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Where is the line between being a good child and taking care of oneself?

11 Post author: jkadlubo 04 December 2014 07:26AM

I recently saw some posts here about how LW helps with personal stuff and that it's a good idea to post here1. Plus, you are the most supportive people I've ever met. I still hesitate. Know my courage. Also, I pretty much always put needs and feeling of other people ahead of mine, because "mine are not as important" (more on that in note 3 and 5). Saying my feelings and needs out loud is really scary. Writing them down is almost unimaginable.

I recently parted ways with my psychologist, but don't yet want to find a new one. Between our last meetings I had a thought that (as usually) was not explored deep enough. And I think I need to go deeper in it. Maybe you can point me in the right disome interesting directions?

 

A bit of background information about me and my parents: as a child and adolescent I did not exist as a separate person. I lived by the side of perfection, always not good enough, or simply not good. The chant of that time was "why can't you ... like your sister?" (have good grades, keep the room tidy, have friends, be nice - insert almost anything you can imagine)2. There were also other problems, but let's not make this part too long.  

When I grew up and discovered that this all was not normal nor right, I became bitter and angry3. I keep in touch with them, act as if almost everything is fine, but boil inside a lot.  

On the surface I want to fix things. I want to be able to ask my mum to teach me something (I haven't been able to do this since I was a preschooler, partly because I feared being laughed at), I want to look at my dad and not remember him calling me a murderer3. In my country it's even unthinkable that I am trying to cut the contact with one of my grandmothers4.  

So I invented that I want my mother to understand why what she did was hurting me and apologise. She knows that I think she wronged me, though I doubt she realizes how very bitter I am about it all. For her, the solution is to start anew, with a blank space. I can't do that; I spent my adolescence being hit by her and apologising to her for whatever she deemed my fault on a given day. The problem with my solution is that she's incapable of it. For the sake of simplification: she does not comprehend other people's emotions (but she does have emotions of her own and she mostly comprehends them)5.

 

My new thought to look at "my solution" from a different perspective. Maybe me wanting to make amends with them this particular way is a bit like looking for approval the same way I did as a child. Maybe my mother saying "I hurt you, I'm sorry" would be like her saying "you were right, you are a good girl". Since I never got approval as a child, I should not expect it as an adult. Does this look sensible?

Maybe the adult thing for me to do would be to stop looking for these pats-on-the-back. And also the tiny pats-on-the-back I get when I act around them as if almost everything is fine while boiling inside and they reciprocate niceties. And that might mean cutting the contact as much as I can (which is of course scary and unimaginable). Or am I just going in one direction, where more are possible?  

Maybe I should stop trying to invent ways to fix things6. Maybe I should tell them how angry I am, and tell them in a way that prohibits them from interrupting me or reacting sooner than let's say a week later. But then again - would that do any good? Would they be able to understand me if they've never tried it before? Or is the question "would that do any good" just an example of my regular tendency to place other people ahead and diminute my needs?

 

1. Asking personal questions on LW, I don't remember the other ones now

2. She was more brilliant than me, managed to keep some friends even though we were the only kids in our class (yes, younger, but the same class - she went to school early and was always at the top) living outside the area etc. Another chant was "if you don't lose weight now, you'll be a cripple when you grow up", even though I had a perfectly normal figure. Everybody would routinely mix our names. The parents would routinely mix up our preferences about food, colours, favourite subjects etc. In a way: there was no me, there was just her and a faulty copy of her, who would keep being faulty on purpose, in order to enrage mother.

3. This last straw fell when my father (who was much more taciturn in scolding me, so back then I still had some sypathy for him) heard that my son and his (then) only grandchild suffered from a genetic disease that kills babies before they turn 2. After I explained the genetics of the disease, testing fetuses, chances, potential choices etc. he showed no sympathy, only asked "but you do know that you're commiting an infanticide?" His catholicism was more important to him than his daughter's grief over her dying child. Then it took me two weeks to stop feeling for him and decide that his reaction was inappropriate.

4. This last straw fell when she was playing with said dying child while I was away for a couple of hours. I got a letter regarding some testing in another country. She opened the letter, saw it was in English, took a dictionary, failed to make any sense of it and asked other people to help her. And when I came back and got angry at her reading my correspondece, she got outraged because she considered it her right. But I kept quiet for another year or two before I told her I don't want her near my children.

5. She thaught me empathy this way: I was always supposed to take into account how my actions would look from her point of view (given that she would not even try to reciprocate and always choose one of the worst interpretations). Empathy is my superpower now; I see a person and know what they feel about a situation, though I lack confidence in acting upon my insight.

6. At some point I was planning on employing someone to help her with the "understand why what she did was hurting me" part.

Comments (54)

Comment author: pjeby 04 December 2014 05:55:00PM *  20 points [-]

You can't fix what's wrong with you by trying to fix your parents or your relationship with them. As HPMOR would say, there is no point in assigning blame to a part of the system that you can't actually change.

That doesn't mean you're responsible for anything, it just means that when it comes to this type of dysfunction, the real problem exists in your "inner parents" rather than your outer ones. That is, your mental models of your parents, specifically the part of your brain that predicts how they will act in certain situations, and decides how you should feel/act about that.

