As the children of narcissists, we are all familiar with that awful nagging feeling of guilt. If you were indoctrinated as a child by a narcissistic parent, you know not only the feeling of guilt for your behaviour, but guilt for just thinking about doing something the N won’t like and later, guilt that continues long after the deed is done—even if amends have been made.
One of the most powerful weapons a narcissistic parent wields is that of guilt—but for it to work, we have to be complicit.
What is guilt?
Guilt is part of your conscience. Its purpose is to keep you on the straight and narrow. If you are contemplating doing something wrong, your conscience will send you a little pang of guilt to give you a taste what you are going to get if you go ahead and do it. Then, if you go ahead and do it anyway, your conscience sends you more guilt to punish you and to motivate you to fix whatever it was you damaged with your wrongdoing.
In a person with a healthy psyche, someone who grew up in an emotionally healthy environment, this works exceedingly well. It is part of our internalization of morality, and occurs gradually as we mature, moving from external controls on our behaviour to internal. We grow into moral beings and do what is right for no other reason than it is right, not because we fear consequences or expect reward: this is normal, healthy guilt.
Unfortunately for ACoNs, we may internalize the morality but, because we learn that morality from narcissistic parents, it may be strikingly different from the morality learned by others who had more normal, emotionally balanced role models. A normal parent will encourage their children to strike out on their own when the time for separation from the family draws near. They will facilitate individuation, encourage kids to make their own decisions, move into their own quarters, contribute when help is needed and solicited, and generally behave like an adult. Such parents will try to keep their own separation anxiety at bay—or at least hidden—lest it check the child’s forward impetus. Good parents, appropriate, functional, emotionally healthy parents, want to see their chicks successfully fly. Narcissistic parents, on the other hand, often want to keep them tied to the nest with fear, obligation and guilt.
It is easy to see how an engulfing or enmeshing parent binds their children to them with overwhelming contact, expectations, and demands. But even ignoring parents prompt guilt from their marginalised offspring, especially if there are other children in the family who are not ignored and scapegoated. These ignored children often grow up feeling inadequate, that they were somehow defective, and feel responsible for the treatment they receive from their dysfunctional parent. They feel stupid and further inadequate that they have been unable to figure out what is wrong and fix it so their parent can acknowledge and love them like their siblings. This makes them feel guilty—their sense of inadequacy, their apparent inability to live up to the unspoken expectations of their narcissist parents, makes them feel guilty for falling short of the mark—a mark they have not yet been able to see but is obviously there and, based on the observed acceptance of the siblings, attainable. This guilt is toxic guilt: it is guilt that does not come from real wrong doing, it comes from the manipulation of your conscience to see wrong doing—on your part only—when, in fact, you are not committing any wrongs at all. It is a tool, implanted into your psyche early in your life, to give your N a way to easily control you in the future.
How it works
Narcissistic parents raise their children to believe they are wrong about anything that is contrary to the family party line. If mother turns little Nell into a household servant, Nell is wrong to object because of all of the sacrifices her Mum has made for her—twelve days of labour and a gazillion stitches to produce a gargantuan infant who cried all of the time and wouldn’t let Mummy sleep or have a life. But Mummy put up with it and bowed to the overwhelming demands of the infant Nell and for that Nell owes Mum—and she owes her bigtime!
The price is never finite nor does it have an expiry date: the fact of being born makes Nell beholden to her mother for the rest of her days. The specifics may be different for each NParent and SG Child dyad, but the outcome is the same: the child becomes Fearful of the loss of the parent upon whom they continue to depend emotionally (and sometimes economically) long past the time they should have individuated and struck out on their own. The child feels a deep sense of Obligation to the NParent that goes beyond any logic or tit-for-tat accounting. That obligation becomes an ingrained part of the child’s belief and value systems—she owes her parent for her very existence, as well as any investment the parent has made (food, clothing, shelter, lessons, etc.)—and the parent, being the authority figure, gets to determine how—and for how long—that obligation will be repaid. To keep the child producing the desired product—Nsupply in whatever form the NParent wants it—there is Guilt. Whenever the child appears to be contemplating disobeying a parental command, guilt is the weapon that will whip her back into line.
Because guilt hurts. It is a very uncomfortable emotion that literally makes us squirm. People who lack a conscience do not have to deal with guilt: they rationalize and justify it away. But people who seek to avoid feeling guilty because of the discomfiting nature of it, do whatever they can to keep it at bay. Narcissists know this but they do not share it, so they can shamelessly manipulate others with no sense of guilt on their part, and they manipulate you by inducing guilt.
As we get older, we internalize the values our parents taught us, good and bad. So if your NParent heaped guilt and punishment on you for violating their self-serving demands, over time you will absorb that; you will come to believe that they are owed your fealty, that your proper role in life is to sacrifice yourself for them, to care for them even at the expense of your own life and other relationships. Their wants are needs that surpass your duty to all others, including your spouse and children.
Once you have been successfully indoctrinated, you may take on these values yourself. Some of us will pass these values and beliefs and expectations down to our own children, while others of us will recognise that something indefinable is wrong and treat our own children differently, all the while submitting to our Ns ourselves.
