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.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Attention-seeking: a tale of two psyches

All children need attention. In addition to their bodily needs such as food and shelter, they have emotional needs for nurturing and love. Babies are hard-wired to get that attention—they cry when they need food, warmth, or other kinds of attention and they are mightily persistent. In a nurturing environment, these babies get their needs for attention met and as they develop, their needs diminish with time. But children whose needs are not adequately met still need the attention that is denied them and as they grow older their needs do not diminish even though they may appear to as the child’s demands may lessen with time. This may occur because either the child learns through repeated disappointment that certain people cannot be approached for nurturance, or the child is punished for such an approach and learns that to need anything is to be bad…or both.

Narcissists have no inclination to nurture: a narcissistic mother can fake it as long as she gets lots of attention and praise for her pretty baby and the cute clothes she dresses the child in, and some are even diligent about such things as bathing and changing and feeding, but there is no emotional attachment behind it. A family member of mine whose pregnancy was a surprise—and not an especially welcome one—once told me that after her son was born, she kept waiting for that “rush of mother love” she had heard about to come over her and it just didn’t happen. She looked at him and just felt nothing. She took adequate physical care of the child, but was completely disengaged from him emotionally.

Mothers like this tend to ignore their children to the greatest degree they believe they can get away with, as long as it doesn’t affect their own acquisition of admiration. Children can be lavished with gifts and toys as a means of neglecting them emotionally (giving them stuff instead of attention) or they can be deprived of everything except those most basic essentials…and a few may be criminally neglected to death. If the child wants or needs anything more than the mother has deemed necessary—and this is critical because the child’s actual needs are subordinate to what the narcissistic parent decides what the child needs, which may be poles apart—she perceives the child as demanding more than his due. Some mothers, like mine, completely ignore a child except in the most basic ways, giving only perfunctory attention to fundamental needs and being punitive when faced with a need—which she perceived as an unwarranted demand—for more.

It should be a no brainer to recognize that a child who actively demands attention is doing so because s/he is not receiving enough…or at least not enough of the right kind. Unfortunately, this is not always the case as there are children who demand an excessive amount of attention not because they have been abused or neglected, but because they have been conditioned to believe that they are entitled to monopolize the attentions of others. Since narcissistic parents often single out one or more children as “Golden Children” who are invariably spoilt and given privileges, goods, and attention denied to the Scapegoat children, it is quite likely in a multi-child household with at least one narcissistic parent that there will be more than one child clamouring for attention, assuming the Scapegoat, or neglected, child has not yet learned to stop trying.

Narcissistic parents are so self-oriented that often they cannot be bothered to investigate a child’s—particularly a Scapegoat child’s—complaints and dismiss them out of hand as “attention-getting devices.” In addition to the problem of the child being deprived of necessary attention by this, she is also deprived of any care her complaint would have elicited from a normal parent. From too-small shoes to toothaches to poor vision to medical conditions warranting a doctor’s attention, children who are dismissed as attention-seekers without having their complaints investigated can be neglected and ultimately end up neglecting themselves because if their parents didn’t think their toothaches or shaggy hair warranted attention, why should they? It is a self-esteem issue, a matter of a sense of self-worth, that was internalized from the value placed on them by their parents when they were children, dependent on their parents’ wisdom, good will, and love.

All children believe, at least when they are small, that their parents are omnipotent. From a completely dependent infancy where our parents’ judgments and activity literally meant life or death for us, we grow up believing and accepting that our parents gave us the care we needed—so if they denied us something, we believed we didn’t need it. Cognitively, however, we may recognize that we do need something, like bigger shoes or a trip to the dentist and if our parents withhold it, particularly if they withhold it from us while giving it to someone else in the family, we begin to learn that for reasons unknown to us, we are apparently unworthy and undeserving, while another child in the family is entitled. If we clamour for the attention we need, we are admonished, shamed, discounted, invalidated, and we come to learn that our own assessments of our needs are inaccurate (even when they, in truth, are accurate) Actions—behaviours—do speak louder than words, so by being neglected by our parents, we learn that we are not deserving of the same treatment as others in the household, that we are incompetent to assess our own needs, and that we are bad and selfish to try to draw attention to our needs or to try to put our need for a trip to the dentist ahead of our GC sibling’s new bicycle.

If, through independent means, we are found to actually need that which we have been clamouring for, it becomes our fault. I had my first fillings at age 13 or 14 as the result of a toothache that drove me to the school nurse. She packed some oil of cloves into the cavity, then called my NM to tell her that I needed dental work. At first NM denied it and said I was employing yet “another attention-getting device” and “refused to be conned” by me into “wasting money on a useless trip to the dentist.” When the nurse insisted, saying she would involve Child Services and have me taken to the County Hospital for the work, NM capitulated. But not without a price: looking in my mouth, I had four visible cavities in my molars. It was pre-fluoride days and I was 14 and had never been to a dentist before! But the cavities were not a result of her neglect of my oral health—oh no, they were my fault for not brushing my teeth often enough. (I had not had a new toothbrush since I was six, so it’s pretty obvious what a priority my teeth were to her.)

Unfortunately, the dentist was a ham-handed brute, the cavities were large, and by the time the teeth were filled, I had developed a life-long fear of dentists to go along with my belief that I did not deserve dental care except in the circumstance of extreme pain. It did not bode well for my dental future. Neglect on the part of parents, whether obvious like the denial of medical attention or more subtle, like the withholding of love and support, can have life-long and devastating negative effects on children.

Naturally, my NM did not neglect her own care. She saw her dentist regularly, including for teeth cleaning, and when she needed a doctor, she did not hesitate to go. I suffered greatly from allergies, particularly from fur and feathers, but not only did she keep a big hairy Persian cat, she wouldn’t take me to the doctor for allergy medications (no OTC meds for allergies back then, either). It was not until my constant sneezing and sniffling was an annoyance to her that I got allergy meds…but let her have the first sniffle, and it was off to an ENT to have her sinuses irrigated.

Appearances were everything to my NM. I have what is called a “natural turnout” and if she’d been interested in my taking ballet classes, she would quickly have learned that this is considered a rare and desirable advantage. Unfortunately, she was more interested in making me a singing and/or movie star so my “natural turnout” got termed “duck footed” due to “fallen arches” and for years I had to endure rigid arch supports that blistered my feet, ugly saddle oxford shoes that did nothing for my social standing, grace or comfort, and regular visits to a podiatrist for new supports as my feet grew. It never did cure me of the “duck walk” that my NM found offensive, but it did set me up for years of feet and knee problems in adulthood because I had to learn to pronate my knees and walk on the outsides of soles of my feet.

My GCBro was a robustly healthy child, a bit on the fat side, and until the age of 8 or 10, he wet the bed at night. While I got punished for not pointing my toes straight ahead when I walked (and was intentionally tripped by her to “make me aware” of how I was walking), GCBro was taken to specialists, including a chiropractor, to “cure” his bedwetting. She didn’t want to hear that he would eventually outgrow it, she wanted it fixed and right now. The contrast, of course, being that GCBro was never blamed for his wet bed nor told it was his fault, whereas my “duck feet” were my fault for being lazy and not paying attention to how I walked. (Note: I am not saying GCBro should have been blamed for his wet bed or be faulted for it, only noting that he did not endure the criticism and disdain I did for things equally beyond my control.)

I have always found it curious that NM was so fixated on my feet yet neglected legitimate medical complaints like my allergies, my teeth, my vision (getting my first pair of glasses was almost a verbatim repeat of getting my first fillings, complete with the school nurse threatening her with Child Services and me getting harangued non-stop for the week it took to get my eye appointment). People couldn’t see inside my mouth or through my eyes so it couldn’t reflect on her, and her response to my allergies was to tell me “Stop that goddamned sniffling and sneezing!” as if I was doing it on purpose, thereby reinforcing her schtick of being martyr mama to the Most Defiant Child in the Civilized World.

These children inevitably grow up to be adults and develop into two basic categories: the attention-starved and the attention whore. Sometimes they look confusingly alike on the surface, as both may use similar techniques to draw attention to themselves. But while they may look superficially similar, their motivations are light years apart: the attention whore feels entitled to attention, to people fawning over her, giving her what she wants, to taking what she wants…the attention-starved is just that—starved and desperate for any kind of attention that might validate her existence.

Both might demonstrate the same kind of outward appearance, say blatantly sexual in dress and behaviour, and they may get similar results—lots of male attention. But whereas one is doing it from a sense of entitlement, feeling she deserves the adulation, the other is grasping at crumbs of anything that she might be able to convince herself has a resemblance to affection. Both might engage in affairs with married men, the GC because she believes she is entitled to anything she wants and has no respect for others, including the betrayed wife, whereas the SG believes she must take what she can get when it is available, her own need so deep that it overrides her sense of right and wrong. The GC will feel entitled and will be unlikely to suffer remorse or shame; the SG will likely feel guilty but excuse herself with “But I love him…I can’t help it!” even when faced with incontrovertible facts proving she is nothing more than a temporary play toy. Their behaviours may look the same but the reasons behind them are light years apart.

The attention-starved may come off looking like an attention whore at first because she may display some of the same behaviours. Attention-starved women may also come across as shy or withdrawn or quiet, rather than as party girls. They may have learned that attention is a dangerous thing, that to draw attention to themselves too often can result in negative, hurtful attention. But regardless of whether she comes across extroverted or introverted, there is an element of desperation about her that reeks of deprivation, of having a hole in her soul, of her being a bottomless pit of need. It is to these women that narcissists and abusers gravitate because their very desperation sets them up to tolerate behaviour that well-balanced women—and even their GC sisters—would not stand for.

GC women tend to attract enablers, men who feed their overblown egos. Narcissistic men may be drawn to them due to their flashy, attention-seeking ways but such pairings are bound for conflict when they each expect to be the centre of attention. “Normal” men may be flattered to be the object of an attention-seeking GC, only to find out later that they were being used. Or, they may adopt enabling ways to keep the GC interested.

However they end up, you can be assured that children who are raised in such a way that they did not receive adequate, balanced, positive nurturing and attention will grow up into adults who will engage in unhealthy relationships as adults. They will gravitate towards people who are their opposite number, people who will support their self-image whether that image is one of entitlement or privation. Very rarely does a DoNM, whether a GC or SG, luck into a healthy relationship with a healthy partner simply because healthy partners do not fulfil their inner needs: they find them dull and boring or “too good to be true” and reject them in favour of less balanced partners who can be their yin to their yang. And absent awareness and therapy, they are doomed to repeat their unsuccessful or unsatisfactory relationships, relationships they have been groomed for since the cradle, for life.

Next: No Contact

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

You don’t have to earn ANYBODY’s respect!

Lives there a person who has never heard the phrase “You have to earn my respect!”? Do you have any idea what a load of rubbish that is? Respect is an entitlement, not something you have to earn.

I addressed this topic back in April on my general blog, A View from the Other Side, and this is what I said back then:

Do you think people should earn your respect? Really? Why?

When I was growing up, respect was not something you earned. Respect was freely given, in fact, it was considered an entitlement. It was DISrespect that had to be earned. Now, if you think I’m full of crap on this, put on your thinking cap and follow along with me.

In a circumstance in which respect is not freely accorded to others, disrespect reigns. When you respect the rights and feelings of others, you don’t do things that might infringe on those rights or impinge on their feelings: you don’t cut in front of them in line, you don’t cut them off on the highway, you don’t interrupt when they are speaking, you don’t insult their politics or religious inclinations, you don’t assault their ears with loud cell-phone conversations, or impair their breathing with your second hand smoke—and they don’t do the same to you.

Common courtesy and manners, the lubricant that oils the wheels of social interaction, are based on simple respect for the feelings and rights of others. When respect is absent, disrespect reigns…and when you behave disrespectfully, you invite others to behave towards you in the same way.

Speaking altruistically, you must give respect to get respect and a society that values pleasant social interaction must be based on the simple tenet that we must all respect each other if we are to avoid conflict and make progress.

But there is another, more practical and less esoteric reason that respect must be freely given rather than earned: the sheer impossibility of doing so.

You see, there are billions of people on this planet and even if you live an insular life in a small town, you are going to meet quite a few of them. And each person is going to be different, have different mores and beliefs and feelings…and each one will have different criteria for earning respect. Moreover, those criteria will not be tattooed on their foreheads, nor will they thoughtfully hand you a list of them…in fact, if asked, they will likely be hard pressed to even articulate what it takes for you to earn their respect. And if they really thought about it diligently, it is most likely that one of the critical criteria would be that you show respect to them.

You are no different. You have some kind of nebulous concept rattling around in the back of your brain that defines what it means to earn your respect. And you hold countless numbers of complete strangers to this amorphous, undefined criteria in order to “earn” your respect, without telling them or even being able to articulate it yourself. This is grossly unfair. It is setting a standard to which you expect others to measure up without ever telling them what the standard is. It virtually guarantees failure on the part of others and virtually guarantees you a conscience-free pass to be rude and disrespectful to the majority of people you meet! I mean, if they don’t earn your respect, why should you treat them respectfully?

This attitude is the most basic underpinning of bullying. If you don’t respect someone because you believe they have to earn your respect and you have made it impossible for them to do by creating an impossible and/or invisible set of standards, then you don’t need to respect their rights or their feelings, do you? If you further create some gates that a person must pass through in order to even try to earn your respect—like they must be straight, or Christian, or politically conservative, or a certain race or ethnicity or gender—you further create a situation that you feel absolutely justified in not respecting those who are unable to pass through those gates. If they can’t jump through the hoops and avoid the obstacles you have set up, then you feel perfectly justified in disrespecting them.

When you consider that there are potentially billions of people doing this, that if you meet 100 people in the course of a week, each one of them may be doing this to you, you may begin to see how this cannot work as a way of life. If you meet 100 people and each of them has a different criteria for having their respect earned and none of them are willing to tell you what you must do to “earn” their respect, you are basically screwed. It is a hit or miss situation where “earning” someone’s respect is accidental rather than by design or intent. It is, with rare exception, impossible.

But it goes even deeper than this. Consider for a moment: what kind of a person truly believes that his respect is so rare a commodity that others must earn it? What kind of a person has so little respect within his heart that he must dole it out only to those who are willing to abase themselves to “earn” it? If you think of yourself as a “good person,” what are you doing withholding that most basic entitlement of humans, the right to be respected simply because they exist?

That’s right—we all have basic human rights—and the right to be respected is one of them. We earn DISrespect when we have done something worthy of it, but respect is your birthright. And to expect others to earn your respect is tantamount to saying that you are entitled to withhold from them a right that came with their first breath, setting yourself as a superior being above those from whom you withhold your respect. It speaks ill of your character, and reflects badly upon your moral fibre.

Many of us have bought into the notion that respect must be earned out of ignorance and lack of critical thinking. We aren’t really bullies and we deplore the lack of common courtesy we are subjected to in daily life. Curiously, while we take the position that strangers must earn our respect, we fully expect those strangers to treat us with the respect and courtesy we have made no effort to “earn” from them. It’s a one-way street in our minds—others should treat us with respect but they must earn ours—and we don’t even realize it!

If you take the time to really think about it, you have to come to the conclusion that respect simply cannot be earned. No one person is sufficiently intuitive and simultaneously fluid of personality that they can divine and appropriately react to an infinite, and infinitely changing, set of demands. You cannot please all of the people all of the time—and when it comes to earning respect, you cannot even know what all of the people think you need to do.

If you want to be respected, there is a simple way to achieve that: respect others. Respect their feelings, their rights, their existence. Give them respect as a matter of course and only withhold it when a specific person has done a specific thing that is worthy of withdrawing it. Set the bar high—determine that taking your respect away from a person is a serious thing, not to be taken lightly or in response to something small, like disagreeing with you politically. In fact, to my way of thinking, it is only demonstrating an ingrained lack of respect for others that warrants the withdrawal of my respect.

You might consider this the next time you think another person should earn your respect rather than you giving it freely and giving him a chance to earn your disrespect instead.

Narcissists do this. They believe that their respect has to be earned and thereby create a set up to justify treating other people like crap. When you don’t respect someone, you don’t feel obligated to have a caution for their feelings or even their rights. When you believe others have to earn your respect, you have created a world in which you don’t have to respect anybody until and unless they earn it from you, as if you have the right to disrespect everyone on the planet until they bow to your expectations…a pretty narcissistic attitude, to my way of thinking.

Many years ago, when I was struggling with my NHusband’s gaslighting and manipulative ways, my therapist gave me some invaluable advice: when the words and the behaviour don’t match, believe the behaviour because it is so much easier to lie with words than with deeds. And so you look at how people treat you, how they act: people who respect you will treat you as an Equal and they won’t try to manipulate you by taking a Superior or Subordinate position with you. Anyone who assumes a Superior or Subordinate position with you is treating you without respect…and when you assume a Superior or Subordinate position, you are doing the same.

A good part of what is wrong with the world today is as a result of rampant disrespect. What is wrong with our relationships with our FOO is, at its core, a lack of respect being shown to us by them. Some women are simply incapable of loving their children—love is an emotion that we cannot will—but even those women are capable of respecting their children and their rights and their feelings. They cannot choose to love us…love operates independent of our conscious choice…but they can choose to respect us.

By their very nature, narcissists are disrespectful of others. But they are not necessarily disrespectful of everyone—my NexH and my MNM both had people they admired, people they looked up to and wanted to be like. Admittedly, all of their idols were powerful, wealthy people who, for the most part, they did not personally know, but the fact remains that they did not disrespect these people even though these people had not earned their respect through any direct or conscious means. In truth, there is nothing personal in a narcissist’s disrespect of you, at least in the beginning, because that disrespect is pretty much universal: even if the narcissist doesn’t know you, s/he disrespects you…it is the default condition of the narcissist.

A narcissist disrespects anyone and everyone he does not perceive as worthy of being his role model. That means most family members (exceptions might be made for a family member who has achieved that which the narcissist wishes to achieve: fame, wealth, power—but the narcissist could just as easily be so envious that s/he despises and disrespects him or her) and virtually everyone the narcissist knows well.

The narcissist doesn’t really know what respect is. While we know that respect is part of the Equal/Equal transaction, the Narcissist sees it as a situation in which the respected person is a Superior, not just in a transaction but in life, and the narcissist is a subordinate. Respect, to the narcissist, has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with being willingly subordinate to the idol the narcissist wishes to emulate. But there is nothing selfless in this subordination: the narcissist expects to find ways to profit by her emulation and admiration, whether it is clues as to how to be more attractive to men (my NM used to copy Marilyn Monroe, right down to the bleached hair, halter dress and fake beauty mark) or to become rich and powerful (or at least to make others think you are—my NexH went to his 20th high school reunion dressed in a 3-piece suit complete with watch chain and rented a Lincoln Continental from the airport…no mundane Chevy and sport shirt and slacks for him!).

Narcissists demand respect from others—or try to con others into thinking they should be respected—without being willing to give respect to others. They demand that we earn respect from them without telling us how to go about doing that…because they don’t know. And if you are thinking this is a set-up you are right, that is exactly what it is.


Because the narcissistic view of respect is such that, in order to “respect” you, the narcissist would have to believe you were better than s/he is…and that is never going to happen. The people the narcissist respects are people whom the narcissist not only admires and wishes to emulate but people whose feet of clay—their human failings—the narcissist has not yet found or acknowledged. And so you have an NM who raises an NDaughter or NSon who may well respect their NM, ignoring (or even admiring) her faults, doing her bidding, defending her and in doing so, defending themselves. NM may even come to admire one of her Nchildren, assuming the child achieves highly in an area NM finds worthy: Charlie’s brother became a millionaire through some pretty shifty means but their NM didn’t care about how he got his money: Alvin became a millionaire and she explained away and excused his boorishness, rudeness, and bullying behaviours with “He’s a millionaire. Millionaires are like that.” Alvin did not respect Charlie and neither did their NM, they both bullied and insulted him behind his back and, on occasion, even to his face. You don’t treat people you respect that way.

Bottom line is, narcissists cannot respect anyone they deem beneath them and narcissists deem everyone beneath them except the select few they wish to emulate. Earning respect is virtually impossible even in the best of circumstances but with a narcissist, it is quite impossible: they will never let you.

Respect is something you are entitled to, just like the air you breathe. The idea that you have to earn respect is as ludicrous as the idea that you have to earn your air, that someone has the right to withhold it from you until you figure out what you have to do to earn it…and they get to change the rules as they go along.

You don’t have to earn anybody's respect and people who withhold respect from you and expect you to jump through hoops like a trained dog to “earn” it aren’t going to give it to you, no matter how many hoops you jump through—the fact of your willingness to abase yourself in order to earn their approval and respect will, automatically, render you unworthy. And while being denied air for four minutes will kill you and being denied respect will not, respect is no less an entitlement and anyone who tells you differently has a selfishly irrational and manipulative view of the subject.

