It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Narcissist in your Head

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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Narcissism’s Relationship Trap

Before I knew anything about narcissism, before I entered therapy, before I realized that nothing I could do would make my mother love me, I got married to a man who I thought was a prince among men.

I had already been in terrible relationships with abusive, selfish men and in my 27-year-old wisdom decided that any man I could live with for a year and still feel good about would be The One. I had long since given up the notion that my partner had to be handsome or buff or Mr. Personality…I had settled on sober, dependable, trustworthy, intelligent, reasonably well-educated and having a steady job that paid well as indispensable criteria, and once I found a man like that if, after a year, I had not discovered he was a wife beater or a skirt chaser or mean and punitive, he would be a viable candidate for marriage. Nobody, after all, can hide their true personality for a whole year, ya know?

Well, I was wrong…in fact, not only could he hide the reality of himself for a whole year, in later years I found a friend whose boyfriend concealed who and what he really was for four years. I probably don’t have to tell you that my marriage didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.

What brings this up today is that I realized that, after figuring out that my mother was a narcissist, I recognized that my ex-husband was one too…and this weekend I realized that my present husband shares many traits and tastes with my narcissistic ex-husband.

But this is not a bad thing. You see, during that first year, my ex (who I will call “James” here to prevent any confusion) was exactly what I was looking for: he was patient and accommodating, dependable, trustworthy, and all of those other things I was looking for in a partner. He was an engineer, so he was technically minded, he was highly intelligent, and better educated than I was. His personal interests included finance and economics and politics, and he had little quirks like keeping a logbook of all of the money he spent on fuel and maintenance of his car, recorded with the date, reason for cost, and the amount. He also regularly calculated his gas mileage from this log. He could watch TV movies back-to-back for an entire day, movies he recorded on VHS tape…and he would watch those movies with a magazine in his lap, reading articles on finance and economics while he watched TV. He liked my cooking. He was a good earner and seemed to be good with money…all things that should make a good husband.

But, interestingly enough, everything I said about James in the previous paragraph also applies to my present husband! Even that quirky little thing about recording the costs for the car…James kept a ledger book in the glove compartment, my present husband does it on his smart phone. My relationship with James lasted 13 years and my husband and I have been together for the same length of time. But with James, after a decade I was a crumbling shell of the woman I had been when we met, broken, barely functioning, suicidal. Earlier this month my husband and I celebrated our 11th anniversary and I am looking forward to another eleven and even more.

So, what is the difference? Why would I respond to these two very similar men in such a different fashion? The answer lies not in what is similar between them, but their differences. And not superficial differences but those things that go deep into a person’s character.

One of the problems we ACoNs may face is choosing friends and partners and inadvertently choosing to bring more narcissists into our lives. Narcissists are very good at mimicking normal, they are excellent at making themselves look like the answer to your dreams…until they have you hooked. And they have an almost unerring radar for finding those of us who were raised to be a scapegoat, a provider of NSupply to narcissists near and far. They find us like wolves find wounded prey animals and then they do whatever is necessary to get us into position for the kill. And we, deprived of the most basic love and nurturing during our formative years, are suckers for people who appear to fill our shamefully neglected emotional needs.

James knew I was burned by flaky men who took advantage and then took off. They got what they wanted by pretending to give me what I needed. Raised by a narcissist mother and a largely absent father, I was hypervigilant to the moods of my narcissist and learned quickly that anticipating her needs/wants and providing them before they were demanded was the best way to stave off the explosions of wrath. My mother was extremely volatile, emotionally, and had the terrifying ability to go from sweet and smiling to a full-blown screaming rage in the blink of an eye…and back to sweetly smiling just as fast. Living with her was like living in a mine field with just a few paths of safety mapped out…and one of those paths was to give her what she wanted before she demanded it.

This, of course, set the stage for my “operating condition” for the years that followed. I managed to hook up with men who, like my mother, had volatile personalities and, to prevent explosions, I employed my hypervigilance and anticipatory ways. Whatever, whoever they wanted me to be, I would be in their presence (just like in my childhood, however, the mouse would be and do whatever she wanted when the cat was away). This pattern of behaviour, however, was not conducive to the establishment and perpetuation of a healthy long-term relationship. Once the men got what they wanted from me, they abandoned me or abused me until I left them. By age 26 I had three children and had been abandoned by my last boyfriend when our child was only a few months old.

