Tag Archives: NPD

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

Lies, Damn Lies and Delusion

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

blank bell curve

 

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

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

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

Lying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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

Attachment Theory and Your Spouse

I have been busy and have not posted for a while as we are selling our house. We have outgrown it and need to move to a larger home. It has been hectic, cleaning and presenting our house, viewing others, accepting and making offers, dealing with estate agents and solicitors. It all seems to be sorted, we have sold and we have somewhere to move to which is not bad given our house went on the market at Easter!

Moving house is cited as one of the most stressful things you can do in your life, beaten only by a death of a close one and divorce. Stress does funny things to people, I get butterflies in my stomach and find it hard to eat but I also find it quite energising. My husband gets very anxious and feels it somatically in his body as a pounding heart, tense shoulders and headaches. Anxiety is something he suffers with in many spheres of life. Looking at his relationship with his NPD mother helps explain why.

John Bowlby was a British psychotherapist who after the second world war researched the effects of being orphaned on children who were victims of the war. He developed a very influential paper on maternal deprivation for the United Nations and expanded this to a full theory of the emotional and psychological attachments formed by young children and the effects that they have on the child into adulthood. This is, hardly surprisingly, called Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory Basics

The basic assumption of attachment theory is that a child needs to form a single, secure attachment to a loving and responsive caregiver (usually the mother) for the child to develop healthy emotional structures and ways of relating to others. Things that can disrupt this attachment would include being orphaned or separated from one’s mother, like during the war, or having an emotionally unavailable or abusive mother. You can see where I am going with this right?

Children form a particular pattern of behaviour as a result of the type of attachment they have with their main caregiver, I’ll just use “mother” from now on as I’m assuming like my husband your spouses were mostly cared for by their mum.

The most common attachment is a secure attachment that forms with a good enough mother, 60% of adults have this sort of attachment. The good enough mother hugs the child when they are distressed, mirrors their smiles and grimaces, makes lots of eye contact, strokes them, responds to their interactions and carries them close when they’re little. There is an approach to parenting babies called attachment parenting advocated by William Sears and others which encourages the key interactions that foster close, secure attachments. He advises skin to skin contact with newborns, lots of carrying and cuddles using slings if necessary, breastfeeding and eye contact and cuddles if bottle feeding, having the baby sleep close to the mother for 6 months, next to her bed within touching distance.

There is a lot of evidence that shows these sorts of interactions ensure the healthy, secure attachment forms. This then means the child grows up expecting their interactions with others to similarly be secure and they feel comfortable expressing their emotions and needs and responding to others emotions and needs. Thus the securely attached child forms healthy adult relationships and friendships with a good balance between independence and intimacy.

But not everyone has this secure pattern. There are other sorts of mothers with other kinds of interaction styles which lead to less healthy attachment patterns. There is an anxious pattern, an avoidant pattern and a fearful pattern. Some research has suggested a final ambivalent pattern of attachment formed by inconsistent caregivers. Mary Ainsworth carried out several experiments with children aged around 1 year old, small toddlers, which extended much of what Bowlby had described in war orphans.

The patterns of attachment in small children are best observed when they are confronted with new situations or their mothers leave them temporarily in a play group or similar setting. The securely attached child goes freely forwards and back to the mother, touching base and venturing forth. If the mother leaves they are upset and cry for her then show they are comforted when she returns.

An anxious child has a different reaction. They are clingy, find it hard to cope with their mother not there and need constant reassurance. Without the presence of their main attachment they are panicky and have no real security in themselves. What sort of behaviour from the mother creates this type of attachment? An excessively controlling, over-involved mother who doesn’t allow or encourage risk taking or the independence of the child.

An avoidant child doesn’t seem upset when their mother leaves and doesn’t show much comfort or pleasure when she returns. This child may even ignore their mother or turn away from her, not responding to being picked up by her. The child doesn’t feel much of a bond to the mother. The mother in this case is unresponsive to the child if they cry, in fact even discourages them from showing upset or distress and pushes them to be independent of her.

The fearful or disorganised child freezes or rocks when their mother returns, they try to approach her for comfort but are so unsure of the response they do this with their back turned or creep round the room to get to her. This is a hallmark of an overtly abusive mother. The child wants comfort from the person they fear.

Now there is a theory, not espoused by Bowlby himself who worked purely on children, but developed in the 1980s that adults can exhibit similar patterns of attachment in their adult romantic relationships. Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver spotted similarities between the ways adults react to the presence or absence of their romantic partners. In both situations the relationship with a person, the mother or lover, provides an opportunity for bonding and the enactment of expectations about the nature of close bonds that the adult has internalised through their previous close relationships. The most influential relationship in forming ideas and expectations about close emotional ties is the one we have with our main carer when we are small children, i.e. our mothers.

