How to Reap the Benefits of Post-Traumatic Growth

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” ~Hemingway We all know of post-traumatic stress (PTS) but how many of us know of post-traumatic growth (PTG), a very hopeful and attainable way of life beyond the loss, adversity, and trauma...

How to Love an Addict (Who Doesn’t Love Themselves)

I grew up in a family of high-functioning addicts. We looked like the perfect family, but as we all know, looks can be deceiving. No one was addicted to drugs, so that obviously meant that we had no problems. Cigarettes, alcohol, food, and work don’t count, right? I have come to realize that what we are addicted to is nowhere near as important as the admission that we’re addicted to something. When we try to make ourselves feel better by telling ourselves that gambling or porn or beer is nowhere near as bad as crack or heroin, we are merely lying to ourselves. In the recovery movement, we call this denial. Denial was the foundation my life was built on. We did not speak of my grandfather’s abusive behavior and alcoholism. We did not question my grandmother’s chain-smoking habit. We did not mention my other grandfather’s drunken falls and injuries. We never tried to help my aunt who was eating anything she could get her hands on. No one questioned the countless hours my father spent working. There were so many things we just never talked about. There were so many things that were secrets. Things I had to hide. The unspoken family rule. I loved my family members. I still do. They were good people. They tried really hard. They just didn’t know how to look after themselves, to value themselves, to love themselves. They did the best they could under the circumstances and with the lack of awareness, information, and support at the time, and I don’t think it’s ever fair to judge that from the outside. I have gone through my stages of anger, judgment, and resentment and come out the other side. All that is left is sadness and love. I loved my family members. I loved them so much and all I ever wanted, even as a little girl, was for them to be happy. I wanted my granddad to not drink come 4pm so he would stay the lovely man that he was. I didn’t want to see him shout and cry and fall over. I didn’t want to be scared like that and watch my grandmother cry while helping him up and cleaning away the blood. He was a good man, but he had seen the worst of World War II and I don’t think he ever recovered from that. Maybe he would have been an alcoholic without those experiences; I will never know, and it really doesn’t matter because he was not just that. He was kind and generous. He played with me and made me laugh. He cuddled me in bed and told me story after story. We had so much fun together. Remembering those happy times will warm my heart for the rest of my life. I will be forever grateful for those happy memories and the time I had with him. I guess that he is the first addict I ever loved. My grandmother was the kindest person I have ever met. In my eyes, she couldn’t have been any more perfect. I wish that she had lived longer so that I could have had the opportunity to get to know her as an adult. What would I have seen? Would I have seen a woman who didn’t set any boundaries? Would I have seen someone who gave and gave without ever really getting anything back? I don’t know. I cannot say. But she was definitely the love of my life. And maybe that’s because she might have been codependent and treated me like a little princess, or maybe it is that she was just one of the kindest people the world has ever seen. It might even be both. It doesn’t matter who it was and what they were addicted to, I loved them. I truly loved them. I loved them then and I love them now even though they are no longer alive and haven’t been for decades. Addiction may change how they behaved at times, but it didn’t change the essence of them. And that’s what I have always loved. It doesn’t mean that I was blind to everything that was wrong. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t sense that something was terribly wrong. Today, I love the addicts in my life from a greater distance. The pain of loving someone who doesn’t love themselves is too much to bear. We speak and we care, but there is an emotional depth we can never reach. A depth I craved then and I depth I will crave if I let myself forget who I am loving. Because that’s what I found to be my solution for maintaining relationships with people I love but who struggle to love themselves: I can love them, but I can only do so by accepting that there is an emotional distance I will never be able to bridge. I have to accept that the closeness I seek, I can never get. I may get a hint of it every now and then, but I can no longer allow myself to be lured into wishing and hoping that things will change how I want them to change. I can love them and I can hold space for them, but I cannot change them. What I can do is remove my expectations and hopes and dreams for them and their relationship with me by accepting the reality of our situation. This gives me freedom. It gives me freedom to love them while being true to myself and honest about my feelings. It allows me to enjoy the contact and connection that exists while having healthy boundaries in place that protect me from sacrificing my own well-being and peace of mind in a misguided attempt to save them from themselves. It is that separation that finally allows us to connect. It gives us space to respect our struggles and each other as individuals. As long as I failed to see that, I tried to change them, and that’s what stopped us from connecting. And so. learning that I cannot change another person and that only they have the power to do so, opened me up to actually being able to love them. I also learned that I cannot love another person into loving themselves. I used to believe that meant that my love wasn’t good enough—that I wasn’t enough—but I now know that the love they needed and the love they sought was the one that only comes from within. Because if my love could have saved them, it would have. I loved them that much. But love that comes from the outside needs to be able to connect with the love that’s on the inside, and that love, they just hadn’t connected with. That love they never found during their lifetime. And so, they couldn’t teach it to anyone else either. No one knew about it, and everyone just coped with their pain in the only way they knew how to. I wanted them to look after themselves and be happy so very much. I wanted them to be healthy for me. I wanted them to stay alive for me. I didn’t understand that I couldn’t save them. I didn’t really comprehend that part for most of my life, which paradoxically has cost me a lot of my life. I know the yearning and the craving. The wishful thinking. The rollercoaster of hope and crestfallen disappointment. The believing in them and cheering them on only to watch them fall again. But I was always on the outside. It was never in my control. It never really had anything to do with me or meant anything about me. I just happened to be born into my family and love them. For most of my life I wondered if I did really love them or if I just loved what they did for me, but I can now say with absolute certainty that I loved them. The things I loved doing with them, I haven’t done in decades and yet the love is still as strong as ever. As is the gratitude. I am grateful for the kindness they’ve shown me and the lessons they’ve taught me. I am grateful for their perseverance and their endurance. I am grateful for the thousand things they were, because they were more than addicts. They had dreams and aspirations when youth was on their side. They had things they liked and favorite clothes they wore. They had friends and social lives. They danced and they had fun. They kissed and made up. They tried really hard to be the best people they could be, and how could anyone ever say that that wasn’t good enough? They never did anything to intentionally purposefully hurt or harm anyone because they were good people. Good people who never hurt or harmed anyone but themselves. And witnessing that was painful. Knowing that that is what happened and continues to happen is still painful. It is a reality I wish wasn’t true. If there was something I could do to change that, I would. But I know I can’t. And that is the reason why I can love the addicts in my life. When I thought that I could change them or save them, I couldn’t love them. Love accepts people as they are. It does not seek to change someone so they fit in with your idea of them. Love is inherently respectful. Trying to change someone isn’t. I could never really control them or their substances, and I have lived with the panic of not being able to. But I have made friends with it. I now know how to soothe myself and in that way, I take care of myself. I have achieved what they never could. I cannot control what my addicts do to themselves. I cannot control the choices they make. But I can control my choices. And I choose health, growth, and love. I will not continue the family heirloom of addiction and self-abandonment. Instead, I have learned to love in healthy ways. And that includes me. I have learned to take care of myself and dare I say it, like myself. But I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for my family. While they provided me with my challenges and relational struggles, they also provided me with kindness, love, and strength. For some reason, they managed to love me enough to let know that there is another way of  being because that is what has kept me going. I always knew there was something wrong. I just didn’t know what it was. And I also always knew that there was a better life out there, and I was right. I just wish that my addicts could have also had that experience. I wish we could have had it together, and I don’t think that I will ever stop wishing that. But I accept the reality that is and I will continue to do for myself what they could not do for themselves so my children will not share the struggles of the past. I focus on what I can control, and I take full responsibility for my own life. I look after myself how I wish they had looked after themselves. I do it for me. I do it for my children. And I do it to honor them. Because I know that they would want for me what I wanted for them. The difference is that I am able to give it to them. And I do so with all my love. About Marlena Tillhon-Haslam Marlena loves people and life and is passionate about finding ways to make our human experience as fulfilling as possible. She works as a psychotherapist, relationship coach, and Clinical Director. She loves to connect on Instagram or via her Love with Clarity and Codependency Today Facebook groups and pages. She is an expert in human relationships and sees them as the lifeblood of a meaningful existence. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!

