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.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Do you know how to feel loved?

As the scapegoat children of narcissists, we know how it feels to feel unloved. We know what it feels like to want to be loved and to feel its absence from our earliest memories.

Many of us spend our lives seeking the love withheld from us by our selfish, narcissistic parent(s) using a variety of largely unsuccessful techniques…I say they are largely unsuccessful because few people who actually feel loved find themselves reading a blog like this one.

The problem with growing up feeling unloved is that when we go out seeking to be loved, we don’t know what it is we are looking for. Having felt only its absence, how will we know when we have found what we are looking for?

What does it feel like, to feel loved? Would you know it when you felt it? Or would you, like I did, mistake something that felt comfortably familiar for it? Do you have a list in your head of what it would feel like to be loved? Do you use that list to guide not only how to recognize if someone else loves you, but as a way to show love to others?

One of the problems we face is that of subjectivity. What feels like love to one person does not feel loving to another. That not only means that what feels like love to one ACoN does not feel like love to another ACoN, it also means that what feels like love to me may not feel like love to you…or to my husband or to my kids or to anyone else on the planet. And while this may well be true of “normies” as well, I suspect that they probably have a clearer, more accurate sense of what it feels like to be loved than we do.

I grew up with the sense that love hurt. Unless my heart was wrung with anxiety and even a bit of fear, whatever I was feeling was not, I believed, love. My comfort zone included a dynamic in which I had to earn the love of my partner through excellence: being the best cook, lover, housekeeper (that one was really tough for me because I hate housework), most obedient and even anticipating the desires/needs of my partner and spoiling him. It means keeping my kids quiet and out of the way unless they were on their best behaviour, and demanding nothing in return…fidelity and love would be my reward if I was good enough.

Of course, this failed. And my failure generated a lot of fights because I perceived this as my partner’s expectations, and that they were unreasonable (then I married a malignant narcissist and those actually were his expectations and they were still unreasonable.) We would fight because I was stressed by the unreasonable expectations and my partner’s failure to live up to his end of my one-way unspoken bargain: to be faithful and to love me in a way I could feel loved. Because throughout all of this, despite having set up a paradigm in which I was supposed to be able to finally earn my partner’s love and then actually feel loved, it never happened. And no wonder, since I was going about it all wrong…

It took a long time and a lot of therapy to realize that, until I loved me…flaws and all…that I could not feel love from another person. And that was key…it didn’t matter if another person loved me or not because I was in a situation in which I could not feel loved, and what I identified as what I needed in order to feel loved was way off base. I was working against myself…no matter what I tried, I did not ever make the effort to love myself as I was because it actually never occurred to me. I thought that would come when someone else loved me and I felt loved…I needed outside validation—the love of another person—before I could allow myself to love me.

One of my biggest epiphanies came when I realized that without respect there is no love. A person who does not respect you and your very humanness does not love you. Oh, s/he may be obsessed with you, but without respect, there is no love. We mistake many things for love: obsession, passion, need, even fear…but the single most important component of love is respect for it is from respect that compassion and empathy grow, and without those, love is simply not possible.

We know what it feels like to feel unloved and some of us, simplistically, believe that whatever makes us feel unloved, the opposite will make us feel loved. For the most part, this is incorrect. This is like thinking that if we do the opposite of what our narcissistic parents did, we will be good parents and loved by our children: nope…extremes don’t work whether it is the extreme of non-nurturing narcissistic parenting or its opposite number of smothering and indulging a child’s every whim. And it doesn’t work for love, either, especially when you consider that, growing up conditioned to feel “normal” in being disrespected and unloved, the opposite might feel cloying and even mocking. Why? Because, simply, we don’t know how to handle it and we aren’t very experienced at accepting true expressions of love. We may even be suspicious of someone who treats us with the respect and kindness every human being deserves because we did nothing to earn it.

We may also find simple, honest love to be “boring.” How many times do you hear men lament that they are stuck in the “friend zone” because the women they meet are attracted to the “bad boy” type, the players, the men who will inevitably break their hearts? This is a manifestation of love being perceived as a competition, something to win: a woman who wins and weds a “bad boy” perceives herself as better than the women who failed to do so, never mind that people don’t change for other people and the marriage will likely be fraught with tension as she must keep up the competition indefinitely…just because he is married doesn’t mean he is necessarily tamed. Does she feel loved? Probably not…she feels victorious but the competition never really ends…as long as there are other women out there, the competition continues.

