The backtracking I described in my previous post, “The Onion“, led me a book that described my situation like no other: The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman, published by Jossey-Bass Publishers in San Francisco.
Before I get into what I learned, I want to emphasize that I do not believe that either of my parents are textbook, diagnosable narcissists – not that I’m anything but an armchair psychologist, but the totality of their behavior does not support this. I believe them to be honest, well-meaning, and often (sometimes too often) selfless people. (I do know that one of my parents’ siblings was diagnosed as having NPD in recent years, so perhaps that parent was negatively influenced by this person, particularly in childhood.)
The general dynamics of our family smacked heavily of narcissistic patterns and influence, which is what the book describes in detail – it was a chilling read for me, in fact. As per the characteristics described in Chapter Two of the book, my family of origin fits the “covertly narcissistic” description perfectly.
Everything looked great from the outside, and even from the inside; there was really nothing I could put my finger on until just a few weeks ago that I could characterize as obviously dysfunctional. No one was being beaten, there was no alcohol or drug abuse, no debilitating mental illness, my parents didn’t fight and seemed to have a stable marriage, all us kids were bright and did very well in school. Yet something was very, very wrong. An old schoolmate, many years after graduation, remarked that both my younger brother and I had always “struggled socially”. I now wonder if he was sensing what we ourselves couldn’t see growing up in the environment that we did. You live based on what you know, after all.
The key characteristic of a narcissistic family system, according to the book’s authors, is that, “…the needs of the parents were the focus of the family, and that the children were in some way expected to meet those needs.” As such, because the children are there to meet the parents’ needs, the needs of the children are not met.
Our needs were well met physically. We always had food on the table, and clothes on our backs. But our family was an emotional wasteland, and on a few key occasions, an emotional hell. We didn’t endure yelling and screaming matches – I can’t say I really recall my parents fighting, ever – but to say we were subject to emotional repression is an understatement.
I remember my one punishment for swearing; the strap. As an adult, I look at this and cannot comprehend how the threat (and delivery) of physical punishment from two adults towards a four year old, for doing something that was just the use of words, is justifiable. Why the use of these words was wrong was never explained before or after this transgression; I was simply punished for this unwritten rule. This sort of thing happened numerous times while I was growing up; I was expected to just “know” my parents’ expectations of me.
Another example of this is when a pedophile attempted to molest me at age six. My cousin, who witnessed what was happening and rescued me, reported the incident to his parents; I did not say a word to mine. Firstly, I had never been taught about my private parts (not even about where babies came from, even though I’d been asking since age three or so), and had never been warned about strangers and such or what to do if approached by one. I was clueless. Secondly, I did not trust my parents, anyway, by this time. To further reinforce the dreaded unwritten rule, my mother came to me and scolded me for not telling her about the incident, after my aunt reported it to her!
And another early incident that left me reeling: the death of my grandfather. I was eight years old, and Grandpa and I lived in neighbouring houses on the same yard. He and Grandma looked after me while my very busy parents worked; they spent a lot more time with me than my parents did during the first eight years of my life, in fact. I was so devastated at losing him… I cried, as would be expected. Dad, however, would have none of that, and yelled at me to stop crying. (This was between Grandpa’s death and the funeral, so this was a very sad and vulnerable time.) Again, another unwritten rule about the “inappropriate” expression of emotions.
Mom was an expert in delivering criticism and decrees about “appearances”. Both my parents were chronic dieters, but Mom was far more concerned about her weight than Dad. And when I started growing more quickly, and started to greatly exceed my peers in weight (AND height, though that seemed to be a secondary consideration for Mom), she started showing her displeasure for my girth. I remember the “concerned” look she shot me after a doctor’s appointment at age nine – boy, was I a disgrace. I weighed in at one hundred and fourteen pounds. (I was five foot three and counting.) My peers probably weighed around eighty pounds, and they were a foot shorter, but I still got “the look”. I didn’t meet her standards. This sort of thing continued approaching puberty; she criticized my facial hair, which embarrassed me greatly, but would not teach me or equip me to do anything about it. I asked her if I could shave my legs at age eleven, and asked for a razor, but she would not allow that, either. It was a weird sort of bullying; make the kid feel self-conscious about things she cannot do anything about, then tie her hands when she tries to change the things she can. Interesting concept. Oh, and I think we could easily put on her tombstone one day a phrase she commonly used: “What WILL they think?”
I’m no expert, but when this is your initial schooling about life, love, boundaries, relationships, authority, your body, and your very worth, and it continues for a couple of decades until you leave the nest, you’re going to have issues. This is not to say that you, as a person, are defective or abnormal or without hope for a better life – it’s to say that your early training left something to be desired and left you inadequately prepared for the real world.
To those who say, “Janice, this shit happened so many years ago. Just get over it,” I have this to say: it’s not like flipping a switch. Your upbringing is hard core indoctrination, no matter how well or poorly it played out. Your primary caregivers influence – dictate, even – every aspect of your life from the time you are conceived until… Well, until their teachings no longer show up as turds on your emotional lawn – and what’s the chance of that ever happening? How you were raised is a permanent part of you. How you choose to participate in the world from this moment forward is yours to decide. (But as the old adage says, “Old habits die hard.”)
Some of the crappy emotional/behavioral stuff I started experiencing at a young age:
- Chronic anxiety
- Chronic mild depression
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of confidence
- Fear of failure
- Perfectionistic thinking (particularly with regards to myself – unrealistic standards)
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of abandonment
- Inability to trust, or trusting the wrong people
- Chronic self-doubt
- Inability to process emotions
- Chronic dieting
- Inability/fear of protecting or sticking up for myself
- High tolerance for abusive behavior (particularly towards me)
- Overly compliant
- Chronic, intense, generalized guilt and shame
- General lack of awareness of personal boundaries
- Chronic people-pleasing
- Internalized anger
Quite the dirty laundry list. Other patterns that I’ve noticed:
- I have ALWAYS been extremely protective of anyone else I’ve seen being picked on or abused. It was like I was blind to the abuse I had been enduring, but unconsciously compensated for it by being hypersensitive to the abuse of others. I tend to be the same way even today.
- I took a self-defence class once because it seemed like a really good idea. But when I was actually in the class, I could not see the point – like I wasn’t worth protecting.
- I am intelligent and highly skilled, but have always accepted positions below my skill level, always feeling that no one would want to hire me, anyway, so I should just take whatever job I could get and perform well.
- I have noticed that I am particularly attracted to bold, charismatic men; the thing is, “bold” and “charismatic” do well to describe egotistical, narcissistic, and controlling men, too. My experiences with these men mirrored my family life growing up; my parents controlled me through fear, through tearing me down and keeping me down emotionally, through unwritten rules and unrealistic expectations. The jerks who entered my life later controlled me through deception, manipulation, fear of abandonment, undermining what little self-confidence I had left. Same players, different stage.
Anyway, I am sharing this with you because if you are struggling in similar ways, then maybe some of what I am saying will help you make sense of your own life. I really believe that being raised in a certain way helps determine how people will unconsciously live their lives and choose partners. What I am getting at is that once you understand how you got to where you are, and figure out how to undo some of the damage, you can change your path and learn to see yourself for your inherent value and beauty and truth.