A paradox of recovery from narcissistic abuse is that you have great proven strengths hidden within your weaknesses. The years of going without recognition, validation and approval that have caused you to feel powerless and weak in the present paradoxically mean that in reality you are exceptionally able to tolerate the very circumstances that you fear.
A useful technique to pierce the subconscious denial that will help you to reclaim your sense of personal agency is to reframe the abandonment and trauma of unrecognition that you have already experienced. The ordeal that you have already lived through is proof of the strength and resilience you already have. If you have lived through narcissistic abuse you have already survived in a desert devoid of love, kindness, connection and recognition.
Reframing the struggle
I am struggling with a lack of autonomy. I feel afraid to take action and wait for permission from others. I need someone more powerful than me to tell me it’s OK.
It is often the case that adults who struggle with autonomy and initiative can trace their struggle back to childhood to parents who were harsh, neglectful and unwilling to support their development as separate worthy individuals. Narcissistic parents see their children as extensions of themselves and hold them to unreasonably high standards which are tied to the parent’s own need to bolster their self-image rather than from a desire to recognise and support their child in their birthright as an individual worthy to coexist with all other living beings on this Earth. In addition to being abusive and neglectful, the narcissistic parent nevertheless desires to bind the child to them and undermines their autonomy either passively by providing little guidance and support or or actively by deliberately undermining the child’s attempts to establish themselves as an autonomous individual criticising them when they attempt to do so. As Daniel Shaw comments in his book “Traumatic Narcissism and Relational Systems of Subjugation”, the child is caught in a double bind, associating dependence with shame and humiliation and autonomy with rejection and abandonment. Having survived this relational environment the individual is left with a pervasive feeling of being unable to act for themselves doubting their own capacity for autonomy unconsciously assuming that asserting their individuality will be punished and lead to emotional abandonment.
The reframe – in reality you have an enormous capacity to act alone. Indeed relationally and emotionally you have been alone all of your life acting with minimal guidance and nurturance. In other words you have an exceptional proven capacity for autonomous action!
In a healthy family children are nurtured. They do not need to act and grow alone. These children when they are adults feel confident and able to affect the world around them in positive ways. Children of narcissists on the other hand are left feeling bereft of personal initiative. Is it really the case however that you lack the skills to be able to function as well as these people? Of course it certainly feels that way but in actual fact you are very well practised in taking action without approval under extremely adverse circumstances. It is only that you yourself do not believe it yet. In the reframed view you have had much more practice than people from functional families in acting without approval and have proved over and over again during your developmental years that you are able to act with the minimal of guidance, nurturance and reassurance under the threat of retribution. You were able to grow and carry on in an environment that was actively trying to tear you down when you were a tiny child surrounded by powerful others. How much resilience and autonomy do you have really? It must really be a lot. Perhaps more than many people around you.
Next time you are feeling weak seeking the reassurance of someone you perceive as more powerful than you, try meditating on the idea that you are in fact exceptionally well practised in acting alone without recognition or approval. Imagine yourself as a tiny child carrying on in the face of unrecognition without approval or love surrounded by powerful others who were unwilling to help you. Now imagine yourself instead as a child transported to a nurturing family that recognises you as a worthy individual committed to helping you to unfurl into a loved human being. Feel the difference between these scenarios. Feel the strength you must in fact already have to have survived your own childhood.
I really crave approval. I often think about my actions from the perspective of someone else and imagine gaining their approval. I have trouble doing things for me and because I am feeling genuinely enthusiastic about what I’m doing.
If you struggle with this it is likely that you experienced only conditional love in your family of origin. A narcissistic caregiver was withholding and critical only bestowing praise and attention when you fulfilled the role of gratifying object bolstering their own self-image when you happened to glorify them in some way or provide them with something they wanted. In this way you were trained to seek approval rather than to act from your own authentic source.
The reframe – you have already survived without the approval that you feel you need. As a small child who should be able to rely on their caregivers for approval and encouragement to show them that they are OK in the world, instead you were able to manage with a toxic, confusing mix of praise and denigration that depended on the unfathomable whims of a more powerful other who demanded that you make sense of them rather than make sense of yourself in relation to the world around you. Despite this, you were able to adapt and became hypersensitive to the interpersonal cues of pleasure and displeasure that enabled you to figure out the rules of survival.
