Thursday, January 22, 2015

My parent's are the victims?

(Vaarsuvius as a Persian cat, it's Thursday!)

     My parent's believing themselves to be the victims of a hateful child (me) is something I am fairly accustomed to at this point. This in part stems from their being narcissists and abusers who cannot accept responsibility for any of their actions and therefore must shift the blame. But the other aspect that creates their perspective and from which they seem to find validation comes from elements of fundamentalist christian culture.
     There is this basic idea even if unconscious that children are inherently bad. They must be fixed, bent, molded and purified through a metaphorical fire. They need to submit in absolute obedience to their parents and God. This idea comes with other basic assumptions that children are easily spoiled if ever let to have their own way and that they will instinctively want to be willful, disobedient and disrespectful.
Fundamentalist parents look upon our culture with horror, not only because they see it as a culture of sin but because they see children who seem to have way too many freedoms, who have not been properly spanked and are spoiled rotten. Now to be fair there can be a struggle in our culture to not raise spoiled children. But to go on and assume that things that are naturally part of children learning, exploring and growing up to mean they are spoiled would be incorrect and informed by a more rigid belief system.
      Another basic belief that seems to exist in fundamentalist Christian culture is that you must honor thy Mother and Father no matter what, and no matter what they do. Family is everything! Following that is often the belief that you must turn the other cheek and forgiveness is required even though it is often the equivalent of shoving everything under the rug, no change of behavior necessary!

     So when it comes to parents (especially narcissist abusers) with fundamentalist christian beliefs everything is set up perfectly to validate them as the victims if their children ask them to accept any level of responsibility for their actions, draw boundaries or even disconnect from them completely. The scenario where the parent assumes they are the victim in such circumstances is not uncommon. In fact it is common enough to have made it's way around the internet and recently too. Elizabeth Vagnoni has been speaking out as a parent estranged from her children.
Here is a paragraph from her article:

The Rise Of Narcissism In The Young

Parents tell stories of ill-spoken words, of misunderstanding, of unhelpful interference from others. Much of what they describe, while conflict-laden and uncomfortable, doesn’t seem bad enough to have caused estrangement. The scenarios don’t appear to warrant a total cutoff. At least not according to the way I was raised. I hear that phrase a lot, too.

Most of the parents I talk to are boomers, who share similar values and beliefs, including thoughts on how parents should be treated. The similarities I’ve seen in stories about how they lost contact with their children created a new direction for my research — our culture. 

Why Some Grown Kids Cut Off Their Parents

     We can see the phrasing that echoes fundamentalist christian culture, and even our culture at large "The scenarios don't appear to warrant a total cutoff". Well no, of course they don't. Not when you believe that kids should honor their Mother and Father from birth and into adulthood no matter what the circumstances. Within that belief system there is never a reason to cut off your parents, and the children are responsible for forgiving whether or not their is a change of behavior in the parent. And forgiveness can equate to that parent still being a part of the kids life, perhaps without any health or safety inducing boundaries. Thank goodness for the small and wonderful miracles in the Christian community that are slowly working to change this idea ( Townsend and Cloud; Boundaries). Vagnoni asserting that other Boomers feel similarly is also a reflection of a more traditional belief system which would certainly have its roots in Christianity.    She has chosen her hypothesis for this mystifying experience among parents; our culture. In other words our secular culture. Here is her thoughts:

Specifically, I have directed my focus to the rise of narcissism among younger people. The topic is hot right now.

The book, The Narcissist Next Door, was released just last month by Jeffrey Kluger, science editor of Time magazine. Kluger writes: “Parents spend a lot of time ensuring their children have high self-esteem. You need a healthy ego to climb to the top of your profession. But when does self-regard become narcissism?”

Narcissism has been long been associated with the notion of entitlement, which typically suggests a lack of empathy, a feeling of superiority and a tendency to overreact to criticism. 

      I just want to say right out the gate that when one is looking for causation you would research, choose a focus variable, then create your hypothesis. If you were to prove your hypothesis correct you would still be unable to assert that your variable was the sole causation of a particular outcome. There are many reasons why children would choose to be estranged from their parents, and even if there is a percentage that were doing so because of an upbringing that caused them to be self involved, selfish and spoiled it is only going to be a percentage. It will be a variable not the rule.      She like others seems to have a view of children of our era being over indulged with high self esteem- too many trophy's won simply for participating. And also a belief that in the professional world these children are entitled and unwilling to work hard or work at all.  From personal experience there is a correlation in that perception and fundamentalist Christianity, Evangelical Christians and Conservative politics. The underlying belief  of the fore mentioned groups is that children have to be bent, that work has to be hard or they will never learn anything, work has to be hard or they will turn out spoiled, and work has to be hard because children are inherently willful and bad and must be broken from those things. Young professionals are expected to pay their dues and ofttimes because of the influence of Christianity on traditional culture they are still treated as children who are bad, who don't know a good thing when they have it, and paying your dues is that same rigid principle.

    Her quote of Kluger mentions that we need a healthy ego to succeed. But how exactly is that supposed to come about when kids are raised with such rigid beliefs? It seems Vagnoni wants to have her cake and eat it too, she thinks kids are raised with to high of self esteem but that they still need self esteem to succeed later in life. By what scale are we to go about measuring the correct amount of self esteem, and in kids how could their ever be such a thing as too much self esteem? She is not even really suggesting a balanced approach.  Her views which seem to be rooted in traditional child rearing philosophies completely counteract any possibility of achieving  a balance of self esteem because by their nature the philosophy assumes the kid is bad and requires restrictions not praise.

It is also important to note here that there is a difference between self regard and self esteem. Self regard can be ego created and get to a point of narcissistic thinking and behavior. Self esteem however is one of the necessary elements to healthy living (like Maslows triangle of needs). Further more to truly be a narcissist, one would be diagnosed by a mental health professional and it would be coded as NPD, which is a personality disorder. A disorder that goes beyond simply having an ego, being vain or lacking humility and is almost always accompanied by abusive tendencies and dare I say even sociopath tendencies.

Narcissism has been long been associated with the notion of entitlement, which typically suggests a lack of empathy, a feeling of superiority and a tendency to overreact to criticism. 

She is correct here that narcissism is associated with those elements. But specifically textbook narcissism (DSM) would encompass those things. We are not talking about your regular selfish individual here. Also her perspective of her children being narcissists is influenced by her perception of their lack of empathy because they chose to draw firm and even permanent boundaries with her. From experience when you draw such boundaries with a parent and consider estrangement, there is no lack of depth in feeling. That is a pretty good indication that there is not a lack of empathy either. And the person who cries foul at the drawing of boundaries, minimal or extensive shows a lack of understanding healthy relationship dynamics or willingness to engage in them (see Townsend & Cloud).

 I certainly didn't leave my parent relationships with a sense of superiority, in fact I left with minimal self esteem in tact. Lashing out and citing superiority as a reason for a loved ones estrangement is an indicator regarding the ego of the person lashing out than the one who left. Saying there is tendency to overreact to criticism is the favorite battle cry of an actual narcissistic abuser. They will say that you are sensitive, that you overreact to everything, and that you can't handle criticism. In other words you are emotionally unbalanced and crazy.  
Is it really that children of today can't handle criticism or that they are properly reacting to a dysfunctional belief system? Since most children tend to seek their parents approval and love even when abused (I did) it seems unlikely that they would cut off a parent because of perceived criticism. It is far more likely that the criticism was constant, demeaning and they finally had to call it quits with the parent.

     Vagnoni's perception of the boundaries given to her by her children is actually closer to that of a narcissist. Her to reaction to what her children expressed would make the narcissism hers and not theirs. In fact narcissists won't draw boundaries, they don't like to let go. The fact that her children were willing to draw boundaries really seems to negate the idea they are NPD.  If she wants to continue on with the idea that they are spoiled that is fine. Maybe they did walk away because they were selfish and spoiled, but at this point that still would not truly be narcissism, that is just being selfish and spoiled. However without any specific evidence of them being spoiled or walking away because she would not give them what they wanted I would be hard pressed to say that it was the actual reason. However Vagnoni feeling she is the victim and throwing a perceivable "temper tantrum" is someone being upset because they did not get what they wanted from others.

     Where is her personal responsibility in all of this? Saying she raised spoiled narcissist children is not taking responsibility for her behaviors in the relationship. She is laying the burden of guilt at her children's door. Like Vaarsuvius she too can't seem to find "what went wrong" and is similarly mystified by the strong boundaries set down. So it must be this other crazy thing "Narcissist children" because they have done nothing wrong! Narcissists are usually mystified by such boundaries because of their general inability to be self reflexive in their thinking and be responsible for their behaviors. Her children do not seem to be suffering from a similar mystification of what went wrong.

