Mark your calendars and wear purple for Spirit Day, October 17th, 2013! #SpiritDay
If you’re having an, “oh great, one more thing to worry about” response to the unfamiliar word “Co-Narcissism,” you’re not alone. I am not a proponent of inventing and loosely wielding new psychological problems, diagnoses, and concerns for people seeking help and understanding through their interpersonal conflicts, low self-esteem, and a myriad of other problems that we experience in relationship with others. At times, I believe that labeling, classifying, and over-extending our language around mental well-being can create an overwhelming sense of helplessness. However, after reading “Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissist Parents,” by Alan Rappoport, Ph.D. I felt eager to share this article because it has the potential to provide clarity, compassion, and peace of mind for those struggling to understand his or her complex relationships with parents, partners, children, and other significant others.
Whether you are a therapy participant, a therapist, or simply curious about relationships, I can say with near certainty that this topic will resonate with you. I hope this new term can be added to our vernacular of interpersonal dynamics and provide insight to those who are looking for healthy ways of connecting by examining existing, learned patterns of relating to the world. As you read, remember that there is no one interpretation through which you can see yourself or your loved ones. I will also add, in an effort to quell the mounting anxiety of those who fear that being termed “Co-Narcissistic” is a negative attribute, it is not. It is one of many lenses through which you may find answers to your questions as you reflect on your upbringing, behavior, depression, anxiety, and relationship patterns. In the words of Alan Rappoport, Ph.D.:
“This article introduces the term “co- narcissism” to refer to the way that people accommodate to narcissistic parents. I use the term narcissism here to refer to people with very low self-esteem who attempt to control others’ views of them for defensive purposes. They are interpersonally rigid, easily offended, self -absorbed, blaming, and find it difficult to empathize with others. Co- narcissistic people, as a result of their attempts to get along with their narcissistic parents, work hard to please others, defer to other’s opinions, worry about how others think and feel about them, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know their own views and experience, and take the blame for interpersonal problems. They fear being considered selfish if they act assertively.
If any of this sounds familiar, strap in for a fascinating read.
Reprinted with gratitude and the permission of Alan Rappoport, Ph.D. A PDF version of this article can be found among his publications on his website. If you would prefer to hear a reading of this article, Paul Gilmartin of The Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast (http://mentalpod.com/) shares it with his listeners here.
Co-Narcissism: How We Accommodate to Narcissistic
Alan Rappoport, Ph.D.
This article introduces the term “co- narcissism” to refer to the way that people accommodate to narcissistic parents. I use the term narcissism here to refer to people with very low self-esteem who attempt to control others’ views of them for defensive purposes. They are interpersonally rigid, easily offended, self -absorbed, blaming, and find it difficult to empathize with others. Co- narcissistic people, as a result of their attempts to get along with their narcissistic parents, work hard to please others, defer to other’s opinions, worry about how others think and feel about them, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know their own views and experience, and take the blame for interpersonal problems. They fear being considered selfish if they act assertively. A high proportion of psychotherapy patients are co-narcissistic. The article discusses the co-narcissistic syndrome and its treatment, and gives case examples of patients who suffer from this problem.
Narcissism, a psychological state rooted in extremely low self-esteem, is a common syndrome among the parents of psychotherapy patients. Narcissistic people are very fearful of not being well regarded by others, and they therefore attempt to control others’ behavior and viewpoints in order to protect their self-esteem. The underlying dynamic of narcissism is a deep, usually unconscious, sense of oneself as dangerously inadequate and vulnerable to blame and rejection. The common use of the term refers to some of the ways people defend themselves against this narcissistic dynamic: a concern with one’s own physical and social image, a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts and feelings, and a sense of grandiosity. There are, however, many other behaviors that can stem from narcissistic concerns, such as immersion in one’s own affairs to the exclusion of others, an inability to empathize with other’s experience, interpersonal rigidity, an insistence that one’s opinions and values are “right,” and a tendency to be easily offended and take things personally.
A high proportion of people in psychotherapy have adapted to life with narcissistic people and, as a result, have not been able to develop healthy means of self- expression and self-directedness. I have coined the term “co-narcissism” for this adaptation, which has the same relation to narcissism as “co-alcoholic” has to alcoholism and “co-dependent” has to dependency. Co-alcoholics unconsciously collaborate with alcoholics, making excuses for them and not confronting them about their problem in an assertive way. The same is true of the co-dependent person, who makes excuses for the other’s dependency and fills in for him or her as necessary. The wife of an abusive husband who takes the blame for her partner’s behavior is another example of taking responsibility for someone else’s problems. Both narcissism and co-narcissism are adaptations that children have made to cope with narcissistic parenting figures. To the best of my knowledge, every narcissistic and co- narcissistic person that I have encountered has had narcissistic parents, and the parents of their parents are reported to have been even more highly narcissistic.
