Body Dysmorphia & Social Media

Two nights ago I was in a bit of A Mood‚ĄĘÔłŹ 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.

Continue reading “Body Dysmorphia & Social Media”

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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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Narcissists & Vampires

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 2, Episode 11. “Ted” Buffy is right, vampires are creeps.

Using the metaphor of an emotional vampire to describe some manifestations of personality disorders is not a new concept.  I think the comparison makes for an interesting discussion, but I am not trying to paint with a broad brush and say that all people with personality disorders are vampires.  Instead, I will write about the abusive behaviors attributed to personality disorder traits that some individuals display and light-heartedly discuss the similarity to vampire mythology (not sparkly vampire mythology, Buffy vampire mythology).

Both vampires and narcissists come from dark beginnings.  Vampires are born when their human self is murdered and narcissists are born through childhood abuse.  The human the vampire was becomes trapped beneath the demon that takes over their body, just like the real personality of an extreme narcissist is trapped under the personality disorder that has taken over their thoughts and behavior.

Like many descriptions of vampires, some narcissists are very charming and seductive at first.  Classic vampire characters like Dracula are often described as having powers of mind control, convincing their victims to do things they normally would not want to or altering their memories and perceptions.  Thankfully narcissists are not as cool as Dracula, and while their gaslighting and lying can be painful, they do not have superpowers.  Vampires famously thrive on sucking blood from humans, while narcissists thrive on their narcissistic supply, sucking the energy out of those around them.  Here I do not mean energy in a spiritual sense, but a very literal sense.  It is exhausting to deal with an emotionally abusive person, and narcissists can be exceptionally draining.

While vampires seek to kill their victims, abusive narcissists will settle for killing their spirits. ¬†As I mentioned in my post on Complex PTSD, the helplessness and hopelessness that comes with enduring long-term emotional abuse is often described as a “death-like” feeling. ¬†Some victims of vampires are merely killed, but others are transformed into vampires themselves, similar to how¬†narcissistic abuse can create¬†new narcissists. ¬†A vampire forces the human to feed off their own demon-contaminated blood and usually chooses to make a new vampire for their own agenda. ¬†Narcissists do not create new narcissists quite so consciously, but it is necessary for the narcissist’s venomous behavior to be absorbed by the victim to turn the victim into a narcissist, much like a human must consume a vampire’s tainted blood to be changed. ¬†Narcissists, like vampires, try¬†use the monsters they create for their own gain.

For a narcissistic parent, the victim¬†most likely to be transformed into a narcissist themselves is their golden child. ¬†Though not all golden children fall into the habit of behaving like their parents, many are not only allowed, but encouraged, to be narcissistic. ¬†On the other hand, the victim most likely to be pushed to the “death-like” sense of helplessness and hopelessness is the scapegoat child. ¬†Some professionals I’ve talked to have even described the way scapegoat children are treated as the abusive parent attempting to psychologically kill the scapegoat — destroying the person they see themselves as and replacing it with a false narrative of failure. ¬†The narcissist views all their children as extensions of¬†themselves, and just like vampires who kill all their victims regardless of turning them into vampires themselves, being¬†a golden child or a scapegoat to a narcissistic parent can¬†result in the same feeling of a “death of self” in place of the identity created by the narcissist. ¬†But unlike vampire victims, emotional abuse victims can break away from their narcissistic abusers and find their actual self.

In Buffy’s world,¬†people lose their soul when they become vampires, which is what allows¬†them to feel no guilt for their actions. ¬†Many vampires take great pleasure in the violent acts they commit. ¬†Narcissists are often described as people with “a hole in their soul” and by definition lack empathy, unable to see their behavior as harmful. ¬†Narcissists consistently seem to find glee in the pain of others. ¬†A classic example of this that I have experienced is parents that will outright laugh at a child for crying or feeling other¬†reasonable emotions, which¬†serves to teach the child that their feelings are a joke to you and less important that others’ feelings.

