Tag Archives: denial

Defence Mechanisms

“Ouch”, says your ego as it a feels a burn, deliberate or otherwise. It’s funny how our modern access to the internet and people all over the world lead to a world of butt-hurt on internet comments sections. As an exercise in uncovering the various ways people can wriggle about when they feel they have been criticised it is fascinating.

Some men tend to get very aggressive from the get-go, personally attacking the people disagreeing with them, others fall into snobby intellectualism and suppose they are the expert on everything, some are blatantly sexist (go make me a sandwich). Women tend to be more oh-poor-me, morally superior and judgemental, you’ve just misunderstood me or repeat themselves over and over unable to let it go. We are socially conditioned to respond in certain ways when feeling wounded and defensive, some of these responses are gender specific, some are universal.

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, set about categorising various ways in which people defend their egos, their sense of themselves as valuable and worthy people, when a threat to that sense of self-worth is detected. Some of these strategies are healthy and adaptive to getting on with people, some less so and some are downright appalling and cause serious damage to relations unless being used by a tantruming toddler.

I have toyed with the idea of creating a defence mechanism Bingo game to keep myself amused during any visits by the MIL. I could print myself out a card of various possible defensive behaviours and cross them off as the day wears on, extra points for stirring up contentious conversations which deliberately provoke defensive reactions. Then when she has exhausted her repertoire of maladaptive and obnoxious ways of responding I can leap out of my chair shouting “BINGO!” and she’ll look all confused and have no idea why I am wetting myself laughing. Ah yes, I have way to much time on my hands and end up plotting this sort of stuff.

Here are some defence mechanisms listed with the healthy, normal ones at the start and descending down four levels of Hell to the bizarre and psychotic at the end. How many does your disorder mother-in-law use in an average conversation? Which ones get pulled out most often, which are reserved for those moments when she is panicking and feels control is slipping by, which ones are used by your partner? Which ones do you adopt in response to your MIL? Could you use better ones?

Level IV – Mature defences

Found in emotionally healthy adults, socially adaptive and making use of feelings of control or an emphasis on finding pleasure or peace amidst distressing situations.

Acceptance – a person fully accepts reality without attempting to change it, protest or run away (Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference)

Altruism – service to others which feels good

Anticipation – realistically planning for future discomfort, i.e. preparing a plan for how to manage the MIL when she visits

Courage – ability and willingness to confront conflict, fear, pain, obstacles, uncertainty and despair.

Emotional self-regulation – responding to reality in a range of emotional ways which are socially acceptable, modifying the intensity, duration, type and mode of expression of feelings.

Emotional self-sufficiency – independence from the approval or validation of others, freeing yourself from feeling MIL has to like you.

Fantasy – using imagination and day dreaming to posit a more hopeful future (someone getting rejected for a job imagining the day they land their ideal position)

Forgiveness – letting go of resentment, indignation or anger aroused by a perceived offence and no longer demanding recompense or restitution after appropriate grieving and acknowledgement of the hurt.

Gratitude – feeling thankful for the range of people and events in one’s life who don’t cause problems.

Humility – full consideration of one’s own faults and attributes leading to a humble self opinion, you’re not perfect either.

Humour – expressing ideas and feelings in humorous ways to lessen distress.

Identification – modelling one’s self upon the character or behaviour of another (what would Jesus do?).

Mercy – compassionate action when in a powerful position. Believe it or not you are in a powerful position w.r.t. MIL, you control access to the grandchildren and ease of access to her adult child.

Mindfullness – staying conscious of oneself and environment in the present moment, suspending judgment, remaining open, curious and accepting. The opposite of this is dissociating or catastrophising.

Moderation – staying within reasonable limits, exercising self-restraint. Both with your own emotions and with what you are prepared to tolerate from MIL or spouse. This is about boundaries inside and out.

Patience – enduring a difficult or unpleasant circumstance for some time before reacting, God knows we’ve all done this to death!

Respect – willingness to show consideration or appreciation, a feeling of regard towards someone’s qualities, and actions and conduct which reflect that regard.

Sublimation – transforming distressing or unacceptable feelings into a more beneficial product or action, aggression into competitive sport, sexuality in dance, grief into art. Or this blog!

