Category Archives: Denial

Echo – The Opposite of Narcissism

I’ve recently read a really good book on narcissism, “Rethinking Narcissism” by Craig Malkin. He describes types of narcissism along a continuum with NPD at one extreme and what he calls echoism at the other end. All people fall somewhere along this line of either extreme deprecation and need lack, to extreme self-absorption and need demands. Malkin discusses several really important things in his book (he is a professor at Harvard Medical School, lectures in psychotherapy, is world expert on treating narcissism and had a narcissistic mother himself), this continuum of narcissism which we all lie on, the need for healthy narcissism in everyone, early red flags of narcissistic traits in people we meet and how to manage a narcissistic person who you have to deal with.

Echo was the water nymph who fell in love with Narcissus the utterly vain and self-absorbed youth in the Greek myth. She followed him around providing constant adoration and attentiveness. All that was left of her, having pined away in the face of his complete disregard, was her voice repeating the last few words he said. She lost herself in placing another’s needs ahead of her own, Narcissus lost himself in placing his needs ahead of everyone else. Both had lost any sense of balance.

I think the polar opposite of narcissism, echoism, isn’t talked about enough. I think it is a trait which a lot of people who find themselves inexplicably tangled up with a narcissist have but may not be aware of. I have also noticed how my NPD MIL can make her children act like echoes when she is around but that they can also copy her and demonstrate the same narcissistic traits when she isn’t. They flip from one end to the other.

What does Echoism Look Like?

I’ll quote Malkin here as he summarises it in his own words…

“The other thing that becomes clear as soon as you start viewing this way is the problem when people lack healthy narcissism. That’s a problem. We already know from the research that people who don’t have those rose­ coloured glasses view themselves and the world in a slightly dimmer light. Sometimes they’re more anxious, sometimes they’re more depressed. In my research with my colleagues, I dubbed this problem echoism. Echo was the nymph who was cursed to repeat back only the last few words she heard. Where Narcissus fell in love with his reflection, Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Like Echo, people who struggle with echoism struggle to have a voice of their own. They’re afraid of seeming narcissistic in any way. They’re afraid of being a burden. They berate themselves for being too needy. They blame themselves for problems that go wrong in relationships. In the mild range of echoism what we found is these are people who can be deeply empathic. They prefer to focus on others as opposed to themselves. The danger here is in lacking those rose­ coloured glasses, in shifting away from themselves to other people rather reflexively, echoists also tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic partners and friends.”

“I’m a recovered echoist. Most people who have been raised by extremely narcissistic parents are vulnerable to this. I learned to echo my mother’s narcissism. The other thing I wanted to do was empower people who struggle in this way. There were no words for this. “

Struggle to have a voice of their own, don’t want to be a burden, reject their own needs, blame themselves for relationship problems. I can recognise myself as an adolescent and young adult in this description. Unlike Malkin, I wasn’t raised by an extreme narcissist, but I was raised in an abusive, domestically violent situation and was expected to be no bother to anyone, perfectly behaved and without needs as it was all my mother could do to contain my father’s unpredictable and violent outbursts and drink problem. I was very good at being seen and not heard or actually not seen and not heard. It was safer to take myself off to my room, deal with problems by myself, ask for nothing. When I was very young I would hide in a cupboard to be out of the way and to minimise the unbearable onslaught of scary behaviour around me. Echo hid behind trees to catch a glimpse of Narcissus but would never step forwards and present herself.

Malkin expended on his description of echoism in a discussion on Quora, the question and answer site,

“they’re afraid of becoming a burden, uncomfortable with attention (even if positive), and —it’s not a stretch to say —they hate having needs. They prefer to live life by the rule, “the less room I take up the better” and agree with statements like “I don’t know what I want or need from my relationships.”

“It’s best to think of it kind of like an unconscious contract—if I bury my needs, preferences, and feelings, maybe people will accept me.”

“[Echoism is] a complete absence of normal self-enhancement that causes a number of problems, not the least of which is that, like Echo—the nymph cursed to echo peoples’ words who pined to death for Narcissus — echoists tend to struggle with a voice of their own and fall in love with and befriend extremely narcissistic people. Why? Because narcissists are more than happy to take up all the room echoists are afraid to occupy.”

There is an upside to this also, echoist are not complete doormats with no self of their own. The orientation of an echoists attention onto other people’s needs and feelings makes them exceptional at caring professions and genuinely helpful, empathic friends and partners. As Malkin says,

“of all the people we studied, echoists were the most “warm hearted.” (yup, there’s a measure for that too).

So while they might be socially isolated, not all are, and many milder echoists can be wonderful care-takers (not martyrs).”

I think there is also a cultural facet to echoism. Malkin is American, a culture notorious for it’s brash extraversion and reinforcement of attention grabbing superstar behaviour. My Irish family would be horrified by the loudness and attention seeking of the average American person. In the small country town they came from someone walking down the high street in a new coat would have elicited comments like “Oooh, look at her thinking she’s so special in her posh coat…”. My mother would chastise me for ever drawing attention to myself by doing childlike things such as cartwheels (you’re showing your pants!), skipping down the street (that’s no way to walk to church), practising my ballet steps by looking at my reflection in the TV (stop admiring at yourself), you get the general idea. In many cultures all people or people of one gender or social class have prohibitions against self-enhancement.

Throwing someone who for whatever reason demonstrates echoism into a mix with people at the other extreme is a situation ripe for exploitation of the echoist by the narcissist.

Echoism and The Child of Narcissistic In-Laws

This part of Prof. Malkin’s description above really hits me in the gut, “echoists also tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic partners and friends”. I hate, just hate to think that my childhood which was so incredibly difficult has set me up to choose a family of in-laws with the cancer of narcissism. Good God like I haven’t endured enough already! It makes me so angry. But it is correct.

If there is one thing I wish anyone reading this blog could take away and really, deeply understand it is that you have not found yourself in a relationship with the child of an extreme narcissist by accident.

We fall into relationships with the children of narcissists because we have what they want and they have a role for us which feels familiar. What do they want? The child of a narcissist has lacked many things in their upbringing as a result of their disordered mothers behaviour and it is inevitable that they will bring these unmet needs into your relationship. Something about you made them feel like you could satisfy these unmet needs. They can be very needy or as Malkin says they can be echo themselves and be very reluctant to even think about their own needs and still play a very subservient, servant relationship with their mother.

Unconsciously the child of a narcissist has expectations, as we all do, about how relationships with people work and they can act them out without ever having declared their expectations openly. Often these expectations are a set of unspoken rules about how power and control work in relationships and how one goes about getting needs met. For the abusiveness of the MIL to spill into our relationships we must cooperate in some way with this role.

Healthy narcissism lends itself towards open negotiation of needs and the rules around them as both people accept their own and others needs. Unhealthy narcissism or the lack of narcissism (echoism) tends towards an unbalanced and exploitive relationship where one set of needs gets unfair prominence and the other is left utterly unacknowledged. If you are an echo yourself you can fall into a preprepared role with its unspoken set of rules with the child of a narcissist. So where if at all is the echo in your situation? Who is being echo if MIL is being Narcissus?

There are 4 possible combinations of echo-narcissus that may describe your relationship, your spouse and their mother’s relationship or your in-laws’ relationship.

Echo with Echo

Your partner could expect you to go along with their echoist behaviour and become their co-echo around their mother. If you have echo tendencies yourself you can both become stuck in a pattern of always letting NPD MIL run the show and be unable to assert your needs to each other never mind to her. You would be left with a deep feeling of unfulfilled potential in your marriage and intrusion from the outside.

The rest of the NPD MIL’s family may also play echo roles, a weak FIL and echo children who all play court to her Royal Highness narcissistic MIL is a common set up. Are you filling the role of another echo servant in the life of the Duchess of Up Her Own Arse?

