"So yes, not everyone is narcissistic. But if the person is… it’s very, very relevant"
He’s Our Father
Thank you for your feature on living with difficult people.
I grew up with an abusive father. Physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, religious abuse — it was all there. Years later, I and every one of my siblings bear serious scars.
Yet we all maintain ties with our father.
Some of us are able to be in constant contact — one sister even speaks with him daily. Others can only handle less frequent contact. But we’re all respectful and amiable, even when he isn’t able to respond in kind.
In fact, it never even dawned on us to cut our ties. He’s our father. He brought us into This World. We have a chiyuv of kibbud av v’eim and must be grateful for the things he did do for us. Beyond that, what kind of people would we be if we cut a parent out of our lives?
This all seemed self-evident and basic to me. Until I heard others speaking about their difficult parents. Over the years, one, then two, and then more of my acquaintances withdrew from their relationships with a parent. No calls, no visits, not even an occasional email.
As someone who knows only too well what it’s like to be badly hurt by the person who is meant to love and protect you, I’m the last one to pass judgment. I realize that sometimes one needs to pull away in order to protect their mental health, their shalom bayis, their stability, and equanimity.
I know that.
And yet, deep inside, I wonder. While cutting oneself off is definitely the easier route, how often is it truly the right one? And even if that’s the route that must be taken for a period of time, must it last forever?
Reading about the heroines in your feature who have risen above their instincts and chosen to stay connected with the deeply flawed people in their lives was validating, and gave me a great deal of chizuk.
To close: Hashem loves us no matter how far we’ve strayed or how badly we’ve behaved. If we can accept and learn to live with the broken people in our own lives, it’s another way we can emulate Him and come closer to Him.
Cut Off by My Mother
A daughter in her fifth decade of mourning for her living mother
Your article regarding dealing with difficult family members was beautifully presented. However, like all frum literature on this topic, the piece ignored a category: It focused upon children who may or may not choose to create boundaries or cut off contact with difficult parents, and overlooked the many cases of parents who cut off contact with children, as my mother did to me.
This has been her pattern my entire life: She demands, yells, threatens, and then cuts off contact with anyone who displeases her. Like many of the women in your article, I’ve employed numerous techniques to maintain a relationship with her and simultaneously stay sane even though being in her presence is like walking on a minefield; one never knows which moment will bring an explosion.
I asked Sarah Rivkah Kohn of the beautiful LINKS organization, which supports people who have lost a parent, if there is any support for those like me, dealing with the disenfranchised grief of being cut off by living parents (my father, like everyone else, is terrified of my mother, and goes along with all of her whims), and she responded that she is unaware of any such support.
It would have been validating to see a few sentences addressing those like myself, who have bent over backward for decades for the appearance of shalom, to see their story mentioned. Being my mother’s daughter is like delivering mail to the Taliban: I can keep my job and get my paycheck for many decades, but the moment I make an error, I am banished from the kingdom and beheaded.
This is a mother who raged against me every Friday night after she lit candles and demanded a kiss. “THAT’S NOT HOW YOU KISS A MOTHER! HOW DARE YOU, IS IT BECAUSE I’M FAT THAT YOU WON’T GIVE ME A PROPER KISS?” while I stood helplessly quaking in fear and confusion, trapped as a victim of her wrath, wishing Korach’s hole would open beneath me to save me from her grotesque tirades.
This is a mother who punished me for a full year when she vetoed my clothing choices while shopping with me, and I lost my ever-present vigilance and blurted out, “You just don’t want me to get anything.”
This is a mother who greeted me some Fridays when I came home from school with, “You disgust me, I don’t want to see you, go find a friend to go to for Shabbos.”
After many decades of attempting all of the techniques in your article; hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy, so that I don’t repeat her mistakes; and twisting myself into a pretzel that would win awards for its dazzling complexity, my mother cut me off. Of course, if you speak to her, she’ll lie and say that I’ve cut her off, as her grasp on reality has always been tenuous.
I understand that there is no organization that can help young children of mentally ill mothers, as mental illness is so easy to hide from everyone who doesn’t live in the dysfunctional home and witness all the tirades and threats. I understand that I’ll never have a mother’s love; there is nobody who is willing to adopt and unconditionally love a woman in her forties. I understand it’s my nisayon to continuously spend vast amounts of time and money working to overcome the abuse and destructive relationship skills I was raised with. My neuropathways resemble those of someone raised in wartime, as living with my mother was the equivalent of living with an enemy who may explode and rage against me at any moment. I must invest a tremendous amount of time and money to do normal things that everyone else does naturally, like respond calmly to my family and put away laundry, since those skills were never modeled for me in my youth.
It’s a lonely existence, and a paragraph acknowledging that sometimes it’s the parents who cut off contact with their adult children would have been a very welcome hug to people like me who have been ignored by all the wonderful organizations and articles in our community.
An Extremely Relevant Diagnosis
Anonymous to protect my mother or to protect me from my mother
Your article on narcissism was a painful read.
Let me begin with the title: “Your Mother-In-Law Isn’t a Narcissist.” This is true. Not all energetic kids have ADHD, and not all challenging mothers-in-law have narcissism. There is a lot of armchair diagnostics, which can be terribly harmful.