You control yourself for them
When you reach the point of internalizing the values of the N, when you have come to believe that you are bad or wrong to not want to continue to cater to them like a servant, when you reach the point that you not only believe but act on those beliefs, you have been overtaken by and are trapped in the F.O.G. (http://narcissistschild.blogspot.co.za/2017/02/trapped-in-f-o-g.html). Your Ns no longer need to apply manipulation techniques to control you and get you to do their bidding, your own psyche, so well trained by them, does it for them. They express a desire and you provide it, despite inconvenience, cost, or even detriment to your marriage and family. You become the taskmaster and they need to step in and provide you with a refresher only when you show signs of coming out of the F.O.G. and thinking rationally about the situation. But as long as you independently capitulate to their wishes, be the person they want you to be, all is good—for them.
But all is not so good with us. We are caught in a vise, squeezed from both sides—our sense of obligation to our NParents vs our yearning for the freedom to plot our own course without being interrupted, side-lined, or co-opted by the parents we should have outgrown years before. We feel anxious but don’t know why. We have glimpses of dreams in which we are fully autonomous, able to go and do and think and say whatever we want without guilt suffocating us and pushing back to where we are—but don’t want to be. Guilt controls us and, because we don’t like the feeling of guilt—it brings up mental images of abandonment which are terrifying—we do whatever is necessary to send the guilt back to its lair, waiting for the next time we have an independent or “disloyal” thought. People who seek to avoid feeling guilty because of the discomfiting nature of it, do whatever they can to keep it at bay—and if that means catering to the giant maw of need that is our NParent, that is what we do.
If we are conscious of what we are doing, we might feel bad about giving the short-shrift to our children or spouse in favour of our ravenous NParents but that won’t stop us, it only adds to our guilt. Often, however, we are not conscious of how our own families are sacrificed to the demands of the narcissists in our lives, sacrifices made solely because we are stuck in that F.O.G and we feel compelled to protect ourselves from the overwhelming guilt that comes with resisting the N’s demands.
If we have the audacity to open our eyes and we screw up the courage to resist the toxic guilt, our Ns are ready to drag us back into our roles through manipulation and heavy-duty guilt tripping. They send in flying monkeys to reproach us and turn up the guilt in an effort to push us into reassuming our roles as NSuppliers; they instigate smear campaigns to shame us to people outside the family circle in order to recruit them into contacting us with further reproach—toxic guilt is the hammer with which they attempt to beat us back into the narrow confines of the role defined for us by our Ns, that of their personal source of unlimited NSupply.
They can’t succeed without your help
Like it or not, believe it or not, if your NParent successfully manipulates you with toxic guilt, you are complicit in your victimization. Why? Because as long as you are willing to avoid feeling guilty by doing their bidding, you are allowing them to manipulate you. You do have the option of saying “no” and refusing to be manipulated, but like anything else in this life, it is going to have consequences. In acceding to their wishes, you avoid the consequence of feeling guilty by allowing yourself to be emotionally enslaved; by resisting their wishes you invite the consequence of feeling guilty—either way, you will have an unpleasant consequence to deal with.
Guilt, especially toxic guilt, is an ugly, painful thing. It makes us feel ashamed, even humiliated. It can even feel physical, with unsettled stomach, shortness of breath, muscle tension, sweating, and a general feeling of revulsion—it is understandable that we would want to avoid those feelings, to not have toxic guilt rattling around our brains and generating the anxiety symptoms in our bodies. The easiest way to avoid them is to capitulate to your N’s expectations, no matter how outrageous, self-serving and disruptive to your life those expectations may be. It works—but only until the next time.
The other way to avoid the toxic guilt is to confront it. Deconstruct it. Take it apart, examine it, and come to your own conclusions. Do you really, truly owe your N a lifetime of licking their boots? At what point does your child’s obligation to you end? Did your obligation to your NParents end at that time? Why not? By deconstructing toxic guilt, by examining it minutely and finding and keeping only the kernel of healthy guilt that the toxic guilt was built upon, you free yourself from toxic guilt—and from the manipulations and machinations of your Ns.
Will that stop them from trying to manipulate you? No. Will it stop the flying monkeys from pursuing you? No again. It will not change anybody but you. It may have a knock-on effect of improving your relationship with your husband and kids—and it may not. In fact, if your husband or kids are on your NM’s Flying Monkey roster, it may make things worse as you step out of the F.O.G. and they stay tightly wrapped in it.
So why do it? Well, if you are truly happy as you are, if being manipulated by NParents and doing their bidding and devoting your life to them and theirs really thrills you to your toes, then I can’t think of a reason for you to change your current situation. But if the manipulation and the drama and the expectations that you live your life as an extension of theirs has worn thin, then perhaps it is time to give the devil you don’t know a chance. You already know what the next 10, 20, even 50 years are going to be like if you stick with the status quo and if that doesn’t make your toes curl with happy anticipation, your only alternative is to make a change and not let the Ns control you anymore.
They can’t do it without your cooperation, and you are under no obligation to give it.