Relationships like this result in both partners being treated badly by the NPD MIL, boundaries being violated left right and centre, the NPD MIL walking into the house whenever she likes and serious concerns about her influence on grandchildren arise. Eventually one partner breaks the pattern and starts pushing back. This can be quite terrifying to the child of the NPD mother. If both echoes can stand together though they make a solid team against the NPD mother and her shenanigans.

Echo with Narcissus

Alternatively your partner could echo in your own relationship and put you on a pedestal whether you want it or not. Indeed some children of narcissists marry narcissists although such narc partners generally wouldn’t be searching the internet for help with their NPD MILs and reading blogs like this. They end up being the subject of blogs called “So I Married a Narcissist…”.

Such an echo partner is unable to stand up for you in the face of NPD MIL’s attacks and manipulations. They may also have similarly exploitive friends or work associates and a history of finding themselves in close company with other narcissistic people. They may be the one sibling who is not like mum whereas others are mini-me narcissists. Extreme echoes would be attracted to confidence and self assurance which granted narcissists have on the surface but they can also be attracted to genuinely confident people, finding yourself partnered with an echo doesn’t automatically mean you are an unhealthy narcissist!

Aside from the obviously narcissistic partners, having a spouse who puts themselves last all the time is not a good relationship to be in. They treat you as a copy of their mother even if you are not NPD yourself, they know no other way, to them acting like echo is how you demonstrate love. They map that behaviour straight onto you, even reacting fearfully as if you were going to be as abusive as their mothers. They can harbour long term resentment and act in passive-aggressive ways or become silent and withdrawn, unable to ask for help and support that they may need. They may find relationships smothering and be quite avoidant in their behaviour. It can be frustrating and lonely to be in relationship with someone who is unable to share their inner world with you because they have never paid attention to it and would rather run screaming from the room than let you in.

Remember the definition of echo is someone who denies, even fees from their own needs and is very uncomfortable with any attention. The old TV series “Absolutely Fabulous” with Jennifer Saunders as the flamboyant, grotesquely self-absorbed designer and her mousy, shy daughter is a narcissus-echo pair.

Narcissus with Echo

The third possibility is that you are the echo to your spouse’s narcissism. Children of NPD mothers can learn narcissistic behaviour and copy their mother’s way of relating to people without even realising it. They can develop their own narcissistic traits as a way of compensating for the deep emotional neglect their mother caused in their own childhoods. Partnering with someone who has strong echo traits means they get all their needs met just as they had to meet their mothers and this is fair to them.

They can act as an echo to their mother, being very attentive, looking for her praise and approval, not wishing to upset her and then once she has gone they can act in exactly the same ways she did but with you. I know of people who describe how the narcissistic MIL teams up with the narcissistic spouse against the echo spouse, both acting very haughty and superior and mocking the echo-spouse. The narcissist spouse is very unlikely to be aware of any family dysfunction, you will in all likelihood be the one to uncover it. That can really devastate the family image and your spouse will make you pay for it.

This is one way you can separate out real echoes from pseudo-echo communal/covert narcissists. The real echoes will a) already know their mothers dominate everything and b) be deeply upset for YOU when you reveal how hurt you have been by MIL’s behaviour. The pseudo-echo communal narcissist will a) not be willing to face that there is anything wrong with their family and b) feel very sorry for themselves while refuting, dismissing, denying and minimising anything you say on the matter.

I hear of overt grandiose narcissistic mothers who rear communal/covert narcissistic children and vice versa so the narcissism is there in the spouse too but revealed in different behaviours. I was fooled for a long time into thinking only very cocky arrogant behaviour or snobby superiority was narcissism. People who fall over themselves to demonstrate how “nice/Christian/helpful” they are are just as obsessed with their self-image it merely manifests in a different way.

It can be particularly hard to see if you are supporting your spouse with their very challenging mother (acting like a good echo) and putting your spouse’s feelings and problems foremost. It is  hard to spot that sometimes having their problems and feelings at the centre all the time and needing reassurance by talking about how horrible mummy is etc is actually a way of self-enhancing at your expense. If you stand up for your own needs they can easily switch into oh-poor-me martyrdom. Not all narcissism is about showing off accomplishments sometimes narcissists feel special and enhance their self-image by being long-suffering victims.

Narcissus with Narcissus

Finally of course both the child of the NPD mother and the spouse can exhibit extreme narcissistic traits. I have heard of situations where both MIL and FIL appear extremely narcissistic and back each other to the hilt. I have never met anyone like this but presumably this works a bit like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, both people love attention and adulation and both feel important and enhanced by association with the other. Their mate has something they value highly like good looks, fame, wealth or whatever and they have other people to supply to their needs. The idea of multiple narcissists in one family makes my head spin.

There are of course other combinations, you or your spouse may be in a place of healthy narcissism due to good parenting, good fortune, good therapy, a clear view of their mother and her behaviour etc. Healthy and echo will work if healthy encourages echo to speak up more, positively enhancing them both, also healthy and slightly narcissistic can work if the healthy uses what Malkin calls empathy prompts to push the slightly narcissistic partner to notice the other’s needs.

Partners with healthy narcissism are far less likely to put up with nonsense from an NPD MIL. They can support the child of the narcissist to break out of old behaviours and become more healthy themselves provided their isn’t a huge level of denial around the MIL’s behaviour or abusive behaviour within the relationship.

Beyond Echoism

Sadly I can see how my echoist behaviour was attractive to my husband. As I have worked hard on myself with my therapist and by reading and reflecting on all of this I have moved my position along the echo—-narcissus continuum. This is the single most encouraging thing about this whole horrible situation for me. Despite my crappy childhood and poor marriage choice I have become a person far more capable of recognising and valuing my own needs, better at standing my ground, I found my own voice (writing this blog was part of that) and stating my preferences. And you know what, I am more accepted now as a result than I was while being more of an echo. I am noticed and accepted by different people and am far less appealing to the narcissists. I don’t notice needy people hoovering up my attention, if I find someone like that has snuck their way into my social sphere I can keep a healthy distance and my neediness doesn’t turn normal people away, it gives them an opportunity to be helpful and what do you know, people actually like doing things for others!

It’s OK to feel special about yourself in fact Malkin would say it is necessary to believe you are a bit above average (apparently most people think this even though it is statistically impossible). You are allowed to feel good and to see your Narcissus MIL as the fool she really is shake your head and say “girl what were you thinking?!” and walk away. Walk away from your relationship too if they are as narcissistic. Let them starve to death staring at their own bloody reflection, I’m not sticking around to watch.

 

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Filed under Denial, Describing narcissism, Echoism, Effects of NPD on others, family roles, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother

Defence Mechanisms

“Ouch”, says your ego as it a feels a burn, deliberate or otherwise. It’s funny how our modern access to the internet and people all over the world lead to a world of butt-hurt on internet comments sections. As an exercise in uncovering the various ways people can wriggle about when they feel they have been criticised it is fascinating.

Some men tend to get very aggressive from the get-go, personally attacking the people disagreeing with them, others fall into snobby intellectualism and suppose they are the expert on everything, some are blatantly sexist (go make me a sandwich). Women tend to be more oh-poor-me, morally superior and judgemental, you’ve just misunderstood me or repeat themselves over and over unable to let it go. We are socially conditioned to respond in certain ways when feeling wounded and defensive, some of these responses are gender specific, some are universal.

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, set about categorising various ways in which people defend their egos, their sense of themselves as valuable and worthy people, when a threat to that sense of self-worth is detected. Some of these strategies are healthy and adaptive to getting on with people, some less so and some are downright appalling and cause serious damage to relations unless being used by a tantruming toddler.

