Category Archives: narcissistic mother

Echo – The Opposite of Narcissism

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

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

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

What does Echoism Look Like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Echoism and The Child of Narcissistic In-Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

Echo with Echo

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

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

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

Echo with Narcissus

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

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

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

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

Narcissus with Echo

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

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

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

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

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

Narcissus with Narcissus

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

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

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

Beyond Echoism

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

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

 

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

Event Hijacking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do narcissistic people play these games?

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

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

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

How to manage events and limit hijacking

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lies, Damn Lies and Delusion

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

blank bell curve

 

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

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

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

Lying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Not There: The Emotionally Unavailable Spouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about their openness with another person and themselves

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

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

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

It’s about where they are at this moment emotionally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandparent Grooming 1 – What it looks like

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

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

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

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

So what is grooming by a grandparent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some further links on grooming:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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