How Mother Nature and I Manage My Depression

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” ~John Burroughs I sat on the front stoop sobbing, unable to move. Hunched over like a heaving dog hugging my knees and clutching a wad of decomposing tissues. About fifteen minutes before, I’d managed to get myself off the couch where I’d been parked, withered and absent, for the fourth consecutive day, and had made it through the front door. Once there, I tried to stay upright, but like cool syrup I slid down the side of the wrought iron railing and down onto the steps. Now all I had to do was get up and walk to the mailbox and back and maybe I’d feel better. But I couldn’t do it. It was too much. I hoisted my ladened head from my knees and stared out the driveway to the mailbox about seven hundred feet away. It may as well have been ten miles… or fifteen feet. It didn’t matter, it was too far. “Please just help me get up,” I pleaded to a somber sky. The help didn’t come and so there I sat crying, searching for the energy or the wherewithal to make myself move. Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, twenty-five… the time oozed by thick and distorted. It had happened before, more than once, and had overtaken me at varying speeds and intensity.  Sometimes it leached in with the change of seasons; like an inflatable pool toy left floating past the end of summer, sad and wilted, the air having seeped out in infinitesimal degrees. Sometimes I could fight it off, catch it before things got too grim. Not this time. I’d felt myself spiraling down, hot wind escaping me until I was in a deflated heap, slack and flaccid on the sofa. It had happened a few years ago, although not this bad, and a chirpy classmate had suggested that I just “snap out of it!” “Just… ‘snap out of it?’” I repeated. “Yeah!! Snap out of it!” “It’s not that simple,” I said. “Sure, it is! Like the song says, ‘Put on a happy face!’” “Are you kidding me right now?” “No, I’m not kidding,” she said. “It’s mind over matter. Just distract yourself by doing something that makes you happy. Stop thinking about it… you know, snap out of it!” I looked at the woman through a haze of disbelief and deadpanned, “Just snap out of it. Gee. Why didn’t I think of that?” Another friend enquired, “Why don’t you just ask for help when things get bad?” “Because you can’t,” I said “What do you mean you can’t? You just pick up the phone and ask for help. It takes two seconds!” “I mean you can’t; not when you’re in the depths of it. That’s the insidiousness of it. When you need help the most is when you’re least able to ask for it.” “That doesn’t make any sense,” the friend replied. “If you’re sick you call the doctor. If your car breaks down you get it to a mechanic. If you have a drinking problem you go to AA. When you need help, you ask for help!” “That’s like telling someone who is trapped under a piano to walk over to the phone and call the movers,” I scoffed. “You simply can’t” “Of course, you can! You’re not actually trapped under a piano and you’re not paralyzed, are you?” “Well, no, obviously it’s a metaphor. But in a way you are… paralyzed, I mean.” “Oh, come on… I think you’re being a little dramatic.” “And I think you’re being dismissive and oversimplifying it.” “Because it’s pretty simple. You just ask for help.” “I don’t think there’s anything I can say to help you to understand how it feels. I just don’t know how to explain it if you’ve never experienced it.” “Well, I think if someone needs help, they should just ask for it.” I sighed and said “Maybe the name says it all. It’s a good name for how you feel. ‘Depression.’ There’s the word depression like a hole in the ground and you definitely feel like you’re stuck down in a hole. And there’s depression in the sense that something is pressing down on you. It absolutely feels like there is a physical weight holding you down. It’s inexplicably heavy. It’s heavy in your mind. It’s heavy in your lungs. It’s heavy in your body. Sometimes, when it’s really bad, it’s nearly impossible to move.” “Nearly impossible… but not impossible,” my friend said. “You could still get to the phone.” Okay… Whatever… But that was then and now I was alone. No nonbelievers to convert nor pep talks to deflect. Medication had worked to a degree and only for a while. The struggle to find the right prescription and dosage combined with the ever-growing list of side effects had proven too much. I also swore I could feel the drugs in my system, and they made me feel toxic, for lack of a better term, and I couldn’t stand it.  