It’s something I have heard over and over again…and something I have said myself: “I just do the opposite of what my mother would have done…” And just as I did, we often say this with a touch of pride, as if mindlessly doing the opposite of what some personality disordered person is doing somehow mysteriously conveys some kind of superiority or correctness upon us.
The truth is, when we choose an action primarily because it is the antithesis of what someone else would do or would want us to do, we are rebelling. It doesn’t matter if we are choosing a partner, a lifestyle, a personal style, or our parenting techniques, if we make choices based on opposing someone else, we are engaging in unthinking rebellion rather than making wise, well-considered, adult choices.
In some ways, this may appear to work out okay, but if you really think about, living your life in reaction to someone else is not really living your life, is it? It is living the opposite of someone else’s.
When I was a kid, I used to envy one of my classmates, a boy I will call Kevin Greene. He was obese and dressed like a miniature old man, and always had his hair slicked down like the stereotype of a budding actuary or accountant. He was pasty-white as if he never saw the sun, ungainly and lumbering in his gait and unpopular and shunned by the other kids, but his mother doted on him. And, being a child who was largely invisible to her mother (and grateful for it because that meant she wasn’t finding new ways to hurt me), I found myself very envious of Kevin because his mother quite obviously adored him.
In a time when even first graders walked to and from school unaccompanied by an adult, Kevin’s mother drove him to school. It was obvious that his family had money because Mrs. Greene wore fur coats and Kevin emerged from a big black Cadillac in front of the school in the morning…on the days he attended. He was absent a lot: all he had to do was tell his mother he didn’t feel like going to school and she called him in sick. I don’t think I took really sharp notice of Kevin until the morning he arrived shortly after the bell rang and he and his mother walked into the classroom after lessons had started. I remember her being tall and draped in what I was sure was a mink coat that reached down past her knees, and lipstick as red as my mother wore. Kevin stood a bit behind her, dressed in his ubiquitous brown trousers and white dress shirt and boy-sized necktie, an ice cream cone in his hand. Ice cream for breakfast!?! I hardly ever even got ice cream for dessert! I was instantly smitten with his mother…she must love Kevin very much to not deny him anything, I thought. Today, I find myself wondering what Mrs. Greene's mother was like...
When I had my first child, I was immediately determined not to treat my precious little baby the same way my NM had treated me: whatever she had done, I was going to do the opposite, and that, I believed, would give my child a much better start in life than I had had. It’s probably a good thing I was dirt-poor in those days and couldn’t afford to spoil her because I had no real parenting plan outside of doing the opposite of what my NM had done with me. I was fortunate to have had a good role model in my step-mother, so I could imagine her in my situation and try to figure out how she would respond to certain challenges, but still: my primary parenting plan was simply to do the opposite of what my mother had done.
This, it turned out, was a really bad idea. First of all, in taking this tactic, I was rebelling against my mother and her ways, not addressing my child and her needs. I had an ignoring mother whose positive attention I would have done almost anything to gain: my daughter was not nearly so needy as I was and, in retrospect, I am sure she found my attentiveness perhaps a bit engulfing. My decisions regarding my children were not necessarily based on what was appropriate or good for them at a given point in time, but on what my mother would have denied me. Sometimes that was a good thing…they got an open and honest and age-appropriate sex education…sometimes it was not, as they were indulged to the degree my budget could stand and deprived of any sense of responsibility in their early years.
This living my life in the opposite direction of my mother backfired on me in other ways. Rather than make decisions about my own life based on thought and weighing the pros and cons of a possible choice, I made quick, easy decisions were based more on what NM would not have done or what would upset her if she knew. “So there!!” I seemed to be saying with my actions, “You can’t control me! I can do what I want!”
Well, I could do what I wanted, but I wasn’t necessarily doing that. Instead, I was doing the opposite of what she wanted, not the same thing at all. It literally took me years to figure out that my mother was still controlling my life, but now I was the one who was doing it to me: she put in the programming and years and miles later, I was executing the programming without any input from her…just in reverse. I was still locked inside that little box she constructed around my mind and my spirit, still making choices within her paradigm, still seeing my life through her set of filters.
It can be difficult to conceptualize that, in doing the opposite of what your NM wants or expects, you are still being controlled by her. But when you live your life in a way that is calculated to give a giant middle finger to someone else, you are not controlling your life and your choices, you are making choices centred around sending a message to another person. I found that I vacillated between trying to be the good daughter and mother and being the shocking rebel: neither persona was really mine, neither had my heart really in it, neither was what I wanted to do…except, of course, that I wanted to show her!!
You begin to live a truly independent life, you begin to be your authentic self, when your choices in life are not influenced by the censure or approval of another person. That doesn’t mean you reject input from others: others may see things you do not, may have input you really should consider before making up your mind. But when you do make up your mind, you do not do it with the reaction or feelings or expectations of others as a consideration: you do it because you have given the decision due consideration and made a choice that works for you, regardless of how others may think.
When I was a young woman, miniskirts were just coming into fashion. I wore them because a) they were in fashion and b) I had great legs that looked good in short skirts. If I had thought about it, I might have worn them…and worn them even shorter…because my NM would have been scandalized by the abbreviated length. But NM was not really into fashion and had never allowed me any forays into it, so I had no idea what she might think or say (she wore shorts in hot weather, so why would I think she would be scandalized by miniskirts?). Years into the trend she came to my house and I was wearing a very short shift dress and she tut-tutted about the “appropriateness” of my hem length, so I later discovered that she thought such short skirts were “trampy.”