If a person doesn’t respect you, it says volumes more about her than is does about you…and none of it good.

Next: The two sides of “Attention Seeking”

Monday, October 22, 2012

Superior, Subordinate, Equal Pt 2: DOING it!

Remember in the last entry I noted that you needed to learn how an Equal/Equal transaction feels? “You start by finding out what an Equal/Equal transaction feels like. This is a situation in which two people treat each other as equals, with respect for the other person’s position and feelings, even if they don’t agree. If there is an issue under discussion, some persuasion may be encountered, but it will be put forth respectfully as an appeal to reason and will not include any implications that you are somehow defective if you persist in your disagreement. The transaction will close as the result of a compromise or an agreement by both parties to agree to disagree. Respect by and for both people involved will be the hallmark of the transaction. When you walk away from a transaction like this, even if you didn’t get all that you wanted out of it (compromise involves giving up something of what you want in order to get some of what you want), you do not walk away feeling beaten down or disrespected, nor do you walk away angry. If you truly had an Equal/Equal transaction, you feel respected by the other party—and respect for the other party—even if you didn’t get what you wanted…Suppose you walk away from the transaction feeling angry and taken advantage of? Or beaten down and crying? Or guilty? Or victorious, like you got one over on the other guy? Then you did not participate as an Equal. If you felt victorious—or angry that you didn’t get what you wanted—then you participated as a Superior. If you felt defensive or guilty, you participated as a Subordinate.” How you feel, both during the transaction and after, is a key to learning how to tell when a transaction is diverging from an Equal/Equal path.

One of our barriers to this knowledge is our own hypervigilance: we hear or see challenges that aren’t really there…and then we react to them as if they really were. Sometimes we are even proud of ourselves for putting that nosy neighbour or snotty clerk “in their places,” but when that happens, you aren’t transacting as an Equal, you are transacting as a Superior. Before we can hold the feet of others to the fire, we first have to get a handle on our own tendencies to conduct transactions from a Superior or Subordinate place.

I am not going to kid you—this can be hard. What you will be doing is trying to break a very bad habit that has been ingrained in you since childhood. Not only that, but you will be trying to do this while others are trying to sabotage you…and while most of that sabotage will not be intentional, some of it very well may be—there are people out there who will feel very threatened if they can’t push your buttons any more and they will do what they can to keep those buttons active! When you succeed (not “if,” when) you will be in a position where you choose to act as a Superior or Subordinate, not because you automatically default to it when faced with someone else taking one or the other. (Yes, there are times when choosing a Superior or Subordinate position is appropriate or wise…what matters is that it is a choice, not a reaction.) When you succeed, you will have taken back your power.

What you will be doing is eliminating a longstanding habit, and you will be doing it against opposition. Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, which is why habits can be so hard to break so, instead of breaking the habit, you will substitute a new, healthier habit for the old, unhealthy one. The first step in doing this is awareness. You can’t stop a habituated behaviour unless you can recognize when you are doing it—after the fact is too late. Catching yourself in the middle is good—catching yourself before you begin is even better: both can be tough. When I quit smoking I had to create new behaviours to help me catch myself. Instead of putting my cigarettes and lighter close to me for convenience, I would purposely put the cigarettes in one room and the lighter in another and me in a third. By forcing myself to get up and walk from room to room to get and light a cigarette, I forced myself to be aware of what I was doing…which gave me the option to stop before I unconsciously grabbed a cig and lit it.

In the beginning, I would only realize I was smoking about half way through the cigarette…at that point I could make a decision: finish the smoke or put it out. I would put it out, but that wasn’t helping me to awareness, breaking the automatic, unconscious act of getting a cigarette and lighting it. So I moved them to another room, making me have to actually get up and make an effort to get them and a further effort to light one up. This broke the automatic part of the habit—it made me aware of what I was doing and that awareness gave me choice: light one up or put them down. I have now been a non-smoker for more than 25 years…

Breaking the REactive habit works much the same way: first you must become aware and that, in itself, can be tricky. You see, I once had a very strong REactive habit and not only was I aware of it, I was proud of it! It was perhaps my worst flea. I had the first step down pat, but that second step—acknowledging it was an unhealthy behaviour—was a tough one because I was getting something out of it. You see, we learn a lot of things from our NMs, some of it stuff we don’t realize. What I had absorbed from my NM was that taking responsibility (“blame”) was foolish if you could find a way to make it someone else’s fault. Like NM, I had a volatile temper and I could rationalize it, excuse it, by making it someone else’s fault. I was merely reacting to something someone else did or said, therefore I wasn’t responsible. Without that provocation, I was the nicest person you would want to know, but don’t piss me off (and back then, it didn’t take much to piss me off)! This REactive behaviour wasn’t limited to my temper, either. It pervaded all parts of my life (I told you it was a big flea!)…I literally lived my life in reaction to others.

Some people may get “helplessness” out of their REactive response: NM snarls and you immediately react by becoming subordinate and helpless…you can’t help yourself, you are afraid, you need rescuing, poor you! It becomes OK to be helpless in all facets of your life because the REactive habit with NM bleeds over into the workplace, into relationships with coworkers, lovers, even kids…it is how you become a doormat. You—and only you—can change that by stepping out of REactive behaviour into PROactive behaviour and you do that by taking back your power—by changing how you respond to them.

It took therapy to fix me. When I changed therapists (mine was going overseas), I chose an older woman who was experienced in dealing with abuse survivors, particularly emotional abuse. In our first session she evoked a startling reaction out of me: she said in our work together, I would learn to become strong…and I recoiled in a panic! I did not want to be strong! My mother was strong and I didn’t want to be anything like her! She was so strong she crushed people beneath her heel and I would never, ever want to be like that!

It took some work and it took some time, but eventually I came to realize that not only was my mother not “strong,” she was a bully, but that I was choosing my life in reaction to her…a kind of rebellion, as it were…and in doing so, she was still controlling my life! This was a pivotal discovery: no matter how independent you think you are, if you live your life in reaction to others, you are not in control of your life, they are.

So, the first step is one of awareness, and the second is one of internalizing that living in a reactionary state is not healthy and you must therefore want to change that. What comes next?

Monitoring yourself. Try to have Equal/Equal transactions with people—sales clerks, co-workers, your neighbour. Monitor your emotional response to what they are saying: did you feel defensive or guilty or like you wanted to fix or help the person? Analyze that feeling: did the person actually try to persuade (or even order) you to do something or did you perceive some well-meant advice or suggestion as a command? Did the person really seem to be trying to get you to volunteer to dog sit or mow her lawn or pull her weeds, or did you perceive some friendly neighbour revelations as a manipulative bid to get you to do it for her?

You see, we are hypersensitized to manipulation and may see it were it does not exist. To protect ourselves, many of us have learned to perceive innocuous communication from others as having a manipulative subtext and while this may well be very true of our NMs, it is not true of everybody. And while you have the right to suspect subtext and refuse to fall for it, you do not have the right to be rude or challenging about your refusal. How about an example?