Next time this situation arises in your life and you crave approval, meditate on the reality of the small child who had to tune into the cues of a more powerful adult to get titbits of the love that was their birthright as a human being. Feel the lack of approval that you experienced as a child when your caregiver was withholding and critical. Now imagine yourself transported to a nurturing family where you received steady loving approval in response to your authentic self expression with lovingly implemented boundaries intended to nurture your development as a confident individual. Feel the difference between these two scenarios. Feel how much of a deficit in approval you have already survived in your childhood. Understand that you had to be much more attuned to verbal and non verbal interpersonal cues of approval and disapproval to get the love you needed to survive and acknowledge that now as a gift that enables you to to read people instinctively. Acknowledge this as a hard won skill that you have that people from nurturing families may have developed to a much lesser degree.
I desperately want to find a loving connection. I feel that if I just find the right romantic partner everything will be alright.
Adult children of narcissists struggle with the trauma of unrecognition. If you grew up with narcissistic caregivers then you have never experienced unconditional love. In a nurturing family a child receives recognition, acceptance and care in abundance and they grow up knowing they are loved for who they are. The child is validated in their authentic self-expression and they feel rooted in this world in the love of their parents. They discover their own love and are able to give and receive love freely as adults. When this is lacking as an adult you struggle with a deficit of self-love and have still not found your own love to give. Rather than finding romantic partners who can help you overcome these traumas instead you tend to attract partners that continue the abusive patterns of your childhood deepening your own traumatisation.
You doubt your own worth and that anyone will want you. When someone comes along who seems to like you and they bombard you with attention and praise, it seems like all your dreams have come true. Someone finally seems to love you for who you are. You are so grateful and appreciative. Unfortunately, this is a perfect set up to attract another narcissist into your life. This person who bombards you with attention is more often than not someone who is very good at getting what they want and craves appreciation and worse feels superior when they see that you are so grateful for their attention. Later in the relationship you are trapped repeating the same traumas of your childhood going unrecognised and unappreciated trapped in an abusive relationship with yet another narcissist. The feeling that something is terribly wrong and the longing for love follows you until you are able to break the pattern and “discover your own love”.
The reframe – in your life you have tolerated an immense lack of unconditional love and yet you are still a loving person seeking connection. You have endured the intermittent reinforcement of conditional love, experiencing the lure of love and the taste of what it should have been but were left reeling in hurt and disappointment again and again when love was withdrawn. Despite this you survived and are still aware of love in your heart. Many people would have extinguished the last vestiges of that longing and would have disavowed their need for connection with others, but the light inside you is so strong that you have not been entirely alienated from the divine source of love that is your birthright. You still sense it. The connection to the love and light within is still there. This divine love within is something that cannot be extinguished. It is only the connection to this love that is disrupted but this can be repaired by following the trail back to the source. For you the connection is still there despite having lived through conditions that would have severed that connection for many. Many would have forgotten their own love. You must therefore be a being of love and light.
If you are struggling with this issue, bring all of your awareness and love inwards towards yourself and discover your own love. Find the trail inwards that leads to your own divine source of love that cannot be extinguished. Give extra attention to your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations and accept and embrace them all as a gift. Practice loving yourself. If you are in an abusive relationship and cannot leave, take your attention away from the relationship and focus your attention on yourself. Prioritise your own thoughts and feeling and value them. Prioritise you own sensations and perceptions and accept them. By loving yourself more, the disrespect and lack of love from others will eventually become more apparent and will no longer make sense to you. Your reactivity will reduce and you will be able to respond more effectively to abusive situations with greater mental clarity. The Buddhist practice of Vipassana or insight meditation is a wonderful tool to become more self aware. A very good first book on this is Insight Meditation in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.
Practice a loving-kindness meditation for yourself and then extend it outwards to a person you feel loving feeling towards already and onto neutral people. This is a beautiful Buddhist practice known as bhavana metta, see e.g., https://thebuddhistcentre.com/text/loving-kindness-meditation. One day when you are free from reactivity you may even eventually be able to do this for abusive people but I do not believe that this is helpful in the initial stages when you are attempting to recover from narcissistic abuse. At this stage it is necessary to work on piercing the unconscious denial that holds back your healthy blame and anger towards your abusers/s. The most important thing right now is to do the loving-kindness meditation for yourself.
May I be well.
May I be at peace and free from suffering.
May I be happy.
Although it is said it is almost impossible to love others without first loving yourself, you nevertheless are a loving and kind person. Your potential to give and receive love must therefore be enormous!