Every person I have ever known who was struggling with a relationship with a narcissistic parent, partner, boss, friend, or sibling, was actually struggling with feelings of fear, obligation, and/or guilt—at least one of which was keeping them in a victim’s role.
Most often this F.O.G. originates in childhood, a childhood dominated by a narcissistic parent or parental figure. And it doesn’t matter if your narcissist was engulfing or ignoring, overt or covert type, malignant or not: if you had a narcissistic parent, you were indoctrinated to feel fearful, obligated, and guilty. It is one of those things that is part of the universal truths of the children of narcissists.
All human beings are born with the instinct for survival. From infancy, when the instinct prompts us to cry when we are hungry or are too cold or hot, through toddlerhood when we cry when being left alone, up to adolescence when we are supposed to being individuating and learning to survive without our caretakers, this instinct drives us. Its purpose is to ensure our survival through an inborn fear of being abandoned by our primary caretakers, for without them, we would surely die.
Given a normal, functional upbringing, we begin to individuate in our teens, losing both our physical and emotional dependency on our parents and developing the skills and self-esteem to go out in the world and make our own way. We begin grow away from our dependence, both emotional and physical, on our parents. This is the way it is supposed to be, to grow from total dependence upon our parents for every aspect of our existence to being wholly independent and self-sufficient, to become the rock upon which our own children will depend.
Unfortunately, for the children of narcissists, this quite often goes horribly wrong. Individuation is discouraged, even forbidden, as is anything that the NParent thinks will lead the child away from dependency. These children grow up believing themselves to be hopelessly incompetent, unlovable, unattractive, lazy, stupid, and generally a burden on their parents and even on society. And even if they go out into the world and make a success of themselves in the eyes of that society, internally they remain dependent on the approval of others for their self-esteem and sense of right and wrong, never having individuated and learned to rely on themselves.
The process of individuation often brings conflict between the primary care-givers and the adolescent as the teen tries to take on adult activities for which s/he is not yet prepared. But in functional families, the mistakes are learning opportunities, the adolescent grows into independence and self-confidence with the guidance of her parents. In dysfunctional families, however, individuation is derailed. In order to control them and keep them emotionally dependent, narcissists instil into their children, very early in their lives, the grim triad of narcissistic entrapment: Fear, Obligation, and Guilt—the oppressive F.O.G.
A parent does not have to be overtly abusive in order to instil fear into their children. Ask any adult child of a narcissistic parent what she is afraid of and you will likely get vague, nebulous answers or, if specific, answers that indicate she fears the narcissist’s reaction. Ask the 40 year-old daughter of a 65 year-old narcissist what she fears and the answer will invariably be the parent’s response, most often anger, and the guilt it provokes. If you ask “So what if she gets angry? What is she going to do about it? Ground you? Take away your car keys? Forbid you to go to the dance Friday night?” And the narcissist’s adult child will, at that moment, have a peek into the amount of control she has given to her narcissist.
Sometimes, however, the fear is well-founded. The malicious malignant narcissist will fight dirty. Not content with an intimidating Nrage or guilt-inducing pity party, the malignant narcissist (MN) will spitefully retaliate, often overtly but sometimes covertly. Covert retaliation might be undermining your authority with your children or withholding important information under the guise of forgetting, or saying “I didn’t think you cared/would want to know/were interested…” or some other passive aggressive action. Overt retaliation has no limit: anything from trying to take custody of your children to sabotaging your relationships (including your job) to stalking you to stealing your identity and running up huge bills in your name to accusing you of crimes such as elder abuse, child abuse, animal abuse. The overt malignant narcissist’s repertoire knows only the boundary of getting caught without a plausible excuse for their behaviour: if they think they can get away with it, no matter what “it” might be, they will do it. And they will not feel one iota of guilt, either, no matter how much harm they cause.
If you are dealing with a malignant narcissist, fear is an appropriate response to their advances, no matter how benign the advance seems to be. The only way to effectively deal with a malignant narcissist, whether overt or covert, is to cut all contact and disappear. As long as that MN has access to you, you are legitimately at risk.
