From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families
by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
10. Thou shalt not forgive yourself or others.
Sample Situation: “You're always in my way, child! Why do you keep asking me to play with you? Don't you know I played with you last year? Wasn't that enough?! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Go to your room. Don't bother me.”
Lesson Learned: The only way I can be forgiven and loved is if I can earn it by being perfect. The guiltier I feel, the harder I must work to gain other's approval. If I make any mistakes, even a small one, they'll reject me or think I'm incompetent or worthless. I'm afraid I will make a mistake, I know I will, I feel so guilty. Therefore, even if I think I can do it, I won't. After all, I could make a mistake and then what would I do? Oh, I could never go back and say I'm sorry!
Motto: Since Jesus’ doesn't forgive me, I can't forgive you either.
There is an entry on the topic of forgiveness on this blog but it addressed the subject in a different way. Here we look at forgiveness from another angle: not giving it but receiving (or “earning”) it.
When we transgress, we feel bad—if we have a normal conscience, that is. In dysfunctional families, this can (and often is) used against us, to manipulate and control us. In the example above, a child’s normal need for attention and interaction are viewed by a dysfunctional parent as being excessive, leading the child to believe that her normal needs are undue, making her a burden on her parents. She is shamed for wanting more than she is being given and punished for it.
This does not change the child’s needs, but it does change her outlook on them. She will go from responding to her body’s and psyche’s cues as to her needs and take her parents’ cues: what they are willing to give her is all that she is entitled to and anything beyond that is excessive, greedy, demanding, burdensome—bad. But because her internal cues don’t change along with the child’s understanding of her parental expectations, she begins to feel bad about herself and the demands over which she no control, save to choose whether to act on them or suppress or hide them.
When my daughter was six she was stolen by my NM and taken out of state where she was eventually adopted by my childless aunt and uncle, my NM’s beloved younger brother. My sunny-natured, free-spirited child came under the thumb of an NM, a woman who had failed to pass the home study for an agency adoption and whose only hope of motherhood lay in adopting in a non-traditional way. When my mother presented them with a pair of pretty children, especially a highly intelligent, well-mannered, good-tempered little girl with long blond locks and a bright smile, they gladly took both of my kids off NM’s hands. Eight years later the children returned to me, my daughter transformed into a sneaky, manipulative child who, believing the tale told her by my NM and my aunt and uncle that I had abandoned her, considered herself a burden on me (because I did not want her based on the “fact” that I had abandoned her).
I took her to Macy’s to buy clothes—the same place I shopped for myself. I took her to the cosmetics counter for Clinique because of her teenaged-skin—I also bought my cosmetics at Macy’s. I took her to decent stores for her shoes and school supplies and everything else and heard nothing but complaints about my spending too much, that she could buy twice as much at Kmart with the same money, and that she was a burden. Nothing I said or did could convince her that she was not, just as nothing ever convinced her that I had not abandoned her. She was convinced that she had no entitlement to my care, either emotional or financial, and therefore what I gave to her was either a burden to me or, the alternative, an attempt to “buy” or manipulate her.
What I did not realize at the time was that this was a child who was begging for forgiveness for her needs. Her very survival had depended on the largesse of strangers for eight long years, first as the pawn of my NM, then as the trophy show-piece at the Yacht Club for my aunt and uncle. Her sense of true entitlement—the entitlement to love and care from her parents, to have her needs met to the best of their ability—had been so warped by her role as the GC in my aunt’s household that she could only see our interaction as a transaction and I was setting the bar too high for her with shopping at Macy’s rather than Kmart. There were many other dysfunctional dynamics in our relationship, to be sure, but this was something she spoke out about: “I am a burden here, why don’t you send me away?”
What could I have said? “Of course you are a burden, every child represents a financial burden but it is one borne with love?” Believing that I had abandoned her when she was six, would she have believed it? Certainly no more than she believed my denial. Sadly, she carried this notion of a child being a burden over to her own child who was, on the one hand was spoiled shamelessly with material goods and an almost total lack of discipline or boundaries, but on the other hand, neglected shamefully in terms of emotional content and even basic teaching of such things as manners. He was a burden who was left to shift for himself, his protests silenced with stuff.
