Trusting Myself to Build Healthy Relationships After Surviving Narcissistic Abuse

Into the Fire

Sometimes, mental illness makes me overly reactive. Other times, as I’m “coming back,” I retain that “edge” needed to take constructive action towards the situations that actually needed it, all the tiny things that simmered low on my priority list because I had more important fires to tend. But even though fire burns, I remain grateful for its role in purification.

“Pre-menstrually we tap into our firepower — our ability to rage and destroy. … The greatest gift of our moon time is in learning to clear space and enter the darkness, in order to be reborn as fertile, creative beings once more. We learn that this letting go, this cocooning in the darkness, is integral to our health. Again and again we must learn to be comfortable in the formlessness of transformation, and rest in the mystery.”

— from Burning Woman, by Lucy H. Pearce

In the past, this edge had sometimes been the only thing connecting me to my power, the only thing to show me that the things I was upset about actually had merit and deserved greater attention. Lucy also paraphrases this very astutely in her other book, “Moon Time”:

“I use the sword of my intolerance to cut deep and true. I keep hold of my vision and manifest it.”

I can think of no better metaphor than this. Allowing the innate wisdom of our frustrations to guide us to their roots, the one place from which we can actually enact change, because we’re finally courageous enough to look at why these seeds have sprouted in the first place. So maybe…

Maybe I should pay more attention when people breeze past painful details I’ve chosen to privately share with them, because that’s a clear sign they lack empathy.

Maybe I shouldn’t keep any digital platform that worsens my mental health, especially just to stay in touch with people who have lots of other ways to stay in contact with me, if they wanted.

Maybe it’s okay if I don’t want to be the only one who tries to keep in touch, 100% of the time.

Maybe I shouldn’t give privileged access to my life to those who only want to be spectators, or to those who only want to get involved in the fun parts. Maybe it’s okay to not be okay with that.

Maybe I should remind everyone that you are not entitled to anyone’s personal information just because you ask kindly, because kindness should not be a manipulation tactic.

Maybe I should remind everyone that my “no” demands as much respect as my “yes,” and that I will not be coerced into feeling a sense of obligation to perfect strangers.

Maybe it’s okay to trust my intuition when things don’t add up and I feel someone isn’t being honest with me.

And maybe I’ll try appreciating myself more for carefully selecting the people with whom I’d like to build long-lasting friendships from here on out, instead of chastising myself for being cautious.

Because I want and need to get back to offering myself to this world, and maybe it’s finally safe for me to believe I CAN manage my new mental and physical limits, and get back to living within them on my own terms, instead of constantly apologizing for not being able to meet everyone else’s.

Responsibility

For the longest time I’ve been trying to find the right way to interact with others, as a survivor of all types of abuse. For example I used to think it was normal to build a relationship with someone emotionally unavailable, because in my formative years it was very dangerous to have my own needs, emotional or otherwise. What better way to emulate not having your needs acknowledged than to pursue someone who would never acknowledge them?

I think that’s another reason me being unable to be there for anyone during my recent downward spiral, affected me so drastically. It’s no secret I live with obsessive compulsive disorder, which constantly tells you that you’re an awful creature who’s going to end up hurting everyone and then tries to convince you secretly like hurting people. (Oh, did you think OCD was just hand washing?) So while all my mental illnesses were jacked up on steroids, OCD really latched onto the idea that by taking time for myself to heal, I was the abuser, now. It makes no rational sense, but such is disorder. Anyway.

Narcissistic types are drawn to people like this, and those struggling with codependency: people-pleasers with an addiction to approval and/or relationships, who feel their only value lies in being who or what someone else wants. I’ve been a recovered codependent for years now after at least ten years of treatment, but I still attract narcissists because they are also drawn to compassionate, empathetic people who enjoy listening to and validating others; you know, people who will give them their “supply” of attention.

Sometimes it’s still hard to trust myself about this, initially. When I start to like a person I immediately think, “What if I only like them because subconsciously they’re exhibiting behaviors that mimic those of the pathological human beings I grew up with, and this is just another quick dead end?” That does happen to me quite a bit, but that’s the chance any of us take in attempting a new relationship. Now, I can spot the red flags relatively quickly and be on my merry way, instead of wasting years in unfulfilling one-sided relationships that I unfortunately tolerated.