Supression – delaying temporarily an emotional response or need until a more suitable time, a mother squashing her own fear when a child falls from a tree to attend to the child. Not shouting at spouse for siding with their mother but waiting to express your annoyance later when she isn’t around.

Tolerance – deliberately allowing or permitting something which one disapproves of. Your in-laws way of doing Christmas lunch for example.

Level III – Neurotic Defences

Fairly common in adults. Help in the short term to deal with distress but unhelpful if used over the long term, disrupting relationships, work and socialising.

Displacement – shifting an uncomfortable emotion or impulse to a safer target (blaming MIL for all your relationship problems because it’s safer than facing how upset you are with your partner)

Dissociation – temporarily mentally separating from the distress, feeling emotionally numb, out of the body or otherwise not there in an distressing situation (it was like I was watching it happen from outside of myself)

Hypochondria – excessive worry about illness

Intellectualisation – focussing on the rational ideas and intellectual components of a situation so as to avoid the emotional distress, separating emotion from ideas

Isolation – separating out the emotional content of an event so the event can be spoken of in a dispassionate way (describing a grisly car accident with no emotional response).

Rationalisation – making excuses, convincing oneself that no harm was done as you had a good reason (but it wasn’t my intention to hurt so I’m not responsible).

Reaction formation – turning one unconscious and unacceptable thought or feeling into it’s exact opposite, behaving in the opposite way that you really want (a boy struggling with a strong attraction to a girl pulls her pigtails to upset her, you find yourself offering to take MIL on a shopping trip when you first realise how much you hate her).

Regression – temporarily acting in a more childish and dependent way (you totally suck and I hate you!).

Repression – moving a desire or thought that causes you anxiety as you fear punishment for it into the unconscious until you are no longer conscious of the thought or desire but some emotional memory of it lingers (feeling uncomfortable around a rarely seen family member but not remembering what first made you feel that way).

Undoing – trying to undo a threatening or unacceptable thought or feeling by consciously acting in the reverse way to atone or reduce one’s feelings of guilt (being nice to someone you had bad thoughts about).

Social comparison – looking to other people who are seen as worse off in order to distance oneself from similarities with that person/group and to make oneself feel better (well at least I’m not like that Jane Doe).

Withdrawl – avoiding or removing oneself from situations, places and events to stop being reminded of painful thoughts or feelings (I just can’t go back there after what happened). Not the same as planning to avoid situations where you know you will be verbally or emotionally abused (like with MIL), that is sensible.

OK let’s take a breather at this point, before it gets mad, bad and dangerous below. The mature and neurotic defences above are ways people adapt to the occasional awkward or distressing event. The word distressing in this psychoanalytical context doesn’t have to mean reduced to tears sobbing (although it could, loosing your beloved dog in an accident would provoke several of these defences) we could just be talking about how someone tries to play one-upmanship on you in a social conversation, or you became the butt of a joke at work.  BUT and it’s a big but, we are not talking about adaptations and reactions to severe trauma or prolonged abusive scenarios. Nor are we talking about the quite sensible precautions which anyone should take to protect themselves from a known toxic person or situation.

I am not suggesting we should suddenly apply for the Sainthood and start serenely forgiving our MILs, volunteering at the local homeless shelter  and practicing some New Age gratitude practice every morning in an effort to deal with her dysfunction. No no nopety nope. In fact behaving this way would be a defence mechanism, but not the mature ones listed above. This sort of behaviour is a mixture of denial, repression and fantasy. You do not have to forgive people, be endlessly patient or altruistic to be maturely dealing with someone difficult. You can use humour, anticipation and courage when dealing with her, or whatever. And no one expects you to respond with a “mature” defence each and every time. Notice how it says that neurotic defences are helpful in short term acute scenarios.

There is an insidious tendency in self-development books and blogs towards premature forgiveness and gratitude meditations as if it was healthy or even possible for someone to just put aside whatever has wounded them. This is nonsense and has its roots in a bastardisation of the ideas of the Law of Attraction. The healthiest thing to do when wounded is fully feel wounded and acknowledge what is going on inside you. Sit with it, feel it, breathe through it and past it. Premature forgiveness or ignoring hurt and replacing it in your mind with forced thoughts of your blessings is not going to allow you to move beyond those feelings. Grief, disappointment, anger and sadness are normal responses to abusive people. Once you have felt your feelings and fully respected them then you can choose how to respond.

