My last post touched on how narcissism can be a gift that keeps on giving, not only in the life of someone raised by a narcissist, but down through generations. Here, I’d like to talk about one thing that I haven’t seen a lot about: what I’ve started calling “secondhand narcissism”. It’s a lot more dangerous than secondhand smoke.
It’s still hard for me to write about this kind of thing. Abusive family dynamics have something in common with Fight Club: first rule, you don’t talk about it.
Especially with the Golden Child/Scapegoat dynamic thrown in, I still half-expect someone from the Golden Child side of things to read this and attack me, insisting I’m lying and making things up out of some awful motives. Besides just knowing why people might behave like this making it feel less personal, I have also reached the point that talking about this stuff–out of hopes that someone else might recognize some patterns, and find out they don’t have to live like this–has become far more important.
As I mentioned in the last post, my grandmother is a narcissist. AFAICT, her mother sounds like the colder kind of narcissist, my grandmother was probably the scapegoat, and she was badly abused from the time she was very young. She has let a lot of things about her childhood slip since the dementia has lowered her inhibitions, and her sister mentioned some of the abuse years ago (including one beating so bad she thought my grandmother was dead, lying in the floor for hours). I can see why she might have turned out with some problems! My grandfather was a good man, but felt bad enough about himself and his background in some ways that he felt like he needed to continue living with her and taking care of her while she emotionally abused him–and he frequently backed her up in scapegoating my mother, to avoid some of the narcissistic rage. When it happened anyway, my mom got blamed. She became the more argumentative kind of scapegoat, which was further used against her, and taken as proof that she was truly crazy and maliciously causing all sorts of problems (“bad seed” is not far off).
My mom never learned how to take care of herself, being too busy taking care of the narcissists in her life. “While we write all the time about narcissist’s excessive entitlement, she suffered from the reverse: a lack of entitlement.”# As I talked about some in the Invalidation and learned helplessness as victim training post, she did not believe that she deserved respect and decent treatment, so ended up marrying two different abusive, narcissistic men and getting one hell of a lot more invalidation and gaslighting. My biodad tried to kill her more than once, if incompetently, after a lot of more public gaslighting. A couple of years before they divorced, he was swapping her blood pressure medications for who knows what, while telling other people how worried he was about her mental state; it got more overt after the divorce. He openly stalked her, tampered with her car (with no regard for me, either), etc.; I knew some things seemed wrong at the time, but only found out much later how bad things got. Still, he was the one who left her. I witnessed more than one fit out of my grandmother, blaming her for making him leave by being so unattractive and impossible to live with; then she proceeded to do some further gaslighting and blaming over severed brake lines and the like. Even as a kid, it frequently felt like living in a bad movie.
My stepdad’s behavior wasn’t much better, and he has at least as huge a sense of entitlement. She never left him, either, but got blamed for his bad behavior.
Not being able to take care of herself, with a massive case of complex PTSD, repeatedly getting sabotaged besides being trained to sabotage herself, kept busy taking care of multiple narcissists, and so on–not too surprisingly, she didn’t attain anywhere near the level of material success as the Golden Child. And got further blamed for that; it helped demonstrate all of those bad qualities, and incapability to amount to anything. Bailing us out financially–from situations the narcissist helped create–came with a lot of strings and further control attached, and further demonstrated my mother’s incompetence.
The piece linked above on the Golden Child/Scapegoat dynamic is well worth a read. It could have been based on my mother’s life. I get both sad and very angry indeed thinking about it. She did not have a very good quality of life in so many ways (not thinking of the material, though that too), and an early and painful death from not learning that taking basic care of herself was important. While providing 24/7 live-in care for her original abuser and my stepfather.
This background gives a lot of context for how Seconhand Narcissism can arise.
Like in any other kind of abusive family situation, what kinds of parenting skills does the person learn? What do they have to fall back on? How will their own largely unaddressed PTSD affect the people around them? Are they likely to have learned that such a thing as emotional regulation even exists? How is an angry scapegoat liable to respond to perceived threats? Are they able to defend other people, or will they blame someone else for being abused? Are they likely to know what boundaries are? How likely is a similar pattern to repeat–whether they want it to or not–when they can’t even see said pattern clearly? When some of these patterns are repeating in their own marriages? What kind of cognitive and emotional dissonance might a person get going in this kind of situation?