While most vampires in the Buffyverse are soulless, the phenomenon of a “vampire with a soul” comes up exactly twice. ¬†Once the soul has been returned to a vampire, they begin to feel guilt for all of their previous evil behavior. ¬†Like vampires, narcissists rarely feel guilt for their actions, and while it is possible for a select few narcissists to become self-aware and feel guilt, it is very rare. ¬†Narcissism is a disorder based on the belief that the narcissist is without fault and the narcissist will go to any lengths to protect this image. ¬†By definition narcissists are unable to be honestly self-critical.

How vampires and narcissists come to their lack of guilt and empathy is quite different. ¬†Vampires feel no guilt for their evil behavior because they just simply don’t care. ¬†The complete disconnect from others is more similar to sociopathic behavior than narcissistic. ¬†Sociopaths understand that others see things as right and¬†wrong but do not care if their actions are wrong. ¬†Narcissists also know right from wrong, but care deeply about other’s impressions of them, and will go to extreme lengths to repress their wrongdoing. ¬†A sociopath cheating on a partner might openly admit to it and brush it off as “their partner’s problem” while a narcissist cheating on a partner might deny it to the point of gaslighting their partner and even themselves.

Perhaps the most helpful concept I have found in the comparison of vampires and narcissists is the¬†extent to which narcissists rely on their narcissistic supply. ¬†Keeping up the facade of perfection and repressing their bad behavior requires a lot of psychological effort on the part of the narcissist. ¬†The more people they can rope into this delusion to enable their¬†distorted reasoning, the easier it becomes to maintain their image. ¬†While there’s no part in the vampire/narcissist metaphor for enablers, they are a key component to emotional abuse, and something I will definitely be writing about.

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Apparently it’s a week for vampy posts here at Cognitive Caribou, as this discussion of emotional vampires falls in the same week¬†with my photos of black lipstick. ¬†I wanted to keep this post short and sweet, since taking this metaphor too far gets weird fast. ¬†My plans for upcoming posts related to emotional abuse include an overview of some fMRI studies on both personality disorders and PTSD, more in my series about “Things Dysfunctional Parents Don’t Teach US”, and as mentioned above, some discussion of abuse enablers. ¬†If you’re reading this and have thoughts on or stories about narcissistic vampire types, please don’t hesitate to comment and add your view!

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.

Continue reading “Coping Mechanisms Gone Wrong”

Why I don’t use Trigger Warnings

I sometimes talk about various kinds of abuse on this blog, but you will never see me mark anything with a ‘trigger warning’ — here’s why:

Triggers are not predictable.

It is pretty much impossible for a person to predict when something will trigger them.  It is then even more impossible for someone to predict what will trigger someone else.  Attempting to predict what will trigger someone, to me, seems to belittle what being triggered actually means.  A flashback, whether emotional or sensory, happens because a traumatic memory is improperly stored and then accessed because of a similar sensory experience in the present.  When the improperly stored traumatic memory is accessed, it is not just remembered as a typical memory.  The traumatic memory is instead re-lived.  Re-experiencing a past traumatic event without warning is extremely jarring and disturbing.  Remembering a past traumatic event when you have been seeking out information on abuse can be very upsetting, but they are two very different experiences.

If being triggered was as simple reading the word ‘abuse’ and remembering being abused, it would be much easier to deal with. ¬†Instead, being triggered means having a small random experience, such as watching a certain quality of light hit the wall, a particular musty smell, or an emotion, and suddenly re-living past trauma. ¬†Flashbacks of this kind are not linguistically¬†connected to their triggers. ¬†It’s impossible to warn someone of when they might be triggered, and I worry that it can sound patronizing to try; as though people are able to and should control their flashbacks and should avoid experiencing flashbacks, as though they are something to be ashamed of.

Trigger warnings aren’t really trigger warnings, they’re content warnings.

Because there is no way to actually predict what can be a trigger for a traumatized person, trigger warnings do not actually provide information about triggers.  They provide information about content.  Just because something contains detailed descriptions of abusive behavior or actions, does not mean it contains triggers for an abused person.  Trigger warnings can make vulnerable people warry of reading things that may be helpful to them.

