There is more to being a narcissist’s child than being the helpless victim of a personality disordered parent. Trained to endure the emotional…and sometimes physical…abuse of a narcissistic parent, many of us get stuck in a feeling of defenceless vulnerability, angry and even filled with rage, and wanting badly to strike back.
Believe it or not, this may well be a response programmed into us by our narcissistic parents, a response they taught us through their own behaviours and which served them by teaching us to react in a way from which they could get NSupply. School psychologist Sal SeverePh.D., says “…anger is as legitimate an emotion as joy or sadness and it’s the most common way children express feelings of frustration…” Rather than responding to children with anger, Severe recommends . “Instead, neutralize your child’s anger by acknowledging it with phrases, such as, “I’m sorry you’re so angry,” or “I'm sorry you hate me today, but I still love you” because “[r]eacting angrily teaches children what to say and do to push your emotional buttons in the future when you do something else that hurts their feelings.”
That last sentence is very important because, in my opinion, it lays the groundwork for our anger and rage issues all the way through adulthood. We were taught by example that the appropriate way to respond to hurt or frustration or denial was with anger by a parent who had never emotionally matured past that stage of childhood development; we were further taught that the appropriate way to handle anger is to punish the person who angered us either directly, through retaliation or indirectly, through tantrums or spreading rumours or other passive aggressive acts; and then many of us were denied an outlet for our anger, forcing us to smother it. But anger suppressed is not anger gone, and being forced to suppress anger merely makes us angrier. Under pressure, we find other outlets for the suppressed anger, ways to blow a little of it off…different people choose different ways, but I engaged in fantasies of having enough power and sufficient wit to stand up to my NM when she assaulted and belittled me.
Like many abused kids, as a child I was not allowed to express anger, or even to give any outward appearance that I felt it. As implied by Dr. Severe, my anger was a response to hurt, but neither my hurt nor my anger were ever acknowledged except through prohibition and threat: “What are you blubbering about now? That was just a ‘love tap’ but if you keep up that snivelling, I can really give you something to cry about.” I learned early to show just the right amount of distress at my NM’s assaults…not too little or I would get more, not too much or I would be threatened with further assault…and to suppress all expression of anger and outrage at her treatment of me.
Hand-in-hand with the suppressed anger and outrage came the fantasies of vengeance and retribution, fantasies in which she expressed remorse or begged for my mercy…or both. The rage that fuelled my fantasies made me feel empowered in a Walter Mitty kind of way—in reality I was powerless and unassertive, but in fantasy, I became a powerful, vengeful Fury capable of retribution in mythical proportions. It took years of therapy and introspection for me to finally realize that those fantasies were proof that I was still feeling powerless and repressed by my NM. And it was not until I had stopped having those fantasies, not until I no longer channelled any time or energy into wishful thinking that had her at my mercy and me giving her a taste of her own medicine, that I realized that those empowering fantasies were, in fact, keeping me trapped in my feeling of powerlessness. Instead of doing, I was fantasizing…the perfect procrastination. And for a while, I thought that stopping the vengeful fantasies and taking some kind of liberating action was the healthier choice…for a while…
And then I had a letter from a woman who had a boss who sounded just like my NM. A manipulative, mean-spirited person who scapegoated some of her staff, made GCs out of others, and generally ran her department like a terrorist. The writer asked for advice about finding ways to change how her boss acted—some people think I have a magic wand and can say a few words and make their narcissists behave, I think—and how she could get on the manager’s good side. And I was struck with the conscious awareness that these Ns are everywhere and that we not only have to deal with them in our families, but also in the workplace, and that advice that works for one situation pretty much applies to other situations as well.
I know many of us fantasize about telling our Ns off, others fantasize about writing that final, scathing, cathartic No Contact letter and firing it off to our NParents. A few of us actually do it…and my limited knowledge of this is that it almost universally backfires on us. The woman with the awful boss, I advised her to recognize she can change no one but herself and that her boss behaves this way because it works for her, therefore she has no motivation for change. I further advised her to polish up her résumé (CV), find a new job, and when she left, tell the boss it was “interesting” working for her and that she had “learned a lot,” neither of which was untrue. I specifically counselled her against using her departure as an opportunity to unload upon the manager all of her anger and frustration because none of us can predict the future…she cannot know if she might end up working for the woman again, and to leave under such terms almost guarantees a poor reference…even an exaggeratedly poor one.
And then the penny dropped: if it was unwise to burn bridges with an Nboss, if it was imprudent to provoke the beast even on your way out the door, why should it be any less rash to do so with family members, like our NMs? Considering that the odds of having future dealings with the horrid boss and her minions were smaller than the odds of having future contact with NM and/or family members, why do we think it could possibly be a good idea to put our grievances in writing and hand them to our Nfamily members on a silver platter, thinking it would do anything other than stoke the fires that already rage within them?