To the extent that parents are narcissistic, they are controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views, unaware of their children’s needs and of the effects of their behavior on their children, and require that the children see them as the parents wish to be seen. They may also demand certain behavior from their children because they see the children as extensions of themselves, and need the children to represent them in the world in ways that meet the parents’ emotional needs. (For example, a narcissistic father who was a lawyer demanded that his son, who had always been treated as the “favorite” in the family, enter the legal profession as well. When the son chose another career, the father rejected and disparaged him.) These traits will lead the parent to be very intrusive in some ways, and entirely neglectful in others. The children are punished if they do not respond adequately to the parents’ needs. This punishment may take a variety of forms, including physical abuse, angry outbursts, blame, attempts to instill guilt, emotional withdrawal, and criticism. Whatever form it takes, the purpose of the punishment is to enforce compliance with the parents’ narcissistic needs.
Children of narcissists tend to feel overly responsible for other people. They tend to assume that others’ needs are similar to those of their parents, and feel compelled to meet those needs by responding in the required manner. They tend to be unaware of their own feelings, needs, and experience, and fade into the background in relationships.
Co-narcissistic people are typically insecure because they have not been valued for themselves, and have been valued by their parents only to the extent that they meet their parents’ needs. They develop their self-concepts based on their parents’ treatment of them and therefore often have highly inaccurate ideas about who they are. For example, they may fear that they are inherently insensitive, selfish, defective, fearful, unloving, overly demanding, hard to satisfy, inhibited, and/or worthless.
People who behave co-narcissistically share a number of the following traits: they tend to have low self-esteem, work hard to please others, defer to others’ opinions, focus on others’ world views and are unaware of their own orientations, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know how they think and feel about a subject, doubt the validity of their own views and opinions (especially when these conflict with others’ views), and take the blame for interpersonal problems.
Often, the same person displays both narcissistic and co-narcissistic behaviors, depending on circumstances. A person who was raised by a narcissistic or a co- narcissistic parent tends to assume that, in any interpersonal interaction, one person is narcissistic and the other co-narcissistic, and often can play either part. Commonly, one parent was primarily narcissistic and the other parent primarily co-narcissistic, and so both orientations have been modeled for the child. Both conditions are rooted in low self- esteem. Both are ways of defending oneself from fears resulting from internalized criticisms and of coping with people who evoke these criticisms. Those who are primarily co-narcissistic may behave narcissistically when their self-esteem is threatened, or when their partners take the co-narcissistic role; people who primarily behave narcissistically may act co- narcissistically when they fear being held responsible and punished for another’s experience.
Narcissistic people blame others for their own problems. They tend not to seek psychotherapy because they fear that the therapist will see them as deficient and therefore are highly defensive in relation to therapists. They do not feel free or safe enough to examine their own behavior, and typically avoid the psychotherapy situation. Co-narcissists, however, are ready to accept blame and responsibility for problems, and are much more likely than narcissists to seek help because they often consider themselves to be the ones who need fixing.
The image I often keep in mind, and share with my patients regarding narcissism, is that the narcissist needs to be in the spotlight, and the co-narcissist serves as the audience. The narcissist is on stage, performing, and needing attention, appreciation, support, praise, reassurance, and encouragement, and the co-narcissist’s role is to provide these things. Co-narcissists are approved of and rewarded when they perform well in their role, but, otherwise, they are corrected and punished.
One of the critical aspects of the interpersonal situation when one person is either narcissistic or co-narcissistic is that it is not, in an important sense, a relationship. I define a relationship as an interpersonal interaction in which each person is able to consider and act on his or her own needs, experience, and point of view, as well as being able to consider and respond to the experience of the other person. Both people are important to each person. In a narcissistic encounter, there is, psychologically, only one person present. The co-narcissist disappears for both people, and only the narcissistic person’s experience is important. Children raised by narcissistic parents come to believe that all other people are narcissistic to some extent. As a result, they orient themselves around the other person in their relationships, lose a clear sense of themselves, and cannot express themselves easily nor participate fully in their lives.
All these adaptations are relatively unconscious, so most co-narcissistic people are not aware of the reasons for their behavior. They may think of themselves as inhibited and anxious by nature, lacking what it takes to be assertive in life. Their tendency to be unexpressive of their own thoughts and feelings and to support and encourage others’ needs creates something of an imbalance in their relationships, and other people may take more of the interpersonal space for themselves as a result, thereby giving the impression that they are, in fact, narcissists, as the co- narcissist fears they are.
Co-narcissistic people often fear they will be thought of as selfish if they act more assertively. Usually, they learned to think this way because one or both parents characterized them as selfish if they did not accommodate to the parent’s needs. I take patients’ concerns that they are selfish as an indication of narcissism in the parents, because the motivation of selfishness predominates in the minds of narcissistic people. It is a major component of their defensive style, and it is therefore a motivation they readily attribute to (or project onto) others.
There are three common types of responses by children to the interpersonal problems presented to them by their parents: identification, compliance, and rebellion (see Gootnick, 1997, for a more thorough discussion of these phenomena). Identification is the imitation of one or both parents, which may be required by parents in order for them to maintain a sense of connection with the child. In regard to narcissistic parents, the child must exhibit the same qualities, values, feelings, and behavior which the parent employs to defend his or her self-esteem. For example, a parent who is a bully may not only bully his child, but may require that the child become a bully as well. A parent whose self- esteem depends on his or her academic achievement may require that the child also be academically oriented, and value (or devalue) the child in relation to his or her accomplishments in this area. Identification is a response to the parent seeing the child as a representative of himself or herself, and is the price of connectedness with the parent. It results in the child becoming narcissistic herself.
Compliance refers to the co-narcissistic adaptation described earlier, wherein the child becomes the approving audience sought by the parent. The child is complying with the parent’s needs by being the counterpart the parent seeks. All three forms of adaptation (identification, compliance, and rebellion) can be seen as compliance in a larger sense, since, in every case, the child complies in some way with the needs of the parent, and is defined by the parent. What defines compliance in this sense is that the child becomes the counterpart the parent needs from moment to moment to help the parent manage threats to his or her self- esteem.
Rebellion refers to the state of fighting to not accept the dictates of the parent by behaving in opposition to them. An example of this behavior is that of an intelligent child who does poorly in school in response to his parent’s need that he be a high achiever. The critical issue here is that the child is unconsciously attempting to not submit to the parent’s definition of him despite his inner compulsion to comply with the parent’s needs. He therefore acts in a self- defeating manner in order to try to maintain a sense of independence. (If the pressure for compliance had not been internalized, the child would be free to be successful despite the parent’s tendency to co-opt his achievements.)
Co-narcissistic people automatically and unconsciously assume that everyone is narcissistic. They have the same fear about the therapist, but are able to enter treatment because they also believe that the therapist may be different. The most significant aspect of co-narcissistic patients’ work in therapy consists of determining to what degree the therapist is narcissistic. We might even say that the therapy consists of helping the patient develop confidence that the therapist is not narcissistic . It is powerfully healing for the patient to experience a relationship that is not based on narcissism. Co-narcissistic people are therefore greatly helped by the therapist’s embodiment of Carl Rogers’ principles of accurate empathy, interpersonal warmth and positive regard, and personal genuineness. These behaviors by the therapist provide a direct contradiction to the experiences that have caused their problems. Patients will seek to determine how safe they are not to accommodate their behavior to the therapist’s imagined needs, but to be able to experience and express themselves freely. The patient will carefully observe the therapist’s behavior and make judgments about how much the therapist is able to consider the needs of the patient and how open he or she is to the patient’s experience. The patient will also want to see that the therapist is not co-narcissistic, so that the patient can use the therapist as a model who shows by example that she or he believes it is safe to be assertive and not to orient oneself around another’s needs. The patient will therefore observe the therapist for signs of how assertive he or she is, and also pay attention to examples the therapist may provide from his or her own life to assess how free of co-narcissism the therapist may be.
In addition to the beneficial effect of the relationship between therapist and patient, a major part of the therapy process involves understanding how events and experiences in patients’ early lives resulted in their current fears, inhibitions, and orientation towards others. I find it very helpful in my work as a therapist to explain narcissism and co-narcissism to my patients. Having an intellectual understanding of the nature of the problem goes a great distance towards helping them make sense of their lives and why their relationships take on the characteristics that they do. It also gives us a framework within which we can discuss the issues of concern to them, and helps them understand what to work on to free themselves from these problems. A description of my own theoretical approach can be found in the books, Transformative Relationships (Silberschatz, 2005) and How Psychotherapy Works (Weiss, 1993).
Narcissistic people seek therapy much less frequently than those who are primarily co- narcissistic, and are more difficult to help. Their deep-seated conviction of their own worthlessness, and their strong defenses against the therapist discovering this “truth” about them, makes it difficult for them to feel safe with the therapist and to benefit from the therapeutic relationship. The therapist also has to cope with the patient’s poor ability to empathize with the therapist. This lack of empathy is manifest in a variety of inconsiderate behaviors, and can challenge the therapist’s ability to maintain a good sense of self-esteem. Narcissistic people, compared to co-narcissistic people, are therefore less personally satisfying for the therapist to work with when they do seek treatment. They are also less professionally rewarding to work with because of their difficulty in engaging in the therapeutic process. Treating them empathically, helping them to feel safer to empathize with others, not losing self-esteem in the face of inconsiderate behavior by the patient, and expressing one’s own experience as appropriate are all important elements in working with narcissistic people. (Once, when I told a narcissistic patient of mine that her criticisms of me were hurting my feelings, she was astonished. She said that she had no idea that her behavior had any effect on anyone. She became much kinder towards me following that interaction.) As with the co-narcissistic person, helping the person to gain an understanding of the origins of their problems (usually identification with a narcissistic parent) can also be very useful.
