Body Dysmorphia & Social Media

Two nights ago I was in a bit of A Mood™️ and I decided to give a little air time to my frustrations on social media.  The responses to my post got me thinking about how we react to people’s bodies, and feelings about their bodies, on social media.  Fair warning: this is not your typical, predictable post about body image and Instagram models.

Understanding My Face

my profile, showing my retracted chin
Come thru, chin defect!

I was born with what’s clinically diagnosed as a “retracted chin”; instead of my chin extending out to match the shape of my forehead and nose, it retreats back under my lips.  It’s a genetic defect and it’s also a feature I share with my Narcissist-with-a-capital-N father.

For most of my young life I could not figure out what was wrong with my face.  I would stare at photos of myself with other friends with non-defected facial structure and I was absolutely stumped as to why my face looked so wrong.  My own dysmorphia and distorted perception of myself made it hard to view my face as “mine”, let alone to understand its individual features.  Discovering that my retracted chin is an actual, diagnosable, defect made me happy.

I wasn’t crazy.  My face was fixable.

In the years since pinning down my facial defect, I have researched doctors.  I am lucky to have a home base in Massachusetts — a state with some of the best medical facilities in the country, possibly the entire continent.  I came close to saving up the roughly $5k that corrective surgery will cost but unfortunately had to spend my savings when the startup company I was working for in NYC could no longer support my salary.

That setback has been devastatingly frustrating in many ways.

Controlling Perception

For the most part, I have kept my plans to get corrective surgery to myself.  We live in a culture that looks down upon people that choose to alter their bodies in many ways.  People who choose cosmetic surgery are seen as vain, people who pierce and tattoo their bodies are seen as freaks, and people who are born transgender and choose to take hormones and/or pursue surgery face discrimination.

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Habits of Self Abandonment

30 Rock: Season 3, Episode 10. “Generalissimo” Tracy Jordan accidentally roofies himself.

Healing from abuse is in many ways a grieving process.  There is grief for the loss of time, sense of safety, sureness of self, and trust in the abusive person.  Especially if the abuser is a parent or significant other who should have been trustworthy, there can be a lot of grief for what the person should have been.

When it comes to an abusive parent, such as a narcissistic one, some come to the conclusion that the abusive parent was never really a parent.  The grief then is less for the behavior of the abusive parent, but for the realization that the parent was never a real caretaker.  There is a growing internet forum on Reddit specifically aimed at children of narcissistic parents called /r/raisedbynarcissists, I mention it here because the forum’s name plays on the expression to be “raised by wolves” which seems an accurate comparison to me.  To be raised by an abusive parent (or parents) is in many ways to be abandoned by the people who are supposed to be a guaranteed support system.

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Things Dysfunctional Parents Don’t Teach Us About: Living Spaces

Parks and Recreation: Season 3, Episode 15. “The Bubble”

While leaving and recovering from an abusive home requires a lot of psychological effort, there are also a lot of more tangible things that go into moving forward.  Sometimes when we are worn out from trying to psychologically understand and cope with our past or present abuse, concrete planning can be a helpful antidote.  I know for myself that I spent many hours planning my “getaway” as a younger person, and while only a few of those plans ever got enacted, it was the planning that gave me hope.

For many people raised by abusive parents, finding a home of their own to live safely and freely in is an important goal.  However, abusive parents frequently work against their children gaining independence, and are usually unhelpful and uninformative when it comes to moving out and living as an adult.

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Coping Mechanisms Gone Wrong

Parks and Recreation: Season 2, Episode 23. “Freddie Spaghetti”

Coping with Flashbacks

Flashbacks related to trauma are evoked when sensory or emotional experiences in the present cause a past traumatic event to be evoked.  When this traumatic event is evoked it can be re-experienced in both emotions and senses.  Emotional flashbacks cause emotional responses appropriate to past trauma to be brought up in response present events.  Responses to trauma include the classic “fight-or-flight” and also “freeze” and “fawn” comprising what people call the “Four F” Responses.  While fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses are normal in the context of trauma, when evoked in a present moment by an emotional flashback can appear very out of proportion in contrast to current events.

