From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
9. Thou shalt be perfect
Sample Situation: “Just because you got all ‘A’s on your report card doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have done better. You’re lazy. Now get to work and let’s see you get some more ‘A+s’!”
Lesson Learned: If it’s not perfect, people won’t love you. No matter how good it is, it’s never good enough...but keep trying!
Motto: You’re only as good as your performance and that’s still not good enough!
In a dysfunctional family, the standards of performance set by the parents often have no bearing on reality—or the performance of the parents, themselves, either. Narcissists are the masters of unreality—what they say is the last word, even if that last word should be “impossible.”
I recall a terrifying incident when I was somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10 in which my NM dragged me into the bathroom by my hair, slammed me against a wall, and turned on the tap full blast. She was furious with me for not completing some task I can no longer recall and she was enraged with me for attempting to excuse my failure by saying “I tried…” Screaming almost incoherently, she turned to that tap and told me that in the future I was never to “just try.” I was to do whatever it was she demanded of me, without failure. And then she pointed to the tap and said “If I tell you to tie a ribbon around that stream of water I don’t want to hear ‘I can’t’ or ‘I tried,’ I just want you to do it and no whining, do you understand me?” or something to that effect. I recall nodding my head and feeling utterly petrified, like I had stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone.
I think I remember this so clearly because this was the incident in which I became truly, viscerally afraid of her because I finally understood that she was, beyond a doubt, out of touch with reality and in my child’s mind, that made her extraordinarily dangerous. She wasn’t just mean, she was crazy and mean, too—a combination I was to often fear might become a lethal one, at least where I was concerned. We both knew what she was demanding of me was an impossibility and yet she had every expectation that I would fulfil that or any impossible task that she might set me to, or I would suffer dire consequences. To say the realization was disheartening would be to understate it by several magnitudes.
I recall that at about the age of 10 I became responsible for mopping the kitchen floor every Saturday morning. The floor was a dull brown asphalt tile, literally impossible to shine (at least with the products available in the stores in the mid 1950s), and rather like the colour of mud. To my child’s eyes, the only way you could tell the floor was dirty was if you walked over it and your shoes stuck to the floor. NM didn’t bother to show me or tell me how to properly wash that floor. There was a string mop in the laundry room and a tin bucket, and a box of Spic n Span under the kitchen sink. It was from the back of that box I got my only lessons in mopping a floor—that, and the “hard knocks” I got for everything wrong she found once I announced I was finished.
Do you really expect a 10-year-old to know you have to move all the chairs away from the table and sweep the room first? Do you really expect a 10 year old to know what constitutes a “clean” floor when the floor is the colour of dirt? I could barely wield the mop, I was so scrawny, and was hopeless at trying to wring it out…my little arms simply did not have the physical strength to do so. And, since the floor looked the same to me, dirty or clean, I couldn’t even tell if I was getting it clean or not! But NM apparently could tell and each failure, from failing to remove the chairs to failing to sweep to failing to wring out the mop sufficiently to leaving dirty marks on the skirting boards, warranted a separate physical punishment, each one accompanied by angry, impatient, screeching insults to my intelligence, eyesight, and ability to reason. Nothing short of perfection was acceptable and, perfection being an undefined, unstated goal, the goalpost moved unpredictably and often.
When I was seven I was skipped, mid-year, from second to third grade. Nobody bothered to assess what educational fundamentals I had missed and give me some make up classes—I assume everyone thought I would do just fine. But I missed multiplication and when I entered the new class, the kids were doing long division and this was way, way over my head. I was afraid to ask for help—the one time I approached my teacher with my dilemma, she suggested I might want to go back to the second grade, but that would turn my already frightening home life into a war zone, with me at the centre of it. So, instead of helping me with learning multiplication, the teacher intimidated me (I met up with her again in the 7th grade and she rather snidely asked me “so, did you ever learn to multiply?” in front of the Home Ec class she was teaching—I had to pretend I didn’t know what she was talking about) and I went away to struggle by myself.
This led to a lifelong problem with math—I became math phobic, silently weeping over homework I did not comprehend, unable to bear the humiliation of asking for help and having it thrown in my face. My grades fell…in the 4th grade I was assigned homework (not done in my school district for students below 7th grade unless they were having difficulty) and it plunged me into suicidal thoughts—if NM found out about the homework she would know I was failing math but if I didn’t do the homework, the teacher would call NM—either way, I was screwed and, at the tender age of 9, I began closing my bedtime prayers with a request to die in my sleep so I would not have to face NM when she found out. As this tender age I was brought nose-first up against my limitations and even my mortality, tragic when you consider that children this young should be looking forward to a limitless future rather than praying for deliverance through death.
Perfectionism on the part of parents puts an unwarranted burden on children, a burden that many children internalize and then grow to up put impossible pressures on themselves. If nothing less than perfect is acceptable, then the child learns to feel she is unacceptable because every day she finds evidence that she is not. This is devastating to a child’s self-esteem and just gets worse as she grows up and turns that pressure on herself. Media sets impossible standards of beauty, thinness, wittiness, coolness, setting before us role models who are genetically unlike us and who have access to unlimited resources to force themselves into conformation to the desired “norm.” If you are not thin enough, fair enough, blond enough, rich enough, blingy enough or whatever the current trend dictates, you are worthless.
At home, at school, at work, even at church, we are bombarded with messages of perfection, the barely disguised sneers for those of us who don’t measure up to standards of dress or style or grooming or knowledge or deportment; the fleeting approval when we hit the mark, only to have to do it again in an hour, the next class, the next day, the next Sunday. We are not OK just as we are, love and approval are earned, and we must earn them over and over again.
When we grow up and move out of our dysfunctional homes, we carry this message within us. We internalize it and now begin to beat up on ourselves, to relentlessly punish ourselves for our failures to achieve those impossible “norms” we have been trained to. When we cannot achieve something, it is not because it is impossible or unhealthy or beyond our grasp, it is because we are flawed. We are constantly assailed with more messages, from admonitions that pretend to be affirmations, to well meaning friends who urge us towards success, to our own inner voices who tell us “if you wanted it bad enough, you would make it happen,” whether it is realistic or not.
We learn to count ourselves by our failures, not our successes, and to judge ourselves not on what we accomplished but on what we didn’t achieve. Some of us learn to not try because if we never make an effort, we cannot fail…yes, if we don’t try, we cannot succeed, either, but if we try there is a possibility of failure and we will avoid that bitter taste at all costs. Some become compulsive, relentless, obsessed with their pursuit of success, never having enough because no matter how great the success, that brass ring eludes them…there is no love waiting at the end of each race, each merger, each buy-out, only the expectation that the next one will be bigger, better, more spectacular the last one.
Dysfunctional parents use the reward for performance concept dysfunctionally—they turn it into a carrot-and-stick affair in which the stick is constantly applied and the carrot never gained. Perfection is the key that opens the padlock holding that carrot just out of reach, but you never, ever seem to be just quite perfect enough. Internalized, you cannot love yourself, approve of yourself, feel good about yourself until you achieve that perfection and no matter how hard you try, there is always something you are not perfect about, something that makes you undeserving, something that keeps you from being worthy of love, either your own or someone else’s.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
10. Thou shalt not forgive yourself or others.
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.