November 13, 2014

Egocentrism or Narcissism? Antagonism explains the difference

Woman Reading by Fernando Botero
"You don’t have to be a narcissist to display some narcissistic qualities. After all, everyone’s the hero of their own story. However, the hallmark of empathy is understanding that and remembering it when you deal with people. If you can both recognize your own interests and acknowledge those of others, you’re in a good place. That said, a little narcissism is good for all of us." ~Alan Henry

This article on LifeHacker might interest people who like reading and talking about narcissism. If you don't like talking about narcissism, you probably aren't reading my blog and you wouldn't understand my essays anyway. I'm gradually adjusting to being misinterpreted by people who've never stepped foot in a 12-step meeting or participated in family-of-origin recovery work, or even therapy for goshsakes how can you critique something you know nothing about? Readers need to have some context for my writing which builds on self-help principles, trusting readers to have a basic understanding of psychology and pathology. And "NO", Focusing on yourself does not mean ego-centrism is a good idea go for it and be an asshole 'cuz narcissism is the new measure of mental health.

Suggesting Blogging Is Good For Your Narcissism upset a reader who assumed it was justification for my narcissistic personality. That some readers have conflated pathological narcissism with healthy narcissism is no surprise because the topic is complex, requiring an education beyond five quotes on colored blocks. Maybe intentional ignorance is behind some of the insults because it allows people to use narcissism as a hip-sorta-slur, suggesting anyone writing about narcissism is one but they aren't. How edgy. Here's a distinction for my critics: my narcissism may be annoying but it never causes ptsd. That little gem of difference came to mind this morning.

Archangel by Fernando Botero
The argument made against bloggers is that we're full of ourselves and we like to hear the sound of our own voice which okay yea, there's some truth in that. I didn't recognize my own voice until writing thirty essays at which point a picture of "me" came into focus and it wasn't always comfortable. We get to know ourselves by the essays we write; our self-esteem measured by the ones we don't delete. Bloggers grow, we change, we're imperfect, we risk expressing our thoughts and feelings which is a reliable sign we're not narcissists. Ask yourself, what do you really know about a suspected narcissist? How they feel, how they think, how they live their life? Ten bucks says you know very little about them, other than the image they convey. An image they need you to believe and mirror for them. An image evoking approval of the person they purport themselves to be. But beware: this image is fragile and subject to shattering when called into question because it is based on a lie. You won't get a reasoned essay from a narcissist if you challenge their authority, you can be certain of that. And remember this: the person you suspect is a narcissist probably isn't; the one you least suspect, probably is. Narcissists excel at image management, the rest of us pretty much suck.

I've written many times about narcissist's hostility and their desire for revenge which is what you get when you threaten their distorted views of reality. I don't think there is any way to warn people about the intensity of narcissist's retaliatory rage which is wholly different from over-reacting to criticism. I might feel bad or get mad but I won't step on your face and ruin your reputation. I won't give you ptsd.

Descriptions of narcissism vary in psychological literature, but the observations clinical psychologists zero in on is "relational difficulties" in addition to personality traits. I know, you know, we all know someone who's arrogant but arrogance is easy to see. Annoying is easy to feel. Someone's arrogance won't put us in a therapist's office questioning what the hell just happened to our lives. Grandiosity, lack of empathy, idealized love, we can all identify with these criteria. The universality of the criteria renders DSM-IV somewhat meaningless without explaining the hazards of a narcissistic personality for others (as my readers know) and for the narcissist him or herself (as readers might not know). Suicide is a concern for people with NPD. I excerpted the following three criteria from Henry's article and there's nothing surprising really, except for number three. Which I was glad to see emphasized:
1) [narcissists] define their identity based on others’ approval
2) [narcissists] have a hard time empathizing or getting close to others
3) [narcissists] antagonize others 
I think the first two criteria are subject to interpretation and a bit wobbly in application. The third criteria, antagonism, that's the one that should force everyone's eyebrows to attention. I have described narcissists as hostile in prior articles including this one: Online Narcissists. But antagonism is great way to describe narcissist's "ill will" towards people who've criticized them, who aren't living up to the narcissist's standards, who differ from them and/or threaten their confabulated reality. (channeling a little Sam Vaknin with that last bit...) I'll expound a little on those three criteria:

1) Needing approval and recognition is something we can all lay claim to. We're social creatures, hard-wired for relationship. We need to feel appreciated and accepted by our peers. I love my readers for example.