When confronted with a flashback, it sometimes possible to experience the entire flashback without realizing the cause of the emotions and the response.  Not realizing the cause of the emotional response means the emotions get incorrectly attributed to events in the current moment.  Long-term lack of recognition of flashback symptoms means repressed emotions and sometimes memories.  It also means habitual mis-alignment of past emotions and present experiences and consistently inappropriate emotions and actions can mimic traits of Personality Disorder as well as other disorders.

The healthiest course of action if you find yourself in a flashback is to work to identify the feelings coming from the flashback and the memories associated with them.  Identifying the true source of the emotions in an emotional flashback allows for healthy grief of the safety and happiness we were denied in childhood.  Overwhelming reactions to past trauma can be an opportunity for learning and healing, but if the reactions go unattributed to their original past source and instead are incorrectly accepted as appropriate in the present, can become a damaging pattern.

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Unpredictable Structure & Conditional Love: Personality Disordered Parents

Arrested Development: Season 1, Episode 12. “Marta Complex”
Lucille Bluth gives her adoptive son a glare that solidifies her place
in the Narcissistic Mothers on TV Hall of Fame.

Parents with Personality Disorders

What is it like growing up with a parent with a Personality Disorder?  At best, confusing, disruptive, and upsetting.  At worst, terrifying, abusive, and violent.

The most commonly discussed form of abuse that is discussed is physical abuse, because the results are clearly visible to the eye.  It is hard to argue the legitimacy of physically injuring children.  Yet physical abuse and emotional abuse create the same psychological effects: Complex PTSD.

Parents with Cluster B Personality Disorders (Anti-Social, Borderline, Histrionic, and Narcissistic) are classified as being excessively dramatic and self-interested.  Due to the extreme rigid and black-and-white thinking that comes with Personality Disorders, parents with such disorders come across as dysfunctional dictators.  They take you on a guilt trip while treating themselves to a power trip.  They refuse responsibility and rewrite the past to suit them (gaslighting).  In their fictional version of events, they will paint themselves as the martyr or play the victim, always skirting all responsibility.

Personality Disordered parents can be egotistical, attention seeking, and lack proper emotional empathy.  They can be excessively hateful, holding unnecessary grudges and seemingly permanently defensive.  Parents with these types of disorders sometimes have addictive behaviors in addition to their personality disorders.  Addiction is a much larger topic than I can properly address in this post, but it is worth noting that addiction is not limited to drugs and alcohol; addiction can be to any number of things not normally seen to be as addictive, including television, food, or attention.  While parents with Cluster B Personality Disorders sometimes engage in physically abusing their children, the more common form of abuse is emotional. 

 Emotional Abuse

For all the damage it causes, emotional abuse gets discussed very little.  Emotional abuse can take the form of neglect, contempt, manipulation, emotional incest, isolation, and using the child as an extension of themselves.  Emotionally abusive parents undermine their children’s identity, confidence, and future.  They deny their children the attention they rightfully ask for, emotionally neglect and socially isolate their children, and withhold basic needs like food and clothing.

Parents with these disorders will sometimes violate boundaries without concern, and at other times be very secretive.  They are hyper critical of their children and frequently make demeaning comments, sometimes played as a “joke”.  They can appear to have two personas: the cruel and abusive person inside the home, and the friendly and caring facade outside the home.  Everyone who doesn’t live with you doesn’t see the abuse happen. Given the near universally acknowledged hierarchy of trusting adults over children, it becomes very easy for these kinds of parents to create an image of their children as “troubled”, throwing themselves into the role of concerned caretaker and paint their children as problems.  My father regularly referred to me as “Problem Child” as though it was my name.

