Ask the Therapist – April 2021
Ask the Therapist is an education and advice column only. It is not counseling nor a substitute for psychotherapy.
Every couple of months I answer a question from a member of my mailing list on my advice column. Please join my email list & send me your question!
To join my list – and get an in depth free self help resource – go to the bottom of this page, type in your email address and download my Ebook – Stop the Struggle: 5 Steps to Breaking Free from Chronic Emotional Pain & The Dreaded Inner Critic.
With the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) abusive experiences I’ve had, especially with the scapegoating and lack of parenting I received from my family of origin, I constantly feel I am like a fragile, severely chipped and cracked china cup being held, in tremendously unsteady, shaky hands. The cup is always near the tipping point, never balanced, unsettled and all over the place. It often feels like my cup could fall to the floor and shatter or break at any moment.
Here’s my Abusive Family Dynamic in a nut shell:
Mother was the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She left our family when I was 4 and my little brother was one. She just took off. Dad came home from work and we were alone. As a result, I was placed in the full custody of my misogynistic, addict father who, though he tried his best, neglected us, (not home a lot, alcohol, drugs etc. ), so we had to fend for ourselves. Dad at least stuck around but he was not capable of providing for our immense emotional needs, as I know his own were not met. That was in the 1970’s, so a rare thing being fully awarded custody to the father. Courts declared my birth mother unfit, however, my dad did not sign up for being a single dad. He checked out. I saw my birth mother every 2nd Christmas and once a month every summer after that.
Growing up, my little brother was favoured and was the golden child, but he has since fallen from that role with dire consequences: Drugs, jail, homeless on the streets etc. He’s a father who abandoned his own 3 kids from different mothers, and is currently in a halfway house.
As the older sister I was parentified since the age of four, and was scapegoated, blamed for most things that went wrong, including being sexually abused by my birth mother’s second husband, at the age of 13 and again at 17. It was all my fault according to my birth mother, however.
I finally stopped putting up with my mother’s poison seven years ago. Complete and utter detachment / divorce there. I was forced to go no contact to protect myself and my own daughter from further attack, manipulation and toxic behaviour by her. No more, “You are not doing what I want you to so you should be ashamed of yourself” stuff. I’m still being penalized by her for no longer playing her games, (for I no longer play), but I’ve also physically left the province she lives in so that distance helps too, along with blocking all phone calls and emails. She has lost the privilege of having any right to my life and I realize now she never earned her parental role in the first place. My own brother too, I’ve had to let him go in a similar fashion now.
The fragility I refer to – my ‘cup’ always near the tipping point – can best be described as a huge lack of confidence with feelings of intense vulnerability, unworthiness and shame. I am also riddled with overwhelming feelings of guilt and anxiety over who I am and my behaviours. I worry about how I appear to others, so I won’t be rejected, (but despite that, often am anyway!) I fret about whether what I do and say is good enough, proper and inoffensive, or am I going to be seen as terrible and awful? I feel a need to constantly look over my shoulder and walk on eggshells.
As a result, the difficulties I’ve experienced with the latter cause me to agonize over my behaviours and actions so deeply that I feel emotionally rattled to the core. I hyper-vigilantly over analyze things. This is very stressful. It seems to leave me standing on a weak foundation from which I find it hard to maneuver and face life, because that foundation seems to crumble frequently.
I had a counsellor in the past once tell me that I will always feel that way because of my experiences, so to simply accept that is how it is and be ok with it. That I will always remain in this turbulent, unbalanced state…with a constant sense of uneasiness about myself, who I am and my life choices.
I left that counsellor not long after her comment. What she said never really did sit well with me, but I did wonder, as this person was supposed to be “the expert”. Perhaps it was meant for me to simply accept being or having a “tippy cup”? It hurt hearing that though. I took it to mean that I would be damaged goods for the rest of my life. That being a “tippy cup” is simply going to be “my normal” and I need to live with that and move on. It was very demoralizing though. Almost like an excuse to possibly have me stay in that “tippy” place so I’d perhaps need therapy for the rest of my life?
