Warrior.

survivormeme

The childhood origins of narcissism.

This is a very informative video explaining how narcissism develops during childhood.

2 childhood dreams and a spot-on interpretation.

steel_wool

Once in a while, it takes someone who doesn’t know you well or at all to be able to see things the way they really are.

Last night, on my other blog, Lucky Otters Haven, I posted an essay about two weird dreams I had as a young child. All these years, I never thought of them as much more than those random, humorous dreams that all kids have (and maybe, in part, that is all they are).

But a commenter on that other blog who is familiar with my background (from reading my background story and other posts there) offered an interpretation that just sort of hit me upside the head with its accuracy. It just felt right.

Here was the post I wrote about the two dreams:

I was a weird, sketchy kid who had weird dreams. When I was about 5 I had a dream about something called a “clout” that looked like an oversized steel wool pad. It was sitting on the small rug in front of my bed and I was too scared to put my feet on the floor because that clout thing was evil. It just sat there on the rug, in all its black malevolence, not moving, but I knew it was alive and meant to kill me.   I knew if I put my feet on the floor the clout would suck me down into the Hell-portal it must have come from.

When I was around  the same age, one morning I woke up doubled over with laughter.   My dad asked me why I was laughing, and I remember saying, “someone was throwing mud at my door.”   I pointed to the door of my room and globs of gooey mud were sliding down its painted surface. I couldn’t stop shrieking with mirth.   I kept pointing but he couldn’t see the mud and told me to stop making things up.  “Look!  Look! There! There!” I screamed in frustration, but I was still laughing.   Then I woke up for real and was almost afraid if I looked at the door, mud would be on it. I was really awake this time, so there wasn’t. Relieved, I went downstairs for my Cap’n Crunch and orange juice.

mudsplat

Here is the interpretation the commenter (Little Shepherd Girl) wrote in the replies (the comment has been edited):

If I was to venture a guess Clout was the mental disorders, the sharp tangles that afflicted your family. The mud was how the dark side was going to smear you with it and smear you, but you were laughing because you knew it wouldn’t work. It would slide right off.

GOD held you safe in the palm of His hand all along. In childhood we fear evil but also know trust. I think Heaven is blissful trust and a ground ecstatic True Reality free of all anxiety.

I think she nailed what both of these dreams were really about.  The tangled steel wool pad-thing definitely represents the toxicity of my family and probably also represents the state my mind was in — already hopelessly knotted and tangled and full of sharp edges.      Ages four and five were around the time I began to dissociate (something my mother hated and caused her to call me “spooky” and angrily order me to snap out of it) and become symptomatic in other ways suggestive of a child developing an attachment disorder.

It was evident to most people that something wasn’t right with me.   I remember sitting in the family room in our split level house banging my head against the wall and telling my mother who was screaming at me to stop that I was doing it because it felt good (she probably cared more about damage to the wall than to my head).   I think doing this was actually a way of distracting myself from the evil that was beginning to infect my mind from the toxic family atmosphere.  Maybe I was trying to drive out the “demons,” who knows?  All I know is it was a compulsion and I couldn’t NOT do it.   I was also beginning to show signs of being unable to regulate my emotions appropriate for my age level and not adjusting well in peer situations.

But even that far back,  some thing inside me knew I was going to be okay in the end.   I never lost my sense of humor or sense of hope.

Maybe those are the things that kept me from crossing the line into malignancy or sociopathy.

Do narcissists ever cry? (article from The Narcissistic Life)

I believe I wrote an article a while back with the same title (my conclusion — yes, they do)  but this article is better and I like the way it doesn’t stigmatize narcissistic tears or the reasons why they cry as always insincere (it’s not always crocodile tears meant to get supply).   Sometimes they just cry because they hurt.

My  own article about this, written when I was still  enraged at my own narcissists, took a much more negative and cynical view of the reasons why narcissists may cry.

Do Narcissists Ever Cry?

By Alexander Burgemeester, for The Narcissistic Life.

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Whilst narcissism is often characterised by bombast and a seemingly unwavering self-belief, there are times when even a narcissist may cry. Do Narcissists cry? It seems impossible but it is true. So how can someone who is so tied up with their own success, self-image and the presentation of themselves in their everyday lives suffer the kind of emotion or tearful outburst that is more characteristic of us other mere mortals?

Read the rest of this post here.

The startling impact the lack of maternal mirroring has on an infant.

A while back, I posted a video of an experiment dealing with early attachment, called the Still Face experiment.  I’m going to post it again, because of how important this is, and also to compare it to an upsetting video of Caylee Anthony, who was regularly filmed by her mother in home videos,  but who never seemed to be interacted with or talked to by her mother, Casey Anthony (who was charged with murdering two year old Caylee–and probably did–but was found not guilty during the court proceedings).

In the Still Face video, a mother and her one year old baby are shown happily interacting.  The baby responds to her mother and the mother mirrors her back.  It’s a kind of emotional dance they are engaged in together and a beautiful thing to see.   It’s this type of interaction that–far from spoiling the child–teaches a child empathy and love, and enables them to form healthy attachments to others later on.

For the experiment, the mother is instructed to stop interacting with her baby and show her a “still face”–a cold face devoid of expression.    The speed at which the baby notices the coldness and lack of mirroring is startling, and you can see how quickly the baby first attempts to engage the mother by various means, and then grows frustrated and finally desperate, and she finally cries, at which point the mother comforts her.   Even though it’s only an experiment and the mother’s still face only lasts a minute or two,  I still had a visceral reaction to it (perhaps because my own mother was cold in this way and I was told allowed me to “cry things out” alone in my room as a baby) and found it triggering.

This type of behavior toward a child is likely to lead to the child developing attachment disorders and later, possibly, personality disorders.  Because empathy isn’t modeled for them, many people with narcissism, borderline, or antisocial behavior had mothers (or primary caregivers) who treated them with coldness and failed to mirror them.