So what is it you think you need from someone else to feel loved? Can you analyse it honestly and determine whether or not you would actually feel like you were loved if you had it? I know that in my case, it didn’t matter what another person felt about me, until I could perceive myself as being worthy of love…which meant loving myself including my flaws…nothing another person could do would make me feel loved. I would have been uncomfortable with lavish displays of affection, embarrassed, even. I would have been very suspicious, thinking I was being led along until the big reveal, in which I would be humiliated and abandoned. Because I didn’t feel I was lovable, I not only didn’t love me, I couldn’t believe anyone else could truly love me, which meant those who declared they did were just leading me on, manipulating me, or otherwise trying to take advantage of me. This went for family members as well as romantic partners. Out of desperation I had allowed myself to be fooled a few times when I was young, and the bitter lessons stuck tight.

I didn’t come to love myself during therapy, but I was able to see that loving myself first was the key to feeling loved and internally accepting it. I had mellowed a great deal, no longer perceiving insults where they did not exist, and able to shrug off those that were real. Over the next years I came to view myself realistically…I began to see and embrace truth…and to recognize that having flaws is simply part of the human condition and not a barrier to love or being loved. I let go of the idea that I had to be perfect by some other person’s definition in order to be worthy of love and I also gave up the notion that I could remodel an unsatisfactory man into the man I wanted to love. It eventually manifested into an understanding of acceptance…that I must accept a person as he is and he must accept me as I am…as a key component of love.

I found, eventually, that what I needed to feel loved was to feel respected and accepted just as I was…by me. It didn’t mean I couldn’t recognize and work on character flaws…it simply meant those flaws did not render me unworthy of love, respect and acceptance, including my own. All of the things I thought I needed…beauty, wit, accomplishment, being “the best”…none of them truly mattered because I had achieved them all, in one way or another, and they had not changed anything about my feelings about myself.

What I eventually discovered is that my mother always found me wanting and I had adopted that mindset. A report card of 4 As and 2Bs should have been all As…and when the straight A report cards came, then I was found wanting because I had not been producing them all along. My hair was too straight, my posture unacceptable, my feet flat, my shapely legs marred with eczema. If I spoke like my peers, I was exhibiting lazy speech; if I spoke correctly I was being pretentious. To not have my chores done perfectly was to be defiant and lazy; to have them done perfectly was to be angling to get something from her. I came away from my childhood feeling fat, ugly, stupid, manipulative, unworthy, and of the opinion that if I was to get anything even resembling love, I couldn’t pass up any opportunity, and to get what I wanted from another person, I was going to have to fight for it.

And yet I went into relationships expecting to be loved and respected just as I was. Of course, by picking the wrong kinds of people—often immature and/or narcissistic men like my NM—I guaranteed that I would not get what I expected and wanted, and then I would have to either fight for it or go outside of the relationship for it…and sometimes both. Years of this type of interaction ultimately wore me down until I was suicidal and leapt into therapy with both feet, a lifeline at a time I was rapidly losing the battle.

What did I need to feel loved? What did it mean to me? For me, I ultimately discovered that feeling loved by someone else was secondary: I could not accept love from another without being suspicious of it until I was able to love myself, accept myself, accept that my flaws were simply part of my human condition and not barriers to respect, love and acceptance. Eventually I found that by being able to love and accept myself as having value and worth, despite my flawed condition, I was able to believe that others could love me as well. I learned to expect respect and acceptance from others before I would believe their declarations of love—how many times had I believed a man loved me when, in fact, he merely wanted something from me or wanted to remake me into the perfect woman according to his definition. Ultimately, I discovered that when a person tries to change me, he is not respecting me or accepting me and, once you truly accept and respect yourself, you really aren’t willing to accept anything less from others.

So what is it that you need to feel like you are loved. Do you have fantasies of when you are pretty enough or accomplished enough or smart enough, then someone will love you? Or have you learned that first you must love yourself, warts and all, before you can actually feel the love of another?

It is, I have discovered, a key part of healing and feeling whole.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Not even my father was safe...

The older I get, the longer she has been dead, the more I am able to see and acknowledge just how terrified I was of my mother.

When you are physically abused, it is easy to point to the bruises and bumps as proof of that abuse…even to yourself. Emotional abuse, being something done covertly and leaving no obvious evidence, can be a lot more difficult to acknowledge.

As far back as I can remember, I was afraid of her. She had a volatile temper, she was spiteful, and she had a mean streak. As a kid, I always thought she enjoyed finding things wrong just so she could punish me. And, being a child and lacking sophistication, I was unaware of the emotional abuse I was getting---I was just too focussed on the physical.

