Category Archives: marriage and NPD MIL

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…

denial-300x233

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

Just Not There: The Emotionally Unavailable Spouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about their openness with another person and themselves

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

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

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

It’s about where they are at this moment emotionally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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

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

Parentification and your Spouse

A couple of readers have specifically requested some information about the overlapping phenomena of parentification and for want of a better phrase, spousification.

A disordered mother can flip between two unhelpful states when relating to her offspring; one treats them as helpless and dependent (infantilisation), the other puts them in the position of parent or in the case of a mother and her golden son, surrogate spouse. Both of these ways of relating to your adult child are dysfunctional. A healthy way of relating would be to recognise the adult child as autonomous and capable while at the same time respecting the mother-child dynamic and not subverting it. A child can never parent their own parent. That state of unconditional love and nurturance should not be passed up the generations and children cannot compensate for the NPD mother’s lack of adequate parenting, but she will try.

Parentifying

There are two ways of parentifying a child. The first is in practical terms, the child or adult child takes on responsibility for task, chores and actions that the adult parent should be managing. This may occur in a family where the parent is too drunk or unavailable to perform the tasks associated with running a home. So one elder child becomes the adult instead and takes their siblings to school, runs the bath, put them to bed, pays the bills. This tends not to happen so much with a narcissistic mother who probably closely controls everything about running the household.

The second way is for the child to become an emotional support for the adult. An NPD mother will use their children in this way as they see their kids as being there for them in whatever capacity they need at the time. They do not see how fulfilling their needs can possibly be to the detriment of the child. Using the child for emotional support or emotional intimacy is just another way of them showing how much they love mummy. This should never happen. Adults should be emotional supports for children and should use other adults for friendship or reassurance, as confidants or mediators in family situations. When the mother starts to use her children to talk about her problems with her partner, about adult topics they cannot possibly comprehend, to intervene in matters such as finances or sex, as a go between or message carrier in a row then she is parentifying the child.

Over the long term emotional parentifying produces very distorted boundaries in the child. They either have none and have a hard time knowing what they want in life rather than what the parent wants and look to other people to see how they should feel or think. Or the other extreme is achieved and the child is so used to carrying the burden of their parent’s emotions they have rigid boundaries and keep people at arms length, afraid of emotional intimacy and unable to ask for help or express their own needs. I see both of these patterns in my husband’s family, he adopted the first and his sister has the second.

My MIL was quite used to using my adult husband as her emotional confidant. She would ring up and offload all her problems onto him making him feel crap and never doing the same in return. Often her gripes would involve derogatory references to his father whom she left and divorced. In the end my husband did what all people who find themselves in this situation should do and set firm boundaries. He told her to stop talking to him about his dad or he’d hang up the phone and pointed out how much of her conversation with him was about her problems and feelings of upset and indignation. I went further, I told her to stop using my husband as her therapist.

I think if you are married to the daughter of a narcissistic mother you may well find the emotional parentifying is strongest. I know of one couple where the mother not only was at breakfast with the newly married couple the day after they married but expected to be phoned by her daughter daily throughout the honeymoon because she needed the emotional contact. If your wife says things like “my mother is my best friend” you should be concerned. Of course a woman can be close to her mother, but best friend? That is a relationship between equals and a daughter is never going to have equal status to the woman who gave birth to her.

NPD sufferers do not have successful relationships, either being divorced or remaining in a very dysfunctional marriage. The daughter becomes her mother’s outlet for her isolation and misery and all that is wrong in her life and is expected to be available at any time to listen to mummy unburden herself. The bizarre thing is how willing some daughters are to go along with this, seeing their mothers as the victims that the NPD MIL works so hard to portray themselves as. They believe they have a special relationship with their mother, that only they are the one she can talk to and that they are obligated to listen “because she is my mother”. A daughter may well develop a sort of functioning relationship with her NPD mother where in return for acting in the bestest-friend-forever role she gets a few crumbs of attention thrown her way and so keeps it up as the alternative to being on the end of mummy’s wrath. There are some websites and books on the topic of daughters of narcissistic mothers and a large portion of this material is devoted to the emotional stranglehold such mothers have on their female offspring. It is worth taking a look at some of these resources if your wife is the daughter of an NPD mother.

One thing female children of narcissist don’t have to contend with is the altogether creepy inversion of the adult child relationship sometimes called emotional or covert incest. On the comments to some of my blog posts I received a post from a fellow sufferer who specifically spoke of the ways in which her husband was not so much parentified as made a surrogate spouse by his mother. How does that happen? Read on.

The Surrogate Spouse Syndrome

My MIL seems to have a love-hate relationship with men, mostly hate to be honest. She wouldn’t describe herself as a feminist or anything of that sort, she has a deep anger and feeling of superiority towards men. Her relationship with her own father was very difficult. She reports blazing rows between her parents in the family home (although she is so emotionally repressed what you or I may regard as a normal row would seem over the top to her). Her parents eventually divorced when she was in her teens and she had next to no contact with him for years. My husband saw his grandfather only once or twice, at a motorway service station because she wouldn’t go to his home or have him come to hers.

She also took out her anger and spite on her ex-husband, my FIL. His did not stand up to her, instead he was very passive and gave little or no response. “She’ll calm down” he would tell my husband. She ruled the roost completely, emasculating my FIL to the point of getting him to work at weekends, moaning constantly about his low earnings and her low standard of living (they had two foreign holidays a year, one skiing, and both kids went to private schools) and then had complete control of the household budget handing him out small bits of cash for anything she agreed he could have, oh you know like a magazine or new pair of socks. Eventually they lived almost separate lives under one roof, he slept in another room entirely and became very withdrawn and depressed.