I have toyed with the idea of creating a defence mechanism Bingo game to keep myself amused during any visits by the MIL. I could print myself out a card of various possible defensive behaviours and cross them off as the day wears on, extra points for stirring up contentious conversations which deliberately provoke defensive reactions. Then when she has exhausted her repertoire of maladaptive and obnoxious ways of responding I can leap out of my chair shouting “BINGO!” and she’ll look all confused and have no idea why I am wetting myself laughing. Ah yes, I have way to much time on my hands and end up plotting this sort of stuff.

Here are some defence mechanisms listed with the healthy, normal ones at the start and descending down four levels of Hell to the bizarre and psychotic at the end. How many does your disorder mother-in-law use in an average conversation? Which ones get pulled out most often, which are reserved for those moments when she is panicking and feels control is slipping by, which ones are used by your partner? Which ones do you adopt in response to your MIL? Could you use better ones?

Level IV – Mature defences

Found in emotionally healthy adults, socially adaptive and making use of feelings of control or an emphasis on finding pleasure or peace amidst distressing situations.

Acceptance – a person fully accepts reality without attempting to change it, protest or run away (Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference)

Altruism – service to others which feels good

Anticipation – realistically planning for future discomfort, i.e. preparing a plan for how to manage the MIL when she visits

Courage – ability and willingness to confront conflict, fear, pain, obstacles, uncertainty and despair.

Emotional self-regulation – responding to reality in a range of emotional ways which are socially acceptable, modifying the intensity, duration, type and mode of expression of feelings.

Emotional self-sufficiency – independence from the approval or validation of others, freeing yourself from feeling MIL has to like you.

Fantasy – using imagination and day dreaming to posit a more hopeful future (someone getting rejected for a job imagining the day they land their ideal position)

Forgiveness – letting go of resentment, indignation or anger aroused by a perceived offence and no longer demanding recompense or restitution after appropriate grieving and acknowledgement of the hurt.

Gratitude – feeling thankful for the range of people and events in one’s life who don’t cause problems.

Humility – full consideration of one’s own faults and attributes leading to a humble self opinion, you’re not perfect either.

Humour – expressing ideas and feelings in humorous ways to lessen distress.

Identification – modelling one’s self upon the character or behaviour of another (what would Jesus do?).

Mercy – compassionate action when in a powerful position. Believe it or not you are in a powerful position w.r.t. MIL, you control access to the grandchildren and ease of access to her adult child.

Mindfullness – staying conscious of oneself and environment in the present moment, suspending judgment, remaining open, curious and accepting. The opposite of this is dissociating or catastrophising.

Moderation – staying within reasonable limits, exercising self-restraint. Both with your own emotions and with what you are prepared to tolerate from MIL or spouse. This is about boundaries inside and out.

Patience – enduring a difficult or unpleasant circumstance for some time before reacting, God knows we’ve all done this to death!

Respect – willingness to show consideration or appreciation, a feeling of regard towards someone’s qualities, and actions and conduct which reflect that regard.

Sublimation – transforming distressing or unacceptable feelings into a more beneficial product or action, aggression into competitive sport, sexuality in dance, grief into art. Or this blog!

Supression – delaying temporarily an emotional response or need until a more suitable time, a mother squashing her own fear when a child falls from a tree to attend to the child. Not shouting at spouse for siding with their mother but waiting to express your annoyance later when she isn’t around.

Tolerance – deliberately allowing or permitting something which one disapproves of. Your in-laws way of doing Christmas lunch for example.

Level III – Neurotic Defences

Fairly common in adults. Help in the short term to deal with distress but unhelpful if used over the long term, disrupting relationships, work and socialising.

Displacement – shifting an uncomfortable emotion or impulse to a safer target (blaming MIL for all your relationship problems because it’s safer than facing how upset you are with your partner)

Dissociation – temporarily mentally separating from the distress, feeling emotionally numb, out of the body or otherwise not there in an distressing situation (it was like I was watching it happen from outside of myself)

Hypochondria – excessive worry about illness

Intellectualisation – focussing on the rational ideas and intellectual components of a situation so as to avoid the emotional distress, separating emotion from ideas

Isolation – separating out the emotional content of an event so the event can be spoken of in a dispassionate way (describing a grisly car accident with no emotional response).

Rationalisation – making excuses, convincing oneself that no harm was done as you had a good reason (but it wasn’t my intention to hurt so I’m not responsible).

Reaction formation – turning one unconscious and unacceptable thought or feeling into it’s exact opposite, behaving in the opposite way that you really want (a boy struggling with a strong attraction to a girl pulls her pigtails to upset her, you find yourself offering to take MIL on a shopping trip when you first realise how much you hate her).

Regression – temporarily acting in a more childish and dependent way (you totally suck and I hate you!).

Repression – moving a desire or thought that causes you anxiety as you fear punishment for it into the unconscious until you are no longer conscious of the thought or desire but some emotional memory of it lingers (feeling uncomfortable around a rarely seen family member but not remembering what first made you feel that way).

Undoing – trying to undo a threatening or unacceptable thought or feeling by consciously acting in the reverse way to atone or reduce one’s feelings of guilt (being nice to someone you had bad thoughts about).

Social comparison – looking to other people who are seen as worse off in order to distance oneself from similarities with that person/group and to make oneself feel better (well at least I’m not like that Jane Doe).

Withdrawl – avoiding or removing oneself from situations, places and events to stop being reminded of painful thoughts or feelings (I just can’t go back there after what happened). Not the same as planning to avoid situations where you know you will be verbally or emotionally abused (like with MIL), that is sensible.

OK let’s take a breather at this point, before it gets mad, bad and dangerous below. The mature and neurotic defences above are ways people adapt to the occasional awkward or distressing event. The word distressing in this psychoanalytical context doesn’t have to mean reduced to tears sobbing (although it could, loosing your beloved dog in an accident would provoke several of these defences) we could just be talking about how someone tries to play one-upmanship on you in a social conversation, or you became the butt of a joke at work.  BUT and it’s a big but, we are not talking about adaptations and reactions to severe trauma or prolonged abusive scenarios. Nor are we talking about the quite sensible precautions which anyone should take to protect themselves from a known toxic person or situation.

I am not suggesting we should suddenly apply for the Sainthood and start serenely forgiving our MILs, volunteering at the local homeless shelter  and practicing some New Age gratitude practice every morning in an effort to deal with her dysfunction. No no nopety nope. In fact behaving this way would be a defence mechanism, but not the mature ones listed above. This sort of behaviour is a mixture of denial, repression and fantasy. You do not have to forgive people, be endlessly patient or altruistic to be maturely dealing with someone difficult. You can use humour, anticipation and courage when dealing with her, or whatever. And no one expects you to respond with a “mature” defence each and every time. Notice how it says that neurotic defences are helpful in short term acute scenarios.

There is an insidious tendency in self-development books and blogs towards premature forgiveness and gratitude meditations as if it was healthy or even possible for someone to just put aside whatever has wounded them. This is nonsense and has its roots in a bastardisation of the ideas of the Law of Attraction. The healthiest thing to do when wounded is fully feel wounded and acknowledge what is going on inside you. Sit with it, feel it, breathe through it and past it. Premature forgiveness or ignoring hurt and replacing it in your mind with forced thoughts of your blessings is not going to allow you to move beyond those feelings. Grief, disappointment, anger and sadness are normal responses to abusive people. Once you have felt your feelings and fully respected them then you can choose how to respond.

The following two lists of ways to respond are not ones you would want to choose on a regular basis. Bet you’ll never guess where my MIL’s most commonly used reactions lie? Oh you did guess…yeah in these two lists.

