It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Elusive "Normal"-First of 3 Parts

People who grow up in dysfunctional homes often long for a normal family, a normal home, a normal life. But just what is meant by “normal”?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines normal as “Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” Right there, we run into the first problem because what is “usual, typical or expected” most definitely varies from one person to the next. Even “conforming to a standard” is problematic because there is no objective standard for a functional family and even dysfunctional families can conform to a standard for dysfunctionality. The truth is, there is no such thing as a “normal” family, home or life.

So, are we pining over, yearning for something that exists only in our own imaginations? To a degree, yes. There really is no such thing as a “normal” family or even a “normal” parent. We create in our minds what we each define as “normal,” and your definition is, of necessity, different from mine. Our personal definitions of being normal, having normal family members or a normal family life are based on both our observations of others (people who we perceive as “normal”) and on our own needs and wants. Your version of normal may include an effusively loving stay-at-home-mom who bakes cookies and listens, rapt, while you described your school day whereas my definition of normal could include a working mom, but one who didn’t hit or scream and who allows me to close my bedroom door. A better term for what we want is “ideal” and that right there creates another set of problems: ideals are goals to shoot for, but not always realistically achievable.

What might be a better examination is the difference between functional and dysfunctional family interactions, recognizing that even this is an ideal, but at least some of it is achievable. Rare is the family that achieves all of the benchmarks of a fully functional family, and even families that achieve some of them…well, sometimes those qualities can be faked. It’s not an easy thing to nail down.

Then there is the question: why do we even want to know what is normal? Why chase after it, want it, hunger for it? If you’ve never had a pony you can’t miss having one, so if you’ve never had a functional family, can you miss it? And knowing that we cannot change anyone but ourselves, are we not creating for ourselves a whole new world of pain by focussing on and wishing for something we not only have been denied, but something we can never have, a functional FOO?

I think the value in knowing what an ideal functional family looks like is that most of us go on to have families…children…of our own. It is doubly difficult to create something if you have no idea what it should look or feel like. People who grow up in reasonably functional families know…they may even subconsciously recognize each other, much as dysfunctional people can subconsciously recognize and be drawn to people with similar or complementing dysfunctions. If we have any hope of breaking the dysfunctional cycle that we grew up in, the first thing we have to do is know what functional looks like…not our personalized, idealized version of functional but an achievable, real-world kind of functionality…so that we can create something approximating it for our kids.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Elvira G. Aletta wrote an article on just what qualities are present in functional families. What Makes aFamily Functional vs Dysfunctional? outlines 17 points that are common to functional families. Dr. Aletta’s points are presented below and my comments are, as usual, shown in violet.

1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Respect is the Holy Grail of functional families. All people in the family, brothers to sisters, mothers to fathers, parents to kids must be respectful as consistently as possible. Being considerate of each other is the tie that binds, even more than love. I think too much emphasis is put on love in general. I’ve heard of many atrocities done within families in the name of love but never in the name of respect. Just about all the things on the list come out of respect first.

Respect is paramount in all functional relationships. The idea that people have to earn respect is logically absurd and emotionally destructive. We are owed respect from everyone until we do something to earn disrespect and we owe respect to everyone until that person earns our disrespect. It is very simple to respect another person if don’t confuse respect with approval or love or even liking. You don’t have to like a person or even approve of what he does or says or is in order to respect him. Respect does not mean putting a person on a pedestal, looking up to him, or even admiring him. Respect is simply caring about others, about their feelings and their rights, regardless of whether you like or admire or approve of them or not. And this includes our kids.

As ACoNs, every one of us can look back and find examples of disrespect from our families. Caring about the feelings of others is not the same as being controlled by those feelings, either. When I was very young I came home from school and found most of my toys missing. Thinking our house had been robbed, I ran to my mother only to learn that the Goodwill truck was in our neighbourhood that day and she “cleaned” my closet. I remember feeling shocked that she would do that. I was well aware that children were obligated to follow the dictates of their parents and if she had told me earlier that she would be giving away my old toys, I would have accepted her dictates…but to come home and find it a fait accompli was shocking…it was my stuff! In retrospect I can see that I was feeling disrespected, that she had usurped what little autonomy I had, by taking and giving away that which I believed to be mine. It reinforced my feeling that she was not to be trusted, and that it wasn’t a good idea for me to get attached to anything because it could be gone in a heartbeat. Her lack of respect for my feelings…indeed, her failure to acknowledge that my feelings were valid and deserved respect…characterized and defined our relationship.