Yeah, it was like that. My mom was a good person who tried hard to deal with me more fairly, but she had no idea how to do so. She loved me, and was not a narcissist herself, but a lot of hurtful behavior looked normal to her. She was weaned on invalidation and gaslighting, and did not know it was possible to develop any kind of emotional regulation whatsoever.* In her experience, blaming anyone who kept coming into open conflict with a narcissist and “causing” narcissistic rage was the way you kept the family going. Projection and some kinds of self-deception also looked normal. She would recognize some kinds of behavior as wrong, but then they were totally different when she fell into acting the same way.
Things could get very ugly, and I spent an awful lot of time walking on eggshells. Things were OK, and then they really, really weren’t, unpredictably. The daily screaming and yelling were really hard to take–and she could not see this as emotionally abusive behavior, at all. She wasn’t like my grandmother, so she could not be abusive. Then she would blame me for making her walk on eggshells, when I had absolutely none of the power–and, frankly, managed better emotional regulation without much in the way of examples to learn from.
She picked that tactic up straight from my grandmother. One excellent page on Characteristics of Narcissistic Mothers describes it well:
However, she will sometimes project even though it makes no sense at all. This happens when she feels shamed and needs to put it on her scapegoat child and the projection therefore comes across as being an attack out of the blue. For example: She makes an outrageous request, and you casually refuse to let her have her way. She’s enraged by your refusal and snarls at you that you’ll talk about it when you’ve calmed down and are no longer hysterical.
You aren’t hysterical at all; she is, but your refusal has made her feel the shame that should have stopped her from making shameless demands in the first place. That’s intolerable. She can transfer that shame to you and rationalize away your response: you only refused her because you’re so unreasonable. Having done that she can reassert her shamelessness and indulge her childish willfulness by turning an unequivocal refusal into a subject for further discussion. You’ll talk about it again “later” – probably when she’s worn you down with histrionics, pouting and the silent treatment so you’re more inclined to do what she wants.
My mom took out the narcissistic bits of motivation, and substituted her own kind of very fragile ego to protect at any cost. The end result looked very similar. She learned projection from a master, and to tear down anyone “safe” she saw as threatening what self-respect she’d managed to claw back as an adult.
To a great extent, I also got scapegoated. I would get blamed for setting off basically any kind of bullying behavior, including from my narcissistic stepdad (and her). Heck, I didn’t tell her I’d been raped for years, having a keen suspicion that she’d try to blame me for “not handling it properly”, then probably kill the guy. And I would somehow get blamed for that “necessity”. She did blame me similarly when he then stalked me for the better part of a year. Much earlier, she would blame me for not handling any difficulties I was having in school properly, and bothering her with them when she already had more than enough to deal with just keeping us alive. Between the unrecognized learning disabilities, the tics, my general neurological setup and the “weird” behavior it produced, racism/classism–and all the bullying excused by these things, and more–there were plenty of problems there; she did not pay attention when I still tried to explain what was going on. Then she’d periodically sail into the school and go into hissy fits which only made the recipients more hostile toward me. When I tried to mention that a conference in which she’d offered to hit the teacher only made things worse, she got on me for whining instead of dealing with things. At 7. I got the idea that it was OK for other people to treat me that way, and stopped even mentioning it pretty quickly.
She would blame me for “acting just like my (abusive) biodad” and/or some of his relatives, when most of what we have in common is surface autistic behavior (I also looked more like him as a kid); she tried to blame him for a lot of what was wrong in her life, and in the next breath point out all the perceived resemblances between us. I think that made her even more inclined to dismiss me as crazy, and project bad motives onto me. I got punished because Abusive Biodad was (overtly, recognizably) abusive, and I reminded her of him.
Between gaslighting, horrendous stress levels and the meltdowns they caused, and my own difficulties knowing how to respond, I ended up in the psych system at 13–and progressively more heavily medicated for more than 15 years. On one occasion, I also got lied to and thrown in a psych unit because she was blatantly projecting her own distress onto me. (Even worse, from my perspective, I watched her try valiantly to convince herself that the lies were true, and that there was something seriously wrong with me for feeling betrayed.) It was easier to convince herself I was crazy than to look at the abusive situation we both were living in, just down the street from her original abuser!
