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Are Narcissists Evil?

The Case For

Well duh! Of course they are. I mean let’s just pause for a moment and consider all the horrible things they do to you…

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You only have to read a few articles by people who have had relationships with narcissists or had one in their family to come across headlines like this;

“20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You”

“The Secret Language of Narcissists: How Abusers Manipulate their Victims.”

“If You Are the Target of Narcissistic Abuse”

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Read on and the descriptions inside are like the plot of a nasty psychological thriller, the evil doer ramps up their abuse to extract every last morsel of narcissistic supply, while incapable of the slightest consideration or sympathy as they drive the unsuspecting victim round the bend then dumps them callously when they are no longer of any use,

“stronger forces were at work, and had been at work, to keep me numb and silent and weakened” 

there was love bombing, grooming “a calculated and predatory act of maneuvering a person into a more dependent and isolated position by claiming a “special connection” where they are more vulnerable to accepting future abusive behavior.” ~ https://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/10/understanding-the-language-of-narcissistic-abuse/

“Rather than acknowledge their own flaws, imperfections and wrongdoings, malignant narcissists and sociopaths opt to dump their own traits on their unsuspecting suspects in a way that is painful and excessively cruel.”

“Malignant narcissists and sociopaths use word-salad, circular conversations, ad hominem arguments, projection and gaslighting to disorient you and get you off track should you ever disagree with them or challenge them in any way.”

“Deliberately misrepresenting your thoughts and feelings to the point of absurdity.” ~ http://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2016/06/20-diversion-tactics-highly-manipulative-narcissists-sociopaths-and-psychopaths-use-to-silence-you/

“When all else fails, the narcissist resorts to playing the victim card. This is designed to gain sympathy and further control behavior” ~ https://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2015/04/eight-mental-abuse-tactics-narcissists-use-on-spouses/

It is all so deliberate, cunning and downright evil. All these headlines and articles make quite clear the narcissists KNOW what they are doing, it is a ploy. They “use”, “manipulate”, “control behaviour” this all suggests the narcissist is consciously planning and plotting for a particular outcome where they emerge on top and to Hell with everyone else. Language like this to describe narcissists is almost universally used by their victims to describe what happened to them.

“Narcissism is an evil that masquerades as good. Like a Pied Piper this master illusionist can lead you to Hell all while making you feel flattered to be chosen to go there. Only when you wake up in Hell do you realise the real evil that existed in his fluted song. By then it’s too late; not only have you fallen victim, but most likely you have paid for the flute, as well.” ~Tigress Luv

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Doesn’t that sum up a narcissist? Someone like your MIL who believes themselves to be a better sort of person to others and is so invested in that belief that they discount all evidence to the contrary with their manipulations, diversions and rages so as to keep their self-image intact.

Evil is seen as separate from sick in our society. When heinous crimes are committed; serial murders, sadistic torture and abuse of defenceless victims, we call the perpetrators evil as we struggle to conceive of any mindset which would lead to such actions. Their behaviour is so far from normal and so deliberate, not the rash or impulsive actions of a mentally unstable person, not sickness but choice. We face the possibility that such people exist in a version of reality which is utterly devoid of the ability to see other people as people at all. Complete absence of empathy and a desire to inflict pain on others for your own enjoyment are prerequisites for evil.

Don’t narcissists have a lack of empathy? Don’t they commit emotional and social abuses against people with impunity? Buying someone a crappy present to show how insignificant they are to you is not rash, not an emotional outburst (i.e. not sick), it is deliberate.

Just as we cannot hold in our minds what sort of person would commit violent, sadistic murders nor can we hold a picture of a person, our MILs maybe, who commits repeated acts of social and emotional cruelty even when told quite clearly how they are hurtful and unacceptable. It makes no sense to a normal person. Normal people don’t act this way, they don’t play games with people by denying they are committing such acts in the first place. Normal people listen, hear you and apologise because their intent was never to harm. How can we help but interpret the behaviour of a narcissist as deliberate and wilful?

Evil in a theological sense is to turn from your God, not just to become worldly and materialistic, invested in pleasures and status of the Earthly realm but to actively pursue acts which you know are wholly contrary to the tenants of your faith with no care for the damage. Thou shall kill, thou shall bear false witness, thou shall steal, thou shall covet.

Narcissism is a love of self and self-image, to a theologian this is to place oneself above God and heretical. Self-idolatry in effect. True religious practice in any form, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sufism, Hinduism, is humility before an Almighty. Humility requires an utter acceptance of your inadequacy in the face of the vastness of the Cosmos and a realisation of your part in this Cosmos as no more or less significant than any other. So are narcissists evil in the religious sense? Dante’s vivid description of the circles of Hell certainly includes levels where people had put themselves and their worldly pursuit of status ahead of their faith.

Violence against others is the 7th circle of Hell and this could include emotional violence not just physical harm, fraud of any kind or false representation including liars, hypocrites and seducers form the 8th circle and the worst, the bottom of the pit are betrayers. People who betray and exploit special relationships within family, to guests, benefactors, or their country are trapped for an eternity of punishment with Lucifer himself chewing Judas (betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans in return for thirty pieces of silver), Brutus (murders his friend Julius Caesar by literally stabbing him in the back) and Cassius (instigator of the plot to kill Julius Caesar). Narcissists commit all crimes of the lower circles of Hell do they not? They betray their children’s instinctive love by using them to slake their unquenchable thirst for narcissistic supply and approval. They betray their guests (us, their sons- and daughters-in-law) with fakery and fraud before turning to interpersonal violence. They are emotionally and sometimes physically violent, they are frauds and betrayers. They are evil.

Case closed.

 

 

The Case Against

The definition of the word evil is profoundly immoral and wicked. Let’s pick that apart.

Immoral means goes against the established moral code of right and wrong. To deliberately be immoral implies that you have awareness of what is and isn’t moral in the first place. Morality requires that you know what is proper conduct. You have to hold within yourself sufficient awareness of your society and its rules so that you can make a moral decision. Whether your behaviour is right or wrong depends very much on the view of others, of your society’s principles. Without this external measure of acceptable how do you gauge your own morality? This is why we spend so much time teaching our children right and wrong. Immorality is then to choose deliberately to step outside those rules and principles.

Wicked means very bad, corrupt, wrong, black-hearted, sinful. You can have actions which are immoral but not wicked. It is immoral to lie but if a lie is told by and about oneself and harms no one in consequence you would hardly call it wicked. If I said I once won a gymnastic medal at school when actually I didn’t I am being immoral but not very bad, corrupt and black-hearted.

So to be truly evil my immorality must extend to acts which deliberately cause serious harm to others. In order to do this I must be able to distinguish which acts will hurt other people. I have to know when others are hurting and how to provoke this hurt in them.

I have wrestled with this point for some years now since realising my MIL is seriously narcissistic and I have come to a conclusion. I don’t think narcissists are evil, I think they are mentally and emotionally ill.

You can argue that narcissists don’t know that they are being immoral as they don’t have a clear sense of right and wrong, they are psychologically incapable of seeing past the end of their own nose and so are oblivious to the harm they cause others. In their own minds they are very moral and proper. It’s other people who do them harm and falsely accuse them of being hurtful because these other people just don’t understand them. Narcissism is a huge blindspot not a deliberate desire to inflict harm.

In the first half of this post I wrote that complete absence of empathy and a desire to inflict pain on others for your own satisfaction are prerequisites for evil. Narcissists certainly have low or absent empathy, it is one of the traits which define the disorder in the psychiatric profession’s manuals DSM IV and V.

Would you be evil if you felt no empathy but left others alone? I think not. You could feel nothing for other people and yet understand the need for obeying rules and laws, even social rules and customs like exchanging gifts. The android Data in the Star Trek – The Next Generation TV series is an example of a conscious being with no capacity for empathy because they feel nothing at all. Such a person may struggle with intimate relationships (as Data does in the series) but not act exploitatively in a conscious way. Evil involves intentional harm to others.

So I have come to the conclusion that despite what so many blogs and articles by wounded victims suggest most narcissists have little or no intention to hurt you. They are not cunning and Machiavellian villains devoting their time and resources to targeting you. The crushing truth is that they are so wrapped up in themselves they barely see you at all. They are gazing obsessively at themselves and polishing their own self-image. all. the. time. You are an afterthought at best. They are also blind to their obsession, they are unable to fully see that there are other people, another world around them. It simply isn’t as real as they are to themselves. Remember Narcissus in the myth starved to death while staring at his own reflection. They are sick, they are incapable of looking away from themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt you, make no mistake, I am not letting them off the hook. The behaviours they use when interacting with other people can deeply would those people. What I am saying is they have so little awareness of others and such limited insight into themselves it is silly to portray them as out to get you, to control or target you, to wilfully try and abuse you. They are instinctive, it’s like claiming a wasp was deliberately targeting you because it stung you. I’m sorry but you just aren’t that important to them.

So what exactly is going on inside a narcissists head when they are abusive, lie to or manipulate you? Panic. Overwhelming existential panic. Narcissists have two polarities inside them, two extreme positions. One is “I am a special person” the other is “I am an awful person” and there is nothing in between. All narcissistic behaviour is a desperate attempt to shore up the first position by receiving confirmation from the outside of their specialness (in whatever way they think of themselves as special) AND at the same time a desperate attempt to run away from and divert anyone else from noticing the other possible position where they are shameful and defective. Nothing else gets a look in, this is the dominating preoccupation of their life. Trying to maintain their position at one end of this see-saw while refusing to even acknowledge the other end is all consuming and terrifying at the same time.

