Holiday guilt: “Goodbye, deranged-acting relatives!” edition, Part 2
The first part, Holiday guilt: “Goodbye, deranged-acting relatives!” edition, is mostly an introduction to the uncomfortable situation of having needed to go No Contact with most of my family.
To clarify: I do not use the term “narcissist” (much less “malignant narcissist”) lightly. As I’ve mentioned before (Personality disorders and PTSD), I have trouble with how “personality disorders” are framed and used to dismiss and demonize people, but I still have no idea how else to describe the bizarre and abusive behavior patterns. I am not talking about being a little self-centered and difficult to deal with, I am talking about someone who honestly sees the people around them as objects to do with as they see fit–and who derives satisfaction from causing turmoil and hurting other people. I have them on both sides of my family1, and recognizing that they do indeed like to hurt the people around them has been very hard. No matter how they got that way, it’s very harmful behavior.
Going No Contact is a very hard decision for most people. Coming from the cultural background I do, I suspect it’s even more difficult–and, as suggested at the end of the last post, maybe even more necessary.
As I’ve mentioned before, I come from a rather strongly Tutelo-Tsalagi Appalachian background. (And, given the number of stereotypes, hesitated to write about family dysfunction at all. Even though it happens everywhere.) From whichever angle, the narcissistic behavior is just so perverse and culturally inappropriate that other people who haven’t lived with it up close are even less likely to believe that what I have been saying is a fair description. I am actually glad for another reason to be thousands of miles from home, because I would expect to be turned into the bad guy in this situation. (Even without the public acting and manipulative shit-stirring from the other party–nor my own autistic realtime communication skills making me look less plausible.) I used to think that “not talking to” relatives was a sign that there was something bad wrong with the person who made that selfish and immature choice.
This happens frequently enough in the dominant culture, from everything I’ve read, but my family is embedded in a culture variously described as “familist” and “collectivist”. By the definitions Seán Gaffney uses (PDF, pp. 207-208), I’d actually place it somewhere between “embedded familism” and “bounded individualism”.2 From Collectivism in Appalachia:
While researchers have argued that it is necessary to reconceptualize the people of Appalachia as something other than an impoverished population or stubborn/fatalistic mountaineers who are unwilling to change, little progress seems to have been made. The current study examines if the residents of Appalachia may share a collectivist culture orientation rather than the individualist orientation of mainstream American culture…Results revealed that Appalachians do score higher on collectivism than individualism and higher on collectivism than individuals from outside of Appalachia. Contrary to expectations, Appalachians also score higher on horizontal collectivism than vertical collectivism.
What is horizontal collectivism? Briefly, ‘individuals emphasize interdependence but “do not submit easily to authority.”‘ *snort* Also, ‘Collectivism can be typified as “horizontal collectivism”, wherein equality is emphasized and people engage in sharing and cooperation, or “vertical collectivism”, wherein hierarchy is emphasized and people submit to authorities to the point of self-sacrifice.’3 Yeah, sounds a lot like many Native societies too (for good reason).
Some good illustrations of how just plain selfish and conceited behavior have been viewed can be found in traditional stories used for teaching purposes. There’s the Tsalagi “How the Possum Lost His Tail” (in short, by getting conceited, bragging, and alienating other people with it); very much on point, there’s also “The Legend of the No Face Doll”. From one written Haudenosaunee version: “The Iroquois want their children to value the unique gifts that the Creator has given to each of them, but not to view themselves as superior to another, or to overemphasize physical appearance at the expense of spiritual and community values.” And another: “The No Face Cornhusk Dolls remind us that we should take care of ourselves… But we should also remember to fulfill our responsibilities toward others.”
What we really, really shouldn’t do is repeatedly throw our own family members under the bus–and enjoy doing it. And a lot of people just wouldn’t believe someone could do that, it’s so perverse.
I ran across a rather interesting study which is relevant here: Individual diﬀerences in narcissism: Inﬂated self-views across the lifespan and around the world (PDF). While I would not trust self-reporting to indicate much about prevalence of the really problematic end of the narcissism spectrum (putting on false fronts is pretty much what they do!), it does provide an interesting view of what attitudes people are willing to admit in different cultures.
