Copycat, copycat

(inspired by and dedicated to those who are driven crazy by family members or friends who copy or imitate)

Copycat, copycat,
I want that.
Copycat, copycat,
tit for tat.
Copycat, copycat,
No, you can’t!

Copycat, copycat, I want that! It seems that I inspire my sister-in-law (SiL) quite often.  Upon getting to know the wife of my DH’s brother (2010), I noticed that every time I shared something about myself, SiL expressed the same interest.  It seemed we had a lot in common even though we failed to have a real discussion about our “shared” activities and I started to have an uneasy feeling about her.  By late 2012, I had shared enough information about myself and I was now feeling angry and controlled after each and every interaction (face to face and telephone).

At first, I talked myself out of it.  I told myself that I was being petty and these are all coincidences and that I do not own these activities, etc.  I used every rationalization to not see that the line between inspiration and imitation was being crossed, consistently.

The pattern started out like this.  DH or I would share a story, for example our hiking holiday, and she would make a comment to put it down – “Why would anyone want to go hiking for a vacation, I need the beach and relaxation.”  Then, BiL and SiL announce they are going on a hiking holiday.  It felt like what we enjoyed was devalued only to be copied at a later date.  What was going on?  Am I narcissistic to think her behaviors were about copying us?

Something was missing.  If BiL and SiL aren’t taking external cues about what they should do in their life, doesn’t it seem like SiL and I would be good friends or at least get along because we have many, if not all, of the same activities in common.  Wouldn’t we have a connection of at least acquaintances instead of the connection of two strangers who cross the same path?

I wasn’t yet comfortable trusting my intuition 100% and the science part of me kicked in.  During the last visit (December 2014) an opportunity came up to measure the extent of BiL and SiL’s copying behaviors.  A discussion (one way, of course) came up about where they would like to go on vacation in 2015.  DH and I didn’t say much and then, I said, “It would be nice to go to Country X.”  Out of all the places we want to see on planet earth, Country X is not high on our list.  What I said was true, “it would be nice”.  Not that we plan to go there.  As you can imagine, a few months after the winter holiday, BiL tells DH that they are going to Country X.  For the past couples years, they have been going to the same places as us.

Copycat, copycat, tit for tat!  I wasn’t entirely sure that copying behaviors linked with other narcissistic behaviors were motivated by envy.  It seemed that in order to envy what someone else has you would have had to want it in the first place (beforehand).  BiL and SiL’s behaviors came after the fact.  In the end, I will never know how they truly feel about anything.

Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D. in his book, Emotional Vampires¹, describes what it is like to be narcissistic:

“To know how Narcissists experience life, imagine playing golf, tennis, or some other competitive sport and having the best day of your career.  You feel great, but the mental wall between confidence and fear is thin as tissue paper.  Everything is riding on the next shot, and then the one after that…Imagine the pressure should the only meaningful goal in your life be proving that you are something more than human.  Narcissists’ greatest fear is of being ordinary.” (~Bernstein, p. 142)

The only form of connection DH and I have with them is in the form of competition.   It resembles what in game theory is referred to as Tit for Tat.  This maneuver involves replicating your opponent’s maneuver.  From gadgets to hobbies to travel itineraries, we go back and forth, and according to Bernstein, the game NEVER ends.

Viewing our interactions game from Bernstein’s perspective could explain that copying behaviors are not motivated by a desire to obtain what the other has (envy) but by their paradoxical desire to be extraordinary (superhuman).

Imagine that you go about your business, enjoying life.  To most everyone, you are living your life, to the narcissist it is perceived as an aggression of your “extraordinary” self (an attack).  And the game of life is not fair – you are not entitled to the same privileges and respect as the narcissist.  Any assertion of your sense of self (because it is naturally different) perhaps, then, triggers their fear of being ordinary – a threat that is equally paradoxical as their desire to be extraordinary through the agency of others.

Copycat, copycat, No, you can’t!  By 2013, the pattern was hard to miss, DH was making jokes and soon their house was decorated with similar furnishings.  I was now irritated with this never ending game.

Anger is primarily associated with your sense of self.  My sense of self, at least the small part of me that is made of the stuff I enjoy, felt ‘stolen’.  And if I rewound the past few years of copying behaviors, I find myself back at home with my mother.  A woman who stole what I enjoyed.  It maybe wasn’t her intention or motivation, it was the behaviors that chiseled at my sense of self.  Everything from friendships to accomplishments she ‘stole’ with her words of disdain or worse, her outward interference in controlling (and sabotaging) what I did and who I did it with.  My anger toward my in-laws’ had a past, one that I hated to think about.

Having someone I loved and trusted steal my identity ate at me.  I backed away from people, I doubted myself and I began to feel disconnected from myself at a time when the very opposite is supposed to happen (individuation from FOO).  So much of those same emotions were stirred up when I got to know SiL.  That whatever I shared with her would be misused and any sort of individuality that I fought for from my parents, my in-laws were re-stealing it.