Lots of people will say stuff about getting away from your parents, or how wrong they are or how you should speak up to them or whatever. This is irrelevant, because if your mental models make you feel bad about cutting off contact or speaking up, then you're going to have problems doing that. What you need more is to give up hope regarding your parents, whether you cut off contact or not.

What do I mean by "give up hope"? I mean that the thing that keeps you bound to their opinions is your desire to get something from them: love, acknowledgment, respect, etc. -- just as you're already starting to realize. As long as you feel it's possible for you to receive any of this, you'll be stuck trying to do things their way, or at least feeling like you should.

This happened because your parents put out "bait" that implies it's possible for you to get their good opinion (e.g. by being like your sister). Your brain thinks, "ah, so if I do what they want, maybe they'll give it to me."

A quick way to begin poking holes in this belief is to imagine that you have done everything perfectly to their desire, been the exact person they wanted you to be... and then ask that same part of your brain, "What would happen then?"

Most likely, if you actually reflect on it, you'll see that what your parents would do at that point is ignore you, or possibly tell your sister to be more like you... but there will not actually be any love, respect, etc. coming.

Don't logic this out; though. It's necessary for the part of your brain that makes emotional predictions to work this out for itself, by you asking questions and reflecting. Otherwise, it will just be in the logic part of your head, not the emotional part. The emotional part has to see, "oh, my prediction is in error - that wouldn't work out the way I want." Otherwise, you will be stuck knowing you should do something different, but still doing the same things as you did before.

Unfortunately, this is not a one-time, one-off thing to fix. Your brain may have hundreds of specific expectations that "If I do this thing in this kind of circumstance, they will finally love/appreciate/whatever me", and each one may have to be handled separately. In addition, it can sometimes seem to generate new ones! The emotional brain doesn't generalize in the same way the logical brain does, and doesn't seem (in my experience) to abstract across different classes of expectations when making these kinds of changes. But that's my personal experience and YMMV.

In a sense, the root cause of these "If only I do X, I will get Y" beliefs is a belief (alief, really, since it's not a logical thing) that you aren't worthy of receiving Y. There's like a part of our brains that imprints on our parents' behavior in order to learn what we're entitled to in our tribe, so to speak, and what we can expect to receive from others. If they don't give us love, respect, whatever, there's a part that learns "I have to earn this, then."

(The technical term, by the way, for this feeling you don't deserve good things (love, appreciation, respect, etc.) and need to earn your "pats on the back", is shame, and it's the #1 byproduct of being treated the way narcissistic parents treat us. So when you look at or for books on dealing with this, that's a keyword you want to look out for.)

Giving up hope that you can earn these pats on the back in a particular area is one way to uproot shame, but there's another method that seems to have an advantage in bypassing this and going after a feeling that you deserve to receive Y as a fundamental right... thereby eliminating the feeling that you need to earn it.

The method is described in this book, though it does contain some new age babble (that can be safely ignored if you focus on the specific instructions rather than theory).

The approach described does seem to be able to work at a higher level of abstraction than the other method I've described, by "giving up hope" of fixing various aspects of one's self rather than the hope of getting positive interactions from others. It still will need to be applied to a lot of things, but it may cover more ground faster, if you can make it work for you. I don't have as much experience with it personally as the other method, but it does seem at first glance to bring a much deeper sense of being at peace with myself and with the people whose "pats on the back" I previously sought.

Comment author: jkadlubo 06 December 2014 02:27:20PM 5 points [-]

This reply made my cry more than any other. But I know this kind of crying - it happens when somebody opens my eyes to a different perspective, so it's good crying.

My hope was mostly broken, but I kept trying to fix it. Popular psychology makes people believe that they can make almost any relationship work. Yesterday evening I felt lighter. I could start thinking "I can let go of trying now."

A quick way to begin poking holes in this belief is to imagine that you have done everything perfectly to their desire, been the exact person they wanted you to be... and then ask that same part of your brain, "What would happen then?"

I would be like my sister and have what she has. She can pull off almost any kind of abstruse plan which involves parents doing something for her or giving her money. I resent that ability of her and yet would like to be able to do almost the same. My mind has trouble going further, ponder what if I was better than her. I don't really believe your version, but in fact I can remember one situation exactly like that. When I was better and what happened next. I got a 5 on a biology test (scale 1-6, where 1 is fail, 6 is outstanding), she got a 4. Normally only people with grades lower than 3 can retake a test, but parents made her retake the test and me teach her. She got a 5+ on the retake (it's also frowned upon when getting a 6 is possible on a retake, since the second test should be a chance to pass only for those kids who failed), they were satistifed and I was bitter.

The right answer is that they would not pay attention to me being good enough. They would concentrate on her being worse than me. And try to make me help her be at least as good as me (and also push her). Since being exactly the same is not really possible, she would end up being better than me, again. And I would be even more disappointed.

I doubt myself a lot. You and others, who say "this relationship is unfixable" really say "you were right, you only doubted too much."

Comment author: pjeby 07 December 2014 12:53:47AM *  2 points [-]

The right answer is that they would not pay attention to me being good enough. They would concentrate on her being worse than me. And try to make me help her be at least as good as me (and also push her). Since being exactly the same is not really possible, she would end up being better than me, again. And I would be even more disappointed.