My initial decision to wear miniskirts was based entirely on my own thinking on the matter: I never even considered what my NM might think. Had I known, however, that my NM thought them “trampy,” and I decided to wear them anyway, that would not necessarily be a rebellious act on my part. But, if I knew she thought they were trampy and I filled my wardrobe with them and made sure they were short enough to give her palpitations, then that would have been an act of rebellion against my mother rather than a choice purely made for my own reasons.
When we live our lives in reaction to others, we are living for them while our own lives pass us by. We make choices based on them, not on us. Rather than look at the banquet spread before us, we focus on the rye bread that NM loves: she loves it so I will hate it. She hit me when I was little so I will not discipline my child; I never got the toys I wanted so my child will get every toy she wants; my NM hated red, so I will wear red whenever I can, even though it doesn’t look so good on me; NM was stingy with money and lived in a crappy part of town so I will live in a great part of town, even if I can’t afford it; NM had to have a brand new car every two years so I will make a virtue out of making mine last as long as I can, even if it looks like hell, breaks down every week, and costs me more in repairs than car payments on a new one. She was profligate, so I will be parsimonious; she wore expensive jewellery so I will be superior by refusing such unnecessary and showy adornment; she thought higher education made her better than anyone else, so I will drop out of college after the first semester… Whatever she values, you devalue; whatever she holds in low esteem, you elevate. And in the meantime, your real life passes you by while you live in reaction to hers.
Becoming proactive with respect to your own life is not an easy thing. When you have lived your life in reaction to someone else’s, you don’t really know what you like and dislike, what you want and don’t want, not even what you need and don’t need. You have not done the life experiments to determine your own tastes and what appeals to you, and in many respects, you have not explored life outside of your NM’s paradigm. Have you looked at the gray area between NM’s position and your completely opposite stance? Have you looked beyond the two choices you have given yourself—be like NM or be her opposite number—to see what other options you had?
I was fortunate to have spent time with my stepmother and my grandmothers and through observing them (as well as being under their control) I became aware that there were more choices than beating children in the name of discipline or abandoning discipline altogether. I became aware that there were other choices than making my children into household slaves vs absolving them of all responsibility. I learned that there are other ways to talk to children than barking orders like a drill sergeant, that there is a difference between clean enough and impossibly spotless, that that unstructured time is good for a kid, even if it makes me a little anxious.
In exploring my own life, I discovered I had to take those assumptions I inherited from NM (and was rebelling against) and examine them consciously: to literally sit down and say to myself something like “NM doesn’t like lamb so we never got it at home: I must eat some lamb to see if I really don’t like it or I am just adopting her prejudices.” I had to apply this attitude to virtually everything in my life, to all of my likes and dislikes, until I created for myself a body of tastes and preferences, values and ideals, that actually reflected my own rather than aped or resisted hers. I learned I’m not too fond of lamb, either…and I really don’t like fish. I learned that I really don’t care what ethnicity or colour another person is, but I care very much what kind of human being s/he is. I discovered that assuming everybody else is stupid, like NM did, put me in a position of not being able to learn from them. I learned that I liked ethnic food, I didn’t like really high-heeled shoes or very tight clothes…or baggy ones, either. I discovered I liked to think and that humour based on humiliating or hurting people really isn’t very funny. I discovered that money is important but it doesn’t necessarily buy you the life you want. And I learned that you not only can’t change other people, if you want to, there is something wrong with you that you are unwilling or unable to accept people as they are.
Some of the things I learned were in direct opposition to NM’s attitudes and beliefs and behaviours; some of them agreed with her (like the lamb); still others weren’t even related to her ways…I discovered life outside her box, things she had never considered, had no experience with, expressed no opinions on.
You really do have more choices than toeing NM’s line or flinging yourself in the opposite direction: there is a whole life out there that is uniquely yours, a life in which some things are in parallel with your NM, some things are the opposite, and everything else doesn’t even relate to her. And to be truly free of the control of your narcissist, that is the life you must live.
You can live this life even if you aren’t NC or even LC with your N: all you need to do is break the bond in your own heart and mind, the bond that keeps you acting either in accordance with your NM’s expectations or in defiance of them. That is a choice you can make at any time, the choice to live your life through your own likes, dislikes, tastes and choices. To do otherwise is to live under your NM’s thumb or to live in a continual state of rebellion and defiance and, believe me, that gets tiring after a while.
Your life belongs to you and you should live it for yourself, not for your Ns, not even for your spouse or your kids. There will come a day your kids fly the nest and your NM has passed on and if your spouse predeceases you, and your whole life has been lived for someone else, you will be alone, bereft, empty. I found myself in just such a situation in 2000: my kids were on their own, my NM was dead, and my husband unexpectedly died. But I was not bereft or empty. I had long since become my own person, knowing myself well enough to be able to weather those first months of grief, then going on to rebuild my life. I was not empty or bereft because I had an identity of my own rather than one predicated on my service to husband and children or in rebellion to my NM. And this is what you deny yourself when you live for others or in reaction to another: your own independent identity, your own life, your own self.
Self examination is a good thing: narcissists don’t engage in it because they deny the possibility that anything in their lives needs changing, but for the rest of us, it is a productive endeavour. Ask yourself: am I living in reaction to someone else in my life? Or am I living a life created though my own independent choices? You might be surprised what you learn!