Tag Archives: family conflict

Echo – The Opposite of Narcissism

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

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

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

What does Echoism Look Like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Echoism and The Child of Narcissistic In-Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

Echo with Echo

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

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

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

Echo with Narcissus

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

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

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

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

Narcissus with Echo

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

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

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

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

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

Narcissus with Narcissus

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

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

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

Beyond Echoism

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

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

 

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

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 in words how her own screwed up mother had really hurt her, but then never done anything with the letter. A really 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 frequently used word 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, demanding, grandiose, 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 the severing of 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 here 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 you are both similarly 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, 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

How to manage a narcissistic mother-in-law part 1

Here is the first in a multi-part post which outlines ways to manage a narcissistic, difficult, controlling, emotionally abusive MIL. The first posts are positive, a summary of effective methods. I thought I’d start with this as so much material about NPD is very negative. It is reassuring to read something can be done to fight back. The concluding post is a summary of what doesn’t work or worse, what can escalate her difficult behaviour.

It has taken me a long time to work out how best to cope with and manage NPD MIL’s machinations. I met my husband more then 10 years ago, and I first met her a year later. On reflection  it should have rung an alarm bell that it took my husband an entire year before he made any attempt to introduce us. I had already met his sister, father and all his friends by that time. Back then I had no idea what NPD was nor did I have any expectation that my future MIL would be anything other than normal and pleasant. Well that assumption was slapped back in my face the very first time I met her.

It’s been a slow, painful slog through disbelief, confusion, hurt, bafflement, mounting anger, cold hatred until the red line was crossed and I put my foot down. I am a quiet person when you meet me, not brash or extraverted. My Myers-Briggs personality type is INFP. One writer commenting on personality types made the statement:

“INFPs are flexible and laid-back, until one of their values is violated. In the face of their value system being threatened, INFPs can become aggressive defenders, fighting passionately for their cause.”  http://www.personalitypage.com/INFP.html

You said it. She crossed the line and I finally said enough. This is what worked.

Keep Your Distance Physically.

I originally trained as a scientist. To me the word physically doesn’t just mean anything to do with my body it also means things relating to physics, like telecommunications. So lets consider how to keep a physical distance in both senses of the word.

MIL is kept at a physical distance in that I do not sit near here if I have to be in her company. I get up and move away from her frequently to have a break from her stultifying presence by leaving the room and fortunately (oh so fortunately) she lives 3 hours drive away. I am adamant that she does not live near us and would move house to keep away from her. My husband made the decision not to apply for a rare job advertised in his field because it was located near her home town.

If we go out for lunch, which we almost always do when she visits as the range of foods she will eat is small and she is unutterably snobby about anything served to her that we cook, I make damn sure I am not sat next to her. Diagonally across the table is best with my husband closest to her and I busy myself with the children. A persistent NPD MIL may try to place themselves near you or call you over to sit next to them, deciding who should sit where. Hold your ground with a firm “I would like to sit here” and put your bum on the chair with no further comment.

I feel deeply for people suffering from living close to their MIL, even in the same house as her. I cannot imagine how you cope with that. It is trite to say move away as you may have roots deep in your community or strong cultural pressures to stay with your husband’s family. If she lives in your town do not give her a spare key and always lock or chain the doors so she can’t just walk in. Put opaque blinds or curtains up in the front room so she can’t see if you are in and just don’t answer the door. If you live with your MIL get a lock and put it on your bedroom door. Make a big, outraged fuss about your privacy and if necessary imply your MIL has an unhealthy interest in your husband’s and your sex life if she intrudes.

What about electronic contact? I have no phone, email or written contact with my MIL. I have never given her my email address or phone number but she has got my mobile phone number somehow. She has sent me texts in the past and I never respond. Now she has given up. Only on one occasion when my husband and I first laid down the law to her, nearly 2 years ago, did I email her to communicate my feelings about the situation. I created an email account solely for the purpose of sending that one message and shut it down afterwards. In that one email I told her I did not want any written or emailed communication from her.

If she rings the house we have caller ID on the phone and I let it ring until the answer-phone kicks in. I do not ever pick up the phone.

I do not use Facebook or similar social media sites. If your toxic MIL has hijacked your Facebook page, quit it and after a suitable pause restart and only share your new page with select friends. Do not accept “friend” requests from her, her family members or acquaintances.

This is how far we keep our distance; my daughter’s primary school has permission forms which parents have to sign to allow the school to use photos of the kids on their website or in local newspapers. We don’t sign. That way she can’t follow what our daughter is doing via the web.

