Mother’s Day, and special days: Triggering pain for mothers of estranged adult children
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Here it comes again—Mother’s Day in the United States and in Canada. Mothers of estranged adult children in the U.K. have already seen Mother’s Day come and go. Soon, mothers in Canada and in the States will be on the other side of the holiday too—until next year, when it rolls around all over again.
Hang in there. Mother’s Day won’t stop coming just because we’re estranged. And having spoken with thousands of parents who’ve been cut off by adult children, the reality is that the situation may not be ending for you anytime soon either. That’s why it’s so important for you to adapt.
What can you do?
Since starting this site, I’ve written a few articles about getting through Mother’s Day when adult children are estranged. You’ll find in them practical advice and concrete tips. You’ll also find comments from mothers of estranged adult children who share their experiences, and acknowledge the emotional pain. In this article, we’ll focus on Mother’s Day from an emotional triggers perspective.
Mother’s Day when adult children are estranged: Avoiding extra hurt
Mother’s Day, like any time when we’re particularly reminded of an estranged adult child and the relationship we used to share, can trigger an onslaught of feelings. While it’s helpful to acknowledge the pain, it’s also easy to slip into a looping circle of thoughts that bring us down. Everyone else is having fun, and I’m sitting home alone. What did I do to deserve this? This is so embarrassing. Nobody understands.
Each of us has our own personal version of woeful thoughts. And scrolling through Facebook with its stream of happy family shots might fuel the feelings behind them. Protect yourself if you need to. Just as social media can push emotional buttons, going to a brunch on Mother’s Day when you’ll be surrounded by families also might not be helpful either. Do you have other adult children or family who want to take you out? Remember, this is your day. You get to choose! Take care of yourself.
What else might make you feel sad or lonely? Make a few notes of what will hurt or help–and then be proactive. Mother’s Day when your adult children are estranged is similar to other times that are particularly hurtful because they remind you of loss, stress, or grief. In my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, in one story, Julia misses her only son. They were very close, and in the early mornings, he used to call her daily to chat. Julia had come to expect those calls. So after the estrangement, she would stare at the silent phone. Time gaped, and she felt horribly alone and sad.
Before her son walked away from the family, Julia’s mornings revolved around those calls. Their chat sessions had become part of her routine. They connected her to her son, and to the life they shared. But post-estrangement, Julia learned to adapt. Using one of the tools in the first chapter of the book, the first step toward her healing was to alter her routine. Looking at her phone each morning, wishing it would ring, only reminded her of what she’d lost.
Just as mornings were particularly difficult for Julia, Mother’s Day can prick up the feelings of loneliness and rejection that are common with estrangement from adult children. For some it’s a particular song. Others might be bothered by a particular sporting event, or other recreation. Even if you don’t realize why, you might find yourself overeating, grousing at the cat, or having troublesome dreams. The feelings or behavior may be related to emotions triggered by a holiday like Mother’s Day, or another personally significant day.
While I’m past the pain of estrangement, certain places and activities do remind me of my estranged adult child. Eating strawberries makes me think of him—he’d choose them over any sugary dessert. And a nearby street never fails to remind me of him. Memories are attached to those things, so it’s natural the mind connects them to someone who was once so much a part of my life.
Does that mean I’m sad? Not anymore. I’ve come to think of those triggered memories as hiccups. Like some of the other mothers whose stories are shared in my book, I’ve worked through the pain, and moved beyond it. Recognizing those triggers, and then taking action to make new routines can help.
Stepping forward: Be good to yourself
There’s no set schedule to moving beyond emotional pain. There are only steps, big or little, that move you forward. Whatever you do, don’t get down on yourself. Acknowledge your feelings so you can deal with them. Remember the utter shock you felt when your son or daughter first cut you off? Don’t think of triggered emotions as setbacks. They’re aftershocks—a normal occurrence that relieves pressure. Pat yourself on the back for accepting where you are right now, and for recognizing that in coping mindfully like Julia, you’re healing. Think: Forward. I’m adapting. I’m moving on.
Like Julia and other mothers whose stories of estrangement from adult children are shared in Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, you too can heal. Mother’s Day doesn’t have to be a bad trigger day. You too can be Done With The Crying.
Psychology Explains How Narcissists Use Projection To Manipulate
PSYCHOLOGY EXPLAINS HOW NARCISSISTS USE PROJECTION TO MANIPULATE
Narcissists have no real self-awareness to speak of. Indeed, their very sense of value is derived from how others perceive them. As a rule, narcissists are unable to recognize their shortcomings and failures, instead choosing to cast the blame – no matter the merits of such – onto someone else. It’s called projection – a default defense mechanism of the narcissist.
In this article, we’re going to define narcissism, projection, and how those with narcissistic tendencies use projection in order to achieve their aims. As you will read, narcissists are experts at manipulation. To this end, we’ll discuss how you can spot the narcissist, along with proactive things you can do to avoid becoming a victim of narcissistic manipulation.
WHAT IS PROJECTION?
In the field of psychology, projection – or psychological projection – is the denial of subconscious impulses by the human ego. For instance, someone accusing their partner of cheating when they’re actually the one engaging in the scandalous act is projecting. A jealous co-worker who accuses everyone else in the office of being jealous is projecting; secretly, they’re jealous of just about everyone with a modicum of success. And so on.
While common among the narcissistic, projecting is something that we all do to varying degrees. We usually project onto others when we have uncomfortable, sometimes disturbing, emotions, and thoughts about ourselves. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, believed that we project things onto others when we don’t want to burden ourselves with our perceived flaws or feelings of inferiority.
In other words, we want others to be the vehicles for our insecurities. We don’t want to deal with them anymore.
The thing is: while we all project, we don’t make a habit out of it. Most of us wouldn’t use projection to make someone feel inferior. We certainly wouldn’t employ projection as a means of coercion. Because, well, you’re not a narcissist (we don’t think.)
Speaking of which, let’s discuss narcissistic personality disorder in a tad more detail.
THE STORY OF NARCISSUS (THE OG NARCISSIST)
The ancient Greeks and Romans promulgated a myth about a young lad a wee too obsessed with his image. The story goes that Narcissus was a handsome guy who rejected all female comers. In fact, Narcissus rejected all of those who loved him, leading some of those he loved to take their own lives as a last effort to show Narcissus their devotion and love.
None of this moved the vain young man, however, which led the Goddess Nemesis to punish Narcissus for his callousness. The story ends with Narcissus getting a glimpse of himself in a lake, which reflected back an image showing him in the prime of his beauty. Narcissus fell in love with his own image, eventually realizing that nothing could love him as much as he could love himself. Nemesis takes his own life shortly after this realization.
NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER
In the late 1800s, psychologists decided that the vain Narcissus was an apt representation of some of their clients. A sexologist by the name of Havelock Ellis coined the term “narcissus-like” to describe his patients engaging in excessive masturbation.
In 1911, an Austrian psychiatrist by the name of Otto Rank published the first academic paper proposing narcissism as a potential psychological disorder. Rank described narcissism in the context of excessive self-admiration and vanity. Three years later, Freud published the paper On Narcissism: An Introduction.
“…a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.”
Clinical treatment of NPD is not well-studied but is thought to be difficult – as those with NPD are unable to see their condition as a problem. NPD occurs more often in males, affects roughly one percent of the population, and is far more common in younger people than older.
Exploiting others for personal gain without feelings of guilt
An inability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others
Strong feelings of envy towards others
Constantly engaging in the bullying, belittling, and demeaning of others
A sense of entitlement and the need to be treated special
The need to be perceived as superior and unique
Obsession over desired traits such as attractiveness, intelligence, power, and success
The need to be constant admiration from other people
NARCISSISTS + PROJECTION = MANIPULATION
“When the [narcissistic] individual is in the superior position, defending against shame, the grandiose self aligns with the inner critic and devalues others through projection.” – Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT (source)
HERE’S HOW NARCISSISTS USE PROJECTION TO MANIPULATE YOU (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT):
1. THEY “CALL YOU OUT”
Perhaps the most straightforward way to project is to call someone out. When a narcissist calls you out, you can bet they’re doing so for one of two reasons: (a) to get you to do something, (b) to attack you, or both. Guilt-tripping is among the most common methods narcissists use. If that doesn’t work, they may get frustrated and verbally attack you.
What to do: In any case, don’t take the bait. Recognize the behavior for what it is: a shameless, insulting attempt to manipulate your thoughts and feelings. You have something they want – don’t give it to them!
2. THEY MIMIC
While narcissists have the emotional depth of a puddle, they’re smart enough (many are highly intelligent) to know that emotionality matters to people. For this reason, narcissists will often mimic the emotional behaviors that they see elsewhere to convince someone of their genuine nature.
For the narcissist, the problem with this tactic is that mimicry goes against the grain of innate human behavior. Assuming that they’re not some CIA-trained spy, the entire façade will become apparent sooner or later.
What to do: Be observant. Someone’s core personality will always make itself known. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open.
3. THEY USE CHARACTER ASSASSINATION
If you’ve ever been the victim of character assassination, then you may know the far-reaching effects. Targeting someone’s character is the ultimate “go for the jugular” act. When a narcissist engages in character assassination, it’s often out of vengeance, or for the purpose of winning people over for some reason.
What to do: The most important thing here is not to panic. Most have pretty good sense when it comes to getting a feel for someone’s character. For this reason, we’re naturally cautious when someone verbally attacks another’s person. If these things are occurring in a work environment, it may be necessary to speak with your manager, human resources, or the legal department.
4. THEY PLAY THE VICTIM
Narcissists love to play the victim. At first, anyway. Why? Because they realize that most of us have some kind of sensitive core. We don’t like to see other people suffer. We want to help alleviate that suffering. Narcissists are all too eager to take advantage of this near-universal human trait. For this reason, the narcissist will project a “Woe is me” demeanor as well.
Some less-intelligent narcissists make the critical error of playing the victim to one person. If this is the case, it’s much easier to see through the charade.
What to do: It’s important to remain observant and keep your ear to the ground. If you’re particularly sensitive (e.g., an empath), make sure that you’re offering your assistance only to people you know well.
3. THEY SHAPE SHIFT
When a narcissist feels that they’ve got the victim where they want, they’ll quickly drop the act. They do so because they’re confident that the victim will offer little if any resistance. Indeed, this is often the last opportunity that the potential – or, by this point, possibly real – the victim will have to minimize the damage.
If you catch onto the shape-shifting, don’t expect the narcissist to go quietly into the night. Remember, narcissists are experts in the art of manipulation – and they may still be able to flummox you just enough that you’ll keep them around.
FINAL BIT OF ADVICE ON DEALING WITH NARCISSISTS
At this juncture, it is critical that you not hesitate to “end it.” Unless that person has some undiagnosed mental health disorder, there’s just no rational explanation for displaying extremes along the personality spectrum. Particularly if you’re being hurt in the interim.
Christmas is the hardest time of year for those estranged from close family
With Christmas just around the corner, many will be finalising plans to see their families over the festive period. Yet for others, family relationships are challenging, distant and a source of pain. In some cases, relationships break down entirely leaving people estranged from close relatives.
Results from a new online survey of people estranged from family members conducted with the charity Stand Alone, has shown how difficult Christmas can be. The survey was completed by 807 people who identified as being estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child.
Almost all identified the holiday season as the most challenging time of year, describing feelings of loneliness, isolation and sadness. These feelings and experiences are in direct contrast to the idealised images of happy families around the dinner table that feature in Christmas advertising and the media at this time of year. One respondent said:
Everyone always says ‘what family plans do you have for holidays?’ and look at you funny when you say none. It’s hard to explain to people why you don’t want to be with your own parents.
Two-thirds of the respondents felt there was a stigma about family estrangement. They described feeling judged or blamed – and feeling that estrangement was a taboo subject about which there is little understanding or acknowledgement.
No two estranged relationships looked alike. Yet common factors often led to estrangement, such as having mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships, clashes in personality and values, and emotional abuse.
Estrangement was found to be more complex than simply a lack of contact or communication between family members. Although most of the respondents who were estranged from a parent, sibling or an adult child had no contact whatsoever with this individual, approximately 25% had contact that was minimal in nature. These results are similar to those of Australian social worker Kylie Aglias, who has distinguished between family members who have no contact at all (physical estrangement) and those whose contact is infrequent, perfunctory, and often uncomfortable (emotional estrangement).
We also found that estranged relationships change over time and that cycles in and out of estrangement are common. Of those who said they wished that their estranged relationship was different, most wanted a relationship that was more loving, warm and emotionally close.
What can be done to help?
When it came to getting support, respondents said those friends and support services which offered them emotional and practical support and took the time to listen to them and show them understanding were the most helpful. They found it unhelpful when they felt friends or counsellors dismissed them or when they felt they had been judged and blamed for the estrangement.
It would be wrong to assume that all those experiencing estrangement wish for there to be reconciliation in the future. Feelings about the future of estranged relationships were varied. Of those who were estranged from a mother or father, most felt that there would never be a functional relationship between them in the future. Yet for those who were estranged from an adult son or daughter, most felt that there could be a functional relationship in the future or were unsure of the future direction of the relationship.
Four out of five respondents also reported that there had been a positive outcome from their experience of estrangement. These included feeling more free and independent, feeling happier and less stressed, and having gained a greater insight or understanding of themselves and relationships more broadly.
By listening to the hidden voices of people who are estranged from close relatives, we can begin to move beyond assumptions about what families could or should look like and begin conversations about families and family relationships as they really are.
We know that facing Christmas alone, or whilst grieving, can be a daunting prospect. This year it is going to be harder than ever. Whether you were bereaved in 2020 or many years before, ongoing Covid restrictions mean it is going to be difficult for many of us to be with the people we would most want to see. The virus is adding an extra layer of anxiety to the planning for so many people. It is going to be more important than ever to try and look after yourself and work out the best ways to cope.
Here are some practical ways to cope with the loss of a loved one over Christmas.
1. Consider different ways of celebrating
One of the things that can help can be to spend some time trying to work out, well in advance, which arrangements will best suit your needs and the needs of others who share your loss. Some bereaved people find that they do not wish to celebrate Christmas at all, whilst some find that simply maintaining their routine and celebrating as normal is the best tribute they can pay their loved one. It may feel important to make a special effort to remember the person who has died. This can be as simple as ‘speaking’ to the person, silently or out loud, or it may involve visiting their grave, or a place that was special to them. These can be things that we do alone, or with friends or family. You may have photos or particular memories which you treasure; sharing these with others may be something that brings you together.
2. Accept that others may have different ways of mourning
We know that people remember and mourn in different ways. Conflict within a family can sometimes arise when we have expectations of how others should grieve, so try to be sensitive to others’ needs, and to talk openly about what will be best for you.
3. Try to maintain a routine
The Christmas period may mean that your normal routine is disrupted, and this can make it easier to forget to look after yourself. Trying to keep to regular patterns of sleeping and eating are small things that can make a difference. Seeing friends or family, or volunteering for the day, can all help.
4. Go easy on the drink
It’s tempting to drink more on festive occasions, and it can feel like a drink might help numb any difficult feelings. But it’s important to remember that using alcohol to escape the pain of loss provides only very temporary relief. If you find you’re relying heavily on drinking alcohol, consider taking some drink free days. You can also find advice from Drink Aware on how to reduce your alcohol consumption.
5. Remember the happy times
Even many years after someone dies Christmas can be a difficult, intensely emotional time when we need to look after ourselves and those around us. But as time passes, special occasions like Christmas can help us remember happy memories of good times shared in the past.
6. Skip the Christmas films
It can be tough when you are bombarded by images of people enjoying happy family times. If it’s getting too much, consider taking a break from the Christmas TV and social media and maybe take a walk or get some fresh air in any way you can.
7. Talk to someone
If you’re struggling to deal with the grieving process over Christmas, you can message a trained grief counsellor on this website or the link below.
What to do when Father’s Day isnt happy – Alison James
Do Father’s Day posts on social media make you want to crawl under the covers until the day is over?
Do Father’s Day commercials make you feel sad or angry?
Do you wish Father’s Day would be over already, so you would stop being reminded about your dad?
Even though Father’s Day is a happy occasion for many people, it can bring up painful or negative feelings for others.
Whether the day reminds you of a loving father who died, a less than loving father who wasn’t there the way you needed him to be, or if you’re a father who can’t be with your child for any reason, those are all losses that could make Father’s Day difficult. If the day brings up negative feelings then you might be experiencing unresolved grief.
Unresolved grief can have a long term negative impact on your life. Grief is cumulative and cumulatively negative. Grief not only affects current relationships, but it affects future relationships, your work, health, and even hobbies. The intensity of your feelings may lessen over time, but grief doesn’t heal on its own.
Here are some signs you might have unresolved grief around your dad:
Do you refuse to talk about him?
Do you feel angry or sad when you think about him?
Do you avoid places that remind you of him?
Do you put your dad on a pedestal or only see his negative qualities?
Do you avoid watching movies, eating foods, or going to places that remind you of him?
Do you avoid contact with him?
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you weren’t carrying around the pain from your relationship with your dad?
If you’re like most people, you were never taught how to heal your broken heart. Although there are plenty of articles, and well-intentioned people, who will share a list of ways to change your feelings short term, they never show you how to truly recover. Frankly, if you want to recover from grief then you must have the courage to do the work.
The first step is admitting that you want help.
Talk to someone you trust. Tell the truth about yourself. Ask them not to judge, criticize, or analyze (then don’t judge, criticize, or analyze yourself either).
A family is like all living things; it grows, develops and constantly evolves over time as the family structure changes. Sometimes changes to the family structure occur as a result of new members joining the family, through marriage and the birth of children; other times, it’s the result of losing family members as our loved ones pass away.
It can be particularly difficult to cope with the breakdown of a family, through separation or divorce. How people deal with a separation or divorce is different for each person, and there is no right or wrong way of dealing with it. However, it can be helpful to understand how separation and divorce can impact the people within a family.
What does ‘divorce’ really mean?
Divorce is the ending of a marriage – but what about the additional relationships that were tied to this marriage? These peripheral relationships include extended families, such as in-laws, whilst core relationships include children. The dissolution of a marriage through divorce, however, does not address the impact of divorce upon all of the additional relationships that were created through the marriage.
Children are often the most affected by a separation or divorce. The breakup of the parental unit brings with it many changes. Changes may be physical – the literal separation of each parent to different places of residences – as well as emotional: primarily the confusion and frustration of not understanding what is happening, or why.
This is why children sometimes protest against the situation in unusual or unexpected ways, such as unusually poor academic performance, withdrawal from friends and family, and other problematic behaviours. Typically, a child’s first reaction to divorce or separation is confusion, denial, and fear. Children may subsequently experience anger, depression, or even panic attacks, unless their feelings are assuaged early on in the separation by each parent.
The effect on the extended family
A separation or divorce can also affect the extended family of a marriage. In some cases, the family members of each spouse may feel like they have to take sides. This may be difficult, confusing and may also adversely affect the children too.
Children are good at sensing when something is wrong, and they’re especially deft at picking up on hostility – particularly if it’s being directed toward one of their parents. Post-separation, children typically struggle with knowing how to balance divided loyalties; feeling disloyal if they still love dad when mum is visibly upset, and vice versa.
When grandparents and other members of an extended family are also conflicted over whether they should take sides, kids pick up on this. If the extended family does express prejudice toward one parent, this can reinforce those feelings of confusion in children, and damage the relationship the child has with each parent.
Moving forward after a separation
Though it may be difficult to manage whilst you’re in the throes of a separation, it’s important that you communicate regularly with your loved ones – especially your children, extended family, and your in-laws. It’s important that you explain to them how you would like your family to move forward, despite the separation or divorce.
Talk about your feelings openly with your children and family, even if they are feelings of hurt or frustration. Let them see that although you’re upset, it’s okay to talk about how they are feeling, too. Doing this eliminates the sense that certain topics may be off limits, which can exacerbate each person’s feelings of confusion and frustration.
A separation is not a competition
It’s also important that you reinforce that even though you are separating from your partner, no one is to take sides, least of all the children. Even if, deep down, you don’t feel this way – which is common for people going through a separation or divorce – it’s vital for the children that you don’t make them feel compelled to take sides. This just creates inner feelings of conflict and torment, which can negatively impact their emotional and physical wellbeing.
It’s also helpful if you have these discussions with your children while your partner is present, so they can see that despite everything, you’re both remaining amicable toward each other. Try not to argue or fight in front of the children, and if you do need to have discussions with your partner that may become heated, try to have them while the children are not around.
Even though this particular chapter of your family life is ending, the family you’ve built never really breaks up or goes away – it merely evolves and moves forward, and it’s important to remember that as you negotiate this difficult time.
Mourning is hard. It doesn’t matter if the person has passed away, is estranged from you or has chosen not to have contact with you. It. is. hard.
Mourning can be more complicated when the person is still alive but you cannot see them, speak to them, write to them, tell them about your day, your happy moments or your big achievements in life. Or the opposite spectrum, like not being able to talk to them when things are tough, knowing they would have the perfect advice or the perfect response to how you are feeling. We get dependent on certain people and their responses to the events going on in our lives. Sometimes, when a person is abruptly cut out of your life, or you have just “lost touch” when one or both of you moved away, it can be difficult to cope. We find that we miss the smell of our mother’s cooking or the way that she smiled when she was super proud of us.
In the place of those happy memories come tears, pain, repressed feelings and sometimes anger depending on how the relationship ended. Knowing they are still out there somewhere in this big ole world makes it sometimes hard to bear. We don’t know how they are doing, how life has changed for them, we don’t get to celebrate things with them anymore.
All of these feelings are completely normal. Beating yourself up for cutting a person out of your life for your better interest is not healthy and shouldn’t be a reason to let that person back into your life.
They hurt you.
They did something to make you feel as you do now.
We each have the right to take care of our own well-being. The problem with that is it often contradicts the notion that we should “respect our elders,” “take care of our parents” or that “love conquers all.”
All of these philosophies are one-sided. They leave no space for the truth. Sometimes we just have shitty parents, friends, relatives or relationships. They don’t take into account that sometimes the abuse of said elder, parent or person we love can be toxic, overwhelming, overbearing and sometimes downright scary.
That doesn’t mean we cannot still love them! It just means we choose to love them from a distance. I found that in my case, staying in limited contact was only hurting me more because any time I received any kind of contact it was never positive. It always dragged me right back down into the toxic cesspool of despair. I was depressed because I couldn’t fix all the things wrong with their life, with mine and with our relationship, or fix our inability to see eye-to-eye on many important subjects.
I was allowing myself to wither away by trying to keep someone else alive…
That couldn’t work for me anymore. I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be by being a depressed, anxious, worried, fearful, stressed out individual. I wanted freedom from terror.
It is so weird to think that I felt that way. Because how can you feel terror towards a person you also love?
Do not beat yourself up for this.
For those of you still reading, I want to tell you this:
Your feelings are valid.
You have a right to feel them, just as they are, with no manipulation by others or by the person who is hurting you.
Do not beat yourself up for feeling your feelings.
Do not keep giving up your patience, sanity, clear-minded stability and rational perceptions for the sake of the other person’s happiness. You only have one life, don’t waste it by living for someone else.
You cannot heal someone who chooses not to heal themselves. Do not let yourself fall into this trap. There is a reason you chose to leave that person behind, but it’s OK to mourn the loss of this relationship.
What causes us to move on from traumatic experiences? Psychologists are finding it’s not always about bouncing back—sometimes we have to feel our whole world fall to pieces.
The Vietnam War veteran had enlisted when he was young, serving two combat tours and surviving multiple firefights. “To this day,” said psychologist Jack Tsai of the Yale School of Medicine, “his war memories are triggered by certain smells that remind him of Vietnam”: overgrown vegetation, the acrid stench of burning, or even sweat—like that which ran in rivulets down the faces of men fighting for their lives in the sweltering jungles—brought it all back. It was classic post-traumatic stress.
As Tsai was treating him (successfully) for PTSD, however, something unexpected emerged. The vet still described his Vietnam experiences as horrific, but he said the painful memories remind him of who he is. His experience typifies research psychologists’ new understanding of trauma: When people are least resilient—in the sense that they are knocked for a loop, do not bounce back quickly or at all, and suffer emotionally for months, if not years—they can eventually emerge from trauma stronger, more appreciative of life, more sympathetic to the suffering of others, and with different (arguably more enlightened) values and priorities.
By no stretch of the imagination would the vet be called resilient in the sense that research psychologists use the term: an ability to go on with life, essentially unchanged mentally and emotionally, in the wake of profound adversity. To the contrary, environmental triggers returned the vet’s troubled mind to the horrors of land mines and ambushes and friends blown apart. At the same time, the vet’s military experience (and his triumph over PTSD) makes him feel that he can accomplish anything. “Nothing bothers him too much, because everything pales in comparison to Vietnam,” said Tsai.
For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
This effect, post-traumatic growth, was so named in 1996 by psychologists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina. It can take many forms, but all involve positive psychological changes: a greater sense of personal strength (“if I survived that, I can survive anything”), deeper spiritual awareness, greater appreciation of life, and recognition of previously unseen pathways and possibilities for one’s life. For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
Stronger Than Before
The concept that from great suffering can come great wisdom is both ancient and familiar. An oncologist friend of mine talks about patients who say cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to them, cutting through life’s usual trivia and making them value the truly important. President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan (1944–2008), said his battle with cancer made him see that “the simple joys of life are everywhere and are boundless.”
After a car crash in which my childhood friend Joyce lost her right leg at age 20, her months-long recovery and rehab left her with hours upon empty hours to think. “Stuff that used to be a big deal, like being popular, just isn’t anymore,” I remember her saying. “I care about making a difference [she became a schoolteacher], and I think I’m more empathetic. I feel that when someone is suffering I understand in my bones what she’s experiencing. Before, it was just, oh, poor her.” However, post-traumatic growth does not mean traumas are desirable, let alone that they should be downplayed when they befall others. As bestselling author Rabbi Harold Kushner said about the spiritual growth he experienced after the death of his 14-year-old son, “I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have him back.”
Few lives are without suffering, crisis, and traumas, from extreme or rare ones, such as becoming a war refugee or being taken hostage, to common ones, such as bereavement, accidents, house fires, combat, or your own or a loved one’s serious or chronic illness. For years, psychology has assumed that the best inoculation against post-traumatic stress—as well as responses to trauma that fall well short of mental disorder—is resilience, the ability to pick up one’s life where it was before the trauma. Now that psychology has made post-traumatic growth a focus of research, what is emerging is a new understanding of the complicated relationship between trauma, resilience, PTSD, and post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic Growth vs. Resilience
Although the psychological concept of resilience dates back to the 1970s, scientists are still struggling to understand its origins. Some studies find it’s fostered in childhood by a strong relationship with a parent or other adult, and the belief that your fate is in your own hands (a sense of agency). But the opposite belief, that “God is in control and everything happens for a reason,” may contribute to resilience, too, said UNC’s Calhoun. A 2016 review of people who survived atrocities and war in nine countries from South Sudan and Uganda to Bosnia and Burundi found that resilience varied by culture. Strong emotional connections to others fostered resilience among survivors in some societies but not others, and a sense of agency actually backfired among some: If you believe your fate is in your hands and then see your family cut down by a sniper in Sarajevo, you feel not only grief but also crushing guilt.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead. “Post-traumatic growth means you’ve been broken—but you put yourself back together” in a stronger, more meaningful way, Tsai said. This may come as a surprise to those who think of resilience as the ability to learn, change, and gain strength in the face of adversity. Among research psychologists, however, resilience is about bouncing back with relative ease to where you were before, not necessarily bouncing forward to a stronger place. By this understanding, without the breaking, there cannot be putting back together, so people with strong coping capacities will be less challenged by trauma and therefore less likely to experience post-traumatic growth.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead.
For post-traumatic growth to occur, the breaking need not be so extreme as to constitute PTSD, as was the case for the Vietnam War vet. Tsai and his colleagues found that among the 1,057 US military veterans they studied, the average number of lifetime traumas (such as bereavement, natural disaster, illness, and accidents, as well as military traumas) was 5.7. Only 1 in 10 had PTSD, yet 59% of the vets had experienced post-traumatic growth. And the strongest predictor of whether someone would avoid PTSD after additional trauma was whether they had experienced post-traumatic growth after an earlier one, Tsai and his colleagues reported in the Journal of Affective Disorders. It was the first study to examine whether previous post-traumatic growth can protect against PTSD if trauma strikes again. The findings suggest post-traumatic growth might in fact boost resilience.
Post-traumatic growth—unlike resilience—is not a return to baseline. It is the product of reassembling your “general set of beliefs about the world/universe and your place in it,” said Calhoun: You question the benevolence, predictability, and control ability of the world, your sense of self, the path you expected life to follow. From the shards of previous beliefs, you create wholly new worldviews, and can perhaps emerge a stronger person than you were before.
What is Trauma?
Among psychiatrists, what constitutes “trauma” is controversial. Some define trauma based on the nature of the event: Psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, for instance, says a traumatic experience must be outside the range of what humans normally encounter. Others define trauma based on how people respond to an experience: Intense fear, helplessness, horror, or distress would be symptoms of trauma.
A circular definition —“trauma is something that leaves you traumatized”—is obviously not ideal. Nor is “outside the range of normal experience” a reliable measure: Tragically, many experiences that once were outside that range no longer are, such as natural disasters, mass shootings, or wartime horrors.
Scholars are therefore trying to do better. An emerging definition holds that trauma challenges a person’s “assumptive world”: her belief in how people behave, how the world works, and how her life would unfold. By this understanding, trauma needn’t threaten life or health, nor cause post-traumatic stress disorder. But it must make you question your bedrock assumptions, such as that the world is fair, that terrible things do not befall good people, that there are limits to humans’ capacity for inhumanity, that things will always work out, or that the old die before the young. By that definition, few of us make it through this life without experiencing trauma.
(This disorder can also apply to a wife but in this article it refers to the husband)
A narcissistic husband will destroy you and destroy your life. If you are realizing that you may be married to a narcissistic husband, or you already know you are, well done! It’s not easy to recognize when you are in a mind control situation so you should give yourself a pat on the back…
So that’s the first step, being able to identify the reality of your situation. Now you have to deal with it. This means getting away from him, so that you put a stop to the abuse, and then you have to undo the damage he has done to you, and the children, if there are any.
In order to do that, you have to understand what was done to you. In fact, the more information you have about what he did and how he did it, the better for you. With this in mind, I want to explore here a very particular aspect of any relationship with a narcissistic husband. I am going to look in detail at the false personality, or pseudopersonality, that the manipulators impose on their victims and the implications of this.
You can substitute other phrases for ‘narcissistic husband’ here. You may consider that you have a ‘controlling girlfriend’, a ‘group leader’, a ‘strict boss’ or a ‘manipulative friend’. In any situation of psychological abuse the same things will apply.
Narcissistic husband – a quick summary
A narcissistic husband is all about control. He wants to control you so that you make him the purpose of your life. He wants all of your time and attention, he wants your praise and adoration and he wants to know that he has total power over you. To do this he will manipulate your beliefs, he will control your thinking and your decision making and he will manage your behaviors. He will even change how you think about the world and your place in it.
All this adds up to a change in personality for you. Friends may have commented how you are different, not yourself and so on and you may have noticed how you somehow got lost in the relationship or you may not even know who you are anymore. This is because you have had this pseudopersonality imposed on you by your narcissistic husband.
Oh, you’re back, good! In this article we will deal with the details of the pseudopersonality itself and the implications of it.
Deception from day one
From the very first encounter, the narcissist is manipulating the impressions of the victims. The narcissist makes out that they are charming, friendly and caring, as well as intelligent, wise and worldly. They understand that first impressions are important and they want to make as good a one as they can. My grandfather used to say, “Get yourself the name of an early riser and you can stay in bed all day!”
The narcissist wants people looking up to them because that creates a power imbalance in the relationship from the word go. And control and domination is what it’s all about for the narcissist. And, of course, that power means that they get their praise, compliments and adoration, their narcissistic supply, from those around them.
Using a whole range of destructive mind control techniques the narcissistic husband then imposes a collection of beliefs, ways of thinking and making decisions, ideas, emotions and behaviors on the unsuspecting wife. This is basically imposing a new personality on her, as we have outlined above.
A good way to think of the pseudopersonality is to consider that it contains the programming that the narcissistic husband wants in place. The beliefs are aligned with the thinking of the narcissist, the thinking and decision making are designed for the benefit of the manipulator and the behaviors of the pseudopersonality make the life of the narcissist more comfortable.
Think ‘slave’, but in this case the slave does not realize it is a slave. It thinks that it is making it’s own choices, that the relationship is normal and acceptable and the slave thinks that everybody is working hard for the benefit of all.
This may seem far fetched if you have never been in a mind control environment, but it is what actually goes on.
The pseudopersonality is programmed to consider the well being of the narcissistic husband above all else. Decisions are made in order to avoid upsetting him and instead to do things that are likely to be pleasing to him. Thoughts such as ‘If I do that he will be upset so I won’t bother,’ are so common for the pseudopersonality that it becomes automatic and the pseudopersonality hardly realizes that it’s doing it.
In this way a person with a pseudopersonality believes that he or she is making their own decisions. After all, they decided whether to choose A or B, they haven’t asked anyone and no-one has a gun to their head. What the person doesn’t account for is the extensive influence the narcissist has had on them up to that point. The fact that the pseudopersonality believes it is making it’s own decisions gives it a sense of control and motivates it to continue in the relationship, trying to improve things.
This starts out with the wife needing to check with him to know what to do. If often ends up with her needing to check with him to know if she is ok and even to know who she is.
The idea is that she feels that if he is ok, then she is ok, too. If he is angry or upset, then she feels bad and she may even consider that she is bad. She has been literally trained to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong, and if he is upset, then she is at fault, and it’s because of who she is that there are problems. This kind of thinking is very detrimental to a person’s self esteem and self confidence. It means that the pseudopersonality often has a very low opinion of itself.
But to outsiders, the pseudopersonality presents a great façade. It acts as if everything is great and the relationship is marvelous. In cases like this, when the woman separates from the narcissistic husband, people are shocked because they believe the two make the ‘perfect couple’ and there did not seem to be evidence of any problems at all. They often find it hard to believe the long suffering wife’s stories about her abusive husband.
The pseudopersonality is also programmed to defend the narcissistic husband, making excuses for him when others criticize him. Even when the woman’s family can see that he is abusive, she backs him up. This can be very distressing for her family because they can’t understand how she cannot see that he is bad and abusive.
The dependency can be such that a woman cannot imagine a future without her narcissistic husband. Many people have a phobia of leaving and they even think that they would be so alone that they could even die. This obviously keeps them locked into the relationship with no other option than to stay and try and make things work in whatever way they can.
Having a pseudopersonality means that a person’s decisions and actions are not their own. These things have been shaped and controlled by the narcissistic husband using influence that is outside the awareness of the victim.
The victim does not know what is going on. They do not have all the information about their situation. Not having full knowledge and awareness of what is going on means that the woman’s decisions are not fully informed. She is making decisions with only a fraction of the available information, and even much of that is distorted! For this reason, the victim is not responsible for what happened to them. (This typically takes a person months of study to fully understand how and why this is true.)
The pseudopersonality co-exists with the real personality but it dominates and suppresses it. This idea helps to explain the internal battle that many women experience while with a narcissistic husband.
One part of them wants one thing. Another part wants the opposite.
The real personality wants to leave the relationship. The pseudopersonality is programmed to stay. The pseudopersonality can hardly wait for him to return to the house, the real personality is disgusted at the thought of being with him again. The pseudopersonality loves him, the real personality hates the things he does. The pseudopersonality feels that it needs to look after him, the real personality logically knows the situation is not fair, bad or even detrimental.
These contradictory emotions, or contradictory thoughts and emotions, are very distressing for the woman and there is no way to resolve this situation until the pseudopersonality is removed. While it is in place, however, the woman, not understanding what is being done to her, can easily blame herself for not being able to sort things out. Many women feel that they may actually be going crazy! And at the same time they also have a sense that it’s not them that is the problem but that there is something wrong with him, but they just can’t put their finger on what it is.
A narcissistic husband installs a pseudopersonality over time using powerful influence techniques that are repeated time and time again. The pseudopersonality is forced onto the victim without their knowledge or consent. The victim is therefore not in a position to resist mentally. In fact, in the honeymoon phase of the relationship, the victim is a ‘willing’ participant, so to speak. This is the nature of mind control, the victim thinks that the abuser is actually helping them and is genuinely looking out for them. Therefore it is easy for them to go along with what is happening.
These factors, along with the fact that a person’s core beliefs are changed, mean that the pseudopersonality can be quite durable. Just because a woman leaves a narcissistic husband does not mean that the pseudopersonality disappears. It actually persists and it will last for decades unless the victim does something about it.
Some aspects of the pseudopersonality may disappear or weaken with time, but most of it does not.
First of all, the persistence of the belief system and behavior patterns, which are not designed for the benefit of the victim, causes problems of all sorts with trust, relationships, sleep, concentration, memory, decision-making, digestive issues, identity issues and emotional disturbances.
Secondly, if a person does not recognize that they were in an abusive relationship, they break up and try and put things behind them. Later, when problems arise, they do not associate these problems with the abusive relationship and the pseudopersonality. They may seek help for said problems without realizing where the problems originated. Unless the therapist recognizes the source of the problem as being the abusive relationship, the problem will be treated in isolation. This rarely gives satisfactory results.
More abusive situations
A person who has a pseudopersonality has various beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that have been installed as part of the pseudopersonality. Obviously, pseudopersonalities share many common beliefs and behaviors because each pseudopersonality is designed to be subservient, obedient, dependent and loyal.
For example, the pseudopersonality is programmed to accept responsibility whenever things go wrong so that many people blame themselves when anything around them is not working out. They do this even when there is no way that things are their fault. The behavioral manifestation of this pattern is the pseudopersonality apologizing very frequently, even for the smallest of things.
Another common trait of the pseudopersonality is expressed when somebody treats a pseudopersonality very nicely. The pseudopersonality is so used to being treated badly that when someone treats it well, it is extremely grateful. So grateful, in fact, that it wants to make sure that the person doing the nice things knows how grateful it is. What do you notice? The pseudopersonality says ‘thank you’ a lot and may be very effusive in expressing gratitude, including going over the top in returning the good behavior, buying a small gift and so on.
The excessive apologizing and expressing of gratitude are but two examples of the evidence of the presence of a pseudopersonality. There are all sorts of other beliefs and behaviors that indicate that a person has been manipulated or abused in the past, if you know what you are looking for.
Psychopaths and narcissists know exactly what they are looking for. They recognize these indicators as soon as they meet someone. After all, they are used to imposing these things on their victims!
The reason this is important is that when a psychopath, sociopath or narcissist meets a new person, if they see the signs of a pseudopersonality, they know that person will be an easy target for them. So they set their sights on them and go for it.
The only way to take the target off your back is to get rid of your pseudopersonality. Trying to forget your abusive situations will never work. The damage is too deep and you can’t hide it from the predators. You don’t even know what they are looking for, so how can you hide from them?!
Trying to manage narcissists and psychopaths won’t work either. They are so much more sly and devious than you could ever be, and they are way better at destroying limits and boundaries than you ever will be at putting them in place.
A further complication here is that the pseudopersonality is programmed to reveal things about itself. The narcissistic husband needs information to keep the manipulation going so he programs the pseudopersonality to reveal things to him. This pattern is insidious and often extremely strong and when a woman leaves her narcissistic husband, the pattern persists. She ends up revealing all sorts of things about herself to others, often complete strangers. If the listener or reader is a narcissist, the woman is giving them all the info they need to pick up where the narcissistic husband left off.
So what to do about a narcissistic husband
You really need to leave. While you are in the relationship, the abuse continues, the pseudopersonality is constantly reinforced and you suffer while your life is being stolen away from you. I know it’s incredibly difficult to get out and it’s still something that has to be done.
Then you have to undo the pseudopersonality. Working with an expert is worth your while. It will save you time, money and heartache. Having professional help going through a divorce from someone you know is abusive, and who is guaranteed to play dirty, is invaluable.
Until you get rid of the pseudopersonality you will have that man in your head, acting like a malignant psychiatrist. Your life won’t be your own and you will continue to be affected by him. If there are children, you owe it to them to get rid of your pseudopersonality so that you can help them to get rid of theirs. The risk of not doing that is that they grow up with a pseudopersonality and fall prey to other narcissists and end up being caught in an abusive relationship themselves as adults.
“It’s funny how sometimes the people you’d take the bullet for, are the ones behind the trigger.”
What exactly is parental alienation in the context of a narcissistic relationship?
It is the dynamic that occurs when a child is manipulated by the narcissistic parent to reject the other, healthy and empathic parent. It happens because the narcissistic parent uses a type of invisible coercion to convince the child that the other parent is no good. In essence, the narcissistic parent teaches his/her child to hate his/her other parent, and uses the child as a weapon to hurt the other, non-narcissistic parent.
Often this is done by implication and non-verbal communication, such as when a child returns home from being with the targeted parent and the narcissist acts overly concerned or alarmed by anything that may have gone on at the targeted parent’s house; by acting as if there is cause for distress, and that the child is very fortunate to be away from that “unhealthy environment…”
Why would a child be so willing to reject his/her “good” parent in exchange for the emotionally dysfunctional personality disordered parent?
This occurs because the child sees and feels the rejection and discard of the targeted parent by the abusive parent, and internalizes a deep and powerful fear that if he/she does not identify with the “favored” parent then he/she too will be rejected by the narcissist. In fact, the child will enmesh with the rejecting parent in order to ensure his/her protection from the same fateful rejection as the targeted parent.
The child is unconsciously experiencing a type of trauma bond/Stockholm syndrome phenomenon within the parental relationship. Liken it to being in a cult. In a cult, members learn to be loyal to the charismatic leader at the expense of friends, family, and society! It really is astonishing how it happens.
The narcissist, just like a charismatic cult leader, convinces his/her child that he/she is “special” and “favored” by aligning with him/her (the narcissist.) Reality gets flipped on its head and the other parent is considered to be the dangerous one, while the narcissist becomes a hero of sorts.
Typically, in a narcissistic family, there is a “golden child” and a “scapegoat.” In either case, the family has experienced viscerally the unspoken dynamics at play within the family. Often, during a divorce, the scapegoated child may all of a sudden experience the narcissistic parent paying close attention to him/her, meeting the felt needs of the child that have long been unmet within the child’s psyche.
The child has been starving for attention from the narcissistic parent, so, when all of a sudden he/she starts receiving deeply coveted attention, any sense of analysis or logic is suspended. It’s like a person dying of thirst, receiving that long overdue glass of ice sparkling water. Even if the narcissist has been abusive, hurtful, or neglectful of the child in the past, because of abuse amnesia, it doesn’t matter. The child’s needs become satisfied in an instant and all is forgiven and forgotten.
And, if the child feels secure with the parent who has always been there emotionally for the child, he/she will find it easy to be manipulated by the narcissistic parent because intrinsically, he/she knows that his bond is safe with the empathic parent. It is much easier to reject someone you know will never leave, than it is to reject someone you can barely hold on to.
For the child, the unconscious choice is an emotional survival strategy. One of the problems with abusive relationships is that they create unmet needs in those involved with the abusive person. When the narcissist starts wooing the child, it requires very little to win him/her over. Once this happens, then alienation of the targeted parent begins.
In reality, the narcissist does not love his/her child in a real way. Real love would not deprive a person from a loving, empathic relationship.
In addition to this, we must not forget that people with narcissism suffer from delusional thinking. On some warped level, the narcissist actually believes his/her own lies. He/she destroyed the relationship with the targeted parent in the first place, creating a drama in his/her mind that made the “good” parent the villain; while, the narcissist believes, erroneously, that he/she is the truly injured party.
To add more power to the dynamic, because the narcissist believes his/her own lies, he/she is VERY convincing to everyone – particularly his/her vulnerable children. He/she propagandizes his delusional narrative.
The other (empathic) parent does not see it coming and cannot compete with the lunacy of it all. Since the empathic parent is most-likely conscientious and plays fair, he/she is not equipped to even enter the battle field with the narcissist’s weaponry – seduction, manipulation, smear campaigns, delusional complexes, believed confabulation, reality twisting, and utter insanity. The targeted parent is completely out-witted.