For example, a narcissist could lie through omission so that you find yourself involved with some plan of theirs which you never agreed to, maybe they invite friends round for a barbecue and expect you to be there helping out but don’t tell you until the night before.

They have done this so some need is met, they can’t ask you for agreement as that means you could say no and the need is not met. This may deprive them of a desperately needed boost of affirmation or approval, and they have to have it, this preoccupies them intensely even if you can’t see that. They will not consciously think “I will not ask them if it’s OK to have a BBQ” no they operate in a habitual way where they have learned since childhood that getting what they need can be achieved through various means and doing things without asking is one of them. This becomes a habit which they do not have to consciously think about.

They will convince themselves that their need actually helps you in some way, to justify it to themselves and to bolster their sense of themselves as a good person. They may even tell you how difficult it has been to organise this thing you never wanted to do for your benefit. And they believe this. Do not underestimate how much they believe this. Narcissism is a continuous state of self-delusional reinforcement of a fantasy (I am special and never wrong)  and horrified retreat from a nightmare (I am awful and hateful). They lie to themselves more than they ever lie to anyone else.

If you react with shock, anger and refusal to cooperate then they can interpret your reaction as stemming from YOUR flaws not their actions. You are ungrateful because organising a barbecue is a nice thing. They are genuinely baffled when you ask to be informed about such plans in good time in future. Your request seems outlandishly fussy, they simply can’t see that you are a real person with your own plans and needs which they should be anticipating and being respectful of. They don’t see you. Not going along happily with their plan cracks their fantasy world and they paste over the cracks by externalising the problem, it’s you not them. Everything with them is fine.

This failure to properly conceive of other people as having as vivid and real an inner world and needs as yourself is a developmental stage that all children pass through. Narcissism has been described as a form of arrested development in that they walk around in an adult body but fail to see the world in an adult way. Your 5 year old child doesn’t realise it is nearly dinner time (even though you have the saucepans bubbling on the stove) and insists that their entire paint set be produced so they can paint a masterpiece on the kitchen table that second. Likewise the narcissist needs to see their grandchild this weekend and you have to supply them because they NEED it.

The mistake people make when dealing with narcissism is to see it as anything other than a very needy child walking around in an adults body. We can ignore a spoilt child and think nothing personal of their tantrums. We obviously don’t expect a reciprocal relationship of equals with such a child and nor should we expect it from a narcissist.

Hence the narcissist cannot be truly evil as they are not truly moral in any sense. They lack the ability to see the moral expectations of our society in the same way a child does. They are so turned inwards they cannot see you, you baffle them. They are needful, grasping creatures, quite desperate really. The terrible harm comes from the fundamental imbalances in any relationship with them. We think we have a relationship with someone capable of reciprocity and we don’t. If you don’t spot this fast you become stuck in their fantasy projection and try to fit yourself in it. That is when the harm of narcissistic abuse kicks in. You try to keep them happy and to make sense of why your relationship with them keeps going wrong.

Finally I think it is soothing in a perverse kind of way for victims of narcissistic abuse, especially when the abuse is in a romantic relationship, to believe they were targeted by a deliberately vicious person. The extreme anger that people feel when they see the narcissist for who they are rather than the false image they project is understandable and it is normal for people to be horrified and attack and blame them. Underlying this anger is anger at oneself and shame at having not seen through the facade any earlier. To interpret the abusive relationship as one where this person deliberately hid themselves with the intention of luring and abusing you keeps you as the hero of your own story. It saves your ego at a time when you are very hurt and betrayed. That is necessary and normal but not true. When the rage and hurt subside what you are left with is the chance for a very honest look at yourself and why you were the supply that this dysfunctional person got so much from.

Why did you keep giving and not see what they were? Often this is rooted in our childhoods. Victims of narcissistic abuse are usually unusual in someway. Unusually empathic, unusually compliant, unusually undemanding. In our relationships with MIL we are caught between our perceptions and feelings that something is wrong and wishing to not upset our partners and their family. We put our feelings down and allow them to get away with too much. The NPD MIL feels so powerful, but this is our partner’s inner child projecting some almost godlike authority on the MIL. She is not evil, all powerful or out to get you. She is desperately paddling like mad under the surface to maintain an image of superiority in ways your partner colludes with. Not evil, but sick and quite vulnerable and pathetic.

You can hurt them very easily once you see it, but then that would be deliberately immoral and wicked wouldn’t it.

 

 

 

 

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Hot Potato – how to offload troublesome emotions

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Ow! ow! hot hot! Here you have it, catch!

Suddenly you are feeling cross, or anxious or guilty about something and yet you weren’t a minute ago. In fact you were perfectly content a minute ago and then your other half started a seemingly innocuous conversation and there was something in how they said it, in the edge to their tone, the way they phrased things, in what wasn’t said explicitly which has left you infuriated, or worried when you weren’t.