I was never a stupid person and I tried to learn from the events in my life. What I had the most trouble with was figuring out when a person was fooling me and when he was sincere. The father of my youngest child stayed with me throughout my pregnancy, supported me and was what I considered to be kind and loving. Once the baby was born, however, he began pulling away and by the time I had recovered from my Caesarean enough to return to work, he was gone. For a long time I wondered what I might have done to drive him away, but I later learned that I was the first of three women he did this too…he even married the third one but abandoned her and their baby when the child was just a few months old. Obviously, he had an issue but just as obviously, I seemed to be incapable of determining whether or not a man had an issue that would cause him to leave me—or abuse me—before getting involved with him.

James seemed like a breath of fresh air. He was a professional man, unlike my previous lovers, well-educated, well-read, well-spoken. One of the things I remember finding wondrous about him was his patience, something my mother and previous male partners seemed to have in short supply. I remember James taking me to a pharmacy to fill a prescription and I apologized in advance for the time it was going to take, for taking up his valuable time waiting around for me. He shrugged and said “No problem…why don’t you leave the baby in the car with me while you are in there, then you won’t have to deal with him as well as everything else?” I was amazed and I remember congratulating myself for finally finding a man with some patience and sensitivity. How could I have known it was just an act?

Well, forty years later, I have the answer to that question: if he seems too good to be true, he is. Real people have flaws and they show them. Nobody is perfect…oh, he can be “perfect for you,” as my husband is for me, but that means that he has flaws that you find acceptable, even endearing…imperfections that you can live with or even enjoy. A person with no faults is either faking it to impress you or s/he is a narcissist, being what will attract you until you are hooked and s/he can abandon the disguise.

James managed to last for an entire year and, against my better judgment, I married him. I say “against my better judgment” because I let my logical mind and my need for security overrule my intuition, which had seen—and dismissed—numerous red flags during the year. I had already failed at marriage and didn’t really want to marry again, but I had made the cardinal error of letting him know too much about my inner workings…he knew just how emotionally insecure I was and how badly I wanted a house of my own so I could feel secure (somehow I had equated the two…I believed when I had my own house, I would no longer feel as if the rug was about to be yanked out from beneath me). When I balked at his blandishments about marriage and he finally took on board that I was afraid to get married again, lest I fail at it another time, he bribed me with the promise of a house of my own. And that was the tipping point.

Superficially, James and my present husband are very much alike, but when you analyse them, what shakes out is that my present husband is the genuine article…he is, in real life, what James pretended to be for the year before I married him. My criteria were fine…what I wanted in a husband was not unusual or unhealthy…for the last eleven years I have had a husband who fits that criteria very well. They even share some quirky behaviours, like the log book for the car and where James watched TV with a magazine in his lap, my present husband has his tablet and is reading on-line articles about politics, economics, and finance while watching movies he has recorded on the PVR. The difference between James and my present husband is that I gave James enough information in our early days for him to figure out what kind of man I wanted and he recreated himself to appear to be that man; my husband was himself from the beginning and over time it became obvious that he really is what James pretended to be.

For the longest time I wondered what I did to cause James to change from the loving, patient, attentive man I agreed to marry into the monster I ended up with. For more than ten years I turned myself inside out, trying to find the magic key to unlocking the door behind which was hidden the wonderful man I married. I took the blame for his change, believing it was something I did or said that caused him to turn into a cruel, manipulative, short-tempered, selfish, inhumane excuse for a human being. I believed if I could discover what it was I did or said that caused him to change, I could have the man I married back. It was not until I discovered narcissism that I began to understand that the monster was the real man, the loving partner I thought I married was the fake.