If your relationships with your FOO, your partner, your kids, lack reciprocal respect, you are already in dysfunctional territory. You cannot have a functional relationship or home without it.

2. An Emotionally Safe Environment
All members of the family can state their opinions, thoughts, wants, dreams, desires and feelings without fear of being slammed, shamed, belittled or dismissed.

This is less about permission to express emotions but more about feeling free to express yourself without fear of being emotionally injured as a result. I can remember telling my mother I wanted to take French in the 9th grade and being called “pretentious” for it. If I told anyone about getting an A on a test or received an academic award, I was “showing off.” When I said I wanted to go to college, I was simply laughed at. When I said I wanted to go live with my father, she took it as a personal affront. She was fond of saying “There are three ways to do anything: the right way, the wrong way, and my way…and my way is the only way that counts.” This translated into every aspect of life: I could not like something she didn’t, and if I didn’t like something she did (like liver), it was a personal affront. It was not safe to like, feel, want or even need anything she did not also like, feel, want or need. And the punishment for diverging from the “party line” was emotional excoriation.

In a functional household, people are allowed to hold and express their own opinions, feelings, wants, and beliefs without fear of being punished for them. They can speak out and if their opinions differ from others in the household, they are not subjected to ad hominem attack, even if those beliefs and opinions come under rigorous discussion. In a dysfunctional household, any deviation from the approved or expected leaves you open to personal attack…and even agreeing may result in the same if you can’t parrot the party line as to why you believe as you profess. Members of functional households are not controlled or punished with fear.

3. A Resilient Foundation
When relationships between and amongst people in a family are healthy they can withstand stress, even trauma, and, if not bounce back, at least recover. Resilience starts with encouraging sound health, eating and sleeping well, and physical activity.

Resilience implies flexibility and strength; its opposite is rigidity and inflexibility. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that functional households, while possessing structure and boundaries, also are resilient, flexing to accommodate new situations and circumstances, and in dysfunctional households, there are rigid roles and no flexibility to accommodate the members of the household.

Children learn more by observation that by what they hear. What you, as a parent, demonstrate to them, is what they absorb. So, if the parent as a rigid personality, is stubborn and intransigent, won’t make exceptions when they are warranted or, conversely, is so chaotic that no kind of grounding is provided, it is difficult for children to learn to roll with the normal punches of life. If your partner leaves and you become mired in grief or rage or react with a sudden desperate siege of all of the local single’s joints, you aren’t teaching your kids resilience, you aren’t demonstrating for them that first you grieve, then you pick yourself up and resume life.

Resilience is learned and you can learn it young, through a family that practices emotionally healthy responses to stressors, or you can spend a lot of money and time in therapy as an adult to learn it. Functional families give it to their kids for free.

4. Privacy
Privacy of space, of body and of thought. Knock and ask permission to enter before going through a closed door. All family members are sensitive regarding personal space and aren’t insulted if someone needs a wide berth.

This has to do with boundaries. In the dysfunctional household, boundaries are set by the people who are in control of the household and, as a rule, only they are allowed to have boundaries. Privacy is a boundary that the dysfunctional parent finds threatening: they only feel safe if they can know what you are doing at any time they feel they need to know. It comes from fear and distrust: control makes them feel safe and they fear that if you have privacy you might be doing something forbidden…and the fact that you might do something forbidden is dangerous to their control.

In a dysfunctional household, people do get insulted if someone needs a wide berth or personal space. You might be doing something that goes against the controller’s wishes or, worse, you might be doing something that threatens his control. If you are perceived as “hiding something,” you are suspect. You are expected to be an open book but, at the same time, you are expected to respect the privacy of the household controllers.

Functional households allow children to set their own age-appropriate boundaries (parents must still have some idea of what their minor children are doing in order to keep them safe…an Australian mother recently discovered her toddler had brought a bunch of eggs that he found outside into the house and stashed them in his closet—turns out they were eggs of the most venomous snakes in the world and they hatched inside the closet! Imagine if she didn’t think she had the right to go into his wardrobe because of privacy issues and therefore didn’t find the snakes before her child was bitten!). In dysfunctional households, the ability to set boundaries is reserved to the people in control. Your privacy is at their whim, not your right.