The key thing to focus on here is that even when you were better, they still didn't treat you with the love or respect or appreciation that you are looking for. That's the part you need to connect with, to realize on an emotional level that it's not really about you.

Your brain is doing something I call the Prime Conclusion/Prime Assumption pattern. It goes sort of like this:

  • The Prime Assumption: If I were good enough, then other people would care.
  • The Prime Conclusion: If others don't care, then I am not good enough.

The Prime Assumption is actually false: your parents wouldn't care even if you were good enough, as your experience already proves. There is no level of "good enough" that is sufficient to make them act differently.

The really good thing is, once you break this assumption, the conclusion is also broken. You will realize then that, if no amount of "good enough" will get you care, then that means the care is not under your control. It is not your responsibility to do anything to make them care, and you will stop feeling "not good enough". (More precisely, you'll no longer interpret your parents' behavior as meaning you're not good enough, and it will be more difficult -- though not impossible! -- for your parents to make you feel inadequate.)

You and others, who say "this relationship is unfixable" really say "you were right, you only doubted too much."

I don't say the relationship is unfixable, actually. When you actually let go of wanting/needing pats on the back from them, then you'll have a real choice about whether to continue relating to them or not. You won't be coming from a place of neediness and shame, and will be able to set better boundaries. Nobody can predict exactly what form your relationship with them will take. You may find that you can love them for who they are, or you may find that you don't actually enjoy their company and choose not to spend time with them. You may find that you can set effective boundaries. Who knows?

What is unfixable is not the relationship per se, but your intention to obtain love, appreciation, etc. from them. You already know from experience that you can't get it, but you haven't yet realized it "in your heart" (i.e., the emotional/alief side of your brain). The book I suggested can help a lot with that.

When we try to get love and respect from others, feeling we don't have it ourselves, it's not because we actually don't deserve them, and it's not because we actually need for other people to have a particular opinion about us. What really happens is that we feel bad when we share those people's opinions of ourselves.

Since you've assumed that you being good enough would result in care (Prime Assumption), you conclude that the lack of care means you're not good enough (Prime Conclusion). Once you've concluded this, you then proceed to not care for yourself, either. You don't treat yourself with the kindness, respect, appreciation, etc. that you actually deserve.

However, if you realize that this idea is wrong, you can learn to give yourself that kindness and respect and love that you're missing -- and won't feel the need to act a certain way around your parents, or the need to convince them to act a certain way around you. (Again, the book I suggested will help a lot with this.)

Comment author: jkadlubo 09 December 2014 09:50:29AM 0 points [-]

you'll have a real choice about whether to continue relating to them or not. You won't be coming from a place of neediness and shame, and will be able to set better boundaries. Nobody can predict exactly what form your relationship with them will take. You may find that you can love them for who they are, or you may find that you don't actually enjoy their company and choose not to spend time with them. You may find that you can set effective boundaries. Who knows?

I'll save this for future reference.

Right now I feel cutting myself from my parents from my perspective would be a punishment for them (and I know mother would not care, so it would be in vain - yesterday we were in the same room and as an experiment I tried to not talk first but look available to conversation. She didn't even say "hello" or "I didn't expect you here, why did you come?"). I have too much grudge yet to have a real choice.

Comment author: pjeby 09 December 2014 11:26:45PM 2 points [-]

I have too much grudge yet to have a real choice.

A grudge is what the algorithm for "they owe me and I think I can collect via social pressure" feels like from the inside. This implies that you still believe:

  1. They owe you something, and
  2. It's possible to collect

Both of these statements are false, but it's easier to start with the second one. Admit the truth: barring a miracle, you are never going to collect this "debt", because it's not one your parents will ever acknowledge. Indeed, I would guess that if someone held a gun to their heads and insisted they repent, they'd be like, "What are you talking about? We didn't do anything to her!"

When you finally admit to yourself that this is true, there won't be a grudge any more, because the grudge is nothing more than your brain's insistence that you should be able to collect, in denial of the fact that you can't collect. Use the Litany of Gendlin and the Litany of Tarski here, or the questions from The Work of Byron Katie, which is particularly effective at resolving grudges and judgments directed at other people.

One of the things Byron Katie sometimes says about these kinds of judgments is that in order to free yourself, you have to want to know the truth, more than you want to be right, or than you want to get whatever it is from that person. The truth will set you free, but first it's going to annoy the hell out of you. ;-)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 December 2014 04:30:11PM 4 points [-]

This happened because your parents put out "bait" that implies it's possible for you to get their good opinion (e.g. by being like your sister). Your brain thinks, "ah, so if I do what they want, maybe they'll give it to me."

This may be how people think when they do that thought experiment, but I ran into a rather chilling example in the real world. I know some people who talk disparagingly of their daughter. When the daughter worked for me and did quite a good job, I told her mother so, and the mother invented reasons why the daughter's motivations weren't good enough.

I think that when someone is defined as being of low status, the people who were enforcing the low status will have to admit they were wrong if they change their minds, and people generally aren't willing to admit they were wrong about that sort of thing.

Comment author: pjeby 05 December 2014 05:43:47PM 7 points [-]

I think that when someone is defined as being of low status, the people who were enforcing the low status will have to admit they were wrong if they change their minds, and people generally aren't willing to admit they were wrong about that sort of thing.