It was an epiphany and the implications were huge. It wasn’t my fault…he wasn’t a monster because of something I did or said…or didn’t do or say…he was a monster because that was the real man, the man behind the mask of kindness and patience and love. Where I was at fault was in letting him know early on what I needed or wanted in a partner so that he could create himself to be that person. In seeking to evoke his empathy with my sad tale of childhood abuse and bad luck in adult love relationships, I gave him a detailed blueprint of what he needed to pretend to be in order to win me. And, in my tales of a life of woe, I confirmed to him that I was a well-trained scapegoat, a well-skilled provider of N-supply, a person who would subordinate the very essence of herself to obtain even the merest crumbs of approval and affection. I was as irresistible to a narcissist as a wounded hare to a fox, and he was determined to not only have me, but to bind me to him through marriage so that I couldn’t just pick up and walk away when his abuse became too much.

In my epiphany, I further discovered that I was a willing accomplice in my victimization: I told him everything he needed to know to entrap me. I let him know what hurt me, I reacted to probes into my feelings so he knew what my triggers were. I ignored the red flags that popped up regularly, even when my conscious mind knew better…I ignored them because they got in the way of what I wanted. If I acknowledged them, I would have to end the relationship and start all over again with a new man and a new set of unknowns. The idea of going it alone, with no man and without wanting a man in my life, never occurred to me.

It took ten years for me to really wake up and see what had really been going on. Even then, I knew nothing about narcissism, but I knew I had married a male version of my mother and that was a bad thing. My fear of my mother coupled with her hostility and indifference to my feelings led me to contemplate suicide for the first time when I was nine, and to my first attempt when I was seventeen. James and his cruel indifference led me to the same brink. And when I finally put them together, thanks to a heavy hint from an insightful therapist, I was horrified: I had married the male counterpart to my mother and had been trying to resolve my issues with her by trying to find ways to make my marriage work. I had taken on all of the blame and responsibility for the flaws in the relationship, believing I was somehow provoking his gaslighting, triangulating, and fault-finding. And as long as I believed that, I was trapped in the web, a willing but unwitting prisoner.

My present husband, on the surface, is much like my ex. The difference is simply that James was pretending to be what I wanted in a man, my present husband actually is. And at the time I married James, I had neither the knowledge nor the self-confidence to actually see that James was pretending and because I lacked those abilities, I set up a hurdle for him to leap, reasoning that if he could succeed, then he would be a good husband. In theory there is nothing wrong with that, but in practice I made a critical error: the hurdle I created had nothing to do with reality. I could have set up “he can knit potholders” as the hurdle and gotten just as accurate a result.

We who were raised by narcissists are especially vulnerable to them…they can pick us out of a crowd like a cutting horse can cut a calf out of a herd. And we respond to them because we have been conditioned to do so…they fit seamlessly into our “comfort zone,” especially if we haven’t done any real work to redefine that comfort zone. And while we can design little rat mazes for them to run through to prove to us they aren’t going to hurt us, if our little mazes aren’t based on reality, it isn’t going to work. And even if the mazes are based on reality, if we allow ourselves to dismiss those red flags, if we explain them away, then we still end up at the end of a narcissist’s specimen pin.

Coming from a narcissistic upbringing makes us vulnerable to choosing these kinds of partners…and friends, too. We need to learn to put what we want to see in people secondary to what we really, uncomfortably, observe. When we can start acknowledging those red flags and not dismissing them, when we can put the fairy tale relationship we carry in our heads away and stop trying to fit the most recent lover or friend into the role, we begin to make progress. Key to this is to stop trying to find reasons to find a person acceptable…to give up the idea that we can or should remake a person to fit our ideals…and simply accept or reject a person based on whether or not they already fit into our own personal scheme of things.

And that brings me back to my husbands…obviously my criteria and my tastes have held constant and what I wanted was neither unreasonable nor unhealthy. My mistake was in ignoring the red flags and not allowing myself to recognize that James really didn’t fit my needs, he was just pretending to. My present husband, though, fits the criteria admirably: he is, for real, what James merely pretended to be for a year.

In retrospect, it turns out it was not all that difficult to do. If you start with a realistic and healthy set of expectations in a partner, pay attention to the red flags in the people you meet, avoid the temptation to try to change people to fit into your criteria, and have sufficient patience, your odds of successfully avoiding the relationship trap set for you by your narcissistic upbringing are excellent.