In my personal experience, I have never had a flashback truly be triggered by reading about trauma or abuse.  Going into a forum, blog, article, or book on the subject, I know what I may encounter.  I find myself remembering uncomfortable things but not reliving them.  There is an important distinction: after remembering an event, if it is properly stored in long-term narrative memory, it is describeable.  Re-experiencing a traumatic event that has not been converted to a narrative memory is very hard to verbalize.*

Content warnings have their place, as some of us like to stay away from particularly graphic descriptions or discussions, but I believe it is important to see upsetting content as very distinct from triggers.

Writers can’t control their reader’s reactions, and it’s weird to try.

While we describe triggers as an outside event causing a flashback, the reality is that the trigger is entirely internal.  The outside event may mimic a sensory or emotional experience of our trauma, but it is our internal reaction to this present event as a part of our past trauma that leads us to be triggered.  The outside world cannot control when traumatized people are triggered.  Even traumatized people may not be able to control when they are triggered, but with patience a traumatized person can come to understand and recognize their flashbacks and reduce their frequency and strength.

Trigger warnings make¬†the writer responsible for the readers’ feelings and reactions. ¬†As a child of a Narcissist, I am warry of any attitude that makes one person responsible for another’s feelings. ¬†We are all responsible for our own actions, reactions, and emotions. ¬†That is not to say people experience triggers and flashbacks on purpose or that it is their “fault” their memories aren’t stored properly, but that we¬†are in charge¬†of¬†understanding our¬†own reactions to our¬†flashbacks. ¬†I’ll write more about this in a different post, but I believe flasbacks can be a gift in disguise. ¬†Flashbacks let us know something bad happened in the past and that it is still effecting us in the present. ¬†Exploring our flashbacks and triggers can be scary, but invaluable.

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I can respect that trigger warnings are generally a well-intentioned gesture, and in some contexts,¬†work well as content warning. ¬†I do my best to make it obvious when a post contains such material, and I think it should be apparent that anything in the “Trauma” category of my blog deals with things that are traumatic. ¬†It’s no one’s fault that triggers do what they do, but it’s also impossible to preempt them and can be problematic to try. ¬†I wouldn’t¬†want this to sound like a rant, so I’ll keep it¬†brief and end it here.

the end by leslie knope

Parks and Recreation: Season 4, Episode 6. “End of the World.”

*In fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows suppressed activity in Broca’s area when traumatized subjects were asked to recount traumatic events. ¬†In layman’s terms, blood flow in the brain tells us that part of our language center does not function properly when trying to describe our past abuse. ¬†I’ll write more about this in posts about repressed memories and traumatic flashbacks. ¬†

Cult Mentalities vs Personality Disorders

 Mean Girls, 2004.
Karen explains the rules of being in the Plastics.

Narcissistic Cults

The mentalities behind some personality disorders¬†and cult membership have an interesting amount of overlap. ¬†While the individual members of cults tend to be made up of Narcissistic leaders and Dependent followers, the belief of the members in the righteousness of their cult is parallel to the Narcissist’s belief in their own greatness. ¬†Just as dysfunctional families led by Narcissistic parents can breed Narcissists for children, the constant emotional torment of a childhood with Narcissistic parents can lead to Dependent Personality Disorder. ¬†Growing up in a dysfunctional environment normalizes the dysfunctional relationship when Narcissists and Dependents meet later in life.

Those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder feed off of attention, especially from those who enable their grandiose image of themselves. ¬†People with Dependent Personality Disorder need others to enable their state of eternal dependence. ¬†When Narcissists and Dependents meet, they can fall into a dangerous cycle of enabling each other’s disordered beliefs. ¬†Narcissists see the Dependent as less than themself and in comparison, themselves as grand. ¬†The Dependent supports these ideas by believing that they themselves are inadequate, and need someone like the Narcissist to direct them. ¬†They see the Narcissist as the grandiose facade the Narcissist projects, tending to fawn¬†over the greatness of this leader.¬† The Narcissist, feeding on this attention, allows the Dependent person to continue their self-sabotaging concept of themselves as “less than” others in the world.

