Back in 1969, The Rolling Stones had us all singing along with “You can’t always get what you want…”1 a message underscoring the turmoil of the times: military conscription, the controversial war in Viet Nam, the counter culture in its varied manifestations, student protests—it was a message whose time had come: you really can’t always get what you want.
That is one of the hardest things for ACoNs to truly accept, the fact that sometimes we simply will never have that which we want most: a normal, loving parent. Cultural myths don’t help, either, those inane sound bites that tell us we can have it all if we just work hard enough, that we can be anything we want to be with enough effort, that nothing is beyond our grasp if we put our all into it. Hard work is rewarded, goes the axiom, but the reality for most of us—ACoNs—is tragically different.
Many of us cling to denial in order to have hope that someday—one magical day in the misty future—our wishes will come true. We cling to this denial like a life raft in choppy seas because it is what keeps our hope alive. It is our one link to the possibility of our fantasy being realized and we use that denial to keep the door open for us, believing that one day, if we can find the right words, the right gift, the right expression, the right act, one day our Nparent will open their eyes and suddenly want to love us and nurture us and care for us like a normal parent would. And when that day finally comes, all of our hurts will magically fall away and we will live happily ever after, basking in the warm glow of parental love, our ears ringing with the joyful sounds of choirs of angels...
But suppose you were to meet a middle-aged woman who is miserably unhappy because she believes she is entitled to the throne of England and she is angry and despondent that she has been denied it and nobody will help her claim her birthright—in fact, people just dismiss her claim and expectation and invalidate her feelings by calling her a “nutter.” She has a genealogy indicating that she is a descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie and through him, she believes herself entitled to the current usurper's assets, position and prestige. She has halted all forward motion in her life due to her despair and the injustice of not being recognized as the rightful Queen of England and seems to be stuck in a kind of grief over being deprived of what she perceives as her entitlement. Do you feel sympathetic to her? Or do you think that she has an unrealistic expectation and is needlessly bringing all of this grief onto herself? Or maybe you think she needs serious mental health assistance?
But really—how is she so different from many of us? We put ourselves in limbo, into an emotional holding pattern, waiting for our narcissistic parent(s) to wake up and see us as their beloved children, and to feel bad for mistreating us. We put our emotional development and often the very forward motion of our lives on hold, focussing our energies and our mental processes on trying to find ways to get them to give us what we want: to be viewed and treated and loved like every child deserves. We feel the pain of deprivation of what we consider to be our entitlement and others, who have not experienced our Ns in the ways we have, have little or no empathy for us—some of them even think we have mental health problems.
Many of us acknowledge being stuck like this and the pain it brings us. We feel we are at an impasse because we are waiting for our NParents to give us that which we perceive to be our emotional birthright and we refuse to move forward without it. Yes, that is correct—we refuse to move forward. It isn’t that we can’t, it is that we won’t. We think we don’t know how, but in truth, we do. And this is where it becomes a little convoluted...
We want something from these people, our narcissistic family members. We believe we have an entitlement to it and we believe we need it (whether we do or not isn’t the point here, it is what we believe). They do not want to give it to us—it doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter if they are justified or not, it only matters that they refuse to give us what we want. They tell us this in their actions—they give us only what they want us to have, not what we want or need or are entitled to. Sometimes they tell us with their words: “I don’t care if your sister got one, you aren’t your sister and you can’t have one…” or “You don’t deserve it, but your brother does,” or “I don’t know why I put up with you,” or other such rebuffs and rejections. We learn that we are burdens, that others are loved while we are not, that we are inadequate, a disappointment, a trial—we accept this and feel dutifully guilty.
But for some reason we don’t take all of this and realize “s/he doesn’t love me and never will…” What we hear is “If I can stop being a burden, a disappointment, inadequate, a trial—if I can fix that, then s/he will love me!” We don’t hear them—we hear their words through a filter of denial that keeps us from believing what they are telling us and taking it to heart. They stubbornly tell us over and over and over again and we just as obdurately refuse to hear what they are really saying.
If you thought you were entitled to the last piece of cake and someone else ate it, how long would you be upset over that? How long would it take you to accept that the cake is gone, there is no more cake, and the culprit who ate it can’t give it back—at least not in any form you would want it. Do you put your life on hold because you couldn’t have it? I earned a letter in high school…the kind you put on a letterman’s jacket or sweater and wear at school with pride. I earned it twice—two consecutive years. But my mother wouldn’t buy me the letterman’s sweater to put it on, so I never got to wear it. I was entitled to that sweater and I even earned enough money at my after-school job to buy it, but she took my paychecks and refused to give me enough to buy that sweater. I had two choices: accept that the sweater was out of my grasp and move on with my life or stew about it for an indefinite period of time. I accepted--but what I didn't accept was that this was just one more message from my mother that she had no interest in me or my feelings and she never would...and I just was not listening.
Why do we do this? Often we do this because we are so busy going after what we want we aren’t hearing the other person telling us no. They tell what they are willing to give us with their actions, sometimes even with their words, but we discount, diminish, don’t hear, refuse to believe or reinterpret what they are telling us so that we can keep pursuing our goal, a goal they do not want us to achieve—a goal we cannot achieve without their cooperation. We are not listening to what we do not want to hear so we turn each of those unwelcome messages into something we can better accept: we are flawed and that is why we are unloved—but if we can fix those flaws, the love will flow. And when we can’t fix the flaws (that are, in truth, not even there), there is a perverse kind of comfort in believing that the fault lies with us, that mothers love their children and the world is right and safe and predictable and if we can ever figure out a way to fix our flaws, love will be ours, too. It puts a sense of control into our hands, a sense of power—if we can just figure out what to do or say—that protects us from facing the reality that will turn our sense of security in the world upside down: our parent doesn’t love us, never has, and never will. It is a kind of death, to recognize and embrace this ugly, painful truth. But it is also liberating.
It is axiomatic that we cannot always get what we want—even many of those things to which we are entitled. So why won’t we accept that truth and recognize that sometimes we have to live without those things? Well, some of us do. Some of us recognize that there is a difference between want and need, even in the realm of emotions, and we have learned to separate them. Maybe you aren’t letting go because you need nurturing, but your narcissistic, self-absorbed mother is not the only person on the planet who is capable of nurturing you. Therapists, friends, mentors, spouses, aunties, grandmothers—there are other people, including yourself, who can provide you with the nurturing that you need. Clinging on to the idea that you must get it from your NParent is a choice you make, a grief you inflict upon yourself, just as you would be inflicting it upon yourself by demanding demonstrations of parental love and devotion from the big rock that sits next to my driveway gate. It is not a facetious or absurd comparison, either—many of our parents have no more emotional capacity for us than that big grey stone.
How old do you have to be before you finally realize that you really can’t have it all? I was in my twenties when I realized that life was a series of trade-offs. Sometimes things you desperately want, with your whole heart, just are not available to you. They may be available to others, but not to you. Is that fair? Probably not. Is life fair? No. Can you have it all? Well, Maddie Eisenhart of Notie.com opines “‘having it all’ is a deeply flawed concept…”2 and it is my considered opinion that she is correct.
You can’t always get what you want, most especially when someone is deliberately withholding it from you. In circumstances like that—which is where ACoNs all too often find themselves—you really have only two choices: continue with the futile yearning for something that will never be yours or choose to accept the painful truth that has been incessantly thrown at you for the vast majority of your time on this planet.
“But if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need…”3
1 Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” By Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Let It Bleed. Decca, 1969. LP.
3 Op cit.