You know how narcissists can take any situation and find a way to make it about themselves?
Well, many of us have the exact same talent. Let us be in the proximity of any kind of dysfunction and we will find a way to feel guilty, or responsible, or obligated to fix or mitigate or otherwise resolve the issue. Mother’s an alcoholic? you must do something to intervene and fix it… Golden child brother wrecked his car and got thrown out of his house by an angry wife? you have a spare room—well, no you don’t but your kid won’t mind sleeping on the couch while your brother stays there… Husband cheated? you tear your brain apart trying to figure out what you did wrong that would make him cheat… You never met a problem you couldn’t find a way to make your fault or responsibility: the “Me” flea—whatever is wrong, it has to be linked to me.
Anybody recognize yourself here?
One of the first things I learned in therapy was that I was “overly responsible.” I found this difficult to wrap my mind around because I had spent the better part of my life hearing about how irresponsible I was. I grew up in a house full of mixed messages and no key—no clue—to figuring them out. I was supposed to wash the breakfast and lunch dishes after school and my brother was supposed dry them and put them away. If he refused and I told my mother, I was tattling; if he refused and I didn’t make him do it, I was irresponsible and hopeless and a failure. My solution was to take on the responsibility myself and dried and put them away in order to prevent a maternal meltdown, a behaviour choice which, I later discovered, was being overly responsible.
As an adult and married to the laziest narcissist west of the Mississippi, the same continued. He had a car but he refused to maintain it. And while it is all well and good to say “let him suffer the consequences of his inactions,” the truth was, our budget couldn’t handle him blowing up car engines regularly because he refused to put water in the radiator or have the oil changed. I managed the household funds because he refused to—he just spent until it was gone—, I decided what work needed to be done around the house and who was to do it…and, like my brother, he simply refused to do the work that was his.
It occurred to me that if he had some choice in which household chores were his (as opposed to me assigning them to him like he was one of the kids), maybe he would be more inclined to do them. That was when I discovered that he considered himself exempt from anything resembling labour because he earned more money than I did. Bottom line—if I wasn’t willing to do something myself or delegate it to a kid, it wasn’t going to get done, no matter what the consequence—and that included a blown engine in his Mustang.
Oddly enough, I was irritated about this from a superficial feminist perspective—I worked as many hours as he did and if I was contributing to the household income, then it was only fair that he contributed to the household labour—but the idea that I, alone, was responsible for running and managing the household and his obligation was to perform the occasional assist, never occurred to me as being innately unjust. I had always been the one to whom responsibility fell and I had never questioned it. The responsibility had always belonged to me and where it was not specifically given to me, I simply took it.
I recall sitting in a job interview and being asked about my problem-solving process and saying that the first place I looked was to myself…was I responsible for the problem? And if so, I would then find a way to correct it. The first place I would go would be me. When anything went wrong in anything, my first question was always “what did I do to cause this? And what can I do to prevent it from happening again?”
It doesn’t help that this is actually very pragmatic question to ask. If you have to spend money on a mechanic or a plumber or a repairman of any kind, it is a perfectly rational question to ask: knowing what caused a problem allows you to take steps to prevent a costly recurrence. But for me, it was more than that…it was finding out where *I* screwed up so I could pro-actively prevent it from happening again…so I wouldn’t be at fault…and have to feel the anxiety of having screwed up…again.
I can’t say I felt much guilt—that is not something I even spent a lot of time with—because the anxiety overshadowed it to the degree of virtually obliterating it. My childhood was one of waiting for the other shoe to drop, the next blow to land, the inevitable punishment to fall. I didn’t have an opportunity for guilt—guilt was seldom elicited because it didn’t give my NM anything she wanted. She wanted me to be afraid of her—she even told me that she would rather have me fear and obey her than love and respect her. Each and every time I fell short of the impossible standards she set for me (often without even telling me what the standard was), each and every time I did something, I waited anxiously for the pronouncement from her just how far off the mark I was and what the consequences were to be. No matter what the assignment or even who it was assigned to, Violet was the responsible party in the end—Violet was the de-facto project manager who had no authority, all the responsibility, and bore the brunt of any shortfall.
Objectively speaking, it may not actually have been as dire as all that, but that was my perception, even in childhood, and our perceptions are our realities. My reality was that I would be punished for anything that went wrong in our household and to minimize that possibility, I became what my NM called “bossy.” Only by having control over every possible bit of my environment did I feel I had a chance to forestall blame and punishment. I rigorously self-examined, looked for facial expressions in the mirror that were suitably bland so as to not provoke NM’s eagle eye for evidence of defiance or insubordination. I practiced tone of voice that would be informative but neither whiney nor timid and fearful: I was to be afraid of her but not in an obsequious manner that might cause notice in others. There was no aspect of my life that I did not examine in one way or another, seeking ways to stay away from my mother’s “bad side.” No small feat, considering her “bad side” was pretty much all she showed at home.