2) The great and vast majority of people I've known in my online and face-to-face life, do not have a problem getting close to others or empathizing. They invite intimacy and have enough emotional intelligence to trust and be trusted. They crave being seen and heard beyond shallow affiliations.

3) Antagonistic does not fit most people who are cooperative and kind. There are a few folks on this planet who cannot abide my personality but it's usually after I offended them in an unforgivable manner having more to do with their mother then me, to be honest. I can pretty much count on one hand, the number of people I've antagonized face-to-face though it might take longer to list my online antagonisms since the written word is rife with misinterpretations. Give me a pot of tea and a box of Kleenex and I make friends for life. That doesn't mean I've been an easy person to love because my life has been strewn with random acts of tragedy. Like losing a baby, a hard childhood, an infidel husband, getting divorced in my fifties, my daughter's recent MS diagnosis, hey...I've cried on just as many shoulders as people have cried on mine.

During each of these life crises over a span of several decades, I have withdrawn into myself. I've been less sensitive to people's needs. I didn't remember to send birthday cards and declined invitations to dinner, to shop, to the bookstore, neglecting social proprieties. I've tended my wounds as any person should when their heart has been wrenched in two. There have been periods of time when my ego-centrism was both life-preserving and life-limiting, my sense of self solid enough to tolerate awareness and change. Eventually, wounded people restore a healthy balance. We send belated birthday cards restoring relationships that were based on good will; and we let go of the ones that were not persuaded to empathize. I know how to say "good-bye" to people who interpret my grief-filled self-focus as a personal insult or rejection. Without forgiveness, there is no relationship worth saving. In other words, antagonizing other people is not my problem.

I have known plenty of people leaving a steady stream of frustration and pain in their wake. If they had power over others, they never changed. That's because the people they hurt cowtowed like nobody's business, making sure they never offended the narcissist again. This is a sick relationship and I am sick of sick relationships, aren't you? As far as I know, dear reader who doesn't like my style, nobody cowtows to me. Not even the cat and you'd think he'd be far enough down the food chain to give me some respect. I guess he knows he's safe even if he pees on my baseboards when he's lonely.

Man and Woman by Fernando Botero
From LifeHacker: "A telltale sign of a true narcissist is the inability to tolerate challenges to their cognitive distortions (e.g. challenging their perceived grandiosity or their views on damn near anything). The narcissist will act out in some way when their cognitive distortions are challenged. Another red flag is a “trail of destruction” in their personal relationships. True narcissists will likely have a history of emotionally injuring people who have attempted to get close to them, either because the narcissist can’t establish true intimacy or because they lack the empathy to be able to engage in pro-relationship behaviours. A third sign is the propensity to exploit others for personal gain...the ends ALWAYS justify the means if the ends in question are beneficial to them." 
Drawing from this article then, these five traits are distinguishable as pathological meaning: persistent, resistant to change, and destructive.

1) Antagonistic, hostile, disagreeable (blames others; justifies hostility)
2) Distorted perceptions of reality (how dare you question and disrespect me)
3) Inability to tolerate criticism (out of proportion to precipitating event)
4) Trail of destruction (coworkers, neighbors, family, friends, bloggers)
5) Willingness to exploit to get what they want (no matter the harm to others)

Normal regular folks lapse into periods of ego-centrism but being self-centered is a reaction to circumstances (crises), it's not a state of being. The combination of all five behaviors makes for a dangerous relationship and could be life-threatening for others and the narcissist, too. We might all be narcissistic to some degree, but be careful defining other people (or yourself) as A Narcissist unless you understand the implications of this very extreme, very unhealthy, very debilitating disorder. 



Alan Henry on LifeHacker, Why We're So Full Of Ourselves: In Defense Of Narcissistic Qualities

An Upturned Soul, Is John a Narcissist or is John the Victim of a Narcissist?

