I just read an incredibly enlightening article on the web by Cloe Madanes, The 14 Habits of Highly Miserable People, an article that spelled out a lot of behaviours we may recognize in both the Ns in our lives and in ourselves as well, especially when we are stuck at a miserable place in our recoveries.
People who grew up in dysfunctional families don’t have an internal touchstone that tells them what is normal and what is not. If “normal” is defined as what is familiar and comfortable to a person, then our “normal” can include all manner of abnormal adaptive behaviours and attitudes. Additionally, not knowing exactly what “normal” feels like can leave us at a loss: we may not even recognize it when we see or feel it!
What I especially like about this article is its dual nature: on the one hand it goes a long way to explaining how our Ns work; on the other hand, it points up things we do when we are stuck. This list is a blueprint of how our Ns think and operate, but it also offers insights to people like us who want out of our misery but don’t recognize what we are doing to perpetuate it.
I am sure someone is going to wonder “Do our Ns do these things consciously? On purpose?” and the truth is, it depends. Some of them undoubtedly do consciously manipulate others using the tactics revealed in this article; others may not be consciously aware of their behaviours. But the truth is, is doesn’t really matter if they do it consciously and intentionally or not: the hurt they cause is not mitigated by their intent and their failure to respond to the hurt they inflict is what truly matters: regardless of intent, they hurt people without remorse. The difference between them and us is that they don’t want to change…it is how they live, it is how they get their N supply, it is their world: we, on the other hand, want out.
So don’t be surprised if you see your NM in some of the 14 points the author makes…and don’t be surprised if you see yourself there, too! Just remember that you are the one wanting to see these things in your life and change your life by changing them…your NM just wants to exploit them for the Nsupply she can wring from them: a world of difference, for all that it may superficially look the same.
The author prefaces her article thus: [my comments are in violet]
“Most of us claim we want to be happy—to have meaningful lives, enjoy ourselves, experience fulfillment, and share love and friendship with other people and maybe other species, like dogs, cats, birds, and whatnot. Strangely enough, however, some people act as if they just want to be miserable, and they succeed remarkably at inviting misery into their lives, even though they get little apparent benefit from it, since being miserable doesn’t help them find lovers and friends, get better jobs, make more money, or go on more interesting vacations. Why do they do this? After perusing the output of some of the finest brains in the therapy profession, I’ve come to the conclusion that misery is an art form, and the satisfaction people seem to find in it reflects the creative effort required to cultivate it. In other words, when your living conditions are stable, peaceful, and prosperous—no civil wars raging in your streets, no mass hunger, no epidemic disease, no vexation from poverty—making yourself miserable is a craft all its own, requiring imagination, vision, and ingenuity. It can even give life a distinctive meaning.
“So if you aspire to make yourself miserable, what are the best, most proven techniques for doing it? Let’s exclude some obvious ways, like doing drugs, committing crimes, gambling, and beating up your spouse or neighbor. Subtler strategies, ones that won’t lead anyone to suspect that you’re acting deliberately, can be highly effective. But you need to pretend that you want to be happy, like everybody else, or people won’t take your misery seriously. The real art is to behave in ways that’ll bring on misery while allowing you to claim that you’re an innocent victim, ideally of the very people from whom you’re forcibly extracting compassion and pity. Oh, I see the narcissist in that, don’t you? The NM who sets you up to victimize her and then extracts compassion, pity—and let’s not forget the guilt—from you.
“Here, I cover most areas of life, such as family, work, friends, and romantic partners. These areas will overlap nicely, since you can’t ruin your life without ruining your marriage and maybe your relationships with your children and friends. It’s inevitable that as you make yourself miserable, you’ll be making those around you miserable also, at least until they leave you—which will give you another reason to feel miserable. So it’s important to keep in mind the benefits you’re accruing in your misery.
“• When you’re miserable, people feel sorry for you. Not only that, they often feel obscurely guilty, as if your misery might somehow be their fault. This is good! There’s power in making other people feel guilty. The people who love you and those who depend on you will walk on eggshells to make sure that they don’t say or do anything that will increase your misery.