Level II – Immature defences

All adults act in these ways occasionally. Habitually acting in these ways makes a person difficult to deal with and the person themselves will find reality difficult to cope with. Taken to an excessive level they are found in mental illnesses like severe depression and personality disorders.

Acting out – an unconscious desire or impulse turned into action which the person isn’t consciously in control of and is unaware of the emotion which triggered it, self-harm is an example (I don’t know why I did that!)

Autistic or Schizoid Fantasy – habitually retreating into fantasy and daydreaming as a way to resolve inner and outer conflicts. This includes retreating into role play and computer games, where the retreat includes non-communication and social isolation.

Idealization – putting someone on a pedestal (my mother is such a good person, she’d never do that)

Introjection – unconsciously taking the qualities and attributes of an idea or person fully into oneself because these qualities help deal with reality (finding yourself speaking with your mother’s voice saying the exact phrase she would say, adopting the behaviour of an aggressive peer thereby reducing threat to oneself. Very common between parents and children who absorb their values)

Passive Aggression – feelings of aggression towards another person expressed in indirect or passive ways (it was an honest mistake! I just forgot to post it)

Projection – attributing one’s own unacceptable and unwanted thoughts and feelings onto another person or group so that the other person/group actually seems to have those thoughts and feelings themselves (I saw you looking at him all flirtatiously – when you were eyeing up an attractive woman moments before). Includes prejudices like misogyny, racism and homophobia, jealousy, hyper vigilance to external dangers and injustice collecting (look at all the ways I’ve been wronged).

Somatization – transformation of uncomfortable feelings into actual physical sensations of pain, sickness and anxiety (I’m not upset about what my mother said, I just have a headache. I feel sick I am so nervous.)

Wishful thinking – acting as if the most pleasing outcome was guaranteed to happen while not paying due attention to facts (oh it’ll be fine – she’s been so much better the last few months).

Level I – Severely pathological defence mechanisms.

These defences are designed to distort and rearrange the external experiences the person is having so the person no longer has to cope with reality. The mind distorts reality into something easier for the person to deal with. These frequently appear irrational or insane to people observing them in adults but they occur as a normal stage of development in children.

Conversion or hysteria – mental or emotional distress transformed into a physical symptom like blindness, deafness, paralysis, numbness.

Delusional Projection – false beliefs about reality and the trustworthiness of people usually of a persecutory nature (e.g. so and so is out to get me, society has set it up so men like me always fail, its a conspiracy of feminazis and the Illumati, people cannot ever be trusted)

Denial – refusal to accept reality because it is too threatening (she is not leaving me), arguing that a threat to the ego doesn’t exist at all (you’re wrong, he is not cheating on me), refusing to see or accept unpleasant aspects of reality (my mother is not narcissistic) despite evidence to the contrary.

Distortion – a gross reshaping of reality to meet the ego’s needs (He didn’t leave me, I let him go because it was better for him, he has such a fragile mental state, I know I have hoarded 20,000 plastic bags but they will be useful one day)

Extreme projection – the blatant denial of a moral or character trait which is instead seen as a problem for some other person or group (Homosexuality is a disgusting sin, says the preacher who is secretly gay.  Seen in children, one child holding a broken object points the finger at another and says “they did it!”)

Splitting – the unconscious splitting off of characteristics of a person or group into “good” and “bad”  because the immature ego can’t hold the whole person/group in their mind in one go. Can also happen within a person who splits off the “good” from the “bad” parts of themselves as they are unable to hold a complete picture of themselves as having both polarities. One side of the polarity is then adopted as true and any evidence supporting the other side is rejected (The teacher can’t be praising me because I am a bad kid. Favouritism in children/grandchildren Little Johnny is an awful liar and thief, Little Jane is so precious and kind).

Well  that’s rather a lot to take in all in one go! Do digest it at your own leisure. It certainly has given me a real insight into how well I am coping with certain situations as I can spot my own less helpful defences more readily now.

Dear old MIL does all of the pathological defences, I think now is the time for one of those more mature responses, a little humour maybe…

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Filed under Denial, emotions, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, Understanding narcissism

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

Grandparent Grooming 2 – how to fight it

(Part 2 of a two part post on the psychological grooming of children by a narcissistic grandmother.)

If you are having problems with a narcissistic grandmother wheedling her insidious way into your child’s affections you need to not just understand how it is happening but what to do to counteract it. The fight back begins not by pointing the finger at your messed up mother-in-law but by taking a look at the climate she has created around the child, in the family as a whole. What has been done that has allowed this to occur? Tackle this and she is powerless forever.

So what has happened to create this grooming situation between NPD MIL and your child? I found this snippet on a online message board for people with PTSD resulting from abuse. The writer refers to an Oprah Winfrey episode where Oprah talks to child abusers in a recovery program about how they groomed kids.

“The perps identify these [the easily groomed] as people who trust easily (give it straight away rather than someone earning it – like a small child does naturally/healthily) and people who have had questionable models of ‘to what extent an individual is responsible for their own behaviour’…

…The molesters talk about recognising as molesters that kids who are in a family where denial is a central approach to issues display the type of neglect that makes the child especially vulnerable to abuse.”

Just to clarify the main points: the victims trust easily (they are not equipped to spot and call out untrustworthy or abusive behaviour in people), they have been exposed to people who do not and are not made to take responsibility for their actions and their family operates a pattern of denial of problems rather than openly discussing them.

This triad of features which increase vulnerability to grooming and abuse are all found in families with narcissists. Even the adult children of narcissists are crap at identifying unhealthy behaviour in others. That internal barometer which allows us all to gauge the appropriateness of someone’s behaviour has been meddled with if your mum is a narcissist. The adult child of a NPD MIL will see abusive and untrustworthy behaviour as normal. They do not get red flags flying up in their faces the same way that an adult with a healthy mum would. They can pass this unnatural leniency onto their kids. If dad or mum accept grandma being rude, obnoxious and needy then the kids will grow up seeing that as normal and not the warning signs of a jerk. This leads to condition 1

1: The kids are vulnerable to grooming if they don’t recognise poor/abusive/controlling/manipulative behaviour.

All narcissists refuse to take responsibility for their actions, they blame everyone else because their mental model cannot encompass the possibility of them being flawed. If they act badly it is always because someone else made them and it wasn’t their fault. If mum or dad doesn’t challenge this or worse, reproduces this behaviour in the home the kids will not have a good idea of when people are responsible for their actions (i.e. all the time!) Instead they will think bad behaviour can be excused and explained away by saying someone else provoked it and thus we get condition 2

2: Kids are vulnerable to grooming if they can be persuaded that they caused or encouraged the behaviour by an adult who won’t take responsibility.

Finally there exists the blanket of denial in narcissistic families. I’ve talked about this before in an blog post. Denial that the grandmother has a problem is very common in narcissistic families. Refusing to question or challenge her behaviour is denial, accepting her interpretation of situations and siding with her is denial, refusing to consider that her behaviour is hurting people or damaging is denial. You get the idea. Denial is rampant because without it she could not continue to operate. If everyone saw her behaviour for what it is, talked about it and the hurt it causes openly and held her fully accountable she wouldn’t have a hold on anyone. So lastly the third condition for grooming can be met in a narcissistic family,

3: Kids are vulnerable to grooming if they live in a family where weird, shitty behaviour is never acknowledged and everyone continues to act as if nothing happened and no one talks about how much it hurts.

Grasping the three conditions that make a child vulnerable to this manipulation is the key to preventing and undoing grooming:

1) teach the child that trust is earned and what trustworthy behaviour looks like (i.e. NOT grooming, secret keeping, threats, manipulation etc)

2) teach the child that everyone is responsible for their own actions (no one “makes” another person do or feel anything)

3) confront as a family the blanket of denial (not talking about it, not even admitting it) around the dysfunctional behaviour of their grandparent.