When things aren’t working out in your relationships, you have to ask yourself: Which patterns do I keep repeating, and what is my role in it? What are you putting up with that you probably shouldn’t? What do you need yet aren’t actually requiring of anyone? To put it bluntly, what aren’t you requiring of yourself?

It’s uncomfortable being around those who don’t have empathy, but if I see the red flags and still keep them in my life, I’m just as much responsibile as they are, for the pain that comes from being around them. You know the Maya Angelou quote by now: “When people show you who they are, believe them, the first time.”

It’s painful when others don’t want to keep in touch with you unless you’re the one bridging the gap, but if you’re always the one meeting everyone else on their terms, you will eventually discover some friendships existed ONLY because you were meeting them on their terms.

And it’s jarring when people pop back into your life out of no where feigning interest in your well-being, only to disappear into the background again if you happen to be in a rough patch. But I’m the one who has to look that dead in the face and decide either “Yes, I’m okay with this person only being in my life in this superficial way,” or “No, I’m absolutely NOT okay with opening my life up to people who only show interest in being spectators, not friends.”

In other words, my dears, there comes a point in your healing from abuse where you understand you are no longer a passive victim but an active participant in the way your life and relationships are unfolding. When you know better you do better, etc. Victims don’t have any responsibility for their situation; that’s why they are a victim. This means they don’t have any power, either. That’s also why they are a victim. We may have been made victims in the past by predators of all varieties, but now, we are transitioning to survivors, which means we not only get to take responsibility for our healing, but we also have the privilege of taking responsibility for whatever new relationships we build along the way. We’ll make lots of mistakes, but don’t worry: Mistakes are just a natural part of burning through toxic bridges and outdated ways of existing, so that the fresh new ground underneath–fertile, healthy foundation–can finally be revealed.

Strength

I am a creature of many strengths, but I must regularly take inventory that I haven’t surrounded myself with people incapable of showing love. I have to remember that with my gifts of knowing how to make people feel heard, accepted, and appreciated, comes the extra need to protect those gifts from those who just want to take advantage.

I finally trust myself now to not be afraid of my own boundaries or the reactions of others once I set them. I finally see that it’s not my fault I attract predators, that boundaries are okay, and FOR ONCE–even if it’s only this very moment that I type this–I DO NOT FEEL GUILTY. It’s one thing to think these things and live by them just on their virtue, but now I actually FEEL this truth; the gentle power and mutual respect that lies within every human’s right to set healthy emotional boundaries.

The fact that anyone gets confronted with another’s healthy boundary and then runs away, is just a tell-tale sign they don’t like being told “no.” And I’ve realized that if someone is too weak to hear my “no,” they will never be able to handle my “yes.” They will never be able to handle me, at all. I am a force to be reckoned with, and I need to start surrounding myself with other strong, loving people who can handle everything I am. Sure I have difficult patches, but everyone does, and OCD be damned, that doesn’t make me a monster. I need more people in my life who know their worth, who recognize their resilience, who can hold their own, and who see boundaries as a sign of another healthy individual.

You see, narcissists can’t handle being around strong people. That’s why the moment you show them you have a backbone–that you can say “no,” that you aren’t afraid to speak up for your needs–they find another target or lash out, because they know if you’re not looking for others’ approval they don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to trying to manipulate you. You can’t be controlled by fear, obligation, guilt, or them playing the victim by being offended. There’s certainly a large gradient between “immature” to “narcissist” and then further down the line to “psychopath,” but I am DONE surrounding myself with these types. Any of them. All of them. I’ve had enough to last me twelve incarnations. For all I know it’s already BEEN twelve incarnations of me trying to do exactly what I’m doing right now: Learning day by day, month by month, year by year how to keep energetic vampires out of my life.

