The first glimpse I got into my own psyche and the shackles that were upon it, I was fourteen years old. Up to this point in my life, my concept of life was pretty much black-and-white: something was good or bad, a behaviour was right or wrong, and there was little room for nuances. I did not know at the time that digital thinking—having only two states such as right or wrong—is the hallmark of the immature mind. It is as if, as children, we have so much to learn as a baseline for integrating into our society, there isn’t much room for nuanced thought.
Because we are all narcissistic as kids, we expect everyone else in the universe to think the same way we do. We also presume that adults have a similar set of strictures—expanded for adults to include such things as smoking and drinking, driving cars and getting married and other such permissions that are conferred upon us when we cross a magical threshold of age. And so we grow up with our minds bound to certain paradigms and expectations, often based on our own observations and experiences. When we come across behaviours that are contrary to our paradigms we may judge them as being bad or wrong and we may then condemn them without even thinking past the recognition that it is different from our own standard. Why? Because if the world has only two states of being, then behaviour or beliefs different from our own must be wrong—our behaviour and beliefs, after all, are right so anything contrary must be wrong.
Digital thinking makes life easy, it requires no thinking, no measuring, no weighing and, using it, it is easy to avoid being wrong: stick with what you know is good, right, and acceptable, repudiate whatever is different from that, and you will always believe yourself to be in the right. Unfortunately, that isn’t the way the world works. Children learn right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair simplistically because their little brains are not yet capable of more complex concepts and processes. But as we age and our brains mature, we are supposed to segue into the more intellectually refined world of “it depends…”—critical thinking.
Unfortunately, this can be very inconvenient for parents. Those whose children grasp critical thinking may think they are living with a trial lawyer. Every loophole or subtle difference between what you said and the various permutations of interpretation may be thrown at the parent of such a child. As tiring as it can be, the good news is that the parent of this child has done a great job of opening the child’s mind to the realm of actually thinking about the world around them as opposed to having raised a parrot with a shuttered mind.
I started out with a very shuttered mind. My normal childhood narcissism coupled with an inflexible narcissistic parent who brutally forbade anything but slavish obedience led me to being a young teen with some very rigid ideas about right and wrong. Just as I knew there were rules of living and conduct for me, I assumed that adults also had rules of living and conduct. I further assumed that my observations of adults informed me about many of their rules. When I came across people, both kids and adults, whose behaviour indicated rules different from my own, I knew they were wrong or bad—or ignorant of what was right and good. This was exacerbated by religious teachings in which people who had not accepted Jesus were going to hell when they died, even if they had no knowledge of Jesus or Christianity. From this I took the lesson that ignorance was bad, too, that not knowing something was wrong did not excuse me from punishment. So I closed my little mind and believed if what you wanted or liked or did or believed was not approved of by the controlling adult in your life, then the simple act of wanting/liking/doing/believing rendered you bad/wrong, no matter if it was objectively okay or acceptable to others.
I was secure in my knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad, with respect to what my brother and I were allowed in my mother’s household. Things got a little confusing in the summer when I would ask my grandmother if I could go out to play and she would look puzzled as she gave me permission, as if she couldn’t figure out why I was asking. But I knew what it meant to “be good” in my mother’s household and I was taking no chances that Nana or Grandpa might inadvertently say something about my behaviour that got me into trouble: I obeyed NM’s rules even when she was a thousand mile away. It was not until I reached my teens that I got my first inkling as to how shuttered and limited my thinking had become.
My father and stepmother didn’t have a lot of money but they lived a comfortable, if frugal, life. The summer before 10th grade I stayed with my father instead of my grandparents, sharing a bedroom with my two year old sister (which I thought was great—this was the baby sister I had wanted since I was seven—I adored her). My mother took off for Texas with her boyfriend and, this being the days before cell phones, internet, or cheap long distance, I didn’t hear from her for the whole summer. Since this was nothing new—I often spent entire summers with my grandparents and received nothing…not even a post card…from my mother—so I was not concerned. It is important to note at this point that this was representative of how I viewed mothering at this time in my life—her complete lack of interest was my normal—in the scheme of right and wrong, she was always right so this was the right way to be a mother, even if it hurt me and left a gaping sense of emptiness in my chest. She was doing it right and my wanting more was wrong.
As the day for the opening of the new school year approached and we hadn’t heard from her—and didn’t know how to reach her—my father and I became concerned. Should he enrol me in school? Should he keep waiting for word from my mother? We discussed it over dinner, we made plans and alternative plans. I began mentally separating the clothes I would take home with me from the ones I would leave at my father’s to wear on my weekend visits. We were gearing up for her to pull up in front of the house with no warning and demand my immediate appearance. Finally, after an eternity of anxiety, a few days before the start of school we received a telegram telling me to enrol in school at my father’s. I was ecstatic!
