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.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Correction or Punishment? How to stop the guilt

Were you corrected as a child? Or were you punished? Did you know there is a world of difference between the two?

My mother punished. No matter what the issue was, her reaction was to punish and she seldom corrected. My father, on the other hand, corrected and only rarely punished. Was it any surprise that I preferred him over her?

It can be difficult to tell one from the other sometimes…and to further complicate matters, some people mask punishing, critical behaviour as correction. If your mother says “The fork goes on the left, dear,” in a tone of voice that is merely informative, she is correcting; when she says “How many times have I told you that the fork goes on the left? What is the matter with you that you can’t seem to remember that one simple fact?” she is being punitive.

As we grow up, we internalize the things we learn from our parents. This is a normal process. We absorb their values, often their viewpoints, and frequently their beliefs and attitudes. Depending on who your parents are, what they are like, and how they view you, this can be a good thing…and it can also be devastatingly unhealthy. As children, however, we seldom have the acumen to determine what of our parents’ legacy is healthy and what is not and, all too often, we just absorb it all.

Interestingly, we may have a conscious awareness of one or both of our parents being emotionally unhealthy and consciously reject their values. “I’ll never treat my kids that way!” or “I do the opposite of what my mother did!” are things I read regularly, always said with pride and confidence that they have broken the cycle and are providing their children with a healthier legacy. But have they broken they cycle or have they just put their own spin on it? Are they providing their children with a healthier legacy or are they simply providing a differently dysfunctional life?

First of all, it you choose to do something that is the opposite of what someone else is doing and you make that choice because it is the opposite of the other person, you are not taking the independent stand you think you are. That other person is controlling you just as surely as if she browbeat you into following her lead. To make a truly independent choice you must analyse the behaviour you wish to avoid as well as the behaviour you are contemplating as a substitute and come up with an honest assessment of both, then choose the healthiest option or combination of options. If your mother maintained rigid control over your time, your activities, your comings and goings and you decide, as a mother, your children will be given complete freedom, you are being controlled by your mother just as surely as if you were duplicating her household rules. Why? Because your decision wasn’t made on the basis of what is best for your children, what each of them need individually, and the knowledge that children need limits and boundaries, it is based on you and your feelings about your mother. A decision to be like your mother or unlike her is still based on her and her behaviour, not on you and who and what you want to make of your life.

This an important thing to bear in mind because, as we internalize our parents’ values, they become a part of our own values and beliefs. Guilt comes about when we believe we have done something wrong. If we accept the values of other people rather than do the emotional and intellectual work of creating our own, then we do something that is contrary to the values of those other people, we feel guilty even if we really have done nothing wrong. Guilt is a punishment we give ourselves for doing something we have been taught to believe is wrong, even if the behaviour we feel guilty about is, objectively speaking, not wrong at all and may be, in fact, a good, healthy behaviour.

I seldom feel guilt. That may sound like a very narcissistic thing to say because narcissists are notorious for not feeling guilt, but they manage that by rationalizing or justifying their behaviour, by blaming others, by not taking responsibility for their misdeeds. I seldom feel guilt because I have spent a lot of time thinking about and sorting out the many mixed messages I got from the Ns in my life and comparing them to healthier attitudes from other sources and then choosing my beliefs. Along the way I gave up religion and embraced humanism, I gave up believing other people should behave according to my values and began to open myself to the idea that others have the same right of choice and self-determination that I embraced, even if their outcome is anathema to me.

Along the way to this, I discovered something: when not paying attention to my thoughts, I can make scathingly negative judgments of other people…something I absorbed from my mother. And most of the time these judgments are very shallow…based on a person’s looks or dress, for example. I believe it is wrong of me to engage in these judgments, and so when I catch myself doing it…

Do I punish myself with guilt? Absolutely not. Guilt is unequivocally unproductive. It doesn’t stop me from doing it again, it doesn’t teach me anything, it has no positive value in my life whatsoever. What do I do? I do not punish myself, I correct myself. I did it this morning, as I stepped into the shower. I had been reading an article about Kesha, who had recently had a lawsuit decided against her and in favour of a man who she claims raped and coerced her with respect to a recording contract. My initial reaction to this was to think something unkind, based on how she presents herself professionally (“slut chic”). But before the thought was fully formed my conscious mind stepped in with “That’s an unkind thought about someone you don’t know. You’ve decided you aren’t going to do that anymore.”