Equal/Equal transaction:
Mrs. Elderly Neighbour: Hello, dear, I haven’t seen you around for a while.
Donna: Hello, Mrs. Neighbour! How have you been?
Mrs. EN: oh, not so good, my dear. Getting old has its price…my poor garden is going to ruin because I can’t pull up those tough weeds any more and the big garden shears…well my shoulders just won’t take it. And then there is Mr. Kitty—I have to go to my sister’s next month and she is allergic to cats and I have no one to care for Mr. Kitty now that my daughter has moved to Timbuktu…
Donna: I’m sorry to hear that. You know, I think my vet has a boarding service where you could leave Mr. Kitty—and I am sure I have seen cards for pet sitters there. Would you like his number? Have you thought about Mr. Next Door’s son? He might enjoy earning a little money by pulling those weeds for you…he mowed my lawn last weekend and did a good job, considering he’s only 12…

Equal/Superior transaction:
Mrs. Elderly Neighbour: Hello, dear, I haven’t seen you around for a while.
Donna: Hello, Mrs. Neighbour! How have you been?
Mrs. EN: oh, not so good, my dear. Getting old has its price…my poor garden is going to ruin because I can’t pull up those tough weeds any more and the big garden shears…well my shoulders just won’t take it. And then there is Mr. Kitty—I have to go to my sister’s next month and she is allergic to cats and I have no one to care for Mr. Kitty now that my daughter has moved to Timbuktu…
Donna: Well, I certainly hope you aren’t hinting that I take that hairy beast into my house and get hair all over everything. And if you can’t keep your yard up, you should be hiring a garden service. Letting your garden go to wrack and ruin just lowers the property values of the neighbourhood. Your garden is not only a mess, but your house needs a good paint job too. You should be ashamed, in an economy like this, lowering the value of everybody’s house on the street because you are too lazy or too cheap to hire it done!

Equal/Subordinate transaction:
Mrs. Elderly Neighbour: Hello, dear, I haven’t seen you around for a while.
Donna: Hello, Mrs. Neighbour! How have you been?
Mrs. EN: oh, not so good, my dear. Getting old has its price…my poor garden is going to ruin because I can’t pull up those tough weeds any more and the big garden shears…well my shoulders just won’t take it. And then there is Mr. Kitty—I have to go to my sister’s next month and she is allergic to cats and I have no one to care for Mr. Kitty now that my daughter has moved to Timbuktu…
Donna: I’m so sorry to hear that. Maybe I could keep Mr. Kitty for you? I’m allergic to cats, too, but I can get some allergy meds from my doctor. I can make some time Saturday and take care of those weeds for you…I think I have a little time between my lunch date and my dental appointment…or I could just cancel the lunch date…no, I’ll cancel the dentist because I’ll be useless after I see him…

In the last two transactions, Donna perceives that Mrs. Elderly Neighbour is trying to manipulate her into providing free pet-sitting and free gardening services when, in fact, Mrs. EN is innocuously answering Donna’s question. In the Equal/Superior transaction, Donna takes umbrage at the perceived demand and takes a Superior position, chastising Mrs. EN for her presumptuousness and then throwing in some criticism for good measure. In the Equal/Subordinate transaction, Donna immediately shifts from Equal to Subordinate as soon as she perceives a demand in Mrs. EN’s innocuous response to her question.

You do this—so do I. We read things into what others say to us. Sometimes we are right, sometimes we are wrong, but if we are operative REactively, we are going to be wrong more often that right because we will be reacting to our NMs, seeing them in the innocuous communications of others, and our reaction will be all out of proportion to the situation. This is why you need to monitor your responses to what people say and do around you and try to figure out if you are hearing them—or if the NM in your head has over-ridden what they were really communicating to you.

This can be tough but there is a pretty simple way to handle it—assume that everybody is addressing you in an Equal/Equal way and respond that way. You will soon find out by their reaction to you, if their part of the transaction is Equal or not! If the person takes a Superior position and you reply from an Equal position, neither caving in as a Subordinate nor barking back as a Superior, she’s not going to like your response because she’s not going to be prepared for it. She will be prepared to order your Subordinate self around or the fight your Superior self until she can subordinate you, but she is not going to be prepared for you to take neither position. She can’t win if you do, so she’s not going to like that.

Years ago I worked as the secretary to three Directors of Engineering. Between them, they had a staff of about 70 people. I provided full support to the directors, extremely limited support to their subordinate managers, and none at all to the 60+ engineers. Shortly after I took the position, one of the engineers came up to my desk and dropped a thick stack of papers on my desk, perhaps 30 to 40 pages.

“I need 20 copies of this, collated and stapled, by noon for a meeting,” he said and started to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” I called after him. “I don’t know who you are.”

He came back to my desk and introduced himself as I picked up his stack of papers.

“The copy room is that way,” I said, pointing down the hall with my right hand while I handed the papers back to him with my left. “If you have difficulty with the machines, please let me know and I’ll give you the number for maintenance.”

He looked at me, a bit nonplussed, then annoyed. “Aren’t you the Engineering secretary?” he asked, his voice sharp and stern.

I shook my head. “No,” I said, “I am Mike’s, Mark’s, and Scott’s secretary.” Then I smiled. He thought about that for a few seconds and then took his papers and headed down to the copy room.

Now, I could have lectured him from a Superior position, telling him that I was an executive assistant, thank you very much, or that I couldn’t possibly serve the needs of all of those engineers because I was only one person; I could have accused him of trying to take advantage of my newness in the office to slag off some unpleasant work on me; I could have chewed him up and spit him out, from a Superior position. Or—I could have taken the low-esteem Subordinate position, reasoning that he outranked me because he was an engineer and I was just a lowly secretary, and scurried off to the copy room to do work that he should have been doing for himself. But I took an Equal position and because he had no real response to my calmly stated, information-filled response (No, I am Mike’s, Mark’s, and Scott’s secretary), he not only went to do the work himself, he did not try to treat me as a subordinate again. Not everybody is going to come around so easily, especially people who are used to treating you like a servant or who are accustomed to you rescuing them all of the time. They will continue to use Subordinate or Superior communication in an effort to force you back into the role they are most comfortable with. So you have to be vigilant because with some people, you will fight this battle every single time you talk with them.

The bottom line here is, it doesn’t matter what position another person takes in the transaction, all that matters is the one you take. If you take the Equal position in every transaction, remind yourself throughout the transaction to stay in the Equal position, and refuse to allow yourself to be guilted or bullied back into the Superior or Subordinate position for eight weeks, you will find the Equal position pretty much habituated. Oh, there will be people who continue to disrespect you, who will regularly challenge you and try to push you back into old habits, there will even be a few who never, ever adapt to your new position and who will forever make the effort to control the position you take—remember, you cannot change anyone but yourself—so you’ll have to be a bit more vigilant when dealing with them, but you will have taken back your power and will no longer living your life in reaction to the positions of others.

Welcome to your own life!