Personality Disordered parents project their own emotional turmoil onto their children.  They overreact, becoming excessively angry, yell and threaten.  They may even seem to take some joy in scaring their children.  One aspect of emotional abuse that is often overlooked is the way inappropriately sexual conversation can damage a child.  Emotional Incest is a term used to describe when a parent uses a child in place of an intimate relationship, relying on them as emotional support and using them as a second parent to any other children.  Emotional Incest may or may not involve overtly sexual discussion, but either way, it is an extremely upsetting position for a child to be put in.

[1,2]

The highly polarized black-and-white thinking of these kinds of parents leads them to give many ultimatums.  They pigeonhole people they meet, labeling them only as extremes on a continuum: good or bad.  Two terms that are nearly always used when discussing dysfunctional families reference two ways personality disordered parents (with their black-and-white thinking) tend to classify their children — golden children and scapegoat children.  

Golden Children

Golden children, as the name suggests, are the favorites.  But being the favorite of a disordered parent does not make for an easy life.  People with Cluster B Personality Disorders, particularly Narcissistic Personality Disorder, do not properly see other people as individuals.  Personality Disordered parents use their golden children as an attention supply and see their golden children as an extension of their own self-perceived perfection.  Their “love” for their golden children is conditional on the children living up to the parents’ delusional version of perfection.

Everything that golden children are given seems to come with strings attached.  They are frequently “parentified” by their dysfunctional parents, used as emotional support in place of the other parents.  The other parent may be absent completely, enable the dysfunctional behavior of the disordered parent, or be a scapegoat to the disordered parent, as much trapped in the abusive household as the children.  Dysfunctional parents attempt to force their golden children live the way they demand.  Their engulfing favoritism of the golden child can sometimes take the form of envying their own children, and competing with them over intelligence, appearance, or ability.

Scapegoat Children

Scapegoat is a term used to describe someone who is unfairly blamed.  The title could not be more accurate for scapegoat children.  As Personality Disordered parents project their fantasized qualities onto their golden children, so do they project their self-hatred onto their scapegoat kids.  Scapegoats are criticized, humiliated, shamed, and frequently called names.  Dysfunctional parents abandon their scapegoat children emotionally, by ignoring their needs, minimizing their thoughts and feelings, and may even physically isolate their children.

Disordered parents have the kind of contempt for their children that makes them scapegoats because they see their scapegoat children as extensions of their repressed self-hatred.  They will find any excuse they can to punish a scapegoatchild, creating household rules out of thin air in order to justifying berating the scapegoat.  The unpredictable structure that comes with this kind of parenting is extremely confusing for a child: nothing they can do satisfies the parent, they lose hope that they will ever be appreciated or loved.  The rage that a dysfunctional parent feels towards their scapegoat children may come from their own repressed self-hate or envy of something about their child.

Only Children

Only children do not have siblings to be compared to, and end up playing the role of both scapegoat and golden child, with the disordered parent flopping between them seemingly randomly.  Sometimes the disordered parent casts their co-parent in the role of scapegoat or golden child opposite their only child.  Only children of dysfunctional parents experience many things that both scapegoats and golden children experience.  The dysfunctional parent may manipulate the children against their other parent just as they manipulate scapegoats and golden children against each other.  Personality Disordered parents routinely break the trust of their children, betraying their confidance and sometimes blackmailing them.  The atmosphere in a household with a parent disordered in these ways is extremely oppressive.

Personality Disordered parents will take it upon themselves to undermine their scapegoat children and golden children with similar motivation.  The central goal is to keep their children attached to them in some way, feeding off the emotion they elicit like emotional vampires.  Scapegoat children are undermined to assist in brainwashing them of their incapability.  Golden children are undermined to keep them dependent on the parent who feeds on any attention their children can bring them.  When children do not live up to the unreasonable ideas their disordered parent has created, the parent may swap golden children and scapegoat children, attempt to guilt trip their children, fly into excessive rage, and in some cases disown their children.  