In previous generations, no one worried about a child’s self-esteem. In the past, elders’ experiences were valued and their children listened to them. Estrangement did happen, but it appeared to be reserved for parents cutting off a wayward child — the “black sheep” of the family.

Yes there it is, that lovely hypocritical idea that parents can do no wrong, and you must listen to your elders or you are unwise and willful. Also that cutting ties are a right reserved for parents of a complete black sheep. That child that just would not bend and is of a bad character at their core.
She goes on to assert that all these problems with children of today stem from baby boomers wanting their kids to have better lives than they did and it produced a culture overly focused on children's self esteem.

I believe that a culture of “self-esteem” — give everybody an award, change dress sizes so larger people feel smaller, allow teens to be disrespectful to those in authority — has set the tone and created a possible outcome I don’t think anyone expected: the idea that it’s OK to cut off contact with your parents.

When something, or more specifically, someone, no longer supports the view you have of yourself — get rid of them!

Oh the tragedy! How could these baby boomers have known that building children's self esteem would have resulted in them growing up and separating from parents as they developed a sense of self! Wait... that is what is supposed to happen, and how is a teen developing a sense of self, going through normal stages of development and rebellion make them more disrespectful than normal? And  what does she mean that this created an outcome where it is okay for kids to to cut off parents? Kids leave the nest, they are not supposed to be jointed at the hip with their parents forever, nor are parents supposed to remain a supreme authority in their lives. Libby Anne wrote a great post on the struggles that come with adulthood after growing up in a home where your will was supposed to bent to that of your parents.  It seems she is confusing her personal experience in which she found herself estranged from her children and normal healthy parent child relationships. Again we see that assumption that is never okay to cut your parents off.  I don't believe that our culture has not developed kids that think it is okay to cut off their parents, it has developed kids that realize those traditional ideas are not healthy for them or the relationships with their parents.

      Saying that children ditch parents when they don't support the view they have of themselves is an over simplification of what is more likely complicated relationship dynamics that resulted in estrangement. In a sense it is true, for instance in my case I ditched my parents because they did not support my view of a relationship of mutual responsibility and my view that they needed to be accountable for their abusive behaviors. I have also ditched family members that did not support my account of being subjected to sexual abuse and other abusive behaviors. I also ditched my parents because the view I had of myself that was I was worthy of love and did not deserve to be demeaned and belittled or abused anymore. However I was told that I could not possibly see myself without bias, I did not see how I really was, how I behaved, and that I did not see what I was actually doing to my family by holding those beliefs. If  you have a healthy understanding of relationships and boundaries, cutting people out of your life who do not support you and are not in alignment with who you are is normal. Yes there are cases when self involved people don't want to hear anything bad about themselves and will reject everyone who does not flatter them. However trying to say that this is a primary occurrence in our culture and because of the way children are raised is not the whole truth or even an accurate truth. And isn't that ironically what Vagnoni is doing? Rejecting what her children have tried to communicate to her because it isn't flattering or fit the image she has of herself?

This is how Vagnoni ends her article:

Relationships might feel better when there is no contact. But, as Dr. Murray Bowen, credited with the most original new thinking about family systems since Freud and who coined the phrase “emotional cutoff” observed, the problems are just tucked away through estrangement, they are not resolved.

The only way to move forward is to get to resolution. To talk. To find common ground. To forgive.

From personal experience relationships with parents who are not responsible for their actions or respectful of boundaries do tend to feel better with no contact. The problems of the relationship are not tucked away after estrangement or left unresolved. I know this because I have continually been working through the devastation left in the wake of the relationship with my parents, and I know I can do this without them. I don't need to engage with them to resolve the hurt they have caused.
 I have learned the hard way that trying to talk, find common ground, and resolutions with a parent such as Vagnoni is not possible. They do not take responsibility for their behaviors; which is a prerequisite for engaging in a healthy relationship or seeking to repair a broken one. In my case all the blame ended up in my court, even with attempts at counseling. And forgiveness, that is not a parental right, just like respect and honor are not inherent parental rights. You have to earn it.
 Finally forgiveness is not about the other person or parent, forgiveness when you are good and ready is about you letting go and being free or any of the baggage created in a dysfunctional relationship. Parental participation not required!

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