Category Archives: How NPD MIL affects a marriage

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

Event Hijacking

What is it about someone else’s Big Day that brings out the worst attention seeking nonsense in my MIL? I know I’m not the only one with this problem. I’ve read so many stories about other people having weddings and birthdays spoiled by their MIL trying to control everything or creating some drama which is all about her on the very day of the celebration.

Looking back I realise I first came across this when I got engaged to my husband-to-be and she did and said nothing. I’ve come to realise that an inappropriate non-reaction is just as hijacking as a stirring up some drama about herself.

Then there was her appalling behaviour at our wedding. She refused to take part in any pre-wedding social events between the two families because her ex-husband, my FIL, would be there. My parents who were hosting were at a loss as to how to explain to my various aunties and uncles, siblings and family friends why the mother of the groom was a no show. In an attempt to get her to take part in some of the proceedings and feel welcome and included my mother exaggerated some difficulties she was having with the flower arrangements at the church and asked my MIL to help. Well it was years before I heard the end of how disorganised and incompetent my mother was and how MIL had saved the day.

MIL did not speak to me once throughout the entire day, no comment on my dress, no welcome to the family, nothing. She did not attempt to introduce herself to my family and friends, there were about 100 people at this wedding and she spoke to maybe 4-5 people in total all of whom were in her immediate family. During the speeches she had arranged to have someone shove a Father Christmas hat on my head and on my husband’s head while he was talking as the wedding was the week before Christmas. Never mind it had taken 1 hour to do my hair that morning or that embarrassing the bride and groom in front of an entire roomful of people is very wrong. She sat with her two sisters in their own secluded area outside the main hall where the party was all night and didn’t dance or socialise, they all got drunk instead.

Similar things happened at other events large and small. I passed my driving test late in life and everyone sent a card with congratulation, except her. Throughout my first pregnancy she refused to discuss the anticipated baby or share in any excitement in case it died and she should be upset by that. She refused to hold the baby the first time she saw her, complaining how tired and stressed she was from having to drive all the way to see her! Actually refused to hold her first grandchild in order to keep the attention on her not the baby. Mind boggling.

Birthdays and christenings follow the same pattern, she arrived at her granddaughter’s second birthday with a folder full of printed out lists of my husband’s old toys, books and possessions and proceeded to talk him through the list for twenty minutes, ignoring the toddler who’s birthday it was while my parents and siblings sat open mouthed in disbelief. She didn’t even bother to turn up to the second child’s christening and left everyone wondering if she had been injured in an accident throughout the church service. No she was sat in a carpark and decided being in the same room as her ex was too much. This is the mild-mannered, introverted academic she verbally and emotionally abused for years before leaving him. She didn’t call, didn’t text, just screwed up the child’s christening gift and shoved it through our letter box. She then concocted a lie about how it was the fault of the clock in her car telling her the wrong time before weeks later admitting she did it to avoid my FIL.

All these behaviours point towards two things I think. First my MIL seems to want to downplay any attention other people may get by ignoring or minimising another person’s legitimate right to attention around special days and events. She does this by pretending it’s not happening or by ignoring the person on the day. Secondly she creates dramatic and sympathy-seeking situations on other people’s big days to make sure she gets a lot of attention instead. Sometimes her drama is around taking control of things and insisting they be done her way creating friction so she can get attention from disputes, sometimes she plays oh-poor-me, sometimes she deliberately times things to coincide with important days.

A good example of the last case was the night before my first child started school, my husband had a big job interview and I was due back to work for the first time after our second child was born. It was going to be a really stressful few days with a lot of getting used to new routines. She knew this as she had spoken with my husband several times over the proceeding fortnight. The night before she rang up to say she was being wheeled into an operating theatre to have surgery on her ankle which she had broken two weeks before and had said nothing about it until that precise moment. For absolute maximum effect all round.

Why do narcissistic people play these games?

