children were barely toddling and either tightly controlling my FOO’s access to my kids or, better (with hindsight being what it is), disappearing with them into the night and never, ever, making contact with the FOO again.

What we don’t realize until too late is that we are actually put in the position of making a choice between maintaining contact with our FOOs or doing what is best for our children. Too often we think we can compromise or that the children aren’t affected because we are the targets, the scapegoats, and the kids are not. But a perceptive, empathetic child like Eve sees it, feels it, and is damaged by it just the same. It may not be the same kind of pain, but it is no less painful.

We sometimes agonize about “depriving the kids of their grandparents” or suffer guilt from “depriving my parents of their grandchildren.” Think for a moment: if grandpa was a paedophile and grandma refused to acknowledge it and protected grandpa by making excuses or even lying for him, would you want your kids around them? Why should the fact that the harm they represent to your children is psychological rather than physical/sexual make a difference? Eve stands like a beacon here, telling us exactly what we expose our children to, how it shapes their lives and their psyches, when we allow them to be exposed to narcissistic grandparents.

I think it is something we should all give some serious thinking time to.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Action vs Reaction: are you still being controlled by your narcissist?

It’s something I have heard over and over again…and something I have said myself: “I just do the opposite of what my mother would have done…” And just as I did, we often say this with a touch of pride, as if mindlessly doing the opposite of what some personality disordered person is doing somehow mysteriously conveys some kind of superiority or correctness upon us.

The truth is, when we choose an action primarily because it is the antithesis of what someone else would do or would want us to do, we are rebelling. It doesn’t matter if we are choosing a partner, a lifestyle, a personal style, or our parenting techniques, if we make choices based on opposing someone else, we are engaging in unthinking rebellion rather than making wise, well-considered, adult choices.

In some ways, this may appear to work out okay, but if you really think about, living your life in reaction to someone else is not really living your life, is it? It is living the opposite of someone else’s.

When I was a kid, I used to envy one of my classmates, a boy I will call Kevin Greene. He was obese and dressed like a miniature old man, and always had his hair slicked down like the stereotype of a budding actuary or accountant. He was pasty-white as if he never saw the sun, ungainly and lumbering in his gait and unpopular and shunned by the other kids, but his mother doted on him. And, being a child who was largely invisible to her mother (and grateful for it because that meant she wasn’t finding new ways to hurt me), I found myself very envious of Kevin because his mother quite obviously adored him.

In a time when even first graders walked to and from school unaccompanied by an adult, Kevin’s mother drove him to school. It was obvious that his family had money because Mrs. Greene wore fur coats and Kevin emerged from a big black Cadillac in front of the school in the morning…on the days he attended. He was absent a lot: all he had to do was tell his mother he didn’t feel like going to school and she called him in sick. I don’t think I took really sharp notice of Kevin until the morning he arrived shortly after the bell rang and he and his mother walked into the classroom after lessons had started. I remember her being tall and draped in what I was sure was a mink coat that reached down past her knees, and lipstick as red as my mother wore. Kevin stood a bit behind her, dressed in his ubiquitous brown trousers and white dress shirt and boy-sized necktie, an ice cream cone in his hand. Ice cream for breakfast!?! I hardly ever even got ice cream for dessert! I was instantly smitten with his mother…she must love Kevin very much to not deny him anything, I thought. Today, I find myself wondering what Mrs. Greene's mother was like...

When I had my first child, I was immediately determined not to treat my precious little baby the same way my NM had treated me: whatever she had done, I was going to do the opposite, and that, I believed, would give my child a much better start in life than I had had. It’s probably a good thing I was dirt-poor in those days and couldn’t afford to spoil her because I had no real parenting plan outside of doing the opposite of what my NM had done with me. I was fortunate to have had a good role model in my step-mother, so I could imagine her in my situation and try to figure out how she would respond to certain challenges, but still: my primary parenting plan was simply to do the opposite of what my mother had done.

This, it turned out, was a really bad idea. First of all, in taking this tactic, I was rebelling against my mother and her ways, not addressing my child and her needs. I had an ignoring mother whose positive attention I would have done almost anything to gain: my daughter was not nearly so needy as I was and, in retrospect, I am sure she found my attentiveness perhaps a bit engulfing. My decisions regarding my children were not necessarily based on what was appropriate or good for them at a given point in time, but on what my mother would have denied me. Sometimes that was a good thing…they got an open and honest and age-appropriate sex education…sometimes it was not, as they were indulged to the degree my budget could stand and deprived of any sense of responsibility in their early years.

