Safety First: The secret to processing narcissistic abuse trauma
I think there’s an idea in the world of recovery from any sort of trauma – narcissistic abuse included – that it requires revisiting the feelings that were felt during the abuse and that if those feelings are felt and those experiences re-examined properly then the survivor will be released from it all. Although that may work in some cases, I have found that in a lot of cases there is a different path towards healing that operates on a very different principle. Let me tell you about an anonymous ‘client’ that hopefully illustrates this other path towards healing:
Jermain came to treatment in his 20’s and said he wanted help feeling more confident at work in his role as a manager at a home construction company, to feel happier in his relationship with his girlfriend, and to pursue hobbies that would bring him happiness and purpose. Jermain also survived a very narcissistically abusive family where he faced daily emotional and physical abuse. He’d learned to soothe himself by drinking alcohol in his teens and early 20’s and was still susceptible to periodic binge drinking episodes when he felt stressed. Jermain started working in therapy under his assumption that he needed to talk in-depth about the ways his narcissistically abusive father demeaned, intimidated, and dehumanized him. Jermain would get a far-away look in his eyes when he would go into these details and would report wanting to have a drink after such sessions. In the third session, as Jermain started to go into a detailed recounting of when his father threw him down their stairwell, his therapist said, ‘Hey Jermain, where would you say you are right now from 0-10 in terms of your stress level?’ Jermain said, ‘probably a 7’. His therapist then said, ‘right, that was my sense…you’re describing something really upsetting that you survived and our goal here is for you to eventually know what happened but in a way that makes it clear to you and your nervous system that you are safe now. My concern is that we haven’t done enough work on shoring up your sense of safety in your life today to productively examine what you went through.” Jermain asked, “well what do you mean? That I should talk about other things in my life rather than all the messed up stuff they put me through? Isn’t the point that we go over these things so that they don’t affect me so much?” His therapist said, “Well, sort of, but our systems are very wise when it comes to healing from the kind of trauma you went through and when we take care of our nervous systems and nourish ourselves in the present then the knowledge we need to put the past the rest usually spontaneously happens. So, what if we did some breathing exercises to get you down to a 3 or a 4 on the scale and I’d like for you to tell me if at any point you get above a 4 in today’s session so we can stop and do some breathing that’ll return you to the 3 or 4. And, I’d invite you to use the time in therapy to talk about the goals you mentioned at the start of our work. I remember you wanted to feel more confident at work, happier in your relationship, and to pursue interests that brought you satisfaction.”
Jermain was shocked that talking about what was important to him right now was OK to do in therapy. But he went ahead and talked about what got in his way of feeling more confident in his managerial abilities. This led to him understanding how he had to downplay his abilities to avoid attack in his family and he grew to consider that it may now be safe for him to give himself credit. Jermain’s focus on what what he wanted in his current life and using therapy to help him move through the felt obstacles in his way led to him feeling much stronger and safer in his current life. After a few months of working this way in therapy, Jermain said “You know, it’s strange but I have a different relationship to what happened to me back then. Somehow living my life in the ways we’ve discussed here lets me see how wrong and cruel they were for doing to me what they did. But I don’t think I could’ve felt this way if I hadn’t first embraced my strengths like we’ve done here…” Jermain had a spontaneous feeling of tears wash over him…”Wow, these feelings are different…they’re helping me heal, they’re not keeping me stuck”. His therapist said, “you’ve done the work needed to know that it is now safe for you to feel the compassion and sorrow for yourself. We often need to first get to safety before it’s possible to experience such feelings.”
I bring up the fictionalized case of Jermain to illustrate how important it can often be to first build a sense of safety in your current life before looking to process the trauma that you have survived. This can especially apply to scapegoat survivors of narcissistic abuse. In this post I’ll explain why it’s so important to find safety in your current life – and take appropriate measures to build that safety – if you find that trying to re-examine past narcissistic abuse is leaving you stuck instead of feeling more healed. And read until the end because I am going to point your towards a free resource that’s tailored to help survivors of narcissistic abuse build just this kind of safety in their current lives.
Well, my name is Jay Reid and I’m a licensed psychotherapist in California specializing in helping individuals recover from narcissistic abuse in individual therapy and through my online course & community. We take a 3-pronged approach to recover of 1) Making sense of what happened, 2) Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser, and 3) living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules. This blog post falls under the categories of ‘Living in defiance of the narcissist’s rules’ AND Gaining distance from the narcissistic abuser.
If you were a scapegoat survivor of a narcissistic parent or partner then I encourage you to check out my free e-book on this topic. It’s called Surviving Narcissistic Abuse as the Scapegoat and goes into other important aspects of what it’s like to be in the shoes of the scapegoat child or partner of the narcissistic abuser. From self-limiting beliefs about yourself that you must adopt to survive to why the narcissistic personality is so geared to put those closest to them down. Along with this post, this e-book can help you realize how none of this abuse was your fault but the product of the narcissist’s psychological and emotional problems.
Do you have to feel worse before you can feel better?
We often seeing in movies and tv shows where therapy is depicted as a process of someone revisiting buried feelings that need to be experienced and once this happens the client is freed from the suffering that his denial of these feelings was causing him. For some clients this may be a great map for the process of therapy. In essence, that one must feel worse before it’s possible to feel better.
Do some need to feel better before you can safely feel worse?
But for others – including some survivors of narcissistic abuse – a different sequence for healing can apply. In these cases it is often first necessary to feel better before you can safely feel worse. Jermain’s case above is a great example of this. His family used him as the scapegoat and blamed him for the family’s problems while undermining his ability to solve the problems he was being blamed for. For instance, at family dinners his father would typically find some something Jermain was doing to criticize him for having ‘poor table manners’ – often putting his elbows on the dining table, even if briefly. Then his father would launch into a tirade about how disrespectful and immature Jermain was and that he was not going to stop getting on his case until he learned to have good table manners ‘like the rest of the family’. Jermain would feel like he couldn’t win in these circumstances. He unconsciously knew that if he didn’t put his elbows on the table his father would find some other excuse to attack him. This left Jermain feeling like he couldn’t do anything right in his life.
Now for people who have survived the same kind of treatment Jermain did, the process of closely examining this type of abuse may be less preferable to shoring up your sense that you can, in fact, do a lot of things right in the world. Here’s why: when we suffer a trauma like narcissistic abuse, the only thing to do when it’s happening is to survive it. At the same time, such traumatic experience tends to get encoded in a vivid and fixed way in our minds. So when we go back to these memories there is often this awed-ness that can happen where all we are aware of is the event being played in our mind. It can be very difficult to stay connected to oneself in the present and as a result it can be even harder to know that you have in fact survived the abuse and now growth is possible. Rather, it can result in a reinforcement of that fixation on what happened coupled with the vividness that often accompanies such memories.
For Jermain he found much more helpful the tactic of first acting in and out of therapy as if growth was possible for him. Then and only then, could he regard what his family put him through from a vantage point that allowed him to know he had already survived and escaped it which let him feel his grief for having been through this. I think it’s important to not regard the focus on matters in his day-to-day life as not ‘dealing with the trauma’. In fact, by shifting his attention to what is important to him today he was escaping the fixation of attention that can so often happen after trauma. I would also argue that his focus on what he wanted in his current life implicitly challenged his narcissistic father’s rule that he did not deserve anything good in his life because he was supposedly defective. For someone like Jermain, the notion that he must first process trauma before he can live his life could risk reinforcing his father’s message that there was something wrong with him and he therefore did not deserve the same rights that everyone else does.
This notion of Safety First is not just a shot from the hip…it actually is the basis of the type of therapy I practice called Control-Mastery Theory. In this theory, the idea is that client’s must first experience a specific sense of safety in the therapeutic relationship before they can achieve insight into the traumas they have survived. It also says that clients are independently motivated to find such safety in the treatment so that they can achieve the growth they desire. Jermain did this when he told his therapist his 3 goals at the start of treatment. His therapist picked up on this and showed flexibility in reorienting the therapy around these goals which likely sent the message to Jermain that it was safe to treat himself like he was a whole and intact person and deserving of going after what he wants. Once he felt safe in doing this, he could safely look at how undeservedly cruel his narcissistic father was to him. So, this approach to healing from narcissistic abuse involves feeling good before safely feeling worse in order to heal.
An important resource for building your current sense of safety in your life
I have developed a resource specifically designed to help survivors of narcissistic abuse recover and build up a sense of safety in life. It is a free webinar that covers 7 self-care strategies that can immediately shift your focus to the quality of current experience and keep that in the center of your life.
With continued practice and time these strategies can generate a sense of deservedness in yourself that you deserve your own care and attention in the here and now. I think that is the biggest benefit of this webinar beyond the tactics themselves. But of course, one needs to practice the tactic to attain this overarching benefit. So, here are the self-care strategies covered in the webinar:
Developing a compassionate attitude towards yourself
Self-care Tool #1: Practicing patience with yourself
Self-care Tool #2: Practicing gratitude towards yourself
Strengthening your mind-body connection
Self-care Tool #3: Using your breath
Self-care Tool #4: Making sure to move
Self-care Tool #5: Eating as an act of care towards yourself
Recognizing your strengths
Self-care Tool #6: The respect survey
Self-care Tool #7: How the ‘well-adjusted’ world sees you
If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to check it out and see what happens if you apply these strategies for one month. Be sure to write in your journal at the start and the end of that month so you can see the changes that you experience.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are considering therapy for overcoming a childhood with one or more narcissistic parents please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.
Wow, this post opened my eyes to what I need to focus on right now in my life. I grew up as the scapegoat child in a family ruled by a narcissist, and I am now going through a break up.
After he broke up with me, my ex revealed narcissistic attitudes, and I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on my childhood.
Now I see that I need to take some time to care for myself before trying to focus a ton of energy on processing this breakup.
Thank you for the excellent post.