Comparison with Caylee Anthony

Caylee Anthony, the murdered toddler mentioned in the first paragraph,  was often filmed by her mother, Casey, as she engaged in various daily activities–always alone and with no interaction by Casey.    The videos are creepy — coldly recording this child who seemed to show behaviors eerily similar to those of the baby in the Still Face video, but never interacting in any way with her. Unlike the baby in the first video, Caylee rarely cried.   It seems she might have already partly given up and already was developing some sort of attachment disorder.   Although she apparently wasn’t physically abused (until she was killed), she was definitely emotionally abused by her narcissistic mother.  In the video I’ve posted, Caylee shows increasing frustration and confusion, and seems angry at times.   Who could blame her?

 

*****

Also please watch:
Dads try the Still Face experiment.

What is real?

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I noticed I’ve been posting more on this blog lately, because so much is going on with me right now, and it’s the sort of stuff I prefer to not to post on Lucky Otter’s Haven due to its extremely personal nature.   This blog feels more private to me than my other one.

I just got home from my therapy session.   Today I still had that feeling of something in me having shifted.  I feel quite vulnerable, fragile and emotional, but not in a bad way at all.  I just feel sort of…raw.  It’s a melting kind of feeling, like my usual defenses are not working properly.  But it’s okay.

I talked about this with my therapist. I told him I think something happened to me when I was sitting alone in the warm waters of the Gulf two weeks ago, feeling the water gently rocking me as I sunk into the soft silt-like sand beneath me, and little fish swam around me as if protecting me from something.   I said it felt like I’d been reborn.

We talked about a lot of other things, but mostly about my childhood.  I told him about the way my malignant narcissist mother used to scare me with nothing more than a hard, cold stare or one of her famous silences.  I could see through her mask when I was as young as 4 or 5.  She used to scare me so much and I felt so powerless and small in her presence that the only way I knew how to escape from her was to turn inward, becoming lost in my own mind.   I call this “going inside.”

When I’d “go inside,” no one could get me to come out until I was ready.  I didn’t respond to my environment normally and didn’t seem to hear people when they spoke to me.  I imagine it appeared to others that I might be autistic (I actually thought I was an Aspie for a long time), but I know this was actually an early form of dissociation, the only way I knew how to escape the harsh reality I faced at home.

Whenever I’d “go inside,” my mother became enraged, because it was the only place where she couldn’t get to me.  And she knew it.   She ordered me to stop acting “spooky.” But I couldn’t help it; these dissociative trances weren’t something I willfully decided to do; they just happened whenever I felt threatened.   I had no control over them.  She used to scream at me and punish me for acting “spooky,” sometimes slapping me hard across the face.  Sometimes her fingernails scratched me and once or twice even drew blood.   There was no longer any escape from her cruelty, because I knew whenever I “went inside,” I’d be punished or slapped for it.

“That must have felt so horrible,” my therapist said. “She should have sat you down and asked you if anything was bothering you, and then listened to what you said.”

“I know,” I whispered.   I bit my lip.  I was close to crying.  All my emotions have been so much closer to the surface the past couple of weeks.

“I’m so sorry she couldn’t appreciate you,” he said, pulling his chair up closer, from about 3 feet away to only about 2 feet away.  He was watching me closely.   Maybe he expected me to cry.  I really wanted to.  But if I didn’t, would I disappoint him?  And if I did, would it be genuine or would it be a performance because it’s what he seemed to expect?  I really didn’t even know.

“Why was she so mean?” I wailed. “Why  couldn’t she have been a normal mother? Why did she have to be different?” God, I sounded like a whiny 5 year old.

velveteen_rabbit

“Your mother had an illness, but that doesn’t mean what she did was right.   Not allowing you to feel or express your feelings and then getting angry at you for doing the only thing you knew how to do–go inside yourself–was wrong.  Belittling your feelings and calling you spooky was wrong.  So wrong.  I am so sorry.”  He looked like HE was going to cry!

Tears welled up and I buried my face in my hands.

“I’m so sorry.  I really am. You deserved better.”  He leaned forward.

Okay, it was happening. I was crying and it wasn’t a performance.  This was real.  It felt good because it felt real.

“It was terrible,” I sobbed.  “She was terrible.  People like her shouldn’t have children.  All she cared about was the way I made her look.  And I always made her look bad.”

“But only because you didn’t mirror what she wanted you to reflect in her.  It wasn’t your responsibility to do that.  You were just a child.  There was nothing wrong with you.”

I wiped my face and looked up.  “But you know, my dad wasn’t really that bad.  I know he really did love me, even though he drank all the time and hit me sometimes.   He loved that portrait of me, that one that no one knows what happened to.  He was so proud of that and it hung on the mantel for years.”

“I just noticed something.”

I looked up.

“I hear you, and we’ll talk about your dad too, but I also think you just attempted to change the subject so you wouldn’t have to feel the pain of your mother’s rejection of you.”

I thought about it.  He was right.  It’s true I felt somewhat victorious that I was able to shed tears in front of him, but crying also made me feel so self conscious and vulnerable that I unconsciously changed the subject to something “happier” or at least less traumatic.  I realized that I do this all the time.  I always unconsciously change the  subject or get “distracted” or make a joke whenever I start becoming too emotional or things start getting too painful or uncomfortable.   I never was aware I did this before.

“You know, you’re right.  I really do want to stay with this emotion, I want to feel this pain.  I know I have to.  It’s real, and that’s what I want. I want things to be real.  But it’s hard, you know.  I can get there, but I can’t keep it going.”

“Reality is difficult.”

“But that’s what I want.”

“Do you feel like you need more direction, to stay on track, and not go off on tangents when things start to feel too real?”

“Yes.  Please.   Direct me.  That’s your job.”

We talked about some other feelings I’m having.   I talked to him about the way I project onto others, like my step mother and her “hatred” of me, and this  feeling of something shifting inside.  I started getting emotional again.

“What’s happening?”

“I don’t know!  But I feel real again and I want more of that.”

“You’re already real.  You always have been.  Your defenses aren’t blinding you to what’s real as much as they did.  I can see incredible progress. But our time’s up for this week.”