Job done.

You have just been a participant in a game of pass the hot potato.

Or as psychologists call it, projective identification. Let me show you how it is done and then you can spot it in your narc family-in-law and dodge that potato whenever anyone tries to lob it your way.

Basic Projection

Everyone has parts of themselves which they are familiar and comfortable with, these parts are the bits we see in casual acquaintances and could list as character traits in our friends. Then there are parts which emerge on closer inspection, we know the dreams, fears or anxieties of our close family and best friends which they don’t reveal to just anyone. These parts are the delightful discoveries that come with greater emotional intimacy. And then there are parts of ourselves which we may only reveal to a close lover or in a secret diary. But what about the parts we find too hard to acknowledge even to ourselves? What about the emotions that are stirred in us which family or society says we shouldn’t have.

In the movie American Beauty Kevin Spacey plays a man having a mid life crisis who has fantasies about his teenage neighbour. This sort of thing is not what we are supposed to feel, it would be viewed in a very dim light by those of a judgemental nature. Where do these thoughts and feelings go if we struggle to hold them in our minds before pushing them out as unacceptable?

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Freud, Jung and the other early psychoanalysts all agreed that there is no “disappearing” when it comes to emotions and thoughts of this nature. There is a law of conservation of feeling in operation inside us all. What cannot be faced is suppressed, repressed, diverted and deformed out of our conscious awareness, but it is still there. We feel the residual charge of these emotions which we have squished out of sight whenever our buttons are pressed by someone. Realising that you simply do not like that person but you can’t say why exactly is a sign of unconscious feeling around a trait or characteristic that they possess. Jung called all these unconscious, unwelcome parts of ourselves our Shadow. I read a short introduction to this idea, becoming aware of and working with our shadow in the book “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers” by Debbie Ford which is a great book for anyone wanting to investigate their own shadow parts. Here are some ways in which you may see projection in action…

I hate that Mr Blogs, he is so uptight! Nope, you hate the part of yourself that can be uptight as your chilled out hippy dad always sneered dismissively at people less spontaneous than him.

She is such a slut! Nope, you have repressed your own sexuality to fit into what society thinks is right for women and she reminds you of what you won’t allow yourself to do.

You aren’t thinking about our finances! Nope, you are labelling your partner as financially irresponsible because you spent a lot on a new laptop and this doesn’t fit your view of yourself as a conservative spender.

These are examples of projection, where you accuse someone else of a trait, feeling or behaviour which you yourself need to disown. It is a form of blame shifting. Not me! it cries, it’s HIM!

This is common or garden projection, we all do it. We imagine good qualities we fear we don’t have on people we admire (projection) and bad qualities we fear we do have on our enemies (projection) all of which is completely normal. It is an internal process, an interaction I have with myself which may then colour how I interact with another.

There is a more potent kind of projection which takes this one step further and is sufficiently damaging to interpersonal relationships that for many years it was deemed pathological and indicative of a serious character disorder. Introducing projective identification, projections bigger, badder, mofo brother.

Projective Identification

What if instead of accusing someone of having a trait you disowned you were able to manipulate them into actually feeling the emotions you didn’t want AND by watching them live out your unwanted emotion you got relief from those shitty feelings yourself? With the added bonus of being able to criticise the subject of your emotional hot potato game for having those/your feelings in the first place. Woohoo that is a triple whammy jackpot of projection. Ahhhhhhh, sigh and relax as your unconscious mind fucks up those around you so you don’t have to deal with your messy emotions. Look how superior you are to them, those helpless fools grovelling around acting out anger (tut tut) and fear (oh grow up) and shame (well you ARE at fault aren’t you).

If you could write an advert for projective identification it would go like that, but possibly with some very small smallprint on the bottom of the screen which hurriedly mentions the possibility of permanent and irreversible relationship damage and the development of a reputation for emotional abuse.

I’m exaggerating somewhat, projective identification is not always as pathological as originally thought, it was found to be quite common in longterm married partners where part and parcel of the couple bond formed between two people is the managing of difficult emotions between the two partners. In this context, an otherwise functioning, healthy relationship, it works because it goes both ways so each partner benefits from being able to see some of their emotions provoked in and crucially then managed by the other person. It is a way of learning how to manage those feelings you personally struggle with by stimulating them in another and them holding and transforming those feelings into a form you can then take back.

Horrible feelings I can’t deal with –> provocative actions –> those feelings in the partner –> they can deal with it –> containing/holding actions –> I take my transformed feelings back –> I learn how better to deal with horrible feelings

This is a lovely thing, it happens with parents and children, therapists and clients and between spouses. Done fully it leaves both people feeling closer and better understood.