Next: You don't have to earn anybody's respect!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Superior, Subordinate, Equal

I was married to James, a malignant narcissist, for more than 10 years. Like most narcissists, he was a poor excuse for a human being, but he had a way of conning people to his way of seeing things. When he couldn’t bring someone around to his way of thinking with persuasion, NH would do what he called “beating him over the head with data” (inundating the guy in a flood of information, misinformation, facts and lies). If the person still resisted, then he was dismissed as “stupid” and, if the person was superior to him in any way NH viewed as significant (more wealth, better house or car, higher pay grade), resented. Dinner table conversations consisted of listening to him rant about his latest encounter, how this co-worker “sandbagged” him in a meeting or that colleague was out to get him as evidenced by disagreeing with him in front of others. If his boss was in the meeting to witness his humiliation (being disagreed with in private enraged him but in public, in front of a superior, he found it humiliating), NH would be doubly pissed, sometimes actually shaking with suppressed rage and spouting “get even” fantasies that would surely have gotten him fired, if not jailed, had he gone through with them.

Dinner time often consisted of listening to these rages, then talking him down by advancing alternative reasons these people might have had for disagreeing with him…always predicated on the idea that they were not smart enough or devious enough to do what he was accusing them of. Not that I believed these men weren’t smart and capable, but to calm him down, he had to believe it. It was an endless and endlessly exhausting task, talking him down from the ledge every night over dinner, but there were really were times I feared he would “go postal” on someone if he wasn’t brought back to reason before he came face-to-face with those people again.

Over time, listening to the same rants night after night, I began to realize things—to get a reading on his perspective and point of view. He admired his boss, a European man whom NH aped in dress and grooming and managerial style. He absorbed many of the man’s attitudes as well, not such a good thing when you realize that this boss later had his former secretary arrested for grand theft when his wife discovered that he had spent tens of thousands of dollars on her: to cover his tracks, he accused the woman of forging checks. Charges against her were dropped when she sued him and his employer for millions for sexual harassment…great role model, eh? Even when this boss did something monumentally stupid, like sending female sales reps to Saudi Arabia to meet with male clients (one poor woman got arrested by the Religious Police on a prostitution charge for being alone in a hotel room with a man she was not married to, even though they were quite obviously fully clothed and conducting non-sexual business), my NH could find no fault with him. He excused the boss’s mistakes almost indulgently, while he would fly into towering rages over the smallest error someone else made. I found it really puzzling…

And then one day, listening to him rant on about the stupidity and sabotaging behaviour (all in his mind, as far as I could tell) of one of the other managers, it hit me—this man’s world had no peers in it. It consisted exclusively of superiors and subordinates—there were no equals!

Realizing this was huge. Later on, when I applied this insight to other dysfunctional personalities in my life (I still had not heard of narcissism), I found it applied to some of them as well, most notably my NM. You were either her superior or her subordinate, and she had no equals: people were either above her or below here and there were no in-betweens. The people above here were famous or rich or powerful—or all three. They were admired by others—and especially by her—people like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball. Who was beneath her? Everybody else.

When your world is broken up this way, “fate” does not decide the status of others, you are the one who assigns superior/subordinate status. In the company he worked for before he met Mr. Suave European boss, NH worked for another European man who was anything but polished. Crude, rude, rapacious, and predatory, he was an uncouth, squatty little man with an ugly personality who delighted in keeping everyone in his company in fear of their jobs. He had no qualms about stiffing a vendor (when I was a recruiter I supplied him with a CFO and even though he hired the man and kept him on board for more than two years, he refused to pay the fee—and when I asked why, he told me he didn’t owe me an explanation!), he had no sense of honour at all. But his ignoble character had made him a rich man and in his eyes, that made it OK. NH hated this guy, not only because he cheated him out of his vacation pay, but because there was nothing in him that other people looked up to…he was universally held in contempt by his peers…there was nothing in him for NH to emulate (he was already just as ruthless and devoid of conscience).

With the contrast of the two bosses and NH’s attitude about his peers—literally, other managers who were in the same pay grade and reported to the same VP he did—I came to the realization that not only did he divide the world up into superiors…people he wanted to emulate, and subordinates…people for whom he had no respect…there was no place in his world for an equal. An equal would be someone he might have to share with. In any competition, he had to win, so he would only compete with subordinates—people who he considered beneath him, people who were supposed to lose, to give it up to him. He did not compete with people he considered his superiors: he emulated and lionized them…and hoped to ride their coattails to wealth, power and glory.

Somehow this all felt a little familiar—not so much in the similarity to my NM kind of familiar, but like I had read or heard something about this before. After a bit of pondering and reflection, it came to me…when I was in training for my recruiting job, we had a psychologist speak to us and he gave us a brief training in Transactional Analysis (TA) and how it explains various communication styles. He also told us how to recognize and more effectively deal with dysfunctional communication styles.

In TA, you basically deal with others from one of three positions: Parent, Adult, Child. I prefer Superior, Equal, Subordinate because they are more descriptive and less likely to be confused with the real positions we hold in life. (For example, your NM is your parent in real life but she may interact with you from the position of a child, casting you in the role of parent. I think it is much less confusing to leave real-world relationships out and say your NM has placed herself in a subordinate position, casting you in the role of superior, dumping all responsibility on you.)

Myself, I lived in a world largely populated by peers—equals. I thought of others as equals, interacted with them as equals. Even people who were above me on the corporate ladder, while their jobs were superior to mine, they were not superior human beings. Additionally, I didn’t see very many people…outside of children…as subordinates, either. It might be germane to point out here that NH had often referred to me as being “very egalitarian” with a note of contempt in his voice that I could never quite fathom…

According to the psychologist, communication with others is a transaction--a two way operation. Both you and the other person assume a “position” in the transaction, and that position is either a superior position, an equal position, or a subordinate position.

Superior—When you yell at someone, you are taking a superior position; if he yells back, so is he.
Equal—When you calmly discuss something with someone, you are taking an equal position; if he engages you in the same calm, reasonable manner, then he is also taking an equal position.
Subordinate— If you interact with someone timorously, fearfully, deferentially, afraid or unwilling to ask for what you want or you try to get them to make decisions for you, you are taking a subordinate position; if the other person also won’t make a decision and behaves as if he is afraid to speak up or be decisive, then that person is also taking a subordinate position.

Additionally, transactions can be Subordinate/Superior, Subordinate/Equal, or Superior/Equal. As I am sure you can guess, an Equal/Equal transaction is the ideal—and it is often the most difficult to achieve.

Look at the graphic on the right and you will see how many different types of transactions are possible. Only the Equal/Equal transaction is a healthy exchange of information between peers. The rest are rife with manipulation and best to be avoided. Unfortunately, that is difficult because people who are stuck in unhealthy communication patterns tend to want to continue them because that is what they know and what works for them…and they can actually, subtly, force you into their dysfunctional patterns despite your best intentions.

Why am I telling you this? Why is this important? Because if you ever hope to get any kind of peace with your NM—or with other dysfunctional people in your life—you need to be able to recognize and then change the kinds of transactions you have with them. You need to be able to spot it when someone is trying to force you into an unhealthy form of communication along with all the baggage that comes with falling for it.