The following two lists of ways to respond are not ones you would want to choose on a regular basis. Bet you’ll never guess where my MIL’s most commonly used reactions lie? Oh you did guess…yeah in these two lists.

Level II – Immature defences

All adults act in these ways occasionally. Habitually acting in these ways makes a person difficult to deal with and the person themselves will find reality difficult to cope with. Taken to an excessive level they are found in mental illnesses like severe depression and personality disorders.

Acting out – an unconscious desire or impulse turned into action which the person isn’t consciously in control of and is unaware of the emotion which triggered it, self-harm is an example (I don’t know why I did that!)

Autistic or Schizoid Fantasy – habitually retreating into fantasy and daydreaming as a way to resolve inner and outer conflicts. This includes retreating into role play and computer games, where the retreat includes non-communication and social isolation.

Idealization – putting someone on a pedestal (my mother is such a good person, she’d never do that)

Introjection – unconsciously taking the qualities and attributes of an idea or person fully into oneself because these qualities help deal with reality (finding yourself speaking with your mother’s voice saying the exact phrase she would say, adopting the behaviour of an aggressive peer thereby reducing threat to oneself. Very common between parents and children who absorb their values)

Passive Aggression – feelings of aggression towards another person expressed in indirect or passive ways (it was an honest mistake! I just forgot to post it)

Projection – attributing one’s own unacceptable and unwanted thoughts and feelings onto another person or group so that the other person/group actually seems to have those thoughts and feelings themselves (I saw you looking at him all flirtatiously – when you were eyeing up an attractive woman moments before). Includes prejudices like misogyny, racism and homophobia, jealousy, hyper vigilance to external dangers and injustice collecting (look at all the ways I’ve been wronged).

Somatization – transformation of uncomfortable feelings into actual physical sensations of pain, sickness and anxiety (I’m not upset about what my mother said, I just have a headache. I feel sick I am so nervous.)

Wishful thinking – acting as if the most pleasing outcome was guaranteed to happen while not paying due attention to facts (oh it’ll be fine – she’s been so much better the last few months).

Level I – Severely pathological defence mechanisms.

These defences are designed to distort and rearrange the external experiences the person is having so the person no longer has to cope with reality. The mind distorts reality into something easier for the person to deal with. These frequently appear irrational or insane to people observing them in adults but they occur as a normal stage of development in children.

Conversion or hysteria – mental or emotional distress transformed into a physical symptom like blindness, deafness, paralysis, numbness.

Delusional Projection – false beliefs about reality and the trustworthiness of people usually of a persecutory nature (e.g. so and so is out to get me, society has set it up so men like me always fail, its a conspiracy of feminazis and the Illumati, people cannot ever be trusted)

Denial – refusal to accept reality because it is too threatening (she is not leaving me), arguing that a threat to the ego doesn’t exist at all (you’re wrong, he is not cheating on me), refusing to see or accept unpleasant aspects of reality (my mother is not narcissistic) despite evidence to the contrary.

Distortion – a gross reshaping of reality to meet the ego’s needs (He didn’t leave me, I let him go because it was better for him, he has such a fragile mental state, I know I have hoarded 20,000 plastic bags but they will be useful one day)

Extreme projection – the blatant denial of a moral or character trait which is instead seen as a problem for some other person or group (Homosexuality is a disgusting sin, says the preacher who is secretly gay.  Seen in children, one child holding a broken object points the finger at another and says “they did it!”)

Splitting – the unconscious splitting off of characteristics of a person or group into “good” and “bad”  because the immature ego can’t hold the whole person/group in their mind in one go. Can also happen within a person who splits off the “good” from the “bad” parts of themselves as they are unable to hold a complete picture of themselves as having both polarities. One side of the polarity is then adopted as true and any evidence supporting the other side is rejected (The teacher can’t be praising me because I am a bad kid. Favouritism in children/grandchildren Little Johnny is an awful liar and thief, Little Jane is so precious and kind).

Well  that’s rather a lot to take in all in one go! Do digest it at your own leisure. It certainly has given me a real insight into how well I am coping with certain situations as I can spot my own less helpful defences more readily now.

