Category Archives: Communication problems in NPD

Lies, Damn Lies and Delusion

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Lie – to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive

Pathological Lying – long history (maybe lifelong history) of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent psychological motive or external benefit can be discerned

Confabulation – to fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory

Delusion – a belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder

 

I posed myself a question in response to my MILs flat out denial that she had a) sent any play money to us at Christmas (see post “So you survived Christmas…”) b) had intended it to be malicious and had in fact c) sent it to our youngest child but had to put all of our names on the parcel because we had made it so difficult for her to send the children more than one gift despite having sent that child more than one gift already. You’ll notice how these answers contradict each other.

The question was “does MIL know she is lying”?

YES! you all shout, but the really scary answer is probably no, she doesn’t.

It creeps me out to write about this because it genuinely is very scary for me to have someone in my social or familial circle who is so out of touch with most people’s version of reality. I am strongly empathic and can in most circumstances easily put myself in another person’s shoes, feel their feelings and see their perspective. Even if I disagree strongly with their views on something I can still see how their life experiences have led them to hold the position they have. Sometimes it is a bit trickier, some people are harder to figure out as they are very reserved and reveal little of their deeper feelings. And then occasionally you meet someone who is a mindfucker.

My definition of a mindfucker, excuse my French, is a person so incomprehensible that trying to put yourself in their shoes actually causes you psychological harm. The MIL is one of them.

My therapist describes it more politely as “off the Bell Curve”. Here is a Bell Curve.

blank bell curve

 

I love the whole Bell Curve thing, I first learnt about it doing my A Level maths course aged 17. Almost all measurable characteristics in nature produce this graph; the length of blades of grass in your lawn, the heights of 4 year old kids, the weights of new born puppies, the number of cakes you have eaten this year and so on. Most people/things cluster symmetrically around an average or mean value in the middle and the numbers of people/things who have significantly more or less of the measured characteristic fall away from this peak values either side. IQ is the classic example of a characteristic which produces a bell shaped curve when measured in people.

If you look at the picture you notice the areas right out at the edges labelled with the purple arrows? Those are the places where the extremes are found, I am actually at the far right of the bell curve for female height as I am 5 foot 10 inches which is taller than the average height for a man in the UK. But that doesn’t make me abnormal, I’m within the “normal” range (i.e. on the bell curve) just not in the “average” range, in the top 2% range instead.

My MILs behavioural responses are off the bell curve, so unusual that they are not found in almost everyone else in the population, beyond the 2%. That is pretty much the definition of a personality disorder.

Lying

So how does that link in with her lying? Let’s review some indisputable facts:

My MIL sent a parcel wrapped in Christmas paper to us at Christmas with a label on it “to husband, FCW, child 1, child 2” inside was play money, plastic coins and fake notes.

She sent each child a gift, some books each and a joint present labelled as such.

We had requested that all family members send each child one gift as otherwise they are deluged in presents

My husband asked her about the play money present as she has previously tried to give us money with strings attached and been cross when it was refused. This gift of play money seemed to say “fuck you, I’ll send money this way then, ha ha”.

This is how she replied, all of this happened in the course of one conversation:

  1. “I didn’t do that”
  2. “I don’t remember sending any such thing to you”
  3. “Well I meant it to be for child 2”
  4. “You made it so difficult for me to send more than one gift to each child”
  5. “I had no choice but to put everyone’s names on it”

I see someone making shit up as she goes along, reaching some vaguely plausible story by the end of the conversation which absolves herself of any wrong doing and (bonus points) manages to make herself a victim of someone else’s unreasonable demands.

She knows at statement 1 that she is being called out for something. She probably hasn’t listened much to the accusation but the tone of voice and content of the questions leads her to go on the defensive and she instinctively denies everything. This is a lie reflex similar to that which small children have who are scared of a punitive parent “I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me”.

Then she has had enough time to start being a bit more clever and tries to deflect criticism by hedging her bets a bit ” I don’t recall doing it” this is deliberate, she knows this is a lie. How come? Because of what she says next “it was for child 2” not “oh yes, goodness me I forgot, that was for child 2”.

Notice also how she doesn’t apologise at all for going against our request for one gift per child. She is on a roll now and has had enough time to conjure up a scenario where she can come out smelling of roses (in her mind). She was the helpless victim of our wicked rule.

Then here’s the scary part, she erases the entire first part of the conversation from her mind and believes the story she has come up with, actually believes it to be the truth. If questioned today on this subject she would repeat the finalised version of this story, that it was for child 2 and we made it so difficult for her to be that generous with our unreasonable demand she felt unable to openly label the gift as such so in desperation put all our names on it. She would deny any recollection of the first part of the conversation or say she was confused and flustered because of the aggressive tone she was questioned with.

She is a liar, there is no doubt in my mind that she knowingly says things she knows are false in order to get herself out of sticky situations. But then something else happens, a layer of bizarre gets iced onto the cake of lie and she can concoct a story where she is the blameless one, clever one, heroic one and she believes it. She reaches the point of believing her own lies.

