Despite having Low Contact and No Contact available as tools to help us deal with our NMs, many of us do not take advantage of them. We continue to expose ourselves to their toxic ways, perhaps hoping “this time it will be different” or justifying our complicity in our own victimization with such rationalizations as “I don’t want to miss my sister’s wedding,” or “how can I deprive my kids of their grandparents?” or even “I won’t let her push me out of this family and win!” I have to wonder: if you had it on good authority that someone had put a contract out on you, if you attended that wedding, that reunion, that Christmas dinner, there would be a sniper lurking with a gun pointed right at your heart and he had been paid to shoot you dead in front of all and sundry, would you go anyway? Would those “reasons” for going still motivate you, despite the certain knowledge that would be shot and either seriously wounded…maybe even killed…if you showed up?
Ok, some people are so sunk in denial that they would go anyway, but wouldn’t the majority of us stay away, fearing for our lives? We would fear physical wounding, even death and take steps to protect ourselves, even though we know that, if only wounded, we would eventually heal. Despite that knowledge, however, we still fear the pain of injury and the possibility of death, the painful healing process, the potential for being maimed and even permanently crippled by the injury. We shy away self-protectively, preferring to protect our bodies…and our kids and spouses from any potential stray bullets…over contact with our families and NMs.
So I have to ask: why is your psyche…and the psyches of your kids and spouse…not as important as your physical body? Why would you protect yourself from being shot and maimed or killed, but not protect yourself from the predations you know, from long and painful experience, will be an inevitable part of having contact with your NM and her flying monkeys? Why is it not OK for her to kill your body, but it is not only OK for her to kill your spirit, it is so OK that you help her by serving yourself up, like a Christmas turkey, for her consumption?
Have you asked yourself this? Have you ever even thought about it? Are you thinking about it now? Why do we do this to ourselves?
The answer is simple: we expect them to change, to be different this time. Why we expect that change, however, is not so monolithic.
It isn’t really hope that keeps us stuck in the earlier stages…the “living in hope” stage comes later, when we have exhausted everything else and hope is all we have left. Once the penny drops and we realize we are dealing with a parent who is dysfunctional, before we reach that “living in hope” stage, we first go through many of the stages of grieving…and we may even get stuck in some of them.
Wikipedia reports “Studies of pedagogy, the process of teaching, suggest that the patterns of grief are one way of describing the basic patterns of integrating new information that conflicts with previous beliefs.” How apropos this is for us! In becoming aware that something is wrong with our mothers, in processing the information that they are not the loving, nurturing beings we expected them to be—and realizing that their negative behaviour towards us was not our fault—don’t we follow the Kubler-Ross grief dynamic? Remember the stages do not have to occur in any strict order…and they can happen simultaneously. I found it fascinating too learn that the stages of grief are virtually identical to our patterns of integrating new information that conflicts with old. We get stuck when we are unwilling to let go of the old information and accept the new…when we cling to denial and a preferred belief rather than embrace a new and painful truth. Sometimes we want to have our cake and eat it to: to acknowledge intellectually that our NMs are cold and unloving and did not love us in the way we deserved and needed but, at the same time, emotionally cling to the notion that she does love us, “in her own way,” despite abundant evidence to the contrary or…more tellingly…that we have the power to win her love if we could just figure out the “right” thing to do or say or be.
Denial, the first stage of grief, is something we are all familiar with. We somehow feel compelled to protect our NMs at our own expense, to take blame for her cold and unloving behaviour and attitudes towards us, to deny that her unloving behaviour comes from an unloving heart. We would rather believe we were not compliant enough, obedient enough, loving enough: we committed an endless litany of sins that turned our otherwise good and loving mother against us. We are at fault and we feel guilt for it. If you look at this notion rationally, it makes no sense: a truly loving mother will love her child no matter what…and most definitely through the natural mishaps and mistakes of childhood. You do not have to earn your mother’s real love with perfect behaviour and anticipating her every whim: mothers who require that of their children do not love the child, they love the behaviour.