So my question to you is…do you believe this true in general? Would you agree in part with this counsellor? In your opinion, will those of us with “tippy cups” always feel “tippy”?
Thanks so much for your questions. You’ve clearly been through a very difficult time with your family, and I am struck by the depths of the attachment trauma 1. you’ve experienced, all by the tender age of 4! To be abandoned by one’s mother – even a narcissistic one – is a terrible blow to the attachment needs of a young, developing child. All children require a foundation of support, security and safety from their parents, as they begin to explore the outside world at this young age. It appears that you had little to none from either parent. Even if you have no conscious memories of your emotions at the time, this was likely very frightening for you, and probably very disorienting as well, given the infrequency of your mother’s visits.
It also seems that you went from the frying pan into the fire, with custody being granted to your addicted, sexist and generally emotionally and physically negligent and unreliable father. You display real insight regarding your father’s history that may have prevented him from being the father you needed. But the point is that he was an adult who decided to bring children into the world, and the responsibility that he avoided by not dealing constructively with his problems is inexcusable where the well being of young children is concerned. In essence you were abandoned by both parents, your mother literally, and your father, in plain sight.
I’m very sorry to hear that your brother followed in your father’s footsteps. A lot of people think the Golden Child has it easy but, the truth is that they are in a constant state of stress trying to maintain highly conditional parental approval. Golden kids also seem to be more vulnerable to developing narcissistic traits, which is a high price to pay for favoritism. They also witness and learn that bullying is normal and acceptable in families, leading to impaired relational skills and boundaries, and lack of healthy sibling bonding. At any rate, it sounds like your brother ultimately coped with life’s difficulties the same way he saw your father behave – by disappearing into the avoidant, fantasy world of addictive behavior, and abandoning his responsibilities. Very sad indeed for him and the young family he ended up deserting for a life of chaos.
What a terrible blow to your young, developing self, to be forced into a ‘Parentified’ 2. role when you weren’t much more than a baby yourself. This likely contributed to your heightened sense of conscientiousness, but at the cost of your unmet emotional and physical needs, all the while being expected to fulfill a role that was never yours, and clearly way over your head.
Your mother’s behavior throughout your childhood sounds reprehensible. Instead of facing up to her responsibilities as a guardian, and protecting you from her predator husband, she scapegoated you in order to avoid facing the consequences of his exploitive behavior, and the unhealthy boundary dynamics between them reflected in this abuse. It sounds like the only thing your mother may have excelled at is betrayal. Most people who have a full blown NPD parent and experience family scapegoating have an injury to their sense of self worth, identity and value as a human being. This is known as Complex Trauma, whereby ongoing relationship trauma and the inability to escape, can lead to psychological fragility and distress – reminiscent of PTSD – that carries on into adulthood. I’ll address Complex Trauma further below.
Good for you for having the moral courage to put your foot down with your mother. It seems that you have had more than enough of her abusive behavior, and are doing the one most essential thing she failed to do for you – protect yourself, and your own child. It sounds like she is furious that you will no longer allow her bully and control you. If she is full blown NPD however, she will likely falsely see herself as your ‘victim’ due to grandiosity and entitlement ie cognitive distortions. I hope the ‘geographic cure’ has been helpful for you. At the same time, I acknowledge that you have lost the family you never had, including your sibling, which can cause intense grief as well as relief.
These feelings of emotional “fragility” you mention are very common amongst abuse survivors, especially people who were mistreated in childhood by one or both parents. As mentioned above, it sounds a lot like Complex Trauma. Complex PTSD is a psychological disorder triggered by prolonged, repeated interpersonal trauma with little or no chance of escape, such as childhood domestic abuse, living in a war zone, or human trafficking. Features can include PTSD symptoms plus false shame, negative self worth, poor self identity, interpersonal boundary problems and bonding with abusive or unavailable partners or friends. This further negatively impacts self confidence, healthy relationship choices and achieving one’s potential. Therapy for Complex Trauma is rooted in overcoming attachment trauma, developing a reality based sense of self worth – what I call reclaiming your true narrative, and processing challenging emotions, such as grieving the family you never had and never will have. 3.