BUT here’s the thing (and I have to remind myself of this often): No one CAN steal your sense of self.  It is impossible.  Even if SiL’s behaviors continue to chisel away at it, she can’t.  We are inherently different from each other, not unique, but different and separate.  SiL may enjoy the same things that I do, as many others do.  And because we can’t steal each other’s sense of self (no matter how hard we try) we are both inherently FREE.  Even SiL, even if it seems that she is not aware of it.  Nobody stops her from taking that chisel and gnawing at the rope that binds her sense of self to the external cues of her world.

I have to remember that the ties (and lies) that bound me to my FOO are untangling and that I, under no circumstances, need to bind myself to my in-laws in the same false sense of connection (competition).  We are ultimately free from each other.

Copycat, copycat,
I want that.
Copycat, copycat,
Tit for tat.
Copycat, copycat,
No, you can’t.
Copycat, copycat,
Free at last!

Footnote

¹Bernstein, Albert J., Ph.D. (2012). Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry.  McGraw Hill, New York.

Book Review: The Dance of Anger

I recently finished the book, The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner Ph.D. and at the same time it is celebrating hitting 3 million copies sold – Lerner discusses the book that took her five years to get published in a recent interview.

Overall, I found the book slow to read but full of necessary learning points about anger.  She does not focus on the psychology of the emotion and instead each chapter focuses on a clinical example to illustrate the message anger tells us.  Her lens is one of a woman and focuses primarily on the family (of origin and choice) and in the later section addresses anger in triangulation.

anger

“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.” ~Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.

Her opening line is her most quoted and one in which she illustrates how society, especially women, has subtly taught us to ignore this signal.  Often, with women, anger is met with rejection and disapproval from others.  Her stance is:

“Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, meaningful nor pointless.  Anger simply is.” ~Lerner

To say anger is good or bad is not the point.  The point, like all other emotions, is that it exists and it has a purpose.  Therefore, it deserves our respect and attention.  The book’s main purpose is to understand and gain more clarity about its source.

“It is amazing how frequently we march off to battle without knowing what the war is all about.” ~Lerner

Gaining a clarity of ‘what the battle is’ is often the most challenging aspect of anger.  Anger is a powerful signal that is often unclear and requires further investigation.  We can spend enormous amounts of time and energy in endless cycles that won’t help us move forward.

“If feeling angry signals a problem, venting anger does not solve it.” ~Lerner

This was a hard pill to swallow.  I have often vented anger to my husband and here on this blog.  If venting allows one to reveal the source of the anger and gain clarity about why we are feeling it then, yes, venting can help.  Venting to vent will help maintain the status quo and perpetuate an endless cycle that will not bring about more clarification about the self.

“Anger and guilt are just about incompatible.” ~Lerner

In some dysfunctional families, guilt is the main currency and it is no wonder anger takes a back burner.  Lerner adds that guilt has to do with not giving or doing enough while anger is about not getting enough.  Guilt and self-doubt are blockers to being aware of our anger.

“Anger is a tool for change when it challenges us to become more of an expert on the self and less of an expert on others.” ~Lerner

This one sentence addresses a lot of what I took away from this book.  First, anger is the emotion that can lead us to make a change.  It can, when managed appropriately, be a powerful agent for personal growth.

The second message goes back to identifying the ‘battle’ we are actually fighting.  Anger often leads us to focus on the other person.  “She attacked me, she wasn’t empathetic, he wasn’t listening.”  But the source of the anger and the ‘battle’ we are fighting is about the ‘self’.  It is about taking responsibility for ourselves and often assuming less of the other person’s.

In any type of relationship anger becomes a struggle for the ‘self’ (the “I”) versus the ‘we’.  Anger is about my needs, feelings, thoughts, opinions, etc. not being addressed.  Disrupting the status quo of pushing my needs down while another’s is met brings about the conflict of honouring myself while having a relationship with another (the Narcissistic Dilemma).

Obtaining clarification of why we are angry (its source) has to do with the ‘self’ and our protection of our sense of self.  It is about understanding what our needs are in a relationship – not always evident right away.  Anger can be useful even if it only helps us take a step back to find that clarification about the self.

He doesn’t listen ⇒ I need to be seen and heard

She attacked me ⇒ I need to be respected and valued

She’s not empathising ⇒ I need understanding and comfort

So, when I wrote the ‘fake’ letter to my friend in anger (see post), it was all about her and her behaviours.  Instead of saying ‘she wasn’t empathetic’, I realised that ‘I needed my story considered, I needed my feelings and situation to be heard.’  This is what I needed from our friendship.  It may very well be an expectation that she doesn’t agree with and that tells me what my bottom line is.

After finishing The Dance of Anger, I read another book by Lerner entitled The Dance of Connection.  I found this book to be a nice complement and one where there were some practical ways in which to deal with someone when angry, hurt, etc. (more focused on romantic relationships but still applicable to other types).

The quote that best summarises Lerner’s The Dance of Anger:

“Many of our problems with anger occur when we choose between having a relationship and having a self.  This book is about having both.” ~Lerner

Further Reading & References

Lerner, Harriet Ph.D., The Dance of Anger;  Harper Collins Publishers; 2005.

Lerner, Harriet Ph.D., The Dance of Connection; Harper Collins Publishers; 2002.

For a bit of humour Karla McLaren shared this video.