you and i and she and he are beautiful


Earlier this year, I joined a "boot camp"-style workout program. If you're not familiar with the boot camp fitness model, the idea is that you're more likely to push yourself physically if you're with a group of people rather than working out on your own, and you're also more likely to stick with it. Why I signed up for something I would ordinarily hate is another story. For now, suffice it to say that I'm in better physical condition than I have been for most of my adult life. I'm down 20 pounds and up a fair bit of muscle tone. This is the first time in my life that I have a) enjoyed exercise, b) exercised regularly, and c) had enough muscle to see and feel. I love it. I mean LOVE it. I might be a little obsessed with my biceps, which are far from Linda Hamilton-esque, but *I* can feel those guns, and sometimes I find myself rubbing my arm, enjoying how healthy skin over healthy muscle feels. It's lovely.

In the middle of one of these moments of (healthy) narcissism, I suddenly realized: I don't remember my mother ever enjoying her body like this. I don't remember ever hearing her say positive things about her body. Not what it looked like, not what it could do, not how it felt. Nothing. That is not to say that she said negative things about it all the time, but in general, I had the idea that she didn't think she was pretty or shapely or strong. I don't remember her ever reveling in what her body could do. I don't recall any sense of physical prowess, of excitement at a physical feat. I also don't recall her engaging in beauty routines just for the sake of enjoying them. She only did her hair and makeup for the stage (she was an amateur actress in her younger days) or for social events that also had an air of performance - an important business meeting, a church gathering in which she had a public role. I don't remember her ever dressing up for my father or even just for fun. I certainly don't remember any indication that she sometimes felt sexy or pretty or kickass. A memory came back to me of the time in my teens when she refused to buy a black bra for me because black was "sultry and seductive." Funny thing is, all of her underwear was pale beige cotton. So not only was sexiness not for teens, but maybe it wasn't for adults, either. (Not to say that you can't wear beige cotton and feel sexy - but by her own definition and actions, I didn't get the impression that she ever felt that way.)

I know that she was proud of her weight in her early 20s - below 100 pounds - even though she also indicated that she was underweight and didn't eat well and had self-esteem problems at the time. She seemed wistful about her youthful slenderness, but also a little ashamed of it. She never considered herself to be pretty, and envied her younger sister's looks.  I thought my mom was beautiful when I was a little girl, but over time, after hearing her talk about how she was NOT the beautiful sister, she was the plain one whom boys never wanted, I think I learned that my ideas of beauty were wrong. She didn't like her skin. She didn't like her breasts. She didn't like her lips. She didn't like her hair. Eventually I didn't like them, either. I started to dread ever looking like her. This causes some problems for me now, on occasion, when I look in the mirror and see her staring back at me.

I don't remember her ever being fit. She disliked exercise and never engaged regularly in it. Exercise was a chore, one to be avoided. People who enjoyed exercise were weird. Physical prowess was something a person came by naturally, in which case being proud of themselves was vanity, or through fanaticism, in which case it was shallow, obsessive, and unhealthy (and still vain). If there is a physical activity that she enjoys, over thirty years of experience with her never revealed it to me.

Now, everybody doesn't have to be an athlete. And women don't all have to enjoy doing their hair and makeup or wearing frilly dresses. But I would hope that every healthy person would have a sense of enjoying living in their body and liking the way it looks and the ways it can be used, regardless of whether or not that body is "perfect" by societal standards. I suspect that my mother was (is? I don't really know her any more.) divorced from her body, in a way. There was no sense of liking any part of herself or wanting to take good care of her body for the sake of enjoying living in it even more.

I'm not sure what any of this really means within the context of her narcissistic personality disorder, or with regard to my experiences as an adult child of a narcissist. I do know that in the past decade, I have learned much about living in my body (which is, in many ways, very similar to the zen concept of living in the moment).

Two days after making these realizations, I saw an item linked by a friend, "I've Started Telling My Daughters I'm Beautiful." It strikes near my thoughts about my mother. Namely, if we want our children to feel beautiful for who and what they are, we need to let them know what we love about who and what we are.

I want my kids to be able to listen to their bodies and learn about them, and to eat and drink and work in ways that make their bodies feel really good to be alive. I want them to know about how thigh muscles can feel like springs when you run, and how nice it is to look in the mirror and love your eye color. I want them to know about dressing in ways that feel good on your skin, or look good to you in the mirror, or look good to other people not because sometimes looking good on the outside is not necessarily conformist, but can be a way of giving a gift to them through sharing what you like about the way your body looks and feels.