A therapist explained it to me once as a form of need panic. Imagine you feel a bit peckish and go to see what might be available in the fridge for later. The fridge however has nothing but a wilted lettuce leaf and a hard lump of cheese. At this point some people suddenly feel even more hungry. The lack of food, even though they don’t need it right then, sparks concern and a desire to get the food straight away in case it’s not there when you do really need it. Narcissists have a need for emotional feeding, their narcissistic supply which is as ferocious inside them as hunger is to a normal person. And just like hunger it crops up several times a day, all day, everyday. People who are extremely narcissistic need almost every single encounter they have with another person to go their way, they are addicted to the supply of attention and approval.

For a long time I underestimated quite how strong the narcissists need for supply actually is. They not only need it right here, right now but they panic if they anticipate that the need may not be met in the future due to some circumstance like another person’s wedding or birthday. That’s why these events result in worse than normal behaviour from NPD MIL. What seems to go through their head is “but what about me? what about MEEEE!!! I need you to notice me not be distracted by THAT!”. They even get angry if they hear you talking about the event that is not all about them.

The closest I have come to understanding it was watching my 4 year old daughter have a bit of a meltdown and refuse to take part in party games at her older sister’s birthday. All the attention on the other sibling, her friends round for tea, lots of gifts got too much and the little sister burst into tears and flopped down in a corner. That is age appropriate behaviour for a 4 year old but my MIL is in her 70s! But that’s what it is, a need panic tantrum.

How to manage events and limit hijacking

This is what I have learned from dealing with my MIL. Firstly you have to anticipate the reaction. She absolutely will have a problem if anyone is hosting a big event and the more people who will be there or the more significant it is the worse she will be.

I have sat down and brainstormed every way she could cause a problem and then put in place some strategy to deal with it. For example

  1. MIL doesn’t show up when she has RSVP’d to say she would – one phone call and one text message at the start of the event to check if everything is OK. After that another person (family member) not one of those taking part in the main event calls later at a convenient time. If we get no reply then we leave a message saying the police will be contacted to check she isn’t lying in a hospital and then we leave it.
  2. MIL arrives but diverts proceedings and inserts some urgent topic (could be her holiday pictures at a child’s party or whatever) – this is shut down with “not right now, today is about … we’ll discuss that later” and we move on ignoring any subsequent attempts to engage with her.
  3. MIL creates a health or emotional crisis the morning or event (or night before) – the event goes ahead, unless she has actually had a heart attack, we do not let her drama scupper things. We identify a more suitable family member she can offload on and make it clear that we will be proceeding as planned and our attention will be on the event and the guests.
  4. MIL causes problems during an event – we have briefed a family member or friend on how difficult she can be and enlist their help in literally steering MIL away from the main event and it’s participants if necessary, “why don’t I see if I can deal with that MIL…” etc or your can respond with “I can’t help you right now, I have guests to see to”  which is honest and reasonable. She’s an adult and should be taking care of herself.
  5. MIL attempts to organise the event herself – oh no, that’s where boundaries come in. You can throw her a bone if you like, something unimportant that she can sort out to feel special but if it’s your event, you have the say on how everything goes. If you are accepting her money to pay for the event then you need to make clear from the start what exactly she expects in return and that YOU expect to have control over your event even if she offers to pay for it. If you ask for her money then you may have to go along with some of her ideas if they are reasonable and fit with your general intentions. But let’s be clear, she offers money to pay for YOUR wedding or whatever she does so voluntarily as a gift. In no way does this oblige you to do it her way, it is YOUR wedding and she knows that.
  6. MIL ignores an important event – if it is to your face, so to speak, like refusing to hold her grandchild then she can be called out on the spot, “you seem to be ignoring …..   that is not appropriate given the circumstances mother/MIL, something important/special is happening here”. If they ignore by refusing to talk about it or send congratulations or a card then that can be dealt with in a conversation or message, “I noticed you didn’t acknowledge…. that made people feel…. . We will be talking about the birth/graduation/promotion again and would appreciate if you could join in as part of the family”.

 

Underpinning all responses to an attempted hijack is the medium chill setting on how to respond to MIL. Medium chill is when you keep a clear emotional distance from MIL, having little or no expectations of a sympathetic response from her and choosing to keep your own emotions well out of the way, keeping conversation very superficial. I have learned that if I expect her to act up, anticipate and discuss her likely behaviours beforehand and then remain emotionally aloof from her nonsense on the day that it doesn’t anger and distress me like it once did. She really is like a toddler having a hissy fit.

