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, July 31, 2017

Paying it forward

I can’t tell you how tickled I was when the movie “Pay it Forward” came out in 2000. I was even more pleased, after seeing the movie, to note that it was true to the concept, thereby exposing thousands of other people to the idea.
Why was I so excited about this? Because it was a concept that was dear to my heart, something I tried to practice in the years after therapy, to the extent that I could—being financially marginal, especially after the death of my husband, made it difficult for me to throw money at people without expecting it back, but I found other ways to do it.
Googling the idea one day, I was surprised to learn that it was neither a new concept nor was it particularly original. It was a key element in a 317BC Athenian play, Dyskolos (The Grouch) by a fellow named Menader, and it has shown up in writings by Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was surprised to learn the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein incorporated the concept into many of his books. And although I am not ordinarily a scifi fan, I do like Heinlein so that is most likely where the concept seeped into my own consciousness.
What is paying it forward? Simply stated, it is returning a favour not by paying back the person who did you the initial favour but doing the same (or another) favour for someone else, admonishing him to repay you in the same manner—by paying it forward to another person in need. It is, I think, one of the simplest and least costly means of spreading good will and countering the selfishness of the narcissism that is beginning to overwhelm our society.
I receive many thanks from people for the blog and the Facebook group but the truth is, both are my way of paying forward help given to me by others. One of the great things about paying a kindness forward is that it doesn’t have to be a one-time thing—you can make paying it forward a part of your everyday life. No matter how poor you are, smiles and kind words cost nothing. When you buy that next burger at McDonald’s, just how costly is it to buy a second one and give it to the guy on the corner who doesn’t even have a roof over his head? My father once told me “Courtesy is contagious—spread it around!” You can do that by holding back to let another guy merge into traffic or change lanes, by smiling at people who frown at you, and by small and seemingly insignificant acts like thanking your server for their attention to your order. Paying it forward doesn’t have to be huge or expensive or time-consuming acts, it only has to be kindnesses you have received from others passed on to someone else.
You haven’t received any kindnesses? Then you can be the place to start. If the people around you become accustomed to you having a generous nature, it may inspire them to adopt one as well. Yes, there are narcissists in your life who wouldn’t pay something forward if their lives depended on it, but it is your choice if you assume their wretched visage or turn it around and spread the wealth of good cheer and help to your fellows.
My grandmother once told me that if you look hard enough, you can always find something to compliment someone about. It could be their laugh, or “My, your eyes are really sparkly today!” or “Nice tie!” or just “Glad to see you!”—a painless injection of positivity that motivates many to pass it on.
Selflessness doesn’t have to be painful, it doesn’t have to cost anything. Most of us get a feeling of gratitude when someone does or says something nice to us, but we also just let that feeling drop, even if we have the presence of mind to say “Thank you.” By paying it forward we have the opportunity to act on our gratitude by passing the baton of good feelings on to the next guy and hoping it motivates him to pass it even further.
I really enjoyed seeing a movie that passed on a positive sentiment (even if the ending was disappointingly sad) that demonstrated how that sentiment could spread. Selflessness is a learned quality and if nobody demonstrates selflessness to you, how are you to know what it is or even if it is ok to spread it around? As the child of a deeply self-interested malignant narcissist, it was not until I was nearing the end of therapy that I began to understand such things as “random acts of kindness1” and paying it forward. While I was not intentionally selfish, I had spent my life embattled and in a state of privation: when I went out of my way to help someone, I fully expected—sometimes truly needed—the person to pay me back. It took therapy and a leap of faith to put me in a place where paying it forward became preferable, to me, to having it paid back.
Honesty is important to me, and I would be less than honest if I said this blog or the Facebook group was an entirely selfless endeavour. I get feedback from people all the time and mostly, it is affirming. They may not write with thanks, but to see that something I wrote has had a positive impact on another person’s life is a very powerful affirmation of my belief in paying it forward. Many years ago I was suicidally depressed and despondent and people reached out to me. Most of them gained nothing from helping me except perhaps helping themselves, but they were selfless and attentive and helpful when I had the courage to find my voice. So many people devoting their time and energy to me and my issues with no promise of reward—it was such a vivid contrast to my daily life in which I was a shadow on the wall, unheard unless I mustered up the courage to raise my voice, and then I was minimized and discounted. With these people, my smallest whisper was heard, my voice encouraged, my hurts salved. These people unwittingly saved my life and it is unlikely any of them even realize that.
But how do I repay a debt so large as giving me back my life? By paying it forward, being there for others, providing a safe space for others to speak out, by protecting their privacy. By keeping this blog open and available to anyone who cares to read, thereby creating an oasis of truth and honesty for those struggling with the burden of being a Narcissist’s Child. By making available to the dismissed, victimized, and invalidated the knowledge they need to step out of the F.O.G.2 that has heretofore enshrouded their lives. It’s not an effort engaged in to reap reward but a paying it forward for all of those people who supported me and saved my sanity and my life all those years ago.
And now it is your turn.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

I didn’t have a mother

Yes, there was this woman who conceived, gestated and gave birth to me, and in the strictest relationship terms, she was my mother. But in the ways that count, I grew up without one.
What people often overlook—or even dismiss—is the fact that the word “mother” can also be a verb. And while the noun “mother” is an easily defined word—she who gave birth—the verb can be a bit more tricky.
I searched both online dictionaries and thesauruses and found that while the noun was expansively represented, the verb suffered from a paucity of description. Webster’s, for example, gave five variations on the definition of the noun and only three to the verb, one of which was circular (used the word to define the word)1. The fact of being a mother then, significantly outstrips the act of mothering, if the scantiness of information in the dictionary is any guide.
Interestingly, the ability to be a mother is available to the vast majority of sexually mature females, but the ability to mother does not necessarily come with it. Even more interestingly, the ability to mother is not confined to females who have given birth, it is not even confined to females or to people who have achieved sexual maturity. It is a quality available to us all, should we be so inclined.
That there is so little available on the difference between being a mother and being able to mother came as a surprise. One does not ordinarily expect an erudite definition of “mother” contrasted with “to mother” to come from a feminist activist and icon, either—but here you have it:
“Even if we are not mothers, the noun, we may be mothering, the verb. Indeed, unless mothering is a verb, it is a fact but not a truth, a state but not an action.
“To mother is to care about the welfare of another person as much as one’s own.
“To mother depends on empathy and thoughtfulness, noticing and caring.
“To mother is the only paradigm in which the strong and the weak are perfectly matched in mutual interest…one may be forced to be a mother, but one cannot be forced to mother.2  ~ Gloria Steinem
“…unless mothering is a verb, it is a fact but not a truth, a state but not an action.” How true we ACoNs know this to be. And how representative of my life, for I had a mother, the noun—the state—but received precious little mothering—the act.
All parents leave their children a legacy and this is the legacy of the child with a narcissistic parent. Yes, even fathers, for fathers are capable of providing the same nurturing and caring, the same empathy and noticing, the same thoughtfulness and protectiveness we define as “mothering.” That a parent fails to provide these essential forms of nurture is not a fact of gender as much as it is a fact of personal character. Even people who do not feel an emotional bond with the child can provide nurturance and empathy, can treat the child with respect, can demonstrate concern for the child’s well-being. And yet, we still find the world awash with those who grew up in a vacuum devoid of such crucial comforts.
I didn’t have a mother. Occasionally I had a grandmother, for a time I had a step-mother, and while they were better—much, much better—than having no mothering at all, they were not my mother and even as a school-aged child, I knew and understood that. For a few years we had Mexican ladies live in as housekeeper/nanny and they were among the warmest mother-figures I had in my life, but when my little brother started school full time, that was the end of that resource for me. From that point forward, when it came to nurturing and mothering, I was pretty much on my own.
When I was perhaps eight—maybe a little older—I remember getting very upset with my mother over something and so to punish her I decided I would withhold my customary goodnight kiss. When bedtime rolled around I brushed my teeth and put on my pajamas and then went straight to bed. I waited a long time for her to come to my door and claim her nightly kiss but she never did. She didn’t notice. She didn’t miss it. And I began to understand that although she called herself my mother, she was not a mother to me.