That's way too generous an interpretation, as it requires the parent to actually think of the child as a person in the first place. The simpler explanations for that kind of parent-child behavior are usually:

  1. Narcissism (i.e., caring more about how the situation reflects on them, than the child's well-being) and/or
  2. A sincere belief that positive treatment of a child will result in horrible outcomes

It's possible for a parent to have both, but neither one has anything to do with status per se. Notably, narcissistic parents cannot conceive of their children as entities having a status. (And if they cared about their children's opinion, they'd tell them what that opinion should be!)

To the narcissist, his/her child is not actually an independent individual. They're a possession, sort of like a little robot that happens to be annoyingly unpredictable and independent, and is viewed as defective whenever it doesn't conform to their whims... preferably without them needing to go to the trouble of communicating in advance what those whims are. The child should Just Know or Should Have Known what the right thing to do was, and is viewed as obstreperous, obnoxious, and willfully disobedient for failing to intuit the correct behavior and perform accordingly.

At least, that's my personal experience, from being on the receiving end of that sort of thing. ;-)

Anyway, given that sort of viewpoint, there's no way that the woman's daughter being helpful to you would raise her opinion of her daughter. Instead, a narcissist would simply view that as further evidence of how annoying her daughter is. After all, she might be helping you, but she's only being obnoxious and disobedient at home (by the narcissist's messed-up standards, as described above).

So, in the mother's eyes, your praise of the daughter just means that the daughter can be helpful, and is therefore refusing to be helpful to her mother. The daughter must be helping you because of some ulterior motive, some selfish reason that doesn't involve her mother at all... which just proves how bad the daughter really is, not thinking about her mother at all. Instead of being merely a defective robot, she's now a rebellious robot, a traitor who is supporting an outsider (you) and putting her own childish goals, thoughts, and feelings ahead of those of her own mother.

[Shudder]

Sorry, flashback moment there. ;-) Anyway... yes, there are people like this, and yes, they are unfortunately allowed to raise children, utterly helpless children who will love them absolutely and believe everything they say, at least for the first several years of their life.

(Which, of course, is why they have the children in the first place...)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 05 December 2014 04:54:45PM 0 points [-]

I agree with your last paragraph, but also there are a number of cultural factors that might be in play with this sort of thing.

E.g., in many cultures parents will disparage their children in a humble-brag sort of way, like "oh, you're lucky your children are so well-behaved! Joannie is so difficult to deal with, I try to get her to do her chores but all she wants to do is study calculus!" as a way of expressing "Joannie is really studious and therefore better than your children, nyah nyah."

Natch, I have no particular reason to believe that was the case with the people you're describing here.

Comment author: MattG2 08 May 2017 03:07:27AM 0 points [-]

The link no longer works... what is the book?

Comment author: pjeby 01 June 2017 03:53:15PM 1 point [-]

Huh. Looks like the author decided to raise the price and sell it exclusively on their own site. Kind of a pity, since it means dramatically fewer people will even know it exists. Anyway, it's Embrace The Unlovable, by Amyra Mah.

Comment author: MathiasZaman 04 December 2014 10:28:20AM 15 points [-]

Here's my take on the situation, but I feel like I should disclaim that this of course influenced by my own situations and personal biases.

Society tells us that we should love and respect our parents. I disagree. You should do that to the extent that those people deserve that love and respect. If your parents are abusive or bad in a different way, they don't deserve anything you're not willing to give. Internalizing this is a hard thing to do, because both you've been trained in a variety of ways that this is a bad thing. What might help is asking yourself the question: If a friend (or romantic partner) would act in this way, would you still be seeing them? Your parents should be held to similar standards, I feel.

If you do want to give them more chances or at least explain your position, I'd suggest to do it in writing. You can send them an email or give them a letter and they can read it. You should probably schedule a conversation about that letter afterwards. (This can be immediately afterwards, if they agree to read the whole thing before commenting.) This has the advantage that they can't interrupt you and you can think carefully about what you want to say. It lets you add additional explanations and disclaimers that would be harder to convey when speaking. It can also give them time to think about your message.

If you want to confront them about their behavior and how they make you feel and they're unwilling to compromise and change their behavior in the future, breaking contact probably should be considered.

The way your (admittedly one-sided) post looks to me is that your parents are emotionally abusive. You should probably take care of your own mental health before worrying about the happiness of your parents.

Comment author: Gondolinian 04 December 2014 02:45:53PM *  2 points [-]

That's pretty much what I wanted to say, so I'll just upvote.

I would however add a link to the blog Captain Awkward. It's got a lot of resources for people who want to set boundaries with their parents. You might even consider writing a letter once they're open again.

Good luck and best wishes.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 05 December 2014 08:08:30PM 1 point [-]

What might help is asking yourself the question: If a friend (or romantic partner) would act in this way, would you still be seeing them?

Better: if you had a friend and she told you this story, what would you tell her? Or, if you had a long time friend whose opinion you really trusted, and you really knew that this person had your best interested to heart, what would they tell you?

It's hard to be anything but wacky about your own problems. Somehow, you need to at least momentarily put yourself into an outside view so that you can better understand and evaluate your situation.

I've personally found that applying this kind of distancing helps, at least to gain another perspective.

Comment author: DanielLC 04 December 2014 06:52:27PM 0 points [-]

I think it's more important to be on good terms with your family than with people in general, largely just because they're a Schelling point. But it's not vital. From the description, I'd say that in jkadlubo's case, it just isn't worth it.

Comment author: MathiasZaman 04 December 2014 08:12:01PM 1 point [-]

I think that, in general, most people have a strong connection to their family and want to keep it. Family tends to offer a wide range of shared experiences and shared ideas and this can be very valuable for a variety of reasons. Most people want to be on good terms with their family because they actually like their family. If you don't desire to be on good terms with your family, there's little reason to expend a lot of effort to do so.

Comment author: DanielLC 05 December 2014 02:51:43AM 1 point [-]

If you need a place to stay or a loan or something, I think your family is generally more likely to do it than a friend.

Comment author: MathiasZaman 05 December 2014 08:03:05AM 5 points [-]

Only if you're family, you know, doesn't suck and isn't abusive. For most people, you're definitely right, but I wouldn't call those arguments in favor of staying on good terms with bad families.

Comment author: jkadlubo 05 December 2014 06:59:34AM *  1 point [-]

A close friend would offer those things.

This "is family somehow more important than other people" question is something I've been reluctantly thinking about for some time. I want to find a "yes", but I don't see it. Then I start doubting my expertise on the subject and scream to myself "confirmation bias!!!". And then I shut the screamer up with "but you always doubt yourself, maybe this time you are right?"

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 December 2014 04:20:30PM *  1 point [-]

I think family should be given some extra slack-- for example, if your family is kind of boring and/or irritating, but basically supportive, it's probably worth your while to maintain your connections. However, if you have clear evidence that your family is not on your side, you would do better to build relationships with other people.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 December 2014 03:34:08PM *  9 points [-]

I had a bad relationship with my mother, and it was very important for me to fully realize that it was her problem, not mine. Outside view: I can have good relationships with other people; she can't. It seems so obvious now, but it was difficult to realize while at home. Moving away from home helped me a lot; and now when I come for visit, I make sure I never stay more than a few hours at a time, once in a few weeks.

For her, the solution is to start anew, with a blank space. I can't do that; I spent my adolescence being hit by her and apologising to her for whatever she deemed my fault on a given day.

I could have written the same thing. And for a long time I have blamed myself for my inability to also start anew and pretend that nothing happened. Because everyone keeps telling me that forgiving people is important, not only for some religious reasons but also for your mental health, etc. (Also, admitting that I have this problem lowers my status.) But there is less advice about how specifically to do it, especially if almost anything that person does is triggering to you. It is supposed to just somehow magically happen, by making the right far-mode decision. And if you can't do that, that's probably your fault, too.

My solution was to reduce contact to a "plausibly deniable" level, where I don't have to openly admit that I am avoiding contact on purpose, and I can pretend that I am just too busy to visit more often. This reduces unnecessary drama, because the drama would again make me uncertain whether I am doing the right thing. And actually the visits are not so unplesant now, because I just try to remain polite, pretend that everything is okay, avoid anything emotional, and then leave.

It was difficult to accept, but I think the correct way is simply to not expect anything from my mother. No understanding, no apology, nothing at all. Anything I would expect from her would be just another thing she could hurt me by not doing it. Why would I create such opportunities? We can have a short polite conversation instead, I feel I have fulfilled my social duty, and then I go home. This is all I can realistically hope for; I am succeeding at it; mission accomplished. My real life, including all my emotional life, is somewhere else; that is where I should focus my thoughts and actions.

Put it into perspective. There are seven billion people on this planet. Stop wasting your time and attention on those few who have hurt you. There is nothing inherently special about them. They had their chance, they wasted it. Meet new people, make new friends. One important thing about being human is the ability to overcome familial bonds and find new allies. (And the more civilized societies seem better at this than the less civilized ones.)

Comment author: jkadlubo 05 December 2014 01:04:13PM 1 point [-]

In a way I have been doing the same past 10 years, but only superficially. I treated my withdrawing from any emotional contact as a shielding technique, not as the only way we can have any kind of social interaction without me being in very low mood the next day.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 06 December 2014 11:52:26AM *  2 points [-]

So more or less you have already found the correct solution (it's not that difficult, if you make different experiments and observe the results), you just blame yourself for not being able to find even better solution which would magically make everything great.

The next step is to stop blaming yourself for not doing the impossible.

Comment author: shminux 04 December 2014 04:17:45PM *  15 points [-]

First, upvoted for the courage to seek help.

You might not want to hear that, but your story is so typical, you might as well have your picture under the dictionary entry "children of Narcissistic parents". I have heard identical stories a dozen times. If anyone was still in doubt "there was no me, there was just her and a faulty copy of her" gives it away. Also that your sister was the golden child, and you were the scapegoat.

Now to the really painful part. It is not clear to me if you are ready to admit that your parents are toxic and you should go full no-contact. They are beyond redemption. You owe them nothing. You have no mother, and never had one. The woman caretaker whose genetic material you share does not love you as a mother would, and never did (and probably never could).

This is a classic self-help book on the subject which helped several people I know: http://www.willieverbegoodenough.com/ There are many other good ones, too, check the Amazon recommendations under http://www.amazon.com/Will-Ever-Good-Enough-Narcissistic-ebook/dp/B001AO0GD6 .