Maybe we are watching too many dramas on TV and in movies in which the protagonist tosses off a pithy comment and then walks away victorious. In fiction and fantasy…including our own home grown fantasies…the protagonist walks away smugly triumphant, leaving the antagonist chastised and impotent. The problem with this scenario is that in real life, it doesn’t work that way, it doesn’t end like that. You haven’t ended it, you have merely thrown down the gauntlet and if your NParent is worthy of the appellation “narcissist,” it is only the beginning.
If we remember that we have been trained from the cradle to stifle our anger and rage, and that our failures to do so are perceived by our Ns as opportunities to express some of their own, we have to realize that any action we take to “have our say” is perceived as a shot across the bow, an opening gambit in another battle for supremacy and control. And while we view it as closing a door and walking away, the affronted N is not on the same page we are on. This explains the many reports from ACoNs who report a complete lack of respect for their wishes after they have told their NParents, complete with reasons in agonizing detail, that they are going No Contact.
Even before we reach the point of going No Contact, we have the power to “fire up” our Nfamily members, although we may not consciously recognize it. Often, we feel baffled or confused by the behaviours of our Ns because their responses to us seem counterintuitive. That, I think, is because we largely base our expectations (or at least our hopes) of their behaviour on ourselves. We think “If I do this, she will be pleased or happy or grateful…” or “If I say that, she will be humiliated and will understand how she has hurt me,” when, in fact, it is you who would be pleased or happy or grateful, it is you who would feel humiliated and enlightened, if someone treated you in such a manner. Narcissists do not think or react like we do…your kindness, from which you expect gratitude and/or love, the narcissists takes as her due; your enlightening and humiliating statement, she takes as an affront, and rather than being enlightened by your words and appropriately ashamed of her behaviour, she is insulted and reacts with either outrage or by crumbling into a pathetic victim’s stance.
If your NM is the rageaholic type, you aren’t going to accomplish anything good by rubbing her nose in her messes. In fact, taking any kind of overt action calculated to make her responsible for herself and her behaviour, anything you say or do designed to pry her away from her fantasies, rewritten histories, and sense of entitlement, will be met with resistance and, depending on her personality, could result in anything from a screaming match in which you are characterized as a liar who is picking on her to a full out assault that includes character assassination to not only the family, but to friends, lovers/spouses, in-laws, employers, and even the authorities. You could lose anything from your composure to custody of your kids, depending on how malignant your NM is and how determined she is to revenge herself on you for daring to remember and to expose the real truth (which she will perceive as lies and character assassination on your part).
Like it or not, when we take the tactic of doing a “so there!” moment with out NMs, we are being childish…can’t you almost hear the “neener neener neener” chant in your mind? Taunting our NMs may make us feel better for a brief moment, but it creates opportunities that they would otherwise not have: opportunities for Nsupply (“Oh, my heart is broken…you’ll never believe the terrible things Cynthia said to me…”), opportunities for damaging your reputation further with people who matter to you, for feeling justified in a vengeance scheme against you, for taking steps that make her look innocent and you look terrible. Just this week I heard from a woman who went NC with her family and moved half way across country to be away from them: when she was entertaining guests her doorbell rang and it was the police doing a “welfare check” on her…now in her new town she already has the reputation of neglecting her mother such that the police had to be sent to see if she was dead or alive.
We all recognize that our Ns are emotionally arrested, that they are stuck somewhere between toddlerhood and primary school. Anger and retaliation are the stock in trade of young children who have not yet matured to the point of being able the deal with disappointments with equanimity…and of adults whose emotional development has halted far short of maturity, like narcissists. We are the adults here…we can deal with disappointment and frustration in the real world without having a public melt down…our Ns? Not so much. And yet, when faced with dealing with those Ns, when mulling over their bad treatment of us over the years, somehow we sink to their level, wallowing in revenge fantasies and sometimes even striking out either verbally or by taking some kind of action calculated to cause them to step out of their complaisant comfort zones. Why?
When I was a young adult I drove across country with my new husband to meet his family. The closer we got to Boston, the stronger his accent became. By the time we got to his mother’s house, I could barely understand…or recognize…him. Within a day of crossing the Massachusetts state line he stopped being a man and my husband and became a child and her little boy. His speech changed, she bossed him around like a kid and he was obedient…he acted like a child again.
The next time I had occasion to be in the presence of my own mother on her turf, I noticed I did much the same thing: I reverted to my childhood ways of relating to her: my fear of her uncurled from my belly and became a live and tangible thing, making me wary of what I said or what expression I allowed on my face. Even when I emphatically disagreed with something she said, I did not speak up and voice my views, I simply allowed her to believe I shared hers. Being around her changed me, and not for the better.
