Tag Archives: communication

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

Denial and your Spouse

Denial is not just failing to recognise something that others see, everybody has their blind spots. Denial is failing to acknowledge it even in the face of overwhelming evidence put right under your nose. Freud the father of psychoanalysis, first proposed denial as one of the primary defence mechanism of the psyche against thoughts, insight and feelings the conscious mind was unable or unwilling to accept.

My husband was in denial about his mother’s behaviour towards him and our family, now he is in denial about the full extent of it, preferring not to use terms like personality disorder but to say she is “difficult” instead. This demonstrates a truth about denial, it comes in various levels.

Outright factual denial takes the form of a refutation of a statement, “no I am not fat!”.  Minimization is the admission of the fact but in a way that rejects its seriousness, “yeah I like a drink, but I’ve got it under control”. Projection is a denial of responsibility by blaming someone else for behaviour, “she provoked me”.

Let me show you how this works with my husband and his denial about his mother’s behaviour. First off the outright denial of fact is not something that he does, partly because of the amnesia discussed above and partly because he is not a liar. But if I had challenged him a few years ago with a sentence such as “your mother is mentally ill, her behaviour towards us is very abnormal” I would have got an outright denial. She, on the other hand, will outright deny a statement or say something like “that isn’t the sort of thing I’d say” which has a high b******t factor, refuting it but without committing to a lie.

The second level of denial, minimisation, occurs all the time. He minimises all of her behaviour, offers excuses for it, reinterprets it into the best possible light and suggests I have somehow misunderstood it. You cannot misunderstand when you meet you husband’s mother for the first time and she totally ignores you, doesn’t shake your hand or say hello, turns her back and walks away with your partner. Ask him about this now and he doesn’t remember. At the time, after a whole day of her appallingly rude treatment, he laughed nervously and said she was just like that. Minimisation in action.

He also minimises the effect that her behaviour has on me and on our marriage. The only way to tackle this is to repeatedly and honestly tell your spouse how their mother’s behaviour makes you feel and show it. You actually need to cry, sound cross, gesticulate, sob, put your head in your hands and your heart on your sleeve. I also find referring back to her behaviour helps, “I won’t be doing that because last time your mother did this…and it made me feel…”. Confronting your spouse with a cause and effect consequence of your MIL’s actions is a powerful way to challenge minimisation. Statements along the lines of “this happened and it made me feel like this” cannot be argued with.

Projection, the last form of denial, is also a speciality of my husband’s. His mother acts like she does because her mother in turn was not nice to her. Rather than get angry with his mum, he feels angry with his grandmother. It is safer that way. Blaming another for his mother’s actions means not only does she get an excuse so she doesn’t have to change but he also doesn’t have to tackle her or her actions.

Which brings us nicely to why people experience denial at all. Some things are just too painful or potentially disruptive for the conscious mind to want to pay attention to it. Facing the facts would bring about a huge cognitive dissonance in the child of a narcissist. Our culture promotes the pervasive view of mothers as selfless, nurturing, loving people whom we all rely on as babies for our very survival, the mother as life giver and comforter, this collides head on with the stark reality that in fact your mother acts like a self absorbed bitch most of the time and appears not to give a damn about you. Faced with such a massive clash of belief with fact the adult child of your NPD MIL would experience a huge amount of stress and psychological discomfort.

The person will try to minimise the dissonance, and also to actively avoid information or situations that would increase it. So they choose to see the MIL as a good mum who is just misunderstood and put their fingers in their ears and chant “la la la I can’t hear you”.

I am slightly trivialising the issue here, it would be very painful and most likely trigger a grieving process even depression to realise your mother was incapable of loving you and all your interactions with her were on a selfish level. It would cut to the very core of a person’s belief in their own lovability and worth. To rebuild a secure sense of your self after such a realisation would take a long time and some serious therapy. You can understand why denial is such a strong feature in some spouses.

