September 05, 2014

Parentification and Sibling Resentment: The Bologna Soup Story


Albert Anker
Dear John Bradshaw introduced the idea of championing our inner child. He instructed readers to keep a photo of themselves, age six years or eight in plain view. Our age in the photograph could correlate with a tragic event; it didn't have to though; it wouldn't matter if it didn't. The point was integrating our inner child with our adult self, gaining a realistic perspective of our lives. This exercise promised an awakening of self-compassion through the admission that once upon a time, we thought and acted like children...because we were.

How easy it is to forget you were a child.

Observing my self as a child meant really seeing my self, remembering feelings and thoughts and my teacher in first grade. It sounds silly talking about our inner child, holding her hand and promising to care for her; yet feelings of tenderness dissolved my cynical resistance. Self-forgiveness melted boundaries between the past and present, releasing the shame still carried as an adult, for failing to meet big expectations fixed on tiny shoulders.

Adult children of narcissists peer into childhood darkly, mercilessly critical of themselves, oblivious to the blame they're directing towards a six-year old who acted like...well...a six-year-old. Not seeing themselves as children with undeveloped psyches, limited choices, powerless over circumstances, doing the best they could. That's a hard thing to accept, being powerless. It may lead to increased reluctance putting ourselves in little shoes perhaps; avoiding empathizing with the vulnerable child we were perhaps. When you think about being a child, are you touched by the complexity children face adjusting to an unpredictable and sometimes ugly world? And while we were figuring out who who we were and where we fit in a reality we couldn't control, shit happened. Tender children dealing with shitty circumstances grew up to blame themselves for not behaving like adults when they were eight or even fifteen. This is what Bradshaw meant by championing our inner child. Self-forgiveness. Self-compassion. Self-love.
Parentification: "The compliant response is illustrated when you, as an adult: spend a great deal of your time taking care of others; are constantly alert about acting in a way to please others; are very conforming; feel responsible for the feelings, care and welfare of others; tend to be self-deprecating; rush to maintain harmony and to soothe others feelings; and seldom get your needs met." ~Dr. Nina Brown, The Parentified Child
What were you doing when you were fifteen?

Albert Anker
In 1966-67, our neighbors were driving to Texas to buy a bull for their farm. They invited my parents to go with them. Circumstances were such that they had to go the next morning, no matter what. Mom resisted. She didn't want to leave her daughters alone. My brother wasn't in school yet (he's ten years younger than me) which meant she would take him with her. She didn't have the freedom to tell my father "no" and maybe you had to have to grown up in those times, to understand male authority. Hurriedly and reluctantly, mother packed bags while scribbling lists and reminders. She worried about not stocking the pantry, figuring I would make do. Call me creative. Call me industrious. Just don't call me cruel.

I was maybe fifteen years old and responsible for waking three sisters, fixing breakfast, ordering baths, combing hair, and catching the school bus since we didn't have alternative transportation. I was told to make sure everyone finished their homework, myself included. In addition, the next Sunday was Easter and mother had always made new dresses for church. Staying home to make Easter outfits was her strongest argument against driving to Texas, though as usual, Dad would hear none of it. Her resistance to what he wanted to do was akin to patriarchal mutiny. She had to go. Feeling sympathetic to her plight, I offered to do the sewing. She pointed to a pile of fabric on the sewing table and wished me luck. During that week, I made four dresses, four dress coats, a paisley vest and bow-tie for my little brother. Wanting to do everything perfectly and please my family, I felt competent and smart---like Grade A marriage material for a future patriarch of my own. (ha! I got one all right! yikes)

Albert Anker
The Bologna Soup Story

My childhood as the eldest was different from my younger siblings. As the eldest of five, my siblings relish in telling stories about my unrighteous dominion. I'll share one of those stories in a minute but first you need to know we lived in a farming community where every household had as little as every other household. My girl friends also tended younger siblings and in comparison to a few, my life was a breeze. Each time my best friend's father pummeled her mother's body with his fists, she took over household duties until her mother could show her face again. (I understand the abuse cycle and how it traps women and children; but male violence towards those who love them most, is as crazy to me today as it was then.) 

Enjoying domestic arts and being a leader, I wanted to help and was never resentful of the work. It's what girls did in my culture, plus, I valued taking care of people. My easy going temperament and genuine pleasure in "women's work" was a good fit. By contemporary parenting standards, my childhood depicts parentification, but I didn't feel burdened then and don't feel resentful now. Nonetheless, caring for my sisters and brother demanded a heavy investment of time and energy which interestingly, cultivated my affection for them. Care giving wasn't onerous because I loved them. Maybe that's why it never occurred to me that my siblings would carry grudges. To be sure, I wasn't a perfect mother as a child. 
Albert Anker

Two weeks ago...