“• When you’re miserable, since you have no hopes and expect nothing good to happen, you can’t be disappointed or disillusioned.” This was one of my nasty little habits…pessimism and an expectation of being shat upon…
“• Being miserable can give the impression that you’re a wise and worldly person, especially if you’re miserable not just about your life, but about society in general. You can project an aura of someone burdened by a form of profound, tragic, existential knowledge that happy, shallow people can’t possibly appreciate.” I know people like this…they aren’t exactly Ns, but they are definitely kissing cousins to them.
“Honing Your Misery Skills
Let’s get right to it and take a look at some effective strategies to become miserable. This list is by no means exhaustive, but engaging in four or five of these practices will help refine your talent.
“1. Be afraid, be very afraid, of economic loss. In hard economic times, many people are afraid of losing their jobs or savings. The art of messing up your life consists of indulging these fears, even when there’s little risk that you’ll actually suffer such losses. Concentrate on this fear, make it a priority in your life, moan continuously that you could go broke any day now, and complain about how much everything costs, particularly if someone else is buying. Try to initiate quarrels about other people’s feckless, spendthrift ways, and suggest that the recession has resulted from irresponsible fiscal behavior like theirs.
“Fearing economic loss has several advantages. First, it’ll keep you working forever at a job you hate. Second, it balances nicely with greed, an obsession with money, and a selfishness that even Ebenezer Scrooge would envy. Third, not only will you alienate your friends and family, but you’ll likely become even more anxious, depressed, and possibly even ill from your money worries. Good job!
“Exercise: Sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and, for 15 minutes, meditate on all the things you could lose: your job, your house, your savings, and so forth. Then brood about living in a homeless shelter.”
If you are in a terrible relationship with an N, this can be your crutch for staying: fear of economic loss. I am ever amazed at how many of us will sacrifice our psychological selves in ways we would never consider sacrificing ourselves physically. If the N in your life tied you up and tortured you with lit cigarettes, electric devices like bare live wires, cattle prods and stun guns, bit you and slapped you and punched you until you bled, how many times would you put up with it before you packed up and ran? I had a live in boyfriend punch me in the face at a party once. I sat quietly until he left the room and then I walked out. I went home, got as much as I could carry in one load and left. I left behind a lot of stuff because I didn’t know if he would show up at our place momentarily, or if I had all night to pack up. I just grabbed what I could and fled. I left town…my job, my friends, most of my belongings. He was jealous and possessive, he carried a knife and often a gun. I knew that first punch wouldn’t be the last and that I could end up dead…I got out.
But…I had endured months of verbal and emotional abuse from him, belittling, accusations of infidelity, minimizing my feelings, always fighting until I no longer even tried to stand up for myself. I allowed him to emotionally abuse me for months…I did not treat my own feelings with the same respect I treated my body when I left. And if he had not hit me, I probably would have allowed the abuse to continue indefinitely. I was afraid of having to strike out on my own, afraid of poverty (although I was already poor…the next step for me would have been a homeless shelter and, when I left this guy, I lived by staying with friends, sleeping on their sofas and cleaning up and cooking in exchange). I allowed my fears of economic loss to chain me to a man who abused me with every breath out of his body and I was not until fear for my life overrode those economic fears that I finally got out.
You can’t leave that abusive man, go No Contact with an NM, or stop the abuse if you imprison yourself with economic fear. Sadly, we too often fail to realize that most of us can survive with far less than we have and it is not until the abuse threatens our physical lives that many of us will pick up and flee. Until then, we remain captive in our gilded cages, fearing the unknown of independence and possible failure far more than we fear the abuse that insidiously wears us down, like water dripping endlessly on a rock.
“2. Practice sustained boredom. Cultivate the feeling that everything is predictable, that life holds no excitement, no possibility for adventure, that an inherently fascinating person like yourself has been deposited into a completely tedious and pointless life through no fault of your own. Complain a lot about how bored you are. Make it the main subject of conversation with everyone you know so they’ll get the distinct feeling that you think they’re boring. Consider provoking a crisis to relieve your boredom. Have an affair (this works best if you’re already married and even better if you have an affair with someone else who’s married); go on repeated shopping sprees for clothes, cars, fancy appliances, sporting equipment (take several credit cards, in case one maxes out); start pointless fights with your spouse, boss, children, friends, neighbors; have another child; quit your job, clean out your savings account, and move to a state you know nothing about.