Additionally, it was so much a fish in water situation that I could not point to anything that might be depressing me or otherwise causing me distress. It only occurred to me about five years ago, right after major life disruptions including a transatlantic move to get married, that maybe the depression I was falling into could have more to do with life circumstances than with some nebulous Broke Brain Syndrome! When I was still in that particular water, I started similarly expecting a lack of respect and shoddy treatment. I picked up an awful lot of learned helplessness: why even bother trying when you know you have no reasonable expectation that the results will have anything to do with what most people call logic, much less the amount of effort expended? Frequently being near the bottom of her list of concerns (understandably so, taking responsibility for two narcissists), I also learned that taking care of myself–physically, emotionally, or spiritually–was not important.
I felt responsible for taking care of her–someone had to!–besides the narcissists. Get the whole immediate family together in one room (please, no!) and I kept feeling like the only adult present. After my grandfather died, I took over a lot of the peacekeeping duties. At 12. At the same time, I was under a lot of pressure to demonstrate that I was not like their beloved Scapegoat. This role continued even after she died, trying to run interference between my stepfather (who got up to even worse stuff when she got too sick to constantly ride herd over him) and my uncle’s family. Once I got back to the UK, and some semblance of a sane environment, I decided I’m just not doing that anymore. Ever.
The whole abusive family situation–combined with similar abuse in school environments–made me learn to get better at interpreting nonverbal cues and horribly ambiguous and loaded verbal statements. That’s not magically turning non-autistic, that’s getting multiple layers of added stress from needing to be hypervigilant out of self protection. It still takes a lot of energy I need for other things. It has also been called paranoia, in the right setting.
Growing up, I also learned that any difficulties I am having cannot possibly be anywhere near as serious (never mind as important) as those experienced by anyone else. Some were legimate, but that applied not only to the narcissists’ self-created problems, but to the problems my mom took onto herself by playing the martyr. This has helped me push on when I shouldn’t, and further underestimate and underreport pain and illness. That works very well (for certain insane values of well) with some of the other stuff described in an excellent recent post at Narcissistic Parents!!!, Feeling Unsafe…and the Superwoman Complex and its comments. Even when I know I am having a serious problem, I still hesitate to tell anyone about it. I feel like I’m whining if I even mention it in passing, because I have been told enough that nobody likes whining, in that context. I don’t expect anyone to take any problems I run into (again, physical, emotional, or spiritual) seriously, nor to get help instead of a verbal blasting for “bothering” other people when there is always something more important going on.
I feel like I’m bothering other people a lot of the time.** Other people with not-so-great intentions have reinforced that one. That is one reason I suddenly started looking “shy” or “bashful”; this is another case of reactions to abusive behavior can be dismissed as coming from the autism itself.
There were some difficulties I attribute specifically to growing up as the family scapegoat.
My mom could not accept criticism at all, and was very sensitive to anything that might possibly be interpreted as such (intended that way or no). She perceived it as more of the same kind of attack, and felt very threatened indeed by things that nobody coming from a different upbringing would find threatening at all. She responded with what I can only think of as secondhand narcissistic rage. It had a similar basis to the real deal: she felt like the whole foundation of her world was being threatened. If you said that something was wrong, and at some point she had done that something, she took that as a personal attack. When I pointed out as an adult that the way I was treated in school was just plain wrong, and nobody deserved that treatment, she took that as a statement that she was Bad and Wrong. And so on.
I learned to keep my mouth shut about a lot of things.
I only pointed out that her behavior reminded me of my grandmother’s one time, hoping to give her pause to consider how much she enjoyed that treatment. Instead, she went apeshit to the point that I was expecting a serious beating from someone very opposed to hitting kids. (That did not happen, but it was a very close thing.) That was even scarier because I knew I’d get blamed for the whole thing, and very possibly chucked straight into the loony bin if I tried to defend myself from someone bigger than I was (i.e., “physically attacking her, out of the blue”). I also knew that leaving the room would not help, because she would follow me and get even angrier at “having” to do so. I never mentioned anything like that again out loud, she took it as such a threat.