Other research suggests that people from individualistic cultures, in comparison to people from collectivistic cultures, agree more strongly with self-relevant positive emotions (Lee, Jones, & Mineyama, 2002), are less modest (Kurman & Sriram, 2002), are more likely to project their own feelings onto others and recall personal situations from their own perspective as opposed to the perspective of others (Cohen &Gunz, 2002), are more likely to engage in agentic self-enhancement (Kurman, 2001), and tend to report well-being as more closely associated with emotions that are interpersonally distancing (e.g., pride) (Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000).
These ﬁndings all point to a clear delineation between collectivistic and individualistic cultures in terms of self-concept and perception. As the research suggests, individualism encourages greater focus on the self whereas collectivism promotes greater focus on the group. Thus, individualistic promotion of self-focus over other-focus should be reﬂected in greater narcissism being expressed in people from
more individualistic cultures.
And people from cultures with more emphasis on individualism did, indeed, report more attitudes that come across as narcissistic. I would not necessarily conclude that this means there are more actual narcissists, but that the ones who do exist feel less need for concealment. And that narcissists from more collectivistic cultures know full well that these attitudes and behaviors are socially unacceptable, so they hide them better in public. Which has very little to do with how they’re behaving in private, BTW, but may well affect how plausible their victims seem.
Another example of how things “should” work, from Family socialization predictors of autonomy among Appalachian adolescents:
Key variables of interest that fostered adolescent autonomy included parental support and reasoning, whereas parental punitiveness inhibited adolescent autonomy. The strong familistic bonds of Appalachia fostered rather than hindered autonomy, suggesting that Appalachian familism may have different consequences for adolescents in Appalachia as compared to mainstream U.S. society.
A lot of people also would not believe that someone was purposely making their own kids dependent and sabotaging any attempts at autonomy. Not that any of this stuff is reasonable, accepted behavior pretty much anywhere!
I went into some other cultural themes in Culture, how we view human difference, and abuse. One that is particularly relevant here:
In his early ethnographic work, Hicks (1969) reported that Appalachians demonstrate what he termed an ethic of neutrality. This is evidenced in four behavioral imperatives: (1) avoiding aggression or assertiveness, (2) not interfering in another person’s business unless requested to do so, (3) avoiding domination over other people, and (4) avoiding arguments and seeking agreement. Consequently, there may be low tolerance for paternalistic or prescriptive behavior patterns.
Also, there’s the emphasis on “passive forbearance”:
Some things mentioned? “using noncoercive discipline techniques, and vigilantly watching for the natural unfolding of the infant” Similar is also mentioned by North-Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians:
Cherokee mothers parented in a way that the harmony, or natural development of their children’s lives, was promoted through passive forbearance. The mothers did not parent in a way that controlled their children’s development, but rather parented in a way that enhanced their children’s natural development through unobtrusive, respectful behaviors like listening, observing, and being an example, or passive forbearance. Another Cherokee ethos is group support and collaboration instead of competition. Cherokee were matriarchal, matrilineal, and matrilocal before the European invasion.
Overall, what pattern is showing up here? People are meant to be different, and it’s important to encourage and support them however they may develop. You may not understand why the person is the way they are, but that’s more likely your failure than the other person’s. There is some reason for it, whether or not you understand what that is–much less like it. Trying to make the other person be someone they’re not is destructive, and that kind of control cannot come from good motives.
You couldn’t change the other person even if you had a right to do so, so what are you going to do? That’s where the loaded “passive forbearance” comes in. You’d better learn to get along with them, because they are not magically going to change. And, again, you have no right to insist that they should. Better that you try to understand where they’re coming from. If you can’t, you’d better at least act civil toward them. Besides interdependence, pragmatism applies here: we’re looking for the best outcome for everyone involved.
Basically, there is so much emphasis on at least trying to get along with other people and not controlling them, that it’s hard to believe that anybody would behave like (especially) my grandmother. And the easy assumption would be that anyone who just breaks off contact with the more surface-polite Southern version of Ma Soprano is just not trying hard enough to be tolerant and get along with her. I assumed this was the case for a long time.