Looking back, I think I believed she had boundaries. She would go out bar-hopping while my father was at his second job in the evenings, but she always cautioned my brother and I not to say anything to my father about it. From a child’s perspective, I believed it was because my father was her authority figure, just as she was mine. And I think I derived a certain amount of security knowing that my father had the authority to control her.

My mother used beatings as a way of venting the anger she always carried around with her. Looking back, I can see my mother was always a brittle, tense woman, always ready to rise to the attack, almost chomping at the bit to get into a fray with someone. She released the constant tension by yelling at me (and occasionally my brother) and by physically striking out. I am still not sure of the mechanism, but the pattern was to find something “wrong,” blame me, yell at me about it, and if I didn’t respond appropriately (and I was never given a head’s up as to what was appropriate this time), give me a beating. And regardless of whether my transgression was great or small, real or trumped up, the beating continued until she purged her rage, at least for the moment.

I was afraid of her, I was afraid of displeasing her, I was afraid to speak to her for fear of saying the wrong thing, being in the wrong mood, or simply being where she didn’t want me to be…but until I was about 8 or 9, I did not fear for my life. I was confident she would not go that far because my father would not let that happen. And then one morning that changed.

I have some big gaps in my memory of my childhood. When I was around eight years old, my father moved out of the family home at my mother’s request and, according to family sources, he was gone for more than six months. This whole part of my life is a complete blank. I don’t remember him moving out, the months he was gone, or him coming back home. Occasionally I get a tantalizing glimpse of something from that period, but before I can grab hold and hang on and ride the memory out into the light of day, it slips away. One recurring little glimpse has to do with my mother’s handbag and this week I was able to squeeze a little more of the memory out of my brain.

I grew up in the 50s and my mother was quite young when I was born…by the time I was 8, she was only 25 and, like a lot of women that age, she was very wrapped up in looking good. She played with hair colour, lipstick colours, and was very big on having the flashiest clothes…her taste was atrocious and she couldn’t tell flashy and trashy from fashionable and trendy. One of the trendy little accoutrements of the period were “box purses,” hard little boxes with handles on them. She had one nearly identical to the one on the right. I remember it clearly because I coveted it—not for myself, mind you, but as luggage for one of my dolls!

The purse was made of a rigid base, pieces of brass-coloured rods welded to the base, and then strips of metal woven through the brass rods to give a basket-effect. The lid was also rigid, and the whole thing had a substantial weight to it.

I got up on a weekend morning, while everyone else was still asleep, and went out to the kitchen for a glass of water. There, on the green tile of the counter-top, sat my mother’s box purse and beside, was a handkerchief…a man’s handkerchief. And it was bloody. Very bloody. This alarmed me…there was also blood on the edge of the purse. I might only have been eight years old, but it was pretty clear that my father had been hit with the purse and it had broken the skin and he used the hankie to stanch the bleeding. I had to use the toilet, which was in the opposite end of the house, so I put down the glass and left the kitchen, pondering what I had seen. I planned to go back to the kitchen and examine everything more closely because it would never do to ask outright…that was the kind of thing my mother would interpret as being nosey or “too big for my britches” and could easily escalate into one of her rage-fuelled beatings. The safest route for me was to gather as much information as possible, figure out what I could, then watch to see how things played out and adjust my deductions accordingly.

I just read that last paragraph back…I was eight years old, for heaven’s sake…what a horrible way for a child to live, afraid to ask her parents questions for fear of a beating, measuring her life not in what was fun and entertaining but in what was safe and the least threatening!

Anyway, I finished my bathroom visit and quietly made my way back to the kitchen…and they were gone! Both the purse and the hanky were gone, as if they had never been there. I remember a chill going down my spine and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach—somebody knew I had been out in the kitchen and if that someone was my mother, I was in mortal danger! If she would hit my father with something as potentially deadly as a metal box with a handle on it, if she would hit the household authority figure hard enough to make him bleed…if she would hit him even though he was bigger and stronger and could fight back and maybe even hurt her…what might she do to me?!?

Petrified, I hurried back to my room, climbed into my bed and curled up into a tiny ball, shaking with fright. I had no idea my mother was that dangerous, that she could even hit Daddy. Not only had she hit him, she hit him with something more lethal than a wooden spoon and she had drawn blood…if she was capable of that with a grown man and the authority figure of the household, what might she do to a puny little kid who had no power at all and wasn’t big enough to fight back?

I did not see my father the entire day. He worked a full day on Saturday, so he was seldom home. We had dinner without him that night…my mother’s favourite opportunity to serve liver because he didn’t like it and she didn’t cook it when he was home for dinner. Pushing a piece of liver around my plate, I decided to test the waters and asked my mother if my father had cut himself shaving that morning. She looked puzzled and said “No, why would you ask that?” I replied with something like I had seen his hanky in the kitchen that morning when I came out to get a drink of water. It had blood all over it and it was on the counter next to her purse.

