This post has been a long time coming. A lot of subconscious activity has gone into it, years of sorting and connecting, ferreting out the truth and making sense of nonsense. The only thing left to figure out is whether or not it was conscious and volitional or whether it was totally below my NM’s own consciousness: I suspect there were elements of both, with the subconscious bit occurring early in my life and the conscious, wilful predations beginning to occur as I got older.
My mother was malignant narcissist, a personality most likely combining Narcissist Personality Disorder (NPD) and Anti-Social Personality Disorder (AsPD). Like all narcissists, she never took responsibility for her actions or their consequences, instead finding ways to blame others for whatever was wrong in her life. That she engaged in contradictory expectations, cognitive dissonance was never an issue for her: she often wanted irrational things that cancelled each other out, yet wanted them just the same. For example, when she was newly married, my father worked on his parents’ farm. In addition to regular farm work, he also drove a truck and worked as a lumberjack. He worked long hours doing exhausting, back-breaking work because she wanted “things”—and yet she also wanted him at home, paying attention to her. So, if he worked the hours necessary to buy the stuff she wanted, she complained that he was never home (which undoubtedly became her excuse for the affair she had when I was little); if he was home, however, she was always complaining about the lack of “things.” (She didn’t want to keep up with the Joneses…she wanted the Joneses to want to keep up with her!) Nothing ever satisfied her, no effort was good enough, something I have learned is a common trait among narcissists.
Looking back over the stories of my life as told to me at different times by different family members, NM included, if I try to assemble them into a chronological narrative, one glaring element begins to emerge: I was perceived by NM, from my very conception, as the reason for everything that was wrong with her life.
NM married my father expecting he would ship out to China (he was in the Navy) within weeks of their marriage and she would be left behind with an allotment check from the Navy to live on and no husband (or father—she was 16 and eloped to escape her strict old-country father) to tell her what she could and could not do. Her plans were thwarted when two things happened: her mother-in-law wrote to the War Department and secured my father an early discharge from the Navy so he could help on the farm, and NM became pregnant with me, which prevented her father from obtaining an annulment of her elopement. As she told me to my face when I was about 14, if I had never come along, her life would be “different”…a word she obviously interpreted as synonymous for “better.”
She had expectations and I disappointed every one of them. I had colic and eczema from my earliest months, I cried at night, which kept her awake, and at times that were inconvenient for her. “Nobody ever told me I couldn’t just put you away when I was done with you, like a doll,” she complained. I couldn’t stay clean…which she perceived as my fault, not hers for putting me in starched white cotton baby dresses and then putting me out in the dirt chicken yard to play. And nobody would let her walk away from the unwanted responsibility…I was her child so she was obligated to care for me. It was expected by everyone in her small, provincial, world.
It seems to me that her perception that my arrival threw a monkey wrench in her life gave her consent, at least from within, to blame me for everything unpalatable that happened to her afterwards. Certainly having a child changes and even limits your life, but it is a leap of selfish thinking to blame the child for it. But to the mind of a narcissist, if the child had never existed, she would not be prevented from going and doing and enjoying…ergo it is the child who is at fault. This was exactly the way NM’s mind worked, at least when she was younger. When she got a little older, she added refinements that not only made everything the fault of someone else, but made her their victim as well.
The day she told me that I was the cause of everything bad that had happened to her since she was 17, I somehow screwed up the courage to ask her why, if she felt that way, did she have a second child? (She had caesarean sections with both of her children and had her tubes tied when my GCBro was born…she was only 19.) Her answer? “When you are already saddled with one brat clinging to your skirts, what’s two?”
But when my brother came along, he was free of the blame that tainted me. NM had already cast me into the role of being the cause of her every unhappiness, so baby brother was a pure little soul and she was free to indulge and spoil him, whereas she had to punish me for all of my misdeeds, chief among which was being born.