There are also multiple online support groups for people like you, many of whom end up unwittingly perpetuating their parents behavior, suffer even more as a result, and subject their partners and children to the only behavioral pattern they know.

Here is the questionnaire from the book: http://www.willieverbegoodenough.com/narcissistic-mother/ . You will probably answer Yes to 80% of the questions or more.

Good luck to you, you have a long way to travel to emotional sanity, hope you make it!

Comment author: jkadlubo 05 December 2014 01:08:14PM 4 points [-]

Thank you, I really needed that spelled out.

Fun fact about the questionare: when I excluded all "I don't know" and "sometimes" answers - I got "yes" exactly 80%.

Comment author: Michelle_Z 05 December 2014 05:07:15PM 0 points [-]

This does read like a textbook case of narcissistic parents. I speak from both experience and research.

Comment author: WalterL 05 December 2014 07:16:25PM 5 points [-]

I don't think you will be able to get your parents to understand you. As you've described it, they are cruel to you for their own internal reasons, rather than because of anything you've actually done.

As is always the case when you have a behavior (be cruel to daughter) with a fake reason (because she deserves it), and a real reason (because it makes me feel big/proves I'm not old/lets me get back at my possibly imaginary tormentors/vents my sadism/whatever) you have to be careful to model them correctly, in order to accurately predict their response.

Most likely, they genuinely believe in their fake reason. They don't see themselves as constantly tearing you down to build them up, but as fairly, judiciously assessing each instance, and acting appropriately. From the outside you can see that their response will always be condemnation, but they believe that each instance is provoked.

If you address the fake reason (Parents, it is unreasonable to be angry at me for being late. I was not actually late.), they'll just parry meta. (Who are you to tell us what's reasonable? Why are you making such a big deal about this? You just want an excuse for your tardiness.) That is, if they are in the wrong they'll just change the issue to you pointing it out.

On the other hand, if you address the real problems (Parents, you must stop berating me in order to feel better about yourselves), they'll deny that that's what they are doing. (What are you talking about? What kind of child would accuse their parents of being evil? Don't you know how much we love you?)

I think you won't be able to fix things via a letter/lecture as you are contemplating. Any letter you send them, any conversation you have, will be blocked in one of these two ways. If you point out the trend, they'll deny. If you discuss any specific instance of the fact that they don't see you as a person (say them stealing your mail), they'll criticize you for noticing their wrongdoing, rather than respond to your accusation.

So if explaining what they've done and fixing it is out, what's left? The following is without knowledge of your personal circumstances. Perhaps one or more of these options are closed to you. These are the three basic paths I see.

  1. You can cut ties with them entirely. They will, of course, blame you for it, but they can't make you experience their condemnation if they can't communicate with you.
  2. You can cease to hope for better from them. Accept their judgement and scorn and render empty apologies. Lots of people keep pets, on which they lavish love and affection and receive animal lack of understanding in return. Yours are just people shaped instead of fish shaped.
  3. Continue in your current vein, that is, continue to communicate with them and continue to expect them to behave better. Perhaps they will change.

Only you can say which of these three options is best (or of course, I could have missed something and a 4th option may be superior). Whatever the case, good luck.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 December 2014 03:09:56PM 5 points [-]

The Dysfunctional Family threads at Making Light might be another good resource for you.

I don't think your desire for better understanding and behavior from your mother is necessarily an irrational desire for her approval-- it's normal to want to have a good mother. On the other hand, it sounds like it's extremely unlikely that she will improve.

Comment author: Lachouette 05 December 2014 10:02:49AM 2 points [-]

hugs

There's a lot of good comments on this already, so I won't add another one in the same spirit. I feel with you and I hope you can resolve this conflict in a way that's good for you.

I know we've talked about this briefly in the Study Hall, but I'd like to mention it again here: Your mileage may vary, but I got a lot out of reading "Dance of Anger". It's exactly about how to navigate situations in which you feel angry or frustrated and how to use that anger constructively without lashing out or letting it boil internally while not showing it to anyone.

It's not expensive as a kindle version, and an easy read. You can probably get most value out of it in two hours.

Comment author: jkadlubo 05 December 2014 10:13:45AM 0 points [-]

I bought it the next day you told me about it. Started reading but not yet finished the preface.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 04 December 2014 02:33:36PM 0 points [-]

You don't seem to have done anything wrong to them. Keeping your distance to protect yourself may appear selfish from their perspective, but that's their opinion. In my experience, parents cannot be changed. They will always believe that they did the right thing.

It's a very Catholic thing to regard children in debt to their parents for the noble abnegation of raising you and feeding you (which is their legal obligation anyway, so nobody should get extra points for doing it); also, it's typical of parents to interpret disagreement as defiance. It's an irrational stance that does not respond well to attempts at argumentation.

Now that you're an adult with your own children, you can find the support and approval you need in the friends you choose to have. At least, that's what worked for me. Make your own life and your own meaning, apart from them. You don't owe them obedience anymore.

Comment author: Dias 06 December 2014 06:57:35AM 1 point [-]

raising you and feeding you ... which is their legal obligation anyway

In many countries it is legal to give one's kids up for adoption, so this is not true.

so nobody should get extra points for doing it

Just because we have penalties for non-compliance does not mean there cannot also be rewards for compliance.

