The thing with flashbacks is that you never know what will trigger one, but it can be healing to stay open to the secrets they hold. I have only recently begun experiencing flashbacks. I didn’t know what they were at first, but as I became comfortable sitting with my feelings, I became curious about them and wanted to understand the lessons they had to teach me.
We invest so much into our relationships. Even toxic ones. We give and give of ourselves, we sacrifice our wants and needs for another person. We give them the shirts off our backs, and then we realize they are only taking our love and giving us poison in return. This is what makes the relationship toxic.
It then becomes a choice between our own sanity or maintaining the insanity of the relationship. The home we live in and having to sleep on someone’s couch. Staying put or moving cross-country. Familiarity or the Great Unknown. Financial security or scraping by. Waiting around to be acknowledged for all we are and all we’ve done or acknowledging ourselves and expecting nothing in return but our own freedom.
Whether it’s a narcissistic mother, father, spouse, sibling, in-law, or long-time friend, there will come a time when it is necessary to wash our hands of them and walk away from our investments. The toxic dynamic isn’t just hurting ourselves, it’s permeating throughout all other areas and affecting every aspect. It is stealing from the world around us by sucking the life-force out of us and keeping us from fulfilling our purpose. Once we make the choice to let go of a toxic relationship, it becomes easier to make that choice every time we are called on to do so.
An Evolution of Walking Away from Narcissists
The first time I made a decision to walk away from a toxic relationