Friday, May 15, 2015

Emotional Sensitivity

One of the unfortunate aspects of having married an ACoN is the lost/glossed-over/distorted personal history he comes with. By little to no fault of his own, DH has a shaky and often unreliable (where it even exists) memory of his childhood and adolescent years. He doesn't have any accurate or verifiable accounts of information to draw from and it is obvious that, even if we had some semblance of relationship with his NFOO, any information we might have received would likely have been either intentionally or unintentionally erroneous anyway. We have no reasonable source anywhere within DH's FOO to direct our questions pertaining to DH's health or medical records, or the health or medical histories of his closest genetic relatives; our view of DH as a baby or toddler is nearly non-existent because DH's memories don't reach that far back; and our understanding of his life as a young boy are limited to DH's spotty memories of himself at that time. Again, even if we had a relationship with NMIL or EFIL, we could not rely on whatever limited information they might have shared with us because their versions of the truth would have been manipulated to the point of absurdity. There is no one to tell us what DH was like as a little boy - what his preferences were, what activities he enjoyed, how long before he slept through the night, what foods he liked to eat, how he handled various social circumstances. So many of those details are lost forever.

There is one sort of miraculous exception to the situation; one way that we can observe with our own eyes what DH might have been like as a little boy, and in some cases, what he would probably have become if he'd grown up in a healthier environment: and that is our first-born son. DS is so like DH in both appearance and personality that it's almost as though we cloned DH's genes and processed them into a younger version of himself. I try not to verbally share these comparisons with DS too often because I don't want the fact that he looks (and often unwittingly acts) like his father to unfairly shape who he becomes or make him feel as though he has little choice in the formation of his identity, though I have admittedly not been one hundred percent successful in this regard. It dawned on me about two years ago (DS is nearly four and a half now) that even though I meant well whenever I made comparisons between he and his Daddy, such ideologies might not be healthy for his developing self. I realized that, while I meant to point out the positive aspects of his features or personality that reminded me of DH, he might also internalize the comparisons on another level and and assume that he also shared DH's flaws. I also worried that making such constant comparisons between DS and DH might undermine our other children's relationships with their daddy (For example, they might think, "If DS is just like Daddy, but I'm not, then what's special about me?) When I occasionally share with DS that some aspect of his character is "like Daddy's," I try to be very specific, use only very positive examples, and to share them in a subtle way.

But the genetic similarities are many, regardless of whether I point them out to DS, and they do give DH and myself a fantastic view of what DH's childhood could have looked like without the harsh and negative impact of abusive parents. In order to see the similarities inherent in their personalities, I have to push aside DH's unhealthy (learned) behaviors and thought-processes and take a deep look at the structure of DH's personality: that part of his identity that couldn't be taken away from him, no matter what his parents did to him. If I could pinpoint the general overarching theme that is apparent in both my husband and our DS, it would be their emotional sensitivity. And sensitivity, in it's natural state, is a wonderful trait to have. People who are emotionally sensitive are, by my estimation, the definition of "sweet." They are in-tune to the emotions of others and it's almost as though they are hard-wired to have empathy. They are pretty much the opposite of narcissists. I have all sorts of theories about how and why narcissists are attracted to emotionally sensitive people, and how and why emotionally sensitive people (if not given the right tools and defense mechanisms) are often attracted to narcissists. DH's sensitivity was used against him in more ways than one: he was trained, by a skilled sociopath (his NM) to be a people-pleaser - to always put the emotional and physical needs of others ahead of his own, often at the expense of himself. And the development of his self-esteem was not only ignored in some cases, but I'd be willing to bet it was strongly discouraged at all times.

But with guidance and support, I believe that emotionally sensitive children can keep that wonderful sensitivity and still have healthy relationships; and that they can develop healthy self-esteem and learn coping mechanisms to deal with the emotional discomfort they naturally feel when the people around them are experiencing emotional upset. They don't have to be doormats. They don't have to feel "less than" or like their feelings and needs don't matter. They don't have to be bullied and pushed around. As we watch DS grow up, we are seeing exactly why it was so easy for NMIL to do what she did to DH, why it was so easy for her to mold him into a narcissist's wet dream. Like DH, DS doesn't seem to have started life with very much in the way of self-esteem and I have observed him (literally) laying down in the face of bullies.  Without instruction from me, I think that he would be lost in how to deal with bullies and/or strong personality types. A few weeks ago, while playing at the playground, two boys were being generally aggressive towards my children and at one point, would not let them pass to use the slide. Sometimes, when incidents like this happen, I initially step back (as long as no one is being hurt) to observe how my kids are going to handle the situation. And when they require help or guidance, I step in as needed. I watched DS lay down at the kids' feet and hide his face in his hands. It was obvious that the other boys were acting rudely and aggressively, which was completely uncalled for, and it was painfully obvious that DS didn't have the skills necessary to deal effectively with the kids' rude behavior. When the boys wouldn't budge, DS eventually got up and walked back down the playground structure. I went to him and told him that any time there were children who were being rude or who wouldn't let him do something on the playground, he could firmly say, "Excuse me. I'd like to use the [playground equipment] please." or "Excuse me, it's my turn." When the boys approached DS again (while I was still speaking with him) and began their antics towards him again, I firmly told them, "That's enough. You'll need to find something else to do." I'm hoping that between my direct communication with DS when situations like this arise and through my own example, DS will be able to work through his own discomfort when dealing with aggressors, in such a way that doesn't compromise his health, well-being, and happiness.

Because of his nature, DS is sometimes overlooked by others. On Halloween a few years ago, I noticed that DS was being unintentionally ignored by homeowners while we were trick-or-treating. He was the kid who got stuck behind the door, where they couldn't see him. Or he'd get to the door last and they'd already started passing out candy and didn't notice that he'd lagged behind. Or he'd be in the middle of the crowd and they just didn't realize that they'd missed his pumpkin basket. After this happened once or twice, I started telling DS that he needed to speak up when he didn't get his candy; that he could say, "Excuse me, may I have a candy too please? I didn't get one." It was as though DS was invisible and didn't know how to make himself be seen, or wasn't comfortable in a role where he'd have to force people to pay attention to him. It made me sad for him, and once I thought about it, sad for DH, who not only didn't have someone there for him as a child to give him the words to use, or to help him get his candy when he couldn't find his voice, but who actively worked at destroying the possibility of him finding that voice on his own. I don't believe in speaking for children, I believe in giving them the tools to find their own voices - but sometimes we have to step in, and I did, when DS couldn't work up the courage to say, "Hey, what about me?" But it was an eye-opening experience for me, and for DH too, who got to see so clearly how he was NOT treated as a little boy when he struggled (and still struggles) with the same issues.

It is a personal goal of mine to help DS (and DH!) find his backbone. The incident that sparked my need to write this post happened a couple of days ago, when I was in a particularly bad mood one morning and I was again struck by the uncanny similarity between my son and my husband. DS has recently been somewhat randomly telling me that I am "pretty" or that he thinks such-and-such part of me is pretty. I came downstairs one day wearing a tiny bit of mascara and he gazed at me wonderingly and asked why my eyes were "just so beautiful" and what I had done to make them "so pretty." I don't often wear makeup of any kind, so it was unusual for him to see me that way, I'm sure - but he was also the only one to have noticed or mentioned it and it was a very sweet thing for him to say. He kept mentioning my beautiful eyes through out the day. We were getting in the car one day and he said as he hopped in, "Mom, you're pretty. I like telling you that you're pretty." I always say thank you and tell him that it's a very sweet thing for him to say. So the other morning, I woke up in a bad mood and I was struggling with keeping that attitude to myself. This is not a new struggle for me and I often, admittedly, fail. I tend to take out my anger, sadness, and frustrations on those around me - including, I'm sad to report, my children. But on this particular morning, I was making a conscious effort not to do that. After getting frustrated with DD for her lack of focus during her morning chores (it took at least five reminders for her to get dressed before I finally, not so patiently or gently, told her to "Get dressed NOW!") I went into DS's room to check on his morning progress. He was making his bed when I walked in and I told him he was doing a good job. He said [red flag number one], "Mama, please don't be mad at me."

My issue with this statement/thought-process is two-fold. First, it is a pattern of my behavior that the kids have taken obvious note of, that I DO get angry with them when I have no right to and that is MY fault. And two, in this case I wasn't angry with him but still needed him to understand that anger is an acceptable feeling, it just depends on how we handle it. I took a deep breath and collected my thoughts. I told him that I was not angry with him, that I was mostly frustrated with DD because I'd had to tell her so many times to do something and that my upset didn't have anything to do with him in the moment. I also told him I would try my very hardest not to be angry with him just because I was in a bad mood or frustrated about something else. He nodded and said, "Okay" but then continued, [red flag number two] "Mama, if I tell you that you're pretty, will that make you happy?" And I think my heart broke a little bit - in large part because I knew that I had, thus far, failed at my self-designated task of keeping my children from feeling responsible for my emotional well-being or from being afraid that my negative emotions would be directed at them. But my heart broke for another reason, and that was because I recognized that soul who had taken it upon himself to make his Mama feel better - Isn't that just DH in a nutshell - and isn't that exactly what I don't want for my own children? I think that DS's personality lends itself to this type of situation - he is so in-tune to the emotions of others (particularly his parents at this point) and does not [yet] have the healthy coping mechanisms he needs to deal with the discomfort he experiences when he picks up on negative energy around him that he immediately subconsciously thinks, "What can I do to stop Mom from feeling bad?" - as though it's his responsibility; as though he has any control over the unpleasant emotions of others in order to dispel the negativity from coming in his direction. I suppose the one good thing that can be said here, a main difference between someone like NMIL and myself, is that I don't need, require, or look for such attention from my children. I easily recognized that this thought pattern was not a healthy one for DS to have.

So I took another deep breath and collected my thoughts again. I sat down next to DS on the bed and said, "DS, it is always a very sweet and thoughtful thing to tell me that I am pretty. But it's important that you know that you are not responsible for how I feel. It's okay for people to be angry. And the only person who should make me feel better is me, not you or anyone else. It's my responsibility to make me stop being angry." And again, I reassured him that I was not angry with him.

We got on with our day and eventually I called my mom to tell her what had happened. I asked her if I had handled it the right way and if I said the right things. I asked her what else I could have said or should say in the future and shared with her my concerns that merely saying these things wasn't going to change the fact that somewhere inside of him, DS might still feel that responsibility. My mom told me that I had said the right things and that when the issue inevitably came up again (or in the appropriate moments where I could talk to him about it in the future) I could delve deeper into it by telling him that, though sometimes I do get angry when he behaves a certain way, mostly my anger has nothing to do with him. My mother reminded me that I still needed to work on not directing anger or frustration at the kids, particularly when they were undeserving of it (which is most of the time, though not all the time, since there are definitely times when it is warranted). She also made the same observation I had about DS sharing this particular trait with DH and told me that by saying the things I was saying to him, eventually those words would become a part of his inner dialog - So, when he starts to feel like he needs to do something to stop someone else from feeling something unpleasant (so that he can, in turn, avoid feeling unpleasant too), he'll also be able to say logically, "It's okay that so-and-so feels the way she feels, it's not my responsibility to change it." Ideally, that's what I want for him.

When I shared the story with DH, we talked at length about how important it is for us to give DS a strong set of tools to draw on to deal with this difficult aspect of his sensitivity; what I need to do to stop directing my negativity at the kids; and how, if handled differently, DS could wind up being attracted to people like NMIL. It was DH who realized that, at the hands of a narcissistic parent, emotionally sensitive children often end up becoming people-pleasers, lacking in self-esteem or a strong sense of self. And neither of us wants this for our children.

All this being said, it might seem like I have nothing positive to say about sensitive people or about the similarities between my husband and our son. But the reality is that I believe sensitivity is a trait that should be nurtured, and that DH and DS have it (and other wonderful qualities) in abundance. And I can talk at length about the wonderful similarities between these two wonderful people: Like how they both bounce when they fall; and how they can't seem to walk through a room without somehow kicking their feet in such a way that they make violent connection with objects that seem impossibly far out of the reach of their limbs. They both make the same goofy faces that never fail to make me laugh, and they have an inherent silliness about them that make people smile. They both say and do thoughtful things and notice small details that others might overlook. It's particularly special to me that DS looks so much like DH because I feel like I get to see what little boy DH looked like at different ages and stages without needing the pictures for evidence. They both have naturally muscular bodies, and it really is quite adorable to see a pint-sized (relatively-speaking) version of my husband - I mean, my brothers would probably kill for legs that muscular. They are both gentle and I imagine it would be impossible that they could ever even contemplate bullying someone. DS doesn't have an aggressive bone in his body. I'm hoping we'll be able to locate and strengthen the assertive ones though. Ditto for DH. And both DH and DS are very intelligent - though DH still lacks the esteem to fully recognize it. Everyday I see evidence that DH's genes were particularly dominant when it came to making this wonderfully silly, sweet, intelligent little boy. I have genuine hope that we can give him the skills necessary to have healthy relationships in his life and still feel comfortable being who he was meant to be.

And I will say, while it sucks that we don't have an accurate portrait of DH's personal history - that we have few pictures or videos of his childhood and virtually no personable connection to his past in any way, I think it must suck more for the people who don't get to be a part of DH's personal present or future - a present and future which include the amazing little people we have brought into the world. DH's FOO made their choices and it is they, rather than the Jonsies, who are missing something, every moment of every day. [I salute them with my metaphorical middle finger, as per usual: Sucks to suck, fuckers.]


  1. I am missing almost everything from my childhood too. I feel for you there. My ex, sigh, sold pictures of our kids because the frames were expensive and he couldn't bother to take the pictures out. I know this sucks. We only have what we have, and there is nothing else we can do.

    That sounds like a darling little boy you have there. Why oh why does this world have to have so many predators and people that just don't care. If it weren't for them, we would get to be our sensitive selves.

    I would listen to your mom. That sounds like wonderful advice and I can't add to it. Just give the little and big guy lots and lots of love.

    My mother was an engulfing sociopath. As a result, I find it difficult to find my words. Yes, even in my forties I have to remind myself to use my words, its hard. And sometimes the other person has to give me time to do that. Because when I'm done with the emotions, the crying, the stuttering, the choking, then I can talk. Just, yeah, you are doing great. Your men will be fine.

  2. Hi Joan,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I agree with you that the world is full of predators and people that don't care, which can make things so difficult for highly sensitive people. And it's sad because I truly believe that emotional sensitivity is such a wonderful trait. It's one of the aspects of DH's personality that made him so lovable. Underneath any of the unhealthy behaviors he's picked up over the course of his life, that sensitivity is still there. His NFOO totally took advantage and abused that sensitivity. Because of DS's similarities to DH, it makes it even more painful to imagine his parents treating him the way they did.

    On "finding your words" - interesting that you said that. I just used that phrase with my children today. I often tell them that they need to speak up, or "use their words" as an effective way to solve their problems. And you being in your forties and still dealing with it speaks to the deep damage narcissistic parents inflict on the developing psyche of their children. But I still consider forty to be young - your awareness will help you move forward. You'll find your voice.

  3. I just remember the scary bits of my childhood when dear daddy flew into one of his unpredictable narcissistic rages. I had two witnesses in the form of my brothers. The older became a carbon copy of our father and died in an accident at 61. The younger, formerly an ally and credible witnes,s turned to the darkside after frying his brain with drugs and booze.
    That leaves me with my beloved cousin, who due to his mother's illnesses, spent a lot of time at our house and, mercifully, has a memory like an elephant. Without him I'd still fall for the gaslighting campaign to convince me that I'm the who is nuts!
    As for the interaction with your son, you did just fine! Doesn't hurt our kids to see that we are human! That admission and a sincere apology set us apart from the narcs because they are gods who NEVER admit they are wrong, therefore NEVER need to apologize. A big hug helps too!

    1. The few memories DH has of his childhood are generally sad too, Mulderfan. The good ones are few and far between, and even the "good" content is usually tainted by something negative.

      And with DS - I definitely have apologized to him when I realize (or when it's pointed out to me) that I've been insensitive to him. I know where I need to work on myself though - it's a goal of mine to stop being a grumpy grouch around the Littles so much - they pick up on it (even the less sensitive Littles) and I really think it hurts them. So I'll keep at it, trying to find my patience and learning to shut down my negativity until a more appropriate time when I can express it safely if I need to. It'll be better for all of us!

  4. How fortunate your children have both of you-and a wonderful grandparents in your mom and dad!
    That you recognize each of your children are unique human beings, that the worlds of Bigs and Littles are and need to remain separate, that you care enough to observe, teach and own your "grumpy" days (we all have them!) and explain to your children they are not responsible for causing or "fixing" them-or you-are just a few of the responses I read in this Post. Yk, any one of these are so profoundly different from the experience of growing up with CB "parents" I could not have even conceived of such care, concern, reflection on the part of my biological "mother."
    I think the sensitivity is nurtured not in a positive way within a CB Famiy System, but as an evolutionary self-preservation adaptation to understanding we truly are human "doings" rather than human beings in the eyes and lives of our CB "parents." If not for the experience of spending the summer with my Aunt, Uncle and 8 cousins in Chicago as a pretty traumatized 13 yr. old I don't think I could imagine parenting such as your and DH's. That exposure changed my life-I'm not over-stating here at all. It wasn't that this family was The Waltons-ohhellno! But that the parents saw and treated each of their children as unique human beings, supported and encouraged each child, spent some special time with each of their children individually, recognized and allowed their children to just be Littles instead of Bigs in Little's bodies.
    There are two sentences I never heard from my CB "mother:"
    -"I am sorry."
    -"I am/was wrong."
    All I ever really wanted once I realized unconditional love would never be forthcoming from my CB "mother" was for her to see me. It seems I spent the first nearly 3 decades of my life up to NC much like a Little One, jumping up and down trying so desperately to get her attention, "Mom! Over here! Over here! See me? Do you ever see me?"
    She never did.

    1. [[TW]]

      "It seems I spent the first nearly 3 decades of my life up to NC much like a Little One, jumping up and down trying so desperately to get her attention, "Mom! Over here! Over here! See me? Do you ever see me?" She never did." <----- I believe DH's experience was/is very similar. He and I have talked before about how he just wishes they could SEE him and see HIM (putting the emphasis on both words gives different meanings, both are accurate!). But his NPs don't and they won't and it's one of the saddest things I've ever witnessed. I can't imagine ever treating my children the way he was treated - it's inconceivable to me.

      And it all still bugs the shit out of me, that there are so many people out there raising their children the way DH was raised, the way you and Q and the rest of our group was raised. And none of the CBs ever change. Ever. They live and they die by their own swords - and if they could, they'd have it be the same for their kids. I hate that.

  5. The only advice I can muster for you and LSV is to sit back and let him find his way on his own. It'll come as/when it comes. It's taken me decades to even grasp the things my mother did to me/us and once I did I still have all these boxes full of shit to stack and sort through. Be patient he came a long way in the short time I knew you guys. It's truly trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. And until these bastards die they continue to follow behind throwing wrenches in everything. Mine even found a way to fuck up my old age. They say when people say it isn't about the money that it's all about the money. For me I feel like my mother lived well on what she denied me and my sister as kids and gave the surplus of that to you know who. If there is a hell I am betting she is roasting there and wishing she could come back and leave something besides the scorched earth behind that she did.

  6. hey jonsi!
    i wanted to let you know that i'm back at the blogs and still reading.