What is does it mean, to be rude? The Google search function turns up “…offensively impolite or bad-mannered…” but that is rather subjective—who determines when impoliteness or bad manners becomes offensive? Obviously the person who is perceived as being rude doesn’t think he’s being rude at all, while others—whose minds he cannot read—perceive differently. The Cambridge Dictionary1 defines rude as “…not polite; offensive or embarrassing…” Again, subjective: that which I find offensive you might find hilarious.
Years ago there was a standard of behaviour to which the majority of people agreed constituted basic manners. Things like saying “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.” Saying you are sorry for causing someone else inconvenience or hurt. Children asking to be excused from the table. Not interrupting others while they are speaking. Waiting your turn for something. Calling before going to someone’s home. Respecting the privacy of others. Respecting other people’s wishes with respect to their own persons and property. Being a “good sport” when losing and gracious when winning. These and many other small courtesies were handed down to each succeeding generation as the lubricant that oiled the wheels of society. Without small, simple courtesies practiced by the majority of us, regardless of class, society broke down into a chaos of ruthless competition. The definition of rude was not subjective or ruled by the perception of either the recipient or perpetrator, the definition of rude was codified—it was anything that violated the basic code of manners that permeated the society.
Narcissists understand the codes and narcissistic parents use them to their advantage. In a society that largely ignores the traditional courtesies, narcissistic parents are in their element: they can teach their children the kinds of behaviours and responses they want, call them “manners” or “courtesy” and shape their children the way they see fit.
When I was growing up we were taught basic manners first in the family and next in primary (elementary) school: teachers would require us to say “please” and “thank you,” wait in a queue or raise our hands for our turn at something, to share with others. Girls got a more expanded version of it in the higher grades during compulsory Home Economics courses. We had books and newspaper columns by well-known etiquette mavens, books that might show up in a young adolescent girl’s birthday or holiday swag. And we learned from TV shows like Leave it to Beaver in which the young Beav and his adolescent brother Wally were counselled on manners by their mother, who was backed by their father. But we also understood that there were different rules for adults, rules that forbade us to do things until we were “old enough,” among them smoking, drinking, driving cars and—my eagerly anticipated favourite—moving away from home.
It was this “rules are different for grownups” that gave people like my mother their power. They could demand adherence to the rules of etiquette from children without reciprocating because their rules were different from ours—“Do as I say, not as I do” was a common refrain around our house. Of course, I knew adults who were courteous, even to kids, but I understood this was not required of adults, that courtesy was a one-way street where children and adults intersected.
Another thing my mother inculcated into me—and which was largely supported by society in general—was the notion that children owed respect to adults…all adults…no matter what. So an adult could berate you loudly and rudely in public and you couldn’t say anything “disrespectful” in return without risking getting into trouble over it. So if some grouchy old neighbour threw handfuls of garden manure at you as you walked by their garden, bellowing at you not to trample their flowers, you were allowed to say “I didn’t walk through your flower beds,” but if Grouchy insisted it was you, you were disrespectful to “talk back” and insist on your innocence—because at this point you were supposed to take it to your parents and let them handle it. If you had clones of Ward and June Cleaver for parents, this worked. But if you had the narcissistic Wicked Witch of the West or Captain Bligh for parents, this didn’t go so well. Instead of being able to go to your parent for support and defence, you had to keep quiet…and you learned that people older than you could get away with shit you couldn’t.
Most people grow up understanding they are supposed to respect their elders and give them deference. Unfortunately, if your parent was narcissistic, there was an added dimension to this. At the age of individuation, at the age where normal families begin loosening the reins of control over their kids, helping them to learn to handle independence and to start thinking of themselves as adults, narcissistic parents tighten the screws. Even if they ostensibly give you the freedom to come and go like your friends do, sign for your driving license, etc., they do not stop thinking of you as a child. They believe they are doing you a favour by allowing you to participate with your peers—and they see no value in helping you to become emotionally independent.
When these children become adults, their lives and choices are often ruled by those narcissistic parents. The parents have taken up residence in their heads and those parents remain in control. I had a friend who, in her 30s, was lamenting her single state. I offered to introduce her to a couple of guys I knew, engineers who made a good living and would, in my opinion, make good husbands and providers. She declined because her parents wouldn’t approve of these guys because they were ethnically different from her. She, personally, didn’t care but she couldn’t go against her parents’ biases. Another woman I used to work with had a hard core controlling mother who demanded that my co-worker pay her rent and utilities. This left my co-worker, who was a clerical worker like me and a single mother, scrabbling for pennies at the end of every month. When I asked her why she did this she said “Because she’s my mother.” I knew nothing of narcissists in those days but I suggested that she tell her mother she needs to pay her own way and my co-worker blanched. The very thought of standing up to her mother literally made her feel faint. She was in her early 40s.