Can a child who believes herself a burden accept “forgiveness” for being so? Can they even believe that they are not nor ever were? Can narcissists simultaneously maintain the opposing sense of being a burden and being entitled?
Feeling like you are a burden makes you feel guilty, at least in the beginning. And when you feel guilty, you try to find ways to expiate that guilt. As children, we take cues from the adults around us who, in a dysfunctional family, are all too happy to tell us our shortcomings. We seek their approval and their forgiveness by trying to surmount those shortcomings, to earn their forgiveness for not being who or what they want us to be. It is, of course, a futile effort because the real shortcoming is not in us, it is in them, in people who cannot, will not, forgive a child for being just a child.
And so we grow up burdens, feeling guilty for our normal, natural needs, turning ourselves inside out to earn forgiveness for without being forgiven, we cannot earn approval or love. And we grow up with this warped notion, which ultimately we internalize, that we are not worthy of love, that we are fundamentally flawed and therefore unlovable. And we grow up thinking that we must somehow abase ourselves, to work for ways to earn forgiveness for our fundamentally flawed selves, in order to be worthy of love.
This is how we get stuck in a cycle of abuse, either going from one abusive partner to another or repeatedly returning to an abusive partner. We take responsibility for their abuse, believing our imperfections, our flaws, our behaviours are the problem, not his (or her) choice to respond to us with abuse and even violence. We do not deserve someone who treats us with respect and love, we must earn it because we see it as a reward for our performance, not as an entitlement of our humanity...and if we feel it is given too easily, we may even disdain it. But before we can begin to earn our rewards, we must first earn forgiveness for our flaws, and that forgiveness must come from a person who holds us in the same contempt, who views us with the same scorn, we knew at the hands of our dysfunctional family.
Without knowing that we do so, we seek forgiveness for simply being. We expect to do things perfectly the first time we attempt to do them, and our failure to do so just further convinces us of our worthlessness. If we continue to associate with Ns, any attempt we may make at giving ourselves props for the parts we did get right, get squelched. In the late 1970s I drove an English sports car and my NHusband and I decided to do a “time and distance” road rally. Or, rather, he decided to do the rally, saying he would navigate so I could drive. (This way, if we won the rally, we won—but if we lost, I was the driver so it was my fault.)
It was my first rally, so I was learning as I went along. Two of the other cars (of a field of perhaps 25 cars) had onboard rally computers—very unusual and costly for the time. I have to give NHubby kudos for not sabotaging me with the navigation (which he easily could have) and, to my utter shock, we came in third place, right behind the two cars with the rally computers. I was thrilled! Ecstatic! Going into the rally, my goal was simply to finish it without getting lost or otherwise making a fool of myself and I placed third and got a trophy!
NHubby quickly stuck a needle-sharp criticism into my balloon of euphoria—it was only third place, he reminded me. “So,” I asked him, annoyed, “It’s our first rally! Did you expect to win it, for heaven’s sake?” His answer? “Yes.” Turns out, third place was still losing in his book, and it was one more failure to add to my list of unforgivable sins.
When we play this game with narcissistic, dysfunctional people, we allow them to set the parameters of our lives. We allow them to define for us good and bad, right and wrong, and we give them the power to hold us to their standards by seeking their forgiveness, their approval, their love. But Thomas Szasz, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York says “A child becomes an adult when he realizes that he has a right not only to be right but also to be wrong.” We have a right to be wrong!
We have a right to make mistakes, a right to make errors, to screw up, to fall short of the goal, to err, to not measure up to standard—most especially, a standard set by someone else. We have a right to live without seeking the forgiveness of unforgiving others who would keep us lapping at their heels like pet dogs, forever seeking the forgiveness for our never-ending sins, the forgiveness that could lead to approval and from there, perhaps to that most elusive of treasures, love.
We have a right to be wrong, to live with pride in what we did accomplish without being dragged down by what we didn’t. We have a right to set our own standards and goals…and to fall short of even those! We have a right to be unapologetically human and to need no forgiveness for that most quintessential of human traits, imperfection.
When we realize that we do not need their forgiveness, that we have been set up and manipulated to keep us jumping through the hoops that keep them entertained and filled to the brim with Nsupply, we find our boundaries, our separateness, our autonomy. And we finally see that there could never have been any forgiveness given because there was never anything to be forgiven for.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families: A Summary
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.