The Fear of Feelings

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.

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21 Comments

Filed under anxiety, Controlling behaviour, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL

21 responses to “The Fear of Feelings

  1. alabaster77

    Thanks FCW!! This really hits the nail on the head for me right now..
    It gives me a lot to think about because I’ve been so concerned about DH’s Shallow Affect that I was beginning to think he was on PD Scale himself…
    This is a light and I can see how his conditioning from childhood may have been mis interpreted by me as something bigger than it is…

    Thank You
    😉
    ALABASTER

  2. Al

    Sigh. And what happens to the spouse of the child of NPD parent? After years and years of not getting any spark out of the bland spouse; after years and years of being told that they have anger issues, or impulsivity issues (for speaking their mind)… Of course, you married me precisley because I could bring color to your pastel life, and spice to your plate of (no salt) mashed potatoes.

  3. This post is interesting as I was just wondering many of the same things. I wonder often why my husband’s fear of closeness has anything to do with his mother and her behavior. My husband is still suffering from the effects of his mother (we are in LC) and how he turned out as normal has he did is quite beyond me.

    • Hi Misguided Angel. Have you read the article on attachment theories and your spouse? Fear of closeness can be part of the dismissive/witholding pattern of attachment and yes it does have something to do with his mother! Is she smothering/controlling or aloof and demanding?

  4. Male in his 40s

    This is such a brilliant article. Every bit about this resonates. Thank you.

  5. Jessie

    I’ve had similar experiences with my husband. But, both of us being ACoNs and having very different families in terms of how we process emotions has been difficult. And it was, as you said, my concern over helping my children express their emotions in a healthy way that we began to work on this.
    My husband’s family only has two emotions: out of control, loud, boisterous joy/happiness (to the point that it often intrudes on those around them. They have no filter and are oblivious to the people around them. I know that sounds like it should be a good thing, but when someone’s emotions bowl over everyone else in the room, it can be overwhelming.) The other emotion is anger. Fear, unhappiness, anxiety, sadness, contentment all get shoved into these two categories. And any emotions that other people express (I tend to be sensitive and able to express emotions) becomes a “defect” on the part of the person expressing them. And oddly, if I actually DID express anger, my husband also found this threatening (I had to reassure him over and over that my anger didn’t mean I didn’t love HIM, but that I was upset over his behavior. It took a lot, and still does, for him to get past his defensiveness and focus on what emotion I was expressing.)
    Thank you for sharing this. I think these sorts of topics are so important to discuss and write about, as they go beyond the “usual” topics of having a personality disordered parent. PD parents can effect so much of our every day life and it’s important to explore it. Glad to see you back writing.

  6. digismith

    I’ve been lurking on your blog for a while, it has been incredibly helpful. I’m afraid my future MIL is NPD. I’m at the point where I’m not sure if I should stick it out or just cut my losses. Do any of you regret marrying into this? does it get better?

    • Digismith that is such a difficult question to answer. If you are not yet married and having serious doubts I think anyone with any common sense would advise you to delay your marriage until your thoughts are clear and you are in a position you feel comfortable with. That may be insisting your future spouse goes with you to a therapist to address your concerns with your future MIL’s behaviour or seek some similar expert advice. Describing your future life with your partner as “sticking it out” doesn’t sound very happy or optimistic. What about the quality of your relationship with them?

      Your situation will not get better by itself. The closer you are to an NPD MIL the greater the degree of control she will exert upon you and the more entitled she will feel to use you as a source of her need for approval, admiration and obedience. Add kids to the mix and it will get even worse. You also need to consider the effect that having an NPD mother has had on your partner and their view of relationships and the roles within them. My MIL ruled the household and brooked no dissent at all. No one ever disagreed with her or raised their voice. My husband thought this, absolutely no arguing ever, was normal. I can’t tell you how troublesome that has been. Have you bluntly asked your partner how they will manage their mother when you are married? Have you asked what their expectations are of your life together? My husband’s expectations were jaw-droppingly idealistic and impossible to fulfil.

