From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
2. Thou shalt always send mixed messages, especially when it concerns relationships.
Sample Situation: A dominating father tells his child, “I love you. Now beat it and leave me alone.”
Application: You don’t really know what’s true. Either your father loves you or he hates you. Since you never know for sure, you’ll never be quite sure if others really mean what they say since those you loved most only spoke in mixed messages. They sounded good, but you couldn’t trust them.
Motto: Avoid people and relationships. It’s the safe thing to do.
Mixed messages leave you confused, especially if you haven’t discovered that when the behaviour and the words don’t match, believe the behaviour—it is much easier to lie with words than with behaviour. If this is news to you or if you didn’t figure it out for a long time, take heart—I am a fairly astute person and I never figured it out—my therapist had to tell me when I was 40 years old or so and dealing with not only my DoNM legacy but a protracted, ugly divorce from my NM-clone of a husband.
That’s not to say the actions are always honest, either, as people can…and will…behave in ways that gets them what they want, but in a conflict between the two, especially if the words are sweet and the actions are not, actions will tell the truth more often than the words.
Mixed messages often carry a deeper significance. In the example above, had the father said “I love you, now beat it and leave me alone, I’m busy,” the child will take away that whatever her father is doing at the moment is more important than she is. If it happens virtually every time the child goes to the father for attention, she eventually gets a message that says “everything in the world is more important than you are, everything from football on TV to taking a nap to reading a magazine to talking on the phone—everything is the world is more important than you are.” If the child subsequently learns that getting Daddy a beer or bringing him the remote or fetching his cigarettes earns her a moment of attention and maybe even a bit of praise, she learns that she must earn her Daddy’s attention and what feels like affection and if she must earn it, she must not be entitled to it. The seeds of low self-esteem and co-dependent, people-pleasing behaviour take root very, very early.
In a dysfunctional family—and families that include an NParent are inevitably dysfunctional—nothing is as it seems. Mixed messages are part of the “re-interpretation of reality” commandment in that a mixed message redefines things: neglect is redefined as love, abuse is redefined as discipline, cheating is redefined to have only one act and all else are exempted. So when Mom berates Dad for his online porn, Mom feels cheated on and Dad feels picked on because Dad believes that masturbating to pornographic images on the internet is not cheating, even though Mom feels it is cheating because it takes him and his attention and physical affection away from her.
Growing up in a household where mixed messages are the norm, where having an affair on line is not cheating because there was no sex, where loving a child means giving him stuff rather than attention and affection, where beating a child or exacting draconian punishments like giving away a child’s beloved pet are considered “discipline,” does more than confuse a child and cause distrust. It can redefine such things for the child’s entire life so that s/he becomes an adult who believes those self-serving redefinitions are, in fact, right and true. This spawns serial cheaters, neglectful parents who pay no attention to a child’s emotional needs, abusive parents who truly believe they are doing the right thing when they physically abuse their children in the name of discipline. We learn how to be parents from our own parents and unless we are uncommonly aware and insightful, we seldom stop to think about our parenting, we simply follow the path laid down by those before us. And if those before us were self-absorbed narcissists who cared more about their images than anything else, we get fleas and even pass them on to our own children.
When faced with mixed messages, at some point you have to choose which to believe: the words or the behaviour. When the words and the behaviour don’t match, the behaviour eventually tells the truth. Young children are naturally inclined to both believe and trust their parents, but when the parent’s behaviour doesn’t match his words, it creates a cognitive dissonance in the child that must be resolved. There are two ways to resolve that dissonance: the child must either redefine the parent’s words so that the behaviour and the words now match, or keep the definitions intact and cease to trust the parent. The choice the child makes will stay with her for her entire life…or at least until she seriously re-examines her choices and beliefs and takes it upon herself to restructure her entire set of beliefs and values.
For those who redefine words to fit the behaviours, trust becomes sacred: despite seeing and enduring bad treatment on the part of parents, the child must continue to trust them. And when the parents come through with basic survival sustenance—food, shelter, clothes—the child’s trust is reinforced, as is her belief in the love of her parents, even though they may otherwise abuse her. She learns that the abuse is her fault…they prove their love for her with food and shelter and discipline to make her a better person. And the child lives on hope—hope that she will someday be able to be good enough, worthy enough, to get that love without screwing up and getting punished. And she trusts—she trusts that the love is there, even if it feels like rejection and pain and punishment.
Battered women are women who believe the words, not the behaviour. Women who remain married to passive aggressive, alcoholic, drug abusing, cheating and/or abusive husbands are women who believe the words, not the behaviour. People who were abused as children but defend their parents’ behaviour are people who believe the words, not the behaviour. They are the victims of mixed messages who decided to end the cognitive dissonance through reinterpretation of reality.
The children who chose to resolve the cognitive dissonance by deciding not to trust may carry a different but equally dysfunctional legacy and show a host of adult dysfunctional behaviour. They don’t trust anyone and may be controlling, possessive, jealous. Because no one else in their lives is trustworthy, they think only chumps are trustworthy, and they aren’t chumps, so they cannot be trusted to keep their word, their promises, their vows. People who don’t trust can be difficult to live or work with, they may be secretive and suspicious, and ready to believe the worst in anyone on the thinnest thread of suggestion. They may even take pride in their lack of trust and see it as a virtue to be nurtured and developed, taking offense at the notion that an inability to trust is something to be corrected rather than vaunted.
Mixed messages are self-serving but only in the short term, for while they may buy the message-giver some time or solitude, or absolve him of some unwanted chore or responsibility, the gain comes at a high price. But since it is usually paid by someone else, there is no real incentive to desist, because it is the children, the innocent victims of these confusing messages, who grow up in these dysfunctional families who ultimately pay the cost.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
3. Thou shalt be an adult.
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.