The Highly Sensitive Person

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how I suffered emotional abuse at the hands of a family whose members have had, in varying degrees, narcissistic traits of at least significant, if not pathological, levels. Because of my trauma, I as a child acquired a number of dysfunctional habits, including maladaptive daydreaming.

Instead of feeling empathy for me, and using such empathy to direct and motivate her towards getting to the root cause of my problems, my mother–the head narc of the family–claimed that psychiatrists who’d examined me diagnosed me with autism. Now, she’d described this “autism” in such extreme language that I find totally implausible. She claimed that the psychiatrists who’d examined me as a little kid had said I was, apart from being autistic, mentally retarded and that I should be locked up in an asylum, throwing away the key!…and by a “miracle from God,” I grew out of this extreme mental condition!

Combining the above with observations made by two psychiatrists I saw a few decades later, each of them concluding after examining me over a period of months that there were no signs of autism in me, and with far-too-low scores I got on the “Autism Quotient” test, I can say that my mother’s version of events were, to say the least, totally unreliable. To say the most, she was outright lying to me.

That she was lying to me I find to be the only logical explanation for her claims; the purpose of the lies was, as I see it, not only to project her own narcissism onto me (she tended to go by an old definition of autism as meaning ‘excessively self-absorbed,’ like narcissism), but also to avoid taking responsibility for the effects of the childhood bullying I’d suffered, at its core, from my elder siblings, against whom I, as a little boy, was helpless in a power imbalance.

In other words, the autism label was meant to indicate that I was ‘born that way,’ rather than correctly describing my maladaptive childhood habits (self-isolation, talking to myself, etc.) as trauma responses, as attempts to self-soothe and ease my anxieties. In point of fact, my real mental condition is C-PTSD, brought on by all that emotional abuse, bullying, belittling, and gaslighting.

Now, as true and valid as all of the above is, it doesn’t mean that I can’t locate any source of these dysfunctional behaviours as my having been ‘born that way.’ I’m convinced that there’s a particular, innate psychological condition that I have that’s contributed to these problems of mine in a significant way.

I am a highly-sensitive person (HSP).

I consistently get high scores on HSP tests. HSPs react more intensely to external stimuli, including discomfort and pain, than the average person. We’re also more empathic that most people (though being an empath and an HSP aren’t necessarily the same thing); we tend to internalize what’s around us more, including criticisms. Bullies can smell such traits in HSP children, and they’re quick to take advantage of our disadvantage.

Narcissistic mothers tend to make their sons and daughters play roles: the golden child (my elder sister, J.), the lost child (arguably, my elder brothers, R. and F.), and the scapegoat, or identified patientme. The narc mom chooses her golden children and other flying monkeys (all three of my sibs) based on how well they’ve learned to please her, or to give her narcissistic supply. She chooses her scapegoat based on how much narcissistic injury and rage the kid(s) cause(s) her.

Very often, that narcissistic injury and rage are caused not so much by how blunt or sassy the child is to her, but rather by that child’s display of qualities the narc mother knows she can only fake: sensitivity, empathy, and a sincere wish to confront and do away with wrongdoing, which includes phony displays of virtue…a narc’s special talent.

You see, the thing about the scapegoat, or identified patient, or black sheep–whatever you want to call the unfavoured family member–is that this person is the one who can see through all the family bullshit. He or she has the sensitivity to be able to tell the difference between real and fake love. For if the charade of love that is performed before our eyes is real, then why do we scapegoats get so short-changed?

It’s not as though we have a monopoly on human fault: the golden and lost children have plenty of faults of their own; but a double standard is clearly at play here–the flying monkeys’ faults are usually swept under the rug, as are the narcissistic parent’s faults, while those of the scapegoat are put under a magnifying glass. Not exactly fair, is it?

I’m not denying that I have faults; I have a whole slew of them (just ask my wife). The problem is that the family treated my faults as if they were the essence of who I am, rather than something that I have, just a few facets of the totality that I am, among other facets raging from neutral to quite good. And when you focus on the negative in somebody, you bring out that negativity all the more.

The scar to the narcissist’s ego, at the sight of the empathy and sensitivity of the target of his or her rage, comes from envy. The narcissist can’t bear to see another with virtues that he or she can only pretend to have, and narcissists are known for envying others, while imagining that others envy them (i.e., this envy is projected onto others). Hence, the narcissist feels a consuming need to destroy those virtues in the target, to create the illusion among everybody that the sensitive person’s empathy doesn’t exist.