Summer was over and I now had to integrate into the family as a member of the household, not a summer visitor. The problem was, I didn’t know how to do that. While I knew what my father expected of me, I didn’t know about my stepmother. She was nothing like my mother but I still thought that adults had behaviour rules, so I assumed that her expectations of me were similar to my mother’s: I thought the differences between the two women were in more fundamental things: my mother had always had a job and chased after other men whereas Patsy stayed home with the kids and didn’t stray. I expected them to be very similar in their expectations and interactions with their children. Again, my mother’s paradigm sparred in my mind with what I observed: to my mother, Patsy was lazy, she was using my father as a “meal ticket” and she kept having babies (they eventually had five) to keep him hooked and feeling obligated to her. On the one hand, my mother was always right—that had been drilled into me since early childhood. On the other hand, I could feel the genuine bond between Patsy and my father. I liked Patsy, I liked that my father was happy with her (it showed), but my mother said she was a lazy bloodsucker using my father like her own private welfare… I had no experience of my mother being wrong…but my own eyes were not supporting my mother’s claims. Was she wrong about Patsy? Or was I wrong because I couldn’t see what my mother was seeing?
The first thing that I could see was that Patsy’s children were not afraid of her. What was she doing differently? I wasn’t afraid of Patsy—she had never given me a reason to be—but I was terrified of my mother. Patsy played with her children whereas with my mother, Petey and I were annoyances to be out of sight and earshot when we weren’t busy obeying her commands. One afternoon I sat curled up on an overstuffed chair with a book and surreptitiously watched Patsy play with one of her children and I was very, very surprised. Not only was she tickling and giggling with him on the sofa, I heard her tell him that she loved him and the first thought that popped into my head was “Are mothers allowed to do that?”
I grew up in a household in which my narcissistic mother ruled everything. Everything was done to her exacting specifications and if they weren’t, punishment ensued. I do not ever remember playing anything with my mother, no tickling or giggling—she was too forbidding for me to even imagine doing that. I had always assumed that she had never told me she loved me because she wasn’t allowed to. I just had this notion in my head that parents were not permitted to tell their children that they loved them! I was surprised hearing Patsy tell her baby boy she loved him...really, really surprised! But Patsy was an adult and a mother so she had to know those parenting rules, didn’t she? So was she wrong/bad to tell her child she loved him? Or was it my mother who was wrong? A crack was appearing in the stifling little box that bounded my mind.
On the one hand, this was good news—it meant that when I got around to having children of my own, I could tell them that I loved them, something I knew I was going to do the very instant I knew it was allowed. On the other hand, this made me wonder why, if it was permitted, my mother had never said it to me. It wasn’t more than a week or so later that I came to the conclusion that she never told me because she didn’t love me: we got a postcard from her saying she was travelling with Frank and that she would contact us when she got back to town; she gave us no way to get in contact with her in the event of an emergency and she said nothing about missing us, even though she hadn’t seen Petey and me for more than three months. From the absence of any such endearments it became clear to me that she cared little about me or about my feelings. For several weeks after receiving that post card I thought about it. I tried to think of anybody in my family who had ever said anything to me that was even close to a declaration of love. I could think of no one. It made me sad and moody and withdrawn.
This didn’t sit well with my stepmother. Convinced that nobody loved me except my father—and his love was conditional on my stepmother’s acceptance—I reverted to my mother’s expectations because I now felt I needed to earn my keep. Inside my rigid little box, if you weren’t loved, you were easily discarded so to counter that I tried to make myself indispensable but, at the same time, unobtrusive. I would clear the table after dinner and wash the dishes, clean the stove and the kitchen, and then quietly disappear to my room to do homework and read. My stepmother, however, felt rejected by this. She felt I was isolating myself so I wouldn’t have to interact with her. She thought I didn’t like her. It took a blow-up between us in the kitchen one night for the truth to come out and afterwards it became clear that I did not need to “earn my keep” in that household, even though I did in my mother’s. Another little peek outside my box…I thought you got a “free ride” if you were loved, otherwise you had to earn whatever you got, even if you were dealing with family: that was the “right way,” in my mind, until Patsy showed me different.
My mother was cheap. I don’t mean frugal or careful with money, I mean cheap. And she was the “penny-wise, pound-foolish” kind of cheap, as well. From her I learned that, no matter how much money you had, it was bad to waste any of it so it was better to buy cheap, flimsy things that “did the job” rather than spend more—even just a little more—for something of quality. She lacked both taste and perspective, actually considering a plain, unfinished wood dresser, bought brand new, to be superior to a high-quality antique piece. Antiques, in her mind, were “over-priced second-hand castoffs, other people’s junk” for which she would not pay a cent: better to have brand new junk than high quality cast-offs.
When K-Mart first opened, you would have thought she had died and gone to heaven. She bought my school clothes there, she bought her clothes there and although it pissed her off when the soles fell off her shoes in a couple of months, they were cheap enough at K-Mart to replace without a significant hit to the wallet. Nothing she bought me fit properly, from bras and panties to shoes and coats, but if they were from K-Mart, she was happy that she hadn’t spent one cent more than was absolutely necessary. After divorcing my father and actually having to learn how to watch her spending, my spendthrift wastrel of a mother had turned into a bona-fide scrooge—and it only got worse as she got older.
The problem was, that rubbed off on me but in a different way: I grew up thinking that stores like Macy’s were not for me. I was not allowed to shop in them, just as parents weren’t allowed to tell their children they loved them. If I walked into a high-end store I felt uncomfortable, like I would soon be found out and chased out of the store. I could not justify buying my clothes in a store like Macys or buying real silk or spending that much money on myself: it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t need to justify shopping at Macy’s, it didn’t occur to me that I was just entitled to buy my clothes there as anyone else. I was still seeing myself through my mother’s eyes. It took until I was nearing my 30s—I was still buying my clothes in K-Mart then—when I met a woman who was always so nicely dressed and turned out but who earned even less than I did, that I began to realize how boxed-in my thinking was in and I started chipping my way out of it.
But even though I managed to crawl out of that box and began shopping at better stores (and learned the difference between “stylish” and “trendy”) for myself, it was a few more years before I realized that I was still in that box where my kids were concerned. It took this friend giving me her little boy’s outgrown clothes and my realization of the quality—who even has used little boy things like shorts and T-shirts that are not tattered and stretched out of shape?—that I began to see that my kids deserved decent clothes and shoes from good makers, purchased from good stores. And it took me until was near to closing my 40s that I was comfortable walking into Macys and shopping for sheets or pots and pans, before I could buy a box of Godiva choccies, without my mother’s voice hissing in my ear “you should be buying Hershey’s—this is wasting money—you don’t deserve this—this is bad! YOU are bad! Shame on you!”
From the first through the ninth grade we lived in a pink stucco three bedroom ranch-style home in a California beach town. Two doors down the street was a girl who was in class with me, Janey K (she was called that because across the street lived another classmate, Janey B). Janey had an older brother who was in high school and who played in the school band. I thought he was so handsome!!
One afternoon Janey K invited me and the other Janey over to play. We went into her room and after a while I needed to use the toilet. When I came back I asked Janey how big was her house was…I had seen only one other bedroom in the house and it had distinctly teenaged boy’s décor, and I wondered if there was a third, hidden bedroom for her parents.
Nope—it was a two-bedroom house and her parents slept on a fold-out couch in the living room so that each child could have a bedroom. I was flabbergasted! Parents could do that? Parents would do that? Another one of my rigid little boxes cracked open because, in the world my mother had constructed for me to grow up in, children sacrificed for their parents, not the other way around. When I went back to live with my mother (and Frank) in the 11th grade, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment: my mother and Frank had the bedroom and I had a cot in the kitchen, placed in front of a drafty window where the kitchen table was supposed to be. If it hadn’t been for that afternoon of play at Janey K’s house, it would never have occurred to me that it was the parents who were supposed to sacrifice for their children, not the other way around. I would have grown up believing it was ok for my kids to sleep in the kitchen as long as my comforts were seen to, and perhaps believing many other damaging things in which I put myself ahead of my kids because my mother taught me that was the way the world worked.
My mother wasn’t a particularly good cook: everything was boiled grey or it was fried in bacon grease until it was stiff. Seasonings consisted of salt and pepper and, on the rare occasions we had spaghetti (pasta boiled until it was slimy, then stirred into a can of Campbell’s tomato soup mixed with some catsup) we got a little oregano (key word here: little). Patsy wasn’t the most accomplished cook in the world, but she tried—she really, honestly tried.
In the box my mother created for me for food, everything was cheap. Free was even better. Fresh fruit was only for school lunch and then, only the cheapest fruits available. Any fish my brother caught and brought home was dinner, no matter what the thing was. I was never particularly fond of fish in the first place and, thanks to my brother’s yen for fishing and my mother’s pinch-penny disposition, those dreadful scavenger fish that hung around the docks ended up on my brother’s hook which, in turn, put them on my plate, which pretty much dissipated what little taste I had for fish in the first place.