But most narcissists are not malignant narcissists (even though it very well may feel like it to you). Most narcissists are simply out to get narcissistic supply and manipulate people and events with that as their goal: drama and attention and control to ensure a steady supply. It takes real malice, an intent to do you serious harm, to make your narcissist a malignant narcissist. MNs are rare: the average narcissist’s objective is her Nsupply and if you get hurt in her pursuit of that, she doesn’t care. The malignant narcissist’s objective is to hurt you, and she gets her Nsupply from your pain and the difficulty she causes for you. The incidence of MNs in a population of narcissists I once calculated at being less than 3%...and the incidence of narcissists in the population is less than 6%...so the odds of your narcissist being malignant are very low.
But malignant or not, narcissistic parents inspire fear in the hearts of their children. And regardless of any superficial reasons for our fears, there is a single common fear that unites us all: fear of abandonment. This fear is rooted deeply in the subconscious of all humans as part of the survival instinct. In prehistory, to be abandoned by parents or tribe was to be sentenced to death. Survival was, by and large, a communal endeavour. To be cast out alone, exiled, was to perish. From our very first breaths we cry for the soothing touch of another, the sound of voices to let us know we are not alone and we will not die.
The children of narcissists often suffer from emotional abandonment and subconsciously fear physical abandonment. Long after we should have individuated, we may cling to the fear of abandonment that makes little kids cry when they lose sight of Mummy in a crowd—to be separate from the nurturer is to be in danger of death. Those of us who continue, past adolescence, to depend on our mothers and/or other members of our families of origin (FOO), fear separation—whether by circumstance or intent—even if we are not consciously aware of it. We are afraid, not so much of what they might do to us, but that if they reject us, we will disappear.
The fear in F.O.G., then, is not a realistic fear of reprisal but a primeval fear of death by abandonment—to the subconscious, emotional abandonment is no different from physical—and narcissists instinctively play on this fear to control us. And this is why they sabotage our efforts to individuate: they are unwilling to release us from their control because we provide NSupply to them. With rare exception, our fear is wholly unfounded because the vast majority of narcissists actually mean us no real harm—they just want to get their Nsupply—and if we are harmed in their pursuit of it, they simply do not care.
Part of culture is obligation. The structure of societies require certain things from their members in order for the society to function. There is the obligation of supporting the society through such things contributions (taxes) and obeying the rules (laws and customs). Then there are social expectations such as respect and manners. Each sub-culture has its own set of rules involving customs, rituals, and taboos. To be born into a society or a culture of any kind, anywhere—including the microcosm of a family—is to be born into obligation and that concept is inculcated into us early.
Obligation is what you owe to others or what others owe you. It is a duty for which the obligated one is responsible. If you are obligated to do something, you are responsible to do it. But obligations are not immutable. Some obligations change with time and over time, and may even go away. Your obligation to feed and shelter and discipline your child, for example, diminishes with time until a point at which your child is an adult and responsible for his own food and shelter and, presumably, no longer needs discipline.
Narcissists, however, pervert the natural obligations of the parent-child relationship, often completely turning the tables such that the child feels the burden of obligations to her parent while the parent feels none towards the child. In a true obligation you are bound either by the laws of your society or the morals of your culture. You have no choice in the matter unless you wish to risk censure by the society and/or the culture.
But, again, narcissistic parents pervert this by convincing that you are bound by obligation where, in fact, there is none. If the entire FOO is controlled by narcissists, as is frequently the case, the child may have an entire chorus echoing the narcissistic parent’s insistence that the child is obligated where, in truth, she is not.
Children are hard-wired to believe their parents and the other authority figures in their lives. Again, this is part of the survival instinct: children learn about what is safe and what is not from observing and listening to their parents and other adults around them. Until they reach what is often called “the age of reason” (commonly thought to be 7), children are quite gullible and easily led. Age and experience increases a child’s reasoning power but, due to the strictures of his or her upbringing, some topics may be forbidden for the child to apply logic and reasoning to. In more functional homes it is often frowned upon for a child to apply her burgeoning logic and reasoning skills to something considered sacred, like religion. In more dysfunctional households, however, a child will be forbidden to question virtually anything imparted to them by their primary authority figures.