What if you are married or in a close relationship with a person whose mother has NPD? What sort of attachment behaviour will they have and how will it show itself in your relationship?

Attachment Theory and Adults

Having a mother with NPD means you could have any attachment pattern expect the secure one. Unless of course you weren’t actually raised by your mother but by another, psychologically normal person like an aunt or grandparent. You are reading this blog because your partner has a difficult (to say the least) mother who exhibits a lot of unpleasant and abusive behaviour. Your partner will not be fully secure and confident in their adult relationships unless they have done a lot of work on themselves in coming to terms with their family and its effects on them.

Hazan and Shaver described 4 patterns of adult attachment similar but not identical to the patterns of attachment in tiny children. They called them secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and dismissive-fearful.

Now my husband and I did an online test of adult attachment patterns http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl which is free and asks a series of questions where you choose your response on a scale of strongly agree to strongly disagree. I came out with a secure attachment style, not surprisingly as my main caregiver as a child was my good enough mother who gave hugs, played with me and responded appropriately to any distress or upset I showed. My husband has the anxious-preoccupied style. I am absolutely sure if my SIL did this same test she would be dismissive-avoidant.

How do these patterns show themselves in adult behaviour? My husband needs constant reassurance that we, our relationship, is OK. He needs me to act in ways that reassure him and he resists anything that makes him anxious, things that may hint at a distance between us or possible conflict or separation, not just physically but of ideas, views, aims and emotions. He cannot argue or tolerate my showing anger as this makes him so anxious. So he diverts the conversation away from the difficult topic onto something else, like my tone of voice (unpleasant) or blunt talk (can’t you phrase that nicely). He finds it very hard to deal with if I am unable to be there emotionally for him due to a crisis of my own. Postnatal depression a couple of years ago for a few months was the worst thing ever to happen to our relationship as far as he is concerned because I was not there for him.

The underlying dynamic involves his expectation that I will soothe his anxiety by modifying my behaviour or he will try to change my behaviour through control of some kind including passive aggressive acts, sulking, withdrawl, blaming, diversions etc. He sees his emotional regulation as being the job of an external person, the person he is bonded to. He is not clear where he ends and I start. This is entirely due to having an engulfing, controlling mother who expected him to cater to her moods and change himself for her. She dictated what emotions he could show and how he showed them. He people-pleases to ensure the continuation of the relationship thus avoiding his extreme anxiety at being abandoned or rejected.

His sister is dismissive-avoidant in her behaviour. She has had a series of unsuccessful relationships with unsuitable partners and works extreme hours, in a job involving extensive overseas travel making herself unavailable for long periods of time. When confronted with an emotional situation she shuts down. Told some upsetting news she failed completely to react, got down on the floor to play with her nieces as if nothing had been said. She avoids her own emotions and other peoples. Keeping others at arms length is normal for her. Her emotional regulation is to suppress and deny her emotions and needs for intimacy acting in a very independent and self-sufficient way.

Of course she had the same mother as my husband but she was the second child and so had less of her NPD mother’s attention, much less if her behaviour is anything to go by. She comments on how much fewer photos there are of her as a child compared to my husband and how she was given all his hand-me-down clothes. She was not the substitute spouse in the same way as my husband, my MIL was clearly overly involved with her son alternately infantalising him to keep him close and using him for emotional support.

Both these patterns have been described as pseudo-independent by Robert Firestone. True adult independence requires a complete sense of yourself as separate from others combined with a capacity to be fully able to emotionally connect with another at an appropriate time. It is all about balance. These two attachment patterns are unbalanced.

The final adult attachment pattern is dismissive-fearful and is shown in people who want, often desperately want a close bond but are scared of being hurt physically or emotionally by the object of their attraction. They fundamentally do not trust their partners and have doubts about their intentions as they have negative views about themselves. They ask “why are you attracted to me, what do you really want?”. This form of attachment in an adult can stem from sexual abuse as a child or teen or from a childhood with significant losses through the absence or rejection of a parent. Unlike a dismissive-avoidant person they are aware that they want closeness and intimacy but like dismissive-avoidant they act in a way that restricts intimacy and don’t share their emotions.

Which pattern does your spouse exhibit? I am interested to hear what sorts of attachments your spouses seem to have and how you think this may be related to their mother’s behaviour towards them.

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Filed under anxiety, attachment theory, Controlling behaviour, 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.

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

Inappropriate Gifts

In response to a comments on the blog where several of you readers discussed weird gift giving behaviour I’ve put together some of my own experiences with this topic. It links in with the blog post on “Gifts with Strings Attached“.

