An ongoing survival guide.
In the last chapter I brought up the idea of psychic armor, or the suit, this week we take the suit in for some alterations.
One of psychology’s more interesting and bizarre practitioners was Dr. Wilhem Reich. Besides talking a great deal about cloud busting, psychic armor, Marxism, and orgasms, Reich built wooden boxes called Orgone energy accumulators meant to do all manner of strange things. Whether you believe he was incredible or just an incredible crackpot, when the US government seizes six tons of your notes, papers, possessions and has them incinerated, I am of the type to consider what he did somehow dangerous to the powers that be. I credit Dr. Reich now before going into any more detail about psychic armor and suiting up.
Thanks to that big chunk of time called childhood, an adult is far more familiar and accustomed to the relationship they have with their parents/primary caregiver than any other relationship—be that relationship ultimately positive or negative. We age and mature with that familiarity before we can even say the words: psychic armor. The real difficulty, later, is when one realizes the (primary and defensive) suit you wear with the narcissistic parent(s) is not necessarily the same suit you wear with everyone else.
Around everyone else, a child of a narcissist can actually try to behave like themselves. Honestly, and without game playing/manipulation/loads of cognitive dissonance. It might not be easy, and adult children of narcissists can have more difficulty finding themselves than other populations, but that risk comes from the environment they were raised in: invalidating, not child focused, dismissive, and often passive aggressive. This suit, the one I am wearing right now, the one you have on right now, is the suit you are most comfortable with. It is your suit because you experimented and you created it to match your needs, not anyone else’s.
Sometimes it takes a 3rd party to tell us that a difference even exists—because we are so used to the primary defensive suit. Therapist self-disclosure alert: That’s exactly how it happened for me. My college era best friend visited my home for the first time, and I was told after the fact that everything from my voice, my posture, my general ease at being me, changed as soon as I got in front of my family.
Surely when the change is that big, that dramatic, we have some way of identifying it when it happens, right? Well, I did what many adult children of narcissists do, I blamed myself for not being the normal me as it were, but it was not until my friend said so that I realized what was going on: psychic armor and our dear friend Dr. Reich.
All too often adult children of narcissists internalize the existence of that primary suit and either blame themselves, guilt themselves or shame themselves into accepting that somehow they are bad for having this alternative reality when it comes to their family/narcissist.
Time to start the alterations.
First of all, all childhood trauma, incidents, or actual rips in the fabric of space/time are processed on a non-adult/non rational and mostly emotional level. This is the explanation for why a child cannot reason their way out of a particularly rough night when a parent or caretaker makes a hurtful or invalidating remark. An infant or even a four year old cannot determine that their adult caretaker is preoccupied because of the bad day they had at work and therefore really didn’t mean to do or say that hurtful thing to them. For children, especially preverbal children, they have no other context of life but the relationship they possess with their parent/caretaker. They are hardwired to blame themselves if something goes wrong on the caretakers end. It’s only baby and the caretaker in their world. So, if mama/daddy/caretaker is upset with me, then I must have done something to deserve it. This inclination exists because the child is entirely dependent on the adult for its survival. It is the place where narcissists can do the most damage to their child’s future development. And most adult children cannot remember any of these experiences even happening. As a teenager or preteen, sure, they have stories about the narcissist and their demands and behavior, but the damage was done long before then.
This model for relationship dynamics can continue into the future, until the adult realizes they are not responsible for both sides of any relationship. It will continue as long as that adult keeps wearing that same old primary suit, the suit that they outgrew so many years ago. It will continue until they stop blaming themselves for the anger, the depression, the rage that exists in the narcissist who raised them.
So repeat after me: talk off your clothes and put on a new suit!
This new suit is entirely for you. It is not meant to be worn to make anyone other than you feel more comfortable. Because the antagonist in this story is a narcissist, even if you can succeed in changing suits, it does not guarantee the relationship you have with the narcissist will improve when it comes to their specific behavior towards you. But at least you can respond in a more positive, emotionally healthy way instead of being restricted by that old suit of rusty armor. Hello, lockjaw anyone?
The other equally important thing to say about this new suit is that it is all about you taking care of yourself, not anyone else doing something special for you. You are not asking for special treatment from others. If you have needs, then the new suit is about how you can get those needs meet on your own, not coercing others to make you feel better. Other people can’t make you feel better. That’s your job, and your job alone. If you disagree with me, get up and walk away from your computer and take a long look at yourself in the mirror. That’s who you can change. Nobody else.
This suit and this guidebook are both meant for you to be more comfortable, more at ease with your own feelings when in the company of a narcissist. There is no magic pill for making the hollow superficial relationship you have with the narcissist blossom into a fulfilling, reciprocal, and selflessly loving relationship. Narcissists by definition can’t really do that—unless they are working on their own issues with a therapist. What this new suit can do for you is even the playing field. It can remove the inadequate and antiquated psychic armor of the past with a comfortable, made to measure suit that actually fits you and your present emotional needs.
Now it is time to go shopping, yes?