But the subtitle was “And why it may be irrelevant even if she is,” and that’s where it got painful.
If we are to believe what the title implies — that not every second person is a narcissist — then please believe it’s a serious diagnosis that will be extremely relevant when it indeed exists.
Part of the difficulty in diagnosing narcissism is that it is rare that a true narcissist shows up in the therapy room. I have no doubt that you’ll receive letters from people who will say a therapist diagnosed them with narcissism without having ever met them. That’s because most people with narcissism will not be willing nor be safe to have in that therapy room.
Narcissists count on the fact that most people will hear about their misdeeds and downplay them. “So she didn’t call you? Big deal.” “So she plants doubts about your spouse? Why do you believe her?”
A big portion of what makes a relationship with a narcissist miserable is that it’s not any one thing. It’s hundreds and thousands of little things that add up to this feeling: I am inadequate. I am not good enough. I do not deserve love. I am nothing — only she/he is worthy. The narcissist does this so seamlessly that it looks almost well-intentioned.
For me, I grew up with a tefillah that automatically followed my daily Modeh Ani:
“Hashem, please help that today my mother shouldn’t be upset with me.”
“Upset” meant something different every time. Ninety-eight percent of the time I had no idea what I did wrong, especially since the speeches and anger would usually come weeks after the supposed incident, which I no longer remembered, leaving me with no choice but to admit that I must be wrong.
When she showed up to school, my mother would always present well. Caring, compassionate, and worried. She would compliment me in a very calculated way, saying things like, “Oh, this daughter is amazing, she’s always on board with anything I ask…” and then later, if I stepped out of line, I’d get the infamous “And just today I was praising you about listening.…”
My mother spent so much time trying to get me to admit to things that I didn’t do. I spent much of my teen years perfecting my lying to the point where I sometimes forgot what the truth was, only giving the answers I thought she wanted to hear.
When I got married, she’d call me at 10 p.m. and say “Why aren’t you sleeping yet? Don’t call me if you get sick, you’re doing this to yourself.” So I’d say “I’m in bed” when I was in the kitchen. My husband couldn’t stand it and would try to stop my act. I would hang up in tears, pleading with him to understand that I had to do this or else… He didn’t really get it, and lots of hurt ensued.
One night at 11 p.m., my husband wanted to go for a walk in the snow. I refused. When he probed, I explained, “I can’t risk my mother seeing me and knowing I was up past 10 p.m.”
Another night my mother called me to say she was parked outside my home and had something for me. When I went out, she launched into a critique of something I’d allegedly said two weeks ago, which to her sounded like I was comparing her negatively to my mother-in-law. I had no recollection of the incident to even use to argue, and my silence once again was taken for agreement, and so I sat in the car for 25 minutes listening to her mussar until my husband came to rescue me.
I’ll never forget going to her home for the Shabbos after I’d given birth to my oldest. I was in agony and tired, and my baby had finally fallen asleep. I walked to the kitchen to get a cup of water and she was ready with a peeler and potatoes. “You were fine enough to sit and schmooze with your husband — you are fine enough to peel and schmooze with me.”
Visiting for Shabbos got harder and harder. My husband and I finally shared every last detail with our rav, who heard all this and said, “ Don’t cut her out, but do cut down. Go for Yamim Tovim and a few Shabbosim a year.”
But what happened is that when we did come, she’d hug me and tell me that kibbud eim means that I need to know how unfair it is that we barely come anymore.
At first, I said things like “Hmmm, maybe.” Finally, I figured I’d try to be open and said, “It’s really challenging for me to come and be criticized the whole time. If you want me to come more often, can you try to make it conflict free when I’m here?”
There was cold silence for the rest of Shabbos. Two weeks later, she called. “Who’s influencing you to talk this way when you never did before? Who’s telling you to cut me out?” Her lack of insight into how her own behaviors might be influencing this was so hard.
A few weeks later I read the book Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and found myself nodding along. I entered therapy not long after. That’s when I learned there was a word for all this: narcissism.
Boundaries like shorter or fewer visits backfired badly. She wanted all or nothing.
As an educator, I’ve seen a trend where people claim narcissism is an “overblown” term, and when people finally speak up (often after moving out and gaining clarity with distance), they are shut down and their spouses/rav/therapist blamed.
Some with narcissistic tendencies are very vocal about how “my kids were influenced to cut me off,” and I often wonder if that’s really what happened. It is not natural for a child to want to cut off from a parent. Most of us who have suffered still push ourselves to stay in touch with our parents because of this very fact. So when someone actually does… it behooves us to pause and wonder if there was some situation there that caused this.
Perhaps the child finally got enough clarity to realize they didn’t have to tolerate all of this anymore. As they gain insight, the narcissist loses power, which actually sometimes makes them easier to deal with, except that the narcissist then often goes into a crazy frenzy to “gain the child back,” which really should be translated to “gain my power back.” And when that doesn’t happen, their pain is extraordinary and causes them to do so many counterproductive things, instead of taking stock and admitting their role in the situation.
So yes, not everyone is narcissistic. But if the person is… it’s very, very relevant.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 777)
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