Parents Who Don’t Apologize

My last two blogs were about the narcissistic tendencies of my Mother. This blog is about my Father and his inability to apologize for his mistakes. You don’t have to be a “feel good” parent or “best friend of your child” parent to apologize when you screw up. To the contrary, I believe it’s even possible for authoritarian and strict parents to admit when they’re wrong, under right the circumstances. What kind of example do parents set for their child when they, the parent, are ALWAYS right, especially when it comes to discipline and decision making? Essentially, it’s no example. “Father’s always right” is not the way to go. Children will grow up lacking the ability to apologize for their own wrongdoings, because they never had the proper example set for them.

My Father, as the household leader, was in charge of discipline and decision making that guided our lives early on. This was particularly apparent when it came to punishment: if we did something wrong, whether by his standards or common societal standards, we were duly punished. Looking back, there were times when I definitely deserved the punishment and discipline I received. Other times, though, the castigation from my Father was inappropriate, over the top, and not very nurturing. Instead of correcting my mistakes with a degree of guidance and thought, he often resorted to put-downs and corporal punishment as a means to keep my brothers and I in line and reinforce his authority position. As a result, we could never question him, because we knew what would come next if we did.

Right away, it’s clear that my Father obviously had some insecurities as a man. He wasn’t very in touch with his emotional side, and preferred to boast a macho persona opposed to someone who was caring and aware of his children’s needs. When my brothers and I had emotional reactions to his discipline, he used the opportunity to discipline us further for reacting. The classic “do as I say, not as I do” adage also applied. If I hit my brother during a fight, my Father hit me and told me not to hit others. While it is clearly wrong for me to be physical with my younger brothers, it’s a bit confusing to be punished for hitting by getting hit back. This sort of logic confounded me and taught me to fear my Father instead of looking up to him as a male role model.

As I grew into my teen years, I quickly grasped a more holistic understanding of right and wrong. Whether it was from family style TV sitcoms, movies, or what I saw from the fathers of others, I slowly gleaned a sense of what was helpful or hurtful for children. This is not to say that I knew better than my Father, but instead that I came to know when what he did was wrong, and that he should be called out on it and admit his mistakes. Of course, in his authoritarian style household, this never happened.

One day, I made an awful remark to my younger brother, chiding him about his Attention Deficit Disorder. My father heard what I said and stormed into the bathroom where I was slapped so hard that I had a small, yet visible black eye. If this had happened on the weekend, I would have broke down and gone to my room to cry. Unfortunately for me, all this transpired an hour before I was supposed to get on the bus for middle school, perhaps the most socially awkward time of my life. Reporting to homeroom with a black eye was going to be extremely embarrassing and upsetting, and instead of letting my emotions play out, I had to bottle it all up. Since this incident caused my brother and I to miss our bus, my Mom drove us to school, and I refused to leave the car. My rhetorical questions as an 8th grader, which I’ll paraphrase in more formal language, were: “What father hits his kids, and then expects them to go to school?”, and “Does the punishment really fit the crime?”.

In reality, what I did was wrong and deserving of punishment. I fully admit my mistake and take responsibility for it. Instead of slapping me across the face, my Father should have made me apologize to my brother, and then punished me by limiting my freedoms as a young teenager (ie. no watching TV after homework, ability to leave the house, or even ability to leave my room etc). Surely these disciplinary actions would have been more appropriate, and would have taught me to rectify my mistakes with an apology and pay with an appropriate loss of freedoms.

When I returned home from school later that day, I continued to be angry with my Mother for letting my Father hit me. I tearfully argued how embarrassed I was in school, that what he did would never happen to other children I knew, and that I would call the police and report him for child abuse. Although my Mother stood by my Father’s actions despite my pleas, she did acknowledge to a point that he went too far.

So what should have happened? My Father should have come home, reminded me of my punishment, and then admitted that slapping me was not the right thing to do. He should have simply apologized: “I’m sorry that I lost control and hit you, but you made me very angry when you made that horrible remark to your brother.”

Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead, we hardly spoke for days, until other family matters brought us back into a more diplomatic relationship.

To conclude, I’m not suggesting that children are always right, or that they should be allowed to get away with inappropriate, immoral, or evil behavior. Instead, I believe that children should be disciplined and made to fix their mistakes. It’s important to note, however, that this is not a one-way street. Though children should respect their parents, they to, are deserving of apologies, even when it’s the parent who screwed up and went TOO far. This is how emotionally healthy, assertive, respectful children are raised.

My Mother is a Narcissistic Parent Part 2: “Why can’t you?”

In my previous blog, I described some situations early in my life where my Mom was acting as a narcissistic parent. Most of these situations arose from her need to feel fulfilled, to “live vicariously through her children”. There is one other ploy she used that was quite effective – so effective, in fact, that it is hard wired into my brain today. It’s the classic, “Johnny played a solo on stage” or “Johnny got an A”, or “Suzy earned an award” “Why can’t you do the same?” question. She may have only wanted my siblings and I to achieve goals in our life, but constantly comparing us to what other kids were doing was wrong.