Denial is not always a maladaptive way of dealing with a situation. It is seen by psychologists as the first step in coping with information that provokes feelings and thoughts that are very distressing to the denier. In the short term it helps the denier cope with daily life and continue in the face of something that threatens their psychological or physical health or security. We are familiar with the shock and denial that are experienced by people who are faced with the sudden death of a loved one, “I can’t believe he’s dead, it’s a mistake”, “it’s not cancer, I want a second opinion”. The next steps beyond denial are anger, grief, despair, integration and acceptance of the facts and normal a person would cycle through those until a resolution with the difficult facts was reached.

In a family where the mother is behaving in a very damaging way denial of the problem becomes a way of life that allows everyone to continue acting as if they were a normal family. Your spouse was raised in that environment. To them denying that mum is messed up and cruel is second nature. Denial of the situation has stopped being a stage in the process of assimilating a difficult lesson and instead has become a way of life. It has a massive pay-off for the spouse, it allows them to love their mother and see themselves as loveable. To tackle denial you are going to have to be clever as it is a very stubborn psychological defence. The bottom line is that a person cannot be made to face up to a problem they are in denial about until they are ready.

Two things may trigger a person to come out of denial, one is a sudden crisis that shocks them into facing reality as it is rather than as they choose to interpret it, the other is a slower process where you confront someone repeatedly with hard evidence that contradicts their interpretation and also call out each time they use some argument or trick to try and divert you from your task. A psychotherapist would gently use the second method to tease out the emotions and thoughts that an individual is hiding behind the denial. How on Earth do you do it?

Firstly be aware of the methods your spouse uses to deny what you say to them. There are emotional ploys, logical tricks and rhetorical arguments that get pulled out of the bag when a person in denial is pushed to see what is really true about their situation. They may also get angry and very defensive so you need to be subtle and keep yourself calm. Do not attempt to tackle the entire thing in one go! Choose a specific thing and stick with it.

For example, maybe your MIL has made a catty remark to you. Raise it with your spouse, “your mother said…and it made me feel…” then confront any minimisation or denial, “oh she was just tired” gets challenged with “how do you know she was tired?”, “is it OK for me to speak to you like that when tired?” or “she didn’t mean it that way” is met with “how do you know that?”, “why is your interpretation better than mine?”, “are you the most objective assessor of your mother’s behaviour?”. Then leave it. You only have to do this a little bit at a time. What counts is that you do it repeatedly and in a calm and genuinely sympathetic way. Glaciers melt one drip at a time.

Set some boundaries around any denial conversations where you walk away if your spouse gets too angry, starts name calling or shouts at you. Respond to the logical, factual bits of what your partner says, don’t respond to the emotional content. I have actually replied to the line “she’s my mother!” with ” I am aware of your biological relationship but that doesn’t alter…”, she’s my mother is not a get out of jail free card. You could spell that out at the start of the conversation if you want.

I can recommend a good website http://onegoodmove.org/fallacy/howto.htm which summarises some common logical fallacies your spouse will no doubt make good use of if you confront their denial. These are an academic description of the ways everyone argues back when they are not trying to write philosophic essays for professors. Avoiding these fallacies is the goal of philosophical essays, the rest of us can be forgiven for using them in normal conversation. If you know what they are you can counter them.

Always be ready to acknowledge when they have a point, you too can be defensive and after years of putting up with MIL you probably do have some chips to get off your shoulder. The more calm and reasonable you sound the more weight your words will carry. It is all too easy to dismiss you as ranting or hysterical otherwise.

Finally don’t protect your spouse from the consequences of their denial. To do so is to be complicit in it and codependent in their abusive relationship with their mother. If they deny she is being a bitch and this makes you want to spend the weekend with your folks instead, go and stay with them. If denying she is a fussy eater means you serve up food you know she won’t eat so be it, then leave him to deal with the fallout. Don’t rescue them from the problems caused by their refusal to see reality as it is. Good luck.

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Filed under Denial, Effects of NPD on others, Helping your spouse deal with NPD mum, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, strategies for managing NPD MIL

How NOT to manage an Narcissistic MIL

There are some things which on reflection did sod all to improve the situation with my MIL and even made it worse temporarily. I’m relieved to report that I have yet to find anything that has made her behaviour worse on a permanent basis, with the possible exception of marrying her darling son.

Don’t get angry in her presence.

Getting angry with MIL doesn’t work. Raising your voice with her leads to two things, she gets angry back and ups the ante or she goes all weepy and “oh poor me”, if you’re really unlucky she does both. When my husband went to speak to her about her behaviour for the first time about 2 years ago, his voice became angry and he (shock horror) displayed his displeasure while asking her not to be rude to me. She immediately got very aggressive, snapping with her voice, all glowering rage filled face and bully-boy body language, stormed out the room and came back brandishing a letter she had written her own mother years ago (and bizarrely kept) shouting how she could get angry too. Apparently she had written down how her own screwed-up mother had really hurt her, but then never done anything with the letter. A sad vignette which shows how emotional dysfunction really does echo down the generations.

After this we had weeks of emails and angst, I even emailed her to express my feelings about how behaviour was affecting is us. I did it politely. She replied immediately saying she was “shaking with rage” about how I had “approached her”. Leaving aside how revealing is her choice of phrase (should I have curtseyed first perhaps, or in some other way have begged her leave?) her reaction highlights a truth about people with NPD, they don’t just get angry, they loose control and go into a red-faced, shaking rages. I have never witnessed it but I can well believe it when others report how NPD people assault and attack them. After her rage was spent, much like a small child having a screaming tantrum, she will go back to acting just as she did before as if nothing had happened.

So a shouting match with NPD MIL could end with her going berserk and possibly hitting someone or smashing things. Then there would be weeks of fall out. Best to to go there, unless you want an excuse to never see them again in which case provoke all you like.

If you don’t hit one of her immediate red-hot buttons what you may get instead is a wide-eyed, weepy victim act where you are characterised as the nasty aggressor and she is misunderstood (a word frequently used by people with NPD) and cruelly abused by you. There is no way out of that trap. Get more angry and she’ll wail all the louder. Calm down and she’s got what she wanted, control of you.

The only way getting angry with MIL will ever help is to give a voice to your pain and outrage. That is not an insignificant thing, you are entitled to say how you feel and to show it too. Families with NPD mothers can be extremely controlled in their displays of emotions because so much of the home life is centred on keeping the NPD mother happy. You may find your other half is very uncomfortable with your anger as they were terrified of their mother’s rages as small children. If you can’t express yourself freely your anger will build and boil over. Blowing your top can also show a partner exactly how upset you have been by MIL’s behaviour. Just don’t go all nuclear in front of the kids or you’ll scare them too.

Being passive will be taken as a display of contemptible weakness.

You may think never expressing displeasure or annoyance, never disagreeing with her and generally being placating and passive would somehow lead to the opposite of raging behaviour, maybe she would be nice then? No, don’t be silly. Then she sees you as weak and pathetic and easy to belittle, condescend and generally control all she likes and she will act accordingly. Understanding this is a crucial.

People with NPD have a deep stated feeling of extreme shame in themselves and everything they are. They cannot bear the pain this brings so they shove this aspect of their feelings deep down into their unconscious mind and only in therapy are they able to reveal this. Enough people with NPD have been in therapy for psychiatrists to report this, that deep down people with NPD are utterly ashamed of themselves. Associated with this level of self disgust are many feelings and behaviours; feeling ignorant and weak, fear, simpering, pleading, wheedling, begging, sycophantic placating all of which are what they themselves felt around their own parents. They can’t face up to this aspect of themselves.