My husband now refuses to arrange separate visitations at birthdays and holidays for her to attend without the possible presence of her ex, my FIL. She won’t be in the same room as him so she doesn’t turn up to these events as often as she used to when my then deluded husband would go to the trouble of organising double birthdays etc. I don’t go and visit her in her own home, my husband takes the kids maybe twice a year. They stay for one night at most. I feel uncomfortable with this as frankly if she is too nasty for me to be around then I don’t think the kids should be there either but my husband is in the early stages of getting to grips with her behaviour so I don’t push it. If she is unpleasant to one of the girls, ever, these visits will stop.

I cannot emphasise enough the need to keep her proximity to your physical self and access to you as limited as possible.

Plan each meeting like a military campaign

This sounds a bit over the top, but it isn’t. I am at war with this woman, I am like the Resistance in the Second World War. I am a guerrilla, a ninja. Like chess, you need to thinking several steps ahead with NPDs. This works. NPDs consider themselves more intelligent than all those around them and therefore frequently underestimate their opponents. Use this to your advantage.

Before she arrives we have an itinerary planned. We organise the visit so there is no down time when conversation may sag and give her the chance to be bitchy and manipulative. We greet her together at the door, we get tea and biscuits, we discuss the kids and general family news, then we go somewhere. This usually involves a trip to the playground or similar and then lunch out. We return home for more managed small talk. We plan a list of topics which are not to be discussed and have set phrases to shut down any attempt by her to open them up. It is easy enough to divert her into playing with the kids while we prepare some snack or drinks. Neither of us spends time with her alone without either the other spouse or the children. She is her most manipulative and downright unpleasant when she has no other witnesses.

The visit is wound up as we make it clear the children need a quiet time at the end of the day around teatime and then they go straight to bath and bed. So she knows in advance when we are expecting her to leave then. We verbally give prompts for this saying things like “darling daughter looks tired”, “are you ready for some tea daughter?” and then wave her off. In no way does she suspect that we have managed her so completely.

We arrange the seating so my husband and I are sat together on the sofa and she is apart on another chair. We sit next to each other and make sure we interact comfortably and naturally with each other including jokes, teasing, hugs and other small gestures and physical contacts.  This new arrangement of the players on the set reflects what I have insisted upon, that our marriage and family are the predominant relationships. Before my husband would hover around her like she was some duchess and he the attendant. We all felt tense and I was often sat on the floor or off to the side in my own front room.

The shift has been in power, we now call the shots. Before my husband was on side I would follow his lead, resentfully, as he nervously focussed on her and whatever she wanted. She set up the conversations, sat in the dominant position in the room and basically held court in my lounge. Ha! Not anymore she doesn’t.

Set your own boundaries with MIL

A lot of support sites for managing difficult people talk about setting boundaries. This is hard to understand at first. We both struggled with what on earth it meant. It is not rules that you impose on the offending person, it’s not at all like the boundaries around behaviour we are familiar with from rules in schools or sports. In a school a rule is a direction “do not run in the corridor” or a positive affirmation if you prefer “we walk in corridors” which have a punitive consequence attached. Boundaries are not like this.

A boundary is more like a psychological Rubicon. You don’t have to tell the other person what your boundary is. You just need to know in your own mind, clearly and resolutely what you will not accept. Then you decide what you will do to keep yourself, your loved ones and your property physically and emotionally safe if the situation arises where one of your boundaries is crossed.

My husband went to visit his mother with a list of 4 things he wanted to discuss and to ask her to stop doing them. It was a mixture of don’t do this and do this instead with the punitive consequence not spelled out. This was not effective boundary setting.

One of the 4 terms he laid out was for her to stop slagging off his father and trying to turn him against his dad. This is not a boundary. The boundary is for him to realise he hated this, to affirm this in his own mind and to just stop the conversation and tell her he would not listen to anymore, then get up and leave if she didn’t. THAT is a boundary, this far, no further. No explanation needed for your actions, you have had enough, you say stop, you remove yourself if it continues. If it happens in your house you ask them to leave.

Of course you can also have the boundary AND tell the person you have a problem with certain behaviour and you want it to change. But understand this, you cannot make them change their behaviour. You can remove yourself from situations you do not like. That is the essence of self respect.

So here we have the first few ways to effectively manage the difficult MIL. A mixture of practical things that shape the external factors of your encounters with her and psychological protection to build your resilience from the inside. In the next post I’ll discuss setting boundaries with your spouse, speaking freely about what is going on, getting psychological support and keeping your emotional distance from a toxic MIL.

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