We were sitting around my parent's table, reminiscing. You know how FOO (family-of-origin) discussions go: one memory leads to another until someone lobs a grenade. The conversation grinds to a halt and nobody knows if the grenade-launcher was joking or serious. I had to mentally review the sequence of events in order to understand what had happened. Please note: Most people never understand why they throw grenades until waking up from the family collusion. Then we spend the last half of our lives understanding patterns and changing destructive behaviors, if we care enough to do the work, that is. I am grateful to be awake. I don't care if it takes the rest of my life "learning, unlearning, and relearning", it's preferable to peating, unpeating and repeating behaviors that hurt other people.

It all started with ruffles and lace...

Recently, my mother rummaged through her closets, rescuing vintage prom and Gunne Sax dresses circa 1970. "Remember the yellow and white formal you made?" she asked me. I was a young mother at the time, scheduling busy days in order to finish my sister's dress with enough time to mail it several states over. Mom said, "When we got the package on the day of the prom, we were so relieved. When we saw the dress, it was bea-U-ti-ful and fit perfectly!" I was getting lots of attention for actually finishing dresses on time. (It's always a plus when your seamstress is reliable). I had even sewn a sister's tailored wedding gown though she wasn't overjoyed when this was mentioned. (I've been in her doghouse for a couple of years and lemme tell you, it's cramped! My legs may be bent forever, if I ever get out...Woof!)

My anxiety was elevating by the second. Anxiety is a useful warning sign to pay attention to. Anxiety can be a functional companion when your family is dysfunctional. Anxiety makes you sweat when you're in the danger zone and then you can do something like leave the table to go to the bathroom, or say something really awful about yourself. Spotlights give me panic attacks. Being singled out fills me with apprehension, worried someone's feelings will be hurt; knowing someone will feel left out, someone will feel diminished and that means there's sure to be an explosion. The pattern is so ingrained, it's predictable. When siblings don't believe there's enough praise and attention to go around or even enough love to share, they put each other down through criticism and insult. If the critic's insults ally with another sibling's resentments, they sidle up together feeding grievances. Lest anyone be concerned about me becoming arrogant, no worries. My family excels at keeping each other in our place. It's a vicious game I'm devoted to unpeating.

Everyone was having a great time and then....

Mom just had to bring up 1967. "Remember when your Dad and I went to Texas?" The room fell silent. One of my sisters interjected a little too aggressively to pretend she was kidding, "YES! CZ made bologna soup!!"

Rather than defend myself, I asked, "Does anyone remember bologna soup?" Another sister dared raise her arm to the square, "I do! I do!" Grumble.

Five siblings at the table: Two on one side; three on the other.

"Maybe the only thing we had was Campbell's Soup and bologna beefed it up." My youngest sister pledged her allegiance to the chef.

"Are you accusing OUR MOTHER of not having food for her children?" a sister charged. A stunning accusation destined for the family history books. We stared at her grenade in the center of the table. Nobody pulled the pin. I resisted the urge to pick it up.

Five siblings at the table: Two on one side; two on the other; one to go.

The only person who hadn't spoken at this point was my little brother, the kid with the paisley bow tie. "Tell me bro," I asked, "How many fifteen-year-old kids do you think would do what I did as your sister?" He replied, "Maybe one in a hundred thousand."

And with that comment, the pattern was broken...

"Bologna Soup Girls"  (Albert Anker)
This time during round #500 of the Bologna Soup story, I didn't feel guilty or ashamed. Did the pattern change because I didn't JADE: Justify, Argue, Defend or Explain myself? Did the pattern change because I knew my intentions as a child were honorable? I'd like to think so. I'd like to think John Bradshaw's exercise prompted full embrace of my Inner Child, doing the best she could to make things better for her family. Even when it was beyond her maturation.

We've had this Texas discussion nigh on thirty years and it's never ended with, "One in a hundred thousand." In prior renditions, we'd argue. I'd zero in on sibling criticism, irritated by the absurdity of their complaints. (There's a myriad of insults worthy of my spittle and ire; bologna soup doesn't make the top six hundred; and besides, I had to eat it, too!) Then I'd beat myself up for disappointing my family and doing something so dumb as throwing chopped bologna in canned soup. Then I'd feel insane, or maybe surreal is a better description because such a petty grievance is crazy to me. But I've learned overtime that the crazier a situation appears, the deeper the pain disappears. Bologna Soup is a distraction. It avoids the truth. It's a red herring. Something else was going on besides bad soup.

