A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

Hatefulness as a Gift of Love

Parents who treat their children with unkindness may really just hate themselves

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Lorna Smith Benjamin, a well-respected researcher on the relationship between interpersonal psychology and personality disorders, has a saying that “Every psychopathology is a gift of love.” In other words, she believes people develop maladaptive traits because, as she explains on her website:

“… problem patterns…are the result of one or more of three copy processes started in relation to an important early caregiver…Those are (1) Be like him/her (identification); (2) act as if he/she is still around and in charge (recapitulation); ( 3) treat yourself as he/she did (introjection). Sometimes the copying is in negative image (e.g., be the opposite)…The purpose of the copying is to seek reconciliation, approval, love of the internalized representation of that original object (person). People unwittingly act accordingly to the "rules" laid down by these early relationships and even when they believe they hate the original copy person. Every psychopathology is a gift of love.”

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Lorna Smith Benjamin
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[Some trivia: Dr. Benjamin started out as a student of Timothy Leary, way back when he was a respected academic interpersonal psychologist and before he went off the deep end as a hippie guru telling everyone to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Please don't hold it against her].

From my point of view, children give their parents what the parents seem to need. They develop roles that I have described in several previous posts, and continue to play these roles as adults. That people may mistreat themselves because of loyalty to their kin group and a sense of altruism in that context seems to me to be due to a biological imperative (see my post on kin selection), albeit one that we can consciously choose to ignore.

Self destructiveness as a sort of altruism? How about acting in a hateful manner towards one’s own children? The idea that the biological forces of kin selection may lead individuals to act in hateful and/or frustrating ways to other people within their kin group for covertly altruistic purposes  (although certainly not altruistic to outsiders) is extremely hard for most people to wrap their heads around.

Another term for this phenomenon is Pathological Altruism (Oakley, Knafo, Madhavan, Wilson [Eds], Oxford University Press). I have also written about something I refer to as the Mother Teresa Paradox.


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The idea that individuals are willing to sacrifice their own children as a gift of love to the family system is the perhaps the most difficult manifestation of this for anyone to accept.

Still, I think that the appeal of the Biblical story of Abraham nearly obeying a command from God to kill his own beloved son, not to mention the story of God being willing to sacrifice his only Son for the good of humanity, stems from the pervasiveness of this phenomenon within our species. Certainly, the common willingness of parents to send their children off to war illustrates how powerful this human tendency is.

In psychotherapy, that parents somehow still love their children even if they are acting out a hateful, nasty, and/or abusive family role is something my patients often have a great deal of trouble accepting, and understandably so. In order to explain to themselves their parents’ strange hatefulness, they have usually come to the conclusion that their parents are either mad, bad, blind or stupid.

If I were in their shoes, I am absolutely certain I would have come to that exact same conclusion. Still, as they tell their stories to me in psychotherapy, I always hear of those rare times when their parents were not hateful but actually loving. Sometimes such parents even will unexpectedly express their love directly, although often in a way which undermines their own credibility. However, because of the total context of the relationship, these positive acts and statements are discounted by everyone. Again, discounting such contradictory double messages is perfectly understandable.

Why would you believe the professions of love from anyone who generally tends to treat you like crap? That would really be insane. Why should you believe them when there is so much evidence to the contrary?

And who knows if they are not doing those positive things for you on purpose just to set you up once again for disappointment? Letting you start to hope that they could finally be the parents you always wished you had, only to once again dash those hopes to pieces. This is often seen with kids waiting for an estranged father to come and pick them up as he promised, when he has broken such promises over and over again.

I really don’t expect a victim of hateful parents to believe any of what I am about to say based on a blogpost, but parents who are acting in a hateful manner are often acting that way because they covertly think that they are protecting their child. From them.

They think their children are better off away from them, because they are so toxic. They feel they must continue to be toxic because it is a part of the role they are playing to help stabilize the family that they themselves grew up in. They use their toxicity to act in ways they secretly hope will repulse their children and therefore push them away where they will be safe. And yet, they usually cannot let go of their children completely either.