This living my life in the opposite direction of my mother backfired on me in other ways. Rather than make decisions about my own life based on thought and weighing the pros and cons of a possible choice, I made quick, easy decisions were based more on what NM would not have done or what would upset her if she knew. “So there!!” I seemed to be saying with my actions, “You can’t control me! I can do what I want!”

Well, I could do what I wanted, but I wasn’t necessarily doing that. Instead, I was doing the opposite of what she wanted, not the same thing at all. It literally took me years to figure out that my mother was still controlling my life, but now I was the one who was doing it to me: she put in the programming and years and miles later, I was executing the programming without any input from her…just in reverse. I was still locked inside that little box she constructed around my mind and my spirit, still making choices within her paradigm, still seeing my life through her set of filters.

It can be difficult to conceptualize that, in doing the opposite of what your NM wants or expects, you are still being controlled by her. But when you live your life in a way that is calculated to give a giant middle finger to someone else, you are not controlling your life and your choices, you are making choices centred around sending a message to another person. I found that I vacillated between trying to be the good daughter and mother and being the shocking rebel: neither persona was really mine, neither had my heart really in it, neither was what I wanted to do…except, of course, that I wanted to show her!!

You begin to live a truly independent life, you begin to be your authentic self, when your choices in life are not influenced by the censure or approval of another person. That doesn’t mean you reject input from others: others may see things you do not, may have input you really should consider before making up your mind. But when you do make up your mind, you do not do it with the reaction or feelings or expectations of others as a consideration: you do it because you have given the decision due consideration and made a choice that works for you, regardless of how others may think.

When I was a young woman, miniskirts were just coming into fashion. I wore them because a) they were in fashion and b) I had great legs that looked good in short skirts. If I had thought about it, I might have worn them…and worn them even shorter…because my NM would have been scandalized by the abbreviated length. But NM was not really into fashion and had never allowed me any forays into it, so I had no idea what she might think or say (she wore shorts in hot weather, so why would I think she would be scandalized by miniskirts?). Years into the trend she came to my house and I was wearing a very short shift dress and she tut-tutted about the “appropriateness” of my hem length, so I later discovered that she thought such short skirts were “trampy.”

My initial decision to wear miniskirts was based entirely on my own thinking on the matter: I never even considered what my NM might think. Had I known, however, that my NM thought them “trampy,” and I decided to wear them anyway, that would not necessarily be a rebellious act on my part. But, if I knew she thought they were trampy and I filled my wardrobe with them and made sure they were short enough to give her palpitations, then that would have been an act of rebellion against my mother rather than a choice purely made for my own reasons.

When we live our lives in reaction to others, we are living for them while our own lives pass us by. We make choices based on them, not on us. Rather than look at the banquet spread before us, we focus on the rye bread that NM loves: she loves it so I will hate it. She hit me when I was little so I will not discipline my child; I never got the toys I wanted so my child will get every toy she wants; my NM hated red, so I will wear red whenever I can, even though it doesn’t look so good on me; NM was stingy with money and lived in a crappy part of town so I will live in a great part of town, even if I can’t afford it; NM had to have a brand new car every two years so I will make a virtue out of making mine last as long as I can, even if it looks like hell, breaks down every week, and costs me more in repairs than car payments on a new one. She was profligate, so I will be parsimonious; she wore expensive jewellery so I will be superior by refusing such unnecessary and showy adornment; she thought higher education made her better than anyone else, so I will drop out of college after the first semester… Whatever she values, you devalue; whatever she holds in low esteem, you elevate. And in the meantime, your real life passes you by while you live in reaction to hers.

Becoming proactive with respect to your own life is not an easy thing. When you have lived your life in reaction to someone else’s, you don’t really know what you like and dislike, what you want and don’t want, not even what you need and don’t need. You have not done the life experiments to determine your own tastes and what appeals to you, and in many respects, you have not explored life outside of your NM’s paradigm. Have you looked at the gray area between NM’s position and your completely opposite stance? Have you looked beyond the two choices you have given yourself—be like NM or be her opposite number—to see what other options you had?

I was fortunate to have spent time with my stepmother and my grandmothers and through observing them (as well as being under their control) I became aware that there were more choices than beating children in the name of discipline or abandoning discipline altogether. I became aware that there were other choices than making my children into household slaves vs absolving them of all responsibility. I learned that there are other ways to talk to children than barking orders like a drill sergeant, that there is a difference between clean enough and impossibly spotless, that that unstructured time is good for a kid, even if it makes me a little anxious.