With the exception of celery and cabbage and the occasional cauliflower, our vegetables came from cans. And salads? Well, the most basic rule of food in our house was, if NM didn’t like it, it was absent from our table, and apparently my mother only liked “expensive” salad which she was unwilling to pay for out of her own money. What was “expensive salad,” you ask? Try a quarter of a head of iceberg lettuce, a tin of tiny, salty shrimps, chilled and drained, and Thousand Island dressing made from “salad cream” (ersatz Miracle Whip), catsup, and chopped pickle relish. Any other kind of salad was pretty much non-existent unless you count the chopped iceberg lettuce and slivers of tomatoes that graced the table when she was trying to impress someone and gull them into thinking she was a domestic diva.
You can imagine my surprise when Patsy put a salad on her table that contained things I had never seen before…like croutons and avocado. She was literally slack-jawed when I held up a piece of avo on my fork and asked her what it was! (I loved it—I just didn’t know what to call it!) I soon discovered that a whole host of foods I thought I didn’t like, I actually enjoyed. Things like mushrooms and rice and avocado and Brussels sprouts and broccoli and yoghurt—foods I had never eaten before but because my NM didn’t like them, I didn’t either. That first electrifying bite of avocado did more than bring me a new taste sensation, it sprung open the iron bars in my mind that had been keeping me from trying new foods.
Thinking about it in depth, many years later, I finally realized that I had been afraid to try new foods—or to eat foods my mother didn’t like—because if I ate them and liked them, then I was, automatically, bad. To like a food my mother disliked was to disagree with her and disagreeing with her on any subject was a very unwise thing to do. And so I just locked myself into the suffocating little box that she created for me, a rigid structure of stultifying, unchallenged beliefs pounded into my consciousness like stockade palings driven into the earth.
Eventually, at some point, I decided to be bad. I don’t think it was a conscious decision taken all at once, but more a tentative venturing beyond the confines of that mental stockade I had been living inside. I wanted to be good, I tried to understand what I needed to be or do or think or believe in order to be good, but somehow I just kept missing the mark. I didn’t recognize at the time that the goalposts were constantly in motion so that no matter what I did, I was doomed to come up short. After years of trying and too often failing I think I came to the conclusion that I was hopeless at figuring out what it meant to be good so I just quit trying. If I was going to have the name (and endure the punishments) for being bad, then maybe I should just stop trying so hard. But despite a change in my behaviour, I was still trapped in the view of myself through my mother’s eyes.
It took years to disassemble that box, to uproot those palings, to tear down that stockade. Learning to think independently was hard; learning to live independently was harder. I was not overtly rebellious, rubbing her nose in my contrary behaviour, but I behaved contrarily while doing my best to keep her ignorant of what I was doing just so I didn’t have to listen to the inevitable harangue of criticisms, edicts, and opinions cloaked as fact. I dated Jewish men and men of colour—not because they were Jewish or black but because I was attracted to them and I was no longer allowing a person’s colour/culture/religion to be the barrier my mother had created them to be. I went out with Italian guys and hippies, military guys and bikers—if a man appealed to me and didn’t violate my own personal code (no domestic violence, no substance abusers—users, ok—abusers, no, no married men, no players)—then I was willing to see what he had to offer. It was the late 60s, early 70s, “free love” was the word of the day, I was young and pretty and smart and I was struggling to find my way out of the box of servitude my mother had built around me as best I could.
What I did not realize until many, many years later was that throughout this time—indeed, until the mid-80s when my then-NHusband was greasing the skids to slide me into a deep, near-fatal depression—I was rebelling. Whether I was stripping in a bar or working in the executive suite of a major corporation, whether I was toking up listening to Creedence or sitting in a box seat watching the Royal Swedish Ballet, what I was doing was rebelling. And I was rebelling because I had never succeeded in smashing down the innermost box of that nest of boxes I had been stuffed into since earliest childhood: digital thinking.
I had never let go of the notion that life was black or white, you were with me or against me, if you were right, I was wrong. Decades after declaring my independence I was still shackled to the concept in order to live my own life, to do what I wanted to do with it, I had to be bad. And while I was living very independently, not permitting my mother’s twisted morality (do as I say, not as I do—if I do it, it is ok but if you do it, you are bad…) to choose my actions, my behaviours…and while I had made terrific inroads into deciding for myself what was right and what was wrong, I was still stuck in the dyadic thinking that posited that there was only right and wrong, that there were no states in between and the extrapolation that right=good and wrong=bad so that if you were right, I was bad.