Mario is the son of two narcissistic parents. His parents divorced when he was ten, and, thereafter, he spent half the week in each parent’s home. The difficulties this arrangement caused for him went unrecognized by either parent. Mario’s father was so isolated and self-centered that, during the times they were together, Mario was often completely ignored by his father and learned to endure long hours of loneliness without complaint. Mario’s mother was more able to engage with her son, as long as he was careful to attend to her emotional needs and not to make demands on her. Both parents moved frequently, making it hard for Mario to form friendships and develop a sense of connectedness, interpersonal security, and good self esteem outside of his immediate family. What proved of immense value to Mario in preventing more severe psychological damage than he might otherwise have suffered was that he spent summers with members of his extended family in Spain. These people were much healthier psychologically, and the relationships he had with them were supportive and rewarding.
Some of the effects of Mario’s upbringing were: a diminished awareness of his own feelings, needs, and point of view; a tendency to feel isolated and a difficulty connecting emotionally with others; a tendency to accept blame, control by others, and mistreatment without complaint and often without awareness that it was happening; and a loss of a sense of direction and purpose in life. He could also be moody and irritable.
As a teenager, Mario formed a relationship with Jill, whose parents were psychologically healthier, but whose mother was somewhat narcissistic. Her familiarity with narcissism and co-narcissism helped her relate to Mario, and Mario benefited by spending time with Jill’s family who were warm and accepting towards him. Mario and Jill eventually married and had two children. Mario did not finish college despite his high intelligence, but was successful in his career in business. He came to therapy at the insistence of his wife, who was troubled by his difficulty in forming good relationships with the children and his tendency to be interpersonally disconnected and insensitive. She was also troubled by the degree of influence his parents had over him. Mario had some appreciation for the validity of Jill’s concerns, and was distressed by the problems that occurred in his relationship with Jill.
Mario made good use of therapy. He initially discussed his wife’s concerns, and the problems these created for him. Her concerns primarily centered around his tendency to isolate himself, to go about his affairs without considering his effect on others, and not to maintain or value a close emotional connection with his children. She was also concerned about his tendency to idealize his parents, particularly his mother, and to make excuses for her behavior and not to recognize her self-centeredness with regard to himself or his family members. But Mario soon was able to understand how the experiences he had with his parents made it difficult for him to relate to others in a way that was satisfying to himself or to the other person. He appreciated the therapist’s interest in him, his ability to think about things from Mario’s point of view, and the value there was in understanding how his past experiences affected his current view of himself and others. In addition to spending time analyzing Mario’s past and current relationships, many of the sessions consisted of Mario’s describing his daily activities and his plans for the future. It was very beneficial to him to have someone who was interested in listening to him and who enjoyed learning about him and sharing his life. Other than in his relationship with Jill, this was a new experience for him, and it greatly helped him to have a better sense of self-esteem. The key for Mario, and for most people who suffer from the narcissistic/co- narcissistic dilemma, was to experience a relationship in which neither person has to sacrifice himself for the other, and each can appreciate what the other has to offer. While the therapy relationship is focused on the patient, it is important that the therapist engage in it as a real relationship, so that the patient can benefit from the experience of a healthy relationship in which both participants can express themselves and find value and satisfaction in their experience with each other.
As the therapy progressed, Mario reported enjoying his children more, feeling less co-opted by his mother and seeing her more clearly, isolating himself less, and experiencing a greater enjoyment of his life and the people in it.
Jane is the daughter of a narcissistic father and a co-narcissistic mother. Jane’s father was domineering with the family and with his employees in the highly successful business he built, although, interestingly, he was quite co-narcissistic in relation to his own father. Jane’s father was highly critical of her, her sister, and her mother. Jane’s mother had been severely rejected and criticized as a child and, as a result, she developed a strong sense of worthlessness, a loss of inner-directedness, and a tendency to accommodate to the expectations of others. Jane’s mother twice tried to divorce her husband, but her low self-esteem prevented her from doing so; nevertheless, she did decide to go to graduate school while raising her children, earned a Ph.D. in art, and taught at the college level. However, the criticism and denigration she received from her husband reinforced her low sense of self-esteem and prevented her from recognizing her talents or respecting herself. Jane, despite her high intelligence and independent spirit, did not do well either in school or socially. She seemed to lack the motivation to succeed, although while in college she started a home design business and consulted in graphic design. None of her efforts brought recognition or approval from her father, who was relentlessly disparaging. As a result of the constant undermining by her father, and the co-narcissistic model presented by her mother, Jane came to believe that she was unable to succeed in a career and could not form satisfying, stable relationships. Her relationships were marked by self-sacrifice, and she had no direction in her life.