It took quite sometime to make the shift in thinking to this new place. Before I felt hurt, sometimes really personally, deeply hurt that she behaved so callously on days which were very important to me. I did think she was doing it with the intention of conveying her contempt for me personally. It re-opened a long held emotional wound about having my needs and emotions ignored by people, my family of origin. Only by realising how she was triggering old patterns in me and seeing how very immature and needy her behaviour is did I manage to take back the power I was passing to her in these situations. Now I just roll my eyes and pretty much ignore her antics.

So in summary I anticipate and plan for her actions just like I might arrange for my small child’s best friend to come along to her older sister’s birthday or have Granny or a fun uncle on hand to distract her with some one to one attention. I wouldn’t let a child’s tantrum disrupt a party and we can benefit from viewing MIL in the same way.

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

Just Not There: The Emotionally Unavailable Spouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about their openness with another person and themselves

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

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

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

It’s about where they are at this moment emotionally

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

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

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

wheel_emotions1_640x625

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandparent Grooming 1 – What it looks like

(Part 1 of a two part post on the psychological grooming of children by a narcissistic grandmother.)

There have been several comments about dealing with a narcissistic grandmother which concern the emotional hold the grandmother has got over one or more children and how to manage this. It has cropped up often enough for me to devote this post to the topic of emotional grooming of a grandchild by the disordered grandparent. I read what you have experienced in your families and it makes me feel sick. I can so easily see how it happens and how powerless you feel as a result. I am so grateful to those of you who have found ways to deal with this problem and for the experience and wisdom you have shared in responding to these comments.

This is one of those topics which are hard to tackle because we are culturally programmed to believe children SHOULD have relationships with their grandparents and that we are doing something very cruel by putting boundaries around this natural relationship. Standing against this cultural expectation is the power of a parent’s protective love for their child. We can overlook some behaviour when we are on the receiving end, but if our kids get involved then our primal defences rise up. Trust that prickly down the neck, hyper alert feeling you have. Your gut instinct has spotted there is something wrong about grandma’s behaviour. Do you feel queasy? Do your shoulders grip, jaw clench, eyes narrow, do you strain to hear what she is whispering in your kids ears? Your badass parenting instincts need some respect, you are not imagining things, something dodgy is going on.

Maybe you have let this instinct slip by and not paid attention to it and now things feel like they are pulling away from you and your NPD MIL has somehow got inside your child’s head. Bear in mind there has also a great deal of grooming of YOU going on in your partner’s family. You have not been allowed to see what is going on, you have been conditioned by your partner and their family to minimise the disordered grandmother’s behaviour. That makes it hard to even think of it as abusive. It makes it hard to trust your instincts when you nearest and dearest are brushing it off or ridiculing you. Grooming and abuse are a dirty words reserved for other, really damaged people, not anyone in your family right? Wrong. Take my word for it, even people in families with rampant sexual and physical abuse grow up thinking it was normal and not that bad. They really do. Remember you are entitled to your own interpretations of what is going on, you don’t have to follow your partner’s take on it. If you feel something is wrong about your MILs relationship with your child then it is.

So what is grooming by a grandparent?

The main take away point in this article is the following statement: any behaviour by an adult which makes a child loose the trust and loyalty they have for their parents is abusive.

Turning that on its head means healthy relationships with a child always respect the primary relationship they have with their parents and never get in the middle of that.

I hope this is common sense, blindingly obvious and goes without saying. Except that somehow NPD MIL is getting between you and your child. They have managed to wheedle themselves into the position where your child takes their side against you. Maybe they plead granny’s case, maybe they blame you for tension or arguments, they turn to grandma to get things you can’t or won’t give them. They cry because they can’t see grandma and it’s all your fault. You look on in horror as your dear child acts like granny’s flying monkey. How on Earth did this happen right under your nose? They have been groomed.