      Do I regret marrying into this? Yes. Anyone reading this blog would far rather have a partner or spouse without an NPD mother than one with and the biggest effect by far for me is not the hassle from the MIL but the bad habits, dysfunctional relating behaviours and damaging actions my husband brought into our relationship because he was raised by such a messed up woman. For others that may not be the case, I can’t speak for anyone but myself. A partner with a strong sense of themselves and good boundaries regarding their mother would be capable of a much healthier relationship than one who is in denial or oblivious to their mother’s disordered actions.

      You have sort out information regarding NPD mothers and MILs for a reason, your gut instinct is telling you something is wrong and you are not happy with it. Please listen to your gut. I’m not saying leave your partner, no one here can advise you to do that as we don’t know you or them! But if you have doubts this large and pressing to the extent that you are researching this topic you owe it to yourself and any future children of yours to pay very close attention to those feelings. Changing the course of your life is not easy. It is a hell of a lot easier to do it sooner rather than later. Changing your course may simply mean honestly discussing all of this with your partner and finding your own support and plan for the way ahead. Decide what you are prepared to put up with, then go over the top and make yourself feel uncomfortably selfish with your requests (I say this because you will have overestimated how much you can put up with and underestimated what you are entitled to ask for out of love for your partner) and stick to it.

      • Alabaster

        WOW FCW!! Your Hitting Em Outta the Ball Park with these responses… So Insightful and Thought provoking!
        Thank You, this is Excellent Information.
        😉
        KrackaBaster
        Hehehe

  7. Anonymous

    I’m so glad you are back FCW and I agree, your insight and advice is always so thorough and spot on! To digismith I have to say that if you do decide to stay with your partner, prepare for lots of therapy and strife when sorting out the NPD MIL. You also have to prepare to be low contact (LC) for your and your spouse’s sanity/future. I’m actually proud of myself for staying in my marriage and getting to the root of our issues. It was through this process that I have discovered that I believe 100% that my MIL is NPD and have enlightened my husband as well who agrees, however, he doesn’t want to always go there. I can understand this and have compassion for him for all he has endured.

  8. Mel Wise

    Hello! I recently found your blog (and thank goodness I did). I’d suspected for awhile I had a NPD MIL and, having vociferously read many of your recent posts, I think I can say without a doubt she does indeed have NPD. This article hit home especially hard as my husband (the Golden Son) has struggled with many of the themes you discuss in this post. Not only does he have a NPD mother but his father displayed almost no positive emotions or praise toward him while he was growing up; instead, he was always dishing out biting criticisms or pointing out “mistakes”. This, combined with his mother’s schemes and control, really threw him through a loop. Thanks to what I’ve read here, though, I am happy to report we’re both seeking help to deal with her and the emotional havoc she’s caused in our lives. And, best of all, we stand united against her constant need to control our lives. Thank you FCW so very, very much for penning this blog. You are an amazing and outstanding individual!

  9. digismith

    Thank you all for your sage advice. It is really wonderful to have this resource. The whole thing is so confusing. My own mother is a full blown narcissist and I went no contact with her 15 years ago. Sometimes I worry that I am just projecting my feelings about my own mother onto my MIL and I’m just as crazy. Maybe I am over sensitive and let little things get to me. Maybe something in me is seeking out these personalities.
    His parents and brother are moving 1,000 miles away next week. I’m really hoping that this will help and it’s not too good to be true. We are in therapy and he is starting to see things.

    Thank you for letting me vent all my jumbled feelings. I’m going to go find a yoga class now!

  10. Anonymous

    digismith, DO NOT ever allow NPD MIL see you doubt yourself or your feelings. They are your’s, you own that and have every right to feel how you feel. This is what they feed off of and will make every attempt to diminish and destroy you. Glad you are in therapy. Better that they are moving a 1000 miles away which will make LC easier. Good for you with the yoga!