It is significant to note that when I was feeling put out at her, my mind went to punishment. It was what I knew, it was what I experienced, it is what I understood. I knew nothing of a mother coming to her child’s side and saying “You must be disappointed in that “C” in math. What can Daddy and I do to help you?” I knew nothing of flinging myself into my mother’s arms to cry out some hurt or disappointment, I knew to stifle my sobs against my pillow and if I got caught with red eyes and a sniffly nose to blame it on my allergies because crying about anything except immediately after a beating was a punishable offense. I didn’t know about talking out a situation, about coming to an understanding with another party, I knew only about commands and pronouncements and third party intervention that, if defied, warranted more punishment. I didn’t know about building a skill by doing it over again, eliminating each error progressively and attaining mastery: I knew do it right the first time or there was punishment.
The worst part of this was that when I became a mother, this was what I knew. My grandparents and my father might ask if I knew what was wrong and if I planned to repeat my mistake—a contrite answer of “no” from me was all they required—but were neither critical nor inclined to punish me for simple errors. My mother, however, was the one who assigned chores and reviewed them, and it was my mother’s actions that I absorbed as the norm.
When my first child was a baby a telling event occurred. She was perhaps six months old and at the stage where everything went in her mouth. I would remove anything she had managed to her hands on that she shouldn’t, say “No no!” to her, then hand her a distracting toy. My mother happened to be there one afternoon and she said to me “She’s too young to know what “no” means. You’re wasting your breath” and I replied “But if I don’t start now, how will she understand it when she is old enough to understand?
My mother didn’t get it. The idea of teaching a child to not pick up the screwdriver Daddy left on the floor was just beyond her ken. Instead, her way was to smack—to punish—when the child innocently did the wrong thing because, in her words, that will teach them a lesson they will never forget. And I, being na├»ve and still wanting my mother’s love and approbation, gave up my efforts to teach my child what she could and could not play with, settling with smacking her hand when she grabbed something inappropriate.
It took many years and many mistakes for me to learn about mothering. I had the most obvious aspects down pat: hug my kids, cuddle them, do things with them, tell them that I loved them. But the rages I directed at them were the same rages my mother directed at me, and for infringements of the rules as petty as making noise and waking me up too early (I worked nights). I saw nothing wrong with those rages, even while my heart hurt at the signs of fear and alarm on their little faces.
In so many ways, lacking mothering myself, I did not know how to mother. The funny thing was, my stepmother was very good at nurturing and mothering her children and the year I spent in the home she and my father established was a time of great learning—but learning at a distance. In retrospect I can see that she was trying to nurture and mother me but two things stood between us: she did not know how to provide nurturing to a teen-aged girl and I did not know how to accept it—not having had consistent real mothering in my life, I didn’t know what it was, what to do with it, how to recognize or deal with it. So accustomed to was I to being commanded, with threats for noncompliance tacked on, I did not recognize less harsh and direct forms of communication. So desperate was I to be liked by my stepmother so that I would continue to be welcome in her home, I would do my chores and then retreat to my room with a book, spending little or no time with the family after meals—because this was how my mother defined “being good”—out of sight so she could forget that I existed. And, of course, my own definitions of such things as good and bad, acceptable and not acceptable, right or wrong, were shaped by the malignant narcissist I have lived with most of my life.
But Patsy interpreted it differently. She saw it as me isolating myself because I didn’t like her or I resented her having taken my mother’s place in my father’s life. Nothing could have been further from the truth! I was glad he had married her because I knew first-hand what a hurtful bitch my mother was and I truly wanted my father to be happy—I knew how much happier I was when I didn’t have to live with her and couldn’t imagine he felt any different. But I didn’t know how to be an integrated part of a family. With my grandparents, we ate supper, cleaned up, then sat outside in front of the patio fireplace until bedtime—I would often go to my room and read, not because they wanted me out of sight, but because my mind was much more active and needed feeding while they were content to sit quietly, nurse a cup of coffee, and stare into the fire. I didn’t know that Patsy expected more or different of me and she didn’t know that I didn’t know.