Throw in the respect for elders theme, and a lot of people would really rather believe that you’re some kind of neglectful, antisocial lunatic yourself for breaking off contact with your disabled 67-year-old stepfather who is by choice living in an unsafe mess of his own creation. (In the basement of the still-condemned house that burned from his hoarded junk, at last check.) Not to mention the added enduring “matrifocal, matrilocal” thing and near-totally avoiding your 88-year-old grandmother who mistreated everyone around her for decades and now malingers and neglects her own health to get more attention. (Again, I wish I could pretend this were not the truth–both the purposeful self-neglect and the expected scapegoating.)
And I’m not just talking about family members on the Golden Child side of things, with whom I’ve gone uneasy truce Low Contact to avoid strife and further gaslighting. They are a lot less prone to attacking me than they were my (Scapegoat) mother, but I have steadfastly avoided saying a word about my grandmother’s abusiveness to keep the peace. It’s not just them. If anything, it’s like an enhanced version of Narcissistic Mothers and Society:
Society’s mantra of the perfect mother is another form of gaslighting, in my opinion. Not only is our own mother telling us that she’s a perfect mother and any thoughts otherwise are down to our craziness, but society is saying the same thing!
This makes being the daughter of a narcissistic mother a very lonely path. We can’t share our frustration and fear and hurt and bewilderment even with our closest friends. Not because they’re uncaring necessarily, but because they just don’t understand. “I know,” they might sigh sympathetically, “my mother’s very annoying too.”
And you long to have the words to explain to them that this is so beyond mere ‘annoying’ that it’s in a different world.
This would also be in a culture where various forms of abuse did not used to be tolerated, at all–a really handy side of horizontal collectivism there–and I think a lot of people are too heavily into the denial and victim-blaming now that it’s happening more. And a lot of people are dealing with their own multigenerational trauma. Regardless, it really is more gaslighting.
But, how do you get along with someone who keeps actively trying to hurt you and will not admit that anyone else has any rights or boundaries? When they not just set themselves up as The Family Tyrant, but actively pit family members against one another to watch the fireworks? When they demonstrate serious disdain for reality in general, and prefer to create their own and try to impose it on the people around them?
By either turning into a shrieking caricature and getting scapegoated even more, or erasing yourself. I really wish that were melodramatic.
I could really identify with one comment at Narcissists Suck (vampiric implications unfortunately apt)–even if I hadn’t seen the exact same reaction to paint color preferences, FFS!:
Any independent thought I had, any taste in anything different than hers, had to be scoffed at and ridiculed. Craziest thing — for most of my childhood that I can remember, and even years after finally getting out of her house, whatever someone else liked, thought, disliked, etc, I would be in total agreement, even when it wasn’t the truth. I was so used to having anything I tried to express ridiculed, that I could never bring myself to even try to be me and be true to myself. But what makes me feel the worst when I realize how it effects me to this day is understanding that I didn’t really even trust my own thoughts and opinions enough to share them because I had never actually believed myself having opinions and thoughts that were worthy of being expressed. It was like I didn’t even bother. So sad.
That was one behavior my mother learned from my grandmother. You could never tell what she’d react that way to–just from having her own choices criticized so much and in such a deranged way, that she felt criticized when people did not agree with her. So, she went on the attack. My stepdad was also in the habit of sneering and acting like people were just plain stupid when they expressed ideas he didn’t agree with. I still have trouble with anxiety when somebody asks me something as innocuous as “What are you reading?”, and have gotten waves of panic attacks when DVDs I’d added to the Lovefilm list–but I wasn’t sure Nigel would like–arrived. (And I am still almost embarrassed to admit all of this, much less that it took a lot of courage to add any DVDs to the list, or read books I wasn’t sure other people would like where they could see me, in the first place.) I will still feel people out as to what I “should” order in a restaurant, on a bad day. In a lot of cases, it’s still easier to let other people make choices than to deal with the lasting anxiety over maybe wanting or liking the “wrong” thing.
Not only does the erasure hurt, the other person just does not have the right to interfere with your life like that. At all.