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in the UK has this definition: grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purpose of abuse or exploitation. A lot of the time grooming of the extended family occurs also so defences are lowered and the abusive adult is trusted by the other adults in the child’s life. One step further is what is termed institutional grooming where the abusive person presents such a convincing face to institutions such as schools, doctors, social workers etc that these professional services believe their act and do not see the abuse.

The most pernicious and obvious grooming occurs with the intention of sexually abusing a child. A great deal of information on the internet about grooming pertains to this particular situation, including warnings about online grooming. This is not what we are dealing with in most cases of a narcissistic grandparent. Instead the grooming is for the purpose of using the child as a weapon against the parents, as a substitute of healthy adult relationships, as a prop for the narcissist’s egotistical needs. The abuse is emotional and psychological. This sort of grooming is also found in families where there is physical abuse or dependencies problems. It is the behaviour of a drug pusher trying to ensnare a new customer, of an abusive man or woman dazzling a potential new lover with attention, the religious fundamentalist recruiting youngsters to their cause, the con artist stealing money from an elderly person. It is the behaviour of a date rapist (see Anton de Beckers book “The Gift of Fear” for many examples of red-flag behaviours that abusers use early on, precursor signs). Grooming is not unique to the sexual abuse of children. Once we are comfortable with that idea it becomes easier to assess if our disordered MILs are acting in this way and what to do about it.

Grooming follows a set series of steps which enable the abuser to worm their way into someone’s trust and affections and then control them once there. Here’s a brief outline of the typical behaviours.

Stage 1: Target a child – size up the child’s vulnerabilities. That could be emotional neediness, lack of self-confidence, social isolation, distracted parents, financial strain in the family etc.

Stage 2: Gain their trust – Trust gaining behaviour on the surface appears nice, that is the point of it. It can involve offering advice or understanding, buying gifts, giving the child attention, using their professional position or reputation, taking them on trips, outings or holidays.

But hang on this is normal grandparent behaviour right? The damaging aspect of grooming is not building trust but the intention behind all that attention and what comes next. Next is divide and conquer in secrecy. Once a groomer has the child’s trust, once the child sees them as a friendly person who does nice things for them the next stage kicks in. The grooming person has to exert control over the child and to do this they use isolation, secrets, dependency, guilt and fear.

Stage 3: Fill a need – emotional abusers are very good at spotting the achilles heel of a target. This stage is where their influence starts to be applied behind the backs of the parents. Got a new baby sibling, never mind grandma is here. Mum and Dad didn’t get you that cool Christmas present, here’s one I bought earlier. No one to talk to? no one understands you like I do. The subtle message here is “I can provide for you in a way your parents can’t, lean on me”. She may be spoiling one child over and above their siblings and cousins and telling them how special they are to grandma. Along with this special level of attention is the equally subtle imposition of indebtedness to the grandmother.

Stage 4: Isolate the child – The grandmother wants babysitting, visiting, holidays, day trips, phone calls and other access to the child apart from the rest of the family. Parents can unwittingly enable this if for example the grandmother is teaching the kid to play the piano, takes them to a ball game, pays for their dance class and so gets to take the child to class. Parents are grateful for the opportunity for the child to do something they like. A family with a new baby, several children or a child with special needs will also really appreciate grandma taking one or more of the kids off their hands for a while which overrides any feelings that the attention may be getting a bit much.

Stage 5: The abuse – This is the emotional incest I’ve discussed before where the child is used as a substitute adult by the grandmother. The child listens to the grandmother’s problems, her bitching, her opinions on everyone and everything so they are groomed to be her obedient audience. It may be that the stealing of the child’s affections from the parents and the opportunity to berate the parents to the child is the goal, as punishment to the parents. It may be that the birth of a baby to the adult child of a narcissist causes a conflict in the narcissist’s perception of their status so they insist upon becoming the parent to the new baby even though it is not theirs. This is about control and maintenance of their position as absolute head of the family. There are a myriad of ways a narcissist can use a weaker and more easily manipulated person to their advantage, it all boils down to satisfying a need the grandmother has. It has bugger all to do with what is right for the child.