Recovery

I learned I do have multiple sclerosis. More specifically, the official diagnosis as of right now is “Clinically Isolated Syndrome,” one of the MS disease courses, which can present with or without optic neuritis; mine presented with, hence those particular symptoms. There’s less than a 15% chance I won’t have another attack, and a 95% chance this IS caused by my untreated neuroborreliosis (Lyme disease). This isn’t my first attack, or even my first documented attack, but since the last one (that they found by accident while I was hospitalized) was attributed to “post-infectious demyelination” or “atypical MS,” and most doctors hold the belief that neuroborreliosis and multiple sclerosis are not related, the “official” diagnosis–clinically isolated syndrome, atypical MS, relapse-remitting MS, neuroborreliosis–will change depending on which doctor I see and their level of understanding my history.

I am now mostly recovered from this most recent attack, and my ophthalmologist confirmed last week there has been NO permanent damage to my optic nerves! Also over the last couple of months, I’ve successfully been able to manage my problem of becoming too easily overstimulated, and I’ve been learning to identify the tiny things that precipitate a shutdown. For example I’m able now to share with people that I need to retreat, before I need to retreat, before I feel forced to disappear without any warning at all.

I’m also significantly better cognitively, after a short course of antibiotics for some random infection back in March. Maybe Lyme or Mycoplasma is playing a role, or it’s the PANS/PANDAS–an autoimmune disease that first presents in childhood which causes my body to attack my own brain when I’m battling any infection–or it could be related to the MS and its own inflammatory process in my nervous system. Or some combination of all of it, who knows. But! What I do know, is that I knew I knew I KNEW this wasn’t just something I was doing to avoid life!!

After finally coming out of my extended mental and physical relapse, after seeing the results of my lumbar puncture, after getting the diagnoses from my neurologist and ophthalmologists, and feeling my profound improvement after antibiotics, I feel… It’s as if I can trust myself again, because it gave me solid proof that my brain really was significantly altered, and it had very little to do with me “choosing” to isolate. I isolated because my brain was trying to process trauma, while being inflamed by lots of extra immune cells, while trying to prevent neurodegeneration and/or blindness, while fighting pathogens literally designed to spiral into my brain tissue, AND I have an autoimmune disease that makes these processes not only cause new mental illness but exacerbate all the preexisting ones. It makes perfect sense why I was unable to function normally or converse at any length.

I spent months rationalizing everything to the end point that I must just be inherently careless and awful. And I had started to believe it. Now I know better.

And if it happens again, instead of being terrified that I’ll lose everyone I love, I will know what steps to take to attempt treating the symptoms, AND feel more confident that I can share with whomever happens to be present that this is literally a symptom of disease, not just maladaptive behavior of my personal choosing. Between that and having unlearned the unproductive coping mechanisms I tried along the way, I have so much more faith that I will be able to deal with whatever happens…WITHOUT believing the guilt.

As I think my writing showed, I was making a lot of progress, and finding significant healing, until the flood happened… I feel back on track now.

Burning Women

Thank you Lucy, for teaching me and millions of other women that the energy in I’ve Had Enough doesn’t automatically have to be feared, especially for those of us who’d never seen it used correctly:

“In the heroine’s journey we realise that the dragon lies not in a far-off land, but curled within. And so we are called inwards. Into the dark cave of our unconscious. …

“This power is mine. I have come to claim it.” Repeating it until you, and the dragon, know it for truth. …

And suddenly the danger is gone. No fight necessary. That dragon had sat on your power for so long it had come to believe it was its own. You had spent so many years listening to the myths of the dragon, hearing him growl within, you got so scared of these stories, that you never thought to come and meet him for yourself. The dragon never was your enemy. The treasure never was his. It’s yours. It always was. All he was doing was waiting for you to claim it, protecting it from those who would steal or misuse it. He knew his job was to protect it until you were able to care for it as fiercely as he. Until you knew yourself as its rightful owner. Until this great wealth would be used wisely, not to do damage to yourself or others. Until you were learned enough in the ways of the world not to squander it or give it away. That was his sacred role, as your greatest ally and protector. …

[W]e are brought up to hand over our power, to let others take care of it, and ourselves, in exchange for us taking care of them, emotionally, physically and spiritually. It is a heavy burden, one usually done unconsciously, and yet expected culturally. A woman who is not willing to engage in this exchange is usually shamed as selfish and immature. But it is an exchange. So as Burning Women we make a new deal: I take back my power, and I learn to take responsibility for myself…and you in return take responsibility for yourself. We may share ourselves and our lives, experience deep love, care, intimacy and connection, but we are each the keeper of our own power. This is the move from co-dependency — the model engendered by our culture — into independence. Intimacy, penetration and sharing through choice, and consent, not obligation.”