I appreciated anything she did for me but again, I had no idea how to adequately communicate that. A few years later, when I was a new mother with a military husband overseas, Patsy anticipated my needs and showed up at my house with a bag full of groceries. I think she had come to understand that I would not ask for help if I was on fire—although I am not so sure she understood why.
My mother didn’t want me to have my first child—I was 17 and unmarried and she wanted me to have an abortion (which was illegal in 1964). Next she tried to force me into a home for unwed mothers with the objective of adopting the baby out. Eventually she backed me so deeply into a corner that I took an overdose of sleeping pills. Once out of the hospital, I wanted to get married—which was the norm for girls in my situation back then—but she refused to consent. Not once during this entire ordeal did she show me the smallest amount of compassion or caring. It never occurred to her that I might be scared or hurt or worried about labour and birth and providing for my child. All that came to her mind was what she wanted—for the stigma to go away and to force me to “knuckle under” to her. When my father did an end run around her and helped me get a judge to authorize my marriage, my mother was livid.
“Do not come to me when times get tough,” she told me. “You made your bed, now you lie in it!”
My father had a wife who did not work outside the home and by this time, five kids at home. My brother Pete was living there because once I left my mother’s home, he became the target of her nasty mouth and temperament—he went to live with Dad and stayed there until he graduated from high school. And they had another baby just six months after my child was born—their plate was full and the dollars were tightly stretched. In good conscience, I could not ask them because I knew they would help and stretch their situation even tighter. And I didn’t dare ask my mother because she had already told me she wouldn’t help. All I would get from her was mocking “I told you so’s” coupled with whatever cruel barbs she could come up with at the time. I grew up with the woman—I knew that asking her for help would only put me in a vulnerable position that she simply could not resist exploiting.
You could almost excuse my mother with the fact that in the early 60s, having a baby out of wedlock shamed the entire family. But when you realize that “doing the right thing” (marrying the girl off) pretty much neutralized that shame, the fact that my mother withheld her permission for me to marry effectively revealed her agenda, which had nothing to do with me or my feelings or even my child and had everything to do with her being obeyed. I had “defied” her by refusing an abortion and she was going to pay me back for that.
I entered motherhood, then, with this for my role model. I remember sometimes being baffled with a situation having to do with my kids—or sometimes automatically reverting to some unloving behaviour I had learned from my mother but stopping myself—and asking myself “What would Patsy do?” I would try to imagine how Patsy would handle a similar situation, knowing that brutality was not part of her repertoire, and then try to apply that myself. Too often, however, my own mother’s behaviour would leap to the fore and before my brain could shift into “What would Patsy do?” gear, I would be screaming at my children and scaring them with the intensity of the rage that would boil out of me.
I would say that I “lost my way” except that I didn’t have a way to lose. I didn’t have a mother to nurture and correct me, I was not mothered, I didn’t know what it felt like and I didn’t know how to do it. My Patsy moments were imitations of what I observed or imagined but not something that came from within me because that was what I had experienced. As a kid I sometimes felt the only thing my mother did, with respect to me and my brother, was to put food in the cupboards every weekend. Most of the rest of the time we didn’t see her and if she was reading or watching TV, woe betide the child who intruded to put forth a personal issue that might interrupt Mickey Spillane or I Love Lucy.
Over time I learned to nurture others. It was a hit or miss kind of thing, learning to rely on my gut instincts for empathy and compassion and overriding the harsh backlash that I learned at my mother’s knee. Often I faced conflicts between a compassionate response and a punitive one because I didn’t know how to be effective and compassionate at the same time, while fully grasping the deterrent effect of punishment. But what I missed was that my kids weren’t terrified of me the way I was of my mother, so her methods didn’t work well for me because my children weren’t sufficiently terrified of me so as to be deterred.
But mothering was something alien to me, for all that I felt the feelings, but I did not know how to act on them. By recalling Patsy with her children, by imagining what she would do in the same situation, I learned it was ok to play with then, to tell them I loved them, to hold them when they were hurt and to respect their individual tastes—to mother them. But my instinct, my initial emotional response, was to scream and hit and punish, just as my mother had done to me.
