Have you ever wondered why you and your feelings always seem to be the lowest priority, why you are always the one who has to give in or give over in order to spare the feelings of someone else? Why others don’t seem to be expected to spare your feelings, but you are expected to spare theirs? I have never seen this addressed before, in any of the articles I have read, in any of the conversations I have had, in any of my many exhausting therapy sessions.
In passing, I have heard people ask “Why am I always the one who has to give way?” but it always comes across as rhetorical, not a real question begging for a real answer. But for those of us who grew up under the thumb of a personality-disordered parent, the question is very real, the dynamic anything but balanced and just.
I once was asked by a therapist, in reference to my narcissistic then-husband, “If you are looking out for him and he is looking out for him…who is looking out for you?” As a person raised and trained by a narcissistic mother, I was groomed to put myself last on anybody’s list or priorities, virtually guaranteeing that my needs would never be addressed…and, not knowing any better for many, many years, this is exactly how I lived. I believed I had to justify every purchase, every need. I didn’t seek medical attention unless I was debilitated by the problem, I didn’t buy new clothes or shoes from quality retailers, but bought from the cheapest stores and even then, felt I had to justify my purchases. Every once in a while I would splash out on something costly…like my sports car…but then I felt like I had to justify my expense by driving it for fifteen years (and thereby saving the cost of buying another car). For the most part, I set myself at the end of the priority list and actually felt grateful for the crumbs that fell from the banquet from which everyone around me was partaking.
A reader made a comment some weeks ago and in it she asked why she was always the one who had to give way to the narcissist or the Golden Child. It struck a chord with me, as I instantly related to the question. And I have a strong sense that this reader and I not are the only people who deal with this…in fact, I have a sense that it is pretty much universal for those of us who have to deal with narcissists.
What is peculiar, however, is not that it is the narcissist who demands this from us, but the other people around us. Well-meaning family members who would never consciously wish to harm or humiliate us, expect us to give in to the narcissist for the sake of family peace, to end a rift, to mollify the indignant and bristling N in their midst. And I have to wonder…why did my grandmother expect me to set aside my animosity after my mother stole my children, told them a pack of hurtful lies about me, and then left me twisting in the wind for eight years, wondering where they were, if they were dead or alive, if they were ok or not? Why didn’t my grandmother seek to restore family harmony by asking my mother to apologize to me and tell the truth to my children? Why was I the one who had to give up a toy to my destructive little brother? Why were my howls of outrage met with a beating and his were met with the demand that I give up whatever it was I was withholding from him, even if the item belonged to me?
But it wasn’t just my NM or my NexH who had this expectation of me. Other people, both inside and outside the family, seemed to have this expectation as well. I kept waiting for it to be my turn to hear, “…don’t be so selfish, it will hurt Violet’s feelings…” but the words never came. Violet’s feelings, it seemed, didn’t need to be spared. Growing up, I knew that I was the one who had to give way…and so did everyone else in the family. I can remember my cousin, a girl my age who I saw only during the summers, threatening me with “I’ll tell Nana,” if I didn’t give her what she wanted. If I told our grandmother about her threat, that would be “tattling,” something my NM had beaten into me as being unacceptable. So there I was, stuck with only three choices: 1) tell Nana and be branded a tattler, 2) refuse to give my cousin what she wanted, in which case she would tell Nana, branding me as selfish (also forbidden), or 3) giving in. I was always, always giving in because that, it seems, was the role assigned to me.
When I was in my early teens my mother arranged a “date” between me and the son of her best friend. They thought it was cute, me dressed in my Sunday best in the backseat with my GC brother and my “date” as the two mothers sat in the front and drove us home from a matinee. The problem was, I already knew this boy and I considered him to be gross. He was at that gangly stage, grown nearly to the size of a man, but not yet able to coordinate those big, ungainly limbs. He was rather crude and didn’t even approach my standards of attractive. For one thing, he had big rubbery lips that always looked wet which I most definitely perceived as gag-worthy. He engulfed my hand in his huge paw, and when I snatched it back, he ignored my wishes and grabbed my hand again. As the mothers tittered in the front seat, he suddenly kissed me, his wet rubbery mouth engulfing my lips and applying considerable suction, which absolutely repelled me. I tried to push him away (I couldn’t make a sound with his mouth covering mine) and instead of letting me go, he then stuck his tongue in my mouth! I found this positively revolting and, when he would not let me pull away and break the kiss, I bit his tongue. Hard. He stopped…and he howled.