Scapegoating

Super-responsible and super-conscientious people are easy scapegoats. We feel guilty. We want to do what's right. We don't want to hurt anyone. Scapegoating allows people to project anger and blame onto a safe target (the scapegoat) without risking reprisals from authority figures, the people they're angriest with. Instead of owning feelings and confronting their parents, my siblings attack the girl in the apron. They trust the cook will feel guilty and won't retaliate because of course she will, and of course she won't. There were extenuating circumstances in my family at the time and I understood then and now why eldest children were expected to care for younger siblings. The toxic aftermath in our family is the inability of adult siblings to communicate with one another as peers, to trust meeting at the table without grenades; to talk about fears and losses; to appreciate and admire without envy, one another's gifts. That I would be resented has been a deep loss in my life, another layer of grief.

My assumption is that parentification impacts a child's development, turns the family system upside-down, and fosters sibling resentment. Particularly I think, if the parentified child is perceived to be Mom or Dad's favorite. To be sure, favoritism is in the eye of the beholder and may not be indeed be a fact. The parentified sibling may appear to have more liberties and power than the other children, thus leading to perceptions of unfairness; however, this childish perception is a distortion of the truth. No one has fewer liberties than the child who is expected to behave like an adult, punished for behaving like the child she is.
"[parentified] kids carry the full burden of the family trauma. They lose out on the chance to experience their own childhood and are often resented by the other kids because they are doing the limit setting and child rearing. These circumstances often lead this child to choose a marital partner who is dependent so that, once again, they are in the role of parent to their spouse." ~Alan Schwartz, Family Boundaries and the Parentified Child
Albert Anker
If the parentified child always becomes a resentful adult, then I was not parentified. If sibling resentment is the criteria, then maybe. Exactly what Dr. Schwartz meant by limit setting and child rearing is unclear to me. Most examples of parentification are extreme cases: children raising children; children parenting incompetent and/or incapacitated parents; children forsaking age-appropriate interests. My story is dissimilar in that my parents gave wide berth to individual  pursuits and didn't expect me to take charge of the house or finances. They expected me to fill in when needed, enforce restrictions, protect, work, teach, and be a perfect role model. Little stuff like that...ha!

Just last year, my Dad told me to "straighten up" because I was the eldest and needed to set a good example for my siblings. He didn't seem to notice his children were in their fifties and sixties. I may be influential and I may be a good  person but  I have no pretenses about my power over anyone, nor my fault for the choices they make. Still, his throwaway comment offered a telling glimpse into my past.

Because of the horrible stories people write about narcissistic siblings, it's important to clarify I was not a vindictive, domineering, or coercive sister. I never battered my siblings never ever. I defended them against bullies. I taught them to play the piano and to read and organized birthday parties when mother didn't have time. I performed the role of the family peacekeeper while having fun, too. There are more funny stories to remember than stories about culinary disasters which is why being resented by my siblings is confusing. And why the theory of parentification has been a candle in the dark.

It's painful for me to accept our currently strained relationships as the best we can achieve as adult siblings. I understand we can't force anyone to sacrifice their defenses; nor can we insist they untie the scapegoat from her whipping post. We can't make someone love us. I no longer try to earn love or respect from other people. They are willing to give it---or they aren't. I remain curious as to how my siblings came to see me as an authority figure and especially why they have not released me from a childish perception. If I could tell my siblings one thing, it would be how much I care about them and always did. And my wish? Allow me be a child in your memory, too.


Resources

Bethany Webster, When Shame feels Mothering: The Tragedy of Parentified Daughters
"As children, we were not responsible for the choices and behavior of the adults around us. Once we really take this in, we can then take full responsibility by working through it, acknowledging how it has impacted our lives, so that we can make new choices that are in alignment with our authentic selves. Many women try to skip this step and go right to forgiveness and empathy which can keep them stuck. You can’t truly move on if you don’t know what you are moving on from."  
Samuel Lopez de Victoria, Harming Your Child by Making Him Your Parent 
Emotional Parentification: This type of parentification forces the child to meet the emotional needs of their parent and usually other siblings also. This kind of parentification is the most destructive. It robs the child of his/her childhood and sets him/her up to have a series of dysfunctions that will incapacitate him/her in life. In this role, the child is put into the practically impossible role of meeting the emotional and psychological needs of the parent. 
Instrumental Parentification: When a child takes up this role he/she meets physical or instrumental needs of the family. The child relieves the anxiety experienced normally by a parent that is not functioning correctly. The child may take care of the children, cook, etc. and by this essentially taking over many or all the physical responsibilities of the parent. This is not the same as a child learning responsibility through assigned chores and tasks. The difference is that the parent robs the child of his childhood by forcing him/her to be an adult caregiver with little or no opportunity to just be a kid. The child is made to feel as a surrogate parent over the siblings and parent." 
Lisa M. Hooper. Application of Attachment Theory ad Family Systems Theory to the Phenomena of Parentification
Attachment theory and family systems theory, taken together, are proffered as a potential framework to understand the adverse effects of parentification. Attachment theory helps clarify the process of parentification as it involves the relationship between child and parent and/or caregiver. Family systems theory gives clarity to the context (i.e., the family system) in which parentification takes place. Internal working models are discussed as the mechanism through which meaning making about the parentification process happens and thereby informs the opportunity for positive and negative outcomes in adulthood. The proposed framework allows for a potentially broader view of this ubiquitous phenomenon parentification.
John Bradshaw on YouTube, part one     part two     part three     part four
 
Narcissistic Continuum: Crib Notes in my Birkenstocks

Narcissistic Continuum: Non-Violent Communication: Eisler and Rosenberg





August 07, 2014

One in Five Neighbors has a Personality Disorder??!!