Dear old MIL does all of the pathological defences, I think now is the time for one of those more mature responses, a little humour maybe…

denial-300x233

Advertisements

7 Comments

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

Grandparent Grooming 2 – how to fight it

(Part 2 of a two part post on the psychological grooming of children by a narcissistic grandmother.)

If you are having problems with a narcissistic grandmother wheedling her insidious way into your child’s affections you need to not just understand how it is happening but what to do to counteract it. The fight back begins not by pointing the finger at your messed up mother-in-law but by taking a look at the climate she has created around the child, in the family as a whole. What has been done that has allowed this to occur? Tackle this and she is powerless forever.

So what has happened to create this grooming situation between NPD MIL and your child? I found this snippet on a online message board for people with PTSD resulting from abuse. The writer refers to an Oprah Winfrey episode where Oprah talks to child abusers in a recovery program about how they groomed kids.

“The perps identify these [the easily groomed] as people who trust easily (give it straight away rather than someone earning it – like a small child does naturally/healthily) and people who have had questionable models of ‘to what extent an individual is responsible for their own behaviour’…

…The molesters talk about recognising as molesters that kids who are in a family where denial is a central approach to issues display the type of neglect that makes the child especially vulnerable to abuse.”

Just to clarify the main points: the victims trust easily (they are not equipped to spot and call out untrustworthy or abusive behaviour in people), they have been exposed to people who do not and are not made to take responsibility for their actions and their family operates a pattern of denial of problems rather than openly discussing them.

This triad of features which increase vulnerability to grooming and abuse are all found in families with narcissists. Even the adult children of narcissists are crap at identifying unhealthy behaviour in others. That internal barometer which allows us all to gauge the appropriateness of someone’s behaviour has been meddled with if your mum is a narcissist. The adult child of a NPD MIL will see abusive and untrustworthy behaviour as normal. They do not get red flags flying up in their faces the same way that an adult with a healthy mum would. They can pass this unnatural leniency onto their kids. If dad or mum accept grandma being rude, obnoxious and needy then the kids will grow up seeing that as normal and not the warning signs of a jerk. This leads to condition 1

1: The kids are vulnerable to grooming if they don’t recognise poor/abusive/controlling/manipulative behaviour.

All narcissists refuse to take responsibility for their actions, they blame everyone else because their mental model cannot encompass the possibility of them being flawed. If they act badly it is always because someone else made them and it wasn’t their fault. If mum or dad doesn’t challenge this or worse, reproduces this behaviour in the home the kids will not have a good idea of when people are responsible for their actions (i.e. all the time!) Instead they will think bad behaviour can be excused and explained away by saying someone else provoked it and thus we get condition 2

2: Kids are vulnerable to grooming if they can be persuaded that they caused or encouraged the behaviour by an adult who won’t take responsibility.

Finally there exists the blanket of denial in narcissistic families. I’ve talked about this before in an blog post. Denial that the grandmother has a problem is very common in narcissistic families. Refusing to question or challenge her behaviour is denial, accepting her interpretation of situations and siding with her is denial, refusing to consider that her behaviour is hurting people or damaging is denial. You get the idea. Denial is rampant because without it she could not continue to operate. If everyone saw her behaviour for what it is, talked about it and the hurt it causes openly and held her fully accountable she wouldn’t have a hold on anyone. So lastly the third condition for grooming can be met in a narcissistic family,

3: Kids are vulnerable to grooming if they live in a family where weird, shitty behaviour is never acknowledged and everyone continues to act as if nothing happened and no one talks about how much it hurts.

Grasping the three conditions that make a child vulnerable to this manipulation is the key to preventing and undoing grooming:

1) teach the child that trust is earned and what trustworthy behaviour looks like (i.e. NOT grooming, secret keeping, threats, manipulation etc)

2) teach the child that everyone is responsible for their own actions (no one “makes” another person do or feel anything)

3) confront as a family the blanket of denial (not talking about it, not even admitting it) around the dysfunctional behaviour of their grandparent.

If this is done there is no way granny can weave her web around a child. It is all out in the open and discussed, healthy behaviour is understood and modelled and thus the grandparents unhealthy actions become obvious, even to a child.