What someone with NPD presents to the world is the exact opposite of this. They act supremely knowledgeable, in control, haughty or morally superior, demanding, grandiose, the sole competent amongst idiots, arrogant and selfish. But the rejected parts of their psyche don’t dissolve away to nothing. They sit there in the unconscious rather like an undigested bit of food can sit in your gut. Every so often the pain of an undigested emotion burps its way up to the surface. The NPD MIL doesn’t see these ghastly rejected qualities in herself. The whole process  of developing a personality disorder requires severing these feelings from their conscious mind, a process so absolute they can usually never be reattached. No, when the psychological burp emerges the NPD person sees the rejected feelings and behaviours in other people. Psychotherapists call this projection. It is profound stuff projection.

If you act in a way that reminds NPD MIL of her rejected feelings she will go ahead and belch out an entire gut full of her unconscious mind all over you and then self righteously pity and hate you for reeking of what she despises.

Best not go there either.

Meeting like with like just leads to more like

There is a third option which is to be as passive-aggressive and manipulative as MIL is. The problem there is that she has had years and years to perfect her techniques in this area. Eventually, if you are normal, this approach will make you feel sick to your stomach. It consumes large amounts of your time and emotional energy to be pulling everyones strings and orchestrating epic sulks and paybacks. MIL doesn’t mind doing this, she loves it. This is her raison d’être, she is a native speaker of this language.

If you take this line you will find it spreads like wild fire as MIL recruits wider family members, friends, neighbours, countrymen to her cause. It will make you a worse person and sets an awful example to your children and frankly makes your partner think they have mother mark II living at home with them. Not good.

But…

Just as with a selective display of real anger, a selective use of her own weapons against her can be very cathartic and bluntly, amusing. Sometimes it is good to know you can get one over the old cow. A pithy comment disguised as all innocence, a deliberately misunderstood remark, taking her “oh poor me” act at face value and treating her as a slightly senile old dear is funny and the immediate way she will drop the act is revealing.

MIL has for some time now made a big deal about how hard it is to find our kids presents for Christmas and birthdays. Apparently there is nowhere in her town of more than 30,000 people to buy toys, nowhere. So she presented our eldest with some play dough and moaned about how hard it was to find. A few weeks later she emailed my husband to say she’d got a load of play dough in lots of colours. I pointed out this inconsistency to my husband, he emailed her and said innocently “I thought you said you had problems getting hold of play dough?”. Absolute silence followed for two weeks then she replied saying this was old play dough she had already bought and stored in the loft.

We know we caught her out, she believes her lie was convincing, that doesn’t matter as I still smile every time I think of it.

Don’t JADE

Supposing you are not being angry, or passive but are trying to use cool logic to tackle your MIL’s behaviour? In a rational and dispassionate way you challenge a behaviour or viewpoint in conversation, surely logic will win the day? Nope you can’t win there either.

One way my MIL likes to behave is what a teacher friend of mine calls getting all legal. She starts to dissect each argument into tiny little elements and then tries to pick holes in each tiny part.  Attempts to logically confront her behaviour lead to an ever expanding mess of minutiae taken to absurd extremes. My teacher friend uses the phrase because teenagers are apt to do this when caught out misbehaving in school. Imagine the head of year gets called to a classroom incident and Little Johnny disputes the minutiae of the teacher’s version of events, no he didn’t take the blow up globe and kick it round the classroom, it was already on the floor and the teacher hadn’t told him not to touch it so how was he supposed to know, and she hadn’t told him to sit down but had told a couple of other boys so that’s why he was still out of his place and so she was lying and picking on him blah, blah, blah. Sadly this sort of BS is what teachers hear everyday. Oh and we hear it from MIL also.

She is the absolute master of refusing to see the wood for the tiny little twigs on the branches on the trees. If you aren’t very careful, attempting to argue back at her ends up with the whole point of the discussion being lost and most likely diverted onto some mistreatment she wants to highlight. This legalistic dissection of other people’s statements appeals to her sense of greater intellect. That is the tactic, she can feel smug about how clever she is while evading having to address the issue you raised. Even though she can contradict herself in the course of such a “rational” discussion she will never admit it and we have had emails pages long where she has gone on to argue every tiny point in a short remark.

You don’t actually have to give any reason for making a statement about what you want to MIL. Don’t JADE, that is don’t Justify, Argue, Defend or Explain. You are an adult and you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. The statement “I don’t want that” is sufficient. If you feel you need to explain or defend something to a person with NPD then that is because you anticipate their disapproval  which in turn means you are fearful of that disapproval and have somehow got yourself into a situation where their approval matters. You will never have their approval so stop tying yourself up in knots trying to get it.

Don’t EVER break down and cry in front of her

Oh God, you may as well expose your jugular and hand her a sharp knife. Once she knows what will make you cry she’ll do it over and over again in different ways and smirk while she does it, then pretend she had no idea it would upset you. She will question your emotional stability to all and sundry behind your back. She will only ever offer the most false of apologies, “I’m sorry you felt bad” which implies the problem is your reaction not her action, not a sincere apology, “I’m sorry for what I did” which takes personal responsibility for the action.

Walk out of the room, go to the loo whatever you need to do and regain your composure. Crying is most effectively done in front of your partner so they can see how their mother’s behaviour affects you. Ideally it will never get to the point where she makes you cry as this is what boundaries are supposed to do. Once she starts being so catty and nasty that you feel stung and tearful you need to say something like “that comment is unacceptable to me, I don’t want to hear that again” and then remove yourself or tell her to leave if she doesn’t get the message.

What if your children are upset by her treatment of them and she makes one of them cry? I’d instinctively be angry and jump to their defence. It is very hard for NPD MIL to defend making a child cry without criticising the child, which they will do. This leaves them on dodgy ground though as reducing or cutting contact altogether on the grounds that they are cruel to your child would be a good reason to most people. MIL once made one of our kids cry after she had left. The whole visit had been short and nasty and our eldest burst into tears as we drove away from the restaurant where we had said goodbye. There was no opportunity for addressing her behaviour, it just left me simmering with anger and resentment. If your MIL makes your children cry, blames them for it and you do nothing about this you are being abusive to your own kids and really need to sort yourself out.

Ranting at your partner will alienate not motivate them

A lot of my intense anger at my MIL was actually anger at my husband that I had redirected towards her. Feelings such as “how can she treat me like this?” were at their heart more like “how can he watch me be treated like this?” but it was safer for our marriage for me to direct that anger at her not at him.

Being very angry with your partner is scary. I had thoughts of leaving him, of issuing blunt ultimatums; her or me, of throwing him out with a “go live with her then” followed by a flying suitcase and a slammed door. This is where having outside support really helps. I ranted at the therapist instead and tried to understand my husband and work with where he was in his relationship with his mother rather than demand that he immediately see it from my perspective. Good God this was hard. If he ever doubts I am committed to our marriage I will cite this as evidence. I bit my tongue and held off spelling out the (to me) bleedin’ obvious more times than I care to remember.

Pure anger at her behaviour made him defensive. He would immediately present her side of things and was really just parroting what she would have said for herself, he was being her proxy in the argument. Rows have this tendency, they polarise people and in the opposite corner to me was his mum so he took that corner. By venting my spleen to the therapist I could be calmer and more moderate in my conversation with him which meant we met in the middle ground and he began to see my side too.

The therapist also pointed out something psychoanalysts are very familiar with but I wasn’t. A marriage binds two people on an unconscious level especially if one or the other of you are very empathic people. Feelings can then be shared between the pair of you, some of my feelings get transferred and felt by my husband and vice versa. This is commonly experienced as getting angry for someone or feeling their embarrassment. I was getting angry for my husband and worse my husband has a real problem with displaying anger as it was strictly clamped down on in his childhood. So I ended up displaying all the anger we both felt. As soon as I stopped ranting openly my husband visibly got more irritated with his mother and started reporting dreams where he was shouting at her. All the raging conversations with her that I was having in my head started to dissipate and I no longer feel like a bomb about to go off.