I thought this was called pathological lying but it’s not. Pathological lying is when you spend your entire life making up random shit about everything for no personal gain, you just can’t separate made up from real. Confabulation is a form of making things up found in people with memory loss who instinctively try to fill in the gap with a story, their brain is trying to help account for an absence. It is a symptom of brain trauma and some neurological conditions. She isn’t doing that either.

No she is lying and then becomes delusional, she believes her lies. The lies can be concretely shown to be lies, real evidence exists to counter them, the first part of the conversation above is an example. How can she say “I didn’t do that” and then say “you gave me no choice but to do that” one of those two statements is a lie at the very least. But still she believes her version and interprets any disagreement as wilful attacks upon her good character.

Lying is normal, we all do it. Social white lies such as “can we have biscuits when we get home?” “no we ran out” when actually the answer is “no I’m worried about all the crap you eat but can’t be arsed to have a fight about this in the school playground” are normal. The number of times a person lies everyday fits a bell curve, some do few, some do lots, most fit in the middle. How many of your lies you believe to be true when pressed also fits a bell curve, with some people easily admitting they are lies, most people grudgingly admitting most lies, some people really resisting admitting their lies and then some tiny percentage of people who say they never lie and always believe them to be true. These people are way off the bell curve. Hello MIL.

This is why I find it a mindfuck, in order for me to follow that train of thought from conscious lie to delusion I have to amputate some really crucial parts of my own mind: the parts where I see other people as just as sharp and astute as I am, the parts where I see the effects of my actions on others, the parts where I have any moral accountability, the parts where I accept I am flawed and can do the wrong thing, the part where I recognise the difference between what is in my head and what is real. Going there is scary for me and the realisation of what my MIL must be capable of if she can do this is horrifying. Worse, what if she isn’t capable of doing anything else, what if this is how she thinks, ALL THE GOD DAMN TIME!

Delusion

This is far from being the only example of my MILs delusional thinking. She invented a story first reported to her divorce lawyer and documented in detail as a result, where her ex-husband grabbed her bum cheek in the queue for service at a restaurant. This was in order to portray him as a really bad person. Next this story was related to me about the second time I meet her and it was an anatomically graphic account of how while sat at a table in the restaurant her shoved his hand forcibly into her lap and indecently assaulted her. That is what was described it to me over afternoon tea, in her garden the second time we met. You see how that conversation isn’t even normal!

Next time she tells the tale her two children were sat opposite her at the table so that is why she was unable to cry out or do anything. Now my husband remembers the trip to the restaurant but has no memory of anything untoward happening. He and his sister were in their mid-late teens at the time so their recollection is pretty good. Notice how the story changed and became more elaborate.

She has delusions about other things as well, she believes she discovered some remarkable chemical law which would have revolutionised the subject. She thinks that the radiation from her mobile phone if left on wakes her 30-40 times a night. She found a painting in a second hand shop and believes it is one of her ancestors and is wearing a necklace she has inherited despite the necklace not matching the picture and her having no evidence that the painting is really her ancestor at all. She believes she has psychic powers and knows the location of a girl abducted in a notorious kidnap case. She believes young waiters in restaurants flirt with her because she is so attractive. She believes she is stronger and more physically capable than she is and has injured herself several times as a result.

Narcissism is so horrible when acted out on other people due to the lack of morals, awareness of others feelings, the lies, the manipulations. But under it all is someone so profoundly disturbed that they are unable to ever accept that they do wrong, their brain cannot compute it. Every single action is designed to protect their desperately fragile self worth and delusion is better than a lie. Delusion says “I am not that person, I didn’t do that wrong thing”, lying says “I know I am but I can make capital out of saying I’m not”.

She really has to believe that she isn’t that person, the whole structure of her personality is set up so as to avoid ever having to consider that possibility even to the extent of denying reality. That is a truly sad and scary place to be. For the first time ever I feel sorry for my MIL.

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Filed under Communication problems in NPD, Controlling behaviour, defence mechanism, delusion, Denial, Describing narcissism, diagnosing NPD, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, lies, narcissistic mother, Understanding narcissism

Just Not There: The Emotionally Unavailable Spouse

I was musing on a heartfelt comment a reader had left asking for more information about anxious-withholding attachment types. I had wracked my brains trying to thing of what else I could write and then out of the blue an article popped up in my Facebook news feed which hit the nail on the head. It was one of those ah-ha articles where I suddenly understood something, ‘ping’ the lightbulb went off.

You see I had got myself all confused about what emotionally withholding actually meant. In my mind it was all cold-hearted bastard behaviour, the guy who never returns your calls, doesn’t like cuddling, prefers not to hold your hand. You know all clenched jawed and distant, stiff upper lip to the nth degree. NO. Duh (bet I wasn’t the only one that thought that though huh?) The article which you can read in its glorious entirety is here at Ravishly.com . Really go and read it.