Tackling the triad of grooming vulnerability

The reason small children automatically trust others is because they lack a full theory of mind. They project outwards onto others the motivations and interpretations they feel themselves and assume everyone else must be like that too. Thus if they are not able to think of acting deviously or selfishly then they will not be able to conceive of it in others. It is no coincidence that children start manipulating their parents at the same time as they develop the cognitive ability to see others and their feelings as separate. Grandma unfortunately never developed much beyond that point! A child cannot fully grasp how manipulative and devious another person can be until adolescence.

How do you tackle a child’s natural and healthy trust in others? There are books you can buy (on Amazon etc) which talk about the possibilities that others do not always mean well, “Not Everyone is Nice: Helping Children Learn Caution With Strangers” by Frederick Alimonti and Ann Tedesco is a good example. The child in the book is being spoken to by a stranger who offers her sweets and a ride home when her mum spots it and intervenes just in time. Then the family get home and look through an animal picture book and talk about how some creatures look nice, but are dangerous or poisonous and so some people can seem nice but not be.  That is your starting point. If you suspect grandma has been doing certain things like gossiping or secret keeping with the child bring that up in the conversation as an example without naming her. Does the child think that is nice? Is it trustworthy?

Now you have their attention start to discuss the differences between doing something genuinely nice and doing a nice thing in order to win affections. Children understand this if you use friendship groups as an example. Can a mean kid win friends by handing out sweets? Can a new girl act friendly towards someone but then start turning them against their old friends? What about new neighbours, are they asking you round for drinks to be nice, or just so they can borrow your lawnmower? What about arguments between cousins or aunties where people try to win allies by being “nice” to others? They need to see that anyone can behave that way in any number of situations. You need to say you are worried this may be happening in your family.  It may be that NPD grandma is not trying to divide and conquer but is overly enmeshed with the grandchild. Then the conversation needs to be around what is reasonable contact with a grandparent.

Traditional fairy stories like the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson provide ample examples of poor decisions by parents and grandparents to start a conversation. Hansel and Gretel for example, seemingly nice old lady rescues children from weak father and evil stepmother. But she has an evil plan, to eat them. Clever children spot it and escape, father rebuilds his relationship with them. It’s a bit too much like a NPD grandmother treating and buying her grandkids affections isn’t it? These sorts of stories can start a conversation on who is responsible for what. Is the weak father responsible for leaving the children in the forest or did his new wife “make” him do it? Did the children deserve to be eaten for scoffing some of the gingerbread house?

Teaching children responsibility goes way beyond talking about stories and their relationship with grandma. The clear allocation of responsibility needs to be there in all sorts of ways. It is so easy to say “Little Johnny stop winding your brother up, if he thumps you it’ll be your fault” . Been there, said that. But that’s wrong, no one is making Little Johnny thump his brother, he can always walk away. Responsibility for actions needs to be modelled every day in the family. Dad can’t accuse the kids of making him loose his temper. It is so easy to fall into that way of speaking, especially in a family with a narcissist. Be on your guard for this sort of thing and call it out when you hear it. Correct yourself in front of the kids if necessary and they will follow your lead.

Another useful book is “The Huge Bag of Worries” by Virginia Ironside where a kindly lady helps a young girl unpack all the worries she is feeling and lugging around in a huge bag. Grandma’s behaviour and your reactions to it may well be causing worries in your child and this can then be talked about. You can get packs of feelings cards with different faces and characters on them which always get my kids talking about how they feel in different situations. If your child is upset about not seeing granny so much you need to work through a conversation where you ask and listen about why they feel that way. How do they feel, why do they feel it? What does granny do to make them feel good? Do they feel worried about granny if so why? How do they feel about mum and dad, why? Do they think mum and dad have been/are being mean to granny?

Once the child has been listened to and you have asked questions which probe around the topic of what has been going on with granny etc you need to explain what you are doing by setting new ground rules around contact with MIL. Explaining to your child is respectful, it will help heal any division your MIL has been creating. You do not have to explain to MIL. You are not asking for the child’s agreement either. Children feel most secure when the adults caring for them have firm and fair expectations which are reinforced reasonably. You are their rock. A dithery, indecisive parent who backs down or backs away from setting rules and expectations with anyone unsettles children and leaves room for a stronger willed person to step in and take over; cue the NPD MIL.