This has grown and grown, so in the next post I will go into some of the reasons going No Contact strikes me as appropriate from a cultural viewpoint.
Edited 28/12: Fixed the Collectivism in Appalachia link.
1 Here, I’m mostly talking about maternal relatives, since my abusive narcissistic biodad went “No Contact” on his own ca. 1986, my angry autie aunt started blaming me for inappropriate things and stopped speaking to me ca. 2002, and my Nana died in 2003. I just don’t have contact with that side of the family anymore. There is a long history of this kind of thing there, too. Before I knew what else to call it, it was “The Bad $SURNAME Mojo”. Some bedevil other people, some of us bedevil ourselves. (Hmm, wonder why…) Biodad’s narcissism skipped a generation, without any kind of known trauma to bring it on; his grandfather was something, and his father was awful enough that my great-grandfather ran away from home at 14 and changed his name. My aunt sort of combines the approaches, and regularly takes out her “lived with the amoral” anger and blaming on other people too, while not being a narcissist herself.
That seems to be a scarily long and prevalent pattern, BTW–and a lot of them are proof that just because you’re most likely on the autistic spectrum doesn’t mean you don’t have other problems. It may well mean that you’re really bad at manipulating people and have the planning ability of a turnip with it, but that doesn’t necessarily stop you from trying–and going into a rage when it doesn’t work. My maternal grandmother’s GP talked her into a psych hospitalization (under the excuse of running neurological tests *scratches head*) because her public behavior became so bizarre ca. 1995–when the dementia started setting in and reducing some inhibitions, in retrospect. (That’s when she got the personality disorder diagnosis her doctor was not discussing in detail with us, other than “she’s not going to change”.) She acted like her fellow patients’ lives were a soap opera put on for her benefit, and thoroughly enjoyed the stay, but I digress. When Grandma was holding court in the visitors’ lounge one evening, my mom got into a conversation with a couple from the same area of the WV/KY coalfields my biodad’s paternal family is from. During the obligatory “who do we know in common, and who are we related to” dance, my mom mentioned Biodad’s somewhat distant-by-now family. The response? Some facial expression scrutiny and gentle probing to make sure insulting the ex’s family wasn’t likely to offend, and…”Those people are MEAN!” Erm, yeah, some of them really are. I didn’t know they had such a reputation for it, though. At least there are lots of, erm, interesting family stories…Back
Originally, individualism and collectivism were conceptualized as bipolar dimensions (Hofstede, 1980; Hui, 1988; Triandis, 1988), assuming the values, goals, and self-construal associated with the two constructs were incompatible. However, an accumulation of evidence indicates individualism and collectivism are better thought of as orthogonal dimensions on which individuals and cultures can be characterized…. In otherwords, one can be high (or low) in both individualism and collectivism without contradiction.
Another bullshit constructed binary… Back
Social anarchist Alexander Berkman, who was a horizontal collectivist, argued that equality does not imply a lack of unique individuality, but an equal amount of freedom and equal opportunity to develop one’s own skills and talents,
equality does not mean an equal amount but equal opportunity. . . Do not make the mistake of identifying equality in liberty with the forced equality of the convict camp. True anarchist equality implies freedom, not quantity. It does not mean that every one must eat, drink, or wear the same things, do the same work, or live in the same manner. Far from it: the very reverse, in fact. Individual needs and tastes differ, as appetites differ. It is equal opportunity to satisfy them that constitutes true equality. Far from levelling, such equality opens the door for the greatest possible variety of activity and development. For human character is diverse, and only the repression of this free diversity results in levelling, in uniformity and sameness. Free opportunity and acting out your individuality means development of natural dissimilarities and variations. . . . Life in freedom, in anarchy will do more than liberate man merely from his present political and economic bondage. That will be only the first step, the preliminary to a truly human existence.
I haven’t read Berkman, but it sounds like a welcome reinvention of the wheel. See also From Jack Weatherford’s “Indian Givers” (coming from Chapter 7 – Liberty, Anarchism, And The Noble Savage). I keep meaning to write more about this sort of thing.