A bit on Narcissists Specially

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the disorder from Cluster B that I can most discuss in detail, as I have had Narcissists around me my whole life.  As I described in my Personality Disorders 101 post, Narcissists are created when they, as a child, suffer a kind of narcissistic injury.  The narcissistic injury splits the person’s understanding of themselves into their facade personality, which is perceived to be perfect but is frequently anywhere from obnoxious to abusive, and their underlying knowledge of themselves where their self-hate is repressed and wrongly projected onto others.  To maintain these two contradictory perceptions of themselves, Narcissists need a narcissistic supply to feed into their facade of perfection and delusion of grandiosity.  When this idealized version of themselves is threatened or compromised (that is, when someone starts to see them for what they really are), Narcissists will go into a narcissistic rage.  Just as Narcissists need people to feed off for a narcissistic supply, they need people to rage at.  [3]

For the Narcissistic parent, the golden child is seen as a means to this narcissistic supply, and the scapegoat child is used as a receptacle for the narcissistic rage.  The mainpulation and attempts to control the golden children comes from the Narcissist’s desire to control  and perfect their own image.  They will rewrite the past with themselves as the martyr, doing no wrong.  At the same time, they repress the parts of themselves that they know are unlikeable, claiming that they never did abusive things or have no memory of saying hurtful comments.  The rage directed at scapegoat children is truly terrifying.  Just as Narcissists try to stifle the things in themselves they dislike, they try to extinguish the scapegoat children’s sense of self: killing them psychologically.  This is one of the ways that the death-like feelings of hopelessness and helplessnes from Complex PTSD develops.

Growing up with a parent with a Cluster B Personality Disorder is a complicated and difficult experience.  It can sometimes feel like growing up with dysfunctional children as roommates, rather than having parents at all.  In future posts, I’ll write more about this childhood experience, the issues of only children, scapegoat children, and golden children, and the “other parent” in these kinds of dysfunctional families.  I’ll of course come back to Narcissistic Personality Disorder again: I plan to talk about Narcissists in other positions of power (teachers, bosses, etc.) as well as discuss the concept of emotional vampirism more.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 101

30 Rock: Season 3, Episode 9. “Retreat to Move Forward.”
Liz’s inner critic berates herself in the mirror.

What causes Complex PTSD?

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is caused by prolonged exposure to a series of traumatic events at a young age, such as parental neglect or domestic violence.  Many people relate to the symptoms of Complex PTSD without a history of “severe” childhood abuse, but even mild to moderate neglect, experiencing harsh bullying at school, or similarly painful experiences can bring out parts of Complex PTSD.

Children are the most vulnerable human beings.  Imagine a child in the prehistoric “wild” — abandonment by an adult would mean loss of all protection and food.  Being abandoned means being left to die.  Evolution has programmed children to respond to abandonment with terror.  That terror is there as a survival tool in this setting.  When the protection of their caretakers is denied to them, children are supposed to be afraid and cry for said protection.  In modern life, children are abandoned emotionally as well as physically.  Whether the neglect takes the form of contempt for a toddler’s biological need for attention or physical beating, abandonment calls on this inherent terror.  Knowing that the people who are supposed to protect and nourish you do not care for you enough to do so is terrifying for a child.

In dysfunctional families, extended and systematic neglect leads the child to this primal fear response.  The knowledge that a caretaker feels contempt towards a child leaves the child feeling ashamed of themselves, that they are somehow not good enough for their caretaker.  These feelings of overwhelming fear and self-disgust translate to intense hopelessness and helplessness.  The sense that there is no escape, and that even if there was, it wouldn’t be any better.  Some people have compared this deep sense of  hopelessness and helplessness to a “death-like” feeling.

Continue reading “Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 101”

Personality Disorders 101

Louie; Season 1, Episode 7. “Double Date/Mom”
Louie’s narcissistic mother comes to visit unannounced.

What are personality disorders?

Personality is defined psychologically as the set of cognitive and behavioral traits that make us individuals.  Simply put, how we think and act define who we are.  A personality disorder is then when these thoughts and actions stray outside of societal norms.  These traits can stray to varying degrees, from small out of place occurrences to fully impaired interaction with others. There is a major problem in this definition though: behaviors are classified as “disordered” based on societal expectations.  Thus there is great subjectivity in determining the “oddness” of a behavior.  Some of these “disordered” behaviors are harmless, some are harmful only to the person with the disorder, and some can be very damaging to those around the disordered person.  So let’s talk specifics.