If I want them to be able to enjoy their bodies and the bodies of the women and/or men that they will someday love, I must show them how I can do that for myself. So I'm going to rest my hand on the curve of my bicep and tell my boys about how awesome that morning's workout felt and how I like the shape of my body and the things it can do.

Hopefully you can do this for yourself and your children, too.

arrested development

During my college years, I majored in psychology, with a special interest in child development. This is a common focus for women in their late teens, and I suspect it's even more common in women who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds (somebody want to do a study on this?). At the time, I was under the impression that my family of origin was normal and healthy, and that my mother had successfully risen above her dysfunctional family background to become an emotionally balanced and fair parent. I carried this misinterpretation of my childhood with me through my studies, scoffing at the section of a textbook that outlined the reasons why spanking is ineffective at best and harmful to the child at worst, and smugly deciding that my wonderful mother's parenting fit best in the "authoritative" column rather than under the "authoritarian" heading.

The thing is, at the same time as I was so sure that my family's way was the right way, I also carried with me a history of struggle with my mother. Her "all ways are my ways" Queen of Hearts demeanor, her quick temper, her inability to see things from my point of view and insistence that I see things from hers, her black and white sense of right and wrong. It was this background, nagging at me from the corners of my mind, that cried "Aha!" when I studied Piaget's concrete operational stage of psychosocial development, especially as its transition into formal operations applies to adolescents, and its relationship to Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development.

Adolescents still in the concrete operational stage of development think of themselves as unique; this is a phenomenon known as the "personal fable" and is responsible for what we think of as teens' selfish egocentrism. It's the reason a teen thinks that her zit is enormous and the focus of everybody's attention, the reason teens think nothing bad will happen to them if they take risks, the reason they believe their parents cannot possibly relate to their experiences. It's normal for a child, and not normal for an adult, who should have matured into higher reasoning abilities. During Kohlberg's conventional level of moral development, which would typically describe children from about age 9 to adolescence, a child's moral sense is other-focused. Morality equals doing what other people (teachers, parents) expect you to do and fulfilling obligations. So a young teen is simultaneously engrossed in themselves and has a sense of right and wrong that hinges upon following orders. They think in black and white, fundamentalist, rule-based ways.

The personal fable: parents just don't understand.

Theorists believe that most people do not proceed past this conformity-based or law-and-order-based level of moral reasoning and grow into post-conventional reasoning based on human rights or universal human ethics. When I learned about Kohlberg's model, I considered that my mother's development might have stopped at the conventional level. I also realized that her development had halted around the time that some very significant, traumatic events happened in her life.

My mother did not have the nicest of childhoods. I suspect that this is true of most narcissists. Granted, lots of people do not have fabulous childhoods, but some special cocktail of genetics and environment comes together to create the perfect mix to breed narcissism in some unfortunate individuals. In her case, her father was a narcissist who was emotionally demanding and abusive, and physically abusive, as well. Her parents had a large number of children, too; as a parent, I know just how each additional child divides your time, attention, and emotional energy further, in a way that seems to expand exponentially rather than linearly. Her family belonged to a religious faith that is rigidly controlling, emphasizes obedience, and discourages critical thinking. This combination of factors made for a backdrop that would not provide sufficient flexibility and emotional support for a normal adolescence, much less one as troubled as hers: her mother fell ill when my mother was in her early teens, and died several years later. Her father descended into alcoholism in his grief, and was either extremely neglectful or violent and demanding, with very little in between. My mother lived in fear of him both as a child/adolescent and as an adult. She craved his approval but virtually never got it. She wasn't really free from him until he died, and even that is questionable. As time went by, I would recognize that I felt similarly about her.

So I assumed that my mother's moral reasoning had somehow just gotten stuck at the age she was when her mother got sick and died. I didn't know how this would happen, just that it seemed to be true. But just recently, I have been studying frontal lobe development. More specifically, the development of the prefrontal lobe, that part of the brain responsible for emotional balance, attunement to others, bodily regulation (stress response), response flexibility, fear modulation, empathy, insight, moral awareness, and intuition. Most of these abilities don't come online until adolescence, and prefrontal lobe function isn't usually at its peak until the early 20s.

prefrontal lobe and limbic system, via The Dana Foundation

You can picture the front of your brain like a closed fist, with your thumb tucked under your fingers. The four fingers over the fist represent the prefrontal cortex - the outer layer of the very front of your brain that is responsible for rational thought, decision-making, your sense of ethics, and self-control. If you lift up your four fingers, your tucked-in thumb represents the location of parts of the limbic system, involved in emotion, aspects of motivation like reward and fear, and regulating heart rate, blood pressure, and attention. If you've ever heard somebody talking about the "lizard brain" or "reptile brain," this is it. Your limbic system is you, stripped of all your higher reasoning and judgment, stepped back through millions of years of evolution. In a healthy, calm adult, the prefrontal cortex can take motivations from the amygdala (part of the limbic system) and decide whether or not to act on them. In times of extreme stress, the prefrontal lobe may be overwhelmed and go "offline", leaving the person to act on the impulses from their limbic system. Now imagine what happens if the prefrontal lobe is underdeveloped - emotion can much more easily overwhelm it.