Narcissists, the ultimate in dysfunctional parents, exploit this aspect of childhood by teaching their children, either directly or indirectly, that they are the ultimate authority in a child’s life and that questioning that authority was forbidden. Children of such parents were afraid to apply logic to the pronouncements of their parents, even long into adulthood. My mother, for example, used to tell me that there were three ways to do anything—the right way, the wrong way, and her way. The sheer illogic of that statement did not strike me until long after I achieved adulthood: like most children, I simply believed it because my mother said so.
It is no wonder, then, that when a narcissist and her Greek chorus of Flying Monkeys (FMs) inculcate a child with the notion that Mummy made huge sacrifices for her, and that she owes Mummy a lifetime of gratitude and payback, the child accepts this as incontrovertible fact, just as she accepts the existence of such things as the Tooth Fairy. Unfortunately for the children of narcissists, nobody tells them the truth about the supposed debt of gratitude owed to their narcissistic family when revealing the truth about the Tooth Fairy and, as a result, it is a safe bet that virtually all children of narcissists grow up burdened with a false sense of obligation to their NParents.
The thing about these obligations is that, on the surface, they seem so reasonable, so logical, so rational, that even as adults we accept them as valid. We learn about tit-for-tat in the school yard and grow up with an understanding and acceptance of the concept of reciprocity. What nobody tells us is that where parents and their children are concerned, in modern societies the children have no lasting obligations to their parents, nor the parents to their children. The obligations of parenthood diminish as the child grows and matures and reaches her age of majority; the obligations of a child to her parents also diminish with growth and maturity: that is what individuation is all about—growing up and away from the dependency of childhood, dependency that includes those ever-diminishing obligations to parents such as obedience and acceptance of the parents’ pronouncements.
Children who grew up in emotionally healthy homes care for their elderly parents out of love, not a sense of obligation. They visit, call, buy gifts and do other, similar things out of genuine love for those parents, not because it is expected of them. For many years I drove from San Francisco every summer to spend a week with my father because I loved him, I loved being around him. Visits with my father always left me feeling renewed and strengthened. It is telling that during these week-long visits, I went into town to see my mother only on the last day, as I was leaving town, and then only for an hour. And it was very clear in my mind that these visits were not for me or for her: they were to prevent her from getting resentful about me visiting my father—from whom she had been divorced for over 40 years—and not stopping to see her. Was I doing this due to a sense of obligation to spare her feelings? No—it was to protect my father and stepmother from being cornered by her in the very small town where they all shopped and occasionally ran into each other—it was to protect them from having her dump all of her resentment at my ignoring her onto them. An obligation to protect my father? Again, no—an act of love on my part that they knew nothing about.
What is salient here is doing something out of a sense of duty versus doing it because you love the person and want to take care of him/her. It is free will versus the shackles of obligation. If you interact with members of your family not because it is your duty to do so but because you love them and genuinely wish to do things for them, that is a healthy interaction, done out of love for them. If your primary motivation, however, is one of duty and obligation, then this may well be unhealthy and motivated by a false sense of obligation implanted into you when you were a small child and then carefully nurtured.
You do not have an obligation to your parents or to any other adult family member once you become an adult. If you feel like you do, then you have been brainwashed from childhood to believe that you owe a debt to people who were, in fact, only doing their own duty and who very likely did it poorly: if they had done it well and with love, you would feel no need to be reading something like this. You owe them nothing but basic respect unless, like Ns everywhere, they have managed to earn your disrespect—in which case you owe them nothing more than civility. To paraphrase Anne Lamott: “If people wanted you to [feel] warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Guilt is interesting. The ability to feel guilty is our moral compass…guilt tells us when we have done something wrong and it plagues us until we do something to redress the wrong. It is the angel on our shoulder who tries to guide us to do the right thing. The ability to feel guilt is absolutely essential in order to have a conscience.