What it means to be emotionally available (to quote the article)

“is not just about sharing his/her emotions; it is about his/her openness with another person and him/herself. It’s about where s/he is at in this moment emotionally and staying with that discomfort, instead of running or presenting it as fixed, resolved or all sorted out.

It is not about oversharing or being dramatic for the sake of it, it is sharing what is relevant to develop that connection in an authentic way. It is about knowing the personal behaviours that avoid true openness and availability. It is at the start very uncomfortable, awkward and even alien to someone who wasn’t taught how to be available emotionally growing up.”

God how brilliant a summary is that? There are so many interesting strands to pull out of these to paragraphs. It got me thinking about Brene Brown and her work on how shame can block us from truly being open and authentic with people. Shame is one of the emotions narcissistic families are steeped in but avoid facing.

Emotional availability is not developed properly in families where you cannot be yourself, you cannot show certain emotions, you do not address problematic interpersonal behaviours, where you do not even really know who you are because someone else gets all the limelight.

It’s about their openness with another person and themselves

The children of narcissists have such deep fears of being abandoned and rejected that any part of themselves they feared their mother may turn on gets shut down. A narcissist will turn on another person’s needs and feelings as the only feelings that matter to them are theirs. The narcissists’s children’s emotions get locked far away from their own conscious minds. These children grow up and wriggle away from their feelings. They can ignore, minimise or dismiss their partners emotions because they do not know how to handle the feelings they arouse, or worse they are so conditioned to suppress emotions in themselves and others they do it reflexively with no conscious awareness of what they are doing. I think they feel fear and shame of their needs and emotions.

Donald Winnocott the British psychoanalyst describes how children in these circumstances develop a “false self” which is the face that gets presented to the world, the one mummy wants to see while the true self is hidden back behind a thick curtain. The false self has few needs, experiences a limited range of emotions, is available whenever mummy wants them, achieves publicly in ways that she deems desirable. You are all familiar with this. Some children of NPD mothers will know they keep a lot of themselves back, some will believe the false self is really who they are. The true self may never be experienced. This is especially true of the narcissistic mother was the smothering controlling sort rather than the self-absorbed couldn’t give a damn sort. Why? because the smother mother tells the child what to feel, how to react and what face she wants them to show at all times. The child grows up to expect some outside agent to prescribe their emotional state to them, they don’t really feel it themselves.

If your household growing up was one where only one person’s moods and thoughts counted no one else’s inner world was ever given the time of day then the child will become an adult who simply doesn’t know how to share what is going on in their minds. They don’t know how to be open.

It’s about where they are at this moment emotionally

My husband has struggled enormously with being aware of his emotions from moment to moment. We often experience a sort of emotional jet lag where something has happened, an awkward phone conversation with his mother for example, and then two or three days later he starts acting out. The emotions of frustration or anger at his mother have taken that long to bubble up and even then he experiences them in a displaced way, getting cross with me or the kids, being petty or passive aggressive about something. Thank God for the marriage therapist. Each sessions usually involves the therapist stopping my husband and asking him “how are you feeling right now?” and he can describe a few basic emotions now, sad, angry, that sort of thing.

This is not being emotionally available. It’s like going to your fridge and having the milk tell you it will be available for your cup of tea in a couple of days when you need tea right now. Where does that leave you the partner? Hanging around twiddling your thumbs unable to connect to your partner about what is bothering them or you. By the time they feel it it’s too late. It means in the moment when you have a need for them to be relating to you they can’t, they let you down and you have to deal with your stuff by yourself. This is a lonely, wearying experience and over years you can just give up turning to them for support or sharing in this way altogether. Winnicott describes how relationships with people acting from their false self are always unsatisfactory in the long run.

The key to moving past this is mindfullness and an emotional vocabulary. I bought my kids this fantastic set of emotions cards which show a funny cartoon of a person looking sad or excited or whatever and the word is written on it. I ask them sometimes “how are you feeling?” or “when have you felt this way?” and they pick one of the cards and talk about it, it’s like a game. Your spouse needs this kind of a game. Something like this wheel of emotions is helpful. Google it, print it out and stick it up somewhere.

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It’s about sharing what is relevant to develop an authentic connection

Relevant and authentic being the key words. Relevant according to my dictionary is:

Closely connected or appropriate to what is being done or considered and appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest.

In short – appropriate and timely. I had a conversation with my spouse about something I had done the day before (stayed in bed in a dismal and despondent heap). In this conversation my husband shared how he had felt worried about what was wrong, but then went on to say he didn’t want me to tell him what the matter with me was, he just wanted to say how it had made him feel. He was dutifully doing what the marriage therapist has asked he do, share his feelings (and only his feelings), a day late. Not relevant. This is not timely because it didn’t happen in the moment while he was feeling the emotion. Not appropriate because in this scenario there was clearly something major going on with my emotions not his, but they were not made part of the conversation.