Sunday Gardening by John Falter

Admit it. You have a neighbor like this, too. One house is manicured to perfection; the other a dreary mess. One walkway is scattered with hedge clippings; the other missing bricks. Zinnias bloom like colored popcorn balls on one side of the property; weeds choke hollyhocks on the other. The only thing a sane woman like myself can do in a circumstance like this, is lay a newspaper on her face and take a nap. 

Neighbors. One in five has a personality disorder and not one of them thinks they're as screwed up as their neighbors believe they are.  

If you're part of a Homeowner's Association, you know what I'm talking about. At least one person in the group measures everyone's grass within a 1/4" allowance, sticking rulers in front yards to terrorize the miscreant. Rebels have newspapers strewn across their driveways, rainstorms dissolving paper into pulp while Madame Ruler frantically pastes warning notices about declining property values. The same dynamics in every other group are rooted in the homeowner's meeting. You've got yer leader, legal enforcers, true believers, bystanders and when-will-this-flipping-meeting-end criminals. (You know you're in trouble when the Homeowner's President suggests building a gallows on the empty lot and everyone looks at you).

Neighbors. One in five has a personality disorder and not one of them thinks they're as screwed up as their neighbors believe they are.  

Did you know 6.2% of the general population has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, most of them men? That means one out of sixteen lawnmowers has a turbo-charged engine with helicopter blades, the best lawnmower a credit card can buy. If you want to avoid living next to one-upping-narcissists, consider an "established" community. Only 3% of people over 65 have a narcissistic personality (Stinson). Plus, senior citizens pay cash for a Sears push mower which means you won't be tempted to "key" it when they're on vacation. Your better instincts will instead be inspired to make a pitcher of icy lemonade and invite Mr. 65+ to take a break from his labors. The entire neighborhood will rise a notch in happiness levels because you made lemonade and because they know he has the crummiest lawn mower on the block. After accepting your generous libation, your grateful neighbor will cut your grass beyond his property line just 'cuz he's feeling generous and that makes you feel valued enough to give him a bunch of rutabagas from your garden. Pretty soon you have a mutual admiration society because neither of you has a personality disorder. People without personality disorders are able to give and take with ease. They are able to trust, to cooperate, to admire without envy, to care, to be concerned, to be affectionate. What they say is how they behave; who they say they are is what they do. There won't be a gap between image and actions. You will never be confused by their behavior because if you are, you won't be afraid to ask questions.
Personality is comprised of traits and habits. Traits are inherited (60% of who you are is inherited at birth). Habits are learned (40%), which means they can be unlearned. The more inherited the personality disorder, the less treatable it will be. (Shannon)
Birdhouses by John Philip Falter

Where's the Harmony?

Personality disorders mess up a neighborhood and the sooner you know what you're dealing with, the better off everyone will be---including the person with the personality disorder. Key to distinguishing someone with a personality disorder is disharmony. Drama. The inability to resolve relational conflicts which always come up no matter where you live or how.

True story. Once upon a time there was a crotchety old woman who lived in a rural neighborhood. Everyone said she was eccentric. Some said she was a recluse which doesn't necessarily equate to a personality disorder. What pegged her behavior as extreme enough to question a personality disorder was her contempt for the law. She would sit by her living room window all afternoon so she could shoot any cat daring walk across the top of her stone wall! Now it's not like she lived in the wilds of Africa where cats are natural predators. These cats were her neighbors pets. To be sure, neighbors were pretty upset and 'Shot Gun Annie' became the center of attention, the topic of every conversation. Most of the neighbors assumed (falsely) that even a woman shooting cats could be cajoled into giving up her bullets if only they presented the right argument. If only they used the right tone. If only they appealed to her better nature or her conscience. They could have saved a lot of time and frustration by relying on The Law to hold her in check, being fully aware that tone and logic hold no sway over people with personality disorders. They wouldn't have wasted time reasoning with her Inner Angel, thus saving a feline or two by calling police.