So, under my doctor’s guidance I’d titrated off my meds. I’d discovered that, for me, the best way to loosen the grip of despair and keep it at bay was intense, intentional, physical exercise. As I slowly increased the time I spent walking, then running, my doctor kept close tabs on my progress. It had worked. It was my magic pill and like any prescription, I had to take it without fail or face a relapse. I’d found that he more/less I exercised the more/less I wanted to, and the better/worse I felt; it was self-perpetuating in both directions, and over the past couple of months I had gotten lazy; my laziness turned into malaise, the malaise had become despondence, and despondence had gotten me here. Sitting languid and bleak between a spitting gray sky and the gravel drive. It was late September in Mid-Coast Maine. The days were growing shorter and winter would not be long behind. The hibernal season was always a struggle and it was harder to manage my mood. The window of opportunity was closing. If I didn’t get ahead of it straightaway there’d be no escaping without medical intervention. I had to move my body so my mind could follow, it was the only way out and would happen right now or not at all. I had to dig down deep, excavate some minuscule untapped reserve, the survival instinct maybe, and use it to push back against the darkness with everything I had left. Okay. On the count of one… two… three… I took a deep breath in and with the exhale, slowly rolled forward off the step onto my hands and knees into the small dusty stones. I looked out to the end of the drive, toward the empty road and the stand of pines beyond, then hooked my eyes onto the mailbox. Just get there. Crawl if you have to, but go. I crept a few feet forward on all fours, the sharp pebbles jabbing into my knees and palms “I think you’re being a little dramatic…” I rolled my eyes and set my jaw. Sitting back on my heels, I pushed with my hands and came up into a four-point squat. I sat there for a minute keep moving keep moving then, fingers splayed on the ground, I stuck my fanny in the air, grabbed hold of my thighs one at a time, and hauled myself up. Arms crossed over my stomach and chest, stooped and shivering, I hugged myself. Move. Move your feet Taking tiny steps, increments of half a foot-length, I shuffled forward; right, left, pause… right, left, pause…  “God it’s so hard.” Keep going keep going… Over the past couple of years I’d become an athlete, a trail runner. I ran twenty-five or thirty miles a week, up and down ski slopes in the summertime, yet right then I could barely move. There was nothing physically wrong with me, but depression is an autocrat and I’d fallen under its totalitarian rule. It forbade me from moving with my normal grace and ease and instead had me shackled and chained… but I kept going. “You should die from this,” I breathed out loud. “If there was a true, proportionate cause and effect, feeling this bad should, in all fairness, kill a person.” Keep going keep going.  “But it doesn’t. It squeezes the life out of you but doesn’t actually kill you.” I was halfway to the mailbox.  I didn’t pick up my feet, just sort of slid them along, rocking back and forth like a sickly penguin leaving drag marks behind. It hurt to move, it hurt to breathe. “Please help me,” I turned my face upward and beseeched the misting sky. “Please give me a sign. I need something, anything, so I know this will be worth it. If you do, I promise I’ll believe it and I won’t give up.  I promise I’ll keep going.” Right, left, right, left. I was closing in on the letterbox, tears flowing. My body ached. I got no sign, no random flash of light nor clap of thunder, just the sound of the breeze in the pines and my feet scratching in the pebbles. When I was about ten feet away, I extended an arm, right, left, right, left, almost there… reaching…  fingertips touching the cold damp metal. “I did it,” I feebly cried. Maybe there’s something in the mail today… maybe that will be my sign. I opened the box and peered inside. Nothing. Just a flyer from the market with its weekly specials—not even real mail, just more junk. But with or without a sign, I’d made it. Oh… God… I turned around and, clamping my Kleenex and the stupid flyer to my chest, stared blankly back down the driveway to the house. Now I have to do it again. It was so far. “Just get it over with and then you can be done.” I breathed in and started back… right, left, right, left, right, left, I resumed my melancholy march. My gaze was fixed yet something moving high in a tree caught in my periphery… a bird; a crow or raven maybe. I paused and looked up, and there he was flapping his wings just a bit, arranging himself on his perch. The huge chocolate-colored body and glorious white crown were unmistakable, even at this distance. Bald Eagles were common up here, but this was no ordinary creature and I knew it.  Strength, pride, power, Mother Nature to the rescue again. Yes, this was my eagle and I understood the message he brought. I sniffled, dragged my damp sleeve across my nose and cheek, and nodded. “Okay,” I whispered. “Thank you. This is good. I can do this” I regained momentum. Right, left, right, left. I’m a runner, I’m an athlete, I eat hills for breakfast, Goddammit. Keep going. Hand outstretched, I grabbed hold of the railing and climbed the three steps to the house. I made it back, albeit barely, and let myself inside. I got out of my wet clothes and wrapped myself up in my accomplishment and a fluffy robe. I would get a little something to eat, I thought, take a hot shower, go to bed, and watch TV.  