He actually said he didn’t need to know what was going on with me, just needed to say his bit. NOT AUTHENTIC. Why? Because just doing robotically what the therapist asked him to do without attempting to discover where I was is not a genuine connection, it is obediently acting in the way a grown-up (the therapist) has told him to and actively avoiding the uncomfortable bit of asking about my feelings and sitting there and listening to the reply. And let me tell you that is how it feels, it’s like watching Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory TV show read an appropriate response from a cue card that Penny or Leonard had prepared for him. My husband is not on the autistic spectrum but sometimes it really feels like he is.

big-bang-theory-depressing-funny-funny-gif-Favim.com-1033111

So how could that have been authentic and relevant? On the day, at the goddamn time, he could have said he was worried. He could have asked “do you want to talk about this?”, “what’s going on love, you seem really sad today”, “I’m worried and confused”, “please talk to me about this when you’re up to it”. You know because it wasn’t about him giving me some automated status update on what he was feeling like a talking emotion thermometer.

It’s about personal behaviours which avoid true openness and availability

What kinds of personal behaviours avoid intimacy? Avoiding a person or subject if you get a whiff of uncomfortable emotions around them, over analysing someone as they talk to you rather than listen and feel, jumping in with solutions, being busy all the time so you can’t talk, staring at your phone or tablet all day, not thinking about your own moods or reactions, not reflecting on how a conversation has gone, not asking for feedback, not checking in with the other person after a tricky conversation, intellectualising the conversation by quoting books or theories, outright dismissing someone’s concerns as silly, unimportant, unlikely to happen, telling them they are overreacting, using formulaic responses “how are you?”, “I’m here for you” without actually doing anything else at all. You get the idea.

At the start it is very uncomfortable, awkward and even alien

I am struggling with the robotic nature of my husbands attempts to talk about his feelings. He uses the words but isn’t actually there. He is still hiding, peaking out from behind the thick curtain to see if it is safe. It isn’t. It won’t ever be completely safe. And no one is there telling him how to do it like his mum did all those years. You just get stuck in and thrash it out.

I feel a mixture of exasperated and anguish at how he is struggling to do this, it’s like watching a toddler stumble but not rush to pick them up. I have no idea how long it will take for him to get to a point where a normal conversation about how we both are is possible. I’m not talking about big, heavy topics here, just simple ones like what colour to paint the spare room. In the meantime I feel lonely. I still don’t have a relationship with someone who can be emotionally available or supportive and I have stopped expecting or even hoping for it. You know it’s not like watching my toddler stumble, it’s like watching someone else’s toddler stumble, I feel slightly sympathetic but at one step removed, apart from the occasional miserable half-day under a duvet I get on with my life.

That is the real tragedy of emotional unavailability, they crave closeness but act in ways which sabotage it. Ultimately the person they wish to be close to gives up and walks away.

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Filed under anxiety, attachment theory, Communication problems in NPD, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, family roles, fear of abandonment, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, rejection, Uncategorized

Narcissistic MIL and Grandchildren Part I

Management of the MIL takes on a whole new level when grandchildren appear of the scene. The overriding priority when dealing with MIL and her interactions with her grandchildren, your children, is what is best for the kids. Remember that as you reflect on your own experiences and read through a few of mine. I haven’t always got this right but of all the interactions I have had with my MIL the ones concerning my children are those which I feel most sure of. My instincts kicked in early on and I have never really given a damn if she disagrees or disapproves of my childrearing. My kids, my rules, suck it up MIL.

Narcissistic grandmotherly interventions start with the announcement of any pregnancy. There are predictable responses that a narcissistic MIL may select from. First is jealousy that the pregnancy will take attention away from her. She may choose to minimise or ignore the pregnancy or suddenly develop some health problem or other crisis in her life to get some attention back on herself. Alternatively she may decide to take over the pregnancy and give all manner of advice and opinions solicited or not, research the best birthing methods, the best baby equipment, even invite herself along to the hospital on the day and right into the delivery room.

My MIL opted for the first approach and after being told we were having a baby (her first grandchild) she refused to discuss it or get excited “in case something goes wrong” which was a very tactless thing to say to a woman expecting her first child. This lasted the full nine months. Every time she visited or spoke to my husband on the phone any news about the pregnancy was deflected and dismissed. After the birth she managed to say “congratulations” literally that one word to me and nothing else. No enquiries about how the birth went or a chat about how lovely the baby was, nothing. As I mentioned before in the section on abuse amnesia she refused to even hold the baby on her first visit which she made sure was only brief and spent the entire time moaning about her own mother whom she had been visiting, she saw us on the way back from her mother’s, we were not the priority that was clear enough.

I have heard tales from others with and NPD MIL about how they completely dominated the whole pregnancy with their interference. From buying the right vitamin pills, insisting on certain doctors only at certain hospitals, trying to use money to buy the treatment they wished for their DIL, trying to dictate the birthing method and environment, even inviting themselves to be the poor woman’s birth partner. Thank God I never had to deal with that. Her disinterest was a relief to be honest. Pregnancy is a vulnerable enough time without extra pressure from someone you dislike trying to control your every move.