And so everything became about me. The expression on my face, my tone of voice. What I did—what I didn’t do. When I overheard my mother expressing displeasure to a friend on the phone or to my father, my mind immediately turned to myself: what did I do to cause this? What did I fail to do? What can I do to mitigate it and reduce the consequences? How can I control this, spin this, avoid getting caught in this?
Things did not improve in adulthood. The “Me Flea” followed me everywhere. If there was no business in the club where I was dancing and waitressing, did I do something to cause it? What could I do to improve attendance the weekend before payday? If the bus was late getting me to work, what could I do to make sure I got there on time tomorrow? Take an earlier bus? Take a chance on this bus again? My focus on life was its faults, its problems, and how I caused them, contributed to them, and/or could fix them. It was all about me…my choices, my actions, what other people thought of me, how they viewed me, what they might do to me, how much power they had over me and what could I do to take that power so as to protect myself. Things that could not possibly have been my fault became my fault: tree fell over at a neighbour’s house? I should have seen that it was diseased or damaged and warned the neighbour—it was therefore my fault that the tree fell down. Washer broke? I should have known that odd noise heralded a catastrophic failure of the motor…my fault. Co-worker’s brother died in the war? I managed to find a way to feel responsible for that, too—my brother was in the same war and he was alive and well, so I felt that somehow I should have been able to prevent her suffering and failed to do so: it was her brother who died, but my feelings of empathy for her loss were all but obliterated by my anxiety about my lack of power to control the world around me.
Through this all, I did not see how self-oriented I was. My perception of the social expectation was that I would keep a clean house, that I would see to disciplined children, that I would have meals on the table, laundry done, groceries bought, that I would see to a tidy home, obedient children, and a well-fed, happy husband and if I could not achieve that, I was failing my duty. Never mind that there was no committee judging me—not even my NM was looking over my shoulder—never mind that the nebulous “they” who I was trying to satisfy did not actually exist: everything in my life was about living in such a way as to not further provoke the anxiety that overshadowed my life. Without even consciously realizing it, everything was about me. About manipulating everything in my life to assuage my anxiety, to minimize my potential for feeling guilty. Even though it did not look like it nor did it feel like it, in reality, everything was about me.
I have to wonder how many of us go through life under the influence of the Me Flea without even realizing it. How many of us make choices that are dictated by the Me Flea without seeing what we are doing? Every time you do something out of Fear, Obligation or Guilt, you are succumbing to the Me Flea because you make those choices so that you do not have to feel guilty, or because you are unwilling to take the consequences (fear) or because you feel obligated, even when you are not. Every time you choose to expose your kids to their toxic grandmother, every time you do as bid by your N rather than say “no,” every time you get upset with the behaviour of a flying monkey, you are acceding to the Me Flea, putting your unwillingness to bear the brunt of an NTantrum ahead of the well-being of your children, allowing your fear of your NM’s reaction to usurp your time, permitting the opinions of people who don’t care about your feelings to actually dictate those feelings.
When the Me Flea dominates your life, you cannot live a healthy emotional life because the Me Flea does not put your well-being front and centre. The Me Flea lives in an environment of fear, reaction, and irrationality. It controls you and leads you to sacrifice not only your own well-being but the well-being of others in your life, like your children, your spouse, even friends. It is a selfish Flea that demands all other aspects of your life be subordinate to it: rather than stand up to unreasonable demands and protect your children, you worry about the repercussions from your N or you try to avoid guilt by succumbing to the Me Flea. Living your life giving in to the F.O.G. is actually a very selfish mode of existence because it sacrifices everything else in your life to it.
The Me Flea is no more powerful than any other Flea in your life: you have absolute control over it, but too often we refuse to exercise that control because we aren’t willing to deal with the consequences. But all of life’s choices have consequences, so even choosing not to stand up to the Me Flea has consequences: you allow yourself to be exploited and your children and spouse, marriage and friendships become sacrifices to your unwillingness to take the other consequences…the consequences of shutting down the Me Flea and standing up to the Ns and Flying Monkeys in your life.
Like so many other things, the decision to continue succumbing to the Me Flea or the decision to stand up to it and face down your Ns is a personal choice. But be clear on this: when you choose to let the Me Flea rule your life, when you choose capitulation because you don’t want to feel guilty or afraid or you don’t want to bear the consequences of refusing to fall prey to a feeling of obligation, when you succumb to the F.O.G., you are choosing to sacrifice others to save yourself. And that is how the Me Flea operates.