Stage 6: Maintaining control of the child – When the grandmother starts to tell the child how bad/cruel/hurtful/unreasonable the parents are and if only the child could speak up for them and then they do you know the child is being controlled. The child is being pressured to buy into the disordered grandparents world view. If the child has disclosed secrets to the grandmother then these can be used against them. The grandmother may lie and imply the child is not really loved by the parents. She may feed them a sob story about how she has no one else and if the child doesn’t pay them this attention they will leave granny bereft. They can imply the child is ungrateful for all the special attention they never asked for in the first place. The narcissistic grandmother will use the exact same manipulation she uses to control your partner and turn them on your child.

Now we know what it all looks like let’s consider the effect this has on the child and how you can fight back. Please don’t feel powerless, that is part of her game. Abusive manipulative people work in ways which always leave victims feeling they are stuck. You are not stuck. You are the parent and you have enormous untapped power there. She really is nothing, has nothing to offer your child that you can’t give in droves. Narcissists are emotionally bankrupt, their pot of giving is empty expect for false promises and material treats. The goal is to untangle your child before they realise this several years down the road and are hurt by it. The most damaging thing you can do in this situation is nothing, then you are betraying your child. You must protect your child from the harm being caused by an emotionally and psychologically damaging narcissist even if the child screams, cries, pleads, begs, blames and hates you in the short term. They have been brainwashed and you need to help them see what has really been going on. That’s what the next post is about.

Some further links on grooming:

A woman’s experience of her narcisistic mother and the effect on her child:  http://narcissists-suck.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/narcissist-grandparents.html

A summary of the steps which groomers take to ensnare a child: http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Child-Sexual-Abuse-6-Stages-of-Grooming

The NSPCC’s information about child grooming: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/grooming/

Understanding grooming of adults, often by narcissists looking for a romantic relationship. This is similar to the honeymoon stage some people describe as having with their NPD MIL before she turns nasty: https://drkathleenyoung.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/how-to-avoid-an-abuser-understanding-grooming/

Hoe grooming extends to families and institutions: http://safe-at-last.hubpages.com/hub/The-Fine-Art-of-Grooming

A research publication on the familial and institutional grooming by abusers: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/249692446_’Setting_’Em_Up’_Personal_Familial_and_Institutional_Grooming_in_the_Sexual_Abuse_of_Children

A brief overview of grooming by personality disordered people : https://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/Grooming.html

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, family roles, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, Manipulations, narcissistic mother, NPD MIL and grandchildren

The Fear of Feelings

I feel things intensely, too intensely sometimes if my other half’s reaction is anything to go by. My husband and his family in contrast seem to have a much more limited emotional range. Compared to me, my husband inhabits a narrow range of pastel emotional states. Some of this can be attributed to nature, not everyone feels the blackest black or soars to the most dazzling white heights. But it’s not just nature. My husband has learnt not to show or even recognise some of his emotions because it was too dangerous for him to do so as he was growing up.

 

The control that his mother has exerted upon the family over the years extends to the control of emotions. She does not want to be argued with, nor does she wish to see anger, defiance, disapproval, contempt, sarcasm, irritation, independence, strength or anything else that may challenge her position or suggest she is not perfect. The dominant emotional state in the household was hers and others were expected to cater to it at the expense of having their own emotions recognised at all.

 

It is remarkable how all rebellion or objection appears to have been squashed out of not only my husband but his sister and his father also. They practically squirm with discomfort when witnessing someone showing irritation or raising their voice. A sort of panic spreads across their faces and they act to divert the conversation or remove themselves from the scene. It causes them considerable anxiety to see other people express the forbidden emotions. They appear so condition to suppress these emotions in themselves that they automatically act in ways that try to suppress these emotions in their environment, in others too. This is done through an arsenal of withdrawing, sulking, diversion, shutting down conversations, conveying disapproval and even suggesting the person showing the emotion has something wrong with them.