  11. JDS

    Dear FCW and commentors,
    I have been dealing with a NPD MIL for 20 years and only until I stumbled upon your blog did I begin to understand what I have been dealing with. I lost my mother 23 years ago and would have given my right arm, to have a MIL to help fill the void. I had NO IDEA mother’s could come in this narcissistic form. It was completely foreign to me. For years I suffered from her and her antics. I went to see therapists, tried to talk to my husband about issues over the years, only to be told to let it go, I was too sensitive, I was imagining things. I have wonderful relationships with my family and an extensive friend network, so to hear it was me, made me feel horrible and I would work extra hard and trying to foster a healthy relationship.

    As my children got older, now 14 and 10, they started to see and speak on the matter of NMIL. (to be truthful, they saw things much younger, but it has never been safe to broach the subject to anyone but me, their mom, before that).

    I could write about numerous stories over the years, but the icing on the cake for me was when I was diagnosed last year with invasive breast. Now mind you, my mother and grandmother and grandfather have all died of breast cancer at very young ages (in their 40s) and had passed. My sister was also diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40’s and is alive, thank heaven, but suffice it to say, it is very scary for our family and a reality to pass away at young ages. Following my double mastectomy…she called under the guise of seeing how I was doing a week post-operatively, only to be sure to tell me to basically “get over it” as it “wasn’t open heart surgery or abdominal surgery”. She naturally says these things, when my husband isn’t around to hear them. I was stunned. Mind you I had three children under the age of 13 at that time. Not only did she do that but expressed how she really didn’t even want to see us the upcoming holiday (Easter) and how horrible we have been to her over the years. I can only comment on how well we have treated her, never forgetting to acknowledge, treat or be good children to her and her mouse of a husband. This was like a kick to my stomach. I have never in my life been around anyone so cruel and self absorbed.

    I am glad she said that to me. I finally cut the cord, and have LC with them (her and her husband) and there is some sense of peace. Believe you me, she still finds ways to get her digs in as often and as mean as she can. But I am fighting for my life, and I am now totally open with my children and husband about things, and I refuse to let her toxic techniques get near me.

    Being a Christian, I have struggled with the proper way to deal with her. Do you show unconditional love, turn the other cheek, etc and etc. Finally I went to speak with the wonderful priest at our church and he said to me, “You are called to maintain your dignity first as a Christian. You can love someone and never speak to them ever again. She is abusive!” Well, that did it for me.

    I am now getting tested for ovarian cancer and just recovered from that surgery. I will get my results from that next week. There is a part of me that believes the 20 years of toxic relationship and the strain it has put on my marriage and my husband’s ability to cope as a father, husband and professional and be supportive to me over the years, (he tends to shut down), has not been of any help to me. I am finally living honestly with that family and they are welcome to live in denial with the white elephant or “beast” in the room, but I refuse! I simply cannot take it anymore!!!

    I have yet to read or speak to an individual with the breadth of knowledge on this subject such as you FCW and those that comment. It is so hard to convey to people what you are dealing with as it is so far beyond toxic or normal in-law ups and downs. It goes so far beyond that. For years I would look for “reality checks” from friends, my husband. You are all healing me from the cancer in my body and within my extended family. Thank you for getting me through cancer and making me strong!!!! I am so grateful to you all. I hope you continue to post and comment. I have poured through this blog site and read every single post and comment. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!