Comment author: MathiasZaman 06 December 2014 10:41:33AM 0 points [-]

In many countries it is legal to give one's kids up for adoption, so this is not true.

If you choose to keep your child, it is your legal obligation to raise and feed (and cloth, etc.) your child.

Comment author: Dias 07 December 2014 05:43:36PM *  0 points [-]

Right, but you could have given up the child. The child would then either be raised as a ward of the state or adopted by another couple. Children raised by the state generally have inferior life outcomes,* so by raising them yourself you save them from this negative-expectation fate.

Conditional on not giving them up, you have this legal obligation, but you do not have this obligation unconditionally. If praise is warranted for good acts that are legally optional, you deserve praise for not giving up your child.

*though people might reasonably argue that is more because of genetics than anything else

edit: formatting

Comment author: jkadlubo 06 December 2014 01:50:15PM 0 points [-]

Now this is part is surprisingly relevant to me.

One version of family history says I was an accident (so there was a choice: should they bother with abortion or keep the baby and marry). The other version (never spoken aloud) says she used me to marry my father. I always wanted to believe the first one (and so oblige her to love me since she chose me), but the other made somehow deeper sense.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 05 December 2014 08:58:18PM *  1 point [-]

So I invented that I want my mother to understand why what she did was hurting me and apologise. She knows that I think she wronged me, though I doubt she realizes how very bitter I am about it all. For her, the solution is to start anew, with a blank space. I can't do that; I spent my adolescence being hit by her and apologising to her for whatever she deemed my fault on a given day. The problem with my solution is that she's incapable of it. For the sake of simplification: she does not comprehend other people's emotions (but she does have emotions of her own and she mostly comprehends them)5.

Except for the hitting part, and maybe the bitterness (my sister is just more hurt than bitter), this is my sister's take on my mom. My sister hasn't communicated with my mom for maybe a decade, maybe more. The decision likely came easier to her, since my parents divorced and my father moved away when we were young, and she had already stopped talking to him a good decade earlier.

She's actually excommunicated a number of people from her life, generally on the principle of feeling wronged by that person. In my mother's case, she feels judged, and is judged, in unkind ways. She recounts coming home crying from afternoons out with my mother. For other people, they just weren't there for her as much as she expected.

My sister's standoff with my mom looked just like yours - my sister felt judged, felt hurt thereby, and wanted to confront my mom about it. My mom didn't want to talk about it, thinks my sister is too sensitive, and similarly wanted to "start anew". After years of standoff, my sister decided to just move on.

Largely, it was a dominance struggle, where both sides felt entitled to the moral high ground, and submission from the other thereby. That's the part I consider a failure on both sides.

By entirely cutting my mother off, my sister has cut off part of her own life, and cut off the possibility of reconciling. I think she could have found a way of interacting with my mother that preserved both, but didn't open herself up to what she considered to be abuse. She threw out the baby with the bath water, IMO.

On my mother's side, I just don't see complaining about her daughter being too sensitive to criticism. Yeah, maybe so. And maybe she is, and you're also unkind in your comments. That's the way it appears to me. But whatever it was, she's still your daughter. Suck it up and deal with it. If she were an albino and sensitive to light, you'd deal with it, but because the sensitivity implicates you in bad behavior, you cope by avoidance.

Well, my sister finally coped with my mom by avoidance too. The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.

For your case, I'm glad that people are affirming your right to decide who is in and out of your life. But I'd encourage you to take it a step further now. Does breaking it off best serve your values? More generally, what are your options, what are the costs and benefits of each, and what's the highest value alternative?

Comment author: gjm 04 December 2014 10:43:07AM 1 point [-]

It took me a moment to work out what was going on in footnotes 3 and 4, so let me check I understand (though it's far from central to the points actually at issue): you already had Child 1 (with a terrible genetic disease) and were planning Child 2 and intending to avoid having another child with a terrible genetic disease by embryo testing and termination of pregnancies?

(Reading the above, I find that it sounds unsympathetic and maybe even condemnatory. It's not meant to, and I'm not suggesting any moral fault on your part.)

Comment author: jkadlubo 04 December 2014 12:24:02PM *  1 point [-]

Yes. Child 1 is 5 years old and lives with Krabbe disease, Child 2 is 3 and as far as anyone can tell is healthy.

I find your writing matter-of-factly. I know lots of people who find this idea repulsive and they never hold their tongues. OTOH I live in a highly religious country.

Comment author: ChristianKl 04 December 2014 01:26:12PM 0 points [-]

Having conflicts with your parents is normal. Boiling inside and not having your conflicts in the open on the other hand is not good for mental hygine.

In my country it's even unthinkable that I am trying to cut the contact with one of my grandmothers.

Where do you live? It seems your action are driven by the culture in which you are living.

Comment author: jkadlubo 05 December 2014 07:08:23AM 2 points [-]

Christian, you've met me in person, in Berlin... I live in Poland, more catholic than the Pope, as I often say. Poland, which mentally is still under 19th century partitions, so people are raised to believe that anyone of power is evil and family is the only good space in the world. It's difficult not to be driven by the culture in which I am living.