Guilt feels bad. It feels bad in order to impel you to right whatever wrong you may have committed, in order to make the bad feeling go away. Some people don’t feel guilt, however, which can be a bad thing. I say “can” advisedly because there are people out there who seldom feel guilt because they are careful to live their lives in such a way that their guilt is not provoked. Such people have learned the lessons that guilt is there to teach them: don’t do bad things and you won’t have to deal with guilt feelings.
Unfortunately, such people are in the minority. Most people who don’t feel guilt are personality disordered or otherwise mentally/emotionally disturbed and the lack of a conscience is part of their disturbance: people like narcissists who have neither conscience nor remorse. Either they simply do not have feelings of guilt or they have rationalized and justified their behaviour so that in their minds, they are not guilty of any wrong-doing. Ever.
Then there are people who feel guilty and cannot seem to stop. They just walk around with guilt hanging over their heads. They feel guilty about saying “no.” They feel guilty about taking care of themselves. They feel guilty for taking up space on the planet, for breathing the air that someone else might need, for simply being alive. There are those whose sense of guilt is not so pervasive but triggers each time they perceive someone is not happy or whenever they recognize a feeling of need in themselves. These are all people suffering from toxic or misplaced guilt and much of this guilt is related to Fear and Obligation.
Guilt is the primary way we punish ourselves for perceived wrongdoing. But from whence do we get our knowledge of right and wrong? From our parents, of course. And if our parents are narcissists who are constitutionally incapable of believing themselves wrong? If they believe they are always right and they can do no wrong, then the blame for misadventure of any kind, from a broken glass to a car accident to one of the children getting in trouble with the law—these unfortunate occurrences simply cannot be their fault, can it? And if the Golden Child can also do no wrong, where must the responsibility for any kind of misfortune lie? With the family scapegoat, of course.
It is amazing what a narcissist can blame on an innocent family member and not only believe it themselves but draw others into believing it as well. I was surprised to learn, at the tender age of 14, that everything that was wrong with my mother’s life was my fault. Her unhappy status at that time was not because she chose to drop out of school at 16 and elope with a man she had known less than a month, nor was it because she chose to have unprotected sex with this man. It was not even because she decided to divorce him and be a single mother— No, it was my fault because I had been born. Had I not had the audacity to force myself upon her unwilling person, her life would have been “different,” a word she obviously took to be synonymous with “better.”
Other narcissists are not as overt as my mother in attempting to provoke guilt in their children. Each time a child doesn’t measure up, each time a child is ignored or demeaned or belittled, that child feels inadequate. And that inadequacy alone is enough to create guilt for not having measured up, which can spur a child to greater and greater efforts to please. Over time, it becomes a way of life as children sink into a state in which they feel they have to earn approbation, love, even the right to live. They become people pleasers and over-achievers—or they become depressed and hopeless, convinced of the futility of effort due to their inability to measure up. They feel fundamentally defective, unable to please their caregivers, all giving rise to a pervasive feeling of guilt.
Infants and children are hardwired to please their caregivers. Psychologist Richard L. Rappaport says “The desire to please…is biologically instinctual, and when the parent is ‘pleased’ the infant coos and smiles to ensure continuity of care and nurturance.” When a child is unable to please the parent, she feels guilty for falling short—and, on a deeper, more visceral level, she also feels a instinctual fear of abandonment and the certain death that follows.
As adults we do not feel a fear of literal death because, for most of us, we no longer depend on our parents to provide us with food and shelter. But because we have not emotionally individuated, we fear a kind of emotional death brought about by our inability to please our caregivers. This makes their displeasure our fault—it means we believe we have done something wrong or failed to do something right—and for this, we feel guilty, even though, in truth, we have done absolutely nothing wrong.
