I was not a rebellious teenager…at least not overtly. I was too afraid of my narcissistic mother to do anything other than slavishly follow the rules she set down to the letter. But observing the letter of the law is not the same as observing its spirit, and while I may have appeared to have internalized all of rules and so-called values, nothing could be further from the truth.
A lot of ACoNs find themselves shackled to beliefs and values taught to them by their narcissistic parents and feel pangs of guilt, fear, and/or remorse when they so much as contemplate violating them. Others, like me, give the appearance of compliance while secretly doing whatever they want within the strictures imposed by their parents. Some people actively rebel during their adolescence, but I don’t know many ACoNs who did that…I suppose most of us are so thoroughly bound up in the narcissist’s web by the time we reach puberty—and perhaps sufficiently controlled by guilt or intimidated by the N and her flying monkeys—that we are reluctant to stir up what we know will be a hornet’s nest of reaction.
Guilt was never an effective weapon for controlling me because I was very clear, very early on, that there was something really, really wrong with my mother, and I was extremely angry about the way she treated me. Her favouritism was so blatant that other family members even noticed it…but the one time I heard her called on it, she explained it away—I was an incorrigible child, wilful and uncontrollable, defiant and deliberately difficult, so I deserved the ill treatment I received and my brother, by contrast, deserved the special treatment he got. The only problem with that was that my brother was constantly in trouble at school, had poor marks, was in regular trouble with the local shops and neighbours for stealing, ran away from home and even tried to set the school on fire…all before he was 10 years old! I, on the other hand, was too petrified of my mother and her volatile temperament that I made great marks at school (I was even skipped a grade), did both my chores and my brother’s (because she would punish me for not “making” him do his), and seldom spoke in the presence of adults unless bidden to do so (“children should be seen and not heard”). My mother’s interpretation of what constituted a “good” child and what constituted a “bad” child was just a wee bit wonky…and I was pretty clear on that, too.
Since subtle things like guilt-tripping didn’t work on me (although guilt works very well when I have actually done something wrong), my mother used intimidation. If she came home from work and my brother’s chores weren’t done, she couldn’t use guilt to make me feel bad for not making him do his work: I was clear that I had no authority over him and that he was bigger than I was and that what she was expecting of me was wrong…you can’t wring guilt out of that kind of belief. On the other hand, if my father said “I am disappointed in you” because I brought home a poor mark or I forgot to feed the dog, the guilt would be all the punishment I would need—I can remember crying because I disappointed my father. My father, however, never expected me to be surrogate mother to a malicious sibling larger than me, nor did he expect me to be a perfect little automaton.
My mother never really tried to guilt me (not until I was well into my teens, anyway), she preferred more direct methods: intimidation, threats, and brutality, accompanied by verbal abuse administered at a high decibel level. For many years I believed that shouting and threatening mayhem was how mothers communicated with their younger children and wondered what was wrong with my aunt (who I now suspect suffered from prolonged post-natal depression) who spent her days at a dirty, cluttered kitchen table chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking cup after cup of coffee while her children did whatever they pleased. I can remember my cousins engaging in behaviour that would have instantly provoked my mother into a towering rage, and my aunt only shrugging and lighting another cigarette. Aping my mother, even as a child I sat in judgment of my aunt, characterizing her as lazy and shiftless because she did not descend upon her children, belt flailing, howling like an enraged banshee.
Many (most?) ACoNs internalize the values of their narcissists, take them as their own, and then beat themselves up with guilt when they violate those values…even if those values are, objectively speaking, self-serving crap. Developmentally speaking, it is during adolescence that we are supposed to individuate, to take those values and mores of the previous generation, evaluate them, keep what we find valuable and jettison the rest, creating our own values and mores to fill the void. Some parents are not flexible enough for their kids to do this without conflict and rebellion ensues. And some parents are not only inflexible but intimidating as well and individuation may not occur as a result, and we go out into the world with our parents’ values and beliefs, not our own.
I think I came out with a combination of the two since I embarked upon my adolescent rebellion after I left my mother’s house and believed myself to be out from under her thumb. When I did something I knew my mother would find objectionable (like not cleaning my house) my feeling was not one of guilt but one of triumph…Take that, you old bat! It is MY house and I will keep it messy if I want! What took me years to realize—because I quite sincerely believed I was living my life the way I wanted—was that I had not left my control-freak narcissist behind, I had carried her along with me in my head and, instead of obeying and feeling guilty when I failed to measure up, I was rebelling and thumbing my nose at her with every choice I made that I knew she would not approve of…and getting an extra measure of satisfaction from the knowledge that she could not punish me.
But the truth is, I didn’t really like the messy house or the low-pay jobs or the flaky, exploitive men, I didn’t like always being broke, never having a larder full of good food, living on the fringes of society. My fear, however, was that if I embraced a conventional lifestyle, I would end up the puppet of someone like my mother and the only way to feel free was to consciously and willingly sacrifice some of the things I wanted…familial acceptance, respectability and a financially secure life…for what I wanted most: a freedom from my mother.