She stared at me very hard for a moment and while her expression did not change, she became shuttered and guarded and cold…I could feel the hostility emanating from her and suddenly I was afraid. But it was too late…I had spoken and I couldn’t take the words back. All I could do was wait for her to respond. My brother sat between us at the table and watched avidly, like a fan at a sporting event.

“You must have been sleepwalking,” she finally said. “Your father always puts hankies in the wash and I always put my purse on the dresser in my room when I get home.”

She gaslighted me! Of course, at that age I had no idea what gaslighting was but I felt the disbelief and outrage just the same. But I kept my face impassive…the wrong expression could generate “wipe that smile/smirk/look off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you,” from her which was inevitably followed up with a slap (if she was in an unusually good mood) or a whipping with The Strap (a thin leather dog leash from with the metal clip had been removed) if she wasn’t feeling particularly benevolent that day.

“Oh,” I replied. It was the only safe answer. “Okay,” and went back to pushing the piece of liver around my plate.

I knew what I saw. And because she had sneaked out to the kitchen and spirited away the evidence and then she lied to me about it, I was convinced my deductions were correct…why else would she lie to me? And so I sat there, trying to choke down a piece of liver, one of my most un-favourite foods on the planet, trying not to stare at the person I now realized could very easily kill me. She flew into uncontrollable rages and the one person I counted on to be able to control and restrain her and never allow her to go that far had now been shown to be no more capable of protecting himself from her than I was. I was horrified.

I went to bed that night scared. I had to close my bedroom door at night, but I was not allowed to lock it. I was afraid to go to sleep. I was afraid that she knew that I knew and that she would come in during the night, when there were no witnesses, and hurt me. I didn’t think she would murder me in cold blood, but I now feared each “spanking” in a different way: where I had previously been afraid of the pain she inflicted, now I was afraid that she wouldn’t stop until I was dead. The fear this struck into my heart was more devastating than any beating she had given me, more emotionally shattering than all of the indignities and injustices she had heaped on me up to that time: I now had a foretaste as to what kind of potential she had for violence and it was intensely disturbing, especially since I was the person she most regularly took out her rages on.

I never spoke of it again. I forgot about it, quite literally. But every so often I would have a brief snapshot flash in my brain: dim early morning light, green ceramic tiles, a metallic “box purse” sitting on the tile beside a folded white man’s handkerchief, stained with blood…but it would be gone so quickly I could only occasionally grab a tiny bit more of the picture. But today it is back and I am not surprised that I blocked it all these years. I have always known I was afraid of my mother, and I thought I knew why…but this casts a whole new light on it all.

Monday, August 11, 2014

We weren’t all perfect angels…

Sometimes I get comments that I don’t publish. If you make a comment and it doesn’t get published, there are numerous reasons ranging from Gmail didn’t notify me that there was a comment to moderate to I haven’t had computer access...but occasionally I get a comment that is so critical, it doesn’t deserve publication. By critical I don’t mean critical of me or my writing, but critical of us, the ACoNs, the DoNMs, the adult children of narcissists. I get these nasty missives in my email as well.

The comments tend to all have a similar theme…that we are whiners who would do better to get off the internet and make something of ourselves, that we are disloyal to our parents by airing all this dirty linen and should be ashamed of ourselves. Frequently, our detractors opine that we are the architects of our own misery because we were not perfect as children, so we brought the pain upon ourselves; alternatively they point out that nobody is perfect, neither us nor the parents we are holding to an impossible standard. What is a common thread in virtually all of these missives is the clear message that they don’t get it, neither do they want to.

We were children…and we did as children do. Some of us were obsessively good—as good as we knew how to be—and were still found wanting. Some of us were naughty…it is perfectly normal for children to test boundaries and to test them repeatedly. Some of us were very naughty…rebellious and striking back at the parents who abused and/or ignored us. But all of us were treated without respect, without love, without our emotional needs being met.

Some of these messages I receive opine that our parents did what they knew…that they were also abused and they didn’t know any better. I find excusing the abuse of a child this way to be appalling for a couple of simple reasons: they had choices; they had access to information to allow them to make better choices; not all of them were abused as children themselves. In fact studies have shown that of people who abuse their children, 70% of them were not abused themselves.

