Narcissism and Teenagers, Part 2: The Irony in Vulnerability

Why is vulnerability so scary to teens (and most adults, for that matter)?  A few weeks ago, I heard an author being interviewed on the radio.  She had written a book about her experiences of raising her child in poverty as a single mother.  In the book, she describes how she left a bad relationship, had the baby on her own, and worked as a maid to make money.  Her story intrigued me and I looked up the book on Amazon.  The book had already gotten very popular and had many reviews.  I read through some of them, and, just as I had suspected, there were some critical reviews, not about her writing or style of the book; these people were reviewing her actual LIFE.  She was criticized for the following: choosing to have a baby with the wrong kind of man, leaving the man when he wasn’t all that terrible and denying the baby of it’s father, being “whiney” and blaming everyone else for her problems, choosing the wrong job (this reviewer thought there must have been other better jobs besides a maid), and getting pregnant in the first place.  And, these reviewers had all kinds of support for their criticism by other reviewers.  This was not news to me, as I had noticed this criticism trend happening in other reviews of personal life stories.  And, those critical reviews, while there were far more positive reviews, are the ones that unfortunately tend to carry the most weight psychologically.  Criticizing someone’s personal life story or experience is tantamount to pouring alcohol on a bone-deep cut, and then not caring what happens next.  I felt sick inside after reading the reviews and I was secretly hoping the author hadn’t read them.  This is the risk we take when we tell our truth: when we expose ourselves, we take that risk.   

So, what does this have to do with teenagers and vulnerability?  There is a theme: vulnerability, for the most part, isn’t rewarded by our society and in fact it can often invite ridicule and cruelty.  Let me point out some differences in this author and the average teenager.  First, the author was already an adult and had significant life experience, having gone through some very lonely and extremely difficult times; her resiliency was already proven, activated and in use.  She also had a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, which is the executive functioning area of her brain, so she had access to her own “inner management”; this part of the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25 so teens are much more emotionally raw and impulsive due to no fault of their own.  The author was also likely prepared for the possibility of poor reviews, as we all know is a risk when one becomes published.   

Now let’s look at our teens.  Their task is to separate from their parents and discover who they are outside of their family of origin (this is not a choice, it is developmental), their brains are “under construction”, making them exquisitely sensitive emotionally, and instead of having to publish a book before they are publicly criticized, they endure it constantly through social media with none of the brain skills or life experience of an adult.  The image that comes to mind is a soldier coming home from a losing battle: filthy, exhausted, broken, discouraged.  And they have to do it all over again the next day.  This is what a day in the life of a teen is like.  

The capacity to be vulnerable is central to good mental health and close relationships.  Remember, we all have vulnerabilities; to deny this is to fall into perfectionism, idealism and unrealistic expectations.  My intention with this post is not to offer a solution or a “how to” guide.  Instead, put yourself in your teen’s shoes and allow them to affect you.  I will close with the famous quote by Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic that counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”   Your teen is the man in the arena, and you can choose to be either a critic or an ally.  

Lisa K. Wheeler, M.A., LPC

Supporting Resiliency in Teens and Adults

Photo by Felipe Bustillo on Unsplash

On Being Assertive: Why Is It So Hard For Some to Speak Up?

Speaking up for some people can be extremely difficult, even scary.  This notion may seem foreign to those of us who don’t struggle in this way, and we may not even really buy it.  How could someone actually be afraid to speak up for themselves?  Why wouldn’t they just say what they mean?  Are they that insecure?  It can be tempting to dismiss them and even feel disrespect for them.   After all, it is hard to respect someone who won’t stand up for themselves.  These are the doormats of society, and their struggle is real.  

The above scenario demonstrates some common thoughts that may run through our minds when we first encounter someone who lacks assertiveness.   When we think this way, and we all do it from time to time, we are separating ourselves from the other person.  Instead of being WITH them, we are ABOVE them, judging their behavior as if we really know what it’s about.  With the ABOVE stance, it reinforces the separation in the relationship and protects the person who is standing ABOVE from feeling into the other person’s situation, walking a moment in their shoes. That’s our defense system activating when we encounter something we are not familiar with; our defended brain says, “Yikes, move away, I don’t want that emotion to get on me!”  So we jump to judgement, or going ABOVE.  What would happen if we shifted our stance to one that was softer, more curious?   What might we learn about them if we presented ourselves as being WITH them instead?  We might get a glance of deeper understanding.  

Let’s take for instance a friend who has spent years in an unhealthy relationship but can’t seem to find their way out…and it’s obvious they need too.  They are the “doormat” who gets walked on by their partner on a daily basis.  Everyone knows this, including your friend.  What a hard thing to witness, and you hurt for them.  One way to interact with this friend is to say, “I can’t believe you have stayed with ‘x’ for all these years, and all you do is complain about it.  Why can’t you just hire a divorce attorney and get on with it?”  That kind of statement would be an example of going ABOVE, as you have separated yourself from them and even shamed them, as if you have been personally inconvenienced by their situation.  We all know people who talk this way to their friends in such circumstances.   The result is that “shame” is now added onto your friend’s burden…not intended perhaps but nonetheless true.  What will likely happen is this friend will think twice about opening up next time.  This is a small example of how people learn that to be silent is safer.  