 

The sad effect of such emotional conditioning is that even positive emotions are reduced. Spontaneous playfulness and fun is noticeable in its absence in my husband’s family. My siblings and I get together and crack jokes, tease, provoke, pile on top of each other like puppies and laugh till we get tears in our eyes. We sit comfortably next to each other and show affection with hugs and touches. My husband’s family do not. Sometimes I think they look at my family’s interactions like bemused and rather uptight Victorian anthropologists viewing some unexpectedly expressive tribal customs deep in a jungle.

 

My husband describes how he cannot recall being hugged as a child, expect from when he was very young and remembers sitting on his mother’s lap. His family show little physical affection to each other and struggle awkwardly with greetings and goodbyes as this involves a social kiss or hug. My FIL is getting much better at this as he is no longer married to my MIL. His partner is lovely; warm and expressive and has had a good effect on him. You can see him slowly thawing after years of holding everything in so tightly just to get by living with my MIL.

 

I struggle with all this emotional control as my husband has tried to limit my emotional expression to match his own range. I am told not to raise my voice, that I have an anger problem because I show it when I feel angry. I have been happily singing in the house and told to hush because I am too exuberant. I think he thinks I am a bit unstable sometimes, too emotional. The reactions of my friends and family when told that I have an “anger problem” are either astonished disbelief or laughter. It is sad, my husband fell in love with me because I am emotionally open and expressive but he just cannot feel comfortable with it even though part of him really wants it.

 

I can only speculate about how this level of mental conditioning was achieved by my mother-in-law. My husband says he feels a great fear of being abandoned or rejected that goes all the way back to his early childhood. I think his mother must have used the withdrawal of her affection and presence as a way of getting the children to do what she wanted. For a small child the withdrawal of a mother’s attention would mean certain death, that is what happens in the wild when a mother rejects her young. That same primitive fear would be evoked in a human child faced with a callous withdrawal of affection and attention by a manipulative mother. A child threatened with such a potentially devastating event would do whatever it took to get mummy back, even complying with her need for him/her to repress their emotions to please her. That’s what I think happened.

 

After years and years of reinforcement of this taboo on free expression of emotion my sister-in-law and husband are perfect children, they can suppress their emotions by themselves, their mother doesn’t have to be anywhere near them. They carry the “mother” inside as a voice in their heads, ever present, which stops them being open and expressive even though they are now adults and there is no existential threat to them from maternal abandonment or rejection.

 

In a marriage or relationship with someone who has a list of taboo emotions there will be problems. The partner will either be scared of the taboo emotion being expressed as they fear abandonment (you can’t love me if you feel angry with me) or annihilation (you are so angry I will be obliterated) or they will unconsciously agree with their parents dictates and judge the emotions as bad. This judgement can extend to the person showing the emotions also, they may out of fear or habit try to control and suppress the emotions of their partner.

 

Being a parent can confront you with the out of control emotions of a toddler tantrum, the defiance of a child testing the boundaries and the contempt and burgeoning independence of a teenager. “I HATE you Mummy!” is normal from a three year old told that they are not getting more ice cream or access to their older siblings most favourite new toy. How does the emotionally controlled child of a narcissist deal with their children’s problematic emotions? Without guidance they will repeat the patterns they learnt in childhood. They will quash their children’s emotions either directly by telling them they are not OK or indirectly by withdrawing from the child when they show them. With effort my husband has stopped walking away from our small kids when they have a tantrum and instead has started sitting with them so they know they are safe and accepted even when they are really cross or frustrated.

 

Children need to know that they are safe physically and emotionally but they have so little experience with life and with themselves that they need to be regulated physically and emotionally from the outside. Slowly they learn how to do it on their own. They have to know that Mummy and Daddy can cope with their fears, anger and hysterical giggling when they have lost it. If they see Mummy backing away looking scared or overwhelmed then they do not have that safety. If they see Daddy strongly disapproving of their independence they will feel that emotion is bad and they will push it away.