Jane made good use of her therapy. Initially, she described the ways in which her family was dysfunctional, and she gained confidence in the accuracy of her views by the therapist’s agreement with her assessment. She also tested whether the therapist needed to criticize her by characterizing herself as inadequate in a variety of ways, but the therapist showed, by expressing a more positive and realistic view of her, that he had no wish to put her down. He explained these inadequacies as a compliance with her father’s characterizations of her and her identification with her mother. The therapist also pointed out her many talents, her creativity, initiative, and intelligence. Jane was able to make use of this support by doing better at school, becoming less enmeshed with her family, and starting a new graphic design business. Jane was late for a number of sessions, thereby again testing the therapist’s wish to be critical or disparaging of her, as her father would have done. Instead of being critical, the therapist interpreted these latenesses as an inhibition against acting in her own interests by getting the full benefit of her therapy, and therefore a compliance with her father’s view of her. Jane took heart from the therapist’s reactions by continuing to develop healthier personal relationships, being less subservient to her father, and becoming more assertive and successful in the pursuit of her education.
All of us are narcissistic, and co-narcissistic, to varying degrees. When our self-esteem varies in relation to how others think and feel about us, we are experiencing a narcissistic vulnerability. When we feel helpful in overcoming narcissistic anxieties to realize that the other person’s behavior is a result of their own views and experience, is not a reflection on oneself, and one’s self- esteem does not have to be affected by their behavior. For co-narcissistic people, who experience strong feelings of guilt and blame, recognizing that they are not responsible for another’s experience is a great relief. It is important for people with either narcissistic or co-narcissistic problems to come to believe that they have intrinsic value, independent of their accomplishments or what others may think of them.
The reader is referred to Elan Golomb’s book, Trapped in the Mirror (1992) for a variety of examples of narcissistic/co- narcissistic parent-child relationships. Another discussion of narcissism can be found in Children of the Self-Absorbed (Brown, 2001).
Brown, Nina W. (2001). Children of the Self-Absorbed. Oakland, Ca: New Harbinger
Golomb, Elan PhD (1992). Trapped in the Mirror. New York: Morrow
Gootnick, Irwin MD (1997). Why You Behave in Ways You Hate: And What You Can Do About It. Roseville, Ca.: Penmarin Books.
Silberschatz, George, PhD, Ed. (2005). Transformative Relationships. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Weiss, Joseph, MD. (1993). How Psychotherapy Works: Process and Technique. New York: Guilford
Alan Rappoport, Ph.D., has practiced psychotherapy in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Ca. for twenty-five years.
I want to thank Leslie Morgan Steiner for courageously sharing her personal experience from an abusive marriage and for dispelling myths about domestic violence in her TED Talk entitled, “Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave.” Her public recognition of the hardship and judgment that she and others face when attempting to leave an abusive relationship is an incredibly brave and vulnerable act. Leaving her relationship and living to tell her story was unfortunately so unlikely that while I applaud her for her courage, I can’t help but think of those who are not able to leave a situation of violence and regain autonomy after facing the physical and emotional pain, fear, and psychological control of abuse.
Steiner articulates the question she faces as a survivor to those who don’t understand the nature of abuse, “why don’t women leave?” I can imagine that some say (or think), “she should have known better.” In my clinical experience, those who are abused and exhausted victims of violence unfortunately find an abundance of quizzical looks, denial of their pain, and insensitivity during the healing process rather than empathy and compassion. But why?
There are a few psycho-social-emotional perspectives that can explain the reactions of those who aren’t clear about the power dynamics that contribute to abuse and subjugation. First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I don’t see the problem of domestic violence as unrelated to other acts of oppression and violence. Each situation is unique and tragic, but oppression, violence, and subjugation are all bi-products of the irresponsible use of power, dominance, and privilege. When a child (the powerless) is abused by a parent (the powerful), that’s oppression. When a young women is assaulted and then blamed for wearing a short skirt, that’s oppression from the perpetrator and oppression from society. When a black man walks down the street and looks at the white people passing him with looks of fear or startle, that’s societal, personal, historical, and systemic oppression. Acts of racism, bigotry, homophobia, and hatred while not always perceived as equally harmful, are acts of violence, dominance, and oppression that encourage the cycle to continue.
Let’s simplify and return to the question above: why don’t people get it?
For people who are not the victim in any given circumstance (a.k.a. the ones in a position of power), disavowing the problem and putting it in the category of “happens to other people (but not me)” can diffuse the stress of wondering if you or your loved ones qualify for this label. Creating distance between the self and a horrifying, violent cultural epidemic makes it less scary, more palatable. For most, the thought of our own loved ones being victims of violence is far too difficult to imagine. So we ignore, we do our best to prevent, and we hope that violence is not occurring in our families and communities. But this psychological strategy of otherizing (believing something only applies to other people and denying that it could be yours to experience/solve/know) the problem of violence does not help stop violence. In fact, it often contributes to or encourages violence in subtle and overt ways.
Otherizing sounds something like this behind closed doors:
We judge and rationalize… ‘She was with him for ten years. It’s her fault for staying.’ Or perhaps, ‘she was conscious enough to consent. It’s not like she was a virgin.’
We attribute the acts of horror to real or imagined personal traits… ‘He’s weak/gay/trans/different and that’s why it happened.’ Or, ‘that stuff only happens in (insert perceived high crime area).’
We shame the victims… ‘They shouldn’t have been dressed that way/walking down that street/out at that time of night/in that part of town/at a gay bar/drinking/breaking a rule.’
We assure ourselves that this couldn’t happen to our own body, our family, or our loved ones… ’This could have been avoided if she had been more aware of her surroundings. What a shame that she wasn’t more careful.’
This is blaming the victim. These rationalizations and assumptions are defense mechanisms used to combat fear – the fear that this could affect our own lives or happen to our own children/sister/brother/parent, etc. – but these psychological defenses come with a huge price. When we put any blame on a victim of violence, we fail to fully hold the perpetrator of violence accountable. If acts of violence are always (in some way) the fault of the victim, then the perpetrator is never fully given the responsibility from committing such acts. In order to fully react to acts of violence we must be unequivocal and united: The person who hurt someone is wrong and must know that society does not approve of hurting people. That has to be enough, the end of the story, and the stance taken by everyone (men, women, people of color, all religions, ages, races, creeds, and nationalities) in order to make a difference.
Violence against women and other oppressed groups is a deeply rooted, complex, and pervasive problem. While watching Steiner’s TED Talk I began to think about the implications of her message. No one is immune from this epidemic of abuse and violence, though we may deny and attempt to use every defense mechanism in our arsenal to make it so. Violence isn’t a gender problem or a problem only affecting specific races, skin colors, religions, or groups. This is a power, control, dominance, and cultural violence problem. This silent acquiescence and turning away from this topic is a symptom of our cultural belief that being the strongest, the best, the fastest, the richest, and most powerful (whether that is referring to our military defense, our sports teams, our wealth/acquisitions/ownership, or the caliber of our children’s preschool.) These are the standards by which we are judged.
So, why don’t women leave? Why don’t the oppressed members of society rise up together to reject this ideology once and for all? In addition to the psychological reasons articulated by Leslie Morgan Steiner, because we live in it every day. We live in a culture where it is acceptable to be criticized and demeaned for the way that we look, dress, or act based on the standards and preferences of other people, usually the people in charge.
Why don’t we leave? We can’t afford it. People of color and women are paid less, oftentimes expected to commit our bodies and most of our time to children or minimum wage jobs and we don’t have the resources to leave. We are not in power and therefore do not have the privilege of independence. We are not represented in positions of power in our government, in our schools, in our communities, or in our workplaces. We are the exception when we are in power. We are told that it isn’t because of our race, our gender, or our difference that we are treated unequally and it is psychologically maddening every day.
We are taught, covertly and overtly, that violence is power. We are told that loving our country means committing to war, which inevitably hurts and kills poor people, people of color, women, and children much more than it changes policies or defends justice. We are given messages about femininity, masculinity, sexuality, and assimilation. We are told that we are the problem if we don’t get on board and fall in line. Men are taught that to be peaceful or emotional is to be weak and that violence represents strength and power. Women are told to, ‘act like a lady and avoid topics that upset people’ or we will be perceived as less valuable. We are also taught that poor people are poor because they are “lazy,” not because of centuries of oppression and institutionalized, discriminatory policies. We are told that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other powerless groups are no longer experiencing the consequences of these discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes and institutions. The institutional entrenchment of oppression is rarely discussed by the powerful, so we are not encouraged by our media, our institutions, or our communities to talk about these problems.
Also, “we” are not aligned with one another. As I write the word “we,” I write as a Hispanic woman with some areas of privilege and some experience of disempowerment/disadvantage, but I refer to everyone who has experienced oppression. If the oppressed divide, who will effectively fight the real perpetrators of violence? My use of the word “we” is intended to do the opposite of otherizing, not to exclude, and to see this problem as systemic, complex, and to be addressed from a united front of oppressed, albeit diverse, group of people.
Take care of yourself and others.