    • Alabaster

      WOW JDS!! What a Wonderful, Inspiring, Testimony you wrote just now… Thank YOU for sharing that with us…
      Oh Boy, I shouldn’t even be awake at 2AM but at least it’s Friday/ Umm Saturday now but I’m Glad I Am awake and very very encouraged by your story… Keep up the Great Work, Fight the Good Fight and keep those carcinogenic NMIL’s away from you at ALL Costs!! It’s one thing having a genetic predisposition to certain types of Cancer but Narc’s in the Flesh, are like a cancer of the Atmosphere… Be around them too long and they’ll invade the inner most parts of your
      soul…
      LC/ NC are the only way for you right now… You need to Rest, Relax and Recover… and Dance the Shimmy!! After 20yrs, a Grey Murky Cloud has finally lifted and all is being revealed!! Now Isn’t That Worth Celebrating!??!!
      Really Awesome Stuff!! WOOHOO!!
      😉
      ALABASTER

    • Mandy

      JDS, I wish you much strength as you heal both physically and psychologically. You are moving in the right direction! I wish you the best results possible from your recent diagnostic procedure and on follow-up with your mastectomy.

      Like you, I also gain comfort and fortitude here. Alabaster’s comments to you are bang-on, while life is difficult right now, your enlightenment (and your children’s, possibly even hubby’s?) is something worth celebrating!

      How is it that so many previous therapists failed to identify that we might be dealing with a personality disorder? Or address attachment styles?

  12. Anonymous

    Wow, JDS my sincere well wishes to you on your personal journey to sustaining your health. I too have lived well over 20 years in my marriage dealing with a toxic NMIL whom everyone tiptoed around while in her presence. My children began to feel the toxicity and that is when I had enough and we are now LC. I am free and she no longer bothers me b/c I have knowledge. Mandy, I agree with you about previous therapists who failed to identify this. Through trial and error and this amazing blog I have been shown the light and the right path. I am happy and so is my immediate family. Stay strong commenters and my best to you JDS as you fight the good fight xo.

  13. archana

    your blog is very useful .I read your blog & find each & everything situation in your blog very much like mine. my husband is always in denial position & fear whenever i show my feeling. It is very difficult to live in such a situation where everyone is saying yer to my narccassit mil & i am the odd one out .trying to adjust in desert of emotions
    from healing soul

  14. Lemondrop

    My mil only allowed 2 emotions in the house – joy and seething anger. Anything else is weak. Emotions are weak. My husband chose me as a partner I think because I’m very emotive, I’m not a good hider of how I feel. This worked well in our marriage, but in his family, I was the bitch. I’m not capable of saying that every meal is the best I’ve ever had, these are the most beautiful flowers in the world, you ordered take out from the best guy in town – seriously. Being an enthusiastic phony is what’s expected. Confusing the enthusiastic words with validity led my husband right into an affair with my mil’s clone. Yes, gross. While we went through a tough time directly a result of my mil, I bent over backwards to try to save my marriage, while he and my in laws began to subtly (remember, big smiles! Everything is so AWESOME!!) demonize me – I was controlling and didn’t want anyone to be happy. It was so terribly confusing after 25 years of the same people telling me they adored me and loved me like family. I had to see a lot of doctors, and was encouraged by my husband to seek psychiatric help since I was delusional about what I perceived to be an affair (and it was). When the affair ended, it was about 4-6 mos long, no love expressed, cliche stuff, my mil wanted one if 2 things to happen: my husband staying with the other woman, or even better, my husband moving in with his mother – his true partner. When he chose to try to reconcile with me, she was livid and said “you’re giving her back all the control”. She never checked on me or the children when our world blew up. Not one time. My husband now sees that she truly doesn’t care. She’s a therapist, btw. I’ve been no contact since, almost 2 years.

    Her betrayal of me hurt almost as much as my husbands. I’ve known her since I was barely 18 and considered her a confidante and 2d mother. I was just a pawn to make her look better. Educated daughter in law, successful, 3 lovely smart kids on the way to uni. She just trotted us out when it suited her. Very painful and isolating.

  15. Wow, I can totally relate to this. Except my NMIL is an engulfing type and my DH was the golden child and surrogate husband, so he received too much affection. SIL also has narcissistic tendencies, so she is also emotionally turbulent. Still, DH struggles to express his true feelings to me bc it was never safe to in his youth. He feels threatened whenever I’m angry or even address a mistake he’s made when I’m not angry. FIL practically doesn’t exist at all.

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