It takes a long time—and a lot of mistakes—to overcome that kind of bred-in-the-bone response. It takes a knowledge of—or willingness to seek out and learn—what the “right thing” is before you can implement it. It takes a lot of backbone to stand up to the training received through experience, to step out into the unknown before you even have faith in yourself that what you are doing is right. It takes repeated failures, analyses of the failures, and infinitely renewed efforts. You have to mother yourself, even though you were never given the tools, even though you don’t even know how you are supposed to feel.
Often I see ACoNs cry out that they want their mothers when, in fact, they do not want the unloving women who gave birth to them—what they want is mothering. They instinctively want the nurturing and compassion and unconditional love that is mothering, which they never received. They want mothering, which they can get from any sufficiently compassionate person—even from themselves.
It is important that we learn to differentiate “being a mother” from “to mother” because they are planets apart: a brain-dead woman in a coma can give birth and become a mother, but she can never provide mothering to her child. We are those children, born to emotionally sterile women who can never provide mothering to us and when we pine for it from them, we are seeking to squeeze blood from a stone. We each need to learn the art of mothering and to give it not only to our children but to ourselves as well. It is the only way we will ever get a real mother. It is how I finally got one.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Gifts of Failure

Everyone is afraid of failure. Everyone, that is, who doesn’t understand the value that failing can bring to their lives.
Unfortunately, most of us grow up in an environment in which failure is not only not valued, it is often considered a punishable offense. The first failing grade I ever received—I was perhaps 13 and it was for PE (gym) class—left me petrified with fear. Already an anxiety-ridden child who bit her nails to the quick and suffered from stress-induced eczema, the thought of presenting to my brutally inflexible perfectionist of a mother a report card with an “F” on it frightened me so badly it made my bladder weak. In all truth, I cannot remember how she took it—which means either she took it in her stride because PE was not, in her estimation, an “important” class or she went off on me so badly I have completely blocked it from conscious mind. Either way, I approached the moment of handing it off to her with nausea-inducing trepidation, as failure was not an option.
I am quite sure that my mother’s reaction to failure was just as over-the-top as were most of her other reactions. She was volatile and explosive and unpredictable, so the only thing I could do was prepare for the worst and hope for the best when a failure of some kind was presented to her. In retrospect, however, it pains me even more to look at the hundreds upon hundreds of teachable moments that went by the wayside, moments in which I, by spring boarding off of a failure, could have improved my skill or knowledge or understanding, because failure was something to be avoided at all costs—and viewed with grave trepidation if you failed anyway.
A good example was when I was first tasked with mopping the kitchen floor. At ten I was a scrawny little thing with a bad frizzy home perm and matchstick arms and legs. I was also short. My mother’s mop was an old fashioned rag mop, the kind with a clamp over which was originally draped a replaceable string mop head, which was then secured to the mop handle by a lever that closed the clamp. My mother, however, never one to spend a dime when a nickel will allow you to scrape, by had draped a length of cloth—a piece of an old towel—over the clamp when the original string head wore out and that became the kitchen mop. It was truly a rag mop, as the odd bits of old clothing, towelling, and worn-to-rags sheets forever took the place of the original string head. This mop required wringing by hand, which was tough for a skinny little kid, even if the worn scraps of cloth in the makeshift mop head didn’t hold much water.
I had seen my mother mop the kitchen floor a few times so I thought I had a good idea as to what needed to be done and did as I remembered my mother doing. When I was finished, sweating and breathing hard, I recall being proud of myself for even getting under the kitchen table—it was not my mother’s habit to teach me how to do something because she seemed to expect me to come directly from the womb with the knowledge of household labour already imprinted in my brain.
My self-pride was short-lived. She swept into the kitchen to inspect and the scowl on her face gave me a moment to brace myself for the onslaught of criticism and belittling that inevitably followed such a face. In the space of a few minutes my hour of stoop labour was dissected and my pride severely lacerated. Through this failure (and subsequent ones, where she found even more things that I had overlooked in my ignorance) I learned how to mop a floor with crude tools, minimal product, and no instruction. And what could have been a learning exercise that played on my sense of accomplishment, giving me even more pride in my work, ended up being a drudgery, a chore approached with trepidation, knowing that at the end I would be subjected to a barrage of criticism for failing to do that which I did not know needed doing.
