Toxic Narcissism & Searching For God: Learning From Jordan Peterson’s "Maps of Meaning" Lecture Pt 1
Updated: Feb 15, 2022
By Ella Watson, guest writer
In the past couple of weeks, I have found myself immersed in Dr Jordan Peterson's lecture series based on his first book 'Maps of Meaning'. Dr Peterson is a Canadian Clinical Psychologist and the author of the best-selling book '12 Rules for Life'. His reasons for writing his first book were a means to understand, in his words, 'the superhuman energy of the arms race' and the driving forces behind the Nazis and Stalinists. His search led him into the deep recesses of the collective human psyche and he shares his findings in his book as well as providing lectures to stimulate discussion in this area.
These lecture series are from the years 1996, 2015, 2016 and 2017 and are available for free on YouTube. I've started with the 2015 lectures.
Listening to them has allowed me to see my life and upbringing in a new light, and make deeper realisations, some of which are shared here.
Aligning Our Values to Reality and the Power of Choice
Dr Peterson mentions in his second lecture, that our values are selected by the reality in which we are based. And if those values do not align with the reality of the situation and the reality of life, they will be selected against. He said this included an element of choice in evolution, which is similar to sexual selection where mate selection (which is very strong in humans as female sexual selection places a big pressure on men) also includes an element of choice. Dr Peterson mentioned that though Charles Darwin mentioned sexual selection, it took traditional evolutionists a very long time to accept it as they were not happy with the idea that evolution could be driven by choice. This also links in well with what M. Scott Peck mentions in his book 'The Road Less Travelled' that for the first time in history, evolution is being driven by choice in the case of humans, whether we realise that or not is another matter. The power of choice is also something that has been heavily focused on by Stephen R. Covey, especially in his book 'The 8th Habit'.
I suffered a painful breakdown in the first year of my undergraduate degree. And it was because of the damage I had endured from my parent's narcissism. By the time of my gap year before university, I was already under the control of my father's narcissism choosing whatever subjects he wanted me to study, whatever degree he wanted me to do. During this time, my mother had a massive breakdown after more than two decades of severe emotional abuse from my father. She sought the help of a friend to get her back on her feet, to get a job and start working towards her future. She also mentioned stories about my father that she had not been open about all these years so that her kids would not think of their father as a dishonest person. However, it seemed like my father's unending rebuttal and cruelty despite her devotion to her family finally led her to decide otherwise.
The interesting thing is, as I spent most of my gap year at home, it was not until I started my undergraduate degree and faced the real world again that the consequences of what I went through became glaringly evident.
My values, which were a confused combination of what both my parents wanted me to be, were absolutely out of touch with reality and I began to struggle immensely in my first year. I came across such internal conflict which manifested as external chaos that everything my parents had built against each other and the world came crumbling down. In other words, my internal value system was so out of accord with reality that it was heavily selected against; being a "straight-A" student before university, I was now struggling to keep up with the first year of my undergraduate degree.
The Dragon of Chaos
In his first lecture, Dr Peterson mentions a metaphorical dragon of chaos that if left ignored and unattended grows bigger and bigger until nothing else in one's life can function properly. He gave an example of how a parent's inability to provide adequate care for their child leads to huge problems down the line. However, it is quite common that parents choose to blame the child rather than look inside themselves and take responsibility.
This reminded me of how my parents did the same and chose to use me to further their narcissistic aims and desires. As a kid, I gave them narcissistic supply, since I was so fond of them and had this godlike image of my parents firmly set in my mind. I was given care and attention as a child. However, that soon changed as I entered my teenage years as my parents had little, if any, space to give me as a teenage girl and even less as a woman. And so I found myself moulding to their ideals and expectations. The more they struggled with their marriage and became resentful of each other, the more they wanted me to be like each of them and to live through me. The last thing they wanted was an independent woman owing to their own traumas from their birth family (in the case of my father) and sticking to archaic Islamic ideals (in the case of my mother).