There was one incident with my second pregnancy which to this day is a sore point but that was more to do with my husband than with the MIL. She knew the pregnancy had been hard, ten weeks of twenty four hour a day “morning” sickness, pelvic girdle pain, an unexpected bleed and admission at 31 weeks, then a sudden concern about my blood sugar and the babies growth rate (high) led them to put me on a special diet for the last four weeks and demand finger prick tests six times a day.  MIL decided she wanted to come and help by staying for four days when I was 38 weeks pregnant. I felt ill at the very thought. She graciously told me she wouldn’t be offended if I wanted some time to myself, in my own house, when nine months pregnant. Offended. As if my overriding concern at that time was if I was causing her offence. Mercifully the doctors decided to induce the baby early. I was so disgusted that my husband had joined in an applied pressure on me to allow his mother her chance at “helping” rather than do what was best for me which was to arrange an easy and relaxing last couple of weeks of the pregnancy. It rankles me to this day.

Having declined to show any interest in our newborn child the first time, she arranged her own special visit a couple of weeks later. This was when she started to accelerate her interest in the baby. First she insisted on buying some clothes she thought we would need. Then some more, then toys. Then she came every two to three weeks for the next six months. Each time the baby was bought more and more stuff. A lot of it was second hand from charity and thrift shops. Piles of stuff wholly unsuitable for the baby like a gardening set when she was three months old. She wanted to be the grandparent who bought all the significant items. Upon hearing that we had taken the baby to get her first pair of shoes she sent a cheque covering the cost (which I never cashed), as she wanted to buy them.

Not content with buying everything she could lay her hands on she also indulged in competitive parenting. Shades of anything you can do I can do better. For example our daughter sat playing with a jigsaw and her grandmother had to show her the correct way to do it, offering a running commentary the whole time on how she was educating the child through her interference. She went on to relate how she had done this sort of thing with my husband and SIL and then with sickeningly sweet coyness practically fluttered her eyelashes and remarked how of course not all parents did this (as she glanced across at me), maybe it was just her. The implication was clear, that somehow I was not stimulating the child sufficiently. She even commented to me that I had a much lower level of interaction with the baby than my husband did because I just sat watching the five month old play with her toes one day rather than talk to her. That I spent all day, everyday with the baby and therefor hardly needed to be constantly in the child’s face evidently did not occur to her.

One other issue over which MIL had an epic sulk was the naming of our daughters. The first was not a problem, the second was. We had first heard her unusual name when my husband started lecturing a course for a professor at his lab who had that name. We both liked it and called our second daughter after this professor, a lovely and successful woman. When MIL heard it she sulked. She assumed we had chosen it because it was also the name of her ex-husband’s aunt, a fact she was aware of as she extensively researches family trees in the belief that she is descended from aristocracy. Neither of us had any idea that we had chosen an old family name. My FIL has a large family on one side, seven aunts and uncles and he is not terribly forthcoming about these things. He only mentioned it to us some weeks after the child had been born and named. Apparently MIL had been hoping we would somehow just know that she wanted us to choose her mother’s name or her own name. The old telepathy trick again, expecting mind reading and getting upset when it doesn’t happen.

These behaviours are irritating but not dangerous or damaging. There are ways in which narcissistic grandmothers can behave that do actually tip into worrying. Outright disobedience of any rules you make regarding your children is one of these. This is a concern for several reasons. Firstly it is a continuation of her disrespect and attempts to control you and your other half, it is about power not love. Second it undermines you as parents in front of your children showing them that your rules do not need to be obeyed. Lastly it can be dangerous if your rules are designed to ensure your children’s safety.

The next post will cover some of the more concerning behaviour you may experience from a narcissistic MIL and what to do about them.

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Filed under Communication problems in NPD, Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren

From blog to book

I am following the advice of a friend who has just written her first book and collating all these blog posts and a few more topics together into a short book which I hope to put on Amazon as an e-book.

I wondered if you, my readers, had any other topics you would like to see addressed which I can add into the book and hopefully eventually put on here as a post.

I have written some material on specific narcissistic traits with examples from my dear MIL’s interactions with us, something about infantilisation of our spouses, something about denial. What else? I look forward to reading your suggestions, thanks for all your comments so far.

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Filed under Communication problems in NPD, Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, diagnosing NPD, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, strategies for managing NPD MIL, Understanding narcissism

NPD MIL: Spouses making progress

It’s been a long, slow process from “she’s just like that” with a shrug and slight embarrassed laugh to “I know she will never change. I can just change how I respond to it”. It took 18 months with a therapist, reading extensively and repeated, in-depth conversations with me and his father before my husband could begin to see his mother for who she is. Talk about hard work. But the dam that has held back all rational and critical consideration of how he was raised and his mother’s behaviour has been breached. The first little trickles dribble through.