In exploring my own life, I discovered I had to take those assumptions I inherited from NM (and was rebelling against) and examine them consciously: to literally sit down and say to myself something like “NM doesn’t like lamb so we never got it at home: I must eat some lamb to see if I really don’t like it or I am just adopting her prejudices.” I had to apply this attitude to virtually everything in my life, to all of my likes and dislikes, until I created for myself a body of tastes and preferences, values and ideals, that actually reflected my own rather than aped or resisted hers. I learned I’m not too fond of lamb, either…and I really don’t like fish. I learned that I really don’t care what ethnicity or colour another person is, but I care very much what kind of human being s/he is. I discovered that assuming everybody else is stupid, like NM did, put me in a position of not being able to learn from them. I learned that I liked ethnic food, I didn’t like really high-heeled shoes or very tight clothes…or baggy ones, either. I discovered I liked to think and that humour based on humiliating or hurting people really isn’t very funny. I discovered that money is important but it doesn’t necessarily buy you the life you want. And I learned that you not only can’t change other people, if you want to, there is something wrong with you that you are unwilling or unable to accept people as they are.

Some of the things I learned were in direct opposition to NM’s attitudes and beliefs and behaviours; some of them agreed with her (like the lamb); still others weren’t even related to her ways…I discovered life outside her box, things she had never considered, had no experience with, expressed no opinions on.

You really do have more choices than toeing NM’s line or flinging yourself in the opposite direction: there is a whole life out there that is uniquely yours, a life in which some things are in parallel with your NM, some things are the opposite, and everything else doesn’t even relate to her. And to be truly free of the control of your narcissist, that is the life you must live.

You can live this life even if you aren’t NC or even LC with your N: all you need to do is break the bond in your own heart and mind, the bond that keeps you acting either in accordance with your NM’s expectations or in defiance of them. That is a choice you can make at any time, the choice to live your life through your own likes, dislikes, tastes and choices. To do otherwise is to live under your NM’s thumb or to live in a continual state of rebellion and defiance and, believe me, that gets tiring after a while.

Your life belongs to you and you should live it for yourself, not for your Ns, not even for your spouse or your kids. There will come a day your kids fly the nest and your NM has passed on and if your spouse predeceases you, and your whole life has been lived for someone else, you will be alone, bereft, empty. I found myself in just such a situation in 2000: my kids were on their own, my NM was dead, and my husband unexpectedly died. But I was not bereft or empty. I had long since become my own person, knowing myself well enough to be able to weather those first months of grief, then going on to rebuild my life. I was not empty or bereft because I had an identity of my own rather than one predicated on my service to husband and children or in rebellion to my NM. And this is what you deny yourself when you live for others or in reaction to another: your own independent identity, your own life, your own self.

Self examination is a good thing: narcissists don’t engage in it because they deny the possibility that anything in their lives needs changing, but for the rest of us, it is a productive endeavour. Ask yourself: am I living in reaction to someone else in my life? Or am I living a life created though my own independent choices? You might be surprised what you learn!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The good, the bad, the ugly: Therapy and Therapists

It’s no secret that I am a fan of therapy. Since it literally saved my life, what’s not to like? But in reading the comments on this blog and my emails from readers, it has become crystal clear to me that not only does everyone not feel the same way about therapy that I do, there are some serious misconceptions out there about therapy and therapists, particularly with respect to clients like ourselves, the offspring of narcissists.

Each one of us, for all that we have a common background, is unique. And that means that we will have differing agendas in entering (or even contemplating) therapy. And yes, you have an agenda—we all do, whether we recognize it or not. Mine, when entering therapy, was to cling onto something that might lift my suicidal depression…and the agenda evolved as the therapy evolved. Each person who reads this has his or her own agenda with respect to therapy, and that depends on our mindset.

Some of us are so entrenched in our victimhood we don’t really want therapy to work. Our personal identities are as victims and we don’t really want to change that. If being a victim is all you know, when you go into therapy and it works, who will you be then? The security of the familiar but unhappy known is threatened by the unknown.  When we go into therapy with this mindset, we subtly sabotage not only the therapy, but ourselves. Hiding behind labels like PTSD or rationalizations like “I didn’t create this, why should I have to fix it?” we find fault with the therapist, the process, the very idea of change. This is undoubtedly caused by fear because to keep ourselves safe, we tend to be very control-oriented…and therapy and the changes it brings are not within our control. It is frightening to contemplate the loss of our identity, the transformation into something, someone else, when we have no overt, conscious control over that transformation.

Many of us are still very angry with our parents and others who victimized us without remorse. We want vengeance, pay back, to inflict on them the kind of hurt they inflicted on us. Our anger makes us feel powerful and strong…and safe. We hide behind it like a shield, unwilling to give up anger and revenge fantasies, resisting therapy in the mistaken notion that it will render us impotent and vulnerable again.