And so my needs were ignored. Ever since high school, I struggled with socialising with boys and also with making friends. This was because when I went to my parents asking questions about my struggle, they took this opportunity to limit my spirit and fill me with their own fears and aims, making me dependent on them.
As a result, with time I became further fragmented as a person, struggling with life. The dragon of chaos in me had grown bigger and bigger ever since my teenage years (and potentially before that too). This chaos broke loose in my first year of university as I suffered a massive breakdown. But as always, I was accused of being at fault that I was going through this. My parents had struggled so much for me all this time and I couldn't even do a degree. They had helped me so much in my high school with regard to my studies and this was how I was paying them back.
Just like my parents brushed their issues with each other under the rug as well as mine from my teenage years, they wanted me to get on with life despite my breakdown in my first year at university. Instead of encouraging me to get counselling and/or therapy, my mother thought it was a good idea to get me married since that is what girls are ultimately supposed to do. Around the time when I was struggling in my first year, she had me speak to a lady who was looking for a suitable girl to marry her son. I didn't really feel too well after the call with her, so I told my mom that I was not ready for this right now. She agreed, but for years after that, she would continue to bring up the topic of marriage, even putting up an online marriage profile for me without my permission.
Dr Peterson makes it clear that in a parent-child relationship, you have the opportunity for a relationship like no other. But he also makes it clear that some parents see the child as the problem; deficiencies in the parent are projected as deficiencies in the child. And the devastation that causes to a child is extremely profound and painful; it is torture inflicted upon the child by the parents themselves. That feeling that you are inadequate, you are not enough and you are a burden; that the parent's life would've been so different were he or she not in this family. In such a situation, the only way some parents can feel like they can stay in the family is to manipulate their child.
That is a hell of a lot of pressure to put on a young human being. Someone who depends on this malevolent human for survival. And so it is, that in the tremendous capacity humans have to adapt to the most adverse situations, children learn to mould themselves to the expectations of their parents.
And so the parent is then happy to stay in the family, to continue to 'sacrifice' their lives, all the while making sure their children know this and feel this and remember to pay them back, financially, emotionally and with their lives and spirits.
Actually getting proper counselling or support is out of the question for such parents, because it was and never will be their fault. The responsibility of the choices the parents made now lie with their children.
I MEAN, WHAT A THING TO PASS DOWN THE GENERATION!
The Search for Absolute Truth
Some people might think they are cursed to have misery follow them their entire lives no matter where they go or how much effort they put into serving others in their lives. No matter how much they give. This victim complex; manipulation, a vicious cycle, a force-field of an alternate reality that people make around themselves, that even sucks others around them into it. This lie blinds these people, (A.K.A. covert narcissists) to their own faults and makes them feel they are not responsible for what happens around them. (Narcissism is defined by a grandiose sense of self and the need for constant admiration and attention with an underlying deep insecurity driving these urges. Covert narcissists have the same underlying aims and mindset but externally manifest them in more subtle ways e.g. self-deprecation in an attempt to get the attention of those around them.)
Such people surround themselves with those who further affirm their pseudo-reality for them, making it harder, even impossible for these people to even start to consider the reality of their own responsibility. Their 'karma' never leaves them - so the resentment inside them grows and grows until they cannot see reality anymore where it truly matters. This process defines my parents to a large degree.
Lots of people go through immensely tough times in their lives, and they belong to a vast array of ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. Different people (given a relatively developed and open culture as in the West) would choose different options to cope, deal with, reorient or work through these issues.
Some want a surface-level answer, some choose to have higher aims to make up for the insecurity and lack of love they feel, others would choose to help others who went through the same issues they did. Some might choose to change their life's centre (everyone has something different at the centre of their life: family, friends, partners, work, money, etc). These approaches might satisfy a vast majority of people, giving the false impression that they are 'progressing' in life and 'transforming' themselves. In my opinion, they were essentially deluded before and are deluded now and they are happy with that.