It is easy for the narcissist to project all that is negative, despised and weak about men onto a passive husband and makes him the scapegoat that she has to endure, and a target for her criticisms and belittling. Having successfully demolished the standing of the adult man in her life she will transfer all that is good and wonderful about manhood onto her son. He becomes the alpha male of the family in the eyes of the mother. Problems between the mother and father in a family can lead to a situation where one parent turns to a child of the opposite sex and starts responding to the child’s love in a way that mimics that of an adult romantic partner.

What separates parentification from covert incest/the surrogate spouse is the nature of the interaction between the adult parent and the child. Leaning on the child for comfort or affirmation, misbehaving and allowing the child to discipline or clear up the mess is parentification. Leaning on the child for emotional intimacy, physical comfort (hugs) and a shared experience of life is creating a substitute spouse.

Emotional or covert incest is really abuse. The adult child of someone doing this will have grown up being groomed to accept it in a way that is similar to the grooming that young sexual abuse victims receive in order to accept their abuse. The mother in this scenario is not conscious of her behaviour, she knows she needs her son to be there for her but hasn’t actually acknowledged the extent of her own unconscious sexual motivation behind the interactions. If she has projected her ideal male fantasy figure onto her son there will be unconscious sexual motives in her actions.

In order to continue with the relationship she has established with her surrogate spouse she will inevitably control personal aspects of his life, as a controlling wife would with her husband. Her control of the son extends to choosing his clothes, his cologne, advising on his household purchases, washing, ironing, shopping etc well into adulthood. A narcissist will attempt to control everything about her child including his sexuality. They control by invading their teenage children’s privacy or set stringent conditions around visits and visiting by girlfriends or boyfriends, openly expressing their disapproval of whomever has been brought home. Alternatively they can be quite inappropriately revealing about their own sexual behavior and almost egg their children on, behaving flirtatiously with their son’s friends or daughter’s boyfriends. They do think they are attractive no matter what their actual physical appearance is like.

Hostility towards the son’s girlfriends and eventually his wife if he marries is inevitable in this context as the NPD MIL sees her son’s partner as a rival for his attention and affection, and to her control of his domestic arrangements. The spouse becomes the other woman.

I have read of and been told about numerous actions by various NPD MILs who have actively set out to damage their son’s marriages by spreading lies about his wife, by dividing the wider family against them, by using her communications and influence on her son to constantly portray the wife’s actions in a negative way and turn him against her. Some outright tell their sons they would be better off without the wife, that a previous girlfriend or woman they know would have been so much more suitable. The MIL seems to have a personal interest in her son choosing what she sees as the most impressive mate possible, so that her son and by extension herself are admired for their ability to snare the best sort of woman. What is this ideal wife like? Someone who will allow the spousification to continue, a sort of wife-in-name-only. I really wonder if mothers in this situation, unable to have a sexual relationship with their spouse/son view the actual wife of their child as a sort of dirty whore who caters to the son’s sexual needs and is tolerated with utter distaste while the “proper” relationship remains between him and mummy.

A trickier dynamic arises if the golden son plays along with his mother’s attempts to turn him into her surrogate spouse. Spouses who accept their mothers kissing them on the lips, sitting coiled up next to them like a lover or other inappropriate physical contact have been groomed just like a child abuse victim to accept as normal  what the rest of us see as bordering on incestuous. It is incestuous, albeit unconscious on the part of the mother. This level of psychological conditioning is very hard to shake.

If it is normal in your house for mum to kiss her son on the mouth, buy his underwear and sit with her hand on his leg close up to him on the sofa it will take a big cold splash of horrified reaction from several people outside the family before he smells the coffee. This would usually occur in adolescence when friends mercilessly tease boys with over attentive mothers and they tend to get the message. If your husband is still like this then either his family never had friends round (ask him and see) or his mother has been very careful to keep it below the radar. You see it because she wants to visibly assert her claim on your husband, you are the threat.

There is no quick fix to parentifying or surrogate spouse syndrome. In each and every situation the remedy is the same. The adult child must realize what is happening, that this behavior is not normal and what a healthy interaction should look like. Then they can set some boundaries and choose how much involvement they have with their mother’s practical and emotional issues. The boundaries need to include what sort of physical contact they are comfortable with or consider appropriate for a mother to an adult son. Bear in mind that some people are more openly physically affectionate than others and that in itself is not a problem. It’s a problem when your gut instinct says “woah, eww that is making me uncomfortable”. Just come out and say it. Your spouse needs to hear a reality check from someone outside of the NPD bubble and you may well be the first person who has ever poi ted out to him or her what normal family physical contact looks like.

The partner of a spoused/parentified son needs to recognize that her MIL sees her as a rival and will act like a jealous wife. Do not respond like a mistress! You are his wife not her, his first loyalty is to you so make damn sure he and she knows that. Do not let her encroach upon your domestic arrangements, buy his clothes or “advise” you on how he likes his food cooked or anything else. A simple reply “we don’t do things that way” is enough. Notice the use of “we” which makes it clear you two are a unit and how you need not give any explanation or justification for what you have stated. None is necessary.

 

 

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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, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother