My dear friend Upsi recently posted a reader inquiry and has given me permission to tackle it on my own blog. The following is Upsi's original post about her reader's situation:
I heard from a reader today who asked me to do a post about the pernicious win/lose dynamics of dealing with narcissism in our families of origin. First I'll briefly sketch our Gentle Reader's situation, then I'll offer a few thoughts in hopes that you all have some words of wisdom (you always do!).
Our fellow ACoN, who we'll call Grey, went NC with her parents a little over a year ago. They (she and her FOC) had moved away to create some distance, and lo and behold, suddenly her parents wanted to move there, too. She told her parents that if they moved to the same area they would have no further contact. That did not stop them, and they now live in their area, though they do not know exactly where they live. Without going into too great of detail, they have harassed her and her family to the point of exasperation and at one point the authorities were called to put a stop to it.
Which brings us to the dilemma: Grey is always looking over her shoulder, worried she'll run into one or both of her parents. She has tried to communicate the issues, she has tried to set boundaries, all of which was met with "I don't understand" and "We don't know what we did" - the usual routine. NC was her only choice because of the level of engulfment and harassment. In working through her feelings about running into her parents, she isn't sure what exactly she'll do if it does happen. If she engages, she feels like she "loses" by giving them control, and if she just leaves the situation, she also feels like she "loses" because they are still dictating her choices. This is the way the dilemma was posed to me, so I'm trying to give you a sense of the landscape - I'm sure many who read this blog can relate.
This win/lose bullshit runs so deep that sometimes we can't even see ourselves getting caught up in it. I know that if I were in Grey's situation, I would have absolutely no problem walking away should I run into my parents, and I wouldn't feel like it made me the "loser." My mother works hard to drive home that I have to lose in order to be part of her orbit. My need for space - after being disrespected and invalidated to the Nth degree after trying to be open and work through how I really feel - is my right and my need. She wants me to believe I have to choose one or the other - win or lose. She wants to narrow the choices into a limited set, and she wants to come out the victor. And that's why we're estranged. Because she can't live in the grey. I wonder how any parent could think that moving across the country to "follow" their adult child, who expressly asked them not to, was anything other than stalking.
I open the floor to you, Gentle Readers, to share your thoughts on dealing with this win/lose dynamic we've lived with for so long. How do you cope with it, how have you found ways to transcend it, and what advice would you give Grey as she struggles to find peace in a very un-peaceful situation?
In my opinion, as long as Grey maintains her boundaries to the best of her ability, there is no way this will end up a lose/lose situation for her. It is true that she has most likely "lost" a relationship with her FOO - an unfortunate effect of her FOO's behaviors - but in no other way do I see Grey on the losing end of her parents' malicious game. The way I see it, the only people who are really "losing" anything, is Grey's FOO: They are losing the opportunity to show their daughter (as well as her FOC) that they can be loving, compassionate, and respectful, and that they can pursue a healthier relationship. They are also losing what could only be a fruitful relationship with Grey, who I assume (based only on the fact that she contacted Upsi with such a heartfelt inquiry) is as kind and loving a human being as my own husband. And that's saying something because I think very highly of my husband.
But the issue at hand is not how I feel about Grey's situation. The issue is that Grey is feeling the pressure that her FOO has trained her to feel, probably from the time she was an infant: the pressure that they inflict, even from a distance, has backed Grey into a corner. And that pressure says, "Grey, no matter what you do, you will lose. If you come back into the fold, you lose because we will never respect you or give you the love you deserve. If you remain in a state of NC, you lose because we will continue to hunt you and paint you as the bad guy to everyone we know. If you ignore us, you lose because you will appear weak. If you stand up to us, you lose because you will be giving us the attention we so crave, and at the end of the day, we STILL won't have the love and respect for you that you are looking for."
My first question for Grey would be this: Why help them hurt you? When you put yourself in the mindset that you lose no matter what, what you have effectively done is allowed your training to set in and given your narcissistic parents permission (though they may not realize it) to continue haunting you.
But, it's easy for me to say this. I didn't come from a family that manipulated me. I didn't come from a background of abuse, of secret-keeping, of blame-and-shame games. I didn't have parents who were unable and unwilling to love me or respect that I am a person with feelings and needs. The reason why I can relate to Grey's feelings of frustration, disappointment, and confusion is, of course, because of my husband's background. And believe me, he's dealt with the same kinds of issues, and will be for some time yet (probably even for the rest of his life, on some level or another). For what it's worth, I do have some suggestions for Grey, and others in a similar position, but please know that I do not fancy myself all-knowing, and that the suggestions I offer are merely that: suggestions. I know how hard this is - I see my husband struggle every day to maintain healthy boundaries, to be assertive, to keep predators at bay. He's doing it...but it ain't easy.
Grey's dilemma has many solutions. I'd like to offer a few of mine. The dilemma, according to Upsi: In working through her feelings about running into her parents, she isn't sure what exactly she'll do if it does happen. If she engages, she feels like she "loses" by giving them control, and if she just leaves the situation, she also feels like she "loses" because they are still dictating her choices. Boy-oh-boy, can DH and I relate! I'd like to offer my solution as a sort of steps-based notion. It's the very same solution (to the very same problem) that I have offered to DH, and it looks like this:
Step One: PrepareOne of my biggest battle strategies lies in the steps I take in preparation for what I foresee as being a challenging situation. I hate to go into things blind. And, while it is true that I may come up with ten or twenty possible scenarios that never pan out, I would rather feel that I've spent time thinking up a plan of attack (or, a defense strategy) than walk into a challenge completely blind. There is some ground to be gained in preparing, even if you never end up needing the tools you garnered. Preparing for the possibility that you'll eventually bump into a member from your FOO or past life will automatically give you TWO things that they are hoping you won't have: a plan, and the tenacity to back it up. For me and DH, preparing means that we're reading lots of self-help books (DH more than me, although I often choose to read the books he's reading so that we can act as a functioning team and so that I can help back up the skills he is learning). DH's current reading list includes a plethora of books about how to create and maintain healthy boundaries, as well as books about being assertive. Preparing also means that I regularly come up with "surprise" scenarios. Generally, I'll declare a "pop quiz" out of the blue and ask him what his current plan is for how he'd deal with a run-in with [fill in the name of anyone from his past]. And then we talk about it for a while: where the plan is strong, and where it is lacking, as well as suggestions to strengthen it. In doing these things, I feel that DH is getting a great head-start. Even if his FOO attempts to use the "element of surprise" by sneak-attacking him, he won't truly be at his weakest, because he will have already anticipated their moves at least one step ahead.
Step Two: Understand the difference between a healthy response and an unhealthy oneIt is true that all families are dysfunctional - even mine. As human beings, it is not possible to avoid the effects of all dysfunctions. However, some families as well as some individuals are more dysfunctional than others. On the sliding scale of dysfunction, my husband falls into the more dysfunctional end of the disordered spectrum, while I consider myself on the less dysfunctional end. My point in saying this is not to make anyone feel as though I am somehow better or stronger; instead, I use that fact to point out that there are some crucial differences in what feels "right" and natural to me, and what feels "right" and natural to DH. In my experience, the more dysfunctional the FOO, the more dysfunctional a person's responses are to unhealthy, disturbed, or otherwise unsafe stimuli. For instance, when approached by a person who lives a life filled with drama and who doesn't seem to understand (or respect) my boundaries, it feels very natural to me to do any of the following: speak up for myself to reinforce my boundaries, communicate my needs, or walk away. But for DH, it feels more natural to allow that unhealthy person in. His knee-jerk response is to allow his boundaries to be crossed, to share too much information, and to keep his mouth shut about his own wants and needs. The reason we are so different is that, in my less-dysfunctional FOO, I was taught that the response to drama can ONLY be action, assertiveness, and rejection. In DH's more-dystfunctional FOO, he was taught that his response to drama should be either complete acceptance, or a passive-aggressive front. DH has had to unlearn much of what feels natural to him in order to understand that, if he is ever approached by those assholes, he has every right to stand up for himself, walk away, or better yet: stand up for himself and THEN walk away. There is no wrong answer, when those are the options.
Step Three: PracticeAs dorky as it sounds, I've asked DH many times to play out the scenarios in his head (or brainstorm with me aloud) and, either with me or alone, practice what his responses and defense techniques would be. What this helps to accomplish is give him an exit strategy, a self-esteem boost, and the "muscle memory" required to act in a way that helps fortify his new-found boundaries, rather than crumple under the stress invoked when and if a person from his dysfunctional past resurfaces. So, I've asked DH to practice - in the car, in the shower, while he's working on a house project. Whenever, where-ever he has a few minutes to spare. Sometimes it takes a nudge from me (thus the "pop quizzes) but practice, he must.
The reason why DH sometimes needs a nudge to think, anticipate, practice, and prepare is because he does not want to deal with the possibility of a run-in with anyone from his past (see: unhealthy trained response). But the question I often pose to him is: What's better: being afraid and unprepared, or being afraid and prepared? As I've said, I personally would rather deal with whatever discomfort I was going to experience in the safety and privacy of my own home, than have to deal with it for the first time while being accosted by my enemies.
My next thought for Grey has to do with the fact that her parents actually believed there would be something to gain by moving to her hometown, even after she expressly told them not to. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Narcs don't play where they think they won't win. A narcissist won't waste the time, money, and effort required if they anticipate losing. In fact, "losing" isn't a word in their vocabulary (unless, of course, they are describing someone else). So, in this equation where her disordered parents have purposefully crossed Grey's (verbally communicated) boundaries and moved to her home-town, I am going to assume that one of the variables is her parents' assumption that there is something to be gained.
Grey, what is it that they hope to gain? What is it that they think they will win? What is it that they are hoping you will give up, either willingly or unwillingly? The obvious answer is that they want to see you cave; they want you to stop fighting and step back into the fold; they want you to lose any foothold you've gained in creating a stronger Self; they want to control you. But, what are the less obvious answers? What would they stand to gain by bumping into you at the grocery store, the library, the park? What, in any given chance encounter, would their five or ten minutes with you give them? I feel that if you can answer those questions, you may find some of the answers that you seek. To me, the grey areas are not necessarily found in the obvious or in the broad-spectrum; they are found in the minutiae, in the details, in the moments where you allow your fears and their training to give them a foothold on YOUR precious and newly founded self-hood.
To Grey and the rest of my Dear Readers: You can determine for yourself what it is you have already lost, as well as when and where you'll win in the future. Don't leave that power in anyone else's hands. 'Cause baby you've got the right and the capacity to decide that for yourself. Keep fighting the good fight my friends - I have faith you will succeed.