Communication Resources for Children of Narcissistic Parents
May 14, 2014 5:26 PM   Subscribe

My sister was recently given a talking-to at work for her tone, after she unknowingly made one of her employees cry. She's been told she talks to people like they're stupid. And despite the fact that she is a very sweet, loving, and compassionate person, she does do that sometimes. She's not always aware of it happening, but sometimes she is, and she says it's hard to stop. Our mother was the same way, and what my sister says is, "Sometimes I feel Mom's voice coming out of me, and I hate it but I can't stop it." She's asked me for some resources that will help her learn how to communicate better, and be aware of her tone and fix it when necessary. It's especially important to her now that she's pregnant and doesn't want to talk to her child the way our mother talked to us. Any suggestions for her? I've already got Non-Violent Communication on the list, and I'm looking for good resources for children of narcissistic mothers. What else?
posted by rhiannonstone to Human Relations (8 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
You might try this:
posted by thelonius at 5:45 PM on May 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

This likely treads a lot of the same ground as Non-Violent Communication, but Crucial Conversations is a good resource for this.
posted by jeoc at 5:50 PM on May 14, 2014

I had this problem and for the same reasons. I also have made people cry. I really didn't get what kind of effect my tone of voice and choice of words had on people; it always kind of took me by surprise. In part this is because as a person often spoken to that harsh way you get a thick skin and you learn how to absorb a lot that you shouldn't have to and that you forget that others never had to.

There are several good books about this but the thing that really helped me "get it" was to think about those people who had been mentors for me and for whom I had tremendous respect professionally and personally -- even if they didn't know it. These people had never spoken to me this way and I would be crushed if they did (whereas I had learned how to absorb/brush off other kinds of damaging language and tone from other people).

The trick for me -- and, literally, it's a hack that I use when in a crunch -- is imagining myself as being that other person that I admired. Sometimes when I feel/see/hear that hated harsh "voice" coming out of me I willfully replace it with another specific voice. There is one woman in particular that I really admire for example. Let's say her name is Mary Smith. I hear "my mom's" voice coming out and I say "I am not my mom I am Mary Smith" and try to emulate. The more I did this over time, the more I was able to modulate that Mary Smith voice into my own voice -- different from Mary Smith but similarly calm, cool, collected, and helpful, not hurtful.

Again, books and other resources are good, but sometimes in the moment you really need a hack. "I am Mary Smith" has been a good hack (one I still resort to in a pinch) and also, a bit paradoxically, helped me define who I uniquely am as a boss, colleague, friend, partner.
posted by beanie at 6:44 PM on May 14, 2014 [24 favorites]

The forum, Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, talks about narcissistic 'fleas', as in 'lie with dogs, get fleas'. Fleas are the habits we have picked up from narcissistic parents. It sounds like your sister has picked up your mother's tone of voice when she is acting in a control role.

Your sister needs to unpack why she is adopting her mother's tone, and become more mindful of her perceptions, feelings and anxieties that are going on inside her during times when she adopts this tone. Maybe some role play, recording and listening back will help her. By recognising the point in her conversations where she begins to adopt this tone, she may be able to form other vocal/breathing/posture habits. For example, she might find she always takes a sigh and begins at a certain vocal pitch. By identifying its characteristics, and the feelings behind it, she may be able to kill off, or at least control this particular flea.
posted by Kerasia at 6:45 PM on May 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've found it useful to approach a time when I want to get my tone right but don't quite know how, to force myself to pause, and come up with three different options for how to handle or say what I need to say. That exercise makes me think in a more detailed way about who and how I want to be. And no matter what, once I've come up with those options, I'm making a more active choice rather than speaking with the 'default' tone.
posted by Dashy at 7:44 PM on May 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Good for your sister for recognizing the problem! It's great that she can sometimes notice the tone shift.

If she's really committed to changing, she could try videotaping herself in situations that are likely to activate that tone. At work, at home, when she's presenting and someone asks a question...wherever. New technology has made this even easier than ever. She could have a little cam trained on her in her office at work, and she could just explain to the folks around her that a) it's just for her own personal use and b) it's so that she can learn to speak more respectfully to others. Some may opt out of being taped, but I'm guessing most will be supportive.

Reviewing the videos will give her a great opportunity to notice the tone in action, even when she wouldn't have noticed it in the moment. (The part of our brain that listens literally stops functioning when we talk, so it's quite tough to hear ourselves.) Then she can start trying new tones -- the "Mary Smith" trick sounds great -- and get fast feedback from the video of whether or not it's working.
posted by equipoise at 8:39 PM on May 14, 2014

People are not a collection of traits. The reason she behaves like you mother at times is because she feels like your mother at times and has adapted mom's strategy to deal with the feelings. The obstacle to change is that she will now have to feel these feelings and manage them in a new way. There's no real shortcut/trick to doing this. It's a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance which will allow a new understanding of your mother as well. I wish her good luck with this.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:16 AM on May 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

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