Burning Woman

Thank you Marianne Williamson for also shining the Light on this topic with one of my favourite quotes from you:

“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”

And thank you Roshi Joan Halifax, for eloquently explaining the value of anger–again, especially for those of us who’d never seen that used correctly, either–when you spoke these words:

“I think one has to understand anger in perspective. Anger, for one thing, has within it the seed of wisdom associated with clarity, with discernment. If you cut the value of anger out of your experience, in a way you’re taking some of the structure that allows us to see clearly into things as they are. So the seed of wisdom in anger is discernment. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, our anger toward the experience of disempowerment that is going on… We should be angry. And that sense of moral outrage, in other words the violation of equity. . .gives us the arousal level necessary to mobilize ourselves into action.

“And it’s essential that we act. We can’t just sit there, gaze at our navel, and say it’s all love.

“Love does not mean that we are passive in the face of harm. I think Martin Luther King was clear about the relationship between love and justice. Anything that stands in the way of love is unjust. The absence of justice points to the absence of love. So I don’t separate love and justice in this regard. I see them as intimately intertwined.”

— Be Here Now Network: Mindrolling Ep. 183 – “The Integration of Justice and Love”

Until next time,

Kit


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Facing My Worst Fears On Social Media: Am I Really So Terrible?

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Short answer: No. No I’m not.

Reasons I almost didn’t write this:

Because of a pathological and unwanted sense of obligation to protect others’ public image, especially if it involved abusive and/or shameful behaviour, even more so if it was directed specifically at me. Because of decades of being made to feel that it was never their behaviour that was shameful but rather my speaking about it that was the problem. Because of decades of spiritual abuse that, also, mostly condemned those who spoke about wrongdoings instead of the wrong behaviours themselves. Because I was programmed to have emotional loyalty to people no matter how they acted or treated me. Because old habits die hard.

Reasons I absolutely AM writing this:

Because the very act of publishing this is an act of healing. Because the God I actually believe in supports those who speak the truth, not accuses them of being “unspiritual” if their truths make others uncomfortable. And because I can assure myself that no names or identifying characteristics will be mentioned, nor are they even remotely likely to ever read this.

So here’s something I’m actually excited to write about… Last month, or maybe the month before, I’m not sure but right before I returned to social media because I had healed enough to start responding to messages and e-mails once again… Some time ago, I faced my very worst fears in social media and relationships:

Someone not only misunderstood me, but thought the very worst of me, used my benign actions to justify their irrational belief that I was of ‘bad character,’ insinuated that I was being selfish with my time, and looked at things I’d written or shared on social media with an authentic energy and interpreted it instead as directly passive aggressive or malicious against them. Then they said what they thought they needed to say (I’m being generous, here), and blocked me everywhere, before getting to see the physical proof that they were actually 10000% wrong in their assumptions. Not a single conversation about what had been bothering them. Just accusation, character assassination, gone.

They took some of my worst fears, (1) that someone would use my words against me, (2) that I should never speak because people will just misinterpret it to mean something completely different and probably malevolent, (3) that someone would stalk things I did or said on social media to concoct a narrative in which they assume the worst of me, (4) that someone would guilt-trip me over the time I needed for self-care and (5) respond to it with accusations of selfishness and/or view it as an ill-conceived personal attack on them, and (6) that any or all of it would be used to justify abuse, character assassination, and/or emotional abandonment, and rolled it alllll into one. big. grand. gesture.

And guess what. I immediately recognized that it was completely unjustified.