Do you think either mother scolded Greg for the intrusion into my sovereign space? Nope…I got nailed for biting him! For being “ungracious”! For upsetting Greg’s mother and hurting Greg’ feelings. What did I think was going to happen, I was asked…I was surrounded by people…his mother, my mother, my kid brother…he wasn’t going to rape me (I didn’t even know what rape was at that time). Apparently I was supposed to acquiesce to his crude, fumbling attempts at wooing, under the watchful eye of our mothers and my brother, and be grateful for his attentions. Nobody…nobody…cared one iota about how I felt.
I look back on my life and it is full this. After my mother told the family a heap of horrible lies about me, lies so bad that they turned their back on me when she stole my children and gave them up to another family member for adoption, when the truth came out and, after eight years I got my kids back, the family still expected me to hold out the olive branch. Did anyone say to her “Georgia, you did a terrible thing to Violet—the least you owe her is an apology”? No…but my grandmother, who was the one who finally broke the silence and told me where my children were…asked me to “bury the hatchet” with my mother for “the sake of family harmony.”
Why is it the victim is always pressed to “forgive” but nobody seems to be pressing the perpetrator to make amends and stop behaving like a predator? Is there some perceived ennobling of a person who has been victimized, making her one who is expected to take the high road and “make nice” with the very people who victimized her? It rather reminds me of the rape culture that has been making the news lately: girls are being taught how to not get raped, but who is taking the boys aside and saying “don’t rape…we’ll punish you severely for it!”? Nobody is telling male freshman college students at orientation to refrain from sexually predatory behaviour and, when they get caught doing it, too often it is brushed off as “boys will be boys” behaviour and a vocal victim, if she’s lucky, just shunted aside. Unlucky ones get further traumatized by being censured for attempting to ruin the future of a "promising young man"…who is castigating the campus rapists for ruining the future of a promising young woman?
I am at a loss to explain a social structure…either in microcosm, like that of a family, or in macrocosm, like the greater society…that demands a victim be careful of the reputation and feelings of her abuser. Whether the expectation is that the victim keep silent about a raping fellow student or an abusing parent, it is wrong. Abusers of every ilk fear the truth and only by speaking that truth do the abused have any chance of ending the abuse, not only for themselves but for others who are current or potential victims.
When someone is being abused, sometimes that person has safety issues…even life-threatening issues…that keeps her silent. But once that person feels safe enough to speak out and name the abuse and name the abuser, why do so many of us feel compelled to shut her up? I once had a letter from a reader who said that her father admonished her to “not provoke” her mother…why did he not tell her mother to stop abusing their child? My step-father, for all that he was a child-molesting sleaze, at least would stop my mother in mid-tirade when she was on a tear with me. Of course he did it for selfish reasons—her screaming at me was drowning out his TV in our tiny one bedroom apartment—but he wasn’t afraid to tell her to “shut up and leave the kid alone.” And he never had the audacity to suggest that I debase myself to her and seek a less fraught relationship. But he did step in, which is more than a lot of people seem to be willing to do.
The perception that the onus is on the victim to “make nice” with her abuser is just senseless. Not only does it fail to support a person who has already been wronged, it sends a message to the abuser that he will not be held accountable…and an abuser who knows no one will hold him to account for his misdeeds is a person with no incentive to stop abusing (if he had the conscience and ethics to stop without an external threat of punishment, he wouldn’t have abused in the first place). Expecting a victim to tread lightly in the face of her abuser is simply adding to the abuse: it passively supports the abuser by not calling the abuser to account.