"a pretty handy model of the brain", via Daniel J. Siegel, MD, Mindsight

One way of thinking about overwhelming the prefrontal cortex, thinking about lifting up those four fingers, is that a person whose prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed has "flipped their lid", leaving the limbic system to do the driving. You've probably seen this in children; a temper tantrum or meltdown is a great example of an underdeveloped prefrontal lobe being very easily overwhelmed.

While reading Mindsight, it suddenly occurred to me: trauma causes change in brain chemistry and function. Could it be possible that an abusive upbringing and/or the death of a parent would impede the development of the prefrontal lobe? Is narcissistic personality disorder an effect of screwed-up frontal lobe development?

I haven't found research that specifically pertains to this, perhaps because it would require the identification and cooperation of folks with NPD. But here's a synopsis of what we know: 
"Children exposed to maltreatment, family violence, or loss of their caregivers often meet diagnostic criteria for depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, sleep disorders, communication disorders, separation anxiety disorder, and/or reactive attachment disorder."  - Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents
"In adolescence the brain goes through another period of accelerated development. The pruning of unused pathways increases, similar to early childhood. This process makes the brain more efficient, especially the part of the brain that supports attention, concentration, reasoning, and advanced thinking. Trauma during adolescence disrupts both the development of this part of the brain and the strengthening of the systems that allow this part of the brain to effectively communicate with other systems. This can lead to increased risk taking, impulsivity, substance abuse, and criminal activity (NCTSN, 2008; Chamberlin, 2009; Wilson, 2011; CWIG, 2009)." - How Trauma Affects Child Brain Development
"It is assumed that patients with NPD might have reduced affective neural component of empathy. Further evidences are needed to validate this hypothesis...there are various forms of empathy dysfunctions in psychopathology such as antisocial personality disorders, psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorders and autism, which seem to reflect selective impairment of one or several components of the neurocognitive architecture of empathy." - The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: implications for intervention across different clinical conditions
I suspect that the theory I started working on nearly twenty years ago - that my mother's emotional maturation was halted by the traumas of her early teens - is probably valid.

Now, here's the thing - it doesn't mean that it's ok for a person with impaired frontal lobe function to be a jackass to another person. What it does mean is that they are truly impaired, and as such, expecting normal, healthy behavior from them is unrealistic. We know this about narcissists. They are unlikely to recognize their impairment, and equally unlikely to seek therapy to change their thought patterns and behaviors. But they are not, as I so often see them described, evil.

I often remind myself that "nobody wants to be an asshole." If our narcissistic family members had had a choice, they would not have chosen to be who and what they are. They are not the devil incarnate. They are very, very broken people, more deserving of pity than hatred.

At the same time, understanding the sources of their dysfunction and feeling sympathy for the immature children in them does not mean that we are obligated to lay down and subject ourselves to bad treatment. We don't owe it to them to fix them or to stick around and suffer out of some disordered idea of family obligation.


If anything, this model of NPD encapsulates how I feel about my mother. It's a tragic situation. She deserves pity and love, but cannot get it because of the particular way she is broken. I would like to give it to her, but cannot because it would require putting myself in harm's way. I find it uncomfortable to sit with this version of "how the hell did Mom end up the way she is?" because it removes the comfort of saying "this person is just a jerk who deserves shunning." It invites the awkwardness of knowing how imperfect human relationships are, that these two hurting, motherless women cannot ever help each other. In the end, that is the true wound that I have to heal, and the true legacy of narcissism.

simple truths

lombardy love
If you wished to be loved, love.
 Lucius Annaeus Seneca

How does this apply to your world? I would say that it's great advice for most of us in our daily lives, and also great advice for the narcissists we know, even though they are probably incapable of  everfollowing it. It's a good reminder to us, though, that we do not have an obligation to love narcissistic parents or spouses. Our feelings for them reflect their feelings for and treatment of us.

Note that the statement does not indicate any guarantee of being loved back. It only indicates that loving a person is one basic (and, in my opinion, essential) part of what it takes for somebody to love you  back. It's a good parenting mantra, actually. Most of us who have children do wish for them to love us, but we need to remember that if we wish for their love and not just something based in fear that might sometimes look like love, we must act loving toward them.