You Will Not Get Closure, But You Can Find Understanding

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One of the most difficult aspects of leaving a narcissist is that there is no closure. Few people really understand what it’s like to survive a psychological abuser. Not only will the narcissist ever understand your point of view, he or she will never attempt to try. In addition to spending the entire relationship feeling misunderstood and shut down, the survivor of a narcissist must pass through a firewall of gaslighting, manipulation, and character assassination when they leave. A narcissist will use whatever resources they have to attack you, whether that’s your own friends, family, finances, or children. Chances are, they will succeed. Escaping a narcissist almost always means losing everything and everyone who became toxic by proxy.

All of this results in a deep longing for the survivor to be understood. Survivors often feel a variety of symptoms of anxiety and hypervigilance. They often fear they are going crazy. Not only is their self-esteem destroyed, survivors worry they can no longer trust their own thoughts. They desperately need people around them who get it.

Well, I get it, and I’m here to tell you that if you survived a narcissist, you are a freaking warrior.

Survivors of psychological abuse are true heroes. In order to survive the narcissist, they had to take a giant leap into the unknown. Often, they had to walk away from everything they once knew. Often, the only ones they had to lean on were themselves. They were willing to put everything on the line in order to be free from abuse. Survivors often don’t give themselves nearly as much credit as they deserve, but they are walking miracles.

But on most days, survivors don’t feel miraculous. They are sad, hurt, confused, angry, and long for closure they will never get. Due to trauma bonding, many will even miss their abusers. Due to gaslighting, many doubt their own experience, even when it was pure hell.

When a survivor feels this way, it’s time to shift focus. Understanding and closure from the narcissist will never happen, so it’s important to feed that need in other ways. The more a survivor can find and surround themselves with people who understand psychological abuse, the better. Trauma-informed therapists and trauma recovery coaches get it. Group therapy and online communities help to reinforce and validate the experience. The key is this. Whenever a survivor feels the urge to want or need anything from their former abuser, they must  turn it around and meet the need through a supportive community.

Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly worn down, I just need to hear someone speak kindly to me. When it’s not logistically possible to call on a close friend, I listen to guided meditations (I love Lisa Romano’s on YouTube). Audibly hearing another person’s voice speak loving and encouraging words can go a long way to drown out the abuser’s voice in my head.

Psychological abuse is a relational trauma, and the only way to heal from it is through healthy relationships. Finding and establishing those relationships after trauma doesn’t always happen overnight, but every little step toward them helps. Not everyone will understand your trauma. The ones you want and need to understand may not. But there are many people who do, and we are waiting for you with open arms.

Why Didn’t I Report? Thank You For Asking…

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The first time it happened that I can remember, I was three years old. Three. That alone ought to be reason enough as to why I didn’t report my sexual assault. Like many in the same situation as me, I did not have the kind of parents whom I could report things to. I did not have the vocabulary or the know-how to report to anyone else. When the people who are supposed to protect you are the perpetrators of abuse, there is little to no chance for justice.

The next time it happened, I was seven. At the time I believed I would be the one who would get in trouble if I spoke up. I was correct. I had already been trained to accept responsibility for the abuse. I believed it was my fault, even though my abuser was many years older than me. I thought (correctly) that I would be blamed for the inevitable fallout and loss of friendship that it would cause my parents. The abuse went on for five years. Many years later, when I did speak up, my mother casually told me she had suspected it all along. She had done nothing about it.

The next time it happened, I was fourteen. I was raped, but it took almost thirty years for me to be able to use the correct words to describe what happened. It happened in a place I wasn’t supposed to be, so again, I took the blame. At the time, I knew of no other way to frame it. All through my childhood and adolescence, I was told, directly and indirectly, that women and girls “ask for it” based on what they wear, how much makeup they have on, or the company they keep. Given my history, I naturally assumed responsibility.

The other times it happened, I was older, wiser, and much more tuned in to how I “ought to” behave. Like most women, I constantly looked over my shoulder in dark alleys and clenched my keys into my fist in parking lots. I made sure I never dressed the part, or gave any impressions. None of that mattered. I was still harassed, cornered, and groped.