Today, especially today, I needed a reminder that I am not alone. It has been a difficult and disheartening few weeks on the civil rights front at home… attacks on women’s health, attacks on women in general, the invalidation of the Voting Rights Act, and case against George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The video above, a speech given by 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai to the United Nations about courage, equality, and the importance of education restored some of my temporarily lost hope that progress can be achieved in spite of tragedies through collective action. My admiration for Malala stands alone in hearing her speech, but her history highlights the enormous capacity of human beings for compassion and wisdom. At age 11, Malala began a diary about her experience living under Taliban rule in her home district, the Swat Valley of Pakistan, which appeared first on BBC Urdu and can be read in full in English on the BBC website. At age 14, Malala and two of her school friends were attacked by a member of the Taliban in October of 2012. Malala was targeted, attacked, and survived a gun shot to the head for speaking out against the Taliban’s ban on women’s education publicly. In her UN address she voices her steadfast mission to promote access to education for all children and even compassion toward those who terrorized her. It is incredible, inspiring, and heartening (though all of these words feel like vast understatements) so I will share a few of her own words:
“Dear friends, on the 9th of October, 2012 the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed. And out of the silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born.”
As Americans, we tend to otherize problems of violence such as the attempted assassination of a young girl by the Taliban as a “far away” problem, removed from the comfort of the first world. Today, the distinction between atrocities in the U.S. and “abroad” do not feel remotely applicable or acceptable considering the not guilty verdict rendered in the case of George Zimmerman two nights ago. I accept that all involved in the court proceedings, in accordance with the law, did not convict Zimmerman as guilty of murder. However, outside the legal system and in the society of “lay people” who are to operate in accordance with the law it is difficult to make sense of this verdict: a young boy was shot to death by a grown man and no one is held responsible legally. I’ll say that one more time. Say it out loud or in your head. A young boy was shot to death by a grown man and no one is held responsible. I cannot find the justice in that statement.
We live in a society in which racism undoubtedly exists, but does not follow the letter of the law. There are no laws preventing anyone from thinking or expressing racist/homophobic/misogynistic/discriminatory attitudes, nor am I advocating that there should be any such laws. There are no laws that provide boundaries by which human beings should abide in regards to these prejudices, such as following a person who one deems “threatening” or simply assuming that people of color are criminals. But these thoughts, feelings, and beliefs matter when action is taken. Preconceived notions about black people were undoubtedly a factor in Trayvon Martin’s murder, but there is no legal recourse for this prejudice even when it ends in the death of an innocent teenager. Education, which is a U.S. crisis as much as it is an international crisis, is supposed to be the intervening force that promotes the examination of our thoughts, society, and functionality of our systems. And it is failing us.
Without intervening education, racist sentiments are passed down by generation, they are taught silently and overtly, instilled in us from youth, and reinforced by our selective reasoning through the lens of our training and through the institutional treatment of people of color, women, and other oppressed groups. The deeply held (and conscious) beliefs about skin color, clothing, and ways of walking or simply being drove George Zimmerman’s pursuit and murder of a young, black child. Trayvon Martin was a victim of racism and racist actions. Trayvon was a victim of societal oppression and the potential harm that exists in our thoughts and deeply held fears of others who are different. He is a victim of our ignorance and lack of education around race, criminality, and privilege. The racist beliefs that led to Trayvon’s murder could easily be compared to Malala’s observations of the people who are uneducated fearing the education of women. Ignorance begets ignorance. Education, under the best of circumstances, should teach us how to think critically.
Personally, I am angry and heartbroken. As human beings it is natural to want to place blame on an individual who commits an atrocious act of violence. I feel strongly that George Zimmerman should have been forced to pay a debt to society for his actions. But focusing entirely on George Zimmerman misses the larger potential for learning and progress. What is the collective action that can take place after a tragedy occurs that is fueled by racism, hatred, and fear? Prosecute the perpetrator, yet the verdict rendered leaves me feeling that justice has not been served. What next? Instead of allowing fear and hopelessness about the judgment rule my thoughts and actions, I am making a conscious choice to follow Malala’s example by refusing to be silenced by those who oppose justice and equality, those who say hateful things, or those who deny that racism exists. I will not be calm or complacent about the violence in the world, the oppression that people face daily, or the powerful forces that benefit from silencing the oppressed. I will continue to try to educate those around me about the experience of others and foster progressive, thoughtful action.
Thank you, Malala for reminding me that we are all together in the fight for justice and equality. Thanks to the family of Trayvon Martin who have modeled such compassion and strength as they grieve this devastating tragedy. Thank you, to those of you out there who inspire me to keep fighting.
In the spirit of education, some recommended reading:
Gary Younge, writer and columnist for the Guardian wrote a particularly poignant piece that I recommend reading – Open Season on black boys after a verdict like this. You can also follow Gary on twitter @garyyounge
I also highly recommend several articles by anti-racism author and educator Tim Wise (@timjacobwise & timwise.org):
Wise’s post-verdict piece at the Huffington Post Black Voices: Racism, Injustice and Explaining America to my Daughter
If you would like to support or learn more about The Trayvon Martin Foundation, visit http://trayvonmartinfoundation.org/
A great, simple, left-brained introduction to the neurobiology of emotions!
Worth a watch and further investigation if you are curious.
The Theory of Emotion, Robert Plutchik
Can’t find the right word to express yourself? Use these Feeling Words for guidance!