Had people understood the proliferation and duration of personality disorders, they would have accepted that number one:  Shot Gun Annie's reality was not the same as their reality. Number two: if all the people she had known in her lifetime hadn't livened her conscience, they wouldn't either. They'd give up their halos and admit personality disorders were more powerful than casseroles and kindness. And number three: they would have known it wasn't their fault or their cat's fault because victims are never to blame. These good neighbors had pondered over what they could have done, or must have done, to cause her to shoot their cats. Ummm...she hated cats? Her last name was Oakley? That her neighbors loved their pets mattered not in her reality. She didn't care. Her needs superseded everyone else's needs and after decades of reinforced patterns of thinking and behaving, she never questioned her perceptions. She could justify anything. Even killing pets for sport.
4% of the general population across cultures has an AntiSocial Personality Disorder (sociopathy/psychopathy) causing 80% of the crimes perpetrated in any culture. For every four men with AsPD, one woman has AsPD.  (Shannon)
Neighbors. One in five has a personality disorder and not one of them thinks they're as screwed up as their neighbors believe they are.

What's the point of talking about personality disorders and neighborhoods? 

Young Astronaut by John Philip Falter
Lay folk are criticized for using psychological terms, but think about it. OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is referred to all the time all the time all the time in conversations. We joke about it, applying the diagnosis to ourselves, assuming anyone with a perfectly clipped topiary has a form of it. We talk about the hyper-active kid with ADD who leaps off garages in her underwear. We discuss the anal-retentive fella at the end of the block. Psyche terms are interjected into casual conversation and we don't regulate who can use them and who can't. "Hey! What gives you the right to say Mr. Shorts-in-a-bunch is anal retentive? Where'd you get your psyche degree, huh?"

I guess we could call Mr. Shorts-in-a-bunch a "tight ass", the non-Freud version of anal retentive and no one would question our authority.

Applying information about personality disorders to the people who are driving us crazy, is a good thing. Using terms that capture the truth of a thing is healthy. Language is how people integrate knowledge in order to make sense of their lives. When people are unable to resolve conflicts no matter what they do, try or say, understanding personality disorders will preserve their sanity. Besides, isn't it kinder to say Fred is kinda histrionic, rather than calling him a weirdo? The thing is, people are going to label behaviors they don't understand, regardless.

You might argue there's a stigma associated with personality disorders and yes, that concerns me too. I'm also concerned about the stigma of labels offering no insight, no compassion, no solutions. Call someone a "weirdo" and people stop thinking. Stop trying to understand. Their judgement is set in concrete; understanding is bypassed. Psyche information changes stereotypes and pejoratives, shedding light on difficult personalities and the relational problems associated with difficult personalities. We'll know our limits; we'll know theirs. We won't expect what they can't give. We can adjust our behavior to facilitate a reasonable relationship. Probably not the kind of relationship we'd like to have with a neighbor, but at least we aren't escalating the problems. I don't know what to do with a weirdo. I have reasonable skills for coping with a neighbor's narcissistic personality. 

Blessed be our non-territorial psychologists who are dedicated to educating the public. Here's to the inroads psychologists have made in defining and describing personality disorders in a manner that makes sense to everyday people. In a manner that improves the harmony in everyday neighborhoods. When people shame me for using psyche terms, I give them the little speech you just read in the last paragraph and ask them to please stop being Cluster B with me. ;-P

My rule of thumb: extreme reactions and hostile behaviors beyond expectations and allowances considered normal in a specific culture, point to  a personality disorder. Blaming, entitlement, social disruption and antagonism are signs to watch for along with malicious gossiping.

Grass clippings dumped in my trash aren't a serious issue the first time it happens. Giving people the benefit of our doubt is not a pathological trait but that doesn't mean letting things slide. For all we know, their thirteen year old did it. Or their gardener. We can learn to confront problems like this without being confrontational. If my boundaries still aren't respected after a friendly conversation, I rely on the Homeowner's Association to enforce the rules and regulations governing our neighborhood. What I do not do anymore is cajole, plead, please, ignore, give gifts to, educate, explain, argue with, cook for, beg, or otherwise pretend "the problem" isn't happening. My life is much better and I believe everyone else's can be, too.


As proposed by Dr. Joseph Shannon in the video linked below: 

Six Signs Your Neighbor Has a Personality Disorder

1-Rigid. They may realize they don't adapt but can't translate their insight into meaningful change.

2-Repetition. They have a tendency to make the same mistakes repeatedly such as: successive relationships; repeatedly abusing credit; the inability to learn from their mistakes.

3-Unstable. They may experience periods of stability but suffer emotional instability.

4-Clueless. They don't understand they are sick. They don't understand how their 'sickness' affects other people. Some people with personality disorders are aware of the impact they have on others but they don't care.

5-High Conflict. When confronted with a problem, people with personality disorders create drama, not problem-solving. They cast themselves in one of three roles: victim, rescuer, villain-maverick-rebel.

6-Lacks self-awareness. Everyone in the family is on psychotropic medication except for the personality disordered person. In effect, people are held hostage.