Imagine if she had taken me aside and said, “Wow! Not bad at all for a first attempt! I am proud of you. Now, next time, I want you to pull all of the chairs away from the table and put them on top [and demonstrates how to put a chair upside down on the table] and then sweep the floor first. That way, you won’t get those streaks in the middle of the floor.”
That would have made me look forward to the next time so I could do a better job. And if, after that second time, she had taken me aside and said “Wow! That looks even better than last time! Now, did you know that if you rinse the mop with clean water, in the sink, it will get even cleaner? And if you wring out one half of the mop, then the other half, you will get more dirty water out? Why don’t you try that the next time?”
From an abstract point of view, the necessity of this kind of talk would be an indicator of failure on my part—of not getting the floor clean. But to praise me for the successful parts or, barring those, praising my effort, would have made me eager to try again, especially with the “tips” passed on to me to help me to a better job. I would have been the happiest ten-year-old floor washer in Southern California, putting my little heart into the job just to hear the praise and hints for doing an even better job next time.
It isn’t that failure is bad, it is how you view it and how others treat it—and you. My father once told me that no experience is a complete waste of time or effort if you just learned something from it. Sometimes it is difficult to find the lesson in a failure, but once you do, the experience transforms from a failure into a learning experience—certainly it can be a painful one—but a lesson learned through failure is seldom forgotten.
Unfortunately for us ACoNs, we didn’t grow up with emotionally sensitive parents—and I doubt many of them were particularly deep thinkers, regardless of IQ. It doesn’t occur to them that a failed effort is a ripe plum falling into their laps, the plum of opportunity to educate and actually ensure they ultimately get what they want.
Having been raised by a highly skilled malignant narcissist, I have an intimate knowledge of manipulation and I have been known to use it. Manipulation, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It is bad when you use it to disadvantage others, but when you use it to help someone learn things that are useful to them, it is a useful tool. My maid came to work for me ten years ago with only three months of very sketchy experience. When I would assign her a task, I would demonstrate how to do it, then give her the cleaning cloth or mop or whatever and say “Let me know if you need any help.”
When I would come later to see how she was doing, I would find the areas where her work was substandard, but I would say “Can you see this here? Let me show you a way to get it clean…” then demonstrate…then have her do it in front of me. Then praise her “Exactly! If you do it that way, you’ll get it finished in no time!” and then leave the room. When I taught her to iron I took out two shirts: first I ironed a collar, then had her iron the collar on her shirt. Instead of scolding her for wrinkling the collar with the iron, I simply picked up a spray bottle and said “Let me show you how to get those wrinkles out…” and demonstrated. She made plenty of mistakes while learning to iron shirts but I did not raise my voice or treat those mistake like the end of the world: they were simply opportunities to show her how to do something—and how to come back from errors.
This approach teaches resilience. I learned this from my grandmother, a woman who patiently showed me how to separate eggs over and over again until I got it right. Each time I made an error, rather than blasting me for it, she simply said “If you do it that way you will break the yolk,” or “if you separate them one-at-a-time in a cup you won’t spoil the whole batch if one breaks.” Matter-of-fact advice in a matter-of-fact tone of voice delivered after each error. Mistakes around my grandmother were nothing to fear, just as my maid is not afraid to make a mistake around me…or even tell me she has broken something.
So, if a failure is, more than anything, a learning opportunity, why are we so afraid of it? How many babies get up from crawling and just walk confidently across the floor? How would that child learn to walk if she was afraid of failure? How many children try and fail repeatedly before they finally learn to roller skate or to ride a bike? How many championship surfers or drivers or equestrians or gymnasts reach their peaks without a single failure? The value of failure is that is offers you opportunity after opportunity to fine-tune yourself, to up your game. A dispassionate analysis of your failures is no less valuable than your successes: the former is what allows you to achieve the latter.