To explain what you are doing and why, you need to explain that their grandmother doesn’t behave normally. This strips the last layer of vulnerability away, the denial of the problem. What can you say? Some people are treated badly as children, some people don’t grow up like others, as a result they don’t know how to be understanding and kind. They don’t seem different on the outside but inside they think very differently. This shows in how they act. They treat people like toys. They can be very attentive and affectionate like a child with a brand new toy they won’t let go of, but this is not love this is excitement at having a thing to play with. They don’t ask the toy what they want, toys can’t think. They don’t ask or much care about what people want as they don’t believe other people really have proper feeling or thoughts either. Just like a spoilt child gets tired of toys and throws them away these people will end up using and badly hurting anyone who trusts them. Grandma has this problem. You want to keep the child safe from hurt in the future even though grandma seems fun now. She has hurt many other people in the past (give examples). You don’t trust her and you keep her at arms length (describe low contact, medium chill or whatever you do) so you need to protect the child until they are old enough to see the behaviour and protect themselves. Grandma will always be this way, it cannot get fixed. Part of the problem is that she believes she is always right. She is not a safe person. She is like the old woman in Hansel and Gretel. Don’t eat the gingerbread.

If your spouse is not in agreement that their mother’s behaviour is that much of a problem do all of this anyway. You are allowed to have a different view and they are your kids too. Your first responsibility is to their safety not to uphold your spouses’ family’s world view. This is hard, I know that. Divided loyalties are horrible and conflicting. Your spouse does not see the situation clearly and you don’t wish to hurt them and cause strife, but here is an opportunity to model taking responsibility. Your spouse cannot make you stay silent on this, you choose to. If you are concerned about your children being brainwashed by your MIL you need to take action. Hansel and Gretel would not have ended up at the wicked witch’s cottage is their parent hadn’t left them alone in the forest in the first place. Don’t be that parent.

26 Comments

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

Denial and the Cassandra Complex

It has taken me quite a while to get this post up on here. I started writing it two weeks ago and then sat on it. I could tell you this was because my sister got married and we were busy with the house sale and people came to visit and we visited people all of which would be true, but these are not the reasons I didn’t post it. I have struggled with this post because I am struggling with this issue. It was all a bit too close to home and I had to wait until the emotions it woke within me were more manageable before I could write this down. So here it is, and I’ll start with a declaration. I am Cassandra.

Mythology and Archetypes

Cassandra had a hard life. She was a princess in Greek mythology, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, the same Troy that was attacked and destroyed by the Greeks to avenge the abduction of the beautiful Helen by Cassandra’s brother Paris. Cassandra was a priestess in the temple of Apollo, she devoted her life to the proper worship and respect of the Gods. Apollo saw her in his temple and was overcome by her beauty. He gave her the gift of prophecy which would have been highly desirable in a priestess as Greeks consulted oracles to help guide their decisions, but then he wanted to have sex with her. She refused as all priestesses are obliged to remain virgins, and he cursed her gift so no one would believe the prophecies she made.

Cassandra proclaimed her visions, but her family and the people of Troy thought she was mad and a liar. She saw in her prophetic visions everything that came to pass regarding the destruction of Troy, when Helen came to Troy Cassandra tore at her golden veil and her hair in fury at what Helen would do to her home city. Repeatedly misunderstood, ridiculed and insulted her tale did not end well, she was brutally raped by Ajax, one of the Greek warriors who sacked Troy, in a temple to the Goddess Athena who viciously punished the Greeks by sinking many of their boats as they returned from the war. Eventually she was taken as a concubine by King Agamemnon, before being murdered with him by the king’s adulterous wife and her lover.

So what exactly does this have to do with you and your dysfunctional mother-in-law? Cassandra is an archetype, a mythological character whose story reveals truths we can relate to. Her experience of telling the truth and being disbelieved is common to anyone who lives with a spouse in denial and a disordered mother-in-law.

The branch of psychoanalysis developed by C.G. Jung emphasises the repeating patterns found in stories from all around the world. There are many commonalities between the main characters in legends from many differing cultures. Jung made the obvious point that there seems to be a common mythology which everyone on the planet shares. Then he went a step further a postulated that this is because we all have a shared unconscious set of symbols, characters and tales which we can all relate too. These symbols and archetypal characters appear in dreams as well as myths and legends and are a way our minds have developed to try and articulate what is going on in the subconscious and unconscious of our individual minds. Spookily it also describes the subconscious and unconscious of our collective human mind, the collective unconscious.