"Dr. Joseph W. Shannon has over 30 years of successful clinical experience as a psychologist, consultant and trainer. An expert in understanding and treating a broad range of mental disorders, Dr. Shannon has appeared on several television programs including the CBS "Morning Show" and "PBS: Viewpoint." Link

Have an Extreme Neighbor story to tell? Please do! 

Hugs,
CZ


Resources

DSM-IV personality disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication "The estimated point prevalence of any PD in these studies was in the range 9.0-15.7%."


Wikipedia Page on Personality Disorders a great overview and history of personality disorders 

Huff, Charlotte. Where Personality Goes Awry. 2004. American Psychological Association.

Note: Measurements vary on the prevalence of Personality Disorders in the US population. The exact statistic is unknown, though statistics as high as 20% have been reported by practicing clinicians. A quick search brings up contradictory numbers due to the complexity of diagnosis and the fact that personality disorders are often considered to be untreatable. (not true anymore) Instead of diagnosing someone with a personality disorder, clinicians treat accompanying mental problems; i.e.: substance abuse, anxiety and mood disorders; impulse control; ptsd.  





June 29, 2014

Please Stop Calling People Narcissists! Especially ME please...

"Examination of a Blogger" (jest kiddin')


Please stop calling people narcissists because you're insulted or because you don't like them or they don't like you. Please stop calling people narcissists because their criticism makes you crazy like a pepper mill. Please stop setting up tribunals to condemn the minutest flaw in someone's character. "See that spot on her back? It's the toxic mark of Satan! Run Run! She's unsafe for human company!" A little reminder: when a witch hunt is being organized, your silence is an act of complicity; and, your enthusiastic participation may get your name dropped from my Christmas list. Just in case readers wonder how deep my niceness really goes, I don't exchange gifts with people who send emails like these:
"I know I am not the first to point out these things, so I pray you are not a narcissist CZ (although I believe you are and God agrees with me)."  
Please stop calling people narcissists because you trust your gut feelings beyond every attempt to reason with you; beyond facts; beyond rationality. 
"It walked like a duck. It talked like a duck. I called it a duck and you're a duck! I sensed the truth in my gut and sure enough, you quacked!" 
Please stop calling people narcissists because you had gawd-awful parents.
"You remind me of my mother! This is no projection, it is a matter of fact! My mother made herself the center of all communication. Woweee, what a powerful position you are in!"
Please stop calling people narcissists because they read your story-without-paragraph-breaks-and-in-all-caps, offering a story to comfort and end your isolation.
"I counted the "I's" in your reply and it proves you are a wolf in sheep's clothing! Even if you fool other people. You. Don't. Fool. ME!"
Please stop calling group leaders narcissists because you didn't get your way.
"Have you ever allowed the thought that you are using people? You make the final decisions. You decide who's right and wrong. Do whatever you want from here-on-out without MY contributions. You are the ruler after all."
Just please stop calling people narcissists when you haven't cared enough to get to know them. Your disinterest in their life undermines the validity of your diagnosis. And:

Please stop calling people narcissists to hurt them. Or because you disagree with them. Or because calling people names makes you feel better. Please stop calling people narcissists when the only hostile person is yourself.

Please stop calling people narcissists to prove you aren't. But most of all, please stop calling people narcissists to trash them.


Stigmatizing Narcissism

I've encouraged people to learn about narcissistic traits. I have argued that narcissism is not an accusation; it's a description allowing us to understand the human personality, to better manage our reactions to narcissistic personalities. I have pushed people to open their minds to psychological explanations rather than using pejoratives like lazy, stupid, crazy, evil and worthless. In my view, NPD is less stigmatizing than calling someone evil because we don't understand ego defenses and clamor for exorcisms, even in 2014. I have lobbied for access to psychological information, reducing the inevitable harm of human ignorance in the belief education would lead to healthier lives. I think all these things are happening to the majority of people affected by someone with a narcissistic personality. However, as is always the case when discussing mental health, people stigmatize "narcissist" as if it were ammunition for their verbal abuse arsenal. They use "narcissist" like a bullet aimed at the hearts of their perceived critics, never recognizing their outrageous hostility is the reddest flag in the room.

When there's a disagreement online, instead of discussing and resolving issues, all someone has to do is point their finger and say, "She's a narcissist!" Surely, I'm not the only person to have received emails from concerned readers who have been told via private emails and chat rooms, that I am a narcissist. Surely some of you have dealt with this allegation by people who want to destroy your reputation. You tick them off for some GodOnlyKnowsWhy reason, and instead of giving you the benefit of the doubt or even trying to work things out, they decide you're a narcissist.