Don’t take on all the anger and don’t hurl it at your partner. They have been damaged by having an NPD mother more than they consciously realise. Nothing subverts your NPD MIL’s intentions more than having a strong, supportive marriage. And nothing would make her happier than seeing the two of you fight.

In summary

Your options for dealing with MIL are really restricted to a calm, consistent, clearly defined and assertively imposed set of expectations with immediate withdrawal from her company or expulsion from your house as the consequence of transgression.  Being aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive or defensive will lead to a worsening of her behaviour and can harm your relationship with your partner.

This does mean that you will never have an easy, relaxed and natural conversation with your MIL about anything. So be it.

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

Communication Problems 1

I’m writing about communication this morning as I had been lying awake last night running a scenario over and over in my mind. The root cause of the scenario which will probably happen at the next MIL visit over the summer is her inability to communicate clearly and directly. I think problems with communication are common to all personality disorders.

Why do we communicate? I find it helps to consider small children when trying to understand communication. They start out just making noises and learn slowly how to shape the noises and gestures into meaningful interactions. Babies develop communication in a predictable way.

First they learn to communicate basic needs. They get hungry; they cry. They are cold; they cry. The purpose of crying is to alert the caregiver who will respond in an appropriate way to cater to the baby’s need. New parents take a while to learn and anticipate a baby’s needs and they cycle through the list of possibilities (hungry, tired, cold, hot, nappy, comfort etc) before hitting on the correct response. A good enough parent will keep going through the list until the child’s need is correctly identified.

The next stage of learning to communicate is mirroring. This time the parent leads the interaction. They see the faces the baby is making and makes them back. They repeat the gurgly baby noises and play lots of hiding and appearing games. Watch anyone with a newborn and they make a huge amount of eye contact and pull all sorts of goofy faces. This response to a baby is automatic and it is very important. Just like responding to cries secures the baby’s confidence that their needs will be met, copying their facial expressions and noises shows the baby what their emotions look like and gives them the confidence to express them. They are learning a vital emotional vocabulary.  (The books “The Social Baby – Understanding babies’ communication from birth” by Lynne Murray and Liz Andrews, “The Science of Parenting” by Margot Sunderland and “Why Love Matters – How affection shapes a baby’s brain” by Sue Gerhardt  go into this in some detail).

Then babies start to coordinate their bodies better and can point to things they want. Their first communication through gestures is “Look! That, that!” and then “I want that, give it to me”. They draw another’s attention to something in the environment (Look! That, that!) and then they express what they want (Gimme!). So being able to clearly express your desire for something to another is something people learn very early on, from about 9 months old.

People with personality disorders don’t do this. They are not able to clearly express their desire for something to another person. Not even a basic need such as hunger or being desperate for the loo. Let’s look at why that is and how it shows up in their behaviour.

Why can’t they ask for things clearly and directly?

The key to understanding this is the interaction between the baby and the caregiver. What if the caregiver doesn’t work through all the possibilities when the baby cries? What if they ignore the baby? What if the baby is not played with and mirrored in lots of face to face interactions? What if the baby is punished for expressing their needs? These are conditions of neglect. They are conditions where the baby’s early attempts at communication are rebuffed. It is not surprising then if a baby with a parent like this would develop communication problems.

Some academics believe NPD occurs because the early interactions between the main caregiver and the baby are dysfunctional from as early as 6 months old. This is one of the reasons why post natal depression is taken so seriously by the medical establishment. Without good interactions between baby and caregiver early on the whole developmental track of the child is disrupted.

Some babies will scan their environment seeking out another responsive adult, maybe the other parent or a grandparent or child minder or even a sibling. The drive inside the  baby to find a responsive caregiver is very strong. They will do better than a baby which hasn’t got an alternative adult to respond to them or who has a weaker  instinct to seek one out, that misfortunate child will never learn to communicate effectively or recognise their own emotions properly. That child may end up with a personality disorder. I qualify that sentence with “may” but really you could replace the word with “will” so strong is the link between adult dysfunction and disordered care in the very early years.