I think there comes a time in all our lives that our NMs perceive us as being somehow unsatisfactory and from that moment forward, that is what we are. It could be as early as conception: a planned pregnancy that either didn’t go as expected or an unplanned one that derailed other, more grandiose plans. Or it could be later: a child in the throes of the Terrible Twos who is suddenly eclipsed by a cooing and compliant newborn sibling. Any number of scenarios might occur in which we were perceived as not living up to our NMs’ expectations and we became their receptacle for blame. And once that turning point occurred, we were doomed: the die was cast, our roles in our families cast in concrete, and nothing we could do could cause a re-casting.
John Bradshaw, psychologist and author of TheFamily: A Revolutionary Way of Self-Discovery says, “In dysfunctional families, the individual exists to keep the system in balance. This is the fate of every individual in a dysfunctional family. The whole family is dis-eased and each person gives up his true self to play a role in keeping the family together.”One of these roles is that of the scapegoat, which Bradshaw defines as “This is the child that the family feels ashamed of. He/she is the trouble maker or problem child. The scapegoat gets into trouble, which helps to take the focus off of the family problems, because everyone is focused on his/her bad behavior. The child is usually strong-willed, rebellious, rude, and sassy, however, the scapegoat is the most emotionally honest child in the family. The scapegoat usually becomes pregnant or addicted as a teenager. On the inside they may feel rejected, misunderstood, shamed, and/or betrayed.” What Bradshaw does not say is that this child does not actually need to misbehave or get into trouble, this child need only be identified by the parent(s) as such, by their own perceptions, for the role to be assigned.
How does this happen? It goes back to expectations. If the parent has an unrealistic expectation of the child and the child fails to measure up, then the child is a disappointment…or worse. If a four-year-old is assigned the responsibility for a younger sibling and that four-year-old is physically incapable of preventing the younger sibling from misbehaving, the parent who unrealistically expects a four-year-old to be an adequate child minder doesn’t blame the younger child, who doesn’t know any better, or herself for her unrealistic expectations, but the older child, the four-year-old, for her failure to do what she was told. The child is perceived as lazy or defiant or careless or inattentive or any number of negative things because of her failure to succeed at an impossible task. She was set up by her parent for failure and then punished for falling into the trap.
Certainly this is not entirely conscious on the part of the parent, at least not in the beginning. But repeated failure at repeated tasks, tasks for which the child is, in truth, ill-equipped, forms a perception in the mind of the parent that this child is a complete and utter disappointment. The parent doesn’t let go of the irrational expectations but, instead, comes to expect this child to fail. This becomes a two-edged sword for the child: if she fails, she did wrong and deserves some kind of punishment; if she succeeds, she disappointed her parent’s expectation, in essence made a liar out of her, and that cannot go unchallenged or unpunished.
Narcissists of all stripes expect others to be predictable. They expect us to follow the rules…the very same rules from which they consider themselves exempt…so that they can predict how we will act or react. This is essential in exploiting us, because if they cannot predict our performance, they cannot make a plan that works for them. So, when a child is expected to fail and the narcissist is expecting to get a lot of Nsupply in the form of sympathy from family and friends for having such a disappointing child (or expects to have an acceptable excuse for a good, old-fashioned narcissistic rage), a monkey wrench is thrown into the works when the child succeeds: the child’s success not only disrupts the flow of Nsupply, it makes the narcissist wrong…a double transgression. And while the narcissist knows she can’t get away with punishing the child for a success, she can take the shine off of it by refusing to praise or even acknowledge, or by tarnishing the achievement either by minimizing its importance—“So you won the spelling bee—that and a quarter won’t even buy you a cup of coffee…”—or denigrating the achievement itself “So, you finally got a straight A report card…you’re supposed to be smart…what took you so long?”
People who cannot see themselves as being wrong or making mistakes have to have a way to place blame outside themselves. They can blame their lateness on traffic rather than their lack of appropriate planning; they can blame their messy house on being too busy or tired to clean up due to job or social demands…or on their kids and husband; they can blame their lack of promotions at work on management favouritism rather than their own off-putting behaviours; they can find a way to blame anything on anybody, but the ideal receptacle for blame is someone who cannot (or fears to) talk back and tell the truth…like a child who is dependent on them for their very subsistence.