This story took place about a decade ago.  I had been corresponding with a woman who was suffering ptsd, spending a great deal of time writing to her. One of our mutual online acquaintances told her she should not trust me because people-in-the-know had determined me to be a psychopath. She cut off contact immediately. She considered moving because she'd given me her address. All the accuser  had to do was send an email creating doubt in people's minds. Defending myself by stating, "I am NOT a narcissist" seemed ridiculous because that's the first thing a narcissist would do only more convincingly. I considered uploading a certificate of mental health to my website but realized people would accuse me of ordering it from a diploma mill. ha! My only option, or so it seemed, was learning to live with the rumors, responding kindly when people inquired about my mental health. "How come you were so mean to so-and-so?" they'd ask. And I'd write back, "Why do you believe everything you read?" And they'd say, "Are you calling me gullible?" And I'd reply, "Kinda." And they'd say, "I will never read your blog or join your forum because I go NO CONTACT with NARCISSISTS!" And then I'd consider posting the entire chain of emails so people could see how inane and ridiculous people can be and then the next day, I'd come to my senses and do nothing. Doing nothing seems to be the only way to stop accusations from getting worse. So far, at least to my knowledge, no one has ever accused me of being a serial killer. But hey, there's always tomorrow!

Cyberbullying?

Getting revenge for perceived insults and/or criticism by calling someone "a narcissist" could be considered a form of cyberbullying, I think. If the intent is to harm, intimidate and threaten an individual's reputation, it is cyberbulling even if the receiver isn't personally offended by the accusation. Being told I'm a narcissist is not upsetting to me because first of all, I don't meet five of nine criteria in the DSM and my Narcissistic Personality Inventory score is below the national average for Americans. But even if it IS grandiose for me to blog about narcissism, there are two key factors preventing me from being dangerous: my EE quotient. Exploitative and Entitled I am not. So you are safe, dear readers...you may find my long essays tedious but I won't charge you to read them. And I don't expect you to read them, either. Entitlement is something I need more of, not less.

And the other thing I realized when ruminating on being called "a narcissist" is that not everyone has tolerance for name-calling. Some good-hearted folks leave the Internet completely. This kind of poop happens all the time online. For example: if we're the type of person who listens and supports people, our good deeds will be undermined with accusations of covert narcissism. If we're smart, we're called cerebral narcissists. If we're good-lookin', surely we're somatic. If we sell products on our blogs, we're grandiose narcissists and if we don't, we're closet narcissists. Here is the thing, though. People have always used labels to diminish the sting, value and caliber of other people whose lives and opinions differed from their own. In more religious times, people accused one another of being evil. In the workplace, co-worker's achievements are reduced to that of brown nosers. People with academic accomplishments are alleged to be cheaters. There's always a way to make ourselves feel better about someone else's success. In our therapeutic society, "You're a Narcissist!" is how we maintain our status by diminishing others.

Why It's soooo DUMB To Call Me A Narcissist

I live a complex life requiring social and emotional intelligence, equanimity and empathy 24/7. It's ludicrous to call me "a narcissist." If I can be called "a narcissist" by people familiar with NPD, then we have not done a very good job educating people about the definition of narcissism. I figure if anyone can talk about this subject, it's a woman who is all about community, all about serving others, all about laying claim to her personal flaws and weaknesses of which there are many but not enough to satisfy DSM criteria. And I also trust that anyone who knows me will not be persuaded by allegations that I'm a wolf in sheep's clothing, so I'm not afraid to talk about this topic. Other people might not be as immune to name-calling and I hope to speak for all the people writing about narcissistic relationships and being subjected to anonymous accusations. Since I'm obviously not a narcissist, what does it mean when someone accuses me of being "a narcissist?" 
1-they have a superficial understanding of narcissism
2-they want to level the relationship by reducing my authority
3-they're projecting; seeing their narcissism in me
4-they WANT to hurt me, to bully and intimidate me
5-they are highly defensive--protecting their ego
6-they are verbally abusive, using narcissism as a N-word
7-they're splitting (ego defense): "I'm not a narcissist, you are!"
8-they want to strip my dignity and integrity
9-they want to justify hostility without questioning or examining themselves
10-they want the last word, a parting shot before leaving. Bang. You're Out. 



We've all done it. Sort of. 

At first, I assumed "You're a Narcissist!" was reserved for message boards because anxiety and uncertainty are naturally elevated when reading people's stories. And it's easy to impute criticism in someone's reply when you've been hurt, when you're suffering. In healing communities, there has to be allowance for our "temporary insanity" and every group relies on good will to keep people communicating freely. What I'm saying is that no one escapes being batshitcrazy AT LEAST once or twice under pressure, even more so during crises. After lashing out at someone who in retrospect didn't deserve the brunt of our anger, most people admit to being wrong and apologize. Profusely. This Is Growth. This Is Healing. Remorse is humbling if our egos are strong enough to bear the shame of our imperfection and admit we can be jerks. We can also be angels, don't forget. A full-and-rich life means committing ourselves to growing more feathers than defenses by the time St. Peter takes full measure of our lives.