As I was leaving, I blurted out something I couldn’t believe I heard myself say.   “I feel like running over there right now and giving you a hug,” is what I said.

Mortified by my outburst and feeling like I’d completely lost control of myself, I quickly turned around and started to open the door to leave.

“Wait,” he called.  I turned back around and saw him standing there with his arms open.  I stood there staring stupidly for a second, and then ran gratefully into them.  He patted me on the back during the embrace.   I pulled away first.    It’s the first time there was ever any physical contact between us, but there was nothing at all sexual about it and under the circumstances, I think it was perfectly ethical.    I trust his judgment in these matters.  And that hug felt real.

 

 

BPD vs. NPD

npd_bpd

This graphic I made shows that BPD and NPD are really the same disorder.    Both have their roots in childhood trauma and fear of abandonment, even though the symptoms may not be evident until later childhood or adolescence.    The primary difference is the outer layer–the narcissist develops a nearly impermeable and rigid false self or mask (usually of grandiosity, but sometimes can present as do-gooder or even a victim). This mask remains stable unless narcissistic supply is removed, which causes it to atrophy, revealing the rage, fear, and hurt beneath that.

The borderline develops a highly permeable, chameleon-like outer layer.  In the diagram, it looks like a flower.   This outer layer of “petals” is analogous to the false self, but is not rigid and not even always present. It is easily penetrated and does not require narcissistic fuel from others to keep it intact.   It changes and morphs its shape and form like a Lava lamp.   Since it’s so easily broken through and is so changeable, Borderlines seem to be “crazier” and seem to have more intense mood swings than narcissists.  They are also skilled in adapting to different situations and people in a chameleon-like way: this usually manifests as codependency.  Sometimes they don’t seem to have minds of their own and take on the behaviors and belief systems of whoever they happen to be with.   Borderlines seem more emotionally unstable than narcissists because the second layer of rage/hurt/fear is often on the surface, causing the Borderline to act out in frequent rages, panic attacks or crying jags.

Beneath these outer layers, NPD and BPD have the same structure:   a layer of rage, hurt and fear when they are triggered, hiding the emptiness and grief under that (which is what both–especially the NPD–are so afraid of confronting and take such desperate measures to avoid feeling).  When this part of the personality structure is finally reached, the NPD/BPD feels as if they don’t exist and that is excruciating for them.   NPDs in therapy may quit at this point.   Hidden deep within the “emptiness” (which really isn’t empty at all) is the diminished and damaged true self (inner child).

The goal in therapy is to break through all those outer layers and finally reach the true self, then give him or her the nurturing and validation they should have received in the hopes that he or she can become a whole person.   It can take a very long time for this to happen, if it ever happens at all.

Borderlines, although they might seem crazier than narcissists, are more easily cured because the permeable chameleon-like outer layer is so much more easily broken through.   In contrast, the NPD false self can take months or years to even crack.   It’s a thick and stable structure, not given to weakening easily, but even the strongest concrete building has hairline cracks somewhere in its structure.   A tornado can reduce the strongest building to rubble.

The key to breaking a narcissist is to find those cracks and weaken the false self. This is usually done by removing narcissistic supply, which serves as a psychological tornado to the narcissistic defensive structure. Sometimes this has already happened; and in this more vulnerable state, with the false self temporarily disabled, a narcissist is more likely to enter therapy.   Unfortunately the narcissistic defense mechanism is so ingrained they will soon find a way to get supply again and rebuild the false self.   The therapist must work to permanently disable it but the narcissist must also be willing for this to happen.

In a low spectrum narcissist, the false self may be rather weak or thin to begin with, and for them, a cure may be more likely or happen sooner.  In low spectrum narcissists, the false self is more like a  cheaply constructed trailer than a stone castle.  It will only take a weak tornado to smash it to smithereens.

When an NPD’s mask begins to fall away, they will begin to act a lot more like a Borderline–raging, dissociating, experiencing crying jags, and showing their underlying inability to regulate overwhelming emotions.   At this point the treatment for NPD should be much the same as for BPD–empathically penetrating the “void” to reach and begin to nurture the diminished real self.

How a child develops BPD or NPD.

These disorders begin when a young child or toddler is hurt or rejected by their parents, especially the mother.  This hurt may not even be intentional–sometimes the illness, death, or absence of a non-disordered parent can set things into motion, because the child can’t discern the difference between deliberate abuse or neglect and something that cannot be helped.  Many, if not most, children who live in orphanages or are moved from foster home to foster home develop some form of Cluster B disorder.

Because a toddler or very young child has not yet completely separated their sense of self from their parents’, when they don’t receive the mirroring and unconditional acceptance they need, they feel as if they’ve been annihilated, and that feeling of annihilation becomes the black void that now surrounds the hurt or abused child.

But because the void is too painful and frightening to cope with, something else must cover that over too, and also protect and hide the inner child.  So the defensive emotions (anger, paranoia, fear, and rage) develop over the void because even though they feel unpleasant, they’re still better than the horrible feeling of having been annihilated, and they also protect the inner child from ever being hurt again.

And over that, for a narcissist, to attract people who could provide the attention and validation they never got as children, they develop a fake self, which is usually “nice” but is only a mask so it isn’t real.  If they feel that the mask is under threat of exposure, they fight tooth and nail to retain the image they want the world to see.

For the borderline, instead of developing a false self to cover the rage and other defensive emotions, they learn to adapt depending on the situation or the people, and that is why they so often become codependent.   Also, because they are closer to the void than the narcissist is, they tend to have dissociative episodes and may engage in self destructive actions like cutting to make them feel like they exist. Or they may engage in other risky behaviors or taking drugs or drinking too much in an effort to self-medicate.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional, but I’m well read on these disorders and these are from my observations and opinions.

Test driving narcissism (how I almost became a narcissist).

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This is directly related to my last post, about HG Tudor’s theory of codependency and NPD.   My parents tried hard to turn me into a narcissist, and it almost worked.   But my innate empathy (which I’m finally learning to rediscover in myself) was what saved me from the curse of NPD.

