Me Too Therapy
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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.
Outside of relationships, things were confusing too: why was I so unhappy when my life was going very well ? Why did I feel a few frightening urges, like a sudden urge to jump from a building, while nothing was wrong ? Why was it difficult for me to go out of my house and into the world ? And what about self sabotage ?
From strange to even stranger
When I was a young adult coming out of my abusive family, most of my feelings and behavior were strange. I paid attention to look like others, but I did not understand myself. I was scared by my inner world.
I was ashamed to be different, but at least I was consistently different.
As I got better, spells of confusion (from a few minutes to a few months) started to stand out from periods of being what I had learned to see as my understandable, normal me.
At some stage I was going in and out of distress several times during the day. One moment I was feeling so much emotional pain I could not take it any longer, the next moment I was calmly buying my groceries online. Back into emotional pain, and an hour later joking with my colleagues. And on and on.
I wasn’t just distracting myself. While working, I was not only feeling calm, I also could not understand for the life of me why I was so distressed a moment before. And while drowning in distressing feelings, I could intellectually grasp that my reaction was way disproportionate. It felt so, well, crazy.
And then it hit me; the proverbial (and rare) aha moment changing the way I saw my inner world, and explaining everything.
The new normal
Here it is: there is not only one me. There are several “me”, at least two that I can easily see now.
It’s not that I sometimes loose touch with reality. It’s that emotionally, I live in two distinct realities, and only one of them was acknowledged – the adult, functional me.
The other one – the hurt child – was most of the time hidden from my awareness but having a huge influence. And then, when in stress, this part of me was invading my whole inner experience.
The adult me is working efficiently, buying the groceries and organizing the next holidays. This part of me is capable of, say, take a rejection calmly and move on: there are a lot of cool people in the world, no time to waste on an uninterested dude.
In the same situation, the child me is devastated, especially when it comes from someone she has decided can save her from her pain and shame (which cannot happen, but she does not know that).
Because I was educated to not see this hurt child part of me, and because I had decided very young that I should keep her away from my life, I could not feel her presence. But she’s here.
I know it may sound weird, and it did for me, but this is real. We have a child living inside of us. And as long as she feels lonely and scared, she will wreak havoc in our lives.
The Internal Family System
What I’m describing here is not just my take on how we are organized inside our heads. Authors and therapists have been touching on the inner child for a long time.
You can for example read John Bradshaws’ Homecoming, reclaiming and healing your inner child.
But where it really hit a nerve for me was books from Richard Schwartz, who designed the internal family system therapy (or IFS).
If you feel your inner world is frightening, bizarre or mysterious, if you don’t understand why you feel the way you feel or do the things you do, I strongly advise watching this video summarizing IFS, and reading No bad parts.
It may well help you to make sense of your inner world, as it did for me. It has been such a relief…
- 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.
What the hell happens in these families ?
One or two parents in these families are narcissists. They display a combination of grandiosity (being convinced they are more intelligent, special, beautiful than the rest of humankind), entitlement (rules don’t apply to them, but they have many in store for others), and complete inability to feel love and empathy.
They demand that all attention, praise, admiration is focused on them and never stops – the so called narcissistic gratifications. The whole family is only about them: they take all the emotional space and command all resources. There is nothing left for the children.
Not so surprisingly, these guys are deep down full of shame and self loathing. It’s a bit as if they were on a sinking boat, and they need to frantically bail the shame out to stay afloat. In order to achieve this, they need to:
- demand constant narcissistic gratifications from people around them.
- project all their bad feelings onto someone too loving and dependent to fight or walk away. They typically use one of their children to take this role.
- often chose a golden child onto whom they project all the good stuff: this child is tasked with providing the family with narcissistic gratification with his or her achievements.
You can spot this dynamic in you own family of origin: you consider one of your siblings as good at everything and yourself as a bad and stupid child. If you also can see grandiosity and entitlement in at least one of your parents, you can be reasonably sure this book is for you.
What to do if you realize you were a scapegoat in your family ?
First of all, please know I am feeling so sorry for what you went through. I may not know the specifics, but I do know very well how painful and despairing your childhood has been. And I know how deep the wounds are now. Allow plenty of time for grieving.
But all is not lost, and your future is still promising. According to Jay Reid (and I agree with him), there are 3 pillars to healing from this crazy making childhood.
Pillar #1: Make sense of what happened
Understanding what happened makes a huge difference. You thought you were a pathetic loser, someone who never gets it right and never fits in. And you realize there is in fact nothing wrong with you and the real issue is massive parental failure.
Yeah, it definitely feels very different and this difference allows you to live a fulfilling life – although temporarily unpleasant because there is a lot of grief involved.