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A Mean Microcosm

A microcosm of the relationship between these two disorders (Narcissistic and Dependent) can be seen in the archetypal roles of bullies and their lackeys. ¬†I picked the above screen capture for this post very intentionally: the characters Regina George and Gretchen Wieners from the movie¬†Mean Girls are a sterling example of this relationship. ¬†For those unacquainted with the movie, a 15-year-old girl named Cady, having previously only been homeschooled while her parents studied large cats in Africa, suddenly enters high school in the States. ¬†She is accidentally inducted into “the Plastics” — the group of popular (and mean) girls at the school.

The Plastics go by inane rules such as the above “Wednesdays we wear pink,” and are led by Regina George, who is referred to as “the Queen Bee”. ¬†Regina’s #1 lackey is Gretchen Wieners. ¬†Gretchen truly believes in Regina’s perfection and constantly seeks her approval. ¬†She tells Cady how Regina declared hoop earrings “hers” so Gretchen can no longer wear the ones her parents bought her. ¬†Gretchen repeatedly tries to promote the slang word “fetch” which Regina uses as an opportunity to berate her. ¬†Even at the end of the movie, while the other previous Plastics members find new identities in themselves, Gretchen is only able to move on by finding a new Queen Bee to serve. ¬†

Of course,¬†Mean Girls is a comedy, and the storylines are exaggerated, but sometimes the exaggeration of comedy makes these kinds of behavior patterns visible (it also gives us an opportunity to laugh about people like those who have been mean to us, which can be very healthy!). ¬†Anyone who has been a part of a group like the Plastics can tell you the pattern of Narcissistic leader and Dependent follower is very real. ¬†Any group that has a Narcissistic view of themselves as a whole, such as “we are popular, everyone likes us” or “we are saving people, everyone should thank us”, breeds these dichotomic relationships and falls on the spectrum of cults. ¬†

From Personal Experience

While I was never a “popular” kid in school, I was a member of a martial arts school for 8 years that preached women’s empowerment, yet internally had the exact same social structure as the Plastics. ¬†The name of the school was Valley Women’s Martial Arts* and their tagline was “Institute for Healing and Violence Prevention” — rather funny as they actually prevent healing! ¬†The head instructor was a textbook Narcissist: she expected to be recognized as special, desired constant admiration, secretly envied others, was obsessed with fantasies of spiritual greatness, was largely unempathetic, and extremely arrogant. ¬†She behaved much like a Narcissistic parent, always playing favorites¬†and manipulating her students. ¬†I watched her use karate promotions to get between siblings and scapegoat other instructors into leaving the school.

The school itself paraded an image of righteous empowerment; the followers of the head instructor deeply believing in the good they were doing and the head instructor deeply believing in how wonderful she was. ¬†The mentality of the school was that all women needed to learn physical self-defense because otherwise, they will go to college and they¬†will¬†get raped (there was a news article quoting members of the school stating just this). ¬†I wholeheartedly support teaching self-defense to anyone who wants to learn, as it’s a great life skill, but I can’t stand fear mongering of this sort. ¬†It simultaneously blames potential victims for not being a part of their cult-like world and promotes themselves as the saviors of women. ¬†Being a martial arts school in Western Massachusetts, there was plenty of bastardized Eastern philosophy mixed in with the self-defense lessons. ¬†When discussing my history with this martial arts school with my therapist, we frequently use the phrase “Spiritual Narcissist” to describe the head instructor — I find it to be painfully accurate.

For several years while I was taking classes at this school, there was an older girl who violated multiple boundaries of mine.  Her behavior was in the area of verbal and sexual abuse.  She herself had been abused, and was only five years older than myself.  For this girl, I have mostly compassion.  Yes, her behavior was wrong, but it was all she was taught, and I can no longer expend the energy to be angry with her.  She left town after five years of this nonsense, just after I had turned 15.  It took me two years to begin to understand what had happened, and when I did, I attempted to tell the instructors at the martial arts school about it.  At the time, I was looking for support.  It had not occurred to me my experience pointed out a flaw in the attention of the instructors to the behavior of their young students.