If this is done there is no way granny can weave her web around a child. It is all out in the open and discussed, healthy behaviour is understood and modelled and thus the grandparents unhealthy actions become obvious, even to a child.

Tackling the triad of grooming vulnerability

The reason small children automatically trust others is because they lack a full theory of mind. They project outwards onto others the motivations and interpretations they feel themselves and assume everyone else must be like that too. Thus if they are not able to think of acting deviously or selfishly then they will not be able to conceive of it in others. It is no coincidence that children start manipulating their parents at the same time as they develop the cognitive ability to see others and their feelings as separate. Grandma unfortunately never developed much beyond that point! A child cannot fully grasp how manipulative and devious another person can be until adolescence.

How do you tackle a child’s natural and healthy trust in others? There are books you can buy (on Amazon etc) which talk about the possibilities that others do not always mean well, “Not Everyone is Nice: Helping Children Learn Caution With Strangers” by Frederick Alimonti and Ann Tedesco is a good example. The child in the book is being spoken to by a stranger who offers her sweets and a ride home when her mum spots it and intervenes just in time. Then the family get home and look through an animal picture book and talk about how some creatures look nice, but are dangerous or poisonous and so some people can seem nice but not be.  That is your starting point. If you suspect grandma has been doing certain things like gossiping or secret keeping with the child bring that up in the conversation as an example without naming her. Does the child think that is nice? Is it trustworthy?

Now you have their attention start to discuss the differences between doing something genuinely nice and doing a nice thing in order to win affections. Children understand this if you use friendship groups as an example. Can a mean kid win friends by handing out sweets? Can a new girl act friendly towards someone but then start turning them against their old friends? What about new neighbours, are they asking you round for drinks to be nice, or just so they can borrow your lawnmower? What about arguments between cousins or aunties where people try to win allies by being “nice” to others? They need to see that anyone can behave that way in any number of situations. You need to say you are worried this may be happening in your family.  It may be that NPD grandma is not trying to divide and conquer but is overly enmeshed with the grandchild. Then the conversation needs to be around what is reasonable contact with a grandparent.

Traditional fairy stories like the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson provide ample examples of poor decisions by parents and grandparents to start a conversation. Hansel and Gretel for example, seemingly nice old lady rescues children from weak father and evil stepmother. But she has an evil plan, to eat them. Clever children spot it and escape, father rebuilds his relationship with them. It’s a bit too much like a NPD grandmother treating and buying her grandkids affections isn’t it? These sorts of stories can start a conversation on who is responsible for what. Is the weak father responsible for leaving the children in the forest or did his new wife “make” him do it? Did the children deserve to be eaten for scoffing some of the gingerbread house?

Teaching children responsibility goes way beyond talking about stories and their relationship with grandma. The clear allocation of responsibility needs to be there in all sorts of ways. It is so easy to say “Little Johnny stop winding your brother up, if he thumps you it’ll be your fault” . Been there, said that. But that’s wrong, no one is making Little Johnny thump his brother, he can always walk away. Responsibility for actions needs to be modelled every day in the family. Dad can’t accuse the kids of making him loose his temper. It is so easy to fall into that way of speaking, especially in a family with a narcissist. Be on your guard for this sort of thing and call it out when you hear it. Correct yourself in front of the kids if necessary and they will follow your lead.

Another useful book is “The Huge Bag of Worries” by Virginia Ironside where a kindly lady helps a young girl unpack all the worries she is feeling and lugging around in a huge bag. Grandma’s behaviour and your reactions to it may well be causing worries in your child and this can then be talked about. You can get packs of feelings cards with different faces and characters on them which always get my kids talking about how they feel in different situations. If your child is upset about not seeing granny so much you need to work through a conversation where you ask and listen about why they feel that way. How do they feel, why do they feel it? What does granny do to make them feel good? Do they feel worried about granny if so why? How do they feel about mum and dad, why? Do they think mum and dad have been/are being mean to granny?

Once the child has been listened to and you have asked questions which probe around the topic of what has been going on with granny etc you need to explain what you are doing by setting new ground rules around contact with MIL. Explaining to your child is respectful, it will help heal any division your MIL has been creating. You do not have to explain to MIL. You are not asking for the child’s agreement either. Children feel most secure when the adults caring for them have firm and fair expectations which are reinforced reasonably. You are their rock. A dithery, indecisive parent who backs down or backs away from setting rules and expectations with anyone unsettles children and leaves room for a stronger willed person to step in and take over; cue the NPD MIL.

To explain what you are doing and why, you need to explain that their grandmother doesn’t behave normally. This strips the last layer of vulnerability away, the denial of the problem. What can you say? Some people are treated badly as children, some people don’t grow up like others, as a result they don’t know how to be understanding and kind. They don’t seem different on the outside but inside they think very differently. This shows in how they act. They treat people like toys. They can be very attentive and affectionate like a child with a brand new toy they won’t let go of, but this is not love this is excitement at having a thing to play with. They don’t ask the toy what they want, toys can’t think. They don’t ask or much care about what people want as they don’t believe other people really have proper feeling or thoughts either. Just like a spoilt child gets tired of toys and throws them away these people will end up using and badly hurting anyone who trusts them. Grandma has this problem. You want to keep the child safe from hurt in the future even though grandma seems fun now. She has hurt many other people in the past (give examples). You don’t trust her and you keep her at arms length (describe low contact, medium chill or whatever you do) so you need to protect the child until they are old enough to see the behaviour and protect themselves. Grandma will always be this way, it cannot get fixed. Part of the problem is that she believes she is always right. She is not a safe person. She is like the old woman in Hansel and Gretel. Don’t eat the gingerbread.

If your spouse is not in agreement that their mother’s behaviour is that much of a problem do all of this anyway. You are allowed to have a different view and they are your kids too. Your first responsibility is to their safety not to uphold your spouses’ family’s world view. This is hard, I know that. Divided loyalties are horrible and conflicting. Your spouse does not see the situation clearly and you don’t wish to hurt them and cause strife, but here is an opportunity to model taking responsibility. Your spouse cannot make you stay silent on this, you choose to. If you are concerned about your children being brainwashed by your MIL you need to take action. Hansel and Gretel would not have ended up at the wicked witch’s cottage is their parent hadn’t left them alone in the forest in the first place. Don’t be that parent.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Denial, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, Manipulations, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL

Are We Enablers?

Don’t Upset Your Father

I was reading an article on Huffington Post about enabling in families with an addict. I occasionally look at these sorts of articles as my father had a drink problem when I was a kid and even after my mother’s ultimatum led to him not getting drunk in the pub every evening he spent many years acting as a dry drunk. My mother’s words “don’t upset your father (in case he starts drinking)” became the mantra of my childhood. My mother enabled by which I mean she did certain things which protected my father from the consequences of his behaviour and from the realities of everyday life. Thus cocooned and cushioned from possible antagonism, however slight, and from the hurt he caused others, his poor behaviour was never confronted and so never changed.

This got me thinking about families with personality disorders. I’m certainly not the first person to point out the patterns of dysfunctional behaviour that occur in families with alcoholics map across to families with personality disorders. Robert J. Ackerman one of the founding fathers of the adult child of alcoholics movement points this out in his book “Perfect Daughters: Adult Daughters of Alcoholics”. How do we enable the dysfunctional behaviour of our mothers-in-law? How do we enable our partners’ dysfunctional relationship with their families? And the really REALLY interesting question, why, damn it people, WHY do we enable it?

What Enabling Looks Like

I have pinched this from the Huff Post article and modified it to describe disordered rather than addictive behaviour.

1. Do you avoid potential problems by trying to keep the peace? Do you do whatever you can to avoid conflict?

2. Are you in denial about your loved one being disordered? Do you think his or her behavioural problems are just a phase and aren’t anything to be concerned about?