Trickle 1: The marriage counsellor

“I know this is normal for your family, but can you see how it isn’t normal for others?” Yep the Relate therapist really hit the nail on the head with that one. We had one session with her, a somewhat world weary, nicely presented middle aged woman. She was quick to stop me pouring out all my frustrations and give my other half a chance to speak, maybe she thought I was some nagging harpy? But once the various incidences of MIL’s behaviour were laid bare, me with my voice cracking and tears welling she spelled out what the issue was. It was my husband’s relationship with his mother, not so much our relationship with each other. We didn’t go back to her, there was no point.

Having someone on the outside, someone objective to his mind, to spell out that his mother’s actions were not normal was the first step.

My husband’s workplace provided some counselling, provisionally for stress, and beyond that a recommendation from the workplace counsellor saw him visiting a male counsellor regularly. His workplace counsellor was a woman, very blunt, she suggested he see a male therapist. It is hard to explore  the psychological issues you have with your domineering, controlling, manipulative mother with a female therapist.

Psychotherapeutic relationships involve projection, the transference of characteristics from the subconscious onto the therapist which the therapist can identify and use their exposure within the session to heal the patient. What do you do if you have an overwhelming, controlling mother-figure in your psyche whom you are terrified of? Projecting aspects of that onto the female therapist would not make for a productive relationship.

Trickle 2: The reading material

The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman was a book I bought for my Kindle which my husband subsequently read. He made little comment on it as he read but afterwards he talked about how many of the case study descriptions within it chimed true with his own family memories.

What I found striking about these same case studies was how many of them started with the patient saying how normal and trouble free their family life was. My husband said this too, he thought he had the ideal childhood, no rows, family together, nice school all in place. No rows. Ever. Hmmm.

The other book he found insightful was Families and How to Survive Them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. Wittily written it is a dialogue between a comedian in therapy and his therapist about families and relationships, why we choose the partners we do, the stages of development all children go through and what can go wrong if those developments don’t occur on track.

Trickle 3: Family conversations

My husband started a conversation with his father, divorced from his dysfunctional mother, about how she behaved and continues to behave. His father is a reserved, English academic so these conversations don’t come easily. Things which had never been broached were aired. My father-in-law related how his ex-wife had tried to have him declared mentally incapacitated by exaggerating and inventing signs of mental illness then going to his doctor without his knowledge, all tearful and distraught, to beg for him to be diagnosed with dementia. She had read up on it and went armed with material about early onset dementia and expected to the doctor to take her word for it. That is how low she is. My FIL had to endure a psychological assessment and family mental health conference with his ex-wife while the mental health professionals sat and discussed his sanity.

There was more and my husband started talking about his childhood memories and family habits which now seemed, shall we say, unusual. All of it to be honest sounded unusual, from her total control of the household budget (she gave her ex-husband pocket money) to the way the family basically avoided each other under the guise of normal life (his mother and sister would go and lock themselves in their bedrooms for hours, FIL ended up sleeping on a couch downstairs). Slowly the realisation that it wasn’t all shiny, happy families at home as a child started to dawn.

So these things eroded away the dam from one side and I hammered, repeatedly from the other. It still makes me wryly smile that he didn’t consider me an “objective outsider” even though when I first met him and first commented on his mother’s behaviour towards me I was an outside observer of his family relationships. It wasn’t until that counsellor said “I know this is normal for your family, but can you see how it isn’t normal for others?” did he consider what I had been saying to have any merit. Patience is a virtue they say.

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Passive-Aggressive Behaviour

NPD MIL has big anger issues. She is constantly simmering below the surface angry. My mother describes her as the most angry person she has ever met yet MIL has never raised her voice in my company. So how do I know she is angry?

You don’t have to shout to show anger. No fist needs to be banged on a table, no finger jabbed in your face, the teeth don’t have to show in a snarling mouth nor do insulting words need to be shot out with force. Anger can be a cold, crippling state of being that blackens your soul. My MIL’s soul is of the deepest black.

She hates her ex-husband, my lovely FIL. She hates him because he survives very well without her. She left him. He just wouldn’t rise to her bait and retreated into his work, slept downstairs in his office and became a non-person to her after their children grew and left home. She decided he was mentally defective and left him, as she tells it, for his own sake. This was after she tried to get a doctor to diagnose him with a rare form of early onset dementia.

So how does she show her vicious hatred? She redirects junk mail that occasionally gets sent to her (once their) house to his new partner with intimidating messages scrawled on the front. She found FIL’s partner’s address on the internet. Nice huh?

She now refuses to attend any event where her ex-husband may be present. Christenings, birthdays, graduations are all disrupted by her weeks of haggling over who will be there, when and with whom. If she is put on the defensive regarding her intractable demands about not meeting her ex she threatens to go to the police with a trumped up accusation of assault. I know it is trumped up as the actual story of the assault keeps changing, and more importantly it is supposed to have occurred in front of her children, in their late teens at the time, who noticed nothing at the time. Oh and it only ever gets brought out when she is backed up against a wall.