In place of support, I received a backlash I couldn’t have imagined. ¬†I was told the abuse was my fault, because at 14 I didn’t report it. ¬†I was simultaneously told I had made the whole thing up. ¬†The head instructor went so far as to attempt to gaslight me about the age of the abusive older girl, as though a slightly smaller age gap changed the situation dramatically. ¬†Her mantra through the ordeal was “there’s my truth, your truth and ‘the’ truth” —¬†I have since heard other Narcissists rationalize their lying in very similar ways, as they are able to undermine the other person and appear humble all at once.

After disclosing my experience, I was isolated from everyone else at the school. ¬†The head instructor directed me not speak to anyone, and to take time off to prove my sanity. ¬†She demanded I go into therapy, requesting reports from my therapist, and expecting written work from myself on the topic of “what it means to be a survivor” to test the truth of my story. ¬†The reaction was so outrageous, violent, and downright abusive that I left the martial arts school. ¬†It was for the best, and hasn’t stopped me continuing to train elsewhere. ¬†As opposed to the compassion I felt for the older girl who abused me, I have nothing but disdain for the head instructor and her reaction to my disclosure. ¬†The damage done by the original abuse does not compare to the damage done by this head instructor.

More than five years after the incident, I had returned to my hometown and was having a conversation with friends at a local coffee shop. ¬†We were discussing broad topics like neurodiversity and I brought up the conversation with my therapist about the martial arts head instructor and the phrase Spiritual Narcissist. ¬†A week later, a very unstable sounding letter was sent to my mother’s house, harassing me for naming the actions of the school as abusive. ¬†Some of the most Dependent lackeys had eavesdropped on my conversation and reported back to their leader. ¬†I was absolutely stunned that half a decade later these people were still actively trying to stop me from speaking honestly about my experience and their behavior. ¬†That is what all abusers work for: silence. ¬†They can continue their abuse as long as it is not known about, and repress their knowledge of themselves as an abusive person as long as it goes unacknowledged. ¬†Maintaining a false belief (e.g. “we are a good group” “I am a good person”) while repressing the truth (e.g. knowledge of their one’s own abusive behavior) is psychologically exhausting, leaving all of the members of the group in an unstable and vulnerable state.

The Downward Spiral†

While the individual members of the group develop Narcissistic and Dependent personality traits, the larger mentality of the group about the group is largely Narcissistic. ¬†The “knowledge” that they are a good group doing good things, the excessive rationalizing of the beliefs they know to be unfounded, and repression of anything that contradicts said belief are the same traits possessed by individual Narcissists. ¬†A Narcissist believes they are great, even as they behave horrendously. ¬†The Narcissist believes that since they are a perfect person, all of their actions must be excusable. ¬†Similarly, a cult-minded group shares the belief that they are a good group, with good objectives, and that any means the group chooses must be similarly good. ¬†The group uses this logic to repress feelings of guilt and shame about actions that violate their individual ethics.

Possessing an intense and unrelenting belief in the inherent morality of their group, cult members will go to any lengths to rationalize the mentality and behavior of themselves and the leader. ¬†Just as a Narcissistic parent will blatantly throw a child into a stereotyped role such as “golden child” or “scapegoat”, the Narcissistic cult stereotypes their opponents. ¬†Scapegoated enemies allow the cult to bask in a sense of moral goodness and righteousness, feeling inflated pride in the mission of their group, just as an individual Narcissist will compare themselves to someone they perceive as “less” and take great glee in a sense of superiority.

While the Narcissistic leader buys into their own delusional invulnerability and perfection, the members see themselves as less than the leader, buying into the idea that they somehow need the leader to direct them. ¬†The excessive false love for the self or leader encourages odd and risky behavior to maintain this belief of invulnerability and perfection. ¬†Just as an individual Narcissist rationalizes and represses their bad behavior in favor of their facade of perfection, the collective discounts ideas that could lead to individual members reconsidering their commitment to the group. ¬†The Narcissistic leader aides this repression by rewriting history and facts, spinning a complex web of lies and distortions. ¬†The Dependent Personality Type followers are able to soothe their anxiety-driven need for attention and approval by following the Narcissistic leaders example, being praised by the Narcissist for supporting the Narcissist. ¬†Thus the Dependent followers encourage the Narcissistic leader’s perceived excellence and the Narcissistic leader encourages the Dependent follower’s need for attention.