And so it grows, from a perception of the child being at fault and/or a disappointment, to a convenient receptacle for blame for any and everything. Rationale need not enter into it: what rational person blames an infant for her own choices to 1) have unprotected sex, 2) carry the resultant pregnancy to term, 3) keep the child rather than adopt out and 4) not follow through on the original plan, baby in tow? A rational person would acknowledge that 1-3 would, inevitably, make changes in a person’s life trajectory, but they would also acknowledge those changes were the choices of the adult female, not the fault of the innocent infant. Narcissists, however, don’t see it that way. Your presence caused the alteration in her fine plans, therefore it is your fault…no matter that your thought processes couldn’t go beyond crying when your bum was wet or your tummy empty.
It is my guess that some…if not most…NMs come across this process rather by happenstance than design. It works to explain that they are tired and haggard looking because baby kept them up all night rather than admit they sneaked out and spent the night drinking and carousing…not only do they escape judgment, they get sympathy—a bonus!
When I was about 7, my mother announced at the dinner table that she was giving our dog, a big blond Collie named Duke, away. And she blamed me because I had to be reminded to feed him, I didn’t make my brother pick up the poop in the back yard, I didn’t brush him adequately, and—the topper, the coup de grace, the one accusation I could not dispute or find a workaround solution for—I was allergic to him. He was the family dog but somehow responsibility for him was mine and my failure to perform to expectation was the reason the whole family was going to be deprived of him.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized how I had been set up. I do not believe my NM got the dog with the intention of creating a situation in which I would fail and for which she could take the dog away, but I do believe that she got the dog with the intent of dumping its care onto me…and with the expectation that I should perform flawlessly. As an adult and the owner of a couple of Collies, I began to realize just how irrational her expectation was: with my big, strong adult arms, I could not brush out their coats when the winter undercoat started to shed out—for that they needed a trip to the groomers where there were the special tools (shedding blades) and people who had the upper body strength and expertise to do the job. No seven-year-old on the planet was capable of brushing out a shedding Collie’s coat and if my NM had bothered to pick up the brush and give it a go herself, she’d have know that in ten minutes or less…not that I believe it would have made any difference to her. No, what I think happened was that she had no intention of caring for the animal herself, she fully intended for me to do it, and for me to do it perfectly, without instruction, without reminder and without failure. When my performance was less than perfect (and the dog, needing grooming, didn’t look like Lassie, the Collie on TV so NM couldn’t show him off), rather than take any one of the many options open to her, from taking over herself, to having him professionally groomed a couple of times per year, to helping me learn to remind myself to feed or groom him, she just decided to get rid of him. At the dinner table that night she blamed me, she even told me that I had no one to blame but myself that Duke was going to a new home. This plagued me with guilt for years until I learned just how inappropriate her expectations were. She set me up to fail and then she blamed me for it.
When I was married to James, I had very similar experiences. The difference between him and NM was that he deliberately and consciously set me up so that I would “learn a lesson.” When I succeeded in the face of his deliberate attempts to make me fail, he was enraged. Being somewhat literal and not given to underhanded subterfuge myself, I would fall for his set-ups and go out and succeed where I was supposed to fail. In one case, I wanted to buy a second car and he was adamant I get a cheap used car. I had a baby and we lived in a new city and I was terrified of a breakdown in some area I didn’t know, with the baby in the car…I wanted a new car with a warranty and in which I could have some confidence in its reliability. So, he gave me a budget (quite low) and said “If you can find a brand new car for this, I’ll buy it.”
Unbeknownst to me, I was supposed to fail to find such a car and in my failure, learn some lessons, chief among which was not to challenge James and his pronouncements or authority. Well, I found a brand new car within budget and James bought it, but instead of being pleased with my ability to find a new car at a used car price, he was furious with me. I was supposed to fail, he later told me…and I was supposed to learn from my failure. And I spoiled it all by succeeding at what he had believed to be an impossible task.
For years after this (and other, similar, set ups) I was hurt and baffled. I had done what he asked, I had succeeded at a difficult task, I had gotten a pristine new, never-used car complete with warranty, for the price of a used one…what had I done wrong? Why was he so angry with me? My joy in my success was trampled and I was left wondering just exactly what I had done that made him so unhappy with me. It reminded me of my childhood and those terrifying moments when I realized my NM was furious with me but I had no idea why…and the fact that I didn’t understand just how I had been “bad”—and therefore appeared innocently baffled rather than contrite and remorseful—just enraged her further.
