Continued from yesterday...
“9. Blame your parents. Blaming your parents for your defects, shortcomings, and failures is among the most important steps you can take. After all, your parents made you who you are today; you had nothing to do with it. If you happen to have any good qualities or successes, don’t give your parents credit. Those are flukes.”
“Extend the blame to other people from your past: the second-grade teacher who yelled at you in the cafeteria, the boy who bullied you when you were 9, the college professor who gave you a D on your paper, your first boyfriend, even the hick town you grew up in—the possibilities are limitless. Blame is essential in the art of being miserable.”
Exercise: Call one of your parents and tell her or him that you just remembered something horrible they did when you were a child, and make sure he or she understands how terrible it made you feel and that you’re still suffering from it.
I think this is a bit of a touchy one for ACoNs. While we have lived through some terrible treatment at the hands of one or both of our parents and we have undeniably been affected by those experiences, blaming doesn’t fix anything.
One of the things that always irked me about my NM…and I have read much the same from other ACoNs…is how nothing was ever her fault. No matter what it was, from ruining a piece of my clothing that she borrowed while I was asleep (it wasn’t her fault because she was drunk) to breaking up a marriage (he wouldn’t have cheated if his marriage was a good one) to leaving bruises all over me (“Look what you made me do!”) to getting stuck in a marriage she didn’t want (“It was your grandma’s fault for getting him an early discharge from the Navy so I couldn’t go do what I wanted!”), nothing was ever, ever her fault. Probably everybody reading this has had a similar experience.
I once had a roommate, a morbidly obese woman who was sexually abused as a child and whose mother didn’t put a stop to it. This woman sat on the sofa in my family room and ate a whole six-pack of giant-sized Snickers bars in one sitting and when she had finished, she turned to me and said, with complete sincerity, “That was my mother’s fault.” I was boggled…her mother lived more than 600 miles away and they did not communicate, but she truly believed that her binge on those Snickers bars was not her fault…or choice.
The trouble with this kind of thinking is that as long as you blame others, you give away your power to change things. She was not responsible for what happened to her in childhood and she was right to blame both her stepfather and her mother for their roles in abusing her; she was, however, responsible for choices she made as an adult, including that choice to eat those six Snickers bars.
What I found very difficult to learn to do was to differentiate between what things truly remain the fault of my long-dead NM and what things were my choices. I had to learn to acknowledge that I made some of my choices subconsciously because I was unwilling to spend the time, energy and angst examining them. I had to learn to differentiate between things forced upon me in childhood and adolescence and choices I was making to continue those things as an adult. But the most difficult of all was simply giving up blaming other people for my decisions or choices. It was a big, big flea that I had learned from my NM, one that was deeply entrenched, and which went way back into my childhood.
This is a particularly difficult one to get a handle on because our society is so fixated on blaming something outside ourselves rather than taking responsibility. Mass shootings are the fault of guns rather than the people who wield them or a society that glorifies power; obesity is the fault of fast food rather than the choices we make as to what to put in our mouths, your kid got bad grades because the teacher gave him poor marks, not because he earned them. When I was about 7, my father came into the kitchen to investigate the sound of breaking glass and found me standing next to the sink with a shattered tumbler at my feet. “What happened?” he asked and I replied “It fell.” Right there, I got a lesson in taking personal responsibility: “It can’t move by itself,” my father told me. “How did it fall?” I remember I tried to figure out how to answer him without taking the blame but I couldn’t. “My elbow bumped it,” I finally said. “You mean you bumped it with your elbow?” he asked.
My father’s words “It can’t move by itself,” stuck with me. Oh, I buried them for a long time, but they were never far below the surface…close enough to provoke guilt when I made someone or something else responsible for my behaviour or choices. Close enough to come to the surface when I started getting my life straightened out. I might have been influenced by what I learned as my mother’s victim, but am an intelligent person with the ability take responsibility for my choices and acknowledge my own part in the poor choices that led me to so much misery. My NM’s treatment of me explains many of the poor choices I made, but that does not excuse me or absolve me of responsibility.
There comes a time when we must separate from the parent, no matter how good or how bad they were, and take responsibility for our own choices because only when we do that, do we have the power to make changes and improve our choices…and our lives.
“10. Don’t enjoy life’s pleasures. Taking pleasure in things like food, wine, music, and beauty is for flighty, shallow people. Tell yourself that. If you inadvertently find yourself enjoying some flavor, song, or work of art, remind yourself immediately that these are transitory pleasures, which can’t compensate for the miserable state of the world. The same applies to nature. If you accidentally find yourself enjoying a beautiful view, a walk on the beach, or a stroll through a forest, stop! Remind yourself that the world is full of poverty, illness, and devastation. The beauty of nature is a deception.”
Exercise: Once a week, engage in an activity that’s supposed to be enjoyable, but do so while thinking about how pointless it is. In other words, concentrate on removing all sense of pleasure from the pleasurable activity.