I have to say that your abuse experiences at the hands of your family are, unfortunately, not uncommon though, I believe, tend to be highly under-acknowledged, as societies everywhere are inclined to disbelieve that systemic familial abuse exists. This is an incredible disservice to survivors, and this kind of invalidation and victim shaming – aka ‘secondary wounding’ can contribute to ongoing emotional distress, on top of any pre-existing abuse trauma symptoms.
That being said, I don’t agree with the counselor you saw who suggested that you’d be troubled for life, and just needed to accept that. I think that’s a problematic and uneducated message to send to any survivor, and shows lack of knowledge and familiarity on the part of the therapist regarding recovery from complex trauma. Effective therapy for Complex PTSD does exist, and can be quite beneficial. It involves challenging toxic beliefs about the self, reality testing regarding false self blame and shame, healthy grieving, and managing triggers that can produce ‘Emotional Flashbacks’. 4.
Over time, with support, validation and repeatedly standing up to internalized victim blaming beliefs and triggers, survivors can create new, reality based narratives regarding their identity, worth, talents and relationships, and come to lead much more satisfying lives. However, this is not an all or nothing equation. Psychological injuries in childhood can cause serious developmental and attachment wounds. Childhood narcissistic abuse does leave scars that can linger.
So although I believe – because I have seen it in my work as a trauma therapist – that people can feel a lot better, it will likely never be 100%. There may always be some residual emotional and relationship vulnerabilities that have to be navigated. It depends on many factors: the extent and duration of the abuse, the presence or absence of a supportive adult or other allies, the emotional constitution of the survivor, and their socio-economic status. However, the operative words here are ‘you can feel a lot better’. It is up to each trauma survivor to decide what feels ‘good enough’, and to commit to the ongoing work of building the life they want and deserve.
Hope this is helpful in addressing your concerns. Wishing you all the best on your healing journey.
Photo by Cottonbro from Pexels
Notes / References
- Attachment Trauma – Attachment trauma is a form of early childhood relational trauma. It occurs when there is either a disruption or an absence of a healthy bond formation between a baby or child and his or her primary caregiver, usually a parent. Healthy attachment takes place when the parent or caregiver offers attention, comfort, affection, and basic survival needs on a consistent basis. Poor attachment, inappropriate responses to a baby’s distress, lack of affection, abusive or negligent behaviors, and the absence of the caregiver can all cause a traumatic experience for the child. Trauma associated with this first primary bond disruption can result in a multitude of difficulties for children who carry these scars into adulthood, ranging from low self worth, poor social development, relationship problems to serious psychological distress, such as complex trauma. Psychobiology of Attachment and Trauma—Some General Remarks From a Clinical Perspective, Frontiers in Psychiatry, December 12, 2019
- Parentified Child – “Parentification is the process of role reversal whereby a child is obliged to act as parent to their own parent or sibling. In extreme cases, the child is used to fill the void of the alienating parent’s emotional life…” Wikipedia, Parentification, 2021
- See also Pete Walker’s book ‘Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving’, Azure Coyote Books, 2013, for an excellent analysis and recovery strategies for survivors.
- Emotional Flashbacks – “Emotional flashbacks are a complex mixture of intense and confusing reliving of past trauma from childhood. It is like living a nightmare while you are awake, with overwhelming sorrow, fear, toxic shame, and a sense of inadequacy…” CPTSD Foundation, July 2019
Need help overcoming family scapegoating or dealing with Narcissistic behavior in family relationships? Check out my Family Scapegoat Counseling page
Counseling is available by Video in select countries around the world.
Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor, specializes in recovery from Family Scapegoating, Narcissistic Abuse, Low Self Esteem, Chronic Anxiety, Estrangement Grief and Relationship Addiction.
Overcome Chronic Stress, Sadness or Relationship Problems
Join My Email List & Download Your Free EBook:
Stop the Struggle: 5 Steps to Breaking Free from Chronic Emotional Pain & The Dreaded Inner Critic
– Revised Edition
Your email address will never be shared and you can unsubscribe at any time.