Most common with DoNMs and their NMs, I would think, is the Superior/Subordinate (Parent-Child in TA) transaction. NM sets herself up in one position or the other and will, through her behaviour, try to force you to take the other position. If she sets herself in the Superior, you are expected to take the Subordinate so she can bombard you with messages of how unacceptable you are and then you are expected to take on the baggage that goes with it: guilt, remorse, and attempts to make amends (by doing whatever she wants you to do). I would guess this is the most common transaction between NMs and their daughters.

Some, however, take a Subordinate (Child) position and come across with helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, and whiny, rescue-seeking behaviour, casting you in the role of the Superior (Parent) who has to ride to the rescue. If you don’t you are abandoning her and heaped with guilt (both from her and yourself) for it.

When we stand up to an NM, too often we start out trying an Equal position but allow ourselves either to be reduced to a Subordinate status or goaded into taking a Superior position. Two people who try to conduct a transaction with each taking a Superior position are pretty much headed for conflict—you can’t have two bosses operating in the same space without conflict. She tries to tell you what to do, you shout back, telling her to get off your back (telling her what to do), and chaos ensues.

Equally untenable is a transaction in which the people both try to take the Subordinate (Child) status. Nobody wants to make a decision, not even for something as mundane as to where to go for coffee. They may find fault with each other “I never get to choose where we go for coffee…” “Ok, where should we go?” “I dunno…where do you want to go?” Imagine trying to buy furniture, or a house or even groceries when neither person is willing to make up their mind and keeps deferring to the other?

So, what do you do? You start by finding out what an Equal/Equal transaction feels like. This is a situation in which two people treat each other as equals, with respect for the other person’s position and feelings, even if they don’t agree. If there is an issue under discussion, some persuasion may be encountered, but it will be put forth respectfully as an appeal to reason and will not include any implications that you are somehow defective if you persist in your disagreement. The transaction will close as the result of a compromise or an agreement by both parties to agree to disagree. Respect by and for both people involved will be the hallmark of the transaction. When you walk away from a transaction like this, even if you didn’t get all that you wanted out of it (compromise involves giving up something of what you want in order to get some of what you want), you do not walk away feeling beaten down or disrespected, nor do you walk away angry. If you truly had an Equal/Equal transaction, you feel respected by the other party—and respect for the other party—even if you didn’t get what you wanted.

Suppose you walk away from the transaction feeling angry and taken advantage of? Or beaten down and crying? Or guilty? Or victorious, like you got one over on the other guy? Then you did not participate as an Equal. If you felt victorious—or angry that you didn’t get what you wanted—then you participated as a Superior. If you felt defensive or guilty, you participated as a Subordinate.

What is important to realize before we go any further is that the role the other person takes only affects your role if you let it. It is entirely possible to have an Equal/Superior transaction or an Equal/Subordinate transaction. All it takes is not budging from your Equal position no matter what the other party does to provoke you into the Superior or Subordinate position…and yes, I know, this is often easier said than done. How about a few samples?

An Equal/Equal transaction:
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: OK, dear, thanks for letting me know in advance. I’ll see if Sue is available—if she’s not, can you make Sunday?

An Equal/Subordinate transaction:
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: Oh no! What am I going to do? How am I going to get by? I’m so alone…Saturday is the highlight of my week because I get to see you. How can you do this to me when you know I have no other way to get to the store. Do you want me to starve? What am I supposed to do?

An Equal/Superior transaction:
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: Oh no you don’t! You are not going to dump me to go running off doing something frivolous with those lowlife friends of yours! Whatever it is, it can’t be important or you’d tell me what it is. I’m not letting you get away with this—you said you’d be here on Saturdays to take me shopping and that is what you are going to do, do you understand me??

How you respond to Mom’s opening gambit determines the direction the transaction will take. For example:

An Equal/Subordinate transaction derails (1):
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: Oh no! What am I going to do? How am I going to get by? I’m so alone…Saturday is the highlight of my week because I get to see you. How can you do this to me when you know I have no other way to get to the store. Do you want me to starve? What am I supposed to do?
Daughter: I’m sorry Mom! Can’t you get Sue to take you?
Mother: Why should I call Sue? YOU promised to do this for me…I can’t bother Sue—what would I tell her ‘Oh, my daughter dropped me at the last minute…’
Daughter: I’m sorry, Mom, but I just can’t make it this time. What about Sunday? Can we go Sunday?
Mother: No, I plan my shopping very carefully and I will be out of things that I need before Sunday. Why are you doing this to me? You said Saturday and I believed you. You don’t want me to go hungry, do you? Or my poor little SammyCat? I can’t believe you would be so unreliable and so thoughtless…

An Equal/Subordinate transaction derails: (2)
Daughter: Mom, I won’t be able to pick you up Saturday to go grocery shopping, something has come up.
Mother: Oh no! What am I going to do? How am I going to get by? I’m so alone…Saturday is the highlight of my week because I get to see you. How can you do this to me when you know I have no other way to get to the store. Do you want me to starve? What am I supposed to do?
Daughter: Dammit, Mom! You can survive one more day until I can get there! I am so sick of you whining and demanding and not appreciating anything I do for you. Maybe I should just let you take care of your shopping without my help, you are an adult, after all, aren’t you?

In both examples, what started as an Equal position on the Daughter’s part became quickly derailed in response to the position taken by the Mother. This is being REactive rather than being PROactive, meaning your mood and your response is a reaction to the other person rather than staying with your own feelings. This is a behaviour pattern that can become habituated (and almost automatic) and it is not healthy—it puts you at the mercy of other people and their moods rather than allowing you to be yourself. It is something we learn as a protective mechanism as children, something we undoubtedly needed to keep us safe when we were little, but we are not little any more, so we have actually outgrown this mechanism and it no longer serves us, we have come to serve it…and our NMs…when we allow ourselves to interact with them as if we were still only five years old and still under their control.

We can find our transactions even more easily derailed if our NM chooses to respond to our Equal opening statement with a hostile or Superior statement because that makes us feel defensive and even people who didn’t grow up under the harsh tutelage of an NM often feel defensive when they feel attacked. Some of us respond to the attack with anger and attack back (we assume a Superior position) but all too often we immediately sink back into the Subordinate position and let NM run roughshod all over us.

It is a fundamental rule of interactions that if you want something to change, you have to change what you are doing. Narcissists deplore change unless it works to their advantage, so any change you want to make in your communication with your NM is going to be fraught with resistance on her part and, depending on her individual characteristics, the resistance can be anywhere from the silent treatment to a whinge-fest to aggressive tactics to “show you who’s boss” and “put you in your place.” But if you want things to change, you have to change how you do things, even in how you communicate with your NM, and not let her manipulate you back to where she has had you all these years.

Next: Superior, Subordinate, Equal Pt 2: DOING it!

Monday, October 1, 2012

“I can’t!”