But now I get it…and I get it I spades: I was set up.
It wasn’t enough to simply be a convenient dumping ground for blame, the blame had to be plausible. Unless other people could agree the blame was appropriately placed, there could be no Nsupply and there was even a risk that NM would be viewed as responsible. So instead of telling the whole story…she dressed my barely toddling self in starched white cotton baby dresses, white shoes and socks, and set me outside in a dirt chicken yard to play…the story becomes that she put me outside (no mention of my attire or my play yard) to play and was told “don’t get dirty” and in five minutes I was filthy from top to toes, necessitating another bath and change of clothes and additional laundry for her. I was disobedient…she told me not to get dirty and I defiantly did just exactly the opposite and in a matter of just a few minutes, proving I did not even TRY to stay clean. Establishing me as defiant and disobedient almost from the day I could walk set the stage for further normal childhood behaviours to be perceived as evidence of my oppositional nature and once I was big enough to be given chores (without being given instructions as to how to do them or what the ultimate outcome should look like), I was a study in insolent rebelliousness.
Except, in reality, I wasn’t. I was simply out of my depth and doing the best I could with what I knew, what I had, what I could physically achieve. And it was never, ever good enough. No matter how close to perfection I came, NM’s agenda did not include acknowledgement of a job well done or praise for effort, her agenda was purely to find fault, no matter how small, no matter how insignificant. Because in finding fault, I was to blame and she was entitled to sympathy for having to put up with my disappointing arse.
How many times have you stretched yourself to achieve, to give, to understand, to do, only to fall short of NM’s mark? Did you see your A+ paper dismissed because there was a typo or your NM fabricated a punctuation issue? Did the birthday cake you baked NM fall short because the bakery cake her neighbour got from her daughter was prettier…or the bakery cake you brought end up criticized because her neighbour’s daughter loved her mother enough to bake a cake from scratch and decorate it herself? Is your best never good enough and so you keep striving and trying and stretching yourself for the carrot of approval that is always just thaaat much out of reach?
You can stop. That carrot will never be in reach. You are not intended to have it. The objective is for you to fail, the carrot is there just to keep you in the game. When you fail, somebody else looks successful, somebody else gets sympathy for having such a blunderer for a child, somebody else gets attention and advice and commiseration…somebody else get NSupply from your failures and so you are expected to fail because your success would take that all away.
You are being set up. You have been set up all your life, conditioned to try, try, try to stay in the game, and to fail in ways that bring Nsupply to the Ns in your family. Eventually, some of us don’t even need to be manipulated by our NMs to provide the source: we drop out of school, get involved with abusive, passive aggressive, or even narcissistic men, we get pregnant without marriage or we get married and have too many kids or we have them too close together; we get involved with drugs and/or alcohol, live marginal life styles, go on welfare, struggle for the barest necessities. And those of us who “make it”? I stood in an elevator in a hotel in Las Vegas with my NM after not seeing her for ten years: I was wearing a silk dress the same size I wore in high school, my hair had been professionally coiffed, my jewellery was real gold and diamonds. My mother said only three words to me “You’ve gotten fat.”
You are being set up. You have been set up all of your life. You have been conditioned not to achieve and succeed, but to fail in ways that give your NParents the greatest amount of Nsupply, whether from without or within. When you do poorly, when you are broke and hungry and on welfare so your kids can eat, your NParents not only get NSupply from others who sympathize with them about how lazy and shiftless and worthless you have become, they get NSupply from within because they feel superior to you. “Such good people,” their friends mutter as a scapegoat son is hauled away in handcuffs, “how sad for them that their son ended up a criminal…” Who is asking that “criminal” how he got to that point?
We are set up by our NParents to fail because it advantages them. Some of us succumb and end up underachievers or worse…some of us prevail and make successes of ourselves in spite of that early programming. But make no mistake, from the point of view of the narcissistic parent, we are and always will be immense disappointments to them. They cannot survive any other way.