Children are inconvenient little buggers. You are ensconced in a bubble bath with a glass of wine and a romantic novel when a crash from another part of the house shatters your peace. Upon investigation you find your 5-year-old scurrying back to his bedroom and a smashed cookie jar on the kitchen floor. You have a meeting of critical importance at work today, one that can make or break your career and you rise to a feverish, vomiting child. Your friends want to go out for a few drinks after work…you have to collect your child from the day care by 6 or they charge you a dollar for every minute you are late… Having children can make it very difficult to plan your time, even on a minute-by-minute basis. Some people rise to this challenge…others resent the imposition on their lives.

What our detractors fail to take into account is the fact that people who are ill-treated as children do not deserve that treatment. Even if they are being intentionally naughty, obstreperous, even deliberately oppositional, they do not deserve to be abused either emotionally or physically. And few of us grew up in a vacuum so solid that no enlightenment from the outside was possible.

If you are 50 or older, your parents did not have the internet to help them find parenting information, so the argument that they “did what they knew,” is perhaps most applicable here. But I have a child who will be 50 in a few months and, quite frankly, I haunted the library during my pregnancy with her, looking for books on parenting and devouring them. At a time that I was counting pennies to make sure I had enough money for food for the month, I spent some of my precious coin on the premier child-rearing book of its time, Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, originally published in 1946. If you are 50 or older, your parents had bookstores and libraries to give them new and alternative insights into raising children. And while much of Spock’s advice of that time has been superseded, nowhere in the book do I recall advice to parents that amounts to emotional abuse of their children.

If you were born in the ’70s or ’80s, your parents had not only books and libraries for reference and guidance materials, every supermarket checkout had a plethora of woman- and family-oriented magazines that offered the latest and greatest child-rearing advice. And if you were born after 1990, your parents had all of the resources of previous generations and the internet, too. Unless they were raised in caves far from civilization, your parents had access to information to help them raise their children in kind and loving ways.

The excuse that they “did what they knew” further does not fly because some of these narcissistic parents were raised in functional homes with loving, engaged, involved parents. My own mother’s parents were just normal people who raised a family through the Great Depression and World War II. They did their part for the war: they had a Victory Garden, didn’t try to cheat the rationing system, and my grandmother took a job at the shipyards as a welder. Their sons, as soon as they were old enough, joined the Navy. My mother, on the other hand, was spoilt, resentful of any attempt to control her, and aggrieved by the rationing system because of the limitations it forced upon her: limited amounts of gasoline and car tires, sugar and butter, even silk and nylon because the military needed them for parachutes and other war materiel. Each deprivation she took as a personal affront, and according to my uncle, could trigger a tantrum and sulk in his only sister.

My mother was neither abused nor deprived of emotional sustenance. Indeed, her father tended to spoil her…my grandmother told me that my mother had her father “wrapped around her little finger.” My mother, however, resented every attempt by her father to set boundaries and limits with her and often broke them simply to be spiteful. “Spiteful,” in fact, was a word my uncle used to describe my mother. So, I know of at least one situation in which the abusive narcissist was not raised in a dysfunctional home and deprived of proper parenting herself…and if that one example exists, simple logic dictates that others exist as well.

But suppose your NM was raised in a dysfunctional home: does that excuse her abuses? Of course not. WE were raised in dysfunctional homes—didn’t our parents have the same opportunities to better themselves that we do? OK, maybe they didn’t have the internet, but they had libraries and books and family and friends and even therapists were available…why do we take advantage of the resources available to us and they did not? Because we are focussed not only on healing ourselves but on the well-being of our children as well. They, on the other hand, were interested only in themselves.

Those people who write to me and disparage the people who read here and make negative comments about their life situations simply don’t get it. I suspect a number of them are, themselves, narcissists who are defending their own ilk and blaming the victims. We, the ACoNs and DoNMs, had no less right to be reared with love and kindness and attention to our needs than any other child. That we had the misfortune to be born to a narcissistic parent, however, deprived us of that right and had an essentially deleterious effect on our emotional development. Whether outsiders recognize it or not, whether they accept it or not, children who are raised by emotionally disengaged and predatory parents are being abused by those parents, and that abuse will manifest itself in many different ways. Blaming the victims of these people will not help them to heal, nor will making excuses for the parents.

If you read anything on these pages and find yourself thinking “oh, stop whinging and pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” you are demonstrating a lack of empathy and compassion…and means that you are part of the problem, not part of the solution. This blog aims to be part of the solution by offering the victims of narcissistic parents insights and stories to which they can relate and, in doing so, find themselves less isolated and more hopeful. And comments from detractors, people who have no care for the pain these people have suffered at the hands of those who should love them more than anyone else in the world, will not be published.