Narcissists exploit this. We learn very young that our narcissistic caregivers are difficult to please and, due to our hardwiring to please the caregiver in order to ensure continuity of care and nurturance, we go to ever greater effort to please them. Narcissists notice this…the worse they treat us, the harder we try to please them, the more Nsupply we provide. And the more guilt we take on for not pleasing them, the more power over us they wield.
None of this was your fault
The most difficult—but most freeing—thing for us to realize is that none of this was or is our fault. We have been conned, and we were conned at an age where we had absolutely no chance of resistance. The more overt narcissists might inspire an early awakening in a child due to the level of their brutality but for the most part, both overt and covert narcissists fly under the radar when it comes to the emotional abuse of one or more of their children. By the time the child reaches that critical age of reason and the ability to begin thinking critically, she has already been sucked into the narcissist’s vortex, already believes herself to be inadequate, already feels guilty for things not of her own making. She is already engulfed in the F.O.G. of narcissistic entrapment.
The good news, however, is that it was not your fault—you were not inadequate, you were not bad, you were not responsible for whatever is wrong with your narcissist’s life. You are not a burden or a disappointment or otherwise less than… What was wrong was your narcissist: she held you to impossible standards and found you wanting, she set you up to fail and then blamed you and demeaned and belittled you when you didn’t succeed against the odds that were stacked against you. And even if she didn’t demean and belittle you with gusts of ugly words, you knew what the sighs, the rolled eyes, the turned back, the silence meant —you didn’t need words to know that you had not lived up to her expectation, that she viewed your presence in her life as a burden, that you were not what she wanted.
She was the defective one, not you. If someone judged a cage of newly hatched robins by their ability to fly, they would all fall short of the mark and be inadequate, wouldn’t they? If that someone prevented them from learning to fly by clipping their wings when their flight feathers when they came in, they would never learn to fly, would they? And if set free at that point, they would be in grave danger, crippled and dependent because they would not know how to fly to escape predators or to find food. And if the person who caged them and clipped their wings pronounced them to be useless, inadequate, disappointments because they can’t fly, would you agree? Or would you put the blame on the caretaker who crippled them?
What makes you so different from these robins? Your fear, your sense of obligation, your guilt—none of these belong to you. They were given to you by a narcissist, planted in you like a crop, to ensure Nsupply, to make sure you never individuated and took the Nsupply away. Your narcissist has implanted obligations into your head that don’t actually belong to you, beliefs that keep you chained and unable to fly just as the clipped wings keep those robins grounded. You are stuck in a F.O.G. created by a narcissist for her own benefit with no thought to you or your well-being.
The only way out of the F.O.G. is to be willing to challenge those things you believe that keep you bound, to stay with the guilt until you can come to embrace the reality that your Ns have kept from you—the reality that you owe them nothing, that your proper role in life is to learn to care for yourself, not them. Just as you must break free and make your own life, so must they. They cannot remain parasites, grooming and manipulating you to provide them with Nsupply, unless you permit it with a lack of boundaries and an unwillingness to challenge their beliefs and values. You need your own, you need to forge your own path, create your own sense of right and wrong, one which that not include being an “ever-flowing breast” of Narcissistic Supply to people who will exploit you for as long you permit it.
Your narcissist will never change and you cannot change her. She will never let you go, never see the truth of herself, never stop generating that F.O.G. in which you are stuck. It is in her own best interests to lock you down and keep you shackled because if you individuate and find freedom, she loses an easily milked source of Nsupply. The F.O.G. is continually generated to keep you feeling guilty, obligated, and afraid of abandonment, of losing your family, so that you will not see the truth. It is only by facing your fears, shrugging off those obligations that are not truly yours and refusing to accept the toxic guilt, only by admitting to yourself that your NParent and her Flying Monkeys really care nothing for you, that they are manipulating you for their own ends, to maintain their false image to themselves and the rest of the world, only by acknowledging that you are feeling guilty for things that were not of your doing—only then can you shake free of her toxic grip and begin to step out of the F.O.G.
Freedom is within your grasp: all you need to achieve it is to accept the truth.
Rappaport, Richard L. Motivating Clients in Therapy: Values, Love and the Real Relationship