The Narcissistic Continuum, Healthy Narcissism

November 04, 2014

Partners of Narcissists: You'll Never Regret Prioritizing Your Children

Pan Playing Flute by J. Jordaens

See that guy under the fig tree playing a flute? He can't grow up the way you think he will. In twenty years time, he'll be cheating on you with a goat. You'll wonder why you didn't notice his hooves. Maybe because you made him wear pants in the daylight? You're such a prude, he tells the goats.

Family stories make me feel better about my struggle to do the right thing. Partnering with a narcissist was hard. People don't understand what you've been through when they criticize you for staying, for having children, for being naive. Even your ex says how messed up you were because obviously, you stuck around. He says no one else in the whole galaxy woulda put up with you for so long. He says how well you were treated considering your deficiencies and ineptitude, your lack of gratitude. Always between a rock and a hard place, partners of narcissists make the best of limited choices, a perpetual tug-of-war between a narcissistic spouse and the children. What I have learned this past decade is that you will never regret prioritizing your children; which might include (depending on your physical safety) the decision to stay.

It's hard being married to a narcissist
It can be even harder admitting you were 

You'd gone about your life fairly normally, following rules, keeping commitments, expecting your marriage to work out in the end. No marriage was perfect, you told yourself. You can count at least three long-term marriages held together with scotch-tape and promises, becoming contented and loving in old age. Grateful they stayed together. Grateful families saw them through the tough times. Grateful they were spending holidays with their own grandchildren, not someone else's. You hang in there because this is what you've seen and that is what you believe your story will be, too.

When I started reading about narcissistic relationships, I wanted to believe everything an expert told me. I force-fit myself into pathological boxes. I defined myself as a complete mess since I felt like a complete mess. When you're reeling from infidelity and financial losses beyond recuperation, your sense of self will be blown to shit smithereens. If a psychologist says you fear abandonment, you'll believe it. If a book says you love too much, you'll believe it. You aren't sure who you are---or who you were because your ego has been shattered and your heart is on the ground. If an expert says codependency is why you married a puerile Pan, well----you have no filter of reason. An authority figure could say you were serial killer and you'd believe it. Okay maybe not but you'd fact-check the basement making sure you didn't do something you don't remember. 

Zelfportret als Faun by Johfra
It's been over a decade since being subjected to pop-psych explanations taking an additional chunk out of my self-esteem. Other partners of narcissists have written similar miserable narratives which means my experience is not unique. Partners of narcissists are perceived to be collusive and/or crazy. If we insist our partner is narcissistic because we're smart enough to read the DSM, people suggest we point our labeling fingers back at ourselves. They'd never be so naive as to marry a narcissist and godforbid they'd be arrogant enough to diagnose one! And then you see them in Costco being harangued by their spouse and you thank GOD you don't have to lie to yourself anymore.

The only thing casting me as a pathology suspect was my husband's behavior. People thought I was a goodly woman until my husband proved he was a badly man and then they looked at me skeptically. "Well," one guy said when he heard my husband was having an affair, "You seem like a nice lady but who knows what you're really like behind closed doors?"

I've come full circle back to myself which took much longer than expected, that's how traumatic sudden endings can be. At this point, I am able to see that my family-of-origin was a dress rehearsal for my marriage. As a child and adult, I soothed my family's feelings, off-set sadness and anxiety with light-heartedness, tried to make up for emotional deficits in fathers and husbands, worked doubly hard undoing the damage done. Those are character strengths, not deficits. Be cautious diagnosing yourself too soon in your recovery and don't pathologize behaviors that are cherished by healthy, loving people.

"You act like you're my mother!"
 he whines

A certain amount of crazy is normal to every family I suspected then and even now, the line between acceptable or not depending on the people involved. What one family considers to be normal, another considers bizarre. When a narcissist marries a woman who's not, there's sure to be crazy. There's sure to be bizarre. When a narcissist marries a woman who's not, she'll prioritize the children, not him. When a narcissist marries a woman who's not, he'll accuse her of acting like his mother. Not because she is acting like his mother, but because he sees himself as Peter Pan. She worries the marriage won't survive the most recent crisis (infidelity) and makes an appointment with a marriage counselor. Peter complains he's married to his Mom and what does the therapist say? "Stop acting like his mother and read this book about adventurous sex with M&M's." 
Nymphs and Satyr by William Adolf Bouguereau

NOTE: I've never yet met a goodly woman who successfully competed with Tinkerbell so be kind to yourself. The problem is NOT you. The problem is Peter Pan and a sexist society valuing above all we declare to be holy and sacred about family: Peter's peter's happiness. 