Did I feel ashamed of myself? Nope. I know where this comes from…I learned it from my mother. I also know that I am taking steps to fix it: each time I catch myself doing it, I stop myself and remind myself that this is not the person I want to be. Rather than be ashamed of my occasional relapses, I feel a sense of pride in my achievements, in my ability to stop myself from cruelly judging the character of a person by their physical appearance, and the fact that I am catching myself earlier and earlier in the “train-of-ugly-thought” each time.

The important thing to take away from this is that when I punished myself with guilt, I did not improve. I did something bad, I punished myself, it was over. Correction, by contrast, requires more than that: it requires action that leads to improvement. I catch myself doing something I believe is wrong, I stop myself. I remind myself to not do this thing, it doesn’t lead to who I want to be. If it has gone so far that I have actually hurt someone with my behaviour or words, I make a sincere apology and part of my amends is the self-correction…the on-going effort to rid myself of the behaviour. Guilt does nothing but punish and once you feel sufficiently punished, you are free to re-offend. Correction demands a change in attitude, in belief, and in behaviour.

So how do you bring an end to your guilt? It is important to realize there are two kinds of guilt: warranted and unwarranted. The second type comes from adopting the beliefs of other people and it leads to feelings of guilt even when you have done nothing wrong. You stop this kind of guilt by taking the time and making the effort to analyse your feeling of guilt and tracing it back to the source. When you find the source is a belief that someone gave you rather than a belief you have freely chosen for yourself, then you choose a new belief to substitute for the old one. If you later find yourself feeling guilty over the same issue, then you correct yourself “I no longer believe that I am a bad daughter because I do not drop everything and run when my mother calls. I know now that as an independent adult I have the right to choose when I see my mother and she has no rights over me or my time. She is the person in the wrong, not me.”

The first type of guilt, warranted, comes when you have violated you own values and ethics. Depending on what you have done, it may require an apology to another person, and making that apology, whether it is accepted or not, will help relieve your guilt. But to be free of it, you must correct yourself…especially if guilt is refusing to depart…reminding yourself that guilt is unproductive, that only by taking corrective action can you change yourself so that such an event does not occur again.

Kesha has no idea that I was thinking unkind thoughts about her this morning but I know I was and I won’t be doing it again. I know I might catch myself thinking unkind things about someone in the supermarket based on her hair or the shortness of her skirt or the tightness of her pants…but I know that today I catch myself only a few seconds into the thought and a couple of years ago I wouldn’t even realize I was doing it until I contemplated saying something to my husband and realized his response would be “Meow!”

So I am proud of my progress and look forward to the day that such thoughts are rejected by my mind before they even reach my consciousness. Correction ultimately fixes things. Punishment by guilt does not.

Friday, February 19, 2016

You Have the Power

As a child I was not allowed to say “no” to an adult. Any adult. My child’s mind extrapolated that to authority figures in general so by the time I became an adult myself, authority figures were people to be feared, to obey, or to find ways to get around, to do what I wanted without getting caught.

This is a dangerous thing to teach a child, that s/he cannot say “no” and must accept whatever is handed off to them by adults. I was not allowed to have my own taste in clothes, to choose my own hairstyle or shoes. When I said I disliked someone or something, I was corrected: “Of course you like your cousin Sherry,” or “You know you like buttermilk…” Because I was fortunate enough to spend a year with my father and his wife, who were considerably more permissive when it came to such things as personal tastes and likes and dislikes, by age 16 I had developed a sense of style and taste of my own (which was, in hindsight, considerably more mature and sophisticated than my mother’s). At my father’s house I began the transition from child to adult, got into the individuation stage of development, then went back to my mother’s where it was abruptly halted. Oh, she didn’t regress me back to little-girl dresses and hairy legs, but further individuation was halted on the spot.

Emotionally, I remained the child who expected to get approval or permission for everything, even to take a shower (because the bathroom would be inaccessible to others while I was in there). I could not eat a snack without permission, could not take a phone call without consent, leave the property without approval. If I had opinions that differed from hers, I had to keep them to myself and not even let them show in my expression: no eye rolling or pursed lips or heavy sighs. These were offenses against her dignity that warranted a smart slap across the face in retaliation.

And so my self-image remained that of a child, a repressed and stultified child who was not permitted to have an independent thought or belief or opinion. If my mother said I was bad, I was bad, regardless of my intent or my feelings or my logic. If my mother said I was lazy, I saw myself as lazy and either tried to change her opinion by frenziedly doing things to repudiate the lazy label or despondently live down to it. If I talked, I talked too much; if I didn’t talk, I was hiding something: there was no happy medium in anything. Ever.

By the time I was out on my own this was entrenched in me. I was what other people believed me to be. If a man found me sexy, I felt sexy. If a man found me repulsive, I felt repulsive. If my co-workers thought I was bossy, then I felt guilty for being bossy and backed off, only to be told by the boss I wasn’t carrying my weight, for which I felt more guilt as well. I was a mirror of what other people saw or believed or thought about me. The only thing I had that was truly mine was my sense of style and taste, developed during that one precious year with my father and step-mother. Add to that the fact that I grew up in the 50s and early 60s when girls could not take auto shop, get into Ivy League schools like Yale or Harvard…or even West Point…women could not get credit on their own and college scholarships for girls were so rare as to be unheard of, I became an adult woman who was a chameleon…whoever or whatever the authority figures around me thought I should be.

This included the adults in my family. Even though I was out of the house and living on my own, I was still viewed as the black sheep, the trouble maker, the incorrigible. At first I complied and behaved as expected, going from bad to worse to downright unresurrectable. Drugs, alcohol, men, jail, bikers, druggies, marginal living—even homelessness, crashing on friends’ couches or family rooms, sleeping on floors…wherever I could find a place out of the open to sleep.

Eventually I opened my eyes and realized that I didn’t have to be what they created me to be. I woke up one morning and decided I wouldn’t be that any more. I refused to accept the labels they put on me. I had long ago acknowledged my victimhood but I had never done anything about it. I was angry…enraged, actually…but I had never used that rage to fuel a revival of my Self, to create the impetus needed to overcome not only their ugly labels but the damage I had done to myself over a decade of being who they said I was.

It was not an easy transition and I had many relapses along the way. I married a man who, on the surface, was patient, loving and kind, only to find out shortly after the wedding he was my abusive, narcissistic mother with a penis. But I, still in the throes of the values and internalized messages of my childhood, believed the issues in the marriage were my fault…I was taught that anything wrong was my fault…and that it was therefore up to me to change things—including him—to make it work. It took more than a decade, but I crashed and burned. He got worse…so did I…until the day I was ready to use the Smith & Wesson revolver I had secretly purchased and had hidden under my bed. On myself. I had failed suicide attempts but the third time was going to be the charm that liberated me from the hole of despair that filled my entire being.

One of those last minute epiphanies saved me and I went into therapy. This time the changes I made were accompanied with insights, insights that changed what I believed, how I thought, what I saw when I looked in the mirror. My therapist just pointed out to me things I had not seen before, refused to let me sink back into denial, held my hand while I climbed out of the pit of despondency in which I had lived most of my life.

But I was the one who made the changes, who discovered that the power to make those changes had been within me all along. I had fallen for the blandishments of my abusers who convinced me that I didn’t have it, that the power over my life belonged to them and any power I felt was wrong and had to be subordinated to theirs. They lied: it was their job to help me learn to harness that power and use it to make a successful and happy life. Instead they usurped it and used it to make me feel powerless and themselves powerful and superior.

You have that power within you as well. We all do. We can piss it away in rebellious behaviour, we can drown it in substance abuse and self-pity, we can shun it through learned helplessness, but it is still there, waiting for us to lay both hands on it and put it to good use, making ourselves strong and independent, making ourselves successful human beings.

But nobody can do it for you. It is your journey and only you can walk it. If you depend on others to make you feel loved, to feel accepted, to feel “good enough,” you have given them your power. You have to take it back and from some people you will have to wrest it away from them because the only power they feel is the power they have over you. To take it away will make them feel powerless, adrift: only by wielding your power over you, by turning you into a puppet whose feelings and emotions they control, can they feel powerful. There is nothing in the rules of life that says you must sacrifice your power and your life so that someone else can have two…hers and yours. Look within yourself for rescue because the face of your greatest champion is the face that looks back at you from the mirror.

Nobody will love you or take care of you better than you love and take care of yourself. You are your own hero.