I still felt like hell, but I did it. I would get some sleep tonight and first thing tomorrow morning, I told myself, I would go to the mailbox again… and maybe just a little bit farther. * * * * When a person releases any type of toxicity from their lives or stops accepting their drug of choice, in whatever form it takes, after years of abuse, they discover all sorts of things about themselves that may have been masked by, or mistaken for, their addiction. One of the things I unearthed when I got sober was a history of severe depression that I’d attributed to alcoholism; I was wrong, they weren’t one and the same. They were, however, mutually parasitic, two separate entities that fed off one another. Which came first, the depression or the alcoholism, I have no idea and, frankly, it didn’t really matter to me. My substance abuse certainly exacerbated my despondency, but cessation didn’t cure it; I was left with chronic, sometimes debilitating bouts of despair. My first twelve-step sponsor suggested we meet for weekly walks at the town reservoir, a three thousand-acre forested reserve dotted with pristine watershed lakes. It was to become a transformative practice. Once a week, we walked and talked our way around a popular three-mile loop where I learned, among many other things, a quote that I believe helped save my life: “Move a muscle, change a thought.” This quote introduced me to the theory that physically moving the body helps dislodge negativity and facilitates a healthy thought process. It also reintroduced me to my love of the woods, something I’d forfeited long ago to alcoholism. The activity became so enjoyable that I began to seek out my new like-minded friends for a “walk at the Res,” building healthy relationships in a tranquil setting, eventually heading out on my own as well. I’d walk the loop after work as the days grew long and hike for hours on sunny weekend mornings. I’d often catch glimpses of deer, even a doe with her fawn. It relaxed me and made me smile, which may not sound like much but for me, as sick as I’d been, it was a big deal. Surrounded by the soft shapes and sounds of the forest, the whispers of the breeze rustling the leaves, the sound of water moving over rocks in the creeks and the birdsong in the trees, and the rich smell and feel of earth under my feet, I found the magical world I’d claimed as a girl and then left behind. Being alone in nature I found peace and my very first feelings of joy as an adult. I’d forgotten that joy existed, let alone that it was something that might be available to me. Not to be understated, it also kept me occupied, away from dangerous environments and temptation. As the happiness in my heart grew and my healthful body returned, I began going for short runs. It wasn’t easy, but I kept at it, physically challenging myself gradually, mindfully, and without impunity. The endorphins, already being released on walks and hikes, increased proportionately with the pace, the distance, and demand of the terrain. I was feeling strong, happy, empowered; literally and intentionally changing the chemical balance in my brain. With the blessing and guidance of my therapist, I slowly replaced my antidepressants with scheduled, purposeful exercise, proud to be scaling my active participation in my recovery under the watchful eye of my doctor. After several years, I traded regular visits with my shrink for the occasional tune-up with a sports physician.   Nature was at the center of my spiritual healing and running and hiking had become my medicine.  And like any medicine, if I kept taking it, it kept working and, well, if I didn’t… **** Day by day, I had allowed one excuse after another to erode my commitment to exercise and disrupt my healthy routine, but I’d just sloughed it off. “No big deal,” I told myself. “I’ll get back to it tomorrow.” But my “tomorrows” were adding up and before I knew it, momentum was lost and the pendulum had swung. Then, my relationship fell apart. My conditioned response would have been to run it off; take my anger and pain into the woods and leave it there rather than turn it inward. But it was too late. My depression had already taken hold and gotten ahead of me, so instead of hitting the trail I’d spiraled down and hit the couch… and I stayed there for days. It was a very difficult lesson, but I learned it. I have yet to make that mistake again. Today, nearly twenty years after my long journey to the mailbox, I have a million things to do. But first, I went for a run. I know I need to make intentional exercise a priority, and to celebrate the small victories when all I can manage is a short walk. When you’re depressed it can be hard to see this, but small wins are wins, nonetheless. If you’re struggling right now, I get it.  I know you can’t just snap out of it. I know it’s hard to ask for help. I know you might need medication, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But perhaps, like me, you’ll find it helpful to get out of your head, get outside, and get moving. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s to never underestimate the healing power of physical exercise and mother nature. About Amie Gabriel Holistic Wellness expert, certified yoga, meditation, and group fitness instructor specializing in mind/body fitness, women's wellness, 12-step recovery, processing grief and depression, and celebrating joy. Amie creates mindful, nature-based programs and retreats focusing on the inseparable connection of mind/breath/body/spirit/intention. Her work has been featured at Canyon Ranch Lenox and Tucson, Mayflower Inn and Spa, Washington Depot, CT, Silver Hill Hospital, New Canaan, CT, among others. She has written a book on healing through holistic wellness to be published in 2020. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!