It’s like Groucho Marx’s old joke about not wanting to be in any club that would be willing to allow you to become a member. Newspaper advice columns are full of letters complaining about parents doing things that drive the writers crazy. But since parents cannot admit that they are, in fact, pushing their kids away without giving up a role they are themselves playing, things can get pretty twisted.

Groucho Marx
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And please, do not accuse me of saying or implying that it is in any way OK or excusable for anyone to do things like this to their children. Understanding what is going on is not the same as excusing it, let alone endorsing it!

One particularly horrendous example was a man who had been forced by his own mother as a young teen to have sex with her so that her husband, the man’s stepfather, could watch. Right afterwards, she sent him off to foster care.

He, being reasonable, naturally came to the conclusion that he was being blamed for what happened. I had to point out that maybe, just perhaps, she sent him away to protect him from having to continue doing this. For some reason, she felt she had to do what the stepdad asked, so she was getting him out of there.

A less extreme but more commonplace example was the mother of another individual I spoke with. Mom was getting old and was no longer able to live by herself, but was driving everyone crazy with various demands about whether or not she should be placed, or where she should be placed if she were sent to a nursing home. 

This was actually a continuation of a pattern that had taken place throughout the daughter's entire lifeftime. The mother reacted extremely poorly to anything short of immediate subservience and submission on her daughter’s part, and yet, nothing the daughter did was ever good enough. As she aged, Mom appointed her daughter to be her "power of attorney" in the eventuality that she became incompetent. If the daughter were herself incompetent as Mom seemed to think, why on earth would she do that?

The mother turned down all offers by the hospital social worker to set up any in-home physical therapy. On several occasions the mother would call the daughter and say that she was a bad daughter because she shared information about the mother with the social services people. She also told other people, "I do not have a daughter.” Nonetheless, she would call the daughter at home over and over asking for things.

The two of them continually argued about nursing home placement. When they finally decided on one and after she was admitted, Mom refused to eat there—except for food which her daughter brought her. And then she would complain about the daughter’s cooking!

Then one day, as daughter was leaving the nursing home, Mom suddenly blurted out, "You know I love you very much, don't you? You make life liveable." 

In hearing such stories, what jumps out at me the most are the double message these parents give off to their kids about needing and loving them. The positive messages, however, could easily be interpreted as having a negative ulterior motive behind them—like Mom is only saying them to manipulate the adult child. This negative interpretation comes about for a number of reasons:

First, the positive messages are expressed way less frequently than the negative ones. They are often said mainly to third parties or written in notes. Second, expressions of concern are expressed as criticisms, and their frequency make it appear as the child is constantly being judged and coming up short. Third, the parents may imply that their child is responsible for the parent's happiness, and that they are constantly being disappointed.

I believe that the negative comments and the spin the parents seem to put on their positive comments represent manifestations of a false self—the role they developed in their own family of origin. The positive comments and the underlying concern represent what is going on covertly, and are what I believe to be manifestations of the parents’ true selves—the way they really feel down deep.

With the mother in the nursing home, at one point, when the patient was sitting with her, Mom said, "Sorry this was so boring for you." Mom probably had said this with a tone of voice that was dripping with either sarcasm or hostility, as if the daughter were an ingrate who did not appreciate all her mother had done for her, and who resented Mom for inconveniencing her—or something like that.

Alternate translation of this statement: "I know this is no fun for you and I'm a pill to be with, and I really do hope it wasn't as bad for you as I think it would be."   

Sounds insane I know, but when patients who are subjected to this sort of figurative insanity think back, they may find they can remember times when a parent was actually loving in some strange way.

When parents act in an obnoxious manner like this that pushes their adult children away, this is referred to as distancing behavior. However, the parents also secretly long to have a healthy connection with their children, so they cannot seem to bring themselves to just cut off all ties completely. Their own internal conflict causes them to give off the double messages that are inherent in distancing behavior: come here but get the hell away from me. 

What creates such a conflict within the parent? I have found that the stories about the backgrounds of the hateful parents are powerful and moving. Always.

 

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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