Why People "Lash Out"

Sudden online aggression out of context to the situation may suggest our inner six-year-old's been typing on the keyboard without any adult supervision. Her rude comments are undeniable when the insults are attached to our screen name. YIKES. Usually after a good night's rest, our adult senses are restored and we can take responsibility for lashing out. We Step Up. (denial isn't completely out of the realm of possibilities though because truth can always be perverted to protect a fragile ego). Recovery entails plenty of "I'm sorry's!" and even more "I understand's!" and a healthy enough self to bear the brunt of our thoughtless crimes. If you are guilty of calling people narcissists because they didn't agree with your point of view, now would be a good time to stop that nonsense and get on with some serious healing.

I think people idealize healing for the most part, not comprehending the fears that must be faced, the losses that must be accepted, the devastating grief of the unloved child, the rejected lover, the discarded spouse. Healing our narcissistic injuries may overwhelm the faint of heart, the idealistic, the fragile; and I want people to know that even after being told off many times, I sympathize with my critics. Please don't hear me saying I LURVE my critics, or forgive their ongoing efforts to discredit me, but I understand why they do what they do. The ghost of the unloved child hovers close to the adult like a greedy specter, too jaded to trust, too tough to be a sucker; always looking for a motive, always looking for the betrayal that's sure to come. Ever-poised to lash out if people get too close. It appears the worst thing people can think of to keep their defenses in tact and others at bay is, "You're a Narcissist."

Some accusers defend themselves from shame by projecting their painful feelings. Recipients unwittingly react to their allegations as if there's validity to their claims. There isn't. The truth is that some people have an extremely vulnerable self and any perceived criticism--no matter how slight or unintended--will trigger their hostility, what psychologists describe as narcissistic rage. Once their wrath has been externalized, their deepest suspicions about themselves are secreted from self-awareness through primitive ego defenses. Now this view might lead readers to believe I'm tit for tatting. In other words, someone calls me a narcissist and I outmaneuver them with psychological explanations about their narcissism. However, people don't always call someone a narcissist because they're unconsciously protecting a fragile ego. Sometimes they do it on purpose.  


Stigmatizing Mental Illness & Mental Disorders

Calling someone "a narcissist" is intended to demean that person's relevance but only if "You're a narcissist!" is considered to be an insult. My goal is and has always been understanding, not demonizing people with labels. People who stigmatize mental illness may have higher degrees of narcissistic traits than the people they accuse of being narcissists. (Arikan) That seems a reasonable explanation to me, having put my best efforts into negotiating a truce after people called me "a narcissist". Having narcissistic traits doesn't imply mutual good will, nor do narcissistic traits suggest self-awareness and accountability which is why people like myself refrain from confronting people who call us narcissists. We ignore their hostility because we're cautious about escalating the drama, the ante being upped to unfathomable proportions and I'm sure most bloggers have horrifying examples they'd rather not remember. As a result of our experiences with people who were unwilling to examine themselves or check their aggression, hostile people get away with bullying.

Name-calling proliferates on the web because we can't defend ourselves from anonymous critics. There aren't any brakes on aggression if someone believes we disrespected them. If we write anything even remotely offensive or critical, they attack no holds barred. (For as callous as these folks are to someone else's pain, they are exquisitely sensitive to the mere tone of criticism towards themselves.)

When disagreements occur as they always will in every relationship, our attempts to reconcile will be twisted into distortions of truth, re-written history, blatant lies. It's like digging your own grave, trying to explain what you meant when someone was looking for insult, reading between the lines of your apology to find what they needed to fuel their anger. We eventually stop justifying, arguing, defending and explaining ourselves because it is a waste of time that only amplifies their hostility. What's the point? We realize that person cannot hear us because s/he is consumed with an archaic rage that has nothing to do with us or present time. We know someone is battling old demons when their reactions are out of proportion to the situation at hand. And that is why the most frequent advice is doing nothing. But it gets old, doing nothing.

A recent email calling me a narcissist was simply the last straw and I thought this subject could use a good discussion, a good airing. Has anyone called you a narcissist because you blog about  narcissism? And if so, what did you do? Successes and failures welcomed!

Hugs all,
CZ


Resources

*The first painting is actually titled, Examination of a Witch by Thompkins H. Matteson, 1833

Arikan, Kemal. 2005  "A Stigmatizing Attitude Towards Psychiatric Illnesses is Associated with Narcissistic Personality Traits". Israel Journal of Psychiatry & Related Sciences Vol 42 No. 4 (248-250)

Davey, Graham. 2013  "Mental Health and Stigma." PsychologyToday

Seltzer, Leon. 2011  "The Narcissist's Dilemma. They can Dish It Out But..." PsychologyToday





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