3. Do you minimize the situation? Do you think the problem will get better later?

4. Do you lecture, blame or criticize the disordered person?

5. Do you take over the responsibilities of the disordered person? Do you cover for and pick up his or her slack to minimize the negative consequences? Do you repeatedly come to the rescue — soothing over hurt feelings with others, managing social events to suite them etc?

6. Do you try to protect your disordered loved one from pain?

7. Do you allow them to treat you like a child? Do you enjoy being taken care of? Do you allow them to financially support you, even though you are an adult?

8. Do you try to control the disordered person? Do you allow them to control you?

9. Are you good at just enduring? Do you often think, this too shall pass?

10. Do you give him/her one more chance … and then another … and just one more?

11. Do you join him/her or overlook dangerous or abusive behaviour, even when you know he or she has a problem?

Reading through this made me think not about my mother-in-law so much as how I accommodated my husband’s family system including his way of behaving around her. I can hold my hands up to 8 out of 11 of these enabling behaviours with regard to my husband’s relationship with his mother and its effects on me and 5 out of 11 with my MIL directly. Ugh. I feel myself recoiling with a shudder from that realisation. I really was trying hard to do the best thing, so I thought, with a woman who I didn’t realise was disordered. I thought she was normal and a lot of the leeway I gave her was on the assumption that she would respond as a normal person would.

Then the beautiful light of reason broke across my cerebellum and I realised she would never change, it wasn’t me at all, she is a messed up bitch and my husband’s denial about her and compliance with her behaviour was the real problem in my life. Sigh, I can feel the weight of it all lift from my shoulders as I type that. I want to slap my younger self for not seeing it sooner but you can’t condemn yourself for what you didn’t know before you knew it.

But Why, WHY?

That knotty question. Why did I allow this to happen. I could have stepped in the first time I met her and saw her behaviour and robustly stood up to it from then on. But I didn’t. Neither did you I suppose. A lot of the readers to this blog describe how they tried to make things work, were baffled by the behaviour they saw, assumed it would change as the MIL got to know them etc. All of these are perfectly reasonable responses, for a limited time. But that time went on, and second chances became third, then fourth. That is the troublesome bit. It doesn’t fit with how I behave in other areas of my life. It doesn’t fit with how I see myself. What could be so powerful it would make me act not like myself?

Ah yes, years of being conditioned to keep the peace for my father and do whatever he needed to feel most comfortable became all to easily a pattern of doing whatever my husband and by extension his family needed to keep the peace and feel most comfortable and that meant playing along with their fucked up family system and not challenging my husband on it. A pattern so ingrained in me I did it without even realising it.

This is a hard, bitter realisation. Each of us reading this blog has in some way enabled our MIL’s behaviour until it got too much and we started to look for help and answers. We did this partly out of social conditioning and politeness, partly out of not wishing to bring conflict into our romantic relationship and I make the bold assertion that for a lot of us partly because we have been conditioned in our own families in a way that let it happen. Don’t start fights, don’t make a fuss, wo/men know best,  s/he’ll leave if you cause a fuss, don’t put your needs first, don’t speak out.

I read the most fascinating account of an exercise done with every new intake on a psychology course. It is found in the book “Families and How to Survive Them” by Robin Skynner and John Clease. The students are assembled and left to socialise for a while in a room then the course instructors arrive and ask people to come together in small groups with people they feel comfortable with. The students are then instructed to reveal their family backgrounds to each other. And Holy Shit if all the adopted kids don’t find each other, the ones with divorced parents pair off, the single parent families all end up together, the addicted/disordered offspring are happily grouped up. They do this exercise every year and the same thing happens every year. The point for the students is to show how the unconscious patterns we absorb as children make us most comfortable with people with similar unconscious patterns. And spookily we can find these similar people in a crowd.

My friendship group includes a woman from an abusive family in China, a woman who grew up with a chronically depressed and frequently hospitalised father, a woman with a histrionic controlling mother, a woman whose parents left her in India as a child with grandparents then divorced and moved her to Europe, a woman whose mother raised her and her sister single handedly, a husband with a narcissist for a mother, my daughter’s godfather married into a personality disordered family and had his MIL try to take custody of his child after his wife died, my sister’s husband likewise has a disordered family. I take it for granted that anyone I get on well with will have some serious disruption in their family background. This is not coincidence. I am far far more likely to befriend someone with a disordered parent than the statistical prevalence of such people in the general population. It’s like we can smell each other out.

You smelt out your partner’s family. I am prepared to bet big money on your family system being partly responsible for your difficulties in dealing with their family system. That is what makes tackling the MIL so hard. To do it effectively you have to tackle your own demons, your family demons as well. You got sucked into a situation that resonated with your deepest most conditioned behaviours from childhood and on some level she knows that and plays on it. If your feeling a bit queasy right now join the club. Three things have to change to get out of the grip of the MIL; first change yourself, second change your relationship with your partner, third change your relationship with the MIL. All three mesh together and you can’t change one without the others shifting too.

I’ve talked on this blog about the problems we have with our MILs, what their disordered behaviour looks like and where it comes from. I’ve talked a bit about our relationships with spouses who are enmeshed with these women. Let’s face up to the fact we need to talk about what’s going on inside ourselves that allowed this stuff to happen around us. And then let’s stop it. Stop enabling the whole horrible mess.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Denial, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, family roles, Manipulations, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother

Denial and the Cassandra Complex

It has taken me quite a while to get this post up on here. I started writing it two weeks ago and then sat on it. I could tell you this was because my sister got married and we were busy with the house sale and people came to visit and we visited people all of which would be true, but these are not the reasons I didn’t post it. I have struggled with this post because I am struggling with this issue. It was all a bit too close to home and I had to wait until the emotions it woke within me were more manageable before I could write this down. So here it is, and I’ll start with a declaration. I am Cassandra.

Mythology and Archetypes

Cassandra had a hard life. She was a princess in Greek mythology, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, the same Troy that was attacked and destroyed by the Greeks to avenge the abduction of the beautiful Helen by Cassandra’s brother Paris. Cassandra was a priestess in the temple of Apollo, she devoted her life to the proper worship and respect of the Gods. Apollo saw her in his temple and was overcome by her beauty. He gave her the gift of prophecy which would have been highly desirable in a priestess as Greeks consulted oracles to help guide their decisions, but then he wanted to have sex with her. She refused as all priestesses are obliged to remain virgins, and he cursed her gift so no one would believe the prophecies she made.

Cassandra proclaimed her visions, but her family and the people of Troy thought she was mad and a liar. She saw in her prophetic visions everything that came to pass regarding the destruction of Troy, when Helen came to Troy Cassandra tore at her golden veil and her hair in fury at what Helen would do to her home city. Repeatedly misunderstood, ridiculed and insulted her tale did not end well, she was brutally raped by Ajax, one of the Greek warriors who sacked Troy, in a temple to the Goddess Athena who viciously punished the Greeks by sinking many of their boats as they returned from the war. Eventually she was taken as a concubine by King Agamemnon, before being murdered with him by the king’s adulterous wife and her lover.

So what exactly does this have to do with you and your dysfunctional mother-in-law? Cassandra is an archetype, a mythological character whose story reveals truths we can relate to. Her experience of telling the truth and being disbelieved is common to anyone who lives with a spouse in denial and a disordered mother-in-law.

The branch of psychoanalysis developed by C.G. Jung emphasises the repeating patterns found in stories from all around the world. There are many commonalities between the main characters in legends from many differing cultures. Jung made the obvious point that there seems to be a common mythology which everyone on the planet shares. Then he went a step further a postulated that this is because we all have a shared unconscious set of symbols, characters and tales which we can all relate too. These symbols and archetypal characters appear in dreams as well as myths and legends and are a way our minds have developed to try and articulate what is going on in the subconscious and unconscious of our individual minds. Spookily it also describes the subconscious and unconscious of our collective human mind, the collective unconscious.