Sometimes we “normalize” our negative feelings and perceptions and then make ourselves feel better by perceiving things outside our norm disapprovingly. Think of it like reverse snobbism. We train ourselves to feel guilty for enjoying certain things and condemn those who do enjoy them as being shallow or small-minded or one-dimensional or insensitive or even bad. We make a virtue of our deprivation and may even begin to think of ourselves as superior to those who do not also deprive themselves. We may come to define ourselves through our self-deprivation, seeing ourselves as virtuous because we have learned to do without and viewing others as wastrels, self-indulgent, or even destroyers of the planet, depending on how far we take this.
Narcissists may do exactly the same thing, but their motives are very different and even the process leading up to the position of self-congratulating martyr is different. Narcissists may seek ways to set themselves apart and through that, feel superior to “the herd.” But even in setting themselves apart, they find like-minded people, so by taking matters to extremes, like being the thinnest, or being able to boast the most marathons (or miles), or adhering to the most extreme diet or whatever floats a particular narcissist’s boat, is the means to the end, the end being “better” than other like-minded people. ACoNs, on the other hand, do not necessarily seek to feel superior and, in fact, may feel guilty when they catch themselves feeling superior (and then go into denial by rationalizing the behaviour that led up to it). When we deny ourselves life’s pleasures, we do it with a completely different motivation from the Ns: we often feel we don’t deserve enjoyment, happiness, or pleasure and some of us later make a virtue out of the deprivation. Ns, on the other hand, use it as a tool designed to make them feel superior.
An example of this from real life was when I made friends with a woman I will call Helen. I was in my mid-20s at the time and struggling through secretarial school on a miniscule budget. Helen was in the same boat. But I noticed that Helen didn’t buy her (or her son’s) clothes at Kmart and cheap shops like I did: Helen bought only occasionally and almost always on sale, but she bought at Macy’s…even for her 5 year old son. It was not until she handed down her boy’s outgrown clothes to my boy that I could appreciate the difference in quality.
But even after we had graduated and gone to work and actually had money to spend, I kept buying at Kmart. I would walk into a Macy’s and feel like I didn’t belong there, like I didn’t deserve to buy decent clothes that would last more than one season. It was not until I was able to rationalize buying work clothes at Macy’s by observing how the executive secretaries dressed that I began to alter my habits. But it took years for me to start having regular appointments at the hair dresser, buy good quality shoes and clothes, and good quality skin care and cosmetics because I believed it was a waste of money to spend it on ME…and I had made a virtue out of my misplaced frugality.
“11. Ruminate. Spend a great deal of time focused on yourself. Worry constantly about the causes of your behavior, analyze your defects, and chew on your problems. This will help you foster a pessimistic view of your life. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by any positive experience or influence. The point is to ensure that even minor upsets and difficulties appear huge and portentous.
“You can ruminate on the problems of others or the world, but make them about you. Your child is sick? Ruminate on what a burden it is for you to take time off from work to care for her. Your spouse is hurt by your behavior? Focus on how terrible it makes you feel when he points out how you make him feel. By ruminating not only on your own problems but also those of others, you’ll come across as a deep, sensitive thinker who holds the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Exercise: Sit in a comfortable chair and seek out negative feelings, like anger, depression, anxiety, boredom, whatever. Concentrate on these feelings for 15 minutes. During the rest of the day, keep them in the back of your mind, no matter what you’re doing.
This one is like walking a tightrope for ACoNs. On the one hand it is important for us to delve into our pasts, experience the emotions we have repressed, and find out the real truth of our early years, the temptation to wallow in the misery and not only feel sorry for ourselves but elicit sympathy from others can be very, very alluring. Not only do we find a way to take ourselves out of the role of being dumped on every waking minute, we discover that there is a whole lot of people out there who will feed our “poor little me” inclinations. And while it may feel good, at least in the beginning, a protracted amount of uncritical sympathy can be unhealthy for us if we get stuck into it and don’t move beyond into the “fix it” phase. Worse, we can adopt that unthinking, uncritical sympathy and start feeling really sorry for ourselves, a guaranteed way to get…and stay…stuck.
Those of us who grew up thinking we shouldn’t dwell on ourselves because it indicates we are selfish (undoubtedly taught to us by a narcissistic adult who wanted us to dwell on him or her instead), may not turn the wallowing inwards but outwards. We become disheartened and negative about the state of the world, politics, ecology, the next generation…whatever rings your particular chime…to the point of allowing our negative focus colour our entire outlook. Add in the “helplessly hopeless” factor… you haven’t the power to change global warming by yourself and because nobody will listen to you, the situation is hopeless…and you guarantee yourself a catastrophe to ruminate on and feel grim about, thereby colouring your entire perception of life. “How can you expect me to be happy when somewhere a dolphin is dying in a fisherman’s net?” “My life is consumed by the demands of taking care of other people…what do I have to be happy about?” “My parents beat me and screamed at me and abandoned me…and you expect me to be happy?” As long as your inner life consists primarily of negatives, so long as you refuse to embrace perspective (which means acknowledging more than the negatives in your perception of your life), you create and perpetuate that misery you so love to complain about.
Tomorrow: Part 12 through Conclusion