Personality disorders by cluster

Personality disorders are sometimes grouped into three clusters: odd, dramatic, and anxious.  These clusters contain three or four distinct personality disorders a piece, but broad generalizations can be made about them.

Cluster A (Odd)

  • irrational suspicion and mistrust of others
  • detachment from social relationships
  • restricted emotional expression
  • extreme social discomfort
  • distorted cognition

Cluster B (Dramatic)

  • disregard for and sometimes violation of rights of others
  • lack of empathy
  • instability in relationships, self-image, identity, and behavior
  • pattern of attention-seeking behavior and grandiosity
  • need for admiration
  • excessive emotion
  • inability to be self-critical

Cluster C (Anxious)

  • pervasive feelings of social inadequacy
  • extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation
  • pervasive need to be cared for by others
  • rigid conformity to rules, perfectionism, and control

It is important to note that personality disorders do not have to appear in isolation, meaning they can present side by side with other psychological and neurological differences.  For example, a person may have a personality disorder belonging to Cluster C and also Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or walk the controversial line between some Cluster A disorders and schizophrenia.

While I have listed here descriptions of the personality traits of all three clusters of personality disorders, the cluster I will primarily write about will be Cluster B disorders.  Why?  Because this is the category I know most about.  I grew up with a parent with a personality disorder in this cluster, and I have encountered many other people in my life with these traits.  While it is possible to see less severe cases of Cluster B personality disorders, where self-reflection is possible and the person can work towards remission, many suffers of Cluster B disorders wreak havoc on the lives of people close to them.  This has certainly been my experience.

How and why do personality disorders develop?

While genetics may play a role in some personality disorders, it is largely believed that personality disorders are caused by suffering abuse during childhood.  Through a combination of learned behaviors and coping mechanisms gone wrong, an emotionally, sexually, and/or physically abused child can develop a complete personality disorder.  [1,2]

With disorders such as  Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the narcissist is created after a child suffers what is sometimes known as a narcissistic injury.  Very young children go through a phase of psychological development where they see the entire world as an extension of themselves.  When the child grows up with a narcissistic parent, the child is seen as an extension of the narcissist — typically either as the golden child, an extension of the narcissists’ perceived perfection, or the scapegoat, an extension of the narcissists’ self loathing.  A child raised in such an environment may never fully develop out of the psychological infancy that sees the world as an extension of themselves, that is, they forever see themselves as the center of the world.  Every narcissist was made by another narcissist: the cycle is vicious.

During the neurological critical period, when the child’s brain is acquiring the rules to things like language and social interaction, the child is extremely vulnerable to influence from personality disorders.  This neuroplasticity (the flexibility of a brain’s neurological structure) lessens as the child grows into a teenager and then into an adult.  If a child showing signs of a personality disorder is able to work with an adequate therapist, the disorder can be put into the aforementioned remission.  It is also possible for a child growing up in a home with these kinds of disordered parents to absorb the thoughts and actions of the parents as “normal” and repeat them without developing a full-blown personality disorder.  This is something that those of us who have grown up with parents with disorders like these have to be very aware of.

As it is relatively unheard of for personality disorders to be cured or put into remission after this teenage critical period, it seems to me that the personality disorder is in the process of being formed for the first 20 or so years of existence, and if enough normal behavior is not instilled, the disorder will take permanent hold.  This is in line with basic ideas of cognitive development; that is, the brain is more flexible to change during the early years, and decreases in neuroplasticity over time.  Just as it becomes harder to learn a new language after a certain age, it becomes more challenging to change one’s core personality the deeper into adulthood one is.

In the future, I will write more about NPD, the contradictory self perceptions of the narcissist, narcissists as parents, in other positions of power, and in the media.  I’ll also write more about the neurological critical period and neuroplasticity.