Unenlightened others have conditioned you to believe failure is bad and without value. Unfortunately a lot of people believe that, from your neighbour to your clergyman to your boss to your siblings, spouse, friends, and parents. The biggest problem with this viewpoint is not just that they fail to learn from their own failures by hiding from them, but they try to prevent you from learning from your own. They do this by communicating to you that errors are things to be ashamed of, to hide both from others and from yourself. But you cannot learn the lessons that failure has to teach you if you take on shame and then try to sweep it all under the rug. You also cannot learn what failure has to teach you if you refuse to address it and analyse it.
What is it failure can do for you? First of all, it can teach you about pride—too much pride: nobody is too good to fail and because it is a normal human misfortune, failing at anything simply means you are human. Are you ashamed of that?
Secondly, failure can lead you to new knowledge. At the very least it can teach you that what you are doing is not working and that you need to try something else—but if you hide from that, you may find yourself repeating the same unproductive behaviour over and over again because you have hidden from failure—repudiated it, hidden it away from your consciousness—and therefore could not learn from it. How many times have you tried, over and over, to win approbation from your Ns? How many times has it worked? Why are you still trying? (Because you feel shamed by your failures and therefore do not analyse them to see what is going wrong.)
Failure, above all, is a learning opportunity. Nothing you have in your life today, from your cell phone to your tablet to your car to your kitchen stove came about without multiple failures—and analysis of those failures—happening first. DNA testing, laparoscopic surgery, rockets to the moon and even such mundane things as frozen food and microwave ovens went through a developmental stage in which error after error after error was made, analysed, fine-tuned, and improved upon until finally, a success was made to let the developers know they were on the right track. Success almost never comes out of one’s head fully fleshed and perfectly functional, it take failures, analysis of the failures, and then trying—and failing—again until the failures are eradicated (or it becomes apparent that the endeavour simply cannot succeed).
So why are we afraid of failure? I would wager ACoNs are afraid of it for primarily one of two reasons (and maybe both). First, we have assumed a kind of all-encompassing fear of retaliation, punishment, reprisal that is no longer rational. As kids many of us were actually looking at real retribution in the form of beatings or verbal abuse or deprivation of something. Fail to get the bathroom suitably clean, no movie for you this Saturday; a “C” in math? No dessert until the next report card comes out and you have a “B” or better. Didn’t get all of the ironing done? Grounded for the weekend. But we are adults now and the only people who can really punish us is ourselves. We have the power to refuse to allow our Ns to punish us any longer by simply turning our backs on them. Their threats of punishment are, for the most part, toothless attempts to fool you into thinking they still have the same rights and power over you as when you were ten years old and that they can and will exercise them. The only way they truly have that power today is if you give it to them, and you always—always—have the power to take it back. Only when you have taken it back can that fear of retribution go away—and your fear of failure can’t go away unless that fear of retribution goes first.
Second, we continue to expect perfection of ourselves and failure is undeniable proof that we have failed to be perfect. Overcoming this requires a fundamental shift in your own basic view of the world because if you expect yourself to be perfect, you expect others to be perfect as well, and that is one of the most damaging things you can do to a person because it strips them of their humanity because you only legitimately expect perfection from machines. And that means you have stripped yourself of your humanity by expecting perfection of yourself.
This is one of the most corrosive expectations you can have of yourself, of others, and most especially, of children. And the worst part of this is that often, beneath our consciousness—a consciousness in which we believe we do not expect perfection of others, like our children—this expectation remains alive. We cannot eradicate our expectation of perfection of others, including children, unless we stop expecting it of ourselves. That is because as long as we expect it of ourselves, deep down in our heart-of-hearts, we believe that it is possible, even when our conscious minds recognize its impossibility.
When we embrace failures as learning experiences we can begin to short-circuit this belief. When we do or think something repeatedly, we assimilate it. Over time, this can become automatic and it can displace contrary or conflicting beliefs. Consciously embrace your failures and then analyse them. Consciously say “Well, that didn’t work—why not?” and then begin to replay it in your head…replay each step, looking for things you could have done or said or thought differently, then project that forward to try to see what the outcome of that might be. If you find a place or two that you could have done differently, you have changed your failure into a learning experience and the next time this comes your way, try one of the changes. If that doesn’t work, then you can re-analyse and see what else you could have done differently. If you do this multiple times and then still have no success—well, actually you have succeeded—you have succeeded in learning that 1) you need outside help to tackle this or 2) this is one of those things in life you cannot fix/control/manage, and then you can work on learning ways to avoid/live with it.