And don’t be scared of a dramatically illustrated cartoon image to help you out…
Monday (late afternoon) Motivation!
“Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty—as science is ‘about’ truth!”
September 10, 1964
As always, much love to Brain Pickings & Maria Popova for producing conversation and inspiration.
This work is for sale on Etsy.com by wendy macnaughton – a portion of the proceeds go to A Room of Her Own, A Foundation for Women Writers & Artists.
Words of wisdom for your Monday morning!
And a special thank you to a brilliant teacher and mentor, Gena Minnix
If you have never read Brain Pickings, I highly recommend this thoughtful, well-done, search for “interestingness” spear-headed by Maria Popova (@brainpicker) and the occasional guest writer. The writing at first glance often appears outside my comfort zone, but I’m usually drawn in to subjects that I might naturally toss aside as too lofty or inapplicable to my daily life (i.e. too daunting/time-consuming/intellectual for moi). I love Popova’s style; she can take a subject that is over my head and make it tangible and fascinating. Many times I find that these subjects intertwine with my own life, as a therapist and a person, more than I would have imagined upon reading the title.
Cue my interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing, a.k.a. ‘how to be a great writer by one of the most famous writers of all time,’ as my self-valuation interprets. I love to write, I aspire to reach other and connect through writing, so naturally this title both titillates and terrifies me. It triggers the immediate, vulnerable, knee-jerk, ”am I good enough?” reaction that is the inevitable cost of putting ourselves “out there” for the world to see. Popova references a letter written by Fitzgerald to a young woman, a college sophomore, and family friend who sent her writing to him, presumably for critique and guidance. I don’t know if this young person, Frances, was expecting honesty or fluff… but she got honesty. In Fitzgerald’s response he references the “price of admission,” or the cost of great writing quite harshly to an aspiring young writer. An excerpt:
“November 9, 1938
I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile…
That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.
In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,
Your old friend,
F. Scott Fitzgerald
P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.”
Ouch, Frances. Ouch.
You may be wondering, as was I, why I felt as we may say in the therapy world over-identified with the recipient of this letter. Why would I focus on the potential hurt feelings of a stranger who aspired to write over seventy years ago and was given such a harsh critique? The obvious answer is that I’m focused on emotions in general. I did not accidentally arrive in the field of social work and therapy. A natural draw toward and affinity for emotional care and compassion led me here. The not-so-obvious answer is that I too fear judgment, harsh criticism, and critique as a writer, as a therapist, and as a person.
The vulnerability of writing, especially about matters of the heart weighs on me as much as it enriches my life. I write because it allows me to make sense of the pain, elation, and all feelings in between in the human experience. Rarely do I write of my own feelings because it is challenging, less comfortable, and scary. I could blame some lofty principles of maintaining my role as a therapist (which is a very important and entirely different discussion), but it is the feelings of vulnerability that usually hold me back. When I do share parts of myself and write about things that are subversive, I feel exposed, anxious, and at times, irrelevant. I worry that I’ve said ‘too much,’ gone ‘too far,’ or have been ‘self-indulgent,’ all judgments that I have made up in my head based on my own anxiety, experiences, and elaborations…
Writing can be a gut-wrenching process of displaying your inner-world, word by word, and opening oneself to strangers much like the courageous work of therapy participants. In many ways, I write to experience this vulnerability, risk, and potential benefit of exposure as a constant reminder of the risks that clients take. It is a reminder of the emotional cost paid by the brave people who sit in the chair and share their inner-selves and the respect, kindness, and admiration that is deserved for such an endeavor. There is a monetary investment for therapy as well which is a valuable topic of exploration, but they also pay with their honesty, their fear, their vulnerability, and the spoken or unspoken hopes and disappointments. At times, this is a high cost, more so than money.
Without hiding behind principles of “being a therapist,” I’ll share a specific fear that edits my writing, words, and thoughts. It is the fear of not being liked. There are variations of this fear, such as not being nice, agreeable, palatable, competent, or pleasant. Talking about things that are hard to talk about, uncomfortable, opinionated, or divisive also scare me. These fears are all bi-products of my upbringing and training as a woman, a social worker, and a therapist but to what end? These are questions that my clients ask of themselves and usually end up with a resounding sense of entitlement to feel, express, and be who they are. Undoubtedly being yourself is hard, and I’m not immune.
Lately, my reflections on this topic have turned toward a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to share myself with others and receive the kindness, accolades, and positive feedback that I’ve received as a result of writing, speaking, and being myself. In hindsight, when I am met with “negative” emotions from someone – disagreement, anger, and even contempt at times – the hurt feelings and vulnerabilities that I’m forced to acknowledge are far outweighed by the learning, the growth, the opportunity to practice compassion toward myself and others, and the disarming of my own defenses. These are valuable and sometimes priceless experiences.
As always, take care of yourself (while also stretching and growing when the time is right.)