BUT and here’s the big but, it is horribly damaging in relationships where there is no reciprocity. The to-and-fro of this interaction isn’t possible if one partner has a very limited ability to process difficult emotions from others and also has a limited capacity to manage their own feelings or maybe has a large number of emotions which they deem to be unacceptable (they have a limited emotional range) and so find they can’t contain the volume and have to dump on others.

Worse what if you refuse to allow the other to process and return your feelings, what if you point the finger at them and start attacking them for having the feelings you put there?

Worse still what if the emotions you try to transfer onto your partner trigger past trauma so they are now overwhelmed by your feelings in a way they have no hope of coping with?

If this is a regular pattern in a relationship it is abuse, no ifs or buts about it. It is an action which uses the other person’s emotions to manipulate, denigrate, control or harm them. It is abuse.

How does the person with the difficult feelings manage to offload them on another? By clear and identifiable actions. They actually do something or say something knowing (even unconsciously knowing) that it will provoke the other. Consider the example I gave above of projection, you aren’t thinking about our finances! The emotion the person struggles with is guilt at having breached an internal sense of what is reasonable spending and possibly shame from thinking that this somehow makes them a flawed frivolous person.

I feel terrible guilt and shame –> I accuse my partner of spending too much, look aggrieved, mention how hard I work, sag my shoulders, exude a certain hopelessness and plaintively ask why did you do that? –> my partner now feels concern, questions themselves regarding their spending, takes my complaint seriously (after all we are married) and begins to feel bad about their spending –> now they have guilt and I can work on it to exacerbate the feeling into shame. Seeing their reaction allows me to feel self-righteous as I am correcting their silly spending so clearly I must be someone who knows not to be thoughtless with money. I no longer feel bad, my partner feels awful.

Projective Identification and Narcissism

A narcissist has by definition repressed all their feelings of worthlessness, inferiority and shame out of their conscious minds and if for any short time they sense those emotions they react quite dramatically with an outburst of rage at the person or situation which has exposed them consciously to the unmanageable feelings.

It should come as no surprise to realise that projective identification is used repeatedly and frequently by narcissists. If they cannot manage these feelings then someone else must have them. Someone else has to be made to feel worthless, shamed, guilty, a failure, unattractive or whatever it is they are trying to offload.

When your narcissistic MIL makes a dig about your parenting it is so you feel bad and she doesn’t have to.

When she turns her nose up at your new house/haircut/dress is it to make you feel bad so she doesn’t have to.

When she hogs the best seat in the room and dominates the conversations with me-me-me it is so you will feel small and she doesn’t have to.

Do you see?

Once you see it you can fight back. First off take a check on how you are feeling before you meet your MIL. Are you calm today, a bit giggly, kind of chilled out, slightly rushed, irritated or whatever. This is your baseline for measuring any changes as you won’t experience a sudden shift in mood unless provoked by something. Sudden shifts in mood all on their own are generally signs of a mood disorder like bipolar disorder. Then when you are with your MIL notice if you suddenly feel stung by a remark of hers. Once you see it or feel it as that barb strikes pause for a second and sit with that sting. Ask yourself, how do I feel now? Hurt? Belittled? Dismissed? Once you can name the feeling DROP IT LIKE A HOT POTATO.

It’s not your feeling and you don’t have to hold on to it. It’s her feeling she is trying to offload on you. Reject it. Tell yourself mentally this is not my feeling, I am not small/silly/worthless. You don’t actually have to do anything else like give a response. Holding constant in your own emotional state is enough as she will feel from the atmosphere between you that the comment hasn’t stuck. This is the real knack you can develop through practising medium chill with your NPD MIL. If you brace yourself right from the start not to discuss emotive topics and not to rise to any bait just keep it bland and business like she has much less chance of snaring you in this trap.

Projective Identification and Your Spouse

Now your partner has been raised by someone who uses this tactic to manage their emotions rather than model healthy projective identification between an upset child and a loving parent who is able to contain their upset and transform it for them. Your spouse doesn’t know how to do PI correctly. They know how it is used to offload not how it is used to care for another. They are used to squashing down and then expelling their unacceptable feelings and thoughts not managing them themselves. Narcissism in a primary care giver leads to immature or even completely missing emotional coping mechanisms in the adult child. Therefor your spouse will use projective identification on you and may very well be unable to accept your difficult emotions to process in return.

If this is a stuck pattern in your relationship I strongly recommend you see a couples therapist. If your partner struggles to be conscious of their feelings, has a limited range of emotions and shows discomfort when certain emotions are expressed in front of them they should work individually with a therapist to get help with this.

It is wholly unreasonable for you to be expected to carry the burden of your own emotional baggage and difficulties AND process your partners considerable baggage from childhood. That would be a very unbalanced and exploitative relationship. If you can work together to create a safe way to hold each others difficult emotions you will have created an important element of a loving caring relationship. If you are left baring the brunt of someone else’s emotional refuse and become a landfill site for their discarded, despised feelings you will be worn down and your relationship will become damaged by bitter resentment and disappointment.

