I feel things intensely, too intensely sometimes if my other half’s reaction is anything to go by. My husband and his family in contrast seem to have a much more limited emotional range. Compared to me, my husband inhabits a narrow range of pastel emotional states. Some of this can be attributed to nature, not everyone feels the blackest black or soars to the most dazzling white heights. But it’s not just nature. My husband has learnt not to show or even recognise some of his emotions because it was too dangerous for him to do so as he was growing up.
The control that his mother has exerted upon the family over the years extends to the control of emotions. She does not want to be argued with, nor does she wish to see anger, defiance, disapproval, contempt, sarcasm, irritation, independence, strength or anything else that may challenge her position or suggest she is not perfect. The dominant emotional state in the household was hers and others were expected to cater to it at the expense of having their own emotions recognised at all.
It is remarkable how all rebellion or objection appears to have been squashed out of not only my husband but his sister and his father also. They practically squirm with discomfort when witnessing someone showing irritation or raising their voice. A sort of panic spreads across their faces and they act to divert the conversation or remove themselves from the scene. It causes them considerable anxiety to see other people express the forbidden emotions. They appear so condition to suppress these emotions in themselves that they automatically act in ways that try to suppress these emotions in their environment, in others too. This is done through an arsenal of withdrawing, sulking, diversion, shutting down conversations, conveying disapproval and even suggesting the person showing the emotion has something wrong with them.
The sad effect of such emotional conditioning is that even positive emotions are reduced. Spontaneous playfulness and fun is noticeable in its absence in my husband’s family. My siblings and I get together and crack jokes, tease, provoke, pile on top of each other like puppies and laugh till we get tears in our eyes. We sit comfortably next to each other and show affection with hugs and touches. My husband’s family do not. Sometimes I think they look at my family’s interactions like bemused and rather uptight Victorian anthropologists viewing some unexpectedly expressive tribal customs deep in a jungle.
My husband describes how he cannot recall being hugged as a child, expect from when he was very young and remembers sitting on his mother’s lap. His family show little physical affection to each other and struggle awkwardly with greetings and goodbyes as this involves a social kiss or hug. My FIL is getting much better at this as he is no longer married to my MIL. His partner is lovely; warm and expressive and has had a good effect on him. You can see him slowly thawing after years of holding everything in so tightly just to get by living with my MIL.
I struggle with all this emotional control as my husband has tried to limit my emotional expression to match his own range. I am told not to raise my voice, that I have an anger problem because I show it when I feel angry. I have been happily singing in the house and told to hush because I am too exuberant. I think he thinks I am a bit unstable sometimes, too emotional. The reactions of my friends and family when told that I have an “anger problem” are either astonished disbelief or laughter. It is sad, my husband fell in love with me because I am emotionally open and expressive but he just cannot feel comfortable with it even though part of him really wants it.
I can only speculate about how this level of mental conditioning was achieved by my mother-in-law. My husband says he feels a great fear of being abandoned or rejected that goes all the way back to his early childhood. I think his mother must have used the withdrawal of her affection and presence as a way of getting the children to do what she wanted. For a small child the withdrawal of a mother’s attention would mean certain death, that is what happens in the wild when a mother rejects her young. That same primitive fear would be evoked in a human child faced with a callous withdrawal of affection and attention by a manipulative mother. A child threatened with such a potentially devastating event would do whatever it took to get mummy back, even complying with her need for him/her to repress their emotions to please her. That’s what I think happened.
After years and years of reinforcement of this taboo on free expression of emotion my sister-in-law and husband are perfect children, they can suppress their emotions by themselves, their mother doesn’t have to be anywhere near them. They carry the “mother” inside as a voice in their heads, ever present, which stops them being open and expressive even though they are now adults and there is no existential threat to them from maternal abandonment or rejection.
In a marriage or relationship with someone who has a list of taboo emotions there will be problems. The partner will either be scared of the taboo emotion being expressed as they fear abandonment (you can’t love me if you feel angry with me) or annihilation (you are so angry I will be obliterated) or they will unconsciously agree with their parents dictates and judge the emotions as bad. This judgement can extend to the person showing the emotions also, they may out of fear or habit try to control and suppress the emotions of their partner.
Being a parent can confront you with the out of control emotions of a toddler tantrum, the defiance of a child testing the boundaries and the contempt and burgeoning independence of a teenager. “I HATE you Mummy!” is normal from a three year old told that they are not getting more ice cream or access to their older siblings most favourite new toy. How does the emotionally controlled child of a narcissist deal with their children’s problematic emotions? Without guidance they will repeat the patterns they learnt in childhood. They will quash their children’s emotions either directly by telling them they are not OK or indirectly by withdrawing from the child when they show them. With effort my husband has stopped walking away from our small kids when they have a tantrum and instead has started sitting with them so they know they are safe and accepted even when they are really cross or frustrated.
Children need to know that they are safe physically and emotionally but they have so little experience with life and with themselves that they need to be regulated physically and emotionally from the outside. Slowly they learn how to do it on their own. They have to know that Mummy and Daddy can cope with their fears, anger and hysterical giggling when they have lost it. If they see Mummy backing away looking scared or overwhelmed then they do not have that safety. If they see Daddy strongly disapproving of their independence they will feel that emotion is bad and they will push it away.
But of course emotions don’t go away just because they are judged bad and shoved down. They are still there lurking in the unconscious playing havoc with our state of mind and jumping out and taking control when we are stressed. This happens often to the child of a personality disordered mother, they can suddenly be cruel or weird and act like they are just not themselves. Worse by limiting the pallette of feeling available to them their life becomes bland; it takes no chances, it never falls madly in love, dances in the rain, has a food fight or confidently seduces a lover. These things need the feeling of anxiety that goes along with the romantic head rush, the inhibition that goes with not judging oneself, the strength and power of desire. If “mummy” is in their head glowering her disapproval and they have shut off those emotions then they don’t live a full, glorious, messy life and worse still, deep down they know it.
Fear of feelings leads to a overly controlled, inhibited life and fear of other people’s feelings leads to attempts to control and inhibit their lives. This is a lose-lose scenario. The way out is for the narcissists child to accept all emotions as completely valid without judgement or fear. Then become aware of them as they emerge, don’t shut them down. Then sit even for a while with someone showing the ones that make them most uncomfortable. Like any phobia, the fear of emotion is tackled through a combination of knowing intellectually that no harm will come to you while slowly increasing your exposure to the thing you are afraid of. A trusted friend or partner (you!) can act as the reassuring voice repeating “your fine, it’s OK, your safe” if they are unable to do that for themselves. Therapists are excellent at guiding people through the rediscovery of their own emotions. Every emotion has its positive aspects (fear saves you from harm, anger is energy to act, envy show what you want and can work to have) and when they find the positive and feel comfortable with that feeling within they will no longer have the urge to suppress it in anyone else.