We sabotage ourselves with resistance…and few us undertake a therapy journey without engaging in resistance at some point. I was desperate for someone to listen to me and validate me, so I attended my therapy sessions eagerly…you’d think there was no resistance there, right? Well, I was clear on my NM and what a cruel, manipulative, sadist she was…but completely resistant to recognizing my husband was just like her! My therapist led me to the realization several times, but I simply did not see the connection. Then one day, after listening to yet another litany if complaints about my narcissistic husband, she said “Who else treats you like that?” I shook my head in puzzlement. “Who else in your life discounts and devalues you, lies to you, ignores your feelings and treats you like you don’t matter?” And suddenly I saw it and I said “Oh my god…I married my mother!” But it took her practically beating me over the head with the truth before my resistance was overcome and I could see it myself.

Too often we go into therapy with completely unrealistic expectations and when those expectations are disappointed, we blame the therapist or therapy itself, without ever looking inward to see what part we had in the lack of success. Therapy is a relationship and we are conditioned by our positions as the children of narcissists to blame the narcissist for our failed parent-child relationship, but it is not accurate to extrapolate that experience to every relationship we ever enter into.

Just like in any other relationship, in order to be successful the people in it must be working towards the same goal, pulling in the same direction. If you have a subconscious agenda of undermining the therapy, there is no way it can work. Why would you want to do that? Well, some people want to prove they are right—they say therapy won’t help them or it is bunk, and by sabotaging the therapy by being uncooperative, they prove themselves right. Some people don’t want to change, they want the people who hurt them to change: they have no motivation to cooperate with therapy. Still others want to be in control: they feel unsafe putting their emotional lives in the hands of others, so they thwart the therapy and therapist in order to keep feeling safe, even at the expense of healing. I am sure there are many, many other reasons that people are unwilling to really engage with the therapist, reasons that aren’t truly the therapist’s fault, that stymie the therapeutic process.

Our expectations, often subconscious, can also be a major cause of disappointment or disillusionment. Some of us expect the therapist to be some kind miracle worker: we sit passively and tell a little about ourselves and the therapist magically heals us. It doesn’t work that way, I am sorry to say. Therapists don’t heal us, we heal ourselves with our therapists as our guides. They prod us when we are reluctant to open doors, console us when we finally face heart-wrenching truths, point us in the right direction when we seem lost and don’t know how to proceed. But they do not fix us…we fix ourselves by facing up to painful, long-suppressed emotions and truths, by going through the pain we have been avoiding, by examining long-held—but false—beliefs about ourselves and our families. Our therapists are there as guides to help us along, throw us a lifeline as needed, give us encouragement and redirect us when we wander off the path of healing. They do not have magic wands and they cannot cure us without our wholehearted participation in the process.

I have heard complaints about therapists and how they act in session but seldom have I heard someone acknowledge his/her part in the situation. I have heard of therapists who spent the therapy hour talking about themselves: but who acknowledges that therapists are human beings who might be made uncomfortable with a prolonged silence on the part of the client? Is there any recognition that a valid technique is to toss out some tidbit about one’s own self in an effort to prime the client, as an attempt to get the client to reciprocate? Some therapists appear to be inattentive and uncommunicative: perhaps this is a style of relating that is supposed to encourage the client to ruminate and even feel uncomfortable enough with the silence to speak up. I have heard complaints about therapists who don’t know anything about narcissism or who refuse to acknowledge such things as personality disorders. So…does the client keep coming back, after hearing from the horse’s mouth, that s/he is not knowledgeable about certain things that are important to the client and shows no interest in learning? How is that the therapist’s fault? If you went to a Porsche dealer wanting to buy a Ferrari and the dealer said “Nope, no Ferraris here, we don’t carry them or even talk about them,” whose fault is it if you keep hanging around the Porsche dealer, expecting a Ferrari to somehow appear? Shouldn’t you say “OK, thanks for the info,” and go in search of a Ferrari dealer?

One of the ways we sabotage ourselves and our therapy with unrealistic expectations is to think that all therapists are alike, that they all have the same amount of insight and the same ability to connect…and that they are all equally competent in all aspects of their field. But if you believe this, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Think of therapists like houses or apartments for sale or rent: what are the odds that, without doing any research whatsoever, without making any calls or inquiries, the first place you see will be not only in perfect condition, but exactly what you are looking for? Slim, eh? Is anything more frustrating than house or apartment hunting, trying to get the right size place in the right location for the right money in the right condition? When I was last house hunting, I swear we saw at least ten houses per week for three months before we found the house we bought—and this house needed a shipload of work to counter the previous owner’s seven years of deferred maintenance.