Comment author: ChristianKl 05 December 2014 11:42:10AM *  2 points [-]

It's difficult not to be driven by the culture in which I am living.

The question is not so much whether it's difficult but whether you want to follow those values.

I'm personally busy enough trying to live up to my own values, that I don't put that much emphasis about trying to live up to other people's values.

At the moment you are probably trying to live up to the general values of your culture because your upbrining left you with low self confidence.

Additionally it's worth thinking about if you get into problems with other people besides your family if you would cut contact with your mother and father. Start thinking about the unthinkable in detail to make it less scary.

Once you done that the next step is being open and then letting the chips fall where they may. If you act in a way you consider to be right, then other people can choose how to react, so that they get a outcome that's also right for them.

I live in Poland, more catholic than the Pope, as I often say. Poland, which mentally is still under 19th century partitions,

There's free right to move within the EU. If you don't like the culture of the place you are living you are free to go somewhere else.

Comment author: Salemicus 05 December 2014 11:14:04AM -1 points [-]

[P]eople are raised to believe that anyone of power is evil and family is the only good space in the world.

Sounds like a pretty good heuristic.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 05 December 2014 12:23:09PM 1 point [-]

It discourages you from making friends ("family is the only good space"), which in turn makes you more dependent on your family.

Comment author: Salemicus 05 December 2014 03:05:54PM 2 points [-]

It discourages you from making friends ("family is the only good space"), which in turn makes you more dependent on your family.

To be more precise, it discourages you from making friends outside your family whom you do not incorporate into your family. But it also encourages you to make friends inside your family, and to incorporate friends from outside into your family. "Dependent" is not a neutral way of phrasing this. It would be better to say it makes you more integrated with your family, and less integrated with people and institutions outside of your family.

Certainly there are advantages and disadvantages to this pro-family heuristic compared to various alternative heuristics. But you both appear to tacitly endorse the "anyone of power is evil" heuristic, although that too has advantages and disadvantages.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 06 December 2014 11:59:49AM 0 points [-]

I guess it depends on what counts as "family", and how do people live. If there is a large extended family living close, so you can choose from a hundred people (and it is considered a valid choice to prefer e.g. your second cousins to your parents), that might give you enough options...

Comment author: bogus 06 December 2014 05:03:23AM 1 point [-]

Not quite, since "making friends" requires higher than average trust anyway. Indeed, friendships in low-trust societies can be unusually intimate, relative to what we would naïvely expect. What it does clearly discourage is having a large network of casual acquaintances and loose relationships whom you can expect to successfully cooperate with.

Comment author: bogus 06 December 2014 04:47:58AM *  1 point [-]

It is a good heuristic in low-trust, tribalist societies - which probably account for most of the world's population. Southern/Mediterranean Europe and Latin America are well-known to be somewhat nepotist/tribalist (though not nearly as bad as the Middle East), so my prior is for Poland to be quite similar, overall.

Comment author: Lumifer 05 December 2014 04:03:26PM 1 point [-]

I don't know if I'd call it a good heuristic. I would probably be comfortable calling it a "good bias to have", but taking it as an actual guiding principle seems unwise.

Comment author: dxu 06 December 2014 11:41:10PM *  1 point [-]

"Good cached thought", maybe?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 05 December 2014 11:49:15AM 0 points [-]

Sounds like a pretty good heuristic.

One that obviously gives wrong answers in the present case.

Comment author: Salemicus 05 December 2014 03:07:07PM -2 points [-]

I think it gives the obviously correct answer, but I'm not sure how duelling obviosities advances the matter.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 06 December 2014 03:34:38PM 0 points [-]

I think it gives the obviously correct answer, but I'm not sure how duelling obviosities advances the matter.

It has advanced the matter by revealing a conflict between our beliefs. We can then proceed to giving our reasons for our respective beliefs. I'll go first.

By jkadlubo's account, her parents are not her friends and cannot be. Some people have the good fortune of having a close, loving relationship with their parents. jkadlubo has never had that, and it does not look to me like there is any possibility of creating it. The best that can be hoped for is distance and disengagement.

She doesn't mention how her relationship with her sister stands now or stood then. Whether there is any future in that relationship I can't guess. No other family members are mentioned.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 December 2014 04:24:33PM 0 points [-]

You may be up against a logistical problem as long as you live in Poland, if there are relatively few people who are alienated from their families for you to form a chosen family with.

Comment author: cameroncowan 07 December 2014 08:57:22AM *  0 points [-]

This is a very typical experience of too many people including my own self. However, the only person you can fix or control is you. The only person you can work on is yourself. My recommendation is to sit with yourself and decide what is their draconian expectations and what is truly your problem. Leave everything that is theirs behind and only worry about what is yours. It won't seem like you're a "good son" but too often being a good son means co-dependency and excess control. Don't hand your very real power away to someone else. You will always be in the wrong, you will never do it right for them and you will never get what you are looking for. I do not say this to hurt you but to help you to an important realization. You are you and they are sick and trying to infect you with their disease. It's time to walk away.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 07 December 2014 03:42:46PM *  1 point [-]

Adulthood isn't an award they'll give you for being a good child. You can waste... years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just... take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I'm sorry you feel like that and walk away. But that's hard.

Lois McMaster Bujold