 

But of course emotions don’t go away just because they are judged bad and shoved down. They are still there lurking in the unconscious playing havoc with our state of mind and jumping out and taking control when we are stressed. This happens often to the child of a personality disordered mother, they can suddenly be cruel or weird and act like they are just not themselves. Worse by limiting the pallette of feeling available to them their life becomes bland; it takes no chances, it never falls madly in love, dances in the rain, has a food fight or confidently seduces a lover. These things need the feeling of anxiety that goes along with the romantic head rush, the inhibition that goes with not judging oneself, the strength and power of desire. If “mummy” is in their head glowering her disapproval  and they have shut off those emotions  then they don’t live a full, glorious, messy life and worse still, deep down they know it.

 

Fear of feelings leads to a overly controlled, inhibited life and fear of other people’s feelings leads to attempts to control and inhibit their lives. This is a lose-lose scenario. The way out is for the narcissists child to accept all emotions as completely valid without judgement or fear. Then become aware of them as they emerge, don’t shut them down. Then sit even for a while with someone showing the ones that make them most uncomfortable. Like any phobia, the fear of emotion is tackled through a combination of knowing intellectually that no harm will come to you while slowly increasing your exposure to the thing you are afraid of. A trusted friend or partner (you!) can act as the reassuring voice repeating “your fine, it’s OK, your safe” if they are unable to do that for themselves. Therapists are excellent at guiding people through the rediscovery of their own emotions. Every emotion has its positive aspects (fear saves you from harm, anger is energy to act, envy show what you want and can work to have) and when they find the positive and feel comfortable with that feeling within they will no longer have the urge to suppress it in anyone else.

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

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

Spouses and Family Roles

If you marry someone who’s mother is a narcissist you are marrying damaged goods. That is very hard to read I know, it was pretty damn hard to write. They can survive a childhood with a narcissistic mother quite well provided they have some other close family member like a father or grandparent to treat them normally. But the fact that their first human relationship, the one with their mother, was formed with someone who put themselves first will leave an indelible mark on their psyche.

There are a variety of ways in which a person can respond to growing up in a family with a narcissist. Following from the Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACOA) movement, psychologists began to recognise similar traits in the children of very dysfunctional families even if alcoholism wasn’t an issue. The traits are given names by psychologists; the Scapegoat, the Rebel, the Hero, the Lost Child etc. They describe the ways in which a child can adapt to find space to survive in the relationship with their mother. In an alcoholic family often one child also develops addiction problems. Sadly in a narcissistic family it is not unusual for one child to develop the same personality disorder. Copying the disordered behaviour or adapting yourself quite profoundly to fit in with it are the options available. Neither option is healthy for the psyche of the child.

My husband took on the role of the Hero/Caretaker, his sister is a Lost Child. Their father took the role of family Scapegoat and was the one who was told he didn’t earn enough, was emotionally unstable, caused problems etc. He was very passive and retreated from confronting her giving her full reign over every facet of family life. Her moods dominated everything and reading them and making things right for her was the role my husband took on.

This means he is very emotionally aware and considerate of others, which are good things to be. It also means he is scared of anger, distress and emotional pain in others and himself and anticipates others’ needs to soothe them and by extension himself. He engages in the same indirect communication patterns and passive-aggressive behaviour when stressed as his mother does.  He is terrified of her disapproval and is a self-confessed over achiever.

Here is a brief description of some of the roles and adaptations that the child of a narcissist can make. One of these roles may well be the one your spouse adopted. The first four roles are the classic ACOA roles, the later two are additions that some authors have identified in dysfunctional but not necessarily alcoholic homes.

The Good Child or Hero – these children are high achievers who look good to the outside world, providing the family with esteem and an acceptable face that conceals the dysfunction. They are perfectionist, overly control their emotions to the point of being unaware of them, they are unable to play or ask for help and struggle to be flexible or spontaneous. They take on adult responsibilities and self-sufficiency at a young age. They have a deep fear of failure and need for success and external approval. They can be very driven as adult. They have a hard time admitting their family or themselves had a problem.

The Lost Child or Adjuster– these children withdraw from the dysfunctional family be making themselves as quiet and unnoticed as possible so as not to provoke the wrath of the dysfunctional parent. They may retreat into books, fantasy or excessive TV watching as solitary activities. They deal with the difficulties in reality by retreating from it. They may abuse food by overeating, bulimia or anorexia. They can be overly independent. They may be shy and scared of emotional intimacy. They may have problems developing relationships as adults. These children are most likely to feel depressed or suicidal.