Why should finding the right therapist be any different? Are human beings any less unique than houses? If you were looking for someone to guide you through the Everglades would you take someone whose expertise is the Rocky Mountains, just because they are both guides and you therefore perceive them to be interchangeable? Whose fault would it be if you got lost if you insist on hiring a guide who has never been in the Everglades and who tells you “this is not my area of expertise”?

The success of therapy depends on several things, but choosing the right therapist for you is the first and most important step. And you cannot be expecting your therapist to not be human, to not have human faults or foibles. Therapists are humans just like we are and act and react just like we do. Faulting another human for being human, expecting your therapist to be superhuman, works against you and the success of your therapy. Furthermore, a therapist with a background of overcoming personal difficulties, someone whose life has not been a perfect bed or roses and who has conquered his demons is probably a person whose life is more likely to have given him the experiences that allow him to empathise with you and be a better guide than someone who has lived without angst and personal turmoil. Do you want a guide who learned the route through books or one who has already trodden the path himself and knows where you are going?

Before you choose a therapist, consider what attributes are important in the right therapist for you: experience in helping adults who had abusive parents? Experience in dealing with the victims of people with personality disorders? Specific training or experience with narcissism? You should find out if the therapist adheres to any specific type of psychotherapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Imago Relationship Therapy: some therapies address only superficial reactions rather than address the underlying causes of our angst and some therapists are so rigidly bound to their chosen form of therapy they will try to shoehorn you into their paradigm rather than listen to you and help you find your own way, using their insights as guides.

You should book an appointment with a therapist who you think is a possibility and spend that hour interviewing the therapist, asking the questions to which you need answers. It is ok to bring a list of questions. If the therapist balks and tries to control the time and topics, this is a clue that with this person, you are going to have to do therapy according to his/her agenda, not yours. Will that work for you? If not, don’t book a second appointment. You should specifically ask if they ascribe to any particular type of therapy. If they do, write it down and when you get home, go to this website, , look up the therapy and read up on it. If it doesn’t seem like a fit to you, move on to interviewing the next therapist. You may have to visit several before you find someone you can work with but don’t reject someone simply because s/he is not perfect: you sabotage yourself that way because nobody is perfect. You just need a therapist with whom you can feel comfortable and who is willing to work with you, which includes not forcing you into a therapy model s/he feels comfortable with but makes you feel unheard, and being willing to stretch his or her own knowledge and expertise by learning more about narcissism and its effects upon victims. No matter how great the therapist seems otherwise, if those two essential elements are missing, you are not going to have the best opportunity to cure what ails you.

There are no shortcuts. There are no shortcuts. No magic bullets, no miracle cures, no magical techniques to fix what ails you. You can engage in “alternative therapies” that tap into the placebo effect, but they will not cure you. The only cure for what ails you lies within yourself: you must come to terms with what you have been avoiding, with what you fear, and realize that you will not die either from the pain or from the loss of a toxic family, but you could die from your avoidance: addiction, alcoholism, suidical depression, high risk behaviours...

Therapy works for everyone…that’s right, everyone. But it only works with your participation and your own hard work. It doesn’t work if you don’t choose an appropriate therapist, it doesn’t work if you sit by passively and expect the therapist to fix you, it doesn’t work if you don’t cooperate in the therapy and stretch yourself, it doesn’t work if you sabotage it, either consciously or subconsciously. It only works if you really want it to and you put your comfort on the line: successful therapy is painful and it takes time, but in the end, you come out a happier, more whole person.

All of this said, it would be unjust to neglect the subject of bad therapists and quack therapies: they do exist. Chief among the quack therapies, in my estimation, is EFT (Emotional FreedomTechnique). First of all, it is not meant to fix the underlying cause of your pain, only to temporarily banish it: it is like putting a Band-Aid on a melanoma. Secondly, any effectiveness a patient may feel from its use is attributable to “…well-known cognitive and behavioral techniques that are included with the energy manipulation. Psychologists and researchers should be wary of using such techniques, and make efforts to inform the public about the ill effects of therapies that advertise miraculous claims.”A wise practice, when encountering any “alternative medicine” or “alternative therapies” is to look them up on Quackwatcha site dedicated to investigating and reporting the truth of these alternative methods.