I tried not to think about her when I was away from her but I was not always successful, especially after she stole my children. When she would come to my mind, I would revert back to that rage-filled 8-year-old who hated her with everything in my skinny little stick-figured body. I fantasized about finding her and shooting her dead and running off the Mexico with my kids. I fantasized about kidnapping her as she had kidnapped my children, then torturing her the way she had tortured me. I imagined her apologizing for her predations, her infliction of terror and pain on me, swearing she really did love me, and me rejecting her as firmly and irrevocably as she had rejected me. The fantasies were dark and violent and vengeful…and all they did was keep me angry with her and did nothing to make me better.
In therapy I examined those dark fantasies and my therapist brought up something that had never occurred to me: what had I done that provoked my mother’s vengeance upon me? At first I was hurt and offended at the implication that I had brought this upon myself, that my NM was justified in her actions against me, but my therapist hastened to explain that I was imputing a rational motive to a psychopath, a person whose rationale is rational only to herself. An even though I had done nothing wrong, from an objective point of view, what had I done wrong from her peculiar, twisted, psychopathic point of view?
And suddenly, the confusion fell into order. Until that point I was unable to fathom exactly why my own mother had committed such horrible acts against me and why she compounded them virtually daily by not recanting her lies to my children and other family members. She was taking revenge upon me for the wrongs—real or imagined—I had committed against her from the moment she knew she was pregnant with me. And specifically, the vengeance she extracted by stealing my children was related to my first act of triumph over her: when I became pregnant at 17 she tried to force me to have an abortion; when that didn’t work, she tried to force me to give the baby up for adoption; she refused to give me permission to get married and I had to go before a judge to get consent. I thwarted her—I did exactly what she forbade me to do—I got married and I had my baby and I kept her. And that gnawed at her for years, until she found a way to finally get what she wanted, a way to get my child away from me without simultaneously burdening herself with the responsibility of raising kids again.
How had I provoked her? By living a lifestyle she did not approve of (I was a hippie) and making several critical errors: 1) allowing her to have any contact with me and my kids at all; 2) not pretending to live a normal suburban life when she was present; 3) (and most critical) assuming I had won an irrevocable victory over her when I got married and kept my baby. It simply did not occur to me that there might be a rematch in the future and she, with a helluva lot more money than I had, along with her defeat stuck in her craw, might actually win it.
When we deal with NParents, particularly malignant NParents, we need to be careful about poking the hornet’s nest with a stick. We have to push past that habit of falling back into our old patterns of relating to our NMs and craft new, healthier, more mature ways of dealing with them. We need to stop perceiving ourselves as vulnerable and weak with respect to them and recognize that revenge fantasies and smart retorts are not only immature on our parts, they act as triggers to stir the pot and provoke drama with the very people we are trying to disengage from. Writing a letter laying out our every grievance never gives us the hoped-for result: it does not lift the scales from our NM’s eyes and trigger their compassion and empathy and provoke feelings and protestations of love. If it does not make them see what they have done to us and how much we are hurting from it. It does not even serve to justify, in their minds, our turning our backs on them and walking away. Ns perceive such a missive as an attack upon them…an unwarranted attack…and with their stunted emotional systems, their response to our attack is to mount their own counter attack, often using the blue print we gave them in the form of revelations of what they have done in the past…and can do in the future…to hurt us.
No matter how good you think it might feel, no matter how satisfying you imagine your retaliatory fantasies will feel if you could just them into practice, it doesn’t work. First of all, you’ll feel guilty…we always feel guilty when we hurt someone, even our Ns. And secondly, it only stirs the pot, provokes drama, starts more shit. I cannot count the times when I would have been better off, in the long run, to simply put the phone down or say to my NM at the door, when she arrived unexpectedly (with the intention of snooping to try to get “dirt” on me) “Sorry, Mom, this is not a good time. Next time, call ahead so I can clear some time for you, ok?”
One of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to work towards long term goals and forego immediate gratification. We need to sharpen our abilities to do this, we need to learn to be satisfied with what is good for us, not what feels good to us in the moment. The ability to sacrifice short term gratification for long-term gains is what sets us apart from the immature, and those short term gratifications we have to give up include not only putting in the little digs and smart remarks, slamming down the phone or back-sassing our NMs in our child’s voice, it includes giving up the revenge fantasies that keep us hooked into the conflict, feelings of vulnerability and helplessness, that keep our thinking as petty and retaliatory as the very people we are trying to escape.
Instead we need to begin seeing ourselves as strong and capable, achieving our goals and being happy in our lives. To imagine such things in detail, to try on and become accustomed to the feelings of satisfaction and happiness that such things bring, helps us to achieve those things by programming us for success and strength and independence of mind.
You have the choice to stay stuck in gloomy, painful helplessness, reinforcing it with your dark and childish retaliation fantasies, but if that is your choice, you have no one but yourself to blame for being stuck, in pain, and battling drama after drama with your Ns…or even yourself. Or you can begin today to thrust those imaginings away and being reprogramming your mind for joy and happiness, satisfaction and success. If you can dream it, if you can imagine it, you can do it.