We, as a people, find it difficult to say…and accept… “I don’t know” as an answer to anything. Myths are spawned by this inability, as we naturally fear the unknown. To name something is to potentially have power over it…or at least over yourself in its presence. Early man knew this…their priests and shamen came up with stories to explain lightning and tides, storms and seasons, even the transit of the sun across the sky. “Knowing” the cause of these things, even if such knowledge involved magic hammers, horses and chariots pulling the sun, and thunderbolts being hurled from a mountaintop, was less frightening to the people than not knowing at all. And so, when we face the sad fact that our mothers did not have a natural mother’s love for us, it is less frightening, less painful, to blame ourselves than to admit we don’t really know why. It also gives us a feeling of control over something that, in fact, we have no control over at all.
How is that? Because if we believe that we have some fault in an on-going event, we also believe we have the power to influence it by changing our faulty behaviour. And it is this belief that keeps us stuck, stuck, stuck.
How many times have you thought that if you were only smarter, prettier, more compliant, less clumsy or forgetful, more able to read her mind, she would love you more? It is amazing what a love-starved child…or adult…will do to gain what she identifies as love from an unloving parent: a 14 year-old-girl in England allowed her mother to artificially inseminate her so that her mother could have a fourth child to raise because “If I do this . . . maybe she will love me more.” As long as we think our behaviour influences the dispensation of love from our narcissistic parent, we willingly participate in the manipulation believing, like the English girl, “If I do this…maybe she will love me more.”
The second stage of grief is anger. Many of us engage in both denial and anger simultaneously, angry that our siblings are treated better than we are, angry we are denied that which our peers take for granted, angry that our expectations are repeatedly disappointed. If we have ventured a step or two out of denial and realize the truth of how we are being abused, our anger may escalate into rage and hatred. Too often, however, we feel guilt for our anger, guilt for thinking “badly” about people we are, according to our cultural norms, supposed to love and trust unconditionally.
The third stage of grief is bargaining, and this is where we fall into that false sense of control: “if I do what she wants, she will reciprocate by doing what I want.” The problem is, she won’t…and then you have a disappointed expectation to deal with, which may well trigger more anger. But if you are stuck in the bargaining stage, you will be wracking your brain for new and better ways to elicit the desired response from her, keeping the cycle of denial, anger, and bargaining going indefinitely.
Depression is the fourth stage of grief and it precedes acceptance. Depression is, in itself, a kind of denial, a final refusal to accept the truth even while knowing what the truth is. During this stage you are perceiving the truth but not yet ready to embrace it. A lot of people get stuck here, vacillating between it and earlier stages, all in an effort to put off embracing the final stage. This is where getting stuck in hope happens: unwilling to embrace the finality of acceptance, unwilling to fully acknowledge the truth of an NM’s lack of emotional connection to the child, we get stuck here, relying on hope to come to the rescue, clinging to a futile and childlike hope for our wish…that our NMs will magically morph into loving, caring mothers…to miraculously come true. It is not until we are willing to relinquish that wish, that hope, that we can move on to the final stage of grief:
Acceptance. Here, you come to terms with the unpleasant and unhappy reality of your mother. You know that she is the one who is at the root of her lack of love for you, not you. You accept that nothing you can do will elicit love from her because she doesn’t have it to give. You stop trying, you stop feeling guilty, your anger begins to wane. No longer hiding behind anger and rage, no longer shielding yourself with denial, you stop bargaining and you start actually feeling the hurt that you have been hiding from for so long…and it feels good and cleansing to feel those feelings, weep over them, and purge them. You may not entirely give up hope, but you now relegate it to a faint flicker in the place where you keep your latent belief in magic and miracles: you know it probably will never happen and your life is no longer held hostage to it.
And you feel free. You feel free to walk away or to stay: her barbs no longer have the power to wound you to your very soul. You may even feel sorry for her, knowing how inadequate she really is and how desperately she tries to conceal that from everyone, including yourself. You no longer feel compelled to bargain for something that does not even exist, you don’t have the desire to deny the reality of who and what she is, and if you are angry with her, it no longer controls and interferes with living your own life.
Why do you stay? Because you continue to expect, in one way or another, that she will change. As long as that is a part of your beliefs, you cannot be free. As long as you harbour the belief that she will one day, through a mechanism still unknown to you, realize she loves you and then will be motivated to communicate that to you, you stay. Locked in a prison of pain, you hold the key to your freedom in your own hands, if you would but use it. It is your belief that she has love for you and you have the power to somehow release it that keeps you where you are. And only you have the power to let that go.