Bad therapists are people who do not resist their own urges to exploit or take advantage of their clients. This can range from passivity to unwillingness to learn about your situation (victim of narcissism) to trying to force you into a specific therapeutic mould that is inside the therapist’s comfort zone but not appropriate for you, to more overt, psychologically damaging behaviour like treating you and your issues dismissively, betraying confidences, even behaving in sexually inappropriate ways with you. Bad therapists do exist…some of them are narcissists themselves, people who found an endless source of Nsupply in the profession. But, this is true of virtually any profession: they all have their share of bad apples and we simply have to be cautious and prudent in selecting the practitioner we will use.

So, is therapy right for you? Yes!! But it is up to you to find the right therapist and then give it your own best effort. And if at first you do not succeed, try, try again!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Scapegoats: not always what you expect

Years ago, when I first went into therapy, I was a client at a clinic that specialized in abused children, including adults who had been abused as children. Their primary focus was on sexual abuse, but they treated other kinds of abuse as well.

One of the most appalling facts I learned as a client of this clinic was that a percentage of the abusers had, themselves, been abused as children. This shocked me…I could not fathom how someone could suffer the pain and indignity of abuse themselves and then go on and do it to someone else. I had just assumed, like I suppose most people do, that if you have suffered from abuse, you will automatically have empathy for others and, because you know exactly how it feels, you will not do the same to someone else.

Well, that was a wrong-headed notion because many of the people with whom I was in a therapy group reported that their abuser had also been abused as a child, and I found that mind-boggling. Our therapist explained to us that some people, when victimized, deal with their feelings of powerlessness by repeating the abuse on people weaker than they are, therefore allowing them to feel powerful instead of powerless. It made sense in a detached, clinically-logical kind of way, but still didn’t feel right. But she was right:  “…psychologists at Yale [have] concluded that 30 percent is the best estimate of the rate at which abuse of one generation is repeated in the next…One of the crucial differences between those abused children who go on to become abusers and those who do not…is whether they have the insight that their parents were wrong to abuse them.” In other words, kids who buy into the notion that they deserved the rough treatment meted out by their parents often do not see those actions as brutal or even unwarranted, let alone wrong.

This distortion of reality can have varying consequences. In the case of a person who later says “I was a handful as a kid: my parents had to be rough with me in order to get my attention,” this person grows up believing not only that he deserved the abuse he received, he believes it is the right way to parent an uncooperative child. In my case, even though I was very clear that I did not deserve her brutality, the very fact that my NM called them “spankings” instead of the beatings they really were, skewed my definition of “spanking” for many, many years. As a result, I minimized and discounted myself by believing I was “merely spanked” rather than forcefully beaten with a thin leather strap that left whip-like welts all over my tender legs, buttocks and lower back.

According to Gaia Vince in New Scientist, “As many as 70% of parents who abuse their children were themselves abused while growing up.” That, of course, leaves a further 30% of abusive parents who were not abused in childhood…like my NM.

Humans have a tendency to want to make order out of chaos. We like to categorize and pigeon-hole things in order to make them manageable, especially in our minds. It is part of our survival instinct to learn lessons from our experiences and then generalize them to help keep us aware and safe. It is also where our deplorable tendency to stereotype comes from: it is much easier to assign the characteristics of a few to the many than it is to take the time to get to know each one of the many on an individual basis. Our social consciousness has been raised to recognize some of the bigger bugaboos like sexism and racism, but we still sort and compartmentalize and generalize about other things. And those of us who live with the legacy of narcissistic parents and families are, in this respect, not so different from the normies.

We tend to presume, for example, that in any household in which there is a Golden Child, there is also a Scapegoat, but that is not necessarily true. My NM is a perfect case in point: she was definitely the GC, spoilt and coddled by her father as the only girl. But despite her position as the GC, neither of her brothers were designated nor treated as scapegoats. And my NM perceived her brothers as the favoured ones because they had more freedom and privilege than she did, something neither surprising nor indicative of favouritism in the 1930s and 40s, when my NM was growing up.

We also tend to presume that anyone who grew up as the family scapegoat will be empathetic and compassionate and find narcissistic behaviours to be anathema. This, also, is not necessarily true. Remember, as much as 30% of people who were abused as children go on to abuse their own kids and up to 70% of people who abuse their children were, themselves, abused in childhood. How many of these abusers were themselves scapegoats and, feeling powerless, went on to assuage that powerlessness by becoming the powerful, the abuser? How many of them do not identify what happened to them as abuse and so repeat it with their own kids?

I have met a few scapegoats whom I thought were peculiarly NM-like, people who emulated and even admired the powerful people in their lives, even sought out those powerful people in order to gain favour in their eyes. These people, instead of rejecting the narcissist’s power paradigm, adopt and embrace it. And while they are clear on their NM’s having hurt them (and sometimes harbouring considerable anger for their having been neglected or ignored or blamed), these people seek to heal the hole within themselves not through therapy and coming to grips with the reality of their dysfunctional upbringing, but by aligning themselves with a narcissist who will give them some semblance of the strokes they need in exchange for their loyalty and devotion.