The absolute key to using PI effectively is to have each partner psychologically robust enough to take on another’s deep distress at one moment and sit calmly and fully present in that feeling, then it can be transformed and taken back. This will never happen with your MIL. You need to spot what she’s doing and refuse to play pass the hot potato.

My therapist told me doing this effectively is really hard, black belt emotional ninja skills, that even therapists have to work on constantly and be aware of as they use it in their sessions to uncover what is going on with their client. Don’t feel like you have to be an instant expert at this. Even if you spot the projection later in  the day, or later that week after it has happened you can still use this awareness. Write about it, talk about it and be more conscious of how it works. Soon you will see it quicker and be able to nip it in the bud.

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So You Survived Christmas

With apologies to non-christians reading this blog, phew we have survived Christmas, just about, without having to see the MIL.

Because we are low-to-no-contact with the evil MIL Christmas hijacking this year was confined to the presents, as always. It has got so bad that my husband has started opening the presents she sends us before Christmas to check that she has not done the exact opposite of what we have asked and sent the children something wholly unsuitable or vindictive. She likes to send “messages” via her gifts. Like badly trained dogs leave little brown “messages” all over the local public playing field.

A quick recap – MIL sends gifts with strings attached like money with instructions on what to spend it on (here’s a good article on dealing with this http://andthenwesaved.com/accepting-money/#more-10710), she wants you to have certain hobbies (which chime with hers, obviously) or she has a set view of the type of person you are (which is narrow, inaccurate and never changes, obviously) and sends you the items she thinks you should want to fit in with her image of you, she uses the monetary value of gifts to indicate her level of approval with you, or her total lack of empathy means gift buying is bordering on impossible so she gets someone else to tell her what to buy, where to buy it and ideally to just go get it for her so she doesn’t have to bother. All of this comes with long winded sob stories about how incredibly hard it is to find the things she asked you to tell her about.

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So this year, as we did last year, we asked family to send one present to each child so we are not swamped with toys. She ignored this. Obviously. Not just one book and a toy and a shared gift, no four books, each. And the toy we had to tell her to get and where to buy it. MIL present foray number 1: I know what’s best for your kids.

Then there was the way she has repeatedly tried to get my husband to accept money from her to buy new clothes as she says he looks shabby, and for her to buy the girls all the clothes they might need for spring/summer. We have refused this demeaning and controlling imposition with the implication that we are incapable of providing for ourselves. And that is how she means it, accepting money from her is like opening the door to a vampire. The blood sucking and horror will begin if she gets a foot across the threshold. My husband unwraps the presents she sent and peaks in each one to see and finds a present addressed to all of us. Curious and slightly dreading what’s inside he looks and finds a load of kids toy money wrapped up just to prove she can send us money after all. MIL present volley number 2: ha ha I’ll do whatever I want,  here’s your money.

Lastly is the disparity in the amount of money she spends. One year We all got a small gift and then she included some cheques, £100 for husband, £50 for each of the kids, nothing for me. This year she gave £350 to husband and £35 gift voucher and a plastic box to me. A transparent 10 inch by 8 inch plastic box for storing beads. I do not make jewellery or have any beads that need storing. MIL likes jewellery and beads though. MIL present attack number 3: that’s what I think of you, got the message?

 

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Now I refuse to see her (are you surprised?) but the husband feels obliged to see her so the kids can have some sort of relationship with her. I’m not sure why as in my mind if she is so unpleasant I can’t be around her so why should the children? But you know it’s his feeling that his family should not be excluded because that is unfair to him somehow. This recurring issue of balancing up everything so it is equal, as opposed to right or just or appropriate, is something we are working on. Thus a trip to meet Grandma has been mooted for New Years’ Eve, to meet her half way between her house and ours, somewhere near Bristol (UK). But she is having issues with the weather reports. She won’t drive if it is sunny because the sun on the motorway is too bright, she won’t drive if it is wet and windy as it is too dangerous, she won’t drive in fog, frost, snow…you get the picture. Calm, overcast and mild are the only conditions she is OK with. But not too late as she won’t drive if it’s dark.

I’m not sure what she thinks she gains by being so difficult. She has driven for years, never crashed, has a modern car, the roads are all major roads or motorways, well lit with various service stations. We are talking about 1.5-2 hours driving tops here. I don’t know if she thinks that the husband will relent and say “oh well we’ll drive all the way to see you then” if she complains like this, she will never come out and say what she wants. The more likely scenario is that he gets so pissed off by her antics he cancels the trip.