Here is an example of a response that demonstrates being WITH the friend: “You are so strong and know what you need to do.  I have faith you will leave when you are ready, and even if that takes years, it’s OK with me.  I believe that you know what’s best for you and you will do it in a time that’s right for you.  What is the hardest part about this situation for you?  Help me understand more about what you are dealing with at home.”   You may not say that all in one breath but there is a huge difference in those two responses.  One conveys irritation, anger, and separation; the other conveys encouragement, trust, and openness: safety.

If we want to encourage people to speak up, we need to set the stage for safety.  That means that when our friends and loved ones reveal something about themselves, we meet them with understanding, even if we don’t quite understand; we can still say, “I believe you that you feel that way.”  Professional doormats typically have long histories spanning back to childhood of being dominated in some form or fashion and may not have experience with their needs being met or even acknowledged.  For these folks, their own needs frighten them because they were continually met with ABOVE statements.  They become afraid of their own voice, their own needs: they become afraid to assert themselves.  

 

Lisa K. Wheeler, MA, LPC

Supporting Resiliency in Teens and Adults

www.lisawheelertherapy.com

LISA WHEELER THERAPY, NOT THEIR SOLUTION

It’s Ok and a Good Thing to Not Be Our Kid’s Solutions

One of the most common mistakes we make as parents is thinking we always have to know the answers for our children and that we must present a positive image to the outside world all the time.  That when our children come to us with a problem, we as their parents must immediately produce a solution or fix of some kind, and taken further, others must not know that we struggle.  And taken even a step further, that it is our duty as parents to fulfill that role at all times in every way.  And what if we don’t or can’t?  Then we as the parents are flawed, we have failed our kids, and this makes us ineffective parents.  

This belief couldn’t be further from the truth, and in fact this kind of expectation causes one of the deepest lies of parent/child (and later, romantic) relationships: 

  1. It puts the parent in an idealistic role of an all-knowing god.  
  2. It produces children that become trained to look elsewhere for answers instead of within themselves.  
  3. It produces children that have little to no tolerance for ambiguity whatsoever or being able to sit with “not knowing” an answer.  
  4. It models that the focus/point of the relationship is solely about “producing something” (a solution, a fix, a remedy, an outcome) in order to be loved.
  5. It models that we are only worthy if we can “produce”, and feeds a perpetual state of idealization and perfectionism.  If we can’t fix or produce, then we are not worthy of receiving love.  

The bottom line:  

It’s ok and a good thing to tell our kids, “I don’t know”.  

It’s ok and a good thing if our kids tell us, “I don’t know”.  

It’s ok and a good thing for them to see us fall apart.  

It’s ok and a good thing for them to fall apart.

It’s ok and a good thing for them to know what it feels like to get a “zero” or fail a test.  

It’s ok and a good thing for them to be on a losing team.  

It’s ok and a good thing for them to bomb a performance.  

It’s ok and a good thing for them to see us burn a dish, miss a bill, bomb a work project.  

It’s ok and a good thing for them to make their own choice and experience the consequences. 

It’s ok and a good thing for them to see us make a wrong choice and experience the consequences.   

***It’s ok and a good thing for kids to know that parents (and later, partners) don’t have all the answers nor are we perfect; conversely, we don’t expect them to be perfect either.  The expectation of perfectionism is what produces the inner sense of,  “I am not enough”.  

We are not robots or machines; to act like we are and present ourselves as such is a denial of our own and another’s humanity.

Lisa K. Wheeler, MA, LPC

www.lisawheelertherapy.com

Lisa Wheeler Therapy, Narcissism and Teenagers Part 1

Narcissism and Teenagers, Part 1: Acceptance of Vulnerability

With so much talk these days about the trait of narcissism, its correlation to (lack of) empathy and the fear of one’s vulnerability being at the root, let’s take a look at our teenagers, who are grappling with this inner dilemma developmentally.

Teenagers are selfish. Narcissistic by design. That’s where they are developmentally. They are being forced to find out who they are outside of their families of origin: the task of every teen. They are not supposed to care what we think of them. This is normal. 

For some teens, this is demonstrated by going directly against the values of their parents. For others, this means exploring concepts they are curious about that their parents deem as being socially or even generally unacceptable on some level. Their behavior often seems shallow and careless. They are wired for risk-taking, which again is natural. Many parents find this quite difficult to deal with, kids being interested in things they find unsavory (I.e. sex, substance abuse and other risk-taking behaviors).  The scariest part for the parents is, the teenage brain is NOT equipped yet to handle forethought and considering consequences, often resulting in poor decision-making. This is odd for parents bc as younger children, many of these same kids could think about consequences and had decent impulse control…but the brain of a teenager is considered “under construction”, and so much of what we thought our kids had learned as younger children “goes underground”…to resurface at some later point.

Despite them pushing us away, our teens need us involved in their lives. Why? Aren’t we supposed to “let them go”? Yes, we are. However, what comes with that task is also giving them a soft place to fall when the times get hard. Accepting them when they make poor decisions, not shaming them. Shaming and negative, emotional outbursts will drive our kids more inward, suppressing their vulnerability, and fanning the flames of future narcissistic tendencies.  And, despite how they may act toward us, we still influence them, perhaps now more than ever.  

If we want our kids to develop compassion and empathy for others, we must teach them how. We do that by modeling our acceptance of them at their most vulnerable, and teaching them that we all have vulnerabilities of some kind…it’s a part of being human.