Also, someone in any given conflict situation must be crazy/bad/wrong–and she was not going to be that person anymore, ever. This got particularly bad after she seized on a therapist’s comment to the effect that her mental health was remarkably good, under the circumstances.*** She would quote it afterward–sometimes to show that I must be the crazy one, especially when I openly objected to my stepdad’s behavior and she was trying to explain it away. It was not possible that people could persist in disagreeing just because they saw things differently, at least when she felt threatened enough by the disagreement.
These are just a few examples of behavior learned directly from a narcissistic parent. It’s a shame she did not continue with that good therapist, but I guess looking at a lot of this stuff was too threatening. It made her life unpleasant, and left me with whole colonies of snakes to comb out. I’m very glad to have figured out that I’m not just Bad and Wrong and Crazy, though. Like other kinds of abusive patterns, this one does not have to continue.
It was hard for me to admit to myself, but a few months after she died, it occurred to me that some of what other people saw as our “very close relationship” looked a lot like Stockholm Syndrome. (Recently, I was interested to see this idea connected very directly to growing up with narcissistic abuse.) I loved her, but I was also even more dependent than usual on her for support. How did our relationship start looking closer and more harmonious? I stopped even trying to stand up for myself, in a lot of ways, and mostly convinced myself that it wasn’t important (and I had no right). I got heavily medicated because she neither understood nor liked some of my behavior, and I came perilously close to believing I deserved it. That’s not forbearance, passive or otherwise, that’s erasing or at least hiding yourself to deal with someone else’s emotional problems. I kept getting the impression that she did not know who she was dealing with; she was too damaged and brittle to really get to know me, but built up a picture in her mind. Gods help me when I deviated from it. You can’t have a substantial and authentic relationship with a nonthreatening mental construct–especially if you keep confusing your construct with a real human being.
At the same time, I loved her. And I believe she loved me as well as she could. I am not looking to demonize her, but I do not want these patterns to continue in my life. If you ignore that they even exist, it’s hard not to get stuck in them.
When I tried to explain this to Nigel, he did not understand. I think it’s nigh impossible to really understand if you have not lived in a similar situation.
I have a lot of compassion for her, but it was not a good situation all around. I am sorry we could not have an honest, authentic relationship, with all the emotional damage she’d sustained. Some of mine got in the way, too. Both of us missed out there.
* She had very little in the way of brakes, and honestly credited Prozac with keeping her out of jail, because she had a tendency to lose it and hit people in public when under enough stress. She felt like it kept her on enough of an even keel to avoid physically attacking people in fits of rage. I have no idea how much might have been placebo effect there. Yeah, having seen this happen on multiple occasions, and heard about more, made me more frightened when she came within a hair of doing it to me. My own autistic meltdowns were nothing compared to that.
Incidentally, her miracle drug expectations made her completely dismiss my reports of severe agitation (akathisia) and suicidal thoughts after I was put on Prozac, myself. She claimed I “acted better” on it (by what standards, I’m not sure I want to know!), and she repeatedly insisted that I continue taking it, under the very real threat of being hospitalized again. More projection, this time with serious | consequences. All this extended to other psych meds, as well.
** Remembering one particular incident, with more context available to make sense of it, had me sputtering with helpless rage a few months ago. Abusive Biodad kept me away from my Nana (his mother) for a couple of years, telling me that she was busy and didn’t need the interruption of having to deal with me, when he really didn’t want her to find out how he’d been treating my stepbrother and me and was trying to punish his parents out of spite. Classic isolation, and yeah, he knew exactly what buttons to push there. My mother’s reaction, when she’d helped install them? “That’s just crazy. How could you possibly believe that?” Erm, maybe because she’d been using that line on me, and not objecting when she heard other people do the same. *headdesk*
*** This same therapist picked up on the whole narcissism/scapegoat thing, ca. 1990. My mom felt threatened enough to make excuses to stop seeing her after the therapist urged her to leave my stepdad immediately, the situation looked harmful enough. She felt threatened enough that she never tried to look at that abuse again.