The stories told around firesides for millennia tell us fundamental truths about our psyches. The characters we encounter in myths and legends are exaggerated versions of ourselves and the people we meet. Their trials are our trials. By seeing with whom we identify in mythology we can glimpse a part of our unconscious motivations and find ways to express our repressed emotions. I identify with Cassandra.

The Cassandra Complex

The term Cassandra Complex is used to describe a situation where valid warnings are dismissed or disbelieved. Within psychology the term is applied to individuals who are experiencing a real (not imagined) situation which is causing them great distress and emotional pain but who are disbelieved when they try to explain what is the source of their distress. These poor people end up feeling their concerns and pain are being ignored. Sound familiar?

Over and over I hinted, suggested and implied that maybe there was something not quite right about how my husband’s mother behaves. I was dismissed. My suggestions were batted away as misunderstandings and mistakes. Then I became bolder, I spelled out how she had been hurtful, how I was excluded, how I disliked being in her company and the stress it caused. This was met with surprise, astonishment even. What I described wasn’t what he had seen. He hadn’t noticed the snidey remarks, the deliberate exclusions, the dismissive and derogatory comments. I grew bolder still, like Cassandra wrenching at Helen’s clothes I called it out, your mother is ill, she shows every sign of having a serious behavioural disorder, she is not normal. Again I was not believed, my warnings were dismissed. I am living the Cassandra Complex.

Valid warnings are ignored when the person giving the warnings is surrounded by others who cannot or do not want to see their truth. People who have been brainwashed or indoctrinated into accepting something as normal when in fact it is no such thing cannot see what is evident to you/Cassandra. People in denial do not want to see what is clear as the nose on your face. Your spouse most likely has both brainwashing and denial operating to render them blind to what you see so clearly. So this is the Big One – you see a very disordered woman with a very dysfunctional family set up and tell it like you see it and no one believes you. If you say what you see, “Your mother is weird/crazy/horrible/evil!”, your spouse’s reply is “No she’s not you are mad/a liar”.

There are other smaller ways in which I am Cassandra as my husband denies things I can plainly see. These play out like minor battles in the siege of Troy that is our family life with the Trojan Horse MIL in our midst. He is very unconscious of his own feelings and can act in a way that quite obviously shows me he is angry with me but he will out right deny this when asked. Days later however, he may be able to say that he had been angry at that time. It does take days, even weeks sometimes. It took him two years to admit he felt anger towards me for having post natal depression after our second child was born. Two years of constant denial whenever I suggested that maybe he felt angry with me and blamed me for not being there for him. Now, finally he tentatively speaks of this. What is the effect of having your observations and reality constantly denied by the people around you?

Living with the Cassandra Complex

Let’s explore the effect of having your perceptions and insights dismissed over and over again by the one person you are most emotionally intimate with. What is it like to be Cassandra? In the myths she went insane. Nice. Fortunately myths and legends can be taken metaphorically not literally. At the very least this suggests that repeated denial of your reality leads to a lot of emotional turmoil and a reduction in your sense of who you are. Going insane would be total collapse of who you were.

One seemingly unrelated area of psychology – the field of autism – has thrown up an interesting and very useful concept. They even use the phrase Cassandra Syndrome to describe it. This is when a person marries someone with an undiagnosed autistic spectrum disorder. The spouse may well be holding down a good job and having a social life but there is something about their behaviour which is just, well, not normal. Tentatively the neuro-typical partner starts to point this out to people and ask questions in the family and amongst friends and, you guessed it, is disbelieved. This leads to a whole host of problems including depression, sleep problems, lethargy, social withdrawl, anxiety, loss of libido and mood changes. Some researchers have gone as far as to call it affective deprivation disorder, meaning a disorder experienced as the result of having a lack of emotional mirroring and closeness with your life partner. Wow, this is exactly what living with constant denial is like.

What happens is that doubt starts to creep in. Doubt about your conclusions regarding the witchy-woo mother-in-law and doubt about your perceptions. You would begin to question if you really had seen or heard what you thought you had. You would begin to doubt the conclusions and assumptions you had made about other relationships with other people for surely if you are so wrong in this case you may be wrong in others. You would begin to doubt yourself. Maybe you are the one with the problem. If your spouse says there is no problem with his mother, your sister or brother in law says no, the father in law says no and they have lived with her for years then surely you must be the one in the wrong.