This post was originally published on Lucky Otter’s Haven on January 21, 2015. But I think it’s actually better suited for this blog.

I remembered how I almost became a narcissist. I think I was finally ready to remember. It’s part of my journey to wellness.

I immediately began digging through boxes of old photos, because I was burning inside to write this post, to confess everything, and photos say a lot.

Narcissism runs in families, and although exacerbated by abuse or neglect, it can develop later in a susceptible person, and it happens because of a conscious choice the person makes. They may not actually be saying, “Okay, I’m going to be a narcissist now,” but they have been teetering on the brink of darkness and the would-be narcissist decides it’s easier to plunge right into narcissism than to keep being hurt as their true self.

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3 generations of women: my maternal grandmother Anna Marie, my mother in the center, and me at age 5. (ca 1964) Our family dinners were always this stiff and formal.

Narcissists start life as Highly Sensitive People.
For a number of reasons, I’ve come to believe most narcissists started out as HSPs (highly sensitive people). I will not go into my reasoning here, but I strongly believe these are people who once felt things too much, and if they were abused, it would have been too much to bear. To survive, they constructed a false self in an effort to protect the too-sensitive self (true self) from further hurt. The problem is, for narcissists, the false front works way too well, so well that once it solidifies, it’s there forever.

Tormenting my therapist.
I remembered the therapist I had during my early 20’s. I was terribly infatuated with him, obsessed beyond all logic. This is called transference in psychotherapy and my therapist kept trying to get me to “work through it” but my crush kept intensifying. It was killing me. One day I told him I couldn’t take it anymore and walked out the door in mid session. I never saw him again.

I realize now how narcissistic I acted during my sessions with him. I was attractive and knew it so I flirted openly, tried to get him to hug me (he actually did this until he realized it was a manipulative game on my part and there was a definite sexual aspect).

One day I stormed into his office having a hissy fit because I’d found a magazine in the waiting room with his and a woman’s name on the label. I stomped in, started waving the magazine in the air demanding he tell me why he never told me he had a girlfriend. His answer was quite reasonable (and it was of course none of my business), but I sulked the whole rest of the session and refused to say anything. I’d show him!

After I quit therapy, I hoped I had hurt him. I think I was angry at him for “making” me like him too much and leaving him was my method of punishing him. Of course, my leaving therapy didn’t hurt him. I was just his annoying, demanding, manipulative little bitch of a patient and he probably couldn’t stand me. I wanted to think I was hurting him, but I was really only hurting myself.

It shames me to remember all this, but I really manipulated that therapist, and annoyed him all the time ON PURPOSE. I was sadistic…I was crushing so hard, maybe my strong feelings for him were causing me to want to hurt and anger him. I remember getting a thrill if I could see a look of hurt on his face. It made me feel more powerful–that I could do the hurting instead of always being the one to get hurt.

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1977: Still a nice, sensitive, codependent girl at age 18…things were about to get ugly.

I was becoming partly dissociated from the me that is now and the me that was before. But it was all a defense against being hurt, and I knew it. I just couldn’t admit it.

I never saw my therapist’s diagnosis of me (I was there for anxiety and panic attacks) but it makes me wonder if “NPD” might have been one of the diagnoses. I’m pretty sure it was still called NPD in the early 1980s.

lauren_bennett1
I think I can see the beginning of the “narcissist stare” in this photo of me from 1984. I look colder and harder than in the 1977 photo. I see this same look sometimes on my daughter, who is close to the same age I was here. I think this look can also be seen in some Borderlines.

The Danger Zone.
Sometime in my late teens and early 20s I began to act “like I didn’t care.” It was feigned but at the time my high sensitivity was shameful to me. I didn’t want it. It was my albatross, my curse. I was tired of being teased about it. So I made a choice to just act like a different person. Act like a person who didn’t give a shit about anything. I began to drink heavily and smoked a lot of weed to numb the pain of being me. I began to be over-critical of others and gossipy, something I had never been, and spread lies about people I didn’t like to anyone who would listen.

My envy of others (something I still struggle with) was off the charts. I couldn’t stand people who had more than me, were prettier or thinner than me, were smarter than me, or had a better relationship or job than me. I would spread lies and rumors about these more fortunate people. Mostly, it backfired, for my Aspieness made it almost impossible for me to maintain my masks or hold up a lie. A good narcissist has to be good at reading social cues. I wasn’t, but I sure did try.

I found it hard to feel happy for anyone. If a friend got a promotion or fell in love, I felt bitter and jealous instead of glad for them. I’d rant that they didn’t deserve it. And I actually believed this, to a point.

I imagined myself not “needing” anyone. I dated a few guys and unceremoniously dumped them, and yet I was so lonely. I longed to be in a happy relationship, but couldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable enough. I treated men like objects.

I didn’t listen to people. I interrupted them, only thinking of what I would say next. I only wanted to talk about me. Other people were becoming objects too.

I lied to people about my accomplishments (which in actuality were few), my background, my social status. But no one really believed me. I wasn’t good at this game. In fact, I sucked at it.

I think I came very close to becoming an N. Over time, this hard outer shell I’d constructed out of the ashes of my own pain ossified and grew more stable. I was forgetting what it felt like to be vulnerable and human.

There was something else too. During the time I was test driving narcissism, I suffered from severe panic attacks (which is what led me into the therapy described above). I felt like I was out of my body a lot, and that made me panic. Some of these attacks were so bad people thought I was having epileptic seizures, because when I was “out of my body,” I had trouble controlling my movements and would stumble around as if drunk, or my eyes would sort of glaze over as if I wasn’t quite “there.” To rule out epilepsy, I had an EEG done. It came out normal. The only thing I can think of is that somehow the dissociated state I was in was causing me to feel detached from my own body, because I wasn’t “myself.”

Coming back from N hell
One day when I was about 26 (and the same year I got married to my MN ex), a friend of mine from high school told me she didn’t think she could be friends with me anymore, because I was too mean and she didn’t trust me. Other people were calling me out for spreading rumors and lying and my whole flimsy construct came tumbling down. I couldn’t escape from the web of lies I’d created, and now that web threatened to engulf me. It was terrifying but was the wake up call I needed.