But what is interesting about her methods is their indirect nature. She never comes out and says “do this my way or I’ll go to the police”, that would be too obvious. She says things like “I can’t be in the same room as FIL. Maybe I should have been more insistent with the police, you know, with being assaulted. It still upsets me a lot…” the threat is left hanging, but the message is clear.

MIL is a master of passive-aggressive behaviour.

Responding to conflict

There is a range of interpersonal responses available to someone in a difficult situation. A completely passive response is like the dog rolling onto its back and showing its tummy.  You say nothing to express your own thoughts and meekly, willingly comply with the other person.

An aggressive response is picking a fight, getting your haunches up and snarling back.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is feeling one thing while displaying the other. Looking passive or at least not overtly confrontational but still having the rage of an aggressive person locked down inside. The anger doesn’t disappear. Anger never does, it’s a bit like there should be a conservation of anger law to match the conservation of energy law.

The anger comes out in indirect ways, that is what passive-aggression is about, indirect displays of anger. Here are some examples of  PA behaviours taken from this article http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counsellor-articles/what-is-passive-aggressive-behaviour

Non-Communication when there is clearly something problematic to discuss

Avoiding/Ignoring when you are so angry that you feel you cannot speak calmly

Evading problems and issues, burying an angry head in the sand

Procrastinating intentionally putting off important tasks for less important ones

Obstructing deliberately stalling or preventing an event or process of change

Fear of Competition Avoiding situations where one party will be seen as better at something

Ambiguity Being cryptic, unclear, not fully engaging in conversations

Sulking Being silent, morose, sullen and resentful in order to get attention or sympathy.

Chronic Lateness A way to put you in control over others and their expectations

Chronic Forgetting Shows a blatant disrespect and disregard for others to punish in some way

Fear of Intimacy Often there can be trust issues with passive aggressive people and guarding against becoming too intimately involved or attached will be a way for them to feel in control of the relationship

Making Excuses Always coming up with reasons for not doing things

Victimisation Unable to look at their own part in a situation will turn the tables to become the victim and will behave like one

Self-Pity the poor me scenario

Blaming others for situations rather than being able to take responsibility for your own actions or being able to take an objective view of the situation as a whole.

Withholding usual behaviours or roles for example sex, cooking and cleaning or making cups of tea, running a bath etc. all to reinforce an already unclear message to the other party

Learned Helplessness where a person continually acts like they can’t help themselves – deliberately doing a poor job of something for which they are often explicitly responsible.

My husband once broached the subject with his mother, suggesting in a very roundabout way that perhaps the family had a PA way of communicating. MIL said she had no idea what that meant and she actually found and referred to the article I linked above. MIL said perhaps only one example sounded remotely true to her. My husband and I have specific examples, numerous examples to back every single point except the one about chronic lateness (MIL is actually early on purpose to throw people off). It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

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Communication Problems 1

I’m writing about communication this morning as I had been lying awake last night running a scenario over and over in my mind. The root cause of the scenario which will probably happen at the next MIL visit over the summer is her inability to communicate clearly and directly. I think problems with communication are common to all personality disorders.

Why do we communicate? I find it helps to consider small children when trying to understand communication. They start out just making noises and learn slowly how to shape the noises and gestures into meaningful interactions. Babies develop communication in a predictable way.

First they learn to communicate basic needs. They get hungry; they cry. They are cold; they cry. The purpose of crying is to alert the caregiver who will respond in an appropriate way to cater to the baby’s need. New parents take a while to learn and anticipate a baby’s needs and they cycle through the list of possibilities (hungry, tired, cold, hot, nappy, comfort etc) before hitting on the correct response. A good enough parent will keep going through the list until the child’s need is correctly identified.

The next stage of learning to communicate is mirroring. This time the parent leads the interaction. They see the faces the baby is making and makes them back. They repeat the gurgly baby noises and play lots of hiding and appearing games. Watch anyone with a newborn and they make a huge amount of eye contact and pull all sorts of goofy faces. This response to a baby is automatic and it is very important. Just like responding to cries secures the baby’s confidence that their needs will be met, copying their facial expressions and noises shows the baby what their emotions look like and gives them the confidence to express them. They are learning a vital emotional vocabulary.  (The books “The Social Baby – Understanding babies’ communication from birth” by Lynne Murray and Liz Andrews, “The Science of Parenting” by Margot Sunderland and “Why Love Matters – How affection shapes a baby’s brain” by Sue Gerhardt  go into this in some detail).

Then babies start to coordinate their bodies better and can point to things they want. Their first communication through gestures is “Look! That, that!” and then “I want that, give it to me”. They draw another’s attention to something in the environment (Look! That, that!) and then they express what they want (Gimme!). So being able to clearly express your desire for something to another is something people learn very early on, from about 9 months old.

People with personality disorders don’t do this. They are not able to clearly express their desire for something to another person. Not even a basic need such as hunger or being desperate for the loo. Let’s look at why that is and how it shows up in their behaviour.