I am uncomfortable with the children spending time with her. I don’t believe children should have contact with adults who are dangerous, unstable, mean and nasty just because they are blood relatives. Family bonds only mean something if the family members mark that bond, that tie by ensuring the enhanced safety, security and comfort of those they are bonded with. That’s what the bond is – I am one with you, you are precious to me. Precious to MIL is more like Gollum clinging greedily to the One Ring muttering “my precious, my precious”.

 

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Anyway please take the opportunity to relive your holiday rants and MIL moments and fill the comments below with the bullshit you’ve experienced over the last week of enforced family get-togethers. And can I just award this medal to anyone who had to have MIL over for Christmas lunch.

 

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Just Not There: The Emotionally Unavailable Spouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about their openness with another person and themselves

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

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

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

It’s about where they are at this moment emotionally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 2015 – Where I’m at

Hello Readers. My goodness it has been a long time since I last posted and I am sorry to those of you who have been expecting a more frequent service.

As I mentioned last October we moved house. We have also been seeing a couples therapist to sort out some of the issues that have been affecting our relationship. The issues stem in the main part from the unhelpful patterns that are learned by anyone being raised in a family with a dysfunctional parent/s. These unhelpful patterns of behaviour ultimately affect any long term intimate relationship and we really hit the buffers on this. It’s been a very difficult period and I have not felt like writing down what was happening as it was too visceral and unprocessed at the time.

Now things are beginning to make sense and the worst and most painful parts of the counselling process have been worked through. I’m not going to go into details in this blog as that is private but I have learned a lot about how a narcissistic mother can throw a spanner in the works of a marriage. I’m going to share these insights with you.

I’ve been reading several books on the subject also and will review these briefly in case any strike a chord with you.

I hope to get round to replying to the comments you have been leaving for the last few months. Thank you for contributing your experiences on what we all know is a difficult and painful topic. It really does help others to read through similar scenarios, it’s so validating and reassuring to know it isn’t just you struggling with this.

How are you all?

Fierce Cork Woman

 

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Quick Update

Hello Readers. I am fine. We have been moving house and have spent a few weeks packing up the contents of one house, dealing with last minute legal angst and moving to our new house. I am up to my eyeballs in boxes and the kids are living out of suitcases! We are trying to crack on with redecorating as the new, larger house has a lot of work that needs doing to it. The bathrooms are in a right state.

Yesterday the man from the cable telecommunications company turned up to connect us so now we have TV, internet and phones which we haven’t had for the last 10 days which is why I haven’t been able to post and respond to your comments. We are even in a spot which gets poor mobile phone reception, in a dip between two hills, so my smart phone has been taking up to 5 minutes to load a webpage if it is able to at all.

Now things are settling down I will be able to post a bit more frequently. I have a post about event hijacking by MILs and some ideas for an article on fleas, that is the traits your partner brings into your relationship which mirror the disordered MIL’s behaviour. The term comes from the phrase “if you lie with dogs, you will catch fleas”.

Thank you for all your comments recently and hello and welcome to the new people who have started following this blog. Please bear with me while I get the family settled into our new house.

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Low Contact or No Contact?

The crucial consideration in how to manage a narcissistic MIL is whether to limit your contact with her and by how much. I am not going to pretend to you that I think there is any way of dealing with a MIL from Hell other than drastically reducing her presence in your life. Reducing contact to the minimum that you and your spouse are comfortable with is what is required to stay sane.

The two of you do not have to agree on the same level of contact. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you have to do everything together. If you or they want less, respect that and work around it. One person can see them by themselves if they wish. You might think that it is the in-law who wishes the least contact but that is not always the case. I have heard of couples where the spouse wants no contact but the in-law keeps in touch and visits with the grandchildren. There is no universally correct way of handling the situation, you and your spouse will have to work that out between you.

Let’s look at what options are available in terms of contact and how to implement them. There is some jargon here I’d like to introduce you to; medium chill, low contact and no contact. Each term describes a different level of contact from the most to the least.

Medium chill sounds like a setting you might find on your fridge but it is about establishing an emotional coolness and detachment with regard to your disordered MIL. Forget emotional intimacy, you are cool, limited in your conversational content, setting clear limits to what will be discussed. You discuss nothing with her of any significance to you or your family. They are handled with a wall of small trivia, bland sentiment and neutral statements. Visits are arranged to suit you, best to organise them on your own or neutral territory not at her house and to set a clear time limit for each encounter. You have determined your family boundaries regarding her behaviour and are both prepared to enforce them.

An example of medium chill is my response to my MIL’s enquiries about my family. My brother went through a hard time, he split up with his long time partner, it was very messy involving various personal, money and property issues. He became quite seriously depressed and moved in with our parents to recover. I never, ever mentioned what had happened or why he was living back at home to MIL. If she asked how he was I made some bland comment along the lines of “fine thanks, getting on with things” and moved the conversation on or simply turned away from her. It was a dead end. This is medium chill. It is not rude or ignoring someone, it is simply keeping the MIL in a box and not letting her get out.