If ever there was a misused phrase, “I can’t” has got to be it. Probably 99% of the time you hear—or say—“I can’t,” it’s not really true. You can, but you don’t want to.
The truth is, “can’t” is often used in place of “won’t” because it feels stronger, less vulnerable, more final—and it absolves you of responsibility for the choice you have made but don’t want to face up to…or face questions about.

“Uncle Otto and I are going to the Quilting Bee Tea and Sale on Saturday,” Aunt Millicent tells you. “We have an extra ticket if you’d like to come with us.” Rather than tell your dear dotty old aunt that you detest quilts even more than you detest tea, you tell her “Oh, I’d love to, Aunt Millicent, but I can’t. I have a previous engagement that I just can’t get out of…”

OK, you may have a previous engagement but can you really not get out of it? Is it really impossible to call that hot guy who has finally asked you to go out for coffee with him and ask for a rain check? Of course not…but it is definitely something you do not want to do…but to avoid hurting Aunt Millicent’s feelings, to avoid a discussion about tea and quilts and why you should come, you just use the magic word, “can’t,”—you imply your unavailability is beyond your control—to get out of it.

Of course there are things that you cannot do: hang upside down by your toes like a bat to sleep, leap off a building in your altogether and soar like an eagle, put out a raging house fire with a 2 litre bottle of Coke…there truly are things beyond your capability. You can’t lick your elbow, you can’t hear or smell as well as your dog, you can’t count to infinity nor see a bacterium with your naked eye. There are, in fact, many, many things we cannot do, but we, unfortunately, do not limit our use of the word “can’t” to just those things.

We say we “can’t” all too often when, in fact we can. We use the word as a verbal escape hatch to get out of things, sometimes to protect us, sometimes to keep us stuck right where we are even as we protest we want to move on. We self-sabotage with it, give away our power with it, make ourselves helpless with it. We hide behind it, we carry it in front of us like a shield, we use it to define and limit our lives…and often we use the word when we really mean something else.

“I can’t drive a stick shift,” really means “I don’t know how” and very possibly “I don’t want to learn, either, because I do not want to embarrass myself with my ignorance and incompetence or because I am just too lazy to learn.”

“I can’t get up in public and make a speech!” really means “I am afraid to get up there and speak. I am afraid I will make a mistake and make a fool of myself…”

“I can’t wear that!” means “I won’t wear that because I don’t want people to see my body because I am ashamed of it” or “I won’t wear a shroud because I want to attract attention with my scantily clad body and that won’t happen if I don’t wear a skirt that almost shows my butt.”

“I can’t loan you $50” when you have $500 in your wallet means “I don’t want to loan you money because I don’t think you will pay it back” or “I want to spend it on something else.”

“Can’t” means “I don’t want to” or “I am afraid” or “I don’t know how” or “I am unwilling.” Most of the time when we say the words “I can’t” what we really mean is “I won’t,” but we abdicate responsibility for our choice by trying to make it look like we are powerless.

It is time for you to start making a list of the things you believe you cannot do because you need to start being clear on what you really cannot do and the things you are unwilling to do. You may be thinking “Oh, this is just semantics,” but it is truly more than that. When we say “can’t” instead of “won’t,” we disempower ourselves, we abdicate responsibility for our choices, we take the weak and weaselly road rather than the path of strength and integrity. We lie when we say “can’t,” we lie to others but most importantly, we lie to ourselves, making ourselves weak and powerless.

Why is this important? Because if we are ever to have any hope of dealing effectively with our NMs and the other Ns and even the Passive Aggressives in our lives, we have to learn to differentiate between what we truly cannot do and those things we are unwilling to do. We are unlikely to ever change the true cannots—you’ll never grow prehensile claws to grip a branch or bump in a cave wall or ceiling, you’ll never develop microscopic vision, you’ll never grow an extra joint in your arm so your tongue can reach your elbow—these are clearly outside the realm of possibility and no amount of effort on your part is going to change the status quo. But other things…like dealing with your NM or EF or the flying monkeys, taking care of yourself, standing up to a gaslighting or PA spouse, leaving an abusive job, losing weight…or any one of a thousand or more “can’ts” that you tell yourself, that keep you stuck where you are, you need know which ones are really “won’ts” and what you are doing to yourself to keep yourself fooled into believing that you can’t.

And why is that important? Because if you have any hope of ever having a fulfilling, healthy emotional life, you must first identify what is holding you back and then work on improving it. When you say “can’t,” you build an insurmountable wall, you convince yourself that whatever it is, it is impossible to change, so why waste effort trying. “Can’t” is a locked door whereas “won’t” is merely a closed one. “Can’t” takes the power to change things away from you, “won’t” puts it in your hands.

Some of us are afraid of that power. Other’s of us are still stuck at the “fairness” stage, resentfully believing that since we didn’t create the problem, we shouldn’t have to fix it. But the truth is, “should” doesn’t enter into the equation. If you are the one who is unhappy, then you are the only person who can fix it. Who else is more motivated to make your life happy than you are? Who cares more about you and your life than you do? Certainly not the people who screwed it up with their selfish, narcissistic ways—they only care about themselves!

Ok, some of us may want to find a way to fix or rehabilitate our NMs, perhaps fantasizing that if NM is happy and can be made mentally healthy, the natural result of that will be a loving mother who will fix all our hurts. Sorry to burst those lovely bubbles, but it ain’t gonna happen. Narcissists don’t change—and it doesn’t matter if they can’t or won’t, the fact of the matter is that that don’t except, perhaps, to worsen with age. And even if they did , you are no longer that impressionable, vulnerable, malleable child, so it wouldn’t do any good. Besides, you can’t go around rearranging other people’s psyches to make your own life better—that is what narcissists do—the last thing you want to do is behave like they do! So why waste energy working towards (or even fantasizing about) fixing NM and maybe getting healthy as a by-product of that when you could be putting that energy directly towards fixing what is wrong with you?

Because it isn’t fair. Because it will take a long time. Because it hurts.

And you are right…it is all those things. But right now, it is the only path out of your pain. Until modern medicine comes up with a magic elixir that will heal you overnight, you have basically two choices: keep things as they are or change things.

And that is where “can’t” vs “won’t” comes in. As long as you say “I can’t” when the real truth is that you won’t, you make yourself powerless, you choose to remain stuck, whether you acknowledge it or not. When you begin to acknowledge that you are not willing to do something rather than are cosmically prevented from it, you begin to take back your power. Taking back your power does not have to be a grand, dramatic gesture like blowing up at your NM and giving her a piece of your mind, it can be a small and quiet as recognizing that by saying “I don’t want to confront her, I am afraid of the consequences, I am unwilling to deal with them,” instead of “I can’t say anything to her” gives you back your power. It acknowledges that it is your choice not to provoke the mad dog, not that you are incapable of doing so.

This is important for you to understand, even if you actually do nothing more than grasp the concept. At some point you will begin to see where you disempower yourself with the helplessness of “can’t” and how you can empower yourself with “won’t.” This will become critical knowledge when you are ready to take your power back in bigger ways, like confronting your NM or going No Contact.

Baby steps…

Next: Superior, Subordinate, Equal