But we are people cultivated to accept and be grateful for crumbs. When my brother got new shoes, he got the latest, most basketball shoe that was popular with the boys…I got ugly saddle oxfords that went out of style shortly after I was born. But when I complained, NM reminded me that there were children in Mexico…just a few miles from us…who have to go school barefoot and who would be grateful for the ugly shoes, an implication that I could be made to go to school barefoot that was not lost on me. I had to be grateful for having any shoes at all: expecting my tastes and desires to be taken into account was excessive. Conditioned to accept crumbs as children, as adults any kind of positive attention, no matter how contrived or exploitive, can feel validating to us.

Think “cult.” Think damaged people who commit themselves to a cult in which the leader gives them the messages they so desperately need to hear in exchange for their adulation. They don’t hear the insincerity of the messages because they hear what they need to hear: for the first time in their lives they feel noticed, valued, their loyalty and tokens of that loyalty, apparently valued. That they are being fed calculated, carefully doled out platitudes to keep them hooked they are unwilling to accept. You could show some of these people videos of the object of their devotion ridiculing them, multiple testimonies of a whole host of abuses by their leader, and the faithful will not waver: they have finally found a source of ego-gratification, strokes, emotional sustenance, and they will guard it jealously, even from the truth.

Now, imagine someone with that hungry mindset finding a narcissist who understands that, in order to hook the walking wounded, all s/he needs to do is check in every day or two, say something soothing that can be interpreted as compassion or empathy, and be very careful to keep any nefarious deeds tightly under wraps: just act compassionate for a few minutes every couple of days and the hurt and emotionally starved will fall at your feet. Imagine being one of those followers: no painful, protracted therapy, no agonies of experiencing the deferred pain collected over the years, no being held responsible for fixing the damage caused by others, just blessed validation and a regularly renewed sense of being understood. And if the narcissist holds him/herself up as an authority figure, someone who makes and enforces rules, the repetition of the original narcissistic relationship is duplicated and this time you win…you’re getting what feels like love from that authority figure and you will put up with anything…anything…to keep it coming.

People in the throes of this kind of relationship…whether it is with their Nparent, a religious organization or cult, or an internet guru, do not progress emotionally, they stay stuck right where they are. It is against the self-interest of the leader to see the adoring followers improve because that would mean a loss of the Nsupply they provide (and anything else, like financial support, free labour, evangelizing or bringing in new acolytes). And so the followers not only go into a kind of emotional stasis, they defend the controlling narcissist from the truth. They are the man who beats his five year old with a belt and defends himself by demeaning himself and defending his brutal parents: “A little spanking never hurt anyone. My parents spanked me every day…I needed it…and I turned out fine.” No, he didn’t turn out fine: he turned out abusing his child just as he was abused, and likely for normal childhood behaviours misinterpreted by him…and his parents before him…as defiance or wilful disobedience. They are the woman who impoverishes herself and diverts money from her children’s needs to send gifts of money to televangelists or internet gurus for the validation she feels when she receives their thanks. These are scapegoats who drank the kool aid along with any GC sibs in the household and who believe that they owe their abusive parents allegiance regardless of how they were treated and believe the same not only of their own children, but of others as well. And that includes you and any other scapegoat: you were not abused, in their eyes, but got what you deserved. If you, like them, had been a better, more obedient, more perfect child, your parents would not have been forced…by your behaviour…to treat you as they did.

You may find yourself shocked when you first come across such a person, and you may even feel blamed…and even that your abusive parent is being validated. After all, this is not some narcissist talking, it is another scapegoat! What does she see that has escaped you? What does she understand that you do not? Is it possible that your parents and their flying monkeys were right all along?

Don’t be too quick to second-guess yourself. There is nothing in the rules of narcissism that prevents scapegoats from becoming narcissists themselves. Even if the child in question was treated by the family as a scapegoat, there is nothing in the human psyche that prevents an abused child from emulating the person s/he perceives as the most important and powerful member of the household: the abuser. Some 30% of abused children grow up to be abusers; 70% of people who abuse their children were, themselves, abused. Not all of us grow up to have compassion, empathy, and understanding for those who experienced the same pain of being the scapegoat of a narcissistic, dysfunctional family.