A perfect example of this for us, is in dealing with our NParents. If your NM has just given you That Look and you suddenly feel guilty, instead of going into an anxiety state, start thinking. Yes, it will be work at first because your body has reacted with adrenaline and cortisol and you are feeling panicky and like you have to run or yell or something. So breathe deeply, let the air out slowly and begin to think. What is the problem? The problem is your NM is obviously unhappy and most likely it is something you said just before That Look came over her face. What did you say? Can’t remember? Reach back further to what was being said/done immediately before she took on That Look. Your sister made mention of your father, NM’s ex-husband. Your sister said it, so why is That Look being directed at you? Because NM always thinks you put your sister up to stuff, that Sister is a sweet innocent and anything that comes out of her mouth that NM doesn’t like was put there by you. Is that true? If yes, did you tell Sister not to say this to or in front of NM? If no, then you’re busted. What could you have done differently? 1) not say things to Sister that will pop out her mouth around NM and make her mad at you; 2) warn Sister not to repeat this in front of NM or anybody who might tell NM; 3) keep your mouth shut around Sister; or 4) be prepared for NM’s wrath when Sister speaks up in front of you. Now, your punishable act, your “error in judgment,” has become a learning experience. You know that your sister is going to indiscriminately blab things you tell her; you know you must either warn her not to say this stuff in front of NM or you simply must not say these things to her yourself.
But you are still anxious from getting That Look. Now what? Think and analyse some more. Obviously, she is displeased. What can she do about it? She can’t ground you or take away your car keys or dock your allowance—but she can yell at you, get nasty to you, pull a guilt trip on you. OK—you know what she can do—if she does any of them, what are your choices? 1) sit there and allow her to vent, and feel guilty for being bad; 2) sit there and let her vent and realize that she is blaming you for your sister’s loose tongue, she’s out of line and none of the guilt she is throwing at you is yours; 3) JADE—justify, argue, defend, excuse yourself to her and get a fight going; 4) interrupt her and say “If you cannot speak respectfully to me, I can leave,” and then if she continues with her verbal assault (or sulk or whatever passive aggressive behaviour she has chosen to punish you with), leave. Or, 5) you can get up without a single word and walk away.
By the time you get to this part in your thinking and have chosen how to respond, your adrenaline rush should have dissipated a bit. Engaging her will get you another one—so will walking away. But walking away will take you out of the fray where engaging here will only escalate it.
This is how a failure on your part (failed to make NM happy, failed to warn Sister to keep something you said between just you two, failure to recognize Sister would likely blab it in front of NM) can be turned into a learning experience for you. It doesn’t matter if anybody else sees it as a failure just as long as you can learn and grow from the experience. A baby learning to walk overbalances and falls numerous times before he finally gets it right—what if he was not allowed to fail? What if there was a limit on how many failures were permissible before he wouldn’t try anymore? There is a child in Brazil who was born with no feet and yet he not only learned to walk (with no prostheses), he is a soccer prodigy1. What if he had listened to the parent who was convinced he would never be able to walk? He tried and he failed many more times than you or I did when learning to walk, but he learned from each failure until he had learned to fine tune his balance to the point that he could not only walk, but he could excel at soccer.
How can we justify doing anything less? Because failure hurts or is humiliating? Well, if you stop thinking of it as failure and start thinking of it as the first step in a learning process, the pain is blunted, the humiliation loses its sting. The more you do it, the less of the negatives you feel. The first time I wore a bikini I stayed wrapped in a towel, embarrassed by sheer abundance of naked never-seen-the-sun white flesh. By the end of the summer I had no trouble at all dropping the towel and heading for the water: the more I did it, the less uncomfortable I was with it. Learning to embrace failure works exactly the same way and if you are going to reap the rewards it has to give you, it is something you need to start working on sooner, rather than later.