I finally realized I was hurting people. Even then, I hated knowing I’d hurt someone else more than I hated being hurt by others. I was overcome with guilt and shame, and realized I couldn’t keep up the mean-girl front anymore. I didn’t become a narcissist, but I came close, so close.

This wake up call catapulted me back into my normal self and the horrific panic attacks soon subsided. (I still have panic attacks from time to time, but they are specific to certain situations and nowhere near as numerous as they were from 1979 – 1984 or so.)

Choosing codependency.
I’d been balancing at the precipice, and ultimately chose codependency (sometimes now referred to as “inverted narcissism”). Looking back, that was actually a very wise choice for if I hadn’t, if my guilt had not been strong enough to stop me in my tracks, I would have been a much different person today, and would not be doing what I’m doing right now. Sharing my journey with other survivors of narcissistic abuse. It’s a contagious thing, and any of us from narcissistic families could have gone in that direction. But we didn’t. That’s why we, not the narcs, are the lucky ones.

I think my Aspergers actually saved me [EDIT: what I thought was Aspergers when I wrote this was actually Avoidant PD + BPD + social anxiety]. I was always bad at reading social cues and therefore can’t lie well and are bad at maintaining a workable mask. To be a narcissist would require me to use skills I did not possess. So I chose codependency because I had not been trained by my MN family to think for myself or trust my own judgment. I was trained to be Narcissistic Supply. That was a role I was much more successful at and comfortable with than my Narcissist Test Drive period.

But I think there was an advantage to my visit to the dark side too, and maybe a reason. I feel like like I understand narcissists’ motives and thinking patterns and self-hatred more than the usual non-narc ACON. Because I almost became one myself and felt a little bit of what they feel. All the money in the world wouldn’t be enough to get me to turn into darkness again. It was like a trip to hell. But I do know, they are in excruciating pain. All the time.

lauren_bennett3
Refinishing a table as young wife (around 1989-1990). I didn’t know how malignant my husband was yet but he was showing signs.

Never feel guilty for feeling guilty.
If I had been able to ignore or deny my guilt or the pain of others that I’d caused myself, I think I would have crossed the line into becoming a fullblown narcissist (though maybe not a malignant one).

Most narcissists make a choice at some point, usually early in life because of abuse but sometimes later, like I almost did. But I think there is also an escape hatch: a window of time where a budding narcissist can still “get out” and redeem themselves before the door between the Ns and everyone else slams shut.

Unfortunately I still have a few narcissistic traits and think I still sometimes act a bit like one. But my ability to feel shame and guilt is very well developed, in fact too well developed (and always has been), so that overrides my N traits. Perhaps that makes me a Borderline (I was actually diagnosed with BPD comorbid with other disorders in 1996). But if I am a Borderline, I try to control those behaviors. I try to be aware of them. I think I’m doing pretty well.

Growing into me.
Now I’m changing, moving farther away from the N and B traits of my early-mid adulthood than I have ever been. I don’t envy people much anymore and am beginning to understand what it feels like to feel joy or sadness for someone else. To feel humbled by the simple but beautiful things that surround us. I’ve embraced my sensitivity and am finding rather than being a curse that brings torment and hurt, it’s a beautiful thing that allows the growth of empathy and true understanding. Instead of shame over it, now I’m proud.

The ironic thing about this is that, it’s because I like myself MORE now, that my N traits are disappearing. I used to think I was worse than a piece of dog poop stuck on the bottom of a shoe and had to go around proving I was more, much more than that. It’s not like that anymore, and I’m ever so grateful I saved myself at the 11th hour.

Child roles in dysfunctional families.

dysfunctional-family
Credit: Artist unknown.

 

Wikipedia has an excellent, detailed article about dysfunctional family dynamics. Here I am just going to talk about the roles various family members play, and the kinds of families that become dysfunctional. If you’d like to read the whole article, click on this link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysfunctional_family

Dysfunctional families are usually of two types:

1. One or more of the parents are active alcoholics or addicted to drugs.
2. One or more of the parents have a Cluster B disorder, usually Narcissistic Personality Disorder but sometimes Borderline Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or Histrionic Personality Disorder (or a combination of any of these).

The Cluster B Connection.

Outside of alcoholics and drug addicts, dysfunctional family dynamics are most prevalent when one or both of the partners suffer from a Cluster B disorder, especially Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Malignant Narcissism.    After NPD, BPD is the most common disorder seen in the head of a dysfunctional family, though because it’s more common in women and Borderlines have more empathy than narcissists, BPD is most often seen in the codependent, passive partner.

ASPD (psychopathy or sociopathy) rarely appears by itself in dysfunctional families, as antisocial people and psychopaths tend to not be raising children at all (either because they’re incarcerated, their children have already been removed from the home, or they simply have no interest in raising children,) but a parent could have Malignant Narcissism, which is a combination of NPD and ASPD.   Also, people with pure ASPD, though more likely to be criminals or involved in illegal activities, tend to be less emotionally abusive than people with NPD or even BPD. They are merely selfish and lack empathy, and they are manipulative to get what they want, but they don’t care about getting emotional supply from others so they don’t engage in mind games like gaslighting, triangulating, projecting, and scapegoating (unless there is a material reward involved or they are trying to avoid culpability). However, some people with ASPD are sadistic and enjoy tormenting family members for fun.

Of all the Cluster B disorders, HPD is probably the least toxic (Histrionics are shallow, attention seeking, and dramatic, but not usually that abusive), but HPD is usually comorbid with another Cluster B disorder, such as NPD.

cluster_b_chart

In some cases, a non-Cluster B mental illness (such as Bipolar disorder) that causes abusive acting-out behavior may be the culprit, but it’s less common because most other mental disorders are less easily hidden from others and the person appears “crazier.” Non-Cluster B disorders are also more easily treated with drugs or therapy, and except for psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia, the afflicted person knows they have a problem and are more likely to seek help.