Somewhere deed down, we already know we were used by our family. But we need enough validation to allow ourselves to believe it. And it’s not easy to find because of the general social inability to speak about abuse in general, and narcissism in particular.
We all believe our story and our family is unique, that nobody can understand us. We believe this until we read or hear someone else telling his story and finding it weirdly similar to your own. Then another one. And another.
Up until the point we realize it has nothing unique: it is about a well known and documented particular mental disease. Why is this information not widely available? Why do we bump into it years, sometimes decades later ?
Probably because we all collectively don’t want to admit narcissism and abuse are frequent, and that we let it run its course without protecting the children. In other words, denial.
Pillar #2: Gain distance from the narcissistic abuser
I cannot state this enough. Apparently, so does Jay Reid.
The pull of narcissism is so strong, it will suck your self esteem and life force out of you, like a big emotional black hole.
Don’t make the mistake of believing we are stronger than this mental disease. We are not. Even trained, experienced psychiatrists struggle with these patients. And we are untrained, with fragile boundaries, a shaky self esteem, and no idea what a healthy relationship feels like.
Run for your life.
Pillar #3: defy the narcissists rules
That’s one of the difficult truths we have to face: wherever we go, here we are. And here with us are the narcissist’s rules, that we took with us and internalized : our constant self criticism, our self-deprivation, lack of boundaries, shame, and our inability to be in touch with our bodies and our inner life.
Yes, there is a lot of work to be done still after pillar #1 and #2. But it can be done, with guidance, information and support. It is not possible to have a satisfying relationship with a narcissist, but it is possible to end up feeling good about ourselves and our lives. Hope is entirely appropriate and realistic.
- 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.
In case you fear being triggered, know it’s relatively easy to read: there is almost no mention of physical stuff happening. The emotional abuse and chaos is well described though and can lead to some discomfort – but it’s also what gets us reflecting, and feeling.
I really recommend you read Believing me, but if you can’t, here are a few takeaways about the dynamics of abusive families :
Predators tactics are so predictable
When we try to live our lives after the shock of trauma, we usually think our story is unique. We feel ashamed of having been abused, as if it was our fault somehow. We believe it happened because of what we did or did not do, or who we were, or were not. Because of us, in short.
When we read a book like Believing Me, it helps realize our stories are indeed not unique. When she described the way her stepfather alternated brutal periods of silent treatment, neglect and hostility, with periods of warmth and attention, I recognized the dynamic. Done enough times, with sufficient intensity, these cycles destroy personal boundaries with great efficiency.
This is not “the way he is, you know” as other family members describe with a knowing look. What it really is, is a grooming tactic on a young, dependent mind. Make no mistake, it’s a conscious maneuver. You can hear another example with Harvey Weinstein’s tape from Amber Gutierrez, several of these cycles in less than 40 seconds.
Same old, same old.
And they think they are so brilliant.
Predators repeat the same scenario their whole life
Like Ingrid Clayton, I came to this realization in my early forties: it was never about us.
These guys have one scenario in their mind, and they replay it over and over with any young and dependent person who is around. It was us, but could have been anybody else. Often, it has been a substantial number of anybody elses. They are so stuck in a hypnotic, repetitive trance, they don’t see people anyway.
We don’t understand it because our perspective is very limited while stuck in our family. But if you have the opportunity later, do a bit of digging: chances are your abuser left a trail of destruction spanning decades.
The other parent is willing to do anything to stay in denial
That’s the worst part: the other parent is also in a kind of trance, a la la land where their relationship and their family is loving and normal, and nothing’s wrong. It feels and looks a lot like their own family of origin, who was loving and normal (as everybody knows).
Most partners will do anything to stay in this lalaland, even if it means inflicting enormous damage on their own children, and eventually themselves. They believe they are too fragile to face reality, leaving it to their kids to handle so they can go on with their fictitious life.
The victim often ends up scapegoated
There is a mighty problem though: even with heavy doses of denial, it’s obvious for everyone something is wrong in this family. So often, the victim becomes the problem: too fragile, too sensitive, too rebellious, too provocative, too bad, too spoiled too problematic. The scapegoat is supposed to carry all the family’s dysfunction.
This is very heavy and unfair, indeed. It’s sinister, but all very usual unfortunately.
The great Tolstoy has famously written in his opening of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
In all humility, I’m not sure about that: I don’t know a lot of happy families, but I can confidently say a lot of insane families are alike.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Believing Me, the abusive narcissist’s prayer :
“That didn’t happen.
And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
And if it was, that’s not a big deal.
And if it is, that’s not my fault.
And if it was, I didn’t mean it.
And if I did, you deserved it.”
- 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.
Perfectionism is our low self worth in action
In reality we are using perfectionism as a protection against anticipated criticism. We think everything we do or say has to be perfect to make sure nobody can criticize us.
So we are ready to put huge efforts into the tiniest thing, from our physical appearance to a task at work to a dinner at home with friends, all of this to stay safe.
Perfectionism is a demonstration of our low self esteem: we usually understand well others cannot do everything perfectly and that it is okay; good enough is good enough; perfection is an unattainable goal; we have to allocate time and effort to priorities which means some things will be done badly and some others will not be done at all.
Intellectually, we get it.
But deep down we do not believe it’s applicable to us. For some mysterious reason, the world is entitled to attack us mercilessly if what we do is less than perfect. And if the world doesn’t, then we’ll take care of it. I remember going through full blown shame attacks for the silliest mistake.
Perfectionism prevents us from enjoying life
If we are perfectionists, there is not way we will enjoy doing something. We cannot appreciate the journey, we cannot experience the famous flow: we are too busy anticipating everything that could go wrong.
We don’t trust ourselves. We don’t trust we can accomplish something gracefully without overthinking every detail. We don’t trust our spontaneity can offer us and the world something valuable. We believe if you are letting ourselves be without controlling everything the result will be unacceptable.
We don’t trust others either. We can not imagine them loving or accepting us if we just do things normally. If we sometimes forget tasks, sometimes screw up, and sometimes do great things. We don’t trust others to allow us to be normal, in short.
And when we do achieve something great, even when others notice, all we see is the tiny, unimportant flaw, the one imperfection. We fixate on it and stay unsatisfied.
Perfectionism does not get things done
As you probably know, perfectionism does not guarantee the overall result will be amazing. Far from it.
It took me a long time to figure it out, but nobody expected me to do something perfectly. Reasonably good was enough.
Why ? Because trying to achieve perfection is time consuming. It’s usually better to cover more ground and accomplish more things, than doing one perfectly and leaving the rest undone.
Can you imagine organizing the perfect birthday party for your kid but not having the time to take him to the dentist and cook meals? Perfectionism gets in the way of overall result.
Worse, it can prevent us from starting something we have to do.
How many times did I not start something I really wanted to, for fear of not doing it really well ? How many times did I drop a project because I thought what I was doing was not good enough? And how many time didn’t I start something really important, because I was busy trying to do something less important perfectly ? More times than I can count, and l have wasted a lot of time.
The best friend of perfectionism is procrastination. The way I see it now, my perfectionism gave all the power to what others thought, and helped me abandon myself.
Yet for all its faults, I came to understand perfectionism has been also my friend. An unruly, irritating friend, but a friend nevertheless.
Perfectionism and trauma
I tried to trace back my first experiences with perfectionism and was hit hard by my first memory of it: for years as a child, I went to bed making a list of things I would do better from the next day.
I was doing this list to be more intelligent, funnier, more autonomous, more successful. I wanted to be an awesome eight years old and there was a lot to do to get there.
If you find this attitude bizarre for an eight years old, you are totally right. Children are supposed to play, experience life and learn from it. Not cross tasks on a to do list like a stressed out wedding planner.
But at home I was the ugly duckling: the one who never got it right, who was oversensitive, shy, lazy, and bad. I was criticized constantly. My scapegoating served both as a justification and a cover up for abuse.
Of course I was too young to see it that way. For me, what other family members thought about me was justified. If I could just find a way to be a better person, then my parents would think better of me, and with a lot of effort, even abuse could disappear from my life.
I could do something about it. I could control things. I could stop violence.
Perfectionism carried me when nothing else could
Thinking about it from where I am now makes me very, very sad. Of course people, or children, are not scapegoated or abused because of the way they are. They are abused because of problems the abuser, group or family, have: usually a pretty severe mental health issue.
My family was no exception. There was really nothing I could do. Looking back now, I see a traumatized, but intelligent, cute, and kind girl anyway. There was not much need for change, except my circumstances.
But it was impossible to see myself and my family like this then. It would have meant there was nothing I could do. It was far too devastating.
I needed a semblance of power, of agency. I needed to do something.
Yes, healthy striving is better than perfectionism. Doing something out of love or pleasure is far more enjoyable than out of fear, and it works way better.
But sometimes, healthy striving is not available because we still need to heal before being able to face reality. Perfectionism can then fuel us with energy and purpose. It bring some difficult side effects, but it prevents us from giving up. And it helps us go somewhere where we can start the difficult task of healing from our trauma.
- Spotting Narcissism Red Flags
Spotting narcissism red flags is what we do in hindsight.
We look back on a relationship once we know it’s over, and we say : “Oh, here and here were the red flags; I actually could have seen this person was not good for me early on”.
This logic does two things for us:
- it gives us a sense of control, as in: “Next time I’m going to get it right and see the problem before it’s too late”
- and it also allows us to wallow in shame, as in: “How could I not see it? I’m so stupid”, which can be a familiar and oddly comfortable pattern for some of us – Well it definitively was for me.
Both points are a defense against anxiety, but are ultimately not useful. They are not self loving either, or even accurate.
Red flags are everywhere, my friend
I’m currently in a long term relationship that is one of the best things that happened to me. I’m so glad it worked out, so glad my partner Alex and I did take the decision to create a family, so happy to wake up every day sharing my life with him and our kids.
Very early in the relationship though, I realized Alex had made a bet with one of his friends that our relationship would not last.
What’s that for an early days red flag ? It sure does qualify according to me. Still, in hindsight I took the right decision to stay in the relationship.
You see, in any long lasting relationship, we will find times when our partner was not at his or her best (to put things mildly). And if we are being honest, we can see our partner could say the exact same thing about us.
Red flag is a label we stick on these episodes when the relationship ended up being disastrous, when it’s easy to be all wise and knowledgeable. The truth is, early on, we often cannot know if it’s an isolated incident or a pattern.
So let me suggest, respectfully, to stop being mean to ourselves and believing we could have spotted narcissism early.
That said, I believe that being informed of common red flags can speed our hindsights up, and help us exit sooner. I’m convinced I could have paused sooner if someone had asked me: “does he ever ask a question about you ?”
Narcissistic partners may give early warnings
A highly skilled narcissist will be undetectable until we are very dependent on the relationship. Some of us may say, in all honesty, that their partner looked great for years. Charismatic, but also kind and thoughtful, a good listener, loving, you name it.
These people can put together an excellent act, even if deep down they don’t care. To hear about a real life example, listen to the Betrayal podcast: this poor woman realized her husband was a dangerous narcissist when the cops actually came to put him in prison for sexual assault of a teenage girl.
However, narcissists in my life were not that competent at hiding: they did accidentally show who they were early in the relationship. So, with the benefit of hindsight, here are my retrospective early red flags (early meaning before it became really ugly) :
Not being interested in us:
It may seem obvious, but we can be so mesmerized by our date’s apparent charm that we do not see they showed no curiosity about us. They never asked about what we experienced in our life, what we think about an event, or a book, if our family or friends are important for us, or for that matter any personal question. There were too busy putting up a performance.
Looking back now, it amazes me that I did not click at the time: it was so obvious these guys did not know me better after a few dates, and did not even know me after a few months. The relationship was clearly not about me. The only interesting parts of me were the ones relating to them, and the shining and sparkly parts that were bringing the narcissistic gratifications . The rest of me did not exist for them.
Being nice to powerful people, but ignoring people with a lower social standing
In other words your date is calculating how he or she behaves according to the expected benefits of the relationship. If there is no benefit, the narcissist is his or her normal self : an asshole.
All is well when you are on the good side of the fence, but watch out the day you have nothing to offer: it ain’t gonna be pretty.
Raging when being called out on questionable behavior
When I found out my partner had done this unfortunate bet, I asked him about it, obviously very distressed. He spent time reassuring me, making it clear his behavior had been careless. He also tried to make me feel better but understood it could not happen instantly. In other words, his main reaction was one of accountability, empathy and an attempt to repair the relationship.
In contrast, when a narcissistic partner is called out on an outrageous behavior, the main reaction is a rageful attempt to evade their responsibility. The behavior was not that bad. We are being too sensitive. It is our fault somehow. What we witnessed actually did not happen. If we were loving we would not react like this. Or they rage silently and give us the silent treatment.
How to detect a competent narcissist then?
We detect them over time. Helped by education on narcissism, but we still do need time.
That’s the answer you can find in this excellent podcast with Doctor Ramani, host of the Navigating Narcissism podcast, discussing with Matthew Hussey, who is apparently a famous dating coach. And it makes a lot of sense: we watch their behavior over time, and see if they show respect and curiosity about us in a consistent manner.
That’s why it is so important to spend time getting to know your partner before committing. And this is why we hear so many story of narcissists love bombing and rushing the relationship : because they suspect they will not be able to perform so well for the long haul.
Of course for us it means countering desperation, insecure attachment, self esteem issues, and other trauma scars. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either.
If I managed this, coming from my own place of plain desperation, acute insecure attachment, disastrous self esteem, and difficult trauma history, pretty much anyone can in my opinion. It’s about healing from our trauma, which is what this blog is about: feel free to read other articles on healing…
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