In my case, there was no trusted person to turn to. There was no opportunity for redemption, only condemnation. I would not have been believed, anyway. Speaking up would have created unbearable drama in my home situation, and I had no where else to go.

I can’t speak for other women as to why they didn’t report, but I can tell you that if I risked getting death threats, I wouldn’t do it. I already have complex PTSD from the circumstances of my shitty childhood. I don’t think my mental health could withstand the scrutiny and accusation that goes along with speaking the truth about a public figure.

I do know from my education and training, and experience that the risk of someone being falsely accused of assault is miniscule compared to the thousands of people who are falsely accused of lying about it. If someone says they were assaulted, do everyone a favor and believe them.

No, You Are Not ‘Too’ Sensitive

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It is common for the victims of narcissistic abuse to be kind, caring, compassionate people. They are often so tuned in to the needs of others and so good at listening and understanding that they become unwitting targets for toxic people. They are too often labeled as being “too” sensitive, when they feel hurt by the actions of an abuser. This creates a vicious cycle that puts the abuser on the offensive. Rather than take any responsibility for the result of their actions, narcissists will accuse someone of being defective so the attention goes toward the victim having to defend or explain what common decency is.

First off, it’s impossible to be “too” sensitive when you feel empathy or compassion for the struggles of life. This is our human nature at our best, as we are created to be. At the root of compassion and empathy is universal love- and what could possible be wrong about that?

It is possible, however, to be too cruel, too cold, too unfeeling. These are the everyday traits of narcissists and psychopaths, and usually the underlying cause whenever someone complains that anyone else is being “too sensitive.” An abuser will do something harmful, and rather than take responsibility for their behavior, they will project onto others. To the narcissist, there must be something wrong with the one who is “too sensitive,” i.e. someone who feels hurt when the narcissist makes a cruel remark, or does something intentionally hurtful. Common cover-ups include, “I was kidding.” “Can’t you take a joke?” “Just calm down, you’re always getting bent out of shape,” and so on.

Sensitive people will always appear “too” sensitive to those who lack empathy. A sensitive person is not flawed. In fact, we desperately need more sensitivity in the world. It is sensitivity that inspires, uplifts, and encourages one to grow. Sensitivity means someone has a deep connection to what unifies us, to what matters in life.

Sensitive people shine bright, and encourage others to do the same. Only a deranged, dark, malevolent person would want to tear that goodness down. Don’t fall for the trap. Distance yourself from those who think sensitivity is something to hide or scale back. Never let it become an excuse for someone to treat you badly.

The Three Words Childhood Trauma Survivors Need To Hear

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Childhood trauma is a uniquely confusing experience. For many of us, the very people whom we were required to rely on for our survival were also the ones threatening it. It’s hard enough to sort out this kind of abuse as an adult, but this disconnect can wreck havoc on a developing brain. Trauma research has come a long way in studying the neurobiology and attachment styles of children who have been abused, and guess what? It’s not such a good way to start a life. According to the ACE study, adverse experiences in childhood are likely to have a lifelong impact on physical, emotional, and mental health. So, how do we better support those who did not have their basic emotional needs met as children? Let’s start off with what childhood trauma survivors do NOT need to hear:

“They were doing their best.”

“They didn’t know any better.”

“It was a long time ago. Things were different back then.”

“You probably don’t remember it right. Are you sure?”

“You can’t prove it.”

“Just put it behind you and move on.”

Childhood trauma survivors have most likely heard all of these extremely toxic statements from time to time from seemingly well-meaning friends and family. For those who experience complex trauma from child abuse, these kinds of statements create such a visceral reaction, it feels like swallowing bleach. The sum of these statements reinforce the abusive environment, re-instating the toxic messages of their abusers. When people make excuses or minimize abuse, what survivors hear are messages like,”I don’t believe you.” “You’re worthless.” “You’re crazy.” “You can’t be trusted.” These negative messages ping-pong in the brain so fast and quick, it can make them feel physically ill. Migraines, digestion problems, autoimmune issues, and chronic fatigue are extremely common among survivors of abuse.