It was not until I became a technical head hunter—a recruiter of engineers in Silicon Valley—that the penny dropped. I was puzzling the difference between digital and analogue electronics and an engineer explained to me that digital had two states: on and off. A light switch was an example of digital—the switch was on or off, the light was on or off, there were only two states of being. But analogue was like a dimmer switch…there were varying degrees of on—a little bit on, a little bit more on, even a bit more on—infinitesimal increments of on (or off, if you prefer to view it from that angle) between being fully on or fully off. It was a spectrum. And suddenly it all made sense to me—not just the difference between the states of analogue and digital electronics but the whole concept of analogue as applied to behaviour, thinking and life in general. That tight, restricting box around my mind was burst open!
And then I began to see that I was surrounded by digital-thinking people, people for whom only right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable existed. There was nothing in between, no nuances of thinking. Then I began to realize that these people were terribly judgmental: every one of them believed they were right and that they were therefore good. And if I disagreed, I was wrong and therefore bad. And, because they were right and good, they had what they believed was an inherent right to penalize those they judged as being wrong and bad. They were the epitome of self-righteous and many of them were members of my family—my own children, even!
There was no room in their shuttered little minds for perceptions that went contrary to their own. In fact, they were incapable of accepting information that went contrary to their existing set of beliefs because if they did so, the act of accepting that information would mean they had been wrong up to this point, and bad because they had been wrong. My NexH and I had a brief discussion about this when we had been married a few years and he was having an internal emotional conflict. I suggested that at the age of 30 he still had time to change his paradigm, to alter the way he had heretofore seen the world, and live the rest of his life as a better person. He looked me straight in the eye and told me that if he did that, he would be admitting that for the first 30 years of his life he had been wrong and, after giving it some thought, he knew he just could not do that. Despite the enlightenment that there was another way to perceive and process the world around him, he was so deeply enmeshed in the digital paradigm that he still saw the world as right/wrong=good/bad and he was unwilling to accept there was another way to view things because he perceived that as an admission that he had been wrong/bad the first 30 years of his life.
It doesn’t really work that way but a lot of us still live inside that shuttered little box of right/wrong=good/bad. Every time we take a self-preserving action and we then feel guilty and shamed, we are living it: self-sacrifice to the Narc Parent(s) is the right thing to do, and when you do it, you are good, per our Ns; refusing is selfish and selfishness is bad. The digital divide, family style. But the guilt is really your inner self, punishing you with shame for being bad by that digital standard. It is you, still buying into the child’s belief that whatever NM says is right and good and if you do something else, you are wrong and bad.
But the reality is, good and bad don’t even enter into this, and right and wrong are relative to the situation. It is wrong (and stupid) to jump into a lake in the dead of winter, fully clothed; it is right if you see a child is drowning and you can help: it’s relative. Doing the right thing doesn’t automatically make us good people any more than doing the wrong thing makes us bad ones. Digital thinking lends itself to judgmentalism because of the simplistic dichotomy it embraces: right=good, wrong=bad. Critical thinking, however, deals in nuances, nuances in which you can be both right and bad or wrong and good. Simplistic judgmental systems in the brain cannot survive critical thinking.
In my experience, narcissists are digital thinkers. Many may be able to engage in critical thought in realms outside themselves—at work, for example—but when it comes to themselves, they embody the notion that they are right and therefore good and if you disagree with them, you are wrong and therefore bad. They can engage in astounding mental gymnastics to rationalize and justify and just plain twist facts to put themselves in the right, but that is not critical thinking: it is just the self-serving narcissistic mind finding ways to make you agree with them—or be wrong and bad if you don’t. This is where the guilt comes from, the shame we feel when we know we have done the right thing for ourselves and our families by setting boundaries or even cutting ties with our Ns. When we defy them we find ourselves right back in that digital thinking box our Ns built for us when we were little, that box that keeps us responding with guilt and shame because we failed to put the N first, which makes us bad.
But guess what? You are allowed to think outside that box. You are allowed to think beyond digital paradigms. You are allowed to think differently and come up with radically different beliefs, actions, behaviours—and be right and a good person while doing it.
Do you know why? Because your N lied to you. Digital thinking is for children, not for adults with fully functioning intellects. Your N is fully entitled to live and think inside that stultifying little box if she wants to but you are just as entitled to smash down and reject the box she built for you, to think globally, to put yourself first. Because the idea that your N should be first is a lie: parents are supposed to sacrifice for their children, not the other way around!
Step outside the box. Give up the guilt, reject the shame, stop judging yourself, stop viewing yourself through your Ns eyes. Expand your thinking, embrace the freedom of critical thought wherein you are free to seek and embrace the truths that digital thinking has hidden from you. Make up your own mind. The ability—and the freedom it brings—is within us all.