Ultimately her comparisons to other children made me constantly compare myself to others, to the point that it was self defeating. When I saw another child acknowledged for doing something beyond what the average kid could do, I asked myself, “Wait a minute, why can’t I do that?” This nagging question was helpful in some ways: it helped me push hard for good grades, practice my musical instruments, and compete on the athletic field. What it didn’t do, however, was create a positive foundation for authentic self motivation that comes from within, not from the outside.

Sometimes my Father used the same sort of tactics with my brothers and I, although he did so much less often than my Mother. Furthermore, in many cases, my Mother probably asked him the same question, “Why can’t our kid be like Joe?”, and he then asked us directly. Again, he may have wanted to promote a competitive spirit and create drive within us, but the way he and my mother went about it was manipulative and ultimately not productive in terms of establishing real confidence and self esteem.

One night after a music concert during my Sophomore year in high school, as my family and I all piled into our car, my Father suddenly said, “I’m tired of watching Jake bouncing around on stage, why don’t you join the jazz band?”. Up until that moment, the thought of joining jazz band was remote, because I wasn’t fully committed to studying music during High School. At that time, I was content with just being a regular student in the band, not a standout or soloist.

Well, after his comment – plus other variants on my Dad’s question from my Mother – rattled around my head, I decided that I was going to be the top “instrumental” dog at school. I asked my band teacher if I could join the jazz band, and was allowed to do so. Next, I found a local trumpet teacher and began taking lessons, once a week. I also gave myself a very strict practice regimen, lasting no less than one hour, sometimes up to an hour and a half of non-stop trumpet playing. This was particularly tiring, because I was also involved in sports and had to practice my trumpet at the end of the day, when all I wanted to do was eat dinner and sleep. All of this was in hopes of being better than Jake, the other player.

As the months progressed, I pushed harder and harder. I decided I wanted to solo in the jazz band. I wrote my own solo and was featured in the school concert. Then, during my Senior year, I decided I was going to make a regional honor band and/or jazz honor band. This required that I practice my trumpet EVERY day, regardless of how I felt. I had to not only learn 2 distinctly different pieces of music (one classical and the other a transcribed jazz solo), but also improve my trumpet range and technique. After weeks of practice and a fortunate audition, I actually made the regional jazz band, and suddenly was the lead player in my own school’s jazz band. I was tapped to play during every solo opportunity, and I relished in knowing that all of this was at the exclusion of Jake, my competition. It felt good…

Sadly, however, that feeling of beating the other person vanished the minute High School ended. Now, I was headed off to college with proven musical abilities, but missing a source of motivation. Jake was history: If wanted to play well in college, I would have to motivate myself and step up my game.

This is why the parental comment “Why can’t my child do this…?” is so damaging. It may work to motivate your kid for a year or two, but when the environment changes, your child will be lost and without any source of positive, true motivation. In my case, I did regard making the regional honor band in high school as an important achievement, but the drive for doing this wasn’t 100% from my heart and soul. Instead, part was in order to gain my parents’ affections, and part was the smaller voice inside me that would have been happy if I made the honor band or not.

That was the voice that my parents needed to nurture, not the “competitive for the sake of parental pride” voice. Being the best trumpet player at school in spite of someone else is not really a positive experience. True, it did drive me to go above and beyond my own expectations, but it was at the expense of a lot of time, energy, and negative mental energy. This process also preyed on my perfectionism, making a battle of “me vs. him” as I practiced various pieces of music over that 2 year period.

So what happened in college in terms of music, specifically playing the trumpet? I actually burned out my Junior year, in part due to my BPD and depression, but mostly because I had no motivation to lock myself inside a practice room alone for 2 hours a day. I felt I had other needs that had to be met, and music practice wasn’t fulfilling them. Instead, I moved towards music composition, and ended up minoring in it, despite the fact that I was a below average music performer and screwed up many times live on stage.

Please don’t ever ask your child “Why can’t you be like Jane?”. It is a cruel question. It immediately invalidates them as a person, casts off their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and pushes them towards satisfying parental ego needs over their own. During formative years, it is important that children learn to find positive motivation within themselves for the things that THEY like to do, not what the parents want.

Ultimately, I learned that my motivation was based on shaky ground: it was based on negative drive and feelings of inadequacy, instead of a true love of music and performing. I already mentioned the result, I burned out my Junior year in College and put my trumpet down. In the end, that’s what probably happens to most kids with similar situations. Suddenly and obtrusively, there are needs that have to be met, and when they’re not backed by parental pride or self motivation, it creates a vacuum that leaves the child adrift and lost.

Don’t let this happen if you can help it. Love your child regardless of what “John” or “Sue” does.

My Mother is a Narcissistic Parent

Sometimes, it’s not enough to simply obey your parent. Instead of offering a loving and nurturing environment, they expect you to live out their own goals and desires; and then either approve or disapprove of your life accordingly. This type of behavior can be particularly troubling for children with BPD, who are plagued by feelings of emptiness, misdirection, and unstable emotions. Instead of finding ways to please themselves, BPD children fill their empty, emotionless void with positive feedback from their narcissistic parent, who is acting not out of love, but with a clearcut agenda to satisfy their own needs and perceived weaknesses.

The classic, cliché phrase that most people have heard is “[someone’s parent] is living vicariously through their child.” In clearer terms, that narcissistic parent is ramming their own goals and emotional needs down the throat of their child, hoping that if the child succeeds where they failed, they will somehow feel better about themselves. Therefore, the environment in which the child is raised is structured around a parent’s needs, when it should really be the other way around.

I now believe that my mother has narcissistic qualities, in addition to Borderline Personality Disorder. In most cases, I don’t even think she realizes she’s acting like a narcissist. Instead, she seems to use this sort of behavior as a defense mechanism against facing her own feelings of disappointment. Ultimately, as her BPD child, I followed almost every command and desire, because the only positive feedback I ever received was when she felt one of her own weaknesses was addressed.

One area in which my mother was particularly narcissistic and emphatic was academics. For whatever reason, she feels that she fell short somewhere along the line, even though she is a college graduate that teaches high school English. Throughout my years in grade school, middle school, and high school, she was always pushing me to be at the head of the class. If I achieved this goal, she showered me with compliments and spoke about my accomplishments with pride. If I failed, she dismissed me and made manipulative comments in hopes of motivating me to achieve at a higher level later on.

She also liked to bask in the limelight of other parent’s compliments about my brothers and I, and was particularly taken when other parents suggested that she was raising a wonderful family. In reality, it only looked that way on the surface: deep down, inside the hearts of my siblings and I, we felt like we were pawns in a chess match, being thrust about the board in hopes of trying to meet her demanding emotional needs. She took our accomplishments as her own, and always made comments to the effect that she was “proud” that something was achieved, opposed to “happy” and “loving” of her children no matter what the outcome was.

Here are a few brief examples of some of her ploys to satisfy her narcissistic needs:

  • Made me play the piano in the town variety show in 3rd grade – Although this might seem like something most parents would want their child to do, my mother took a strong interest in forcing me on stage to play the piano. She herself played piano as a child, but never really got to the point of performing. I of course objected, because I was petrified. On one night of the show, I actually vomited before I went on stage. She put her own need for recognition ahead my mental wellbeing. Now, some 20 years later, she regards a picture of me playing the piano in that very show to be “one my best pictures ever”. She quickly forgets that vomit was wiped off my face before that picture was taken. Speaking for myself, I like the pictures I have with my relatives and pets much better.
  • Manipulated me to put academics above all else in high school – Getting a high school diploma and college education has always been a goal my siblings and I were expected to achieve. To be sure, this is something most families want, and it does mean that at times children have to pushed and guided along the way. My mother, however, took this a step further. She used to gossip about other top students in my class, prodding at me to compete with them. One day, when I expressed interest in dating my freshmen year in high school, she stated “…I don’t think you’re into dating yet, put your school work first”. The ripple effect of this comment created a deficit in my social skills that I’m still trying to fix at age 31.
  • Berates me, as an adult, with goals that she had but never attained – Lately, in the past couple of years, I’ve been mulling over whether or not I should return to the USA and live a more “normal” life, get married, buy a house, and have kids. Obviously, there’s a lot that would go into that lifestyle change, and I believe it would take a couple years to complete. Every time I bring up this thought with my mother, she constantly suggests that I should return to the USA and get my master’s degree, because one of her regrets was that she didn’t study past her own bachelor’s degree. Instead of advising me about moving or considering alternative careers, she shoves her own personal disappointments and missed goals down my throat.

There are countless more examples, but those are the first three that come to my mind. I firmly believe that these types of comments, thoughts, and blatant manipulations of me contributed to my BPD. Such things would be poisonous to a “normal” child, let alone a child that would later develop BPD as a young adult.

Clearly, my mother has a lot of regrets and misgivings about her own life. As a result, she felt she could fill those voids by “living vicariously through her children”, pushing them in directions that put her happiness first.

On one hand, you could defend her by saying that her parenting produced talented and successful children. On the other hand, you could argue that her manipulative, selfish, and needy behavior served only one person: her. The result, in my case, has been years of confusion, rebellion, and anger that I can’t explain.

Who am I? I guess you could ask my Mom, since she seems to know better. If you ask me, I’m surviving BPD and trying to get better, and I don’t need someone else’s goals or measuring stick to push me along the path of life. She probably thinks otherwise…