I never understood people who asked me “what did you do to provoke her?” after my mother beat me black and blue. What transgression can a small child commit that warrants a violent beating? (I am no longer going to minimize what she did and call them “spankings”…I don’t think I was ever spanked in my life because what I got were beatings.) And I further didn’t understand why I was last in line for everything…from new shoes to eye glasses to dental care…I got them only when the situation was urgent, and even then I got verbally abused for needing them, as if I had intentionally contrived to need them. My mother had her own agenda when she stole my children: she had an adored younger brother who was childless and who had not passed the home study for adoption—and she took my children from me and gave them to him with no more thought for my feelings than taking a kitten from its mother and giving it away. And yet, years later and with no apology or acknowledgement of wrong doing from her, I was expected to “bury the hatchet” with her for the sake of “family peace.”
Why didn’t someone ask her to make amends with me for the sake of family peace? Why was I always the one who had to make the sacrifices for the “greater good”? Who was looking out for me and for my feelings? Why did my mother’s feelings matter more than mine…or even those of my children? And why is it, when there is a narcissist in the family, the sensibilities of that narcissist come before anything else? How many times have you heard someone who has absolutely dreadful parents say they feel “guilty” about their lack of contact (or even contemplating going low or no contact)? How many times have you heard these same people recoil at the suggestion that they keeps their kids away, saying something like “Oh, I couldn’t deprive them of their grandchildren…” Or, “that might hurt her feelings” when responding to a suggestion to stop the abuse. Why is it that we are expected to submit to the abuse and they are not expected to stop abusing?
My therapist was really on to something. Who was looking out for me when both my NexH and I were looking out for him? Nobody, that’s who. He neglected and abused me…and so did I. Carefully groomed by a narcissistic mother to put myself last, I was the perfect foil for a narcissistic husband. And when I put myself so far last that I felt almost invisible, I became suicidally depressed…and even that was ok with him, as long as he had clean laundry, food purchased and prepared, and I was available for sex. As long as his needs were met, nothing else mattered.
Nobody was looking out for me, including me. And I set a poor example for my kids, giving them not only a narcissistic stepfather as a role model, but providing them with a perfect example, in the form of on-going tableaux, of how the other person in a relationship with a narcissist should behave. We demonstrated the crushing of my occasional rebellions, we demonstrated the power of towering rage, and we demonstrated the proper driven-by-fear scrambling to make everything perfect for the narcissist, the anticipation of his every need, the excusing of his selfishness and redoubled efforts to please in order to keep the peace.
And there is the answer…if your goal is peace within the family, then you can’t approach a narcissist for it. The narcissist, the abuser, the perpetrator, is not open to making admissions of guilt and requests for absolution. Rigidly and inflexibly self-serving, the narcissist is not interested in family peace, only in advantaging himself. Approaching a narcissist to attempt to solicit a behaviour that will create peace with one of the narcissist’s victims is a guaranteed way to spark a negative reaction because it implies the narcissist was wrong…and we all know that no narcissist will ever acknowledge that, let alone make a heartfelt apology. No, the person to approach is the victim…appeal to her better instincts, tell her she must be a better person and “take the high road,” to let “bygones be bygones.” And, if the victim has empathy for others, once she is made aware that the well-being of the family hangs in the balance, she will be the one to capitulate, to let go of (or suppress) her feelings of anger and hurt, not only with respect to the initial injury, but with respect to the expectation that she be the one to make nice.
The problem with this is that it encourages the narcissist. It confirms to him that his behaviour and attitude were right all along…and so it encourages even more of it. The victim is put in the position of allowing an internecine conflict to continue or to throw herself into the breach, sacrificing her own emotional well-being in order to preserve “peace” in a dysfunctional family. That she is expected to do so by more than just the narcissist is telling…it demonstrates just how toxic the entire FOO is when it demands sacrifices of the victims rather than banding together to protect the victim from the abusing narcissist.
So what do you do? As always, it depends on the situation: the news is full of stories of dead people—particularly women—who stood up to their abusers and who died at the abuser’s hands. For most of us, though, the situation is not that dire…but it requires us to choose between ourselves…taking care of ourselves…and the people who abuse us and their supporters. And that, after being raised and groomed by narcissistic parent, can be surprisingly difficult to do.