The Mascot – this child deals with the family situation by making jokes, larking about and being the one who lightens the atmosphere even at the expense of being ridiculed as the family clown or idiot. They are attention seekers, distracting and immature and have a hard time dealing with negative emotions which they work so hard to cover up. They could also be the super-cute, ditsy airhead, the one getting into silly scrapes. They have difficulty making decisions and focussing on a task or career.

The Scapegoat or Rebel – this child acts out, often spectacularly, which diverts attention away from the problem and onto fixing the child. They are the most emotionally honest of all the children overtly displaying the fall out of the dysfunction within the family. This takes the form of direct confrontation with parents, drunkenness, addiction, trouble with the law or school authorities, teen pregnancy, running away from home. They can be very angry and self-destructive and are often the first member of the family to get help and start recovery.

The Caretaker or Placater – This child takes on responsibility for the emotional temperature of the family and tunes into the moods of the household with acute sensitivity. They people-please to smooth over any upsetting situations or potential flashpoints. This comes at the expense of awareness of and attention to their own needs. They have intense dislike of conflict and negative emotion. As adults these people can gravitate towards caring professions or relationships where they can “rescue” someone.

The Mastermind – this is the child who can make use of the family situation to their own ends, they are manipulative of those around them. Lacking empathy and with a strong sense of their own entitlements they sit back and work out how to play people off each other to get what they want. They may be divisive. They’ll be the ones who say “well if Dad is drunk, I’ll take the car”. While adopting strategy and cunning to survive they are also denying their and others emotional responses and risk becoming abusive of others themselves.

I have a confession to make here, I am very familiar with these roles from well before I met my husband and his mother. My father had a drink problem when I was a kid. I recognise the roles written out here from my own family and siblings, there are four of us. What I want to emphasise to you is the idea that these roles are not rigid and fixed. I have behaved in more than one role in my life. I was very high achieving in school and a lost child at home for some years. Then it all got too much and I flipped and started acting out, my grades slipped, I stopped doing any school work, I got very depressed and angry, started verbally fighting back at my dad and I became the child with the problem (mental health in this instance) and was the first to get outside help and blow the family situation open which is the role of the rebel.

I can see the roles in my husband’s family also although there are only two children there. He and his sister are very high achieving, the hero role; to this day his mother takes great personal pleasure in having them look good to the outside world. But in the home he was the caretaker-placater and his sister the lost child. These are roles both of them still act out in their adult lives, not just with their mother either.

I could see these behaviours in my husband’s family and I knew where they came from having read all about the problems faced by children raised in homes with alcohol problems (thanks Dad). For years I kept my thoughts on MIL’s behaviour and my husband’s relationship to her to myself as I thought it was unacceptable to out and out criticise my husband’s mother to him, even though she was so vile to me it made me feel sick and stressed every single time I had to see her. I dislike confrontation myself and I thought maybe she would come round after a while and mellow. Ha, wrong. These things do not change by hoping they will go away. Only bravely facing up to the realisation that your spouse has some pretty dysfunctional behaviours (thanks MIL) will you be able to do anything to change it.

It is my husband’s relationship with his mother that is the key problem, not her or her behaviour but his mechanism for coping with it. The adaptations he made to be able to live with her are not so useful in relating to other non-disordered people and do not get him what he wants or needs out of life. He has had to slowly work out there was something wrong with his behaviour around her, what exactly it was that was wrong, what he wanted instead and how to get it. He still hasn’t got it completely. If he had a better mechanism for coping with her, one which allowed him to see her clearly and detach from her influence, he and our family wouldn’t have quite so hard a time dealing with her.

It is worth considering if your spouse has adopted one of these classic roles as a result of growing up with a very difficult mother. How does this impact upon your relationship with them? The roles get carried over into marriages, friendships and careers. In the next post I’ll consider the ways these roles could crop up in a relationship and what to do about it to stop them from causing long term problems.

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