It is a universal truth that people with NPD are poor at giving gifts. Remember that a person with NPD has little or no empathy with others and therefor have little chance of choosing something appropriate and welcome. To do so would require them to be able to imagine you as a separate person with your own valid interests and preferences, that just isn’t going to happen this side of Hell freezing over.

There are various ways in which my MIL’s attempts at giving have fallen short of normal never mind desirable. When gifts are bestowed for birthdays or Christmas she struggles to buy them without a huge fuss, struggles to get them delivered without a huge fuss and what she does choose is weird if not outright insulting.

My MIL can become stuck on one thing, having deduced correctly or otherwise that I like chocolates I will be given the same type every year without fail until I’m sick of the sight of them. Why? Because she simply can’t be bothered to put in any more effort to find out what I would really like, there is no pay off in that for her.

I mentioned once to MIL in passing that I liked writing in purple or green pen. This she took to an unnecessary level by insisting on tracking down all sorts of different green and purple biros and giving them to me one birthday. You may think this was very considerate of her but no, every pen was delivered with the most laboured description of how hard it was to find them to ensure the entire transaction was focussed on her extraordinary benevolence. Even though I hadn’t asked her for them.

Narcissists will give gifts that are all about them; a framed photo of themselves that they expect to see on your wall, a photo mug that they expect you to drink from every time they come round or something they would actually like for themselves, as why on Earth wouldn’t you want what they want? So I get sent garden centre vouchers, books on topics she likes to read about, costume jewellery that she would wear.

One year she sent me two small pairs of pliers for my birthday taken out of their packaging and wrapped up with no explanation. Yep, I was as baffled by that as you probably are. Then when I arrived at her house for a family visit weeks later she presented me with about a dozen tiny parcels that constituted the rest of my present. I had to sit and open each one in turn in front of her, talk about excruciating, while she smirked as I unwrapped small plastic bags of ugly beads and wires. She likes jewellery you see, and TV shopping channels, and had ordered some jewellery making bits and bobs on special offer. This explained the pliers. What it doesn’t explain is why she sent such a weird gift to arrive on my birthday and why she waited until I visited her house before subjecting me to trial by endless mini parcels. The explanation for that of course is control.

She uses gifts to try and control our kids also. We were adamant that we didn’t want our children stereotyped into roles before they were old enough to choose for themselves so requested generic toys that either sex would enjoy and specifically asked for no pink, girly princess stuff. Every other family member shrugged and said yeah, ok. MIL did not take kindly to be told. She sent our then 2-year-old daughter a pink, flowery tea set. When this was pointed out she denied that she knew it was pink and flowery. Despite having seen it in the shop, picked it up and carried it to the counter, taken out and wrapped it at home, despite the front being clear cellophane and the words “Pink Flower Tea Set” being written on it, despite the photo of the contents on the box, no she just hadn’t noticed.  The tea set went to a charity shop. She sulked for weeks and only sent money, no presents, for two years afterwards presumably as some sort of punishment.

The best way to deal with inappropriate presents is to laugh. Give them away and don’t expect to ever get anything really nice from her then you won’t be disappointed. Or offer them back to her, “my what a lovely picture of yourself, wouldn’t that look so much nicer hanging on your wall…”

There is another more insidious way in which a narcissist can manipulate people with gifts; they can use them to show status. Narcissists often have a preferred child or set of grandchildren. The lucky recipient of their golden child status will be bestowed with numerous and expensive presents. The unlucky one singled out for disdain and disapproval gets little or nothing. My first child was deluged in presents from her grandmother. In the first two years of her life she was given more things by MIL than the rest of the family put together. When our second child was born she got nothing for a whole year, not even a pair of booties.

We made it clear to her that if this continued we would refuse to accept any gifts at all.  The children were to be treated equally if she wanted to continue having access to them. It is trickier to deal with a grandmother who favours one set of grandchildren over another. What if your sibling’s kids get better treatment than yours? If the sibling is on your side you both sit down and talk about it. If not, the sibling has always been the favoured one, then you are stuck with this situation I’m afraid. Don’t take it personally; you do not need her approval or her presents. Be completely honest with the children, you do them no favours by trying to cover up her misbehaviour. For them to properly recognise and deal with nasty behaviour themselves they need to see you respond appropriately. That means acting honestly and with integrity. For example: “Grandma gives cousins Jane and John better presents because she is not a very well person and has little idea how to properly and fairly treat others. This is not our fault or Jane and John’s. They are not better than us. Grandma is playing favourites, a nasty game. We will not play along by getting upset about it.”

Money is also used to convey a message of worth to MIL. She uses the amounts to reflect her favour. One Christmas my husband got a cheque for £100, the grandchildren got £50 and I got nothing.

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Filed under Controlling behaviour, Describing narcissism, Effects of NPD on others, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, strategies for managing NPD MIL