Frog in a Pot

Posted on 21 September 2017

I left my family. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done: worse than divorcing a husband. I feel like I have ostracised myself. A number of family members have and have had narcissistic personality disorder. They have at times married others with their own pathologies. The more I understand about my family’s interactions, the more I feel like I have escaped a cult.

I am constantly terrified of becoming egotistical and manipulative myself, but have had to learn a certain balance where I accept the importance of being self-confident and the need to convince people to help me upon occasion. The trick is to remain thoughtful of others needs, accepting their boundaries and right to say “no”, and to remain respectful of the value of each person’s humanity.

I’m sure many of you have heard the parable about how you can cook a frog alive. If you put a frog into a pot of hot water, it will jump out. However, if you slowly raise the heat, the frog may not notice that it is in grave danger and will not jump before it has already expired in the bubbling cauldron.

I was born into a very hot pot. When people are born into such situations they tend to accept them, because as a child your family represents to you what is “normal”. Of course as a child you don’t fully feel the heat just yet, because interactions are basic between parent and child. A child can have a considerable inner life that a parent knows nothing about and vice versa. It’s when we all start forming independent opinions that the heat is on to ensure you remain in the boiling pot in order to validate the family world view.

Let’s say we are all frogs in pots and on the outside of each pot is a temperature gauge. A dysfunctional family will always want to be “close”, so that you are always looking inward toward the family, not outward comparing yourself to children in other families. When your pot is considerably hotter than most everyone else’s, an empathetic child will be able to make an imaginative leap that perhaps their lives would not be as emotionally and physically in danger if they were to escape their family.

Of course there are layers to this escape. Children are molded to fit into their families. It’s all too easy to leave a bad situation and land in an equally bad situation because you are now a jigsaw piece that fits into dysfunctional puzzles (sorry, now we have two metaphors!). It takes considerable work and self awareness for a person to retrain themselves under these circumstances. My parents raised me for eighteen years; I have been re-raising myself ever since. Who do I want to be? What do I feel is right? What values do I choose to prioritise?

One of the problems with removing the glamours and illusions that were used to bind me to my family is that I am now aware of some glamours and illusions that are binding other less dysfunctional families as well. We seem to have a whole world whose pots are slowly but surely creeping up to the same intense heat I was born into, but people are incapable of seeing it, because everyone around them is about equally in trouble.

We have a culture that has learned to cultivate narcissism in order to use it as a way to manipulate others. I have in no way been surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. Our capitalist society has warped our evolved intellectual tools for self-preservation. As humans we have unique ways in which we fight, flee, fawn, or freeze to survive: this includes a sense of self-confidence which gives us the space to plan and execute our survival strategies. Our society has replaced self-preservation and self-confidence with anxiety and ego. Ask any marketing company what they use to get people to buy, buy, BUY.

We could get rid of Trump tomorrow, but if we don’t change our culture, we will simply face one Trump after another coming into power, because we have allowed ourselves to become the perfect puzzle pieces for this sort of national dysfunction.

What does a child want most when they are in a family where they are dangled on strings and forced to be exceptional in order to boost the status of their parents? They want to be loved for themselves alone. We have a whole world of people who need to be loved for themselves alone. What kind of family uses a meritocracy to dole out affection and support? What kind of nation only serves those who are exceptional because of their privilege? We need the freedom to protect ourselves from people who are deleterious to our well-being. And yet we must never let ourselves become so consumed by fear that we no longer recognise the humanity of others.

My greatest pain is remembering how much I love my family. My greatest salvation is remembering how much I love my family. They have a right to be who they are. As an adult I have a right to object when they support hatred. I accepted their invalidation of me as an individual. I drew the line when they spoke of harming Mexican immigrants and the local Modoc tribe. It had all gone too far and perhaps I should have said “no” earlier. I understand being frightened. I understand what it is to have no familial safety nets and to be alone. Trust me, complacency doesn’t make it better. Courage is called for. But through friendship, perhaps we can hold hands while demonstrating to the whole world the incredible strength to be found in kindness and compassion.

In peace,

Katherine


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