It was years before I realized that my sacrifices were in vain because I carried my mother around with me in my head just as surely as those who fear putting a foot wrong because of misplaced guilt, guilt created by a controlling parent. The only real difference between me and them was that they felt guilty whereas I felt angry and rebellious. Truth be told, we both carried our narcissists around with us in our heads and we both lived our lives in response to them, one of us trying to measure up, the other thumbing her nose rebelliously. But neither of us were free, we merely responded to our captivity in different ways.
It was a long road to acceptance that I was still being controlled by my mother, even though she was hundreds of miles away and we had not spoken for years. I had learned to live reactively, so any time anyone around me did something, I reacted to them, rather than being pro-active myself. This left me open and vulnerable to abuse as it put me always in a defensive position: someone acted, I reacted, usually defensively. The realization that I approached life from a victim’s perspective was what finally woke me up…victims react to what is done to them, victims rebel against injustices, because victims accept the idea that those who victimize them are superior, are right, have authority. And the only way I was going to stop being a victim was to stop acting and thinking like one.
It doesn’t matter if the narcissist in your head controls you with guilt or if you are rebelling against her: it only matters that the choices you make in your life are somehow tied to that narcissist, whether it is to obey or to defy her. It doesn’t matter if your narcissist is dead or alive, next door or half a world away, once you have internalized the narcissist’s values and accepted that the narcissist is the arbiter of right and wrong in your life (even if that acceptance is subconscious), you continue to be controlled by her, only by proxy—and you are the proxy holder.
Changing it was no more than a matter of establishing a new habit…the habit of reflection. I had to do what I should have been doing in adolescence: examining the beliefs, values, mores of my narcissistic mother and deciding if they were worth keeping or if I could do better independently. It was tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to assume that if she believed it or practiced it, it was wrong and had to be tossed out, but I realized that was more of that mindless rebellion. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and narcissists may have some values or notions that are worth keeping.
In the beginning I had to reflect on just about everything…first I had to determine if a belief or attitude was mine or my mother’s and I had unwittingly adopted it. Then, once I determined who initiated the belief, then I had to re-examine it to determine if it was valid for me in my present circumstances. At first it was arduous, time consuming, and fraught with frustration. It is difficult to look at something you have believed is right for your whole life and to toss it out. But messages inculcated into us by self-serving narcissists, no matter how deeply believed, can be very, very wrong and self-destructive. You aren’t useless, hopeless, ugly, inept, a loser, born to fail—these are beliefs that serve the narcissist because it makes her look good, feel good, by comparison. When you adopt these beliefs as your own, you may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy…or you may be setting yourself up for a lifetime of stress, trying to prove to yourself that you are none of those things. Either way, the narcissist that has taken up residence in your head is controlling you, not you.
Feelings are clues. If you feel guilty or uncomfortable or repelled, you have a clue that something needs examining. When you examine it and you find that it stems from your childhood and your parent, you then have the opportunity to choose. Believing something does not make it a fact: the fact that your narcissist believes you are selfish doesn’t mean you are, it merely means that she believes you are selfish by not subordinating yourself to her. The fact that she was an authority figure in your youth does not mean she must be an authority figure for your whole life—as an adult, you are supposed to be your own authority, setting your own values and boundaries and rules, and taking responsibility for what you believe…because what you believe influences how you feel.
My journey into adulthood, for that is what this really is, involved dumping some sacred cows, truthfully examining cherished beliefs and letting some of the go. It also involved reinforcing some beliefs…consciously accepting values handed to me by authority figures because, in re-examining them, I found them to be of value.
Yes, it takes time and it takes effort. But coming to the place where you are now, being controlled by the narcissist in your head, believing yourself to be less than what you really are, restricted by dictates of a person whose only interest in you is her own needs, didn’t happen overnight. Expecting decades of abuse to be resolved in a few weeks or months of effort on your part is unrealistic and bound to disappoint.
Procrastination doesn’t help, either. The longer you put off self-examination, the more firmly that narcissist is entrenched in your head, and the worse you feel about yourself…which makes it all the more arduous to sort it all out. The sooner you start, the sooner you are finished.
The objective is to be your own person, for good or for ill, and you cannot do that while you carry around the values and beliefs of persons who had only their own best interests at heart. You have to re-evaluate all of it, come to your own values, values that work for you without exploiting others in the process.
The good news is that the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Eventually, you learn to recognize a conflict without a lot of deep evaluation and dismissing unhealthy mind sets can become as easy as brushing away a fly. As you get better at it, the conflicts become more obvious as do the healthy alternatives.
When you stop thinking of yourself as a victim, others no longer perceive you that way. Not everyone will be happy with that, of course, and some of them may even try to intimidate or guilt you back into your role. But when that happens, instead of being afraid or alarmed, you can view it as proof that your hard work is paying off: as you shrug off the shackles of the narcissist in your head, the narcissists may go into a panic, trying to keep you as their go-to person for Nsupply. They will reveal themselves by either punishing you (silent treatment, threats, spreading lies about you) or by becoming as manipulatively seductive as they know how (guilting, gifting, promises you know they won’t keep). You will see, by their own actions, who is happy for you learning to stand up and be your own person and who feels threatened by it. And this is valuable information because before you can devise effective strategies to combat the Ns, you first must know who they are.
There may be a price to pay for your mental and emotional health, but I guarantee you, it is nowhere near the price you continue to pay while that narcissist sits inside your head.