It all boils down to respect and dysfunctional households, that is in very short supply.

5. Accountability
Being accountable is not the same as planting a homing device on your kid or abusing the cell phone to track her whereabouts 24/7. That’s not much better than stalking. No, being accountable is (again with the respect thing) respectfully and reasonably informing people in the family where you are and what you are doing so they can grow trust and not worry.

This can be a touchy one because for safety’s sake, parents need to know where their children are, and the younger the child, the more important it is for the parent to know. In a functional home, however, children are granted more and more freedom and autonomy as they mature and demonstrate that they can make good decisions (or have learned from their bad ones) and be trusted.

Dysfunctional households tend to go to one extreme or the other: either the kids are simply turned loose to fend for themselves and allowed to run wild, or they are rigidly controlled and given no autonomy that does not benefit the controlling parents. There may be even be a situation where some children are allowed to run wild while others are rigidly controlled. Either way, the children do not come up in a household in which they gradually learn responsibility and are given guidance such as how to learn from a mistake.

6. An Apology
It’s sad when people hold out for an apology on a point of pride, never acknowledging their part in a dispute. How many times have you heard of rifts in families that last for years because someone feels they are ‘owed an apology’?

A functional family will have conflict. It’s very cool when we can have an argument and get to the other side of it still friendly and satisfied with the outcome. But let’s face it, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we say things that we regret. If we can feel and show remorse for our part, quickly apologize, ask for and receive forgiveness, no harm is done. You may even become closer for it.

I have to take some exception to this. While it does, on the surface, seem a bit absurd to remain estranged for an extended period of time while ostensible awaiting an apology, this might also be the tip of a huge narcissistic iceberg.

Many of us go No Contact with narcissistic family members for our own well-being and sometimes that decision is based on an event in which someone ends up feeling s/he is owed an apology. Most of us shy away from painful introspection…we don’t want to dig into our past pain and re-experience it and come away with the devastating realization that our parents are narcissists who have never loved anybody but themselves. Subconsciously, if we are not emotionally ready to accept and deal with it, we protect ourselves from that kind of shattering insight with less devastating “reasons” that still allow us to take the steps that shield us from the damaging people in our lives.

Whether or not breaking contact with a family member is a dysfunctional thing depends entirely on that family member and the relationship with him/her. If it is a narcissist who constantly gas lights you, exploits you, and generally runs you down and the schism occurred when you stood up to the abuse, one or both of you may expect and apology from the other and remain estranged while awaiting it…and in such a circumstance, I don’t think that is a bad thing!

7. Allow Reasonable Expression of Emotions
When I was growing up I wasn’t allowed to be angry at my parents and my father would walk out on me if I cried. I was determined to not do that to my kids. It hasn’t been easy. The main thing for me was to teach them to state their anger in a managed manner and to teach myself not to fly off the handle when they did. I had to learn that their telling me they weren’t happy with something I did or said could be done with respect. And, very importantly, vice versa.

The key word in this point is “reasonable.” My kids were allowed to express their feelings but they weren’t allowed to be abusive in the process: they were expected to respect the feelings of others even while expressing their own. That meant that tantrums that disrupted the peace of the rest of the family was not allowed…a child having a tantrum was sent (or taken) to his room until the tantrum was over and s/he could rejoin the rest of us and state his/her frustration in a manner that we could all deal with. That meant that being angry was ok, but name-calling, insults, throwing or breaking things, screaming and hitting were not.

Reasonable expressions of emotion, both demonstrated by the parents and allowed to the children, do not include abuse. They respect the rights and feelings of another, which can be a fine line to walk when your child wants something desperately and the parent must say “no.”  Sometimes we have to hurt our children (or do things they perceive as hurtful) in order to protect them. We are not their buddies, after all, we are their teachers, mentors, guides and protectors. But in fulfilling that role, we cannot squelch their expressions of emotions, we must help them learn the appropriate, acceptable means of expressing them and in functional families that is done both by example and by instruction.

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