Healing from the Trauma of Narcissistic Abuse

“Don’t blame a clown for acting like a clown. Ask yourself why you keep going to the circus.” ~Unknown When I first experienced narcissistic abuse as an adult, it was a at a time when the term “narcissistic abuse” was not so heard of or understood. I had met a handsome, intelligent, charismatic, and charming man, and as is typical in abusive relationships, had been completely overwhelmed by the intensity and ‘love’-overload of the early stages. Before I could catch my breath, though, the nitpicking started, and so did the heated arguments, the jealousy, the cutting contact, and disappearing for days on end—shortly followed by dramatic make-ups, apologies, gifts, and promises. And so had begun the emotional roller coaster ride that is dating a narcissist. Many months later, I found myself becoming a different person. I was stressed, anxious, paranoid, increasingly isolated, and cranky. I was totally lost and felt like nobody understood. Friends couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just end things. We were hooked in a destructive bond. At the worst points being caught in a toxic relationship feels utterly maddening. After months of relationship highs and lows, of it being on and off, the gaslighting, accusations, and coercive control, I honestly began to believe I was losing my mind. I was stuck trying to make sense of my experience, and the logical part of my mind was desperately searching for answers to so many questions: Why did he cheat?What was so wrong with me?Why did he lie?What were lies and what was the truth?Was any of it real?Did he ever really say the things he said?Was he even capable of love?How could things have been different?What else could or should I have done? These are some of the same questions I hear my clients ask now when they come to me for support in healing from narcissistic abuse. The Journey of Healing My own recovery started one particularly frantic night. I was incredibly upset and desperate to make sense of what was going on. Searching online, I happened to come across information about sociopaths and narcissists and this particular kind of psychological abuse. This was a pivotal moment. I had never heard anybody use the term “narcissistic abuse,” and at that time (this was many years ago), there was hardly any information around about it. But I knew, the moment I read this, that this was it. It shifted my whole perspective. It was shocking, confusing, although overall, an unbelievable relief. I realized this was a ‘thing’ and that for the first time, other people understood. More importantly, there was a way out. Reading more about psychological abuse, I arrived at my first key point in healing: I Realized It’s Not Me—I’m Not Crazy! Toxic relationships will leave you feeling like you are mad. Often abusive partners will reinforce this by never taking responsibility and constantly telling you in various ways that it is your fault or your issues. My narcissistic partner would criticize and undermine me in all sorts of strange and subtle ways, including judgments or ‘suggestions.’ He would often communicate in ways that would leave me doubting or questioning myself. As is the power of being with a narcissist, at the time, I was eager to please and impress. If I ever pulled him up on any of the criticisms, he accused me of being negative, told me he was trying to support my personal growth, that I was being sensitive, paranoid, that I was over-reacting, or that I had issues. This kind of abuse in itself is maddening. I realized that all of what I had been feeling was in itself the symptoms of being in an emotionally abusive relationship. I was not and am not mad, but I was in a mad relationship. I found as I cut contact and removed myself from the toxic dynamic that my sense of sanity swiftly returned. This is something that many sufferers I work with now also experience. You are not crazy, but if you are in an abusive relationship, you are in a relationship dynamic that will leave you feeling like you are. Letting Go of the Need to Understand and Know It’s our mind’s natural tendency to want to make sense of our experience; however, with narcissism and narcissistic behavior, there is no sense. You can’t apply logic to illogical actions. I created a lot of distress for myself in the early part of my recovery by desperately clinging onto the fantasy that I somehow could understand all the what’s and whys. Being able to let go of this need to know is a big step in recovery. This was not easy at the time, but I managed this by practicing mindfulness and learning to recognize when my thoughts or attention would drift to the narcissist or on trying to work out the answers or understand the non-existent logic. As I became aware of my thoughts drifting to such a futile task, I would then try and tune into my feelings in that moment and ask myself “How am I feeling right now?” I’d mentally label the emotion and any physical sensations that went along with it. Then, knowing more clearly how I was feeling (sad, angry, etc.) I would ask myself “What do I need? What can I do for myself right now that is a loving and supportive thing to do?” Sometimes this would be to allow myself to cry, punch a pillow, reach out to a friend, or go and treat myself to something nice—to practice self-care. It was a step-by-step process to find ways in which I could gently feel my feelings and attend to my own needs. This also included the feelings I had about not having answers and accepting that maybe I never will. You can gently let go with this refocus and self-care. Make a choice about what may be harmful of helpful to your healing and recovery. Considering My Own Narcissism I laugh now that my break-up lasted longer than the actual relationship did! The toxic dynamic was addictive and really hard to let go of from both sides. An empath will care, forgive, understand, and put a narcissist’s needs before their own. A narcissist will crave the attention, contact, and power. It becomes a dance. Narcissists tend to have a disorganized attachment style. Relationships will be push and pull, on and off, up and down. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is a lot like being on an emotional roller coaster ride. It’s exhilarating and draining, but if you stay on, going round and round for long enough you will get sick! Because of the attachment style, the moment a narcissist senses you are pulling away, they will instinctively aim to pull you back in again, throwing all sorts of bait in order to hook you back. I was hooked back again and again by broken promises and wanting to believe the fantasy of how things could be. I was also hooked by believing that somehow, I could be the one to change him, to make him see, to help him love and feel loved, to make things different, to help him be the person I hoped and believed he could be. Truth be told, I wanted to be the one to capture and hold his attention and interest. However, such is the demands of narcissistic supply that it’s impossible that can ever be one person forever. Quite frankly, I had to recognize the narcissism in this. To see the narcissistic fantasy in my idea about somehow possessing some magical powers to help him heal and change. I can’t. In fact, nobody can. A narcissist’s healing and actions are their responsibility only—nobody else’s. Believing on some level you can be the ‘the one’ to change a narcissist is narcissistic to some extent in itself. This doesn’t mean somebody who has this hope has narcissistic personality disorder! It’s just helpful to recognize the ill-placed hope and fantasy. Narcissism is one of the most difficult clinical presentations for highly experienced specialists to treat. You do not have the ability or power to change or help an abuser. More to the point, why would you want to? Let Go of Fantasy Thinking and Ground Yourself in Reality Many people who’ve experienced narcissistic abuse become trapped in elusive fantasy. Fantasy thinking is clinging onto the hope of how you believe things could be, not how they actually are. One of the most confusing things I experienced when in a relationship with a narcissist was distinguishing the difference between fantasy and reality. With this there can be a discrepancy between body and mind. For example, my ex constantly told me that he was being supportive. However, I didn’t feel supported. Like in many abusive relationships, the words and the actions do not match. Nobody can really mean the words “I love you” and be violent, critical, or abusive at the same time. In recovery, it is vital to distinguish between the hope and fantasy of how things could be and the reality of how things actually are. I often hear people describe the longing for things to be like they were “in the beginning.” The start of an abusive relationship can be incredibly intense and powerful. This is the time the manipulator will ‘love-bomb’ and it can feel exhilarating, romantic, powerful, and highly addictive. Intensity is not the same as intimacy though. Real intimacy takes time and is balanced. Intensity can give you a high that you continue to crave. If you suspect you are in an unhealthy relationship, it’s important to take an honest and objective inventory of the current reality, not your ideal of how things were or could be. Right now, how safe and secure do you feel? Currently, what are the actions of your partner or ex? It can be helpful to take pen to paper and list the current behaviors or circumstances to help regain some more realistic perspective. Perhaps asking friends or family their view too. Take responsibility One of the things I feel most grateful from my experience of narcissistic abuse is that I really had to learn to take complete responsibility for myself. I had to become fully responsible for myself and my actions; my recovery, my efforts, my self-care, my finances, my health, my well-being, my life… everything. Something I see many people do while in a toxic relationship, and even following the end of one, is to become stuck with focusing their efforts and attentions on the narcissist. Over-concerning themselves with what they are now doing, or not doing, or still trying to get them to see things another way, or holding out for an apology from them, or hoping they will change or fulfil all their promises and so on. A particular hook I often hear about in my work now is the abusive partner dangling a ‘carrot on a stick’ when their partner attempts to end the relationship. This can be highly abusive as they step up the promises of providing you with whatever it is they know you wish for; be it proper commitment, a family, a secure home situation, financial purchases, or more. I have honestly yet to hear an account of when any of these promises have been honored. Instead, partners are left wasting months and years, even decades, holding on the fantasy and hope that a partner will provide them with what they need. I think it’s important to recognize the bigger perspective. If there are things you want in life, then you take complete responsibility for making them happen. Remember, too much focus on the narcissist is a big part of the problem in the first place! Healing comes with returning your focus to yourself, acknowledging your own feelings and emotional experience, recognizing your own wants and needs, and gently attending to those yourself. I truly believe that healthy relationships begin with the one we have with ourselves. That includes taking full responsibility for all aspects of ourselves and our lives. Gratitude When I was in the midst of the insanity of narcissistic abuse, I felt like I was in a living hell! At the time, I absolutely would never have entertained the concept of applying gratitude to the experience! Now, though, many years later, I can truly say I am deeply grateful for the experience. When I became aware of this particular kind of psychological and emotional abuse, the sheer depths of the pain I was experiencing propelled me to embark on a deep journey of exploration, healing, and recovery and vast personal growth, which I am now eternally grateful for. I actively practiced writing about what I could be grateful for in each part of the experience and—as difficult as that was at the time—it helped to assist my healing. I learned about narcissistic abuse, I learned how to spot the signs of both overt and covert narcissism so now I can spot this a mile off. With awareness, I have a choice. I had to take a good look at my part in the dynamic, my issues of codependency. I learned boundaries. I’ve learned healthy communication. I worked with a therapist and support group to feel and heal the family origins of some issues that related to why we attract or repeat unhealthy relationship patterns in the first place. I learned how to tune into and trust myself and my gut instinct; I always stay close to that now. I learned a huge amount about myself. I know what healthy relationships are and enjoy many of them in my life now. I’m a better, wiser, and more grateful person for going through it all. Don’t get me wrong, I would never want to experience it ever again! But I rest confident now that, because of a full recovery, I absolutely will never need to. I do not attract that kind of person anymore. In fact, I can be quite the narcissist-repellant because I recognize the warning signs. As well as spotting the signs on the outside and recognizing the abusive actions of others, I now have clear boundaries and the self-esteem to communicate them. I have also worked on what needed to be healed inside of me, and for that I am grateful. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!