Cluster B and addictive disorders. 

Parents of dysfunctional families can also be both mentally ill and addicted to drugs or alcohol. The two often go together. In fact, alcoholism and drug addiction are extremely common in people with Cluster B disorders. Alcohol and drugs are their attempt to fill the emptiness they feel inside themselves.

Even if an alcoholic or drug addict doesn’t have an underlying Cluster B disorder, the behavior of an active addict/alcoholic is very similar to someone who has NPD. The only difference in the behavior of a narcissist and someone with active alcoholism is that for the narcissist, the “fix” is emotional; for the alcoholic, it’s chemical. A non-Cluster B active addict or alcoholic can be every bit as emotionally abusive, self-centered, and manipulative as someone with NPD. Only getting their next fix is important. (As an aside, it’s interesting to me that the 12 steps of AA and other 12-step programs almost all address the problem of narcissism by encouraging humility, responsibility, and amend-making. A person on a so-called “dry drunk” is basically a sober person acting out in narcissistic ways, which may be their nature).

The Codependent Partner.

Sometimes only one partner has a mental disorder or addiction, but the non-afflicted parent is always going to be codependent to them. The codependent parent, whether they have a disorder or not, almost always suffers from PTSD or Complex PTSD. If both parents have a Cluster B disorder (which I think is usually the case), the one who has NPD or Malignant Narcissism is almost always going to call all the shots and dominate the other family members. If a Borderline is paired up with a Narcissist, the Borderline is almost always going to be codependent to the Narcissist, colluding in the abuse but also being abused themselves. Similarly, if a Covert Narcissist is paired up with an Overt Narcissist, the Covert one is going to be codependent to them and possibly abused. Such a scenario can lead to the Borderline or Covert Narcissist developing Stockholm Syndrome (identifying with and colluding with their abuser). Non-Cluster B codependents can also develop Stockholm Syndrome, because it’s a complication of C-PTSD. The codependent parent often (but not always) has a high degree of empathy, which is what drew them to the narcissist in the first place, in a misguided belief that they could “fix” them or they were led to believe that the narcissist could “rescue” them.

The Roles of the Children.

In the ACON community, there’s a lot of talk about Scapegoats and Golden Children, but there are other roles children can play in a family that are rarely addressed. In a two child family, most likely there will be a scapegoat and a golden child, but in larger families, there can also be a Lost Child, a Clown, and a Rescuer (codependent). It’s unhealthy for a child to be in any of these roles, but the Scapegoat and Golden Child role are probably the most dangerous to a child’s mental and emotional health, for different reasons. Even in a two-child family, the roles can shift back and forth (according to the Wikipedia article, families in which the children’s roles change and shift are called Balkanized families–this alludes to the constantly shifting loyalties and borders of the Balkan countries in Eastern Europe).

1. The Scapegoat.

scapegoat

Both this and the Golden Child role are the soul-killing roles, but for different reasons. The Scapegoat is the child who is targeted by the narcissistic (or alcoholic) parent. The parent often is able to get the rest of the family to serve as flying monkeys and gang up on that child, projecting anything they don’t want to “own” onto them. Like the sacrificial goats described in the Bible who were banished to the wilderness and tormented by villagers, the Scapegoated child carries all the shame the rest of the family doesn’t want to confront or deal with. All the unwanted emotions and bad qualities are unloaded and projected onto them, so the abusers don’t have to confront or deal with these problems in themselves.

Usually it’s the most sensitive child of the family who becomes the Scapegoat, because that child tends to be the Truth Teller, the only family member who can see the dysfunction and may even react against it. The most sensitive child, being the child who shows the most emotion, is also a threat to the narcissists in the family because emotional expression is such a frightening thing to them. In many, if not most dysfunctional families, the expression of emotion is not allowed. So the most emotional or sensitive child becomes the scapegoat, especially if they rebel against the dysfunction or criticize it.

The Scapegoat may be assigned the role of Bad Child, the Loser, the Stupid One, the Ugly One, the Crazy One, the Weak One, or any combination of these. No matter what they do, they cannot please the parents (or the siblings who have been turned against them). Scapegoat Children usually develop severe C-PTSD or possibly another mental disorder, and having been trained to be victims and never given the emotional, financial or other tools to succeed in life, tend to fulfill their families’ predictions of being “losers,” so then their families can say to others, “See? This child really is worthless.”

Scapegoated children also tend to attract other abusers throughout their lives and are at risk for being targeted for bullying even as adults and for entering into abusive relationships. If the adult child doesn’t go No Contact, the abuse continues, usually through some form of isolation, silent treatment, or exclusion. Scapegoated adults are talked badly about by the family and not invited to family functions. They are given no emotional or financial support, even though other members of the family are given these things. It’s not unusual for a scapegoated adult child to be living in poverty, even if their families are wealthy–not only because they were denied financial support when they needed it, but also because their self esteem took such a terrible beating that they have no confidence at all and never take any risks that could improve their lives. Severe C-PTSD can also cause a person to have an inability to focus or concentrate or set realistic goals.

A Scapegoat isn’t always a child. It can also be a parent, in which the children are turned against that parent by the abusive one.

2. The Golden Child.

girl with a gold medal and cups.

The Golden Child, often (but not always) the eldest child, is the parent’s trophy, pride and joy. The parents may seem to love that child, but being incapable of real love, their “love” is conditional and is based on their fantasy of what they want that child to be, not on who the child really is. The child is assigned to be a Mini Me of the narcissistic parent.

The Golden Child, basking in constant approval, showered with toys and gifts, never held accountable for any wrongdoing (which may be projected onto the Scapegoat), and often recruited as a co-abuser in the abuse of the Scapegoat, grows up entitled, grandiose, and spoiled. Because their Real Self has never been appropriately mirrored and their less than perfect traits are ignored or projected onto someone else, and because they were rewarded for playing a the role of the Perfect One, a Golden Child in a family is the most likely to develop NPD and become a clone of the abusive parent. In this way their souls are destroyed even more than the Scapegoat’s. To continue to be the parent’s favorite, they had to play a role which became internalized. This becomes their False Self. After awhile, they are no longer able to access their Real Self at all. Golden Children who have become narcissistic continue their entitled, bullying, manipulative, grandiose behavior into adulthood and are likely to head dysfunctional families themselves, continuing the cycle.