The stories told around firesides for millennia tell us fundamental truths about our psyches. The characters we encounter in myths and legends are exaggerated versions of ourselves and the people we meet. Their trials are our trials. By seeing with whom we identify in mythology we can glimpse a part of our unconscious motivations and find ways to express our repressed emotions. I identify with Cassandra.

The Cassandra Complex

The term Cassandra Complex is used to describe a situation where valid warnings are dismissed or disbelieved. Within psychology the term is applied to individuals who are experiencing a real (not imagined) situation which is causing them great distress and emotional pain but who are disbelieved when they try to explain what is the source of their distress. These poor people end up feeling their concerns and pain are being ignored. Sound familiar?

Over and over I hinted, suggested and implied that maybe there was something not quite right about how my husband’s mother behaves. I was dismissed. My suggestions were batted away as misunderstandings and mistakes. Then I became bolder, I spelled out how she had been hurtful, how I was excluded, how I disliked being in her company and the stress it caused. This was met with surprise, astonishment even. What I described wasn’t what he had seen. He hadn’t noticed the snidey remarks, the deliberate exclusions, the dismissive and derogatory comments. I grew bolder still, like Cassandra wrenching at Helen’s clothes I called it out, your mother is ill, she shows every sign of having a serious behavioural disorder, she is not normal. Again I was not believed, my warnings were dismissed. I am living the Cassandra Complex.

Valid warnings are ignored when the person giving the warnings is surrounded by others who cannot or do not want to see their truth. People who have been brainwashed or indoctrinated into accepting something as normal when in fact it is no such thing cannot see what is evident to you/Cassandra. People in denial do not want to see what is clear as the nose on your face. Your spouse most likely has both brainwashing and denial operating to render them blind to what you see so clearly. So this is the Big One – you see a very disordered woman with a very dysfunctional family set up and tell it like you see it and no one believes you. If you say what you see, “Your mother is weird/crazy/horrible/evil!”, your spouse’s reply is “No she’s not you are mad/a liar”.

There are other smaller ways in which I am Cassandra as my husband denies things I can plainly see. These play out like minor battles in the siege of Troy that is our family life with the Trojan Horse MIL in our midst. He is very unconscious of his own feelings and can act in a way that quite obviously shows me he is angry with me but he will out right deny this when asked. Days later however, he may be able to say that he had been angry at that time. It does take days, even weeks sometimes. It took him two years to admit he felt anger towards me for having post natal depression after our second child was born. Two years of constant denial whenever I suggested that maybe he felt angry with me and blamed me for not being there for him. Now, finally he tentatively speaks of this. What is the effect of having your observations and reality constantly denied by the people around you?

Living with the Cassandra Complex

Let’s explore the effect of having your perceptions and insights dismissed over and over again by the one person you are most emotionally intimate with. What is it like to be Cassandra? In the myths she went insane. Nice. Fortunately myths and legends can be taken metaphorically not literally. At the very least this suggests that repeated denial of your reality leads to a lot of emotional turmoil and a reduction in your sense of who you are. Going insane would be total collapse of who you were.

One seemingly unrelated area of psychology – the field of autism – has thrown up an interesting and very useful concept. They even use the phrase Cassandra Syndrome to describe it. This is when a person marries someone with an undiagnosed autistic spectrum disorder. The spouse may well be holding down a good job and having a social life but there is something about their behaviour which is just, well, not normal. Tentatively the neuro-typical partner starts to point this out to people and ask questions in the family and amongst friends and, you guessed it, is disbelieved. This leads to a whole host of problems including depression, sleep problems, lethargy, social withdrawl, anxiety, loss of libido and mood changes. Some researchers have gone as far as to call it affective deprivation disorder, meaning a disorder experienced as the result of having a lack of emotional mirroring and closeness with your life partner. Wow, this is exactly what living with constant denial is like.

What happens is that doubt starts to creep in. Doubt about your conclusions regarding the witchy-woo mother-in-law and doubt about your perceptions. You would begin to question if you really had seen or heard what you thought you had. You would begin to doubt the conclusions and assumptions you had made about other relationships with other people for surely if you are so wrong in this case you may be wrong in others. You would begin to doubt yourself. Maybe you are the one with the problem. If your spouse says there is no problem with his mother, your sister or brother in law says no, the father in law says no and they have lived with her for years then surely you must be the one in the wrong.

To doubt yourself, the truth of your senses, your deductions, your very capacity to deduce correctly, this is what happens when faced with such outright denial of your observations. You are robbed of your very essence, your security in your own perception of the world. This is ghastly and damaging.

Alice Miller is a psychotherapist who works intensely in the area of allowing people to uncover the cruelties and pain of their childhoods. She says the central need of every human being is to express themselves and show themselves to the world as they truly are. Then comes the related and just as important need to have someone treat that true and honest expression with respect, to take it seriously and try to understand you with empathy. This is not happening when your spouse denies your perception of your MIL’s behaviour.

So how can you cope with this situation? One route to coping with this is to give in and stop saying anything about the MIL, effectively to collude in the spouse’s denial. If this was the route you had adopted you would not be reading this blog because you would choose to adopt the viewpoint of your spouse in denial and regard your MIL as normal but a bit difficult maybe (but you’d only say that in a really quiet voice). Cassandra did not do this, even when incarcerated in a jail she continued saying what she saw and never once took on the views of the townspeople that she was wrong. That should be a lesson to us.

Your spouse doesn’t have to agree with your reality, but to repeatedly deny your reality as you see it is abusive. Hold fast Cassandras. Your version of reality is completely valid and you can, you must express it. Do not loose yourself amidst all the crazy-making behaviour of your spouse’s family. To give in or start to doubt yourself will lead down the line to some pretty serious self-disgust.

When finally you realise that you were right all this time and that you have been blindsided by your spouse’s denial of the truth, you will feel anger. It will rise up from the root of your being as it is that very root that has been attacked. You will be furious and indignant. I-told-you-so doesn’t come close to the geyser of outrage that will boil up. The more dismissive your partner the more angry you will feel. Anger is a life-saving emotion. It spills out not only when you are in physical danger but to protect and defend your psychological integrity from attack. Get angry. You self is worth defending.

But under this rage at the doubters and deniers will be anger at yourself, for having doubted yourself. How, your true self will howl, could you have believed even for a second that you were wrong? Hot angry tears at having rejected your own gut feelings, your instincts and your conclusions will spring in your eyes. You may well feel very ashamed of yourself. It is one thing to have others doubt you but something else entirely to doubt yourself. We do not have to go down this route.

Dealing effectively with the Cassandra Complex involves setting boundaries and respecting differences. You do not have to share a world view with your spouse. He likes coffee, you drink tea, so be it. In a disordered family everyone is expected to agree with the disordered person’s world view, there are no boundaries or respect for differences. Your spouse is going to bring that level of enmeshment into your relationship and will naturally expect you to mesh into his or her family way. Resist. Your boundary is around your  mind. You can think whatever you want and  you can come to whatever conclusion you want even if that conclusion is starkly at odds with your spouse, their father, sister, brother, second cousin twice removed or whoever.