6 Things to Remember When You Think You Don’t Matter

In a world with billions of people, in a culture that promotes being special and making a big mark, it’s easy to feel like you don’t matter. Maybe you’ve felt it all your life—like you have no purpose, no value, and nothing to contribute to...

My Pain Was a Gift and a Catalyst for Growth

“Sometimes pain is the teacher we require, a hidden gift of healing and hope.” ~Janet Jackson I was becoming more and more confused as to what my feelings were toward my husband. Longing for that personal adult male connection, I started to feel trapped in my marriage. However, I still had a very strong sense of our family unit and my commitment to it. I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize the family, even if it meant sacrificing my personal happiness. I made a conscious decision that my life was enough. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough. However, within a few months, I knew in my heart that my husband and I were further apart emotionally than even I could accept or ignore any longer. I had to address it, but I had to do it carefully. I wanted to make sure my husband understood that I still loved him; we just needed to work on some things. I believed it would make both of us happier. I found time one night after dinner. We had just finished cleaning up the kitchen and were standing by the counter. The mood was relaxed and we had some privacy; the girls were busy working on their homework upstairs. It seemed as good a time as any. I took a deep breath and blurted out, “I think we are not as close as married people should be.” My husband looked at me funny, first a little quizzically as if he didn’t understand what he had just heard. Then his face relaxed and a look of release washed over it. His response shocked me to my core. “I agree,” he said with relief. “I haven’t loved you for a long time. I was just pretending.” “What? What did you just say?!?” I stammered, feeling as if I couldn’t catch my breath. His words were suffocating. I stood there, motionless, as a torrent of emotions raged inside of me. I looked into the eyes of the person I thought I knew completely, that I had trusted without question. A cold, damp feeling of dread came over me. He was the person I thought loved me unconditionally, the one that I had built my life with. What did he just say? Now, I wasn’t expecting flowers and chocolates. But I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting his response to be more along the lines of “I agree. I feel it too. What can we do about it?” I was astonished. I was numb. I cried. I pleaded for some explanation. He had none. He said he would have gone on pretending forever, but since I dared to bring it up, he was able to finally be honest. We briefly tried marriage counseling, but his mind was made up. He didn’t love me. He was sorry. He felt guilty for the pain he was causing the girls and me, but he didn’t love me. We were divorced within the year. Everyone marveled at how civil we were. How well I was handling everything. I went into survival mode during the divorce proceedings. I had to protect my children emotionally. All of my strength went into doing that. I had to stay calm. I knew they were watching me. I tried not to argue. I tried to act normally. Really, I tried. I also had to financially protect myself and my children. There were so many things to think about. How could I stay in the house with the kids? They were in high school by then and I didn’t want to uproot them. How could I pay for college? We were just getting by with two salaries and one house. How could I make this work? We eventually figured the financial part out. In comparison, that turned out to be the easy part. He moved out, we got divorced, and then I fell apart. This experience exposed some very deep wounds within me. Wounds I had that for many years had been scabbed over. Deep, thick scabs that protected me and allowed me to pretend they weren’t there. Now, without warning, they had been ripped wide open. Wounds are funny things. We all have them. We respond from them, sometimes consciously, but many times not. They affect our thoughts and behaviors even when we’re not aware of it. If we look close enough we can even see others’ wounds in their actions. Some wounds can lie dormant for many years and only return to taunt us when we are faced with the very thing that wounded us. And the funniest thing of all is that wounds don’t heal on their own, regardless of how much we pretend they are not there. We have to heal them ourselves. My personal wounds had to do with self-love and my relationships with others. And they were deep, deeper than I had ever realized. When they resurfaced, I was surprised not only by their presence but by their intensity. There had been signs through the years, but they were easy enough to ignore. My wounds might surprise you. I believe most people consider me to be a smart, attractive, capable woman with many accomplishments in my life. “Capable” as a nice way to say assertive or a take-charge kind of woman. But there is also another side to me, a side that has deep-rooted feelings of not being “good enough” or not being “worth the effort”. My thoughts would go something like “I’m pretty, just not pretty enough. I’m thin, just not thin enough.” I’m smart, but intelligence wasn’t something celebrated in a girl growing up during the sixties and seventies. We were told to make sure we weren’t smarter than our future husbands, because men didn’t find smart women attractive, and God forbid of all things, don’t be capable. But the traits not celebrated were the ones I clung to. I believed they were all I had to offer. I was the smart and capable one. My intellect and the sheer force of my will allowed me to succeed in most endeavors. I became goal-oriented and proved my worth by accomplishing my goals. I never allowed myself to fail, because success was expected, it was the only thing that I believed validated me. That, however, didn’t translate into healthy personal relationships. I didn’t find value in myself as a whole person, so in turn, I never believed that the whole of me could be embraced, cherished, and loved. I was the only the “smart” and “capable” one. Why couldn’t I love myself? Why didn’t I feel I was worth the effort? Why didn’t I see the whole person and celebrate my strengths, laugh at my weaknesses, and cherish the little girl in me that was just doing the best she could? Eight years ago, I didn’t know. Today, after having lived through deep pain and more personal self-reflection and inner work than I care to admit, I believe I have some understanding of the larger journey. Pain was my catalyst. Deep, aching pain that stopped me in my tracks and made me choose between exiting this lifetime (yes, I considered it) and seeking deeper answers to heal the ball of hurt I had become. I chose to seek deeper answers and that was the beginning of my spiritual journey. Over the years I have learned to open my heart to myself and look at my experiences with a wider lens. I see my divorce and subsequent pain and depression as a gift that transformed my life and me along with it. I’ve traveled back into my childhood and identified the core trauma that I experienced that shaped the personality (the smart, capable, one) and the embedded belief (I had to succeed to have value) from the essence of who I am. That took a lot of work because the personality traits and beliefs we create are so intertwined into who we think we are that it is difficult to separate them, as they have been ‘us’ for our whole lives. In our defense, much of the ‘less than’ beliefs we hold are a result of the negative, punitive language that is deeply embedded in our religious and spiritual constructs. Many of us have come from a traditional religious belief system of ‘original sin and karma that we need forgiveness for’ and move to a spiritual belief system of ‘we need to learn our lessons and repeating our lessons until we finally get them.’ What if there is nothing to learn and no penance to do? What if everything in life is an experience for us to feel emotion and live from that deep space? That every emotion is an opportunity for us to expand our awareness and embrace the magnificence of who we are. Deep emotions shake us out of our complacent lives and spur us into action. In the experience is the emotion and in the emotion is the gift. Keep digging because the real you is in there. See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!

Inside a Panic Attack: What It’s Like When Anxiety Strikes

DisclaimerThis site is not intended to provide and does not constitute medical, legal, or other professional advice. The content on Tiny Buddha is designed to support, not replace, medical or psychiatric treatment. Please seek professional care if you believe you may have a condition....

Acceptance Is Not Passive; It’s the Path to Peace

Acceptance by its very nature is imperfect; it’s messy and often unpleasant, while ultimately leading to a place of growth, a sense of freedom, and a life familiar with ease. I know this because I have had a lot of painful acceptance in my...

Your Emotions Will Not Drown You; They Will Save You

DisclaimerThis site is not intended to provide and does not constitute medical, legal, or other professional advice. The content on Tiny Buddha is designed to support, not replace, medical or psychiatric treatment. Please seek professional care if you believe you may have a condition....

What Helps Me Put Things in Perspective

DisclaimerThis site is not intended to provide and does not constitute medical, legal, or other professional advice. The content on Tiny Buddha is designed to support, not replace, medical or psychiatric treatment. Please seek professional care if you believe you may have a condition....