In the case of the martial arts studio, the members believed so deeply in the larger goal of the organization and the enlightenment of the leader, they were unable to see actions of their leader for what they were.  Not wanting to integrate the knowledge that their school had failed in its mission to help victims and instead had a leader blatantly accusing victims of lying and deserving abuse, most turned a blind eye to the situation.  The cult-like mindset of this martial arts school had most of the members under the impression that simply by being under this instructor, they were receiving some kind of special teaching.  There was an unquestioned belief that the school was inherently moral and that the head instructor would lead them to further enlightenment and empowerment.  A sense that the leader could take them to greatness in a way that they could not teach themselves, because the leader was more than they were.

Prior to any of the aforementioned dramatics at this school, I was involved in a blatant episode of favoritism by the leader. ¬†She did not favor me, instead casting me as the scapegoat, and another young student as the golden child. ¬†She allowed this student to be promoted when she was not capable of performing the required tasks, sometimes skipping levels of promotion that no other students were allowed to skip. ¬†When I wrote a short letter to the head instructor and other primary instructors asking why this was happening, intense pressure was placed upon me to “let it go” and stop discussing it. ¬†I was labeled immature and jealous. ¬†Had I wanted to succeed at that school any longer, it was obvious I would have needed to censor my own thoughts when they deviated from the collective consensus to avoid being pigeonholed.

All of the behaviors and mentalities I have described above, while related to my own experience with a cult-like environment, are accurate for the more extreme “true” cults as well. ¬†One of the things that these more extreme “true” cults have going for them is complete isolation of their members, who are all living in a self-contained environment. ¬†While this martial arts school was not isolated in the same way, it was within an environment in Western Massachusetts that often caters these kinds of “Spiritual Narcissists” and in fact the head instructor was, for a time, celebrated for her work in the community. ¬†Environments that act as magnets for Narcissistic behavior tend to be small self-contained areas with a tendency towards extreme viewpoints.

To increase the feeling of exclusivity and specialness, cult-like groups often use their own terminology. ¬† At the martial arts school, the terminology they chose to use, when not garbled Japanese names for martial arts moves, was largely appropriated from the vocabulary of abuse survivors themselves. ¬†In fact, it was so well appropriated, everyone who walks through their door at first buys the group’s state of vicitmhood. ¬†The extremely dangerous part about this, is that survivors of abuse are vulnerable people and it can be easy for the Narcissistic leader to sell themselves as the good person they pretend to be.

In these Narcissistic cult-like groups, the leader and followers are in an eternal state of depending on and enabling one another. ¬†The Narcissist needs the followers to enforce their grandiose sense of self, and the Dependents needs their leader to fawn over and be directed by. ¬†From the outside looking in on these groups, it would seem as though the followers are the more dependent ones, but as the students in Mean Girls explain, Regina George would be nothing without her “army of skanks” and so wouldn’t every Narcissistic leader be nothing without their followers. ¬†It is large-scale co-dependence. ¬†

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I’ll of course be writing more about Narcissists, Personality Disorders, Complex PTSD, and cultures and places that cater to Personality Disorders. ¬†I may also return to this idea of Narcissistic Cults, and how beliefs and behaviors of Personality Disorders get translated into a group mentality.

I am always interested in hearing other’s stories about Narcissists — if you have had an experience with a crazy leader of a cult-like group (or cult-like family — much of what I have described in this post happens in dysfunctional familes too), please tell it in the comments! ¬†As I mentioned in this post, abusers thrive when their abuse is kept silent. ¬†Survivors of abuse should decide for themselves what they are comfortable sharing, but the more abuse is discussed out in the open, the less people like my Narcissistic martial arts instructor can get away with their actions.

*As stated on my¬†policies¬†page, I am not interested in using this blog as a platform to target anyone, therefore I have not used any people’s names. However, given the severity of the dysfunction at this particular school, I feel it is actually very important to name it. Others seeking a safe space to learn self-defense and find healing and empowerment deserve to know that this school is decidedly unsafe. ¬†

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.

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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.

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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.