Why can’t they ask for things clearly and directly?

The key to understanding this is the interaction between the baby and the caregiver. What if the caregiver doesn’t work through all the possibilities when the baby cries? What if they ignore the baby? What if the baby is not played with and mirrored in lots of face to face interactions? What if the baby is punished for expressing their needs? These are conditions of neglect. They are conditions where the baby’s early attempts at communication are rebuffed. It is not surprising then if a baby with a parent like this would develop communication problems.

Some academics believe NPD occurs because the early interactions between the main caregiver and the baby are dysfunctional from as early as 6 months old. This is one of the reasons why post natal depression is taken so seriously by the medical establishment. Without good interactions between baby and caregiver early on the whole developmental track of the child is disrupted.

Some babies will scan their environment seeking out another responsive adult, maybe the other parent or a grandparent or child minder or even a sibling. The drive inside the  baby to find a responsive caregiver is very strong. They will do better than a baby which hasn’t got an alternative adult to respond to them or who has a weaker  instinct to seek one out, that misfortunate child will never learn to communicate effectively or recognise their own emotions properly. That child may end up with a personality disorder. I qualify that sentence with “may” but really you could replace the word with “will” so strong is the link between adult dysfunction and disordered care in the very early years.

The end result is someone who is incompetent in expressing themselves and actually fearful of openly and clearly making their needs and desires known. If as a child your cry for comfort was ignored or responded to with shouting or a slap you would learn pretty damn quick not to do that, not to show directly that you wanted comfort. The need for comfort would still be there. The child would learn which ways that need could be met by the unresponsive or neglectful caregiver which inevitably would mean putting what the caregiver found acceptable ahead of the baby’s instinct. This is completely arse about face, the adult caregiver should put the baby’s needs first not their own.  If never adequately met, the need would remain as an immature and insatiable drive in their psyche throughout their whole life. NPD is a need to be valued and loved which becomes utterly distorted into thinking oneself more valuable and more worthy of love than anyone else.

If the child is made to feel ashamed and ungratefully demanding when they express their needs they would grow into adulthood very wary of the response they may get when expressing a need. They would skirt around the edges of what they want, attribute the desire to another, always leave themselves with some get out clause from having the need directly attributed to them. This leads to indirect and confusing communication.

How does disordered communication show itself?

I have observed several patterns of behaviour that I have come across in adults with personality disorders. All these behaviours contribute to the communication problems people have when dealing with a persona with a PD.  Here I discuss indirect speech, triangulation, proxy recruitment, mind-reading, ambiguity, unique vocabulary.

  1. Indirect Speech: Instead of using active, first person vocabulary like “I want to go here” a more passive, third person voice is adopted “perhaps people would like to…” where it is unclear if this is the actual desire of the person involved of if they are simply hypothesising what another person’s desire may be.
  2. Triangulation: the person uses a third party to convey a message to someone or find out information about someone. Examples: MIL talks to SIL about a topic she wants us to know about, relying on SIL mentioning it when SIL speaks to us. MIL conveys her desires through interactions with grandchild “would Mummy let you have more sweets grandchild?” rather than ask directly. I think “accidentally” copying you into an email to someone else which talks about you is also an example of triangulation.
  3. Proxy recruitment: this is a more deliberately manipulative strategy than triangulation but still uses a third person to convey a message. Now the third person is recruited to act as a mouthpiece or foot soldier by the NPD person. Examples: Telling a relative how upset they are with someone’s behaviour and asking the relative to convey that to the person rather than telling them directly. Getting a subordinate to sack a member of staff or pass on bad news to management.
  4. Mind-Reading: expecting other people to know things without being told. Example: not saying what they would like for their birthday when asked as they expect the other to know or acting as if they have said something when they haven’t because thinking the message is so strong in their own mind they assume somehow that others must know it too.
  5. Ambiguity: This involves not specifying details in a conversation leaving others confused as to who or what is being alluded to. Lots of pregnant pauses, knowing looks, nudge-nudge non-verbal behaviour and use of words like someone, something, it, that, you know, thingy etc are used. Examples: “someone might get bored over the summer and … you know…”, “ever since the incident, she’s been a bit (eyebrows raised)…”.
  6. Unique Vocabulary: This involves the NPD person having their own unique use for common words which mean something completely different to the usual meaning of the word. Examples: “I’m not making excuses” when they are offering an explanation for behaviour in such a way as to minimise or remove any consequence, which is of course exactly what is meant by making an excuse.

I think the fundamental problem with the communication of personality disordered people is their difficulty in recognising their own needs due to a lack of mirroring as babies and an inability to express them clearly due to fear of being rejected or punished.

What is so difficult for other people involved with a PD person is that their methods for communicating are confusing, unclear and unreasonable. There is another level of interaction that follows from the disordered communication which is the anger and punishment the PD person directs at others who don’t understand their communication.

They are unclear and indirect and then punish others for not understanding what they are failing to convey.

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Filed under Communication problems in NPD, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Understanding narcissism