Medium chill doesn’t necessarily limit the number of contacts you have with MIL. She can still phone, email, send letters, come and visit or whatever. It is more to do with your mental approach to her contact. Like all managed forms of contact it is important that you are ruthlessly consistent in treating her this way.

Low contact is different in that this does include a limit on the frequency and type of contact you have with your MIL. Low means just a few, 3 or 4 visits a year. It also means deciding not to answer every call, reply to every email or as I did requesting that she not email or write at all. My MIL does email and write to my husband. She doesn’t have my email address and I have never responded to the few times she has texted me, I did not give her my phone number so I am not sure how she got it. These are my limits.

We are in a state of low contact with my MIL at the moment. The children and my husband see her maybe three times a year, me probably only once as I don’t go to meet her, I only see her if she visits our house. These visits coincide with special occasions like Christmas or birthdays. This contrasts with the situation when our first child was born where my MIL would visit every fortnight despite living three hours drive away. Infrequent visits also have the advantage of storing up lots of unimportant family news which can then fill the conversation until its time for her to leave. Low contact also encompasses medium chill in that when I do have to spend time in her company I keep it cool.

My husband continues to have contact with her via phone and email. Sometimes this happens several times a week. She goes through periods of having a lot of contact with my husband, usually because she needs something. Then we hear nothing for several weeks. We have caller ID on the house phone and mobile so we can choose not to pick up if we don’t want to have to deal with her. My husband often just scans her emails for anything troublesome then ignores them.

Low contact allows the disordered person some contact with their child and grandchildren, keeping them included in family life but in a way that is set by us. My intention when dealing with my MIL is not to use contact with her son and grandchildren as a way of punishing or rewarding her. It was a philosophical/moral decision that we would enable her to have a relationship as best as she could manage with her granddaughters. It is not her fault that she has this difficult behaviour although she does have some control over it. Provided her behaviour stayed within our boundaries we would manage it so that she could see her grandchildren while not causing grief to us both when she attended family events.

No Contact. Some people with NPD are just vile all the time, the drip, drip of poisonous contact with a MIL becomes so demoralising that one or both partners in the marriage decides enough is enough. Occasionally the disordered person does one spectacularly awful thing so that halting all contact is sudden and decisive. This is the often, sometimes unconscious, wish of the spouse in denial. They hope for a sudden coup de grace that makes the difficult decision for them. This rarely happens and it is easy to back track on a decision to have no contact after a one-off event, rather like storming away from a lover after a huge row, you can always decide to kiss and make up later and blame it on the heat of the moment.

A more objective and rational decision is to sit back and weigh up the long term effect of continued contact with someone who despite your best efforts at managing her is still causing problems and strife. This may lead everyone to conclude that just cutting the person off is the best approach. This is also a hard thing to do. It seems callous and ruthless. It is the point where you emotionally are so worn down and disgusted by the constant abusive behaviour you can’t take anymore.

Sometimes no contact is used for a limited time to give everyone a break. We have used it in this fashion after my husband first confronted his mother about her behaviour. She followed up his conversation with weeks of emails and phone calls, increasingly dramatic and self pitying, even at one point writing vaguely threatening sentences in white font at the end of emails. So he said no contact for a month – a cooling off period. It had the desired effect in that it brought the emotional temperature right down.

Permanent no contact is a serious undertaking. For it to work effectively it really means no contact under any circumstances; it is like declaring “you are dead to me”. Dead.

No contact means no phone calls, texts, emails, parcels, presents, messages through third parties, no chat, no gossip from anyone, no news passed on, no casual enquiries, no invitations, no response to hearing they are sad, hospitalised or dead. Anything other than this is a variant of low contact and will always mean the door is left open for further and fuller involvement with them. No contact is not for wimps.

You do not have to inform someone that you are cutting them off although some people do and use this as an opportunity to express how hurt they have been by their parent’s behaviour. Some people return any letters or parcels but no contact purists would argue by returning them you are in fact having contact, binning them is better. In almost every circumstance you will be contacted by a third party trying to “find out what happened” or pass on how upset the MIL is. This is called rather prosaically an attack of the flying monkeys.

In the classic film version of the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch sends her troop of flying monkeys to capture Dorothy, the monkeys go off and do her bidding and her dirty work. Be warned the monkeys will come. You will need to be ready to ignore them too, they may well be close family and this can create strife that spreads beyond your relationship with your MIL. Like I said, no contact is not for wimps.

So there you have a range of options to consider. You do not have to let your mother in law have unfettered access to you, your children, your house, your time, energy or emotions. You decide what if anything you are comfortable with. Your spouse can decide for themselves and together you can consider the contact you feel is appropriate with your children. With good boundaries in place your MIL can be managed so her impact on your life is reduced to that of mild irritation rather than crazy, out of control abuse.

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