A non-Golden Child, even a Scapegoat, can become a narcissist too (usually the covert form of NPD), for self-protection, but Golden Children tend to develop the grandiose, malignant form of narcissism and as such, are the least likely to ever seek help for their disorder or admit they have become abusers themselves.

3. The Lost Child.

lostchild

In larger families (three or more children), one child is likely to be ignored and treated as if they don’t exist. This isn’t a form of silent treatment; it’s as if the parents don’t notice the child is there at all. The Lost Child isn’t victimized like the Scapegoat, but they aren’t spoiled either. They may or may not be recruited to assist in the abuse of the Scapegoat, but they won’t necessarily be punished if they don’t cooperate; they will simply be ignored. The Lost Child tends to be quiet and shy, and not make any waves. They are probably aware of the family dysfunction and may sympathize with the scapegoat (but don’t let anyone know this). As they grow older, they may crave attention or develop addictions, or they may remain shy and retiring throughout their lives. They tend to avoid confrontation and drama, and may become extremely introverted.

4. The Clown/Mascot.

classclown

The Clown/Mascot attempts to divert attention away from the family dysfunction (and also get attention for themselves) by making light of everything. Everything becomes a joke to them, and they even use their own families as sources for humor. Clowns can be disruptive in class as children, to get attention, but because of their ability to see the humor in things, they tend to be outgoing and develop a large circle of friends during adolescence and adulthood (even if they are never taken very seriously). Family Mascots are almost never scapegoated, because they entertain everyone and take the focus off the family problems.

David Sedaris, a writer and humorist, is a good example of this dynamic at play.  Several writers in the ACON community (and even outside that community) were outraged by Sedaris’ callous essay (“Now We Are Five,” which appeared in the New Yorker after his younger sister, Tiffany, committed suicide).   Tiffany was clearly the family scapegoat and had evidently gone No Contact with the rest of the family. At the time of her death, she was living in poverty and only had, as her father put it, “two lousy boxes” of belongings. I don’t know all the details, but it seems as if she was offered no support, either emotionally or financially, in spite of the family’s wealth and Sedaris’ success as a writer. She was probably mentally ill, but her mental illness may have been due to being the family reject.

In a candid interview Sedaris gave for Vice, he describes Tiffany and her relationship with the rest of the family. His words are very telling.

Even as a child I looked at my sister and wondered what that would be like, not to feel the warmth of my mother’s love. Tiffany didn’t. There was always a nervous quality about her, a tentativeness, a desperate urge to be in your good graces. While the rest of us had eyes in the front of our heads, she had eyes on the sides, like a rabbit or a deer, like prey, always on the lookout for danger. Even when there wasn’t any danger. You’d see her trembling and think, You want danger? I’ll give you some danger

It’s been suggested that David Sedaris is himself a narcissist (possibly the golden child) and that could certainly be true, but I also suspect he served a secondary role as the family Clown/Mascot. His callousness toward Tiffany in his famous essay (and grandiosity about how great the rest of the Sedaris family was–it’s very common for narcissists who were golden children to hold their dysfunctional families up as paragons of perfection) seemed to be drawn both from narcissism and from a need to hide his anger and pain behind a wall of humor. Here’s a link to his essay (it’s heartbreaking and may be triggering):

Now We Are Five

The accompanying photo is interesting. Tiffany, the second to youngest child in a family of six children, sits in the bottom right hand corner. Her hair is cut short and unkempt, and she looks very unhappy. David, wearing the glasses, stands above her. Actually, none of the kids look very happy. Not a smile in the bunch.  Something’s definitely not right about this family.  It’s common to see family portraits where no one is smiling in the 18th or 19th centuries,  but not in the late 1960s, when this photo was taken.   Here’s another photo, from the Vice interview, where only Tiffany (again in the bottom right hand spot) looks desperately unhappy and disconnected from her siblings.

tiffany_sedaris
Credit: Vice.com / Left to right: Amy, David, Gretchen, Paul, Lisa, and Tiffany

I used to enjoy Sedaris’ writings and looked forward to his books and essays, but after this essay, I just can’t read him anymore. (Augusten Burroughs is a better alternative and doesn’t seem to be a narcissist).

In spite of their raucous and jovial manner, Clowns are likely to be depressed because they have never learned to confront or deal with their true feelings.  They hide behind a wall of laughter.  Their sense of humor is really just a cover for their pain. Many Clowns become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and a few become suicidal. Many of our great comedians served the Clown role in their families. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of them had drug issues or killed themselves.

5. The Rescuer.

superman_child

This is the codependent child who attempts to “fix” the family dysfunction by being obedient, always good, non-confrontational, overly generous, and self-sacrificing. The Rescuer may be highly empathic. The Rescuer tries to serve all the needs of the narcissistic/addicted parent, which of course is not possible. They will never argue with or criticize the narcissistic parent, and are always trying to get everyone to get along, which also is not possible. They may be the only family member who doesn’t abuse the Scapegoat, but they might if they feel like it’s required. However, even if they do collude in the Scapegoat’s abuse, they will be less abusive than the other family members, tending to take a back seat or even sympathize with the Scapegoat in private. In trying to please everyone, they please no one, and grow up feeling impotent and helpless. It’s a no-win situation.

When Rescuers become adults, they tend to unconsciously look for other abusers to “rescue,” having failed to do so in their families of origin. Like Scapegoats, Rescuers are likely to become abused themselves as adults, but it’s hard for them to leave an abuser because of their high level of empathy which keeps them tied to the abuser in their attempt to want to “help” them. They also tend to fall for an abuser’s promises to change and are easily “hoovered” back into a codependent relationship.

