Updated: Nov 8, 2020
This week I attended a self help group for children of narcissistic parents. Even though narsissistic personality disorder differs significantly from borderline personality disorder, the two of them share many features like the manipulation, lack of accountability, rage, black and white thinking (which is also known as splitting) emptiness, unfaithfulness, self-centeredness, playing the victim and so on. You get the drill. So I thought, this group might be worth a shot.
When I went through the door that night, I was pretty nervous. It was unknown territory for me and I didn't know what to expect. Usually I don't do well in group settings. People are hard for me. More than one person at the same time doesn't help. Sometimes it feels like I speak a different language than everyone else. As though I am not from this world. I suppose, social anxiety is one of the many horrific gifts you get from a borderline mother. Most of the time I don't even try to explain what no one else in the room understands anyway. You can't say: "hey, how are you doing? By the way, my mom is a borderline and she messed up my life! Sometimes I feel so sad that I'm afraid I won't ever be able to stop crying!" That would be weird, wouldn't it? What I usually do in a group is trying to stay in the backround. I put on a smile and try to be invisible. I then proceed to feel so disconnected from myself that it robbes me of my energy and I have to excuse myself multiple times and go the bathroom just to take a couple of deep breaths to feel myself again. So you might understand that I don't enjoy being in a room with many people very much. By the way, I am working on my social awkwardness and believe me, with all my heart I want to give that precious gift back to where it belongs.
This Time it was different
Well, this particular scenario played out very differently for me. There were nine people in the room. The group leader was kind of bubbly and confident. He introduced himself, talked about goals we want to define for ourselves over the upcoming weeks, about self help and what it means. Somehow he made me feel safe. He provided a clear structure for the group. That was great. I like structure. I need structure in order to feel okay with others. Then it was time for everyone to introduce themselves. The stories I heard sounded so familiar it was astonishing. Most people there had read as many books about mental illnesses and personality disorders as I had. It struck me how clear they could articulate what had happened to them and how awful, helpless and angry it made them feel, still.
My own first words were a little unorganized. It still is a struggle for me to explain what the problem is in only a few sentences. It's not like anyone gives you a lecture on that one. I talked about my mom and how she cut me off a couple of weeks ago. How she refused to take responsibilty for the things she has done to me when I was little and how she refused to go to family therapy with me because "it wouldn't do any good". My voice was so low in the beginning that people had to ask me to speak louder because they couldn't understand what I was saying. Well, for me speaking in front of 8 people about my trauma was kind of overwhelming at the beginning.
The woman who spoke next was so nervous that she couldn't sit still. She was shaking and eventually she started to cry. Her story sounded so sad. Her narcissistic dad had died a few years ago. She had not mourned him, because he was a total stranger to her. The longest she had ever talked to him would have been half on hour. But her dad's death opened the path to facing what was wrong with her mom. How she never listened, how she never took responsibility for actions and how neglectful she was. She clearly never had a safe haven. There was nothing to hold onto for her. No relationship she was in ever worked out. I could relate so much to all of her feelings. Everyone in the room looked at her empathically. There was mutual understanding in the group that was almost tangible. That was when I finally relaxed. With those people it was allowed to be upset! It was allowed to be in pain! It was allowed to show emotion! I could literally feel something easing inside of me. Those people really were safe!
I had finally found the other Unicorns
The topic love came up later that night. The group leader asked if any of us felt like we haven't ever been loved by our disordered parents and what this is doing to us. With that question I felt the tension building up in myself. But strangly enough, in a good way. I had something to say. And this time, my voice would be loud and clear. Actually, I had thought about "love" from a disordered mother a lot recently. How can someone love you, if they don't even know you? And how could they know you, if they don't even listen to you? My mom rarely listened to me. She made me sit with her and listen to her problems from a very young age. She cheated on my dad more than once. I knew everything about it. I knew every little detail about every misery in her life. I mentioned how my mom stood in front of me a few months ago, before things blew up with us, declaring her love for me with tears in her eyes and I just stood there and was unable to say or do anything. Freeze mode would be the right term for my mental state at that moment, I assume. Eventually, I recovered from the shock and flew into a rage. (At least in my head.) How dares she tell me she loves me!? She doesn't even know who I am! She never did! Because she rarely listened! She didn't even listen when I told her that I had been raped! (Well, that's another story.)