To doubt yourself, the truth of your senses, your deductions, your very capacity to deduce correctly, this is what happens when faced with such outright denial of your observations. You are robbed of your very essence, your security in your own perception of the world. This is ghastly and damaging.

Alice Miller is a psychotherapist who works intensely in the area of allowing people to uncover the cruelties and pain of their childhoods. She says the central need of every human being is to express themselves and show themselves to the world as they truly are. Then comes the related and just as important need to have someone treat that true and honest expression with respect, to take it seriously and try to understand you with empathy. This is not happening when your spouse denies your perception of your MIL’s behaviour.

So how can you cope with this situation? One route to coping with this is to give in and stop saying anything about the MIL, effectively to collude in the spouse’s denial. If this was the route you had adopted you would not be reading this blog because you would choose to adopt the viewpoint of your spouse in denial and regard your MIL as normal but a bit difficult maybe (but you’d only say that in a really quiet voice). Cassandra did not do this, even when incarcerated in a jail she continued saying what she saw and never once took on the views of the townspeople that she was wrong. That should be a lesson to us.

Your spouse doesn’t have to agree with your reality, but to repeatedly deny your reality as you see it is abusive. Hold fast Cassandras. Your version of reality is completely valid and you can, you must express it. Do not loose yourself amidst all the crazy-making behaviour of your spouse’s family. To give in or start to doubt yourself will lead down the line to some pretty serious self-disgust.

When finally you realise that you were right all this time and that you have been blindsided by your spouse’s denial of the truth, you will feel anger. It will rise up from the root of your being as it is that very root that has been attacked. You will be furious and indignant. I-told-you-so doesn’t come close to the geyser of outrage that will boil up. The more dismissive your partner the more angry you will feel. Anger is a life-saving emotion. It spills out not only when you are in physical danger but to protect and defend your psychological integrity from attack. Get angry. You self is worth defending.

But under this rage at the doubters and deniers will be anger at yourself, for having doubted yourself. How, your true self will howl, could you have believed even for a second that you were wrong? Hot angry tears at having rejected your own gut feelings, your instincts and your conclusions will spring in your eyes. You may well feel very ashamed of yourself. It is one thing to have others doubt you but something else entirely to doubt yourself. We do not have to go down this route.

Dealing effectively with the Cassandra Complex involves setting boundaries and respecting differences. You do not have to share a world view with your spouse. He likes coffee, you drink tea, so be it. In a disordered family everyone is expected to agree with the disordered person’s world view, there are no boundaries or respect for differences. Your spouse is going to bring that level of enmeshment into your relationship and will naturally expect you to mesh into his or her family way. Resist. Your boundary is around your  mind. You can think whatever you want and  you can come to whatever conclusion you want even if that conclusion is starkly at odds with your spouse, their father, sister, brother, second cousin twice removed or whoever.

Verbally express your view “I found your mother’s behaviour really abnormal and rude today” and hold the boundary when they reply “No it wasn’t, you are so unfair on her!” get’s met with “I am entitled to any opinion I want, and to express it. If you continue to deny that right this conversation will end”. Alternatives are along this lines of “what I see and hear does not have to match what you see and hear, we are different people” and “what I think and feel does not have to match what you think and feel…”. You will also have to reassure them as this emphasis on difference and the implicit threat of conflict with someone who is holding a different view can be very threatening to a child of an NPD mother. So say something like “our different viewpoints together give us a better overall picture of what is going on” or “it’s healthy and normal to have different perceptions and opinions”. They do actually need to be reminded that you are you and have a whole world in your head which is not the same as theirs because their mother has spent years trying to force her world into their heads in total disregard for their own thoughts and feelings. They will do the same just because they don’t know any better. They need to know that differences in relationships are desirable, not to be erased.

Remember denial is all about not facing an unpleasant truth. It is our unpleasant truth to realise that sometimes our partners find it easier to inflict damage upon us through their constant denial than to face up the the mummy-monster and their own fears. We do not have to go insane. Cassandra in another version of the story remained completely sane and held fast in her prophecies in the face of all the doubters and disbelievers. You can do that too.

57 Comments

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

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.

20 Comments

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