The end result is someone who is incompetent in expressing themselves and actually fearful of openly and clearly making their needs and desires known. If as a child your cry for comfort was ignored or responded to with shouting or a slap you would learn pretty damn quick not to do that, not to show directly that you wanted comfort. The need for comfort would still be there. The child would learn which ways that need could be met by the unresponsive or neglectful caregiver which inevitably would mean putting what the caregiver found acceptable ahead of the baby’s instinct. This is completely arse about face, the adult caregiver should put the baby’s needs first not their own.  If never adequately met, the need would remain as an immature and insatiable drive in their psyche throughout their whole life. NPD is a need to be valued and loved which becomes utterly distorted into thinking oneself more valuable and more worthy of love than anyone else.

If the child is made to feel ashamed and ungratefully demanding when they express their needs they would grow into adulthood very wary of the response they may get when expressing a need. They would skirt around the edges of what they want, attribute the desire to another, always leave themselves with some get out clause from having the need directly attributed to them. This leads to indirect and confusing communication.

How does disordered communication show itself?

I have observed several patterns of behaviour that I have come across in adults with personality disorders. All these behaviours contribute to the communication problems people have when dealing with a persona with a PD.  Here I discuss indirect speech, triangulation, proxy recruitment, mind-reading, ambiguity, unique vocabulary.

  1. Indirect Speech: Instead of using active, first person vocabulary like “I want to go here” a more passive, third person voice is adopted “perhaps people would like to…” where it is unclear if this is the actual desire of the person involved of if they are simply hypothesising what another person’s desire may be.
  2. Triangulation: the person uses a third party to convey a message to someone or find out information about someone. Examples: MIL talks to SIL about a topic she wants us to know about, relying on SIL mentioning it when SIL speaks to us. MIL conveys her desires through interactions with grandchild “would Mummy let you have more sweets grandchild?” rather than ask directly. I think “accidentally” copying you into an email to someone else which talks about you is also an example of triangulation.
  3. Proxy recruitment: this is a more deliberately manipulative strategy than triangulation but still uses a third person to convey a message. Now the third person is recruited to act as a mouthpiece or foot soldier by the NPD person. Examples: Telling a relative how upset they are with someone’s behaviour and asking the relative to convey that to the person rather than telling them directly. Getting a subordinate to sack a member of staff or pass on bad news to management.
  4. Mind-Reading: expecting other people to know things without being told. Example: not saying what they would like for their birthday when asked as they expect the other to know or acting as if they have said something when they haven’t because thinking the message is so strong in their own mind they assume somehow that others must know it too.
  5. Ambiguity: This involves not specifying details in a conversation leaving others confused as to who or what is being alluded to. Lots of pregnant pauses, knowing looks, nudge-nudge non-verbal behaviour and use of words like someone, something, it, that, you know, thingy etc are used. Examples: “someone might get bored over the summer and … you know…”, “ever since the incident, she’s been a bit (eyebrows raised)…”.
  6. Unique Vocabulary: This involves the NPD person having their own unique use for common words which mean something completely different to the usual meaning of the word. Examples: “I’m not making excuses” when they are offering an explanation for behaviour in such a way as to minimise or remove any consequence, which is of course exactly what is meant by making an excuse.

I think the fundamental problem with the communication of personality disordered people is their difficulty in recognising their own needs due to a lack of mirroring as babies and an inability to express them clearly due to fear of being rejected or punished.

What is so difficult for other people involved with a PD person is that their methods for communicating are confusing, unclear and unreasonable. There is another level of interaction that follows from the disordered communication which is the anger and punishment the PD person directs at others who don’t understand their communication.

They are unclear and indirect and then punish others for not understanding what they are failing to convey.

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Filed under Communication problems in NPD, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Understanding narcissism