We get taught that inside the family circle, our parents not only hold the power, they hold it until they die—sometimes even after they die, depending on their will. We are not supposed to contradict those parents or even think differently from them. As children that is naughty and we court punishment; as adults were are deemed disrespectful, insubordinate and rude. Due to the conditioning of our childhood, we fear being found wanting by our parents. Even when we know we are too old to be spanked or grounded, the visceral fear is still there. Depending on the kind of parent we had, that fear may be mixed with guilt and shame. But any way you slice it, doing—even thinking—anything that our parents would disapprove of brings us anxiety and even fear.
So what happens when we grow up and put enough distance between us and our Ns that we begin to have contrary thoughts? What happens when you develop the nerve to disagree with your mother face-to-face and not back down, or find the courage to tell her she’s wrong or to call her on her bullshit? Well, depending on the type of NM you have, you can get tears, push-back, or outrage—but in every case your NM is going to perceive you as both rude and disrespectful. Narcissists rewrite definitions of words and phrases to be more self-serving. My NexH, for example, when accused of never compromising, indignantly informed me that he compromised all the time. When asked for a definition of compromise he came up with this: he gets what he wants and I get everything that is left. Narcissists not only rewrite history, they rewrite the damned dictionary.
As children we don’t know any better and we accept those definitions. So when you are actually individuating and becoming independent, your NParent redefines it as rebellion. When you tell you NM that she can’t give your child cookies twenty minutes before dinner, she calls you disrespectful. When she invades your private space and you ask her to leave, she sees this as you being rude. And so do you! Even if you have reached the point where your intellect recognizes that you are not being rude or disrespectful, you can still feel like you are!
Believe it or not, there is no rule in the books of etiquette and tomes of manners that says it is rude or disrespectful to disagree with your parents. There is no prohibition against upsetting your mother or disagreeing with your father. There are rules against such things as browbeating others with your point of view, showing up at a person’s place of work or residence uninvited, and demeaning others both publicly and privately. There are even polite ways to deal with people who persist in these behaviours and, simply stated, it is to ignore their presence as if they are not there. It is called “The Cut” and old fashioned guides to etiquette delved deeply into the various kinds of cuts and when and how to employ them. It is an old, tried-and-true, absolutely correct method of dealing with people who persist in imposing their bad manners on you: you simply do not engage them in any fashion, up to and including shutting the door in their faces if they appear at your door uninvited and having them escorted away by security or the police if they refuse to take the hint and decamp.
Narcissists instil that sense of being rude or disrespectful in us as children for a reason: it allows them to control us. When we are little, we are shamed and even punished for a behaviour our parent identifies as rude or disrespectful. We learn from them what it means and we believe them. We internalize it and it becomes part of our core beliefs. Once we have it internalized, they no longer need to threaten or imply punishment because we do it ourselves: we shrink away from assertive and autonomous behaviours because we now believe such behaviour is rude or disrespectful. We also believe it is a one-way street, that they can be rude and disrespectful to us, it is within their purview as our parents, but we cannot reciprocate because that is unacceptable.
We will remain their emotional zombies for as long as we permit ourselves to buy into those self-serving definitions that underpin our inappropriate feelings of guilt and shame and wrongness. As long as we feel like we are being rude (which we react to by feeling shame) when we are doing no more than asserting our autonomy, we are still being controlled by the Ns who conditioned us to accede to their wishes in all things.
But the truth is, they are the ones who are being rude and disrespectful, not you! But until you use those feelings of shame, that fear of retribution, that anxiety that comes over you whenever you think independently, until you use those clues to lead you to the reality, to the real definitions of your behaviour, you will continue being controlled by them remotely. You have to stop in the middle of that attack of shame, and think. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, you may not realize you have to stop and think until you are in the middle of the attack, it doesn’t matter. Once you realize you are reacting, make yourself stop! Put your mind to work. Acknowledge you feel like you are being rude but are you really? Is asserting yourself rude? No, it is not. Is having an opinion or belief that differs from your parents rude? No. Is failing to or refusing to live up to their expectations rude or disrespectful? No. Is disappointing them bad? No again. None of those things that they taught you are true. They lied.
They LIED to you. They redefined all of those things to condition you so they could control you. And as long as you continue to react as programmed, they are in control, not you, no matter how far away you live, no matter how long you have been NC.
What you may not yet realize is that you are the one who has all of the power in the relationship. That’s right—you have all of the power! They have managed to con you into not seeing that and allowing them to continue controlling you as they did from childhood. But you can stop that at any time—at any time you choose.
The thing is, it is not going to be easy. You are going to have to fight yourself, your own feelings, even what you perceive to be your instincts. They aren’t your instincts, they are programmed responses that are actually overriding your instincts. It is going to take work and effort on our part. It is going to take recognizing and stopping automatic responses and substituting the appropriate responses until they become habituated. It is going to take recognizing that it is your Ns who are being rude and disrespectful to you, not the other way around, and then putting a stop to it. It is not easy…but it is well worth every iota of effort you put into it.