Since only 30% of abused children grow up to be abusers, it stands to reason that the remainder develop compassion and empathy for others who experienced the same kind of treatment…we are the majority. But none of us have a brand on our foreheads that tells others where we stand, whether we have compassion for our fellow sufferers or whether we have chosen to identify with our abusers.

The fact that a scapegoat is clear on the fact that she was abused and is hurt and/or angry at her abuser is not proof against alignment with the abusers. If she had chosen to assuage her pain by hooking up with another narcissist, especially if that narcissist is smart enough to feed her enough crumbs to keep her bound and begging for more, the victim is going to defend…and maybe even emulate…her present narcissist while simultaneously condemning her original abuser. I have some experience with this, having been clear about the wrongness of my NM’s behaviour for most of my life, but continuing to connect with narcissistic men who abused me. Key is the fact that they did not physically abuse me (the ones who did found themselves suddenly alone), but abused me emotionally. Eager to please and win or earn their love and esteem, I was dug deep into denial with these men, certain that my performance at whatever task or responsibility that was before me would win the love I so desperately sought and fill that aching hole where my heart belonged. That is how you do it: you simply shut out all forms of criticism against the narcissist who keeps feeding you crumbs while you interpret promises of a banquet from the gesture, you just refuse to see or heed the red flags and warnings until it all crashes down around your ears.

Not all scapegoats grow up to be compassionate, empathetic, understanding people. Some of them grow up to seek out other narcissists and try to get emotional sustenance from them, refusing to see the truth and rejecting all attempts from outsiders to make them see it. They may even turn on their family and friends with hostility and cut ties, even engage in N-like behaviours themselves in order to preserve the relationship with the narcissist, a relationship that feeds them mere tastes of the love and esteem they crave…just enough to keep them craving more. Other scapegoats grow up emulating their abusers, accepting their justifications, believing their rationalizations, embracing the feelings of power and control their own abusive acts provide: they become narcissists themselves, their own need for power (Nsupply) overriding everything else.

So if you meet a fellow scapegoat and are puzzled by the person’s apparent lack of empathy, if you meet a narcissist and find it hard to believe that s/he was a scapegoat as a child, remember that as much as 30% of people who grew up abused go on to take on the mantle of abuse at their first opportunity to have power over others, to repeat the abuse their parents perpetrated upon them. From school yard bullies to jealous boyfriends to undermining or husband-seducing friends to abusive parents to nasty manipulative bosses, these scapegoats, while sharing your unhappy, upbringing, decided somewhere along the line that since they couldn’t beat ‘em, they would join ‘em.

What you may not realize is these are among the most dangerous narcissists of all. Rather like turncoats, they not only have the self-interest and lack of empathy of the typical narcissist, having been in our shoes, they have additional insights into what makes us tick. I am convinced my NexH was one of these: raised by an indifferent, resentful, manipulative mother and a distant, detached, self-interested father, he was an angry, bitter man who used his prodigious intellect to attempt to make “the big score.” His motivation was “I’ll show them!” “them” being his parents, siblings, former classmates and co-workers. He was obsessed with being better than someone…anyone…and because he was not above sabotaging or “sand bagging” someone with lies and innuendo, he was ever convinced that others were focussed on doing the same to him. Rather than take empathy and compassion away from his neglected, even bullied childhood, he took away the “do unto others before they do unto you” message. He couldn’t beat ‘em, so he not only joined ‘em, he improved and refined his narcissism until he was a malignant narcissist who was a master manipulator and admitted psychological sadist. He was not unaware of the pain he inflicted on me, he was keenly aware of it and gratified by it because it made him feel powerful. His early life as a scapegoat gave him the ability to see my vulnerabilities—they were part of his make up as well—but instead of being motivated to give me empathy and comfort, he became increasingly cruel and manipulative because that made him feel powerful and the power made him feel blameless and covered over his feelings of vulnerability.

I am not suggesting that you show empathy or give forgiveness to the narcissists you know: these people have the exact same choices you have—every time you interact with someone you have the choice of being kind or being a bitch. Narcissists have the same opportunities for choice that you and I have: with each interaction they can choose to be kind or to be cruel and it is their unwavering decision to gratify their egos by making those selfish, unkind choices that reveals their narcissism. Worst, I think, are the ones who suffered themselves as scapegoats, who know and understand your pain, and who choose to abuse you anyway.

As much as we would like to think that, in meeting someone who was abused by a narcissist in childhood, we have met a kindred spirit, that is not always the case. If we forge friendships with others based on the assumption that having been a scapegoat in childhood, a person is automatically rendered incapable of being a narcissist, we disadvantage ourselves. Narcissists are, by definition, damaged people. And not all of them got damaged by being the spoilt and coddled Golden Child.