I refused to accept blame for things I hadn’t done, because I knew none of it was true.

I didn’t go into hours, weeks, or months of self-abuse thinking I possibly deserved any of it.

And I survived.

Not only did I survive, but I even assertively stood up for myself (before they bailed, at least).

And, as a bonus, I didn’t move to contempt. Hurt over being thought of in such a way by someone I’d started to trust, yes; anger at being mistreated (a good sign for someone who’d always been punished for expressing anger), yes; disappointment and confusion, yes. But not contempt, not hatred, not a sudden need for self-protection by going on the offense, and no thoughts of “what a terrible person you are for doing all this.” They’re not. I know why they did what they did even if they don’t understand it, themselves. I’ve been a version of them in my past, believe it or not, when I didn’t know the true depths of my mental illness. And because I have compassion for the situations in my life that caused me to behave irrationally with others, I can have compassion for the situations in their life which caused them to do this. (Plus I lived with an infection for 7 years that reliably turned my brain chemistry upside down every 5-6 days. But anyway.)

As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic, about a woman who’d read her book and imagined a narrative within it that wasn’t actually written: “Their reaction doesn’t belong to you.” I’m only responsible for what I put out, not how it passes through others’ personal filters, for better or worse. I know now that I don’t have to allow those “worst fears” to have power over me anymore, because I know I will not only survive should it happen again, but that I have healed so much in at least this area, that I won’t be sent into a spiral of self-loathing, automatically assuming I deserved it. I can’t even explain the pit “old me” would’ve had to crawl out of in the past, the way it would’ve stirred up abandonment depression and sincere beliefs of “maybe I am everything they think.”

I’m making tremendous progress this year.

This isn’t even counting what happened at the beginning of the year, when I warned people about someone who had copied and posted my work but changed the words around to reflect their own story and history. Instead of any “thanks for letting us know,” and despite me sending them the link to my piece, I was met mostly with people incredulously claiming it wasn’t mine, and how dare I say such things. Ha! So part of my path this year seems to be learning to not be affected by blame or praise. But especially the blame.

“How equanimous are you when people express their views of liking or not liking what you do? Do you take it personally or understand they are simply expressing their own bias? Does praise or blame disturb your balance?”¹ “As the Buddha said, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute constantly arise and pass away, beyond our control.” He said, “There is always blame in this world. If you say too much, some people will blame you. If you say a little bit, some people will blame you. If you say nothing at all, some people will blame you.”²

I think I’m doing pretty good so far. Don’t you think?

On second thought, don’t respond to that.


I cannot live my life letting fear of what someone might misinterpret decide what I do or don’t do, what I say or don’t say, what I share or don’t share. I’ve lived most of my life walking on eggshells for everyone else, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend the remainder of my life doing it, too.

Even now as I write and edit, I feel fear over what others will think about this. Maybe that won’t ever go away. But it doesn’t have to: I’m going to write, speak, share, and live, regardless.

I’m happy about all the progress I’ve made, even if it took something painful to help me realize it.


Takeaways for others, I hope:

  • I didn’t include this part of things, but make sure you’re not accusing someone of something that may actually be partly or entirely due to a technological glitch.
  • Don’t take your thoughts so seriously. Some meditation practices help us contemplate situations from the perspective of, “Do I really know this is what’s happening?” Much of the time, we truly don’t. This can help us find that place of spaciousness from which we can choose to respond instead of react out of past hurts or abuse.
  • If you have mental illness, try to remember your sick brain may colour your perspective of what’s going on. Although not everyone has the luxury of being able to find that spaciousness, not even myself, at all times; the key word is “try.”
  • Likewise, remember if someone has a disease affecting their brain, there’s very little chance it won’t also affect their thoughts, as well as the way they process information. Have compassion.

Above all, remember everyone is doing the best they can with what they have to work with, and for goodness sake, try to think the best of each other.

"To love somebody is to let them be who they are and do what they have to do."

a rainbow at night


1. Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity, by Shaila Catherine, 2002
2. http://www.dharmanet.org/samples/bv4a.htm