There are three words that are a healing balm to any abuse survivor:

“I believe you.”

Studies have shown that in cases of child sexual abuse, over 96% of the children were telling the truth. And yet, there seems to be some assumption in the zeitgeist that we must not believe victims unless they can prove it.  A disproportionate amount of attention goes to being very careful not to falsely accuse the perps. Of course, false accusations need to be vetted, but when 96% of the reports are truthful, doubt about abuse should never be our first reaction.

Many childhood abuse survivors are re-victimized when they finally gather the courage to speak up about their experience. Some have wounds so deep that they are prevented from speaking up again. For those who can gather the courage to keep trying, it can take some time to hear the saving words, “I believe you,” and find the support they need to heal.

If you find yourself in a situation where someone discloses abuse, always respond with “I believe you.” Even if you have doubts, keep them to yourself until you can find an objective way to cross-check. In many cases, proving past abuse is not nearly as important as offering support to a survivor in the present. Focus your attention on what the survivor needs. Help them find resources. Rather than waste energy on trying to “prove” their experience, help them by listening.  Validate their perceptions. Help them feel their feelings. They probably took a big risk by disclosing this information to you. Earn their trust by believing them. For good measure, try out a few more good things to say to a childhood trauma survivor:

“I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

“You didn’t deserve that.”

“You matter to me.”

“You are worthy of love.”

“How can I help?”

 

 

Trauma Isn’t Lazy

Trauma survivors seem to worry more than most that they are being ‘lazy’ when they aren’t 100% productive. Let’s expose that lie, shall we?

The traumatized brain is anything but lazy. In fact, it is over-worked, over-stimulated, over-active, and over-stressed. Trauma survivors have an enlarged amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. In a survivor, this response goes haywire. It cannot perceive between something that happened in the past with what’s in the present. The brain remembers trauma in the form of flashbacks that constantly re-create the experience.

A traumatized brain is always on alert. Hypervigilance is constantly running in the background, assessing the situation and trying to report back to the rational brain what it finds. In order to keep up with everyday situations, it often must work hotter and harder than a brain without trauma.

Say a non-traumatized person wants to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. No sweat, right? It requires almost no thought, and it can usually be done under a minute. Someone with a traumatized brain who tries to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will grab the jar of peanut butter, and think about their friend with a peanut allergy who visited last week. Their brain will scold them for not making a better effort to remove all peanut products from the home before their friend visited. They will feel shame for not being a better friend, and noting that if anything did happen to their friend, they will surely would be blamed. This will probably trigger an emotional flashback of the way they were constantly blamed for things in the past. Once that has passed, they will grab the bread. They will be thinking about GMOs, and how that has an impact on health. Then, they’ll think about all the pb&j’s they’ve made for their kids. “I fed them junk that probably screwed them up for life…” The traumatized brain goes on and on like this in every situation, on every possible topic, relentlessly. Unchecked, it will continue to wreak havoc, until the trauma survivor collapses in exhaustion.

This is why traumatized people often burn out quickly compared to others. Their brains are working harder than most, and yet, survivors seem to carry a ton of guilt over the quantity and quality of their accomplishments. This is the nature of trauma that stems from narcissistic abuse. The brain was tricked into thinking it’s responsible for things that it is not. Many survivors had abusers who told them they were lazy, insignificant, or downplayed their accomplishments. So naturally, when they struggle to complete tasks due to an overworked brain, those negative messages get reinforced.

We all have goals, and chances are, we’d all like to accomplish them sooner than reality permits. For those with traumatized brains, it’s their number one job to heal. Rather than measure life in whatever external measures communicate success, whether that’s the number of laundry piles folded or number of sales closed, think about some internal goals. How many times did I catch my own negative self-talk? How many times did I recognize that my body was tired or hungry, and did I give it what it needed?

Re-shifting these priorities can make a huge difference, but it’s especially a challenge for those of us who cope by making ourselves too busy to face our trauma. When we take our own busyness away and replace it with really checking in with ourselves, it often means feeling uncomfortable feelings. It means tuning in to body, mind, and spirit that doesn’t feel so hot. That takes time and energy that our tired brains don’t have a lot of extra juice for. Sometimes, it seems easier to push through because it numbs us from fully feeling our pain. The result is almost always an inevitable crash. And when we crash, we feel like we are being “lazy.” And so goes the vicious cycle.

If this sounds like you, do yourself a favor. Give yourself permission to rest. Give yourself permission to daydream. Do something indulgent that is objectively and truly lazy, on purpose. Recognize and reward yourself for all your brain is doing to heal.

Ten Tools for Trauma Survivors

A couple years ago, I hit a serious wall.  I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but didn’t understand why. Sure, I was a mom, wife, graduate student, and ran a business, but this exhaustion went much deeper than my chronic state of busyness, hyper-vigilance, and hyper-focus. Sure, I knew I had a rough childhood and had gone no contact with my parents ten years prior. I got on with my life. I made many positive and deliberate changes so I didn’t repeat their patterns, but I hadn’t fully unpacked just how vast that black hole of childhood trauma was. For me, awakening to the impact of my childhood trauma has happened over many years, with thousands of tiny steps toward recovery. But one day, the truth of it hit me so hard, I had to drop everything to process it. I had no choice because my body and brain simply gave out. I had to grow or succumb. I chose to grow.

I threw myself headlong into the task of really looking at my issues. You could say I was hyper-focused about trauma recovery, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I found a trauma-informed therapist and started EMDR therapy. I read all of the books. I joined online groups. I researched. I studied. Did I mention I was hyper-focused? As a result, the scales fell from my eyes and I really saw the impact of my own trauma. I gained much deeper insight into why I didn’t feel successful in spite of success, why I felt responsible for things that weren’t my fault, the source of what was making me physically ill, and how I coped to survive. As I made more connections and opened more doors into traumas locked away, I entered into a process of deep, soulful grieving. Much of it had been stored up in me for over forty years with nowhere to go. Grieving became my priority and I learned to ride its wave. I learned that grief doesn’t really end. Like the ocean, it thrusts and recedes in a constant flux.

If you are looking to go down the path of trauma recovery, chances are you’re feeling some form of anxiety about it. It’s a hard road. Trauma recovery requires great courage, and it happens on its own timeline. But if you’re like me, eventually it becomes a necessary road. For much of my life, I knew there was unprocessed “stuff” I had to deal with, eventually. When I got to the place where I had to choose between growing or succumbing, I decided whatever was behind those locked doors in my mind couldn’t be as bad as the consequences of a life of denial and fear of the unknown. I am so glad I chose to confront the terror of my past, because I was able to learn who I really am. I finally got to free myself from the clutches of abuse and neglect.

So, what helped me? Here is a list, in no particular order. Hopefully there are a few new things to try out. Your list will probably look different from mine. Part of the process of recovery is to seek out your own likes and dislikes to figure out what works for you.

1. The Ace Study. Go to Aces Too High to get your Adverse Childhood Experiences score and read more on the study that links ACEs to chronic illness. Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk is also a great intro to ACEs.

2. The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk. This is a great explanation of the neurobiology of trauma, and how it manifests itself in the physical body. Check out this overview of van der Kolk’s work:

3. Pete Walker‘s books, The Tao of Fully Feeling and Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. These are perhaps the best books I’ve read on unlocking and grieving trauma. Walker described my experience so perfectly, I had to put his books down every paragraph or so just to process. I have never felt so seen and understood by an author.
4. Trauma-informed therapy. I was wary of seeking out a therapist due to several unhappy experiences trying to seek counseling with my abusers in the past. What helped me was searching specifically for the term, “trauma-informed.” I actually didn’t realize that trauma was at the center of my issues when I sought it out, but I had a hunch it “might” be. In a similar way, I used to think I “might” have been abused, but wasn’t sure, since I was always told (by my abusers) that I was being too sensitive. The confusion from gaslighting and denial can have such a strong hold, it isn’t until one is immersed in therapy that the problem becomes clear. If you suspect trauma, you owe it to yourself to see a trauma-informed therapist. Therapists can specialize in all sorts of things, which may or may not be helpful for your specific needs, which is why you want someone specially certified in this area.
5. EMDR. EMDR is a form of exposure therapy, developed by Francine Shapiro. There are other techniques for trauma, but EMDR seems to be getting the most traction. I personally like it much more than talk therapy, which seems to have its limitations, especially in reaching the automatic physiological responses which drive me as a person with CPTSD. Some people see relief right away, especially for singular traumas. For those of us who have years of formational trauma, expect years of EMDR to uncover the layers. It’s important to find a therapist who is trained and certified via the International Association of EMDR, not just somebody who took a short class. Check out the association for referrals.
6. TRE. TRE stands for Trauma Release Exercises, developed by Dr. David Berceli. They are simple exercises which isolate the psoas muscle, and help to release emotional tension which is stored in the physical body. What’s nice about TRE is that it is complementary to other therapies, such as EMDR, as a way to release what comes up. If an emotional flashback triggers a stress response in my body, TRE is my go-to for releasing it. I find it more effective than yoga and other forms of stretching, though yoga is effective for many and arguably a more popular option. You can find a trained provider through the association here.
7. Trauma Coaching. This is perhaps the resource I’m currently most excited about. Trauma coaches usually work in tandem with therapists and other mental health professionals to help you focus on your recovery goals. Therapists tend to work with your past, while coaches work with you to create the future you want. Trauma Recovery Coaches are specifically trained, and often specialize in a specific form of trauma. Need someone who understands birth trauma? There’s a coach for that. Need someone who gets narcissistic abuse? Trauma coaches can help you. Additionally, coaches offer a variety of services which can be available anywhere with a wifi connection and fit into any budget. Check out the International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching for a referral.
8. Online Resources. There are a lot of great online resources, which I’ve found to be extremely helpful in understanding my own trauma. Do a search on Twitter or Facebook for trauma recovery, narcissistic abuse, or any other hashtag that applies to you. Some folks that I love and follow in the trauma recovery community are Bobbi Parish, Athena Moberg, Shahida Arabi, Shannon Thomas, Lisa Romano, and Michele Nieves.
9. Other Books. Check out The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller (an oldie but a goodie), Healing From Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas, Stop Walking on Eggshells by Mason and Kreger, The Complex PTSD Workbook by Arielle Schwartz, and Psychopath Free by Jackson MacKenzie. There are a ton more, of course.
10. Community. The goal in trauma recovery is to learn how to draw ourselves closer to others who are safe and healthy for us. Relational trauma that stems from abuse must ultimately be healed through relationships with others. It’s not a solo sport. Of course, for many of us, this is the scariest aspect of recovery. I can read about trauma and lurk online all day, but if I am not actually connecting with other humans, I am not growing and healing. Online communities that understand trauma recovery are a great place to start. Join a secret Facebook group or find more community through a trauma coach. If you’re like me and feel you have been misunderstood for most of your life, it is essential to surround yourself with others who “get” the impact of abuse. For many of us, that’s not always our friends and family; it’s a larger community of survivors.
Last but not least, it is important to know that trauma recovery can only happen if you are 100% safe and free from abusive people in your life. It’s impossible to do this sort of work and still be under the influence of an abuser. As you recognize more patterns, expect to evict more people from your life who do not prove themselves safe. It can be difficult, but your life and wellbeing depend on it. You are absolutely worthy of a life that is fully your own, free from abuse.

Love Bombing And Other WMDs

Abuse survivors are usually wary of new relationships for extremely good reasons that are not their fault. Almost always, the cycle of abuse starts out as something that appears wonderful. The new guy or gal is interested in them. Not only interested, but infatuated. They too-quickly claim they are “the one.” They study their target, quick to note all their likes and dislikes, which feels like manna from heaven for someone who has been emotionally neglected. They are quick to become intimate, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Abusers hook their victims fast, always under some romantic guise of “fate” or “true love.” Just when the victim believes it’s real, the trouble starts.

This initial stage of love bombing is how an abuser manipulates their prey into a false attachment. Everyone needs to be seen, heard, loved, and cared for, and this is the ammunition an abuser uses to target their victims. When someone feels loved, they relax. They bond. They become emotionally dependent, believing *at last* they can entrust their heart to another. In a healthy relationship, all of this is beautiful, necessary, and true for the relationship to grow and evolve. In a toxic relationship, this bond becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Because of the trauma bond this initial love bombing experience creates, the victim becomes confused. They struggle to reason and reconcile why their lover suddenly changed. “He’s just having a bad day.” “She didn’t mean it.” “He really loves me, deep down. I remember how it used to be. We can get back to that.” In the cycle of abuse, love bombing turns to emotional neglect, which causes the victim to shift to minimization and denial in order to make sense of it. Emotional and psychological abuse begins, and in some cases, an abuser can become physically violent. If an abuser is challenged, the gaslighting begins. Suddenly, the victim is “selfish” and “crazy.” The abuser will rage, manipulate, and blame their victim of everything they are actually doing. If their victim does not break out of the minimization and denial, they will succumb and feel like they really are going crazy.

The cycle of abuse can de-escalate quickly, but when a victim of abuse decides it’s time to leave, the abuser will quickly switch back to the love-bombing stage in order to keep them. ‘Round and ’round it goes, and it’s pure hell.

Long after a survivor has left and done a fair amount of healing after an abusive relationship, panic can set in when meeting anyone new. The remedy for healing is not to isolate oneself and swear off all future love interests, but to learn how to open one’s heart to another again in an intimate relationship. Healing from relational abuse requires being in healthy relationships with others. I can’t think of anything more legitimately terrifying for someone who has experienced this form of abuse, to have to open up and rely on another to heal.

So, how does one approach a new relationship after a toxic one? Very slooooowly, and extremely cautiously. Boundaries are the key word. Tattoo it on your forehead if you must. In a healthy relationship, the love interest will respect and appreciate your boundaries. Set more boundaries than you think you need to start, and see how your candidate handles them. If you feel any pressure, manipulation, or guilt to relax those boundaries, this person is not the one for you. Perhaps they are not abusive, but a survivor of abuse needs someone who respects all boundaries in order for things to work. Look for empathy. Fallout from a toxic relationships are easy to understand (if you’re not a narcissist), so look for understanding and compassion. Someone who genuinely wants to get to know you and love you deeply will not be “put off” by a trauma history. They will want to weep with you when you are grieving, and get angry with you when you are angry. So give them the opportunity, slowly.

Love after abuse is possible. Healthy, healing relationships are possible. Abuse survivors are worthy and deserving of loving and connected relationships, and they often make the very best partners. When they are paired with those who truly love them, all of the positive aspects of their personality that once made them a target for an abuser finally get to shine.

Who Am I, and What Do I Want?

Healing from narcissistic and emotional abuse is a lifelong unraveling. One has to scrape through many layers of gunk made up from the minimization of abuse and misplaced, mis-formed thoughts about one’s self and the world they live in. In many ways, I consider myself extremely fortunate and privileged to have escaped my abusers and be in a place where my soul can finally ask two all-important questions: Who am I, and what do I want?

These are difficult questions for anyone seeking to live an authentic life, but for abuse survivors, they are especially elusive. When I was a child, at a time when I was supposed to be developing a sense of self, I wasn’t allowed to have an identity separate from my abusers. I existed tin order to serve whatever their ego wanted. That was it. As I naturally fought against this role, I was labeled “rebellious,” “ungrateful,” and “bad” for trying to seek a separate identity. Even though I distanced myself as much as possible from my abusers, I was still susceptible to their lies and projections. I had to learn to reject who my abusers said I was and embrace who I say I am. But who am I?

I have interests, which I seek to incorporate into my life, but I know that who I am is not defined by what I do. I have certain skills and talents, but I am so much more than the sum of my talents. I also have traumas. I have learned my traumas are worth embracing and integrating as a part of who I am, but they are not the whole of who I am. At this stage of my life I do not wish to be defined by my work, my religion, or my relationships to others. I want to be wholly me. But who am I?

When reduced to my essence, I am love. But I am also practical. Few people get to walk through life as pure essence. The rest of us have to balance our pure essence with paying bills, buying groceries, and binging on Netflix. Still, this question haunts me. I feel I have a pretty good handle on who I am not. If I refuse to be defined by my abusers, and I choose not to be defined by what I do, then how do I step into a life where I am free to just… be? And how do I do that, in a practical sense, without being totally aimless?

I’m the kind of person who likes to have a plan. Laying down these external expectations of identity and purpose frees up a lot of space. It feels like living in an empty house. On one hand, I am grateful that all the crap is gone, but on the other hand, it feels uncomfortable. I need more furniture for this house. I am excited to redecorate, but I am also hesitant. Redecorating requires decisions, and I feel their gravity. I can see why so many are tempted to let others make decisions for them about their own lives.

My right to think for myself and make my own decisions was hard-earned, and I am determined to put it to use. I wish it came with more clarity. Perhaps what I really need to do is give myself permission to actively seek an identity and purpose, rather than feel pressured to have it all figured out.

The Difference Between a ‘Normal’ Parent and a Narcissistic Parent

Those who have survived abusive childhoods at some time or another have run into someone (or many people) making banal excuses to explain away their experience. “Parents aren’t perfect.” “They were doing their best.” “Just wait until you’re a mom or dad.” While it’s true that no one is perfect and most people don’t intend to hurt their children, these excuses wound children of narcissistic parents at their core. These sorts of trite phrases are often used by narcissistic parents to manipulate and dupe others into believing their child is the unreasonable one. It is not possible to ever reason or win an argument with a narcissist. In order for the child of narcissistic parents to have any identity at all, they must get far away.  While it is considered “normal” for most families have some form of dysfunction, narcissistic homes are especially toxic. The following are some common differences between “normal” parents and narcissistic parents.

When the child of a normal parent forms an aptitude or skill that is different from the interests of the parent, a normal parent will find a way to encourage it. For example, a parent who loves football has a child who loves ballet. That child will be encouraged to dance, even if the parent has to miss a game on TV every now and then. In a narcissistic family, A narcissistic parent will force the child into playing football, and accuse their child of being disobedient when they lack aptitude or interest. Multiply this scenario by every potential interest a narcissist could have and a child could have, and the tally quickly adds up to a miserable existence for the child.

When the child of a normal parent confronts them about a problem or a complaint, a normal parent will listen, take ownership of their mistakes, and do what they can to correct it. In normal relationships, honest, tactful confrontation will lead to better understanding of one another, and a closer relationship. If a child of a narcissistic parent tries to confront a problem or complaint of any size,  a narcissistic parent will accuse their child of being ungrateful and double down on whatever behavior the child complained about. For example, a child asks a normal parent to knock before entering their room. Ok, sure. The parent does it. If the child of a narcissistic parent asks this, the narcissistic parent will accuse the child of doing something nefarious behind closed doors, blame the child for not being more grateful they have a room of their own, and then will burst in on them without knocking even more often.

A normal parent seeks to understand their child. Even if the child is upset, they don’t take it personally. They try to see their point of view even if they don’t agree with it. A narcissistic parent to will attack, accuse, and blame their child, then complain that their child is the one attacking, accusing, and blaming them.

A normal parent will respect their child’s right to their own point of view. A narcissistic parent will do anything and everything they can to control the narrative. The only “reality” that is allowed to exist in a narcissistic household is the one belonging to the narcissist. With that often comes delusions of persecution, delusions of grandeur, or both. In the narc’s world, everything that is “good” is what serves the narcissist’s ego, and everything “bad” is what doesn’t. A narcissist’s warped opinions about the world, and especially about their child, are forced onto others as the one and only truth. A child who challenges this rule will be shamed and shunned.

A normal parent has their own identity, and respects the separate, unique identity of their child. A narcissistic parent’s identity is to be held up above all else. Their child does not have an identity. The child of a narcissist is obligated to live their life in sole service to the parent’s identity. Any other action will be considered disloyal and cause for punishment. A narcissistic parent sees their children as extensions of themselves, not as separate and unique.

The quest for identity becomes the single beacon of hope for a survivor of narcissistic parents. They can either choose their own personhood, or they can be slaves to delusions and expectations that satisfy their parents’ egos. It is impossible for them to have both.

When Survivors Dare To Believe They Are Worthy of More

Healing can be a long process, especially from complex trauma. There is an entire lifetime of coping mechanisms that survivors must unravel before they can decide what to keep and what to toss out. The process of becoming who you really are is tough for anyone, but for those who survived childhood abuse, it means learning fundamental aspects of development that were previously denied. When a baby learns that their caretaker is unreliable, it is extremely difficult to expect others to be reliable throughout their whole life. This deficit creates a whole host of coping mechanisms in survivors. Some become combative and antisocial. Others go to the opposite end of the spectrum.

I am the kind of survivor who learned to cope by being extremely self-sufficient. I hid behind the masks of “I’m fine” and “That’s okay.” I never required much from my relationships because it was reinforced enough times for me to know on a visceral level that I would be let down. Instead, I was agreeable. I was as low-maintenance as a person could get. I was pleasant and easy to be around. I made others feel comfortable and I never challenged them. I was soft and gentle around aggression and anger. I made other people look and feel better than they really were.

Well, guess what? The easier I made it for others, the harder I made it on myself. I grew into a lifelong habit of never expecting others to step up, and as a result, I created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I made it easy for others to take advantage of my goodness. I made it easy for others to neglect me.

The point of healing from trauma is to learn how to be in close and trusting relationships with others. My agreeableness might make others feel close to me on the surface, because there is no conflict, but what it is really doing is keeping them away. By never expressing needs or requiring more from others, I became a stranger to myself. As I awaken to who I really am, I can no longer live a life where I deny myself in order to keep the peace. I have decided that the people I love deserve to get to know me better. I long for intimacy. I long to be known. And with intimacy, there’s vulnerability. In order to let others see who I really am, I open myself up for heartbreak. To draw closer, I must ask others for more, and asking for more invites more conflict.

Many years ago when I learned what boundaries were, I made a point to have them. As I grow and heal, more and more boundaries are now necessary. When someone like me tends to diffuse conflict by being agreeable, boundaries can seem counterintuitive. Saying no to others makes people upset, and this conflict is painful, especially when the people around you are not used to hearing “no.” Conflict is a double-edged sword. It is scary because it puts you at the mercy of others, but it is also the very thing that draws you close. Without conflict, people drift apart, and never get to the deeper, more important issues of life.

Right now, I have decided that I am worthy of a life where others are more aware of my needs and desires, and have more opportunities to meet them. I have decided I am worthy of asking for more. I am letting go of being easy and agreeable. Now, in theory, this is a beautiful opportunity to draw closer to the people who really love me. In reality, it feels like the whole world is crashing down, because I don’t know if others love me enough to survive the test.

When someone suddenly puts up a healthy boundary where there previously was none, it is not easy or pleasant for the other person. It is often met with hostility. The other person resists the change because it usually means their easy, unexamined way of life just got challenged. These are necessary growing pains. When one person puts up a healthy boundary, the other person in the relationship must also grow and change with it, or the relationship won’t work.

For someone like me, this is a terrifying but necessary process for survival. I have let go of enough toxic people in my life to know how painful, but important it is to do so. Yet, even more scary than letting go of toxic people is needing to have healthy boundaries with the ones you love. If the one you love does not respond well to new healthy boundaries, you might have to let them go, too. Perhaps they only loved you for the surface-level, agreeable version of you, and not who you really are. I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking than that possibility.

It is especially difficult to confront someone who, like me, avoids conflict, because they never learned how to handle it, either. There is a lot of panic and fear that has to be dealt with before getting to the issue at hand. When two people suck at conflict, a lot of stuff can pile up while they both float through life saying “I’m fine” and “that’s okay.” Resentment builds until one day, the people who seemed to always get along so well are suddenly lost and miserable. They then have to face a choice. They can either both learn healthy boundaries and confrontation together, or they will keep drifting apart.

To decide that I am worthy of more is perhaps the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do, precisely because it is something I cannot do all on my own. I need to be in relationship with others who agree with me.

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