Remember that in the narcissist’s world, appearance and reality are confused, swapped, even. So if the narc can make him- or herself look kind, generous, thoughtful, and altruistic to the public, while making the HSP seem self-centered and indifferent to the suffering of others, then he or she has come as close to reality as needed. One of the crucial manipulative tactics that the narc uses is projective identification, which goes beyond usual projection’s mere imagining that one’s own traits are in others, but which manipulates others into manifesting those projected traits, creating the illusion that the others really have those traits while the narc never had them at all.

I believe that my mother, with her flying monkeys’ help, did this kind of projecting onto me…and she did it with remarkable success! Any inclination in me to want to help others, or to connect with others, was crushed in me, suppressed, denied, and discouraged. To allow me to demonstrate such inclinations would make me step out of my assigned role as family scapegoat; I’d no longer seem “autistic,” and Mom couldn’t tolerate that!

When someone believes that he or she has this or that kind of personality, he or she will behave accordingly. To ensure that I behaved in a self-centered or uncaring way, Mom had to drill into my head the belief that I have such vices. So instead of telling me that I needed to change from my selfish ways, she just said that I am selfish…as if the vice were an absolute, unchanging trait in me, never to be corrected.

If I tried to do good, the family would twist things around so it would look as if I meant to do wrong. I’ll give a few examples, stories I’ve discussed before (links above), but I’m repeating them here to illustrate this point.

Over thirty years ago, it was my mother’s birthday, and I was having difficulty finding a suitable gift to buy for her, so I was late with it. My good intentions would have been clear to her and my sister, J. (I’d spoken to them of how I’d searched all over the city, with no luck), but J. decided to act as though I’d made no such efforts. After all, only the physical appearance of a gift matters, not the thought behind it. And besides, J. had to demonstrate as the golden child that, by having given Mom a gift on time, unlike me, the scapegoat, she was a better daughter than I was a son.

I gave Mom a birthday card, which she received warmly. I was anxious to buy her a gift as soon as possible, so as to avoid being late with it (it was her birthday that very day!). J., however, decided to interpret my intentions as me just wanting to get the buying over with, so I could enjoy the rest of Mom’s birthday as a “me-day,” to use J’s words (actually, since J. had already given Mom a gift, she was now free to get together for a dinner date with a woman-friend, to have a “me-day” of her own!).

I went to J. and joked about the card I bought Mom as a kind of “down payment” on her gift, since Mom warmly said she didn’t mind the gift being a little late. But J. got all snooty with me for being late with it, and this provoked me into getting into a fight with her. In response to J.’s ‘Thou shalt not be late for Mom’s birthday’ attitude, I inadvisably said, in all sarcasm, “…and a birthday is this god we have to worship!”

I meant this remark not out of disrespect to Mom, but to point out how needless J.’s insistence on standing on ceremony was. Nonetheless, Mom, overhearing what I’d said, took my words as disrespectful, and she blew up, shouting a barrage of four-letter verbal abuse at me. I immediately realized my verbal faux pas, and fell over myself trying to apologize, saying I never meant to hurt her…to no avail, of course.

Looking back on what happened, I have the creepiest suspicion that both Mom and J. had set me up to be the scapegoat for a forgetting of the birthday that, in fact, Dad and my brother, F., had actually forgotten. You see, J. had known that I was trying to find a suitable gift, since I’d asked her a night or two before Mom’s birthday what I should buy. J. knew I’d never forgotten, but she acted as if she thought I had.

And how could Mom have gone from a whisper to a scream like that, from so warm to so psychotic–so quickly? I suspect that Mom, in a private conversation with J. prior to the incident, lied to her about me ‘forgetting’ along with Dad and F.; and J., like a good flying monkey, just went along with the charade, because Mom wanted her to do so.

Another occasion when my good intentions were twisted into bad ones was when–again, about thirty to thirty-five years ago–all the staff of my parents’ restaurant, Smitty’s Pancake House, closed it up on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (Mom and Dad were on vacation at the time) because some fumes…or something, I don’t quite remember now…were making the cooks too sick to work. F. came home that day and asked me why Smitty’s was closed. I simply explained what happened, matter-of-factly.

Apparently, I should have answered his question with all manner of histrionics, for F. told me that the way I’d answered his question sounded as if I didn’t care about the sick staff. His claiming that I don’t care about anyone but myself had been his favourite excuse to bully and harangue me at that time (i.e., over those past several years), and the fact that it was much more of an excuse to attack me than a legitimate complaint of my faults was made nakedly clear (not that he’d have ever noticed, let alone admitted to, it) in this choosing to hear my reaction as ‘uncaring,’ as opposed to my simply answering a question.

Since when did my answer even need to be ‘caring,’ anyway? Was my ‘caring’ going to help the staff recover faster, or something? F.’s constant bullying of me when I was a little kid, with virtually never any defence of me from the rest of the family (with only a few ever-so-rare exceptions from my parents), indicates that the family rarely cared about me in any meaningful way beyond the bare minimum (i.e., feeding me, clothing me, giving me shelter). Such a lack of caring is called childhood emotional neglect; this, combined with the emotional abuse I was suffering from all five of them, taught me that the world is an unsafe place, that hell is other people (I’m misusing Sartre‘s dictum on purpose here, though his original meaning applies to my situation, too), and that self-isolation was the only way I could feel safe.

…and if I was uncared for, then the family shouldn’t have been surprised to see me return that uncaring attitude to them.

Even still, I tried at times to be caring to them, even when they’d continued to hurt me. After J. made it clear to me that she didn’t approve of my marrying the truly caring person who is now my wife (indeed, Judy is the best thing that ever happened to me), I’d been loath to forgive J. for not keeping her disapproval to herself. Nonetheless, when I heard that J.’s husband was terminally ill with cancer, I allowed my ability to feel empathy and compassion to overrule my anger.

I offered to make a flight back to southern Ontario (I’ve lived in East Asia since the summer of 1996) to see J. and her husband one last time. Had I done it, paying for the trip would have broken the bank for me, but I was still willing to do it. This was in the mid-2000s.

The family should have been encouraging of me to do this selfless act…if selflessness is really what they wanted of me. Instead, Mom e-mailed me, telling me not to come, out of fear that my “tactless and insensitive” nature would have resulted in me putting my foot in my mouth in front of J.’s then-emotionally-vulnerable husband, agitating him.

I was furious at this rejection; yet, instead of simply admitting that she’d made a bad call, Mom continued to rationalize her arrogant position with the usual references to “my autism” (or Asperger syndrome, as she now liked to call it), all to make me feel further alienated from the family. Note how neither she nor the rest of the family ever considered, let alone took any responsibility for, causing the very alienation that has made me so cold to them ever since.

And since, as I explained above, the autism story had to have been a lie, Mom’s basis for rejecting my attempt to show solidarity with the family was also built on a lie. Another thing we must remember about narcissists and their relationship with the HSP as family scapegoat: since narcs are pathological liars, they will be paranoid of anyone exposing them as such. HSPs abominate liars, so narcs know that, in order to protect themselves, they must do a kind of preemptive discrediting of the HSP.

I’m convinced that my mother did exactly this to me behind my back, and that this discrediting, in the form of smear campaigns, triangulation, and divide and conquer, is the real reason that I, as the family scapegoat, never got along with Mom’s flying monkeys, my three elder siblings.

Her constant bad-mouthing of her youngest nephew, my cousin G., is what makes me believe she did the same to me. One time, during a phone call I had with her about a dozen years ago, when she was giving me a flurry of G-bashing, she raised her voice in an angry crescendo and claimed that G. must have had Asperger syndrome…exactly what she insisted I have. This disorder was meant to explain how G. is so ‘unlikeable’ (he’s a bit awkward, to be sure, but he’s nowhere near as bad as Mom characterized him). It’s not a leap of logic to assume that she was using “my autism” to tell the family that I’m similarly unlikeable.

As her health was deteriorating in the mid-2010s, she pulled more of her malignant, manipulative crap on me, in revenge–it’s safe to assume–on me for not ever wanting to communicate with her during the first half of that decade. (The above links give the full story, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.) I’ll try to make this brief.

In a series of emails and one phone call, Mom made a number of assertions that ranged from “Why should I believe a word of this?” to “That is most unlikely,” to “That couldn’t possibly have happened,” making all of it dubious in the extreme. And this was after I’d already established an understanding of her as a habitual liar, and not just about the “autism” story.

I told her so, most bluntly in an email explaining why I didn’t want to fly over to Canada to visit her. Predictably, she pretended not to know what I was talking about when I’d accused her of “Lies, lies, and more lies” in my email. Predictably, she made me out to be the villain and herself out to be the innocent victim when discussing my email to the family, who–predictably–believed her every word without question.

Well, of course the family believed her every word without question: they’d been conditioned to for years…decades!…to discredit any observation I made about anything that didn’t jive with their preconceptions about the world. Mom had preemptively discredited me, so my accusation of her lying wouldn’t be given a millisecond of consideration by them. Mom may have been dying, but her reputation was safe.

With her death, in the spring of 2016, the hope of a confession from her similarly died. Her last words to me, spoken on her death bed over the phone to me, were all about how my accusation “hurt” her (translation: caused her narcissistic injury–note how she was permitted to refuse a visit from me, but I wasn’t permitted to refuse visiting her), none about how the truth and validity of what I accused her of had hurt me. She didn’t even try to be fair, and acknowledge that there were many times in my life that she’d hurt me, and that she was sorry for that; instead, I got a pity party about how much of a bad son I was, and to add insult to injury, she congratulated herself on what a ‘good mother’ she’d been, apparently having given me “the most love,” of my siblings and me…during those very years (just before and around my pre-teen years) when she’d contrived the autism lie!

In short, she dumped a huge guilt trip on me while pretending she’d never done me any wrong–classic narcissism. Here’s the thing: if I’m so ‘uncaring’ of other people, why dump all this grief on me? It would make no difference to me–I’d just shrug it off, easily, wouldn’t I? The fact is, the family all know that I internalize all the abuse they ram down my throat–they know I feel the pain. The whole purpose of dumping that guilt on me is to manipulate me into doing what they want me to do, to control me…or at least to try to control me.

I feel so hollow now, so empty, the shell of what I once was, or could have been. Such is what narcissistic abuse does to victims: the vice of narcissism is projected onto the victim, who is fully misunderstood. We are made to live a lie of the narcissist’s making. It’s a terrible feeling, knowing your family doesn’t truly love you, that their ‘love’ was all an act, to make themselves look good publicly, or just family obligation.

Still, I can’t go on just feeling sorry for myself. The damage has been done, but there’s no one out there to do the repairing for me, so I’ll have to do it all myself (I don’t have the money for therapy.). I’ll have to find that sweet, sensitive little boy inside me, buried deep down under all of this pain.

Since I follow the Freudian (actually, post-Freudian) school of psychoanalysis, I don’t usually go in for Jung‘s ideas, but there is one of his that I’ve recently been interested in: his notion of the Shadow. As a result, I’ve been looking into what’s called Shadow work as a form of therapy to confront all this repressed trauma and self-hate, and therefore to heal me.

Since I assume, Dear Reader, that you’re reading this blog post as part of an exploration of the problem of narcissism to heal your own emotional wounds, then I hope that what I have to say here about Shadow work will help you find resources in your own healing journey.

There are so many different ways to describe what Shadow work is, and how to do it, that space doesn’t permit me to go over it all in encyclopedic fashion, but I can give you a basic idea of what it’s about, if you aren’t yet familiar with the concept.

According to Jung, we all have a Shadow aspect to our personalities, a dark, unpleasant side that we try to hide because it includes shameful and traumatic elements. We try to repress it, but we mustn’t; for after all, what is repressed returns to consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form…and this return of the repressed can come in quite nasty, regrettable ways. This repressed, ego-dystonic material must be confronted if we are to heal–Shadow work is this confrontation.

There are many ways to do Shadow work. The most common ways include journalling every day, putting our trauma into words. Other ways can include expressing your pain through art or music. Meditation is also helpful, including EMDR therapy…and there are lots of YouTube videos on these subjects. One of the websites I added a link to above recommend having a ‘dialogue’ with one’s Shadow: asking it questions and listening for answers in a contemplative silence. What’s most important is feeling that pain again (though not overwhelmingly so, of course!), as scary as that sounds, for the only way to heal is to process the trauma properly.

If you don’t feel that pain, you’ll try to repress it or project it, as my family did onto me. I’ve already explained the catastrophic results of that.

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