Verbally express your view “I found your mother’s behaviour really abnormal and rude today” and hold the boundary when they reply “No it wasn’t, you are so unfair on her!” get’s met with “I am entitled to any opinion I want, and to express it. If you continue to deny that right this conversation will end”. Alternatives are along this lines of “what I see and hear does not have to match what you see and hear, we are different people” and “what I think and feel does not have to match what you think and feel…”. You will also have to reassure them as this emphasis on difference and the implicit threat of conflict with someone who is holding a different view can be very threatening to a child of an NPD mother. So say something like “our different viewpoints together give us a better overall picture of what is going on” or “it’s healthy and normal to have different perceptions and opinions”. They do actually need to be reminded that you are you and have a whole world in your head which is not the same as theirs because their mother has spent years trying to force her world into their heads in total disregard for their own thoughts and feelings. They will do the same just because they don’t know any better. They need to know that differences in relationships are desirable, not to be erased.

Remember denial is all about not facing an unpleasant truth. It is our unpleasant truth to realise that sometimes our partners find it easier to inflict damage upon us through their constant denial than to face up the the mummy-monster and their own fears. We do not have to go insane. Cassandra in another version of the story remained completely sane and held fast in her prophecies in the face of all the doubters and disbelievers. You can do that too.

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

Managing a Narcissistic Grandmother

OK so how do you manage the minefield that is grandchildren interacting with a personality-disordered grandmother? You do need to manage it. You need to recognise that this woman is not normal and you can’t treat her as a normal grandparent. While her behaviour will not be as damaging to your grandchildren as it was to her own children it can cause harm.

Favouritism between siblings must be dealt with firmly. We spelt out that if we thought one child was getting nicer, more expensive or more frequent presents than the other, all presents to everyone ourselves included would be rejected. Equal treatment or no treatment. We would stand together as a family. As my MIL uses gifts as a way of trying to control people or convey messages of worth rejecting all her gifts would be a real kick in the teeth. So she has a choice, not display favouritism through gifts or loose out on being able to manipulate anyone with gifts forever. So far she has chosen to keep gifts to equal value for both children.

Not all favouritism is that obvious however. At Easter an arrangement was made for MIL to meet my husband and daughters in a city half way between our two hometowns. The eldest child became ill and was on antibiotics so plans changed and my husband said he’d just bring the youngest, less favoured child. MIL cancelled the visit. She then proceeded to do a classic bit of psychological projection and attributed all her thoughts to the eldest child, “she will be feeling upset, she will want to see me, it will disappoint her” etc. At no point in any of the conversations around this matter did she mention the younger child, it was as if her other grandchild didn’t exist.

Now my MIL is slippery, she would argue that by cancelling the visit because she couldn’t see the eldest, favoured grandchild she was in fact treating both children equally. So you need to be clever too. Cancelling the trip doesn’t bother me, what bothered me was how she made no reference to the other child at all. That is where the unequal treatment is evident so this is what should be tackled. “We feel upset that you have made no mention of youngest daughter and what she may want in this conversation. Someone listening to this would think you had only one grandchild. Both our children deserve equal recognition”. Equal treatment and equal recognition, you can’t argue with that.

What you do if this request is not complied with to your standards is up to you but there needs to be something done. Not reacting to an infringement of your boundaries is tantamount to not having any in the first place. Shut down any conversation by saying “I’m going to hang up because…” or “I am not continuing this conversation because…” where there continues to be a problem with the way one child is talked about or ignored. There will be some times when one child has won a prize or been in a show when they do warrant some extra recognition but within reason. If MIL is constantly harping on about one child’s achievements spell it out, “goodness you are going on a bit, she’s not won an Oscar”. She will be huffy about that sort of comment, but so what.

The same applies to any manipulation and emotional abuse that you witness, it must not be tolerated, “do not manipulate my child”, “do not criticise my child” call it out and name the behaviour. Your child needs to see you standing up for them. If MIL cannot take the message then she is ejected from your house or you leave hers.

At this point I want to briefly talk about “making a scene” as my mother would phrase it. This was generally regarded as bad thing in our house when I grew up. Now there are several reasons for that, a big factor being that my mother was an immigrant. They were poor, Irish and regarded as second-class citizens in the UK when they arrived. It was important to them, as it is to many immigrant families, to keep their heads down, work hard, not get into debt and generally be accepted in their community. Hence not wanting to “make a scene”.

Many people are brought up believing the best thing to do in a situation is maintain a calm and pleasant manner. This is especially true of women who are still not encouraged to be ballsy and assertive. I remember reading a survey which revealed that most women would stay in a train carriage seated next to a man who was creeping them out rather than get up and move and be thought of as rude. Oh boy. When the majority of women would compromise their own personal safety in order to keep up appearances you can see how many of us just sit and wince but still just sit, while MIL does nasty things to the kids.

For goodness sake stop doing it. Move away from the creepy man in the train, who bloody cares if it looks rude. Get some boundaries in place and stop tolerating your MIL. What is the worst thing she could do, the absolute worst thing, the thing that stops you acting, what is it? Could it be that you will cause such strife and upset with your MIL that your spouse will leave you? That your spouse won’t back you up and you’ll be left trying to stand your ground looking increasingly isolated and ridiculous? That they will assault you?

Will that happen, I mean really happen, if you say something like “we don’t speak to the children like that MIL, it is hurtful please apologise” and then “if you are unable to apologise we would rather you left and came back when you felt able to respect our families rules”? No. You will have been assertive while polite. If your spouse would rather allow the kids to be treated badly, do you really want to be with them? Should their own behaviour be looked at a bit more closely? Parenthood means protecting your children.

Which brings us nicely to babysitting. My rule is MIL is never left alone with the kids. You can decide your own but you need to spell out your expectations regarding her behaviour and your family rules regarding, food, manners, bedtimes etc and also be very clear on what you will do if these are not respected. Do you say no more babysitting or some other sanction?

What if you need the grandmother to babysit so that you can work? Think about it, do you really need someone with a personality disorder to babysit your child; is there no one else more suitable? You get to choose who looks after your children, that is not set by other family members. Any expectation that they will automatically get babysitting rights needs to be quashed early on. If you have not done this already then a simple statement that you have had a rethink regarding childcare and will be starting a different system is all you need to say. Remember don’t justify, argue, defend or explain you decisions, you are an adult and they are your kids.

If your spouse is in denial they may feel their mother has a right to babysit and compare your views on your MIL babysitting with your attitude towards your own parents babysitting. Why should it be one rule for your family and a different one for theirs? A fair question. Give them a straight answer, you don’t want MIL to babysit your child, explain why and insist on it. You don’t think their mother is normal, she is not emotionally safe to be around, you are not having it.

It may be necessary to spell out to your other half that they are not objective about their mother’s behaviour, that they are in denial. If you spouse gets cross, explain your feelings, calmly give examples, don’t get drawn into compromising. If this is a line in the sand for you tell your spouse that. Should you find yourself wavering then that says something about your and your spouse’s relationship. Where is the give and take? You should be able to assert a different opinion and they should be able to make a sacrifice over something that means that much to you. You in turn may need to sacrifice having your mother babysit to keep things fair in your spouse’s eyes, but so be it, hire someone instead.

How much time your children spend with their grandparents will depend upon how much time you and your partner wish to spend in her company. The amount of contact with a personality-disordered parent follows a predictable pattern. Initially no one accepts there is a problem and a high level of contact occurs, all birthdays, high days and holidays with weekend visits thrown in too. Then the problem starts to become more conscious in your and your spouse’s minds. Visits feel strained and fewer occur. Conversation becomes guarded; phone calls are not returned or ignored. Then a decision to lower the level of contact is made openly between the partners. Eventually a decision to cut off all contact may occur.

Denial of the problem leads to attempts to act normally or even try to use the grandchildren to build a bridge to the disordered grandmother. Increasing awareness of the damaging behaviours she exhibits leads to less contact and a conscious decision is made on the amount and type of contact with the MIL. This is inevitable and is the topic of the next post.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Denial, Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, NPD MIL and grandchildren, strategies for managing NPD MIL