Consider his insult to be a compliment. You Grew Up. You Took Responsibility. Your Priorities were in Order. You Were Willing to do the right thing and Displease Peter. And you knew and rightly so, that Chocolate Gods created M&Ms to melt in your mouth, not your...

About Right Action 

I never determined right action from a spread sheet, a pro-and-con list, a religious book; it was innate. Knowing the right thing to do made my children's lives easier and it was intuitive. That didn't mean doing the right thing made my life easier (!) but not having an egocentric focus drew and kept my children close. They trusted me to be there for them, to restore the peace, to listen. And to make donuts. Never underestimate the bonding power of donuts stacked two dozen-deep on a broom handle.

Making Light in Heavy Moments

We had decided as a family, to see a movie at our local theater. My children were about five and eight years old, as best I can remember. As the hour drew near, we reminded their Dad what time it was and asked him to stop what he was doing. We needed to leave or we'd be late. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He had changed his mind. "I'd rather sit and think," he said.

The look on my children's crushed my heart seeing their disappointment because they instinctively realized their father preferred studying scriptures to being with his family. I couldn't stand it. I hated that he would disappoint them that way. My first instinct was not to cajole him into going with us. If he didn't want to go, okay then. Don't go. I didn't have any desire to yell at him either, or threaten him. Why engage in an argument when the movie started in ten minutes? If he and I were bickering, our kids would miss the film they'd looked forward to all week and then they'd witness what was sure to be a terrifying example of my insanity. Summing up the situation quickly, I decided to ease the tension and my children's disappointment by saying something silly. "Hey kids," I said. "Dad wants to sit n' stink!"

Italian School_Pan with Pipes
Sit n' Stink! The kids held their tummies laughing, oblivious to their father's glare searing burn holes in my flesh. They skipped to the car like happy wabbits and a good time was had by all. Whether the stinker had a good time or not, we didn't ask. Do we remember the name of the film we watched that day? No. But "Sit n' Stink" has become a family mantra. It serves as a reminder to pull our heads out of our asses and carry both body parts into our lives. It reminds us that heaven is already at our feet if we'll stop looking for a private invitation. 

Partners of narcissists work doubly hard undoing damage done by a narcissistic spouse. We can take pride in our efforts to make our children's lives better---often at the expense of our own personal satisfaction. People stay in difficult marriages for good and sane reasons and sometimes it's the "right thing to do" even in a wrong situation. I do not regret staying in my marriage and trying to make things work for three decades. Our marriage ended but not without me giving it everything I could and then some. Today, my children tell me how much they appreciate my ability to make them feel loved and safe, allowing us to live as long as we could as an intact family. I am sure other partners-of-narcissists have done an even better job than myself and certainly under more brutal conditions than my marriage ever was. The narcissistic marriage is lonely for the most part, usually traumatic at the end. The majority of the time, it's simply hard work.  It's may be the hardest thing you'll ever do. Appreciate yourself for the incredibly difficult thing you did and might still be doing. Stop focusing on your mistakes and failures looming pathological in hindsight. Time and distance will create a more realistic perspective than judging yourself too soon in the aftermath of trauma and abuse. 

Pay attention to the brilliant things you were able to do, such as "making light in heavy moments." It doesn't matter how trivial the intervention, your children will know you care; that they are treasured. They will know their fun is equally important to the fun adults might prefer. They'll also learn that family is an action, not a possession. That love is an action, not a feeling.

Funny how this incident predicted our future twenty years later, isn't it? We are still a family, even without him, which is why I can say to other partners of narcissists: You Will Never Regret Prioritizing Your Children. You will regret prioritizing Peter.


October 21, 2014

A Poem & Appreciation for my Readers: Blogging is GOOD for your Narcissism

Sheldon Peck, artist

We visited my parents over the weekend, always a catalyst for rumination on the three-hour drive home.