Shifting Roles.

In Balkanized families, the child roles can shift. The most common situation is a Golden Child becoming a Scapegoat, often upon reaching adulthood, if they fail to fulfill the unrealistic expectations put on them. (“You were such a disappointment to me!”) If a Scapegoat goes No Contact or leaves the family for some other reason, another child, possibly the Lost Child, becomes the new Scapegoat. Someone has to carry all the family shame.  If the family only has two children, the Golden Child may find themselves suddenly scapegoated or serving both roles.

Children who serve as both Scapegoats and Golden Children (very common in only children)  often develop Borderline Personality Disorder as well as severe C-PTSD and possibly other mental disorders like Dissociative Identity Disorder (almost always the result of severe emotional abuse).

Serving as both a Scapegoat and Golden Child is the ultimate mindf*ck because there isn’t even any consistency. The child never knows if they will be punished or rewarded from one minute to the next. Their only advantage (if they are an only child) is that they don’t have siblings who have been turned into flying monkeys who collude in the abuse.

If the family ever develops a need for a new Scapegoat (if the Scapegoat goes No Contact, dies, or disappears), the Lost Child is usually picked as a replacement, due to their non-confrontational, malleable temperament and lack of any real pre-existing role in the family.

Trashed.

trash_can

I am a throwaway child and a throwaway adult. I wish I had been loved, but I was not. I might as well have been an orphan.

There’s nothing quite like a death in the family to bring out everyone’s worst sides, and if you’re the most hated, scapegoated person in your family, there’s nothing like a death in the family to drive home just how devalued and disliked you really are.

My father loved me once. I’m not sure my mother ever did, but I’m pretty sure my dad did. In spite of being an abusive drunk who was often AWOL and really a pretty terrible father, I felt in my bones that he loved me and was proud of me.

When I was 6 years old, we were in Chicago visiting relatives. It was summertime and very sunny and hot. We somehow wound up in Olde Town, the bohemian section of Chicago, where all the artists and beatniks and proto-hippies lived. This wasn’t an area social-climbers like my parents would have been caught dead in under normal circumstances, but here we were. We stopped to watch an street artist drawing someone’s portrait in pastels. He was fast and expressive and his large pastel-stained hand moved across the rough greyish paper like a thing filled with magic.

The artist was someone my parents would not approve of in their own circles. First of all, he was black, very black. I hadn’t encountered many black people in my life and I remember marveling at the man’s dark brown skin and how smooth and chocolatey it looked, like a Hershey bar. I stood there staring wide-eyed, the way young children do. I was probably scolded for doing that, but I’m not sure. The man also had long dreadlocks–long before they became fashionable. I’d never seen hair like that before. His clothes were wild and colorful, and he wore lots of big African jewelry. I couldn’t believe this was actually a person. He was the most exotic thing I’d ever seen.

His warm dark brown eyes were kind. When he smiled, I felt blinded by the whiteness of his teeth against his dark skin. I smiled back shyly. My mother wanted to leave, but the man had finished his pastel drawing of a woman ahead of us and my father was already handing him a five dollar bill to draw a portrait of me. I couldn’t believe my luck to be this magic man’s model! I couldn’t wait to see what wonders would emerge from his long brown fingers. I knew he would make me look so pretty, like he made the lady ahead of me look prettier than she really was.

I sat for what seemed like an hour but was probably only 15 minutes. I could hear the man’s rough fingers making scratchy sounds across the rough grey-white paper he used. He worked intently, as if nothing else in the world mattered except this picture of me he was making. Every so often he looked up from his portrait and studied my face, eyebrows scrunched together. Then he’d nod to himself and go back to drawing. I sat there in the mid-day Chicago heat, in a yellow cotton dress with white trim, not even noticing how wet my hairline was becoming from the sweat. My eyes were watering a little from the sweat droplets that occasionally made their way into them.

When he was finished, my parents saw the portrait first. They looked pleased and my father motioned for me to come over and have a look too.

“You captured her essence,” my father said. This was when he still loved me for who I was. He turned back to the artist and handed him another five. “You did a wonderful job so I think you deserve a little extra,” he said.

We took the portrait home and for years, it hung in the living room. When we had a mantel, it went over that. My parents, especially my father, loved that portrait and he always showed it off to everyone. He liked the sadness he thought the artist captured in my eyes, even though it was probably just my sweat dripping in them, because I actually felt happy that day. He always asked me if I remembered the day I sat for that artist, and I always said yes. It’s one of my fondest memories.

easily_forgotten

I haven’t seen the portrait since the early 1980’s. The last time I saw it was at my father’s new house shortly after he remarried the woman he would spend the rest of his life with. It was propped in a corner of his study, along with some other paintings that hadn’t been hung up and probably never would be.

Yesterday, I remembered the portrait, and emailed my stepmother about it. I told her how much it meant to me and explained it was one of the few things that connected me to my childhood and to my father. I have very few pictures of myself and I already know a whole box of them was already thrown away by my mother, during one of her obsessive cleanings. Family photos never had much meaning to her. I never thought my father would do the same.

I received an email back saying that she had never seen the portrait and didn’t think they had anything that fit the description, because she knew everything in that house and what was stored away. She said she would look, but didn’t think she had it. I know it wasn’t given to my mother or I would have been told that. My mother would never have kept something like that around anyway.

I’m not sure, but I think it got thrown or given away. Probably thrown away. My family is like that. They throw away paintings, and they throw away children. They are treacherous betrayers. Of course they would not have thought to ask me if I might have wanted it, since what I wanted never mattered.

That a portrait of me that my father once loved and probably threw away (or allowed his wife to throw away) was shattering to me. I’ve been crying since last night about it. It seems like a small, silly thing, but it isn’t. It’s a huge deal. A huge fucking deal. It drove home just how little I matter, how little I ever mattered. A pastel portrait of the child-me drawn with such love and passion by a kind-hearted artist a very long time ago is gone forever. I won’t ever see it again or be able to pass it on to my own children. Because it was just trash, and trash doesn’t matter.