Believe yourself even if you can’t remember

A few days ago, I was having dinner with old friends of mine. We all studied together and have been friends for decades, except for one with whom I lost touch for a while, but reconnected later.

While we were discussing a survivor book published recently in France, I realized she was not around when I disclosed my traumatic past some twenty years ago. She did not know. When she understood, she asked a few questions : When did it start ? Why did it stop ? Did your mother know ?

I gave her honest answers : I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s complicated.

There is a world behind each of these sentences. But the truth is: I can’t remember most of it. I’m not even talking about traumatic events, I can’t remember most of my childhood. Not in the usual, conventional sense at least.

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Trauma and Narcissism

Each time a relationship hurt like hell, but there was no obvious abuse or mental health issue going on, I was dealing with a narcissist.

These were distressing and confusing times, but from there I learned very valuable lessons :

  • No matter what, if it hurts it’s not love
  • Narcissists are unable to feel warmth, empathy or love, even if they (sometimes loudly) claim the contrary. What they feel is a bottomless pit of needs.
  • Relationships with narcissists revolve entirely around them and their needs, to the exclusion of ours
  • It’s not possible to satisfy a narcissist or improve a relationship with one, whatever the level of energy and love we put in
  • However if we turn around and work on ourselves it is possible to understand how our past trauma sets us up to be involved with these unpleasant people, and why we cannot see them as they are.
  • So that once healed we are able to effortlessly avoid them altogether

Book review: You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, from Richard Schwartz

Your Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For is one of these books : explaining we fall in love with people because we want them to fix what is broken in us. And that it does not work.

There are other books like this. I find them all very annoying.

I mean, sure, it’s true. At least for us trauma survivors.

Still, who wants to realize we are repeating an old drama over and over again ? Who wants to leave this all consuming attraction, this mesmerizing chemistry, our belief this relationship will make us happy, at ease with ourselves, that we have found the one magical person ?

We really don’t want to. We can embellish or deny facts, ignore what other are telling us, pretend this is not the same old usual relationship with another person, fervently believe this is true love, close our eyes, close our ears, and turn our back on the reality of the relationship.

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What’s wrong with me ?

Recognizing our struggles when reading a book or listening to a podcast is a profoundly healing experience.

So our problems are not only « in our head » ? What a validation!

It also normalizes our experience and help us find a sense of community: a lot of us have survived a traumatic past and we are all facing similar difficulties.

And best of all, it gives us hope: there is a cause of our unhappiness, and there is a way out. There both are not what we thought they were, but they exist nevertheless.

All of this went through my mind when listening to this episode of the CPTSD Podcast: Present-Day Symptoms and Consequences of CPTSD.

I strongly encourage you to listen to it if you know, or suspect, you have lived through ongoing trauma.

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Book review: No Bad Parts, by Richard Schwartz

In a documentary I saw an articulate young women who used to hear voices. These voices terrified her. She was labelled as schizophrenic, institutionalized and medicated: her doctors were obviously as scared as she was.

I was hypnotized by her story, even though I cannot really say I hear voices – well I do, but contrary to those of us suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder I’m aware it’s me speaking in my own head.

The documentary went on to explain that most people hearing voices are now considered sane: it can be a consequence of being sexually abused.

We all have parts in us, but trauma can sometimes prevent them from communicating with each other. Hence the frightening impression that voices in our heads are coming from another person.

I resonated with both her experience, and the explanation. It made so much sense for me as well.

Even if I don’t hear voices, I always knew there were different sides to my personality. I sometimes feel like a very young and panicked child, sometimes like a competent and calm adult , and sometimes like a cynical, judgmental soul.

Yes, I always felt “me“, but I ended up not knowing who was the real me. And I felt crazy.

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Understanding our fawning trauma response

Without being able to really articulate it, I understood very young I was fawning.

I did it the small way, being a people pleaser: putting my needs last, to the point of not really being aware of them. Being an absolute pro in responding to the needs of others. Sometimes, they did not even have to ask: I anticipated what they wanted.

In my family of origin, I did fawn in bigger ways when faced with actual danger. In this context, fawning means that confronted with a violent person, we resort to appeasing and trying to please, rather than, say, fight or flight.

I hated fawning. I hated myself for doing it. I felt so much shame around fawning. For me it meant I somehow consented to what happened: I did not oppose it enough. I played nice.

I felt I should have been fearless and fight hard, or flee fast. I should not have use the freeze response, much less fawning. Of course, I do understand now there was nothing else I could do as a small kid in an abusive family.

Still, I hated my vulnerability.

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Am I crazy ?

I have wondered a few times in my life if I was crazy. Looking back, it’s surprising I did not ask myself this question a lot more.

I felt crazy within relationships : stakes were high, and relationships were great to project my inner drama.

And when it happened, watch out. I could not understand my behavior, my emotions, my thoughts, my choices, my desires. They were very, very far from my usual strong common sense.

Falling head over heels in love with someone I barely knew was bizarre. Getting stuck for months in a painful obsession over someone who did not care was senseless. Falling out of love from one day to the next, from lovestruck to utterly non interested, was outright frightening. So was crying after making love with the man I loved.

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Book Review: Growing Up as the Scapegoat to Narcissistic Parents, by Jay Reid

As a ten years old, I realized I was not feeling innocent as children were supposed to feel. I was feeling bad and guilty all the time.

I could not understand why, but I promised myself I would carry this memory into adulthood. And I did.

Now, I know why I sent this message to my future self: I left a trail that allowed me to unpack my terrible self esteem as an adult. What a clever child I was, despite feeling so stupid…

I was in so much shame because I had grown up as the scapegoat to my narcissistic family. That’s a huge part of the trauma I went through, and the origin of many of my problems.

And of course abuse, neglect, narcissism and scapegoating were all linked, as it often is.

When is it useful to read Growing Up as the Scapegoat to Narcissistic Parents ?

If like me you remember feeling bad and guilty as a child, let me assure you it is not because you were: no child is. The cause is elsewhere, and it could well be parental narcissism.

Some parents are so distressed and immature they need their child to feel bad for them: they form narcissistic families and single out one child to be the scapegoat.

It can be the origin of how we feel about ourselves, and it took me years to understand. So in doubt, please do yourself a favor and read this book: it is absolutely brilliant at describing the dynamics of these families, and the consequences for us.

It may well trigger a life changing aha moment for you. I’m very informed on this topic now, but I still had sudden flashes of understanding reading Jay Reid. It’s a very good book.

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Book Review: Believing Me, from Ingrid Clayton

I came across Ingrid Clayton’s work while listening to an excellent podcast about Trauma Bonding; I liked what she had to say and the way she said it, so I bought her memoir, Believing Me.

Sure enough, I liked her book. Maybe it’s because our stories have similarities. Maybe it’s because she manages to describe universal aspects of trauma. Probably both.

Believing me can be useful especially for those of us who have been traumatized in our family of origin. It helps validate the weird dynamics of such families, and normalize our trauma responses later in life.

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Maladaptive perfectionism

I used to view perfectionism as a kind of plague, nothing less.

I remember preparing for job interviews, and being ready to answer perfectionism as my greatest weakness. It was a cliche but honest response : I was a real perfectionist. But I would not have hired one, and truth be told I would not have hired myself.

I was ready to give this answer because I knew most recruiters did not understand perfectionism. They would view it as a positive weakness in the workplace. I was probably wrong, but fortunately nobody asked.

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