Our visits frequently include a ten-year review: my ex-husband leaving the family; the financial and emotional losses of infidelity and divorce; the grief we suffer because in spite of my ex's paranoid perceptions, he was my siblings' brother, my parents' son. All of us lost someone we loved and he wasn't easy to love, believe me. He was a lot easier on the eyes I must confess, than most of us. We miss his face in our family portraits.

My mother retrieved two file folders she'd kept during my high school and college years. Hand-written letters, scribbled poems, creative essays with big fat A's circled on the header. My daughter eagerly scanned the poetry to see what her mother had written when I was too-young-to-be-self-conscious. I didn't even know I had a subconscious. Or an unconscious, id and ego, much less an arsenal of defenses. My daughter is much more educated than I; the poetry she writes is worthy of serious contemplation. She read literary masterpieces in high school and my principle excused me from English to teach reading to first graders. Yea, that was the "good ol' days" when women were destined for housewifization, not publication. 

Anyway, we were sitting at the table, my mother, daughter and I when my daughter read this gawdawful eye-rolling poem about the wife I wanted to be one day. If anyone else has suffered the unveiling of your horrific naivety and patriarchal colonization, please hold my hand. I need company. It took every ounce of my hard-earned self-esteem not to slam my face in the tabletop. 

If you wanna know how much increased narcissism has helped women like myself, read that poem and then this blog. The disparity in self-ownership suggests something very interesting. I think it suggests that some women (especially women in traditional cultures) need to increase their individuality, their right to autonomy, their sense of entitlement and "havingness". Just because our score is low on the NPI (Narcissistic Personality Inventory), doesn't mean we're living to our fullest potential as human beings holding up half the sky with one hand and a sandwich platter with the other. Narcissism can be a good thing is my point. You don't develop healthy narcissism without risk is another point. You have to risk doing things friends & family might not agree with (like writing a blog), risk being criticized, risk being rejected. Nothing ended my marriage faster than claiming my right to exist on my own terms, within bounds of course 'cuz a conscientious woman will always keep her entitlements within reason. My right to have an opinion that differed from my husband's led to a midlife divorce, although that wasn't a conscious awareness on my part. The amazing thing about narcissistic husbands is that you won't know they aren't in full support of your spiritual and psychological growth until they find someone else. And then by golly, you realize how lucky you were that you didn't know how much he hated your guts since you might have would have tempered or even silenced that big fat opinion you need to have! 

Well once again, I'm typing more than intended before getting to my initial reason for writing this post: my readers. Thank you, thank you so much! As we talked about my transition from a naive and idealistic young woman to a naive and idealistic older woman, I KNOW without a doubt that the people reading my writings have Changed My Life for the better. We can only go so far on our own. We need people to encourage us, validate and support us, read us, inspire, question and accept us. It's temptingly easy to start feeling better and abandon recovery work, watching movies on iPhones instead of writing. That's because it's hard work putting feelings and thoughts into words and risking ridicule and criticism when we publish those words. Facing fear makes us grow and taking risks make us heal in ways we simply can't in the family living room. I can list screennames as long as a day without bread, of the people who inspired me to stand up for myself, to look at myself, to like myself. Thank you.

I am also grateful to my brilliant daughter who said after reading my tender soliloquy, "Every woman has the right to be idealistic and even naive, Mom. It's beautiful. But a man does not have the right to appropriate her idealism to serve himself."  Yea, what she said. 

Yesterday's stats referred to a website that recommended my blog (!) as a great website, albeit l-o-n-g. My writing is l-o-n-g and maybe my next challenge is learning to say a lot in a little, since most people won't read daunting entries such as mine-----another reason why I LOVE my readers each and every one of you. I am a better woman because you hold me accountable while allowing me to change and grow, to be myself. During the past decade, I've been bitter, cynical, too opinionated, too wishy-washy, too forgiving, not aggressive enough. I've been mean and spiteful, kind and rightful, tender and harsh intermittently. And still, my WoNderful readers have accepted me as an older woman rendered almost invisible in our narcissistic culture. You have made me feel that despite everything that happened because I was and continue to be idealistic, you still find something worthy in my experiences, valuable in my writing. Thank you. I am a lucky woman and I know it's because my interlocutors have taken the time to read and comment on my work. Thank you.

And now as promised: one of my high school masterpieces. It's not the poem you're dying to read, admit it. I sincerely appreciate each and every one of you, but my ego isn't yet strong enough to publish Ode to My Future Husband. This poem says a lot in a little, though.

"Poetry, schmoetry," that's what I say.
I can write poetry any ol' day.
It ain't that hard, all you have to do
is match up a line with a word or two.

My teacher says "write!" and I just laugh.
She thinks I work but I don't hafta 
'cuz I can write poetry any ol' day.
If those doggone words don't get in the way.

Love to all,

October 06, 2014

Hard Work Builds Character: Tomatoes, Narcissism and Family Values

I've been busy.

Two weeks ago we traveled to my father's garden to pick vegetables. He's a retired farmer at eighty-eight, still growing a hundred tomato plants as tall as a hired hand's shoulders. If you can't imagine three-hundred pounds of vegetables lying about the kitchen, this picture'll give you a good idea. Except for the cow and the man in the background. We didn't steal Dad's cow because he doesn't have one and no bearded man's been hovering in the shadows of my kitchen for over a decade thank God pass the tomatoes on the china platter we use for every day.

Not that I don't like men because I do. I may like them too much which is why it's rectifying learning to live without one. When you grow up in a patriarchal religion, existing without a man is deemed peculiar if not blasphemous and neighbors want to know why you're single. Unless you're ugly. Then they figure you didn't have a choice about spinsterhood and say stuff like, "Oh, that CZ. She'd be such a great wife for an old man if it weren't for...her...face." Some people prefer believing men have rejected me rather than knowing I made the decision to stay single based on reasoned principles and predictable outcomes, having nothing to do with divorce bitterness or male disdain. I carry no torch for my ex, you can rest assured on that account; but I do carry matches in the event he shows up in a gas truck. That was a smart alec thing to say, wasn't it? The truth is: violence is not my thing. Which is why remaining single allows me to live by my principles. Jest kiddin'. Not all men are violent. Just the ones I pick.

My family is much better off if I'm picking vegetables, not husbands.

My sister who lives with me hates preserving food. She won't do it. She's such a lousy picker of men that everyone agrees she's better off in an executive suite than an apron. She compares the price of case-goods to home canning and if she calculates her time based on whatever-ungodly-sum-per-hour she earns in the workplace, she can't justify indentured kitchen servitude. In 2014 it makes no sense does it, if the value of a thing like canning is measured in dollars and cents. Even if my labor smacks of gender oppression and yesteryear quaintness, there's satisfaction in knowing my foremothers were similarly obliged. Canning lets me walk in their shoes, linking arms with my ancestors as we chop, simmer and sterilize our way to spiritual harmony. Canning gives placement to my life, affirming my connection to the past and participation in the future. We are here because we eat and my kids will survive because I fed them and this is an inarguable fact. What could be more honorable than sustaining life? I think about these things while ladling garlic-infused sauce in glass jars, enough for a year of Friday night pizzas.

The question to ponder during a sweaty-browed week was why canning would be ultimately satisfying. Why bottle tomatoes when a jarful costs less than a dollar? I DON'T KNOW. Maybe because it makes me happy which is obvious to everyone in the house since I break into song unexpectedly. Usually hymns. This confuses the hell out of my family. No worries, they're used to cognitive dissonance. They also know after living with me that I believe hard work results in long-lasting satisfaction and eternal rewards. "When we immerse ourselves in domestic work," I tell them, "we lose ourselves in something greater than ourselves." Canning is not a repetition compulsion.

Values tell you what your heart believes is important

We preserve food in my family because it's the right thing to do. "Hard Work Builds Character," my grandmother would pronounce, lacking tolerance for complaints; she was a hardy woman. At this stage of my life I know she's right but would ask if she were here, "What kind of character, grandmother? Joyful and satisfied; or resentful and ornery?"

I married a narcissistic husband for whom the ordinary tasks of marriage and family carried little meaning or value, although he performed them as dutifully as a good man should. "It's time for you," he said one day after I'd painted the second-story rain gutters, "to get off my gravy train!" And so I did and discovered true joy when people knew in their hearts that I didn't can tomatoes because I had to; I did it because I loved them.

I did not know satisfaction and joy weren't guaranteed outcomes of hard work and by hard I mean taken for granted. I've learned through my narcissistic relationships of which there have been more than one, that there is no life-sustaining work that cannot be sufficiently criticized and marginalized to the point of worthlessness and invisibility. Yes, my ex worked hard at his career and yes, he worked hard maintaining our home, but he didn't see how hard I was working, too. Maybe because I was singing.

People who find no joy in quotidian work, may still complete the tasks their culture expects of them. They excel at performing their family values. Fueled by stoicism, they move around the kitchen like automatons, grumbling when they trip on the gel mat, cramming jars instead of cradling them, scrubbing tomatoes instead of bathing them, counting their hours to coerce gratitude. When canning week ends, they deftly check the box on their task list: Done. The family breathes a sigh of relief.

Narcissistic characters don't do the task for the sake of doing it. It's a job. They did it. Their earned their right to live another day. They measure the value of their existence by keeping score with the competition. "You put up one hundred jars of Mexican Salsa?" your cousin exclaims. "That's fantastic! You're amazing! I put up one hundred and fifty!"
Tip: If your relative is narcissistic and you want to stay on good relations with her, always ask how many jars of tomatoes she canned first. Make sure your number count is fewer. White lies are permissible for the sake of family unity. And if you want to show off your beautifully canned peaches turned ever-so-perfectly in the jar, expect to be told how much time you wasted doing something nobody in their right mind would ever do. And then expect to see her perfectly turned peaches next year that didn't take her nearly as long as it took you---would you like a few tips 'cuz she's willing to share.
The grueling and often-invisible work of raising a family and supporting a husband led to a contented midlife without regrets. I had fully invested myself in the "greater good of family" without immediate reward. There were no promotions to be seduced by, no public acclaim to distract me. Doing for others and contributing my time, cultivated a deep attachment to family, along with personal satisfaction, something I'd learned as the eldest child. My ex, on the other hand, insisted he'd worked his whole goddamn life dammit and deserved to retire with someone he liked a lot more than his family. Why had my hard work created contentment, not resentment? Why didn't I view family as a burden or hate them for being ingrates? This occupied my mind while boiling jalapeno peppers on Jelly Day, nearly choking to death on the toxic fumes but oh, is jalapeno jelly good at Christmastime!

Narcissistic characters work hard doing everything they're supposed to do in order to be good people. Then midlife arrives and they feel insignificant and unappreciated, cheated of the happiness a check list promised. Hell, we are all insignificant and unappreciated. Hard work, the kind that taxes stamina and commitment, is supposed to make a person feel insignificant and unappreciated. Allowing ourselves to feel unimportant forces ego to give sway, connecting us to our spiritual self, the self that isn't motivated by self-interest and self-promotion.

Our ultimate satisfaction merging work with passion sustains the body and nourishes spirit, too. I never complain (not for long anyway) about the hours spent, bruised feet, burn blisters, the fruit flies and scorched pot bottoms because the canning process makes me happy. Carrying forth the family tradition makes sense of my life, gives meaning to my life, and secures my place in history. I really think I could find meaning in a haystack; be happy living in a shoe. The thought of canning tomatoes in a shoe tickled me on Bruschetta Day. Blessed be the woman finding happiness in her pantry.

On Spaghetti Sauce Day, the FedEx man rang my doorbell. I wiped my hands on my apron (good cooks are a mess to look at, a joy to share the table with) and answered the door. He sniffed the air and smiled, "Spaghetti sauce?"

"Yup," I said. "I'm canning tomatoes this week."

His eyes softened and he smiled, "My mom canned tomatoes! She passed away last year and I miss her so much." I listened to a few stories about his mother and went back to my kitchen. My daughter wandered up the stairs and hugged me. "Do you know how happy it makes me when you're canning, Mom? I love you so much."

I carefully fill the jars just so, making them aesthetically pleasing and not because they're headed for the State Fair, but because it satisfies me when ordinary things are done excellently. That I imagine my great-great-grandmothers nodding their approval might not be something to share with just anyone, though.

Love to all,

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.


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.


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

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...