When I was done speaking I looked into 8 understanding compassionate faces. They all nodded. Wow. I wasn't alone anymore. There they are. I have finally found the others. The ones that are hurt, confused, angry and full of all sorts of intensive feelings, because they have been abused as children, too. They are different just like me. They are unicorns like me. As a child I loved the movie, "The last Unicorn". It makes sense because this was how I always felt. Different from everyone else around me with no one to talk to or to be with who understands. Different and alone.
"But she is your Mother!"
There is so much shame around pointing out pathological behaviour in a mother. People simply won't accept it. Mothers in our society are put up on a pedestal simply because they gave birth to a child. Whereas the children, the innocent ones, who suffer the most are thrown under the bus. It is almost impossible to challenge this belief about holy mothers in most people. Believe me, I have heard it all:
"Oh come on, she is your mother! You should honor your mother!"
"You know, we all have our moments."
Well, no mother is perfect! Everyone makes mistakes sometimes!"
"You shouldn't talk ill about your mom!"
"I am sure she loves you with all her heart! Maybe she just doesn't know, how to show it!"
"Don't read to much into it. Just let it go!"
"I am sure, she didn't mean it!"
"She was hurt herself. You have to have compassion for her!"
Actually this is called gaslighting by tribe. I might have to do one post entirely about gaslighting, soon. Gaslighting in a nutshell is doubting someone's reality or feelings. It can make you feel wrong or crazy. And this is exactly how it sounds in real life from people who do not want to give up their fantasy about perfect mothers. I always thought those people were well meaning, wanted to take away the pain and didn't know any better. But now, I am not so sure anymore. Maybe they just don't want to be faced with a truth that includes that some mothers out there don't act like mothers and are truly damaging. Most people, I guess, do not want to face their own pain. I am not saying that most people have a borderline mother, but everyone did get hurt by their parents to some degree. I truly believe, that you can tolerate only so much pain in others as you have already faced within yourself.
Arriving in Unicorn Land
Finally, I have found the people I can talk to. The relief I felt is hard to describe. They knew exactly how deeply painful this journey is. They don't try to sugar coat it. They can sit with their own pain and so they can be with other people who are equally struggeling. There is so much healing in just being with your pain. In accepting our pain. The pain, many of us feel is a response to a lifetime of emtional abuse, neglect, sometimes physical abuse, sometimes sexual abuse and sometimes also smothering. Pain, hurt, all sorts of intense feelings and also numbness are a fairly normal reaction to abuse. Let's not forget that. Of course you don't want to get stuck in this pain. Most people fear, that they will. But let me tell you this, without facing your pain first and accepting it, there will be no healing. I tried running from it for 30 years and it definitely didn't work. We need to stop sugar coating. Even if we do not understand the unicorns in this world we ca still validate their experiences. We don't have to provide a solution to everything right away. Sometimes what a unicorn needs is only for you to sit with them and listen without saying: "cheer up, it's not that bad", when, in fact, it is that bad.
I naturally got to the point (after I had done most of the crying on my own) where I was sick and tired of being a victim and dreaming about disappearing from this world. I had mourned my losses, which was very much necessary, and then grew out of the victim mentality automatically. I became a survivor. That doesn't mean, that the mourning is done. It might never be. Something, however, shifted. At that point, I started looking for a way out instead of believing there was none. Don't get me wrong, I once was victimized, and maybe so were you. This is not about victim blaming. It is about empowerment. I believe that despite everything I had to endure and everything I have lost I can still learn how to lead a happy life. Not because I have suddenly gained super healing powers, but because I deserve to be free from trauma. It is as simple as that. It is my birth right. It is everyone's birth right. No one is special. We are all different and yes, some of us are unicorns, but everyone equally deserves to be empowered to lead a meaningful life. It shouldn't be the trauma that determines our path. Everyone deserves to decide for him or herself what the meaning of life should be. The unicorns do, too. I believe with enough support, therapy and healing, we can become whole again.
We closed our group meeting with the thought of lost dreams. Our group leader asked whether we felt like we have burried some dreams of ours because we haven't been supported by our parents in pursuing them. This was supposed to be kind of homework. Thinking about lost dreams. Well, I look forward to the next meeting.
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I send you a big hug... till next time.