Yet others, even after going through these options feel like there is something missing. Their restlessness keeps them looking and searching. If their reasons, motivations and intentions for this search are genuine, they find what they are looking for and begin to work on the core parts of themselves that were left ignored, under-developed and snubbed until they were absolutely blinded to their very existence. It then becomes a matter of engaging in a continuous contention with reality, to get to and understand the truth behind the façade they have been fed, to the point that they have become so used to and hallucinated by it. In that sense, I feel really grateful to have found mentoring at Lighthouse International where everyone is committed to providing the foundation many of us lack to become healthy, grown adults.
In his biblical series talks, Jordan Peterson refers to the story of how God renamed Jacob as Israel, meaning 'one who wrestles with God', one who is triumphant with God. But what does it mean to be triumphant with God? To wrestle with God? And how does that have anything to do with the toxic dependency that existed between me and my parents?
The answer, in my opinion, ultimately lies in what our aims are. And as Jordan repeatedly says in his lectures, human beings are creatures with an aim. For me, that aim was finding absolute truth. However, it takes great strength to face the truth as the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said, 'The strength of a person's spirit would then be measured by how much 'truth' he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.'
After coming to the acute realisation that what I have with my parents, is something very toxic, I was and still am very determined to find and accept reality; the reality of my situation, my life, as well as the world. As I ploughed through my delusions and those imposed on me by my parents, I realised that as much as my parents wanted me to never forget the sacrifices they made for me, my life and my being was being sustained by a force much bigger than them. That in an effort to keep me centred around them, my parents were taking away my connection with myself and the source of all life; the source that endowed them with the love to care for me when I was a baby and a child, the same love they were now misusing to make me affirm their pseudo-reality for them.
For me, the struggle to understand the Source of all love and life, and how that contrasts with narcissism means 'wrestling with God'.
Jesus clearly says in the New Testament that:
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me
Matthew 10:37 (New International Version)
This verse points to the unnatural yearning for humans to place something or someone on a pedestal, and how choosing the wrong centre ultimately becomes a degenerative aim. Loving any person or thing more than absolute truth means one is not worthy of the truth. Stephen R. Covey also mentions in his book 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' how universal laws and principles underpin our reality as well as ultimate satisfaction and success in life. He mentions how being anything but principle-centred, has very significant negative consequences though it may not seem like it from the outset.
Once you realise it, it feels like an honour to be gifted with the possibility of getting to understand God. This is exactly why I find myself reading books after books, listening to hours of lectures by theologians, psychologists and learning from people from all walks of life, to develop that foundation within me; that colossal gap that a part of me keeps pulling me back into to show me what needs to be worked on.
Dr Peterson also mentions in his first two 'Maps of Meaning' lectures how we don't create our own values and interests, our interests choose us. He asks, why is it that some tasks bore us, while others overwhelm us, whereas others grip our attention so much so that we care not for what happens around us while we are engaged in them? That time passes by as we focus all our efforts on 'contending' with the problem at hand! We are neither overwhelmed nor bored by it. Such a situation, when presented to us reveals the prospect of learning something that we can sustainably incorporate into our current structure of knowledge and our nervous system signals that to us by making that situation interesting to us.
I feel like this is exactly something that has been happening to me for more than a year now, ever since I stood up against my father and then my mother, choosing reality and my connection with God over maintaining the narcissistic dynamic with my parents. My attention is in a sense guided by my interest as well as feelings which are a precursor to working on something deep within myself. The stronger and more negative the feelings, the more work that is needed in that area. And the tendency to avoid is immense and that is understandable. However, as my mentor says, when confronted with a potentially fearful avenue within and/or outside myself, though I move away in fear, I overcome that fear relatively quickly to confront what is at hand head-on. And therefore, understand and incorporate what I need to from the situation.
Here is Lighthouse Head Mentor, Paul Waugh, on building family relationships through difficulty...
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