“A side benefit of being bored is that you inevitably become boring. Friends and relatives will avoid you. You won’t be invited anywhere; nobody will want to call you, much less actually see you. As this happens, you’ll feel lonely and even more bored and miserable.”
Exercise: Force yourself to watch hours of mindless reality TV programs every day, and read only nonstimulating tabloids that leave you feeling soulless. Avoid literature, art, and keeping up with current affairs.
Ah, yes, the cultivation of ennui. And all of the drama that can be created in an effort to relieve it. A lot of the examples, like provoking crises and picking pointless fights with family members…even having affairs…run right down my NM’s road. But what about “retail therapy,” running away to places unknown, and other impulsive acts…well, I dunno about you, but I have to raise my hand as a guilty party on those. Oh, not today, not now…but most certainly in my past. Between 1965 and 1974 I lived in three states and in those states, a total of seven towns and 18 houses or apartments. Lots of moving around. (But in subsequent years I lived in the same neighbourhood for 26 years, 13 years in each of two houses.)
Narcissists are good at making themselves look pathetic to people they know will try to save them. If ennui is the weapon of choice, they expect family and friends to turn themselves inside out to help relieve the boredom. Not only does the N get attention this way, but by engaging in a game of “Yes, but…,” the N can keep the game going on indefinitely.
We, on the other hand, become depressed and behave in a similar manner. We come up with excuse after excuse…most of them sounding plausible…why we can’t go to the ball. We have nothing to wear, our hair is a mess, we have zits, it is too short notice or too much trouble, the music is too loud, we’re too fat, we’re too thin, we don’t like crowds, somebody might recognize us, we won’t know anybody there… And with each excuse we not only shoot down the good intentions of our rescuers, we drive them away. Until we are alone. And lonely. And even more bored and miserable. We do it to ourselves.
“3. Give yourself a negative identity. Allow a perceived emotional problem to absorb all other aspects of your self-identification. If you feel depressed, become a Depressed Person; if you suffer from social anxiety or a phobia, assume the identity of a Phobic Person or a Person with Anxiety Disorder. Make your condition the focus of your life. Talk about it to everybody, and make sure to read up on the symptoms so you can speak about them knowledgeably and endlessly. Practice the behaviors most associated with that condition, particularly when it’ll interfere with regular activities and relationships. Focus on how depressed you are and become weepy, if that’s your identity of choice. Refuse to go places or try new things because they make you too anxious. Work yourself into panic attacks in places it’ll cause the most commotion. It’s important to show that you don’t enjoy these states or behaviors, but that there’s nothing you can do to prevent them.
“Practice putting yourself in the physiological state that represents your negative identity. For example, if your negative identity is Depressed Person, hunch your shoulders, look at the floor, breathe shallowly. It’s important to condition your body to help you reach your negative peak as quickly as possible.
“Exercise: Write down 10 situations that make you anxious, depressed, or distracted. Once a week, pick a single anxiety-provoking situation, and use it to work yourself into a panic for at least 15 minutes.”
I used to work in a hospital setting and one thing I noticed about some of the doctors and nurses was that they did not refer to the patients by their names but by their conditions. “These meds are for the gall bladder in 102,” or “The broken leg in 214 is complaining the pain meds aren’t working…” While there might be a pragmatic explanation (it is shorter than saying “Mr. Farmer in 214, the man with the broken leg who is in traction, is complaining that his pain meds aren't working.”) for the practice, it is very dehumanizing. When we begin to define ourselves by our psychological or physical state, we begin to dehumanize ourselves and begin to see ourselves within the confines of the definition of our condition. This, of course, limits our ability to see and act outside those confines. If I have PTSD or depression or anxiety disorder or anything else, I still have the choice of how to define myself: I can live my life as a PTSD sufferer or as a person who, incidentally, has PTSD. There is a subtle but significant difference not only between the two states of mind, but how we perceive ourselves and our abilities, and the limitations (conscious or unconscious) we put on ourselves.
The key here is choice. We each get to choose if we live life defined by our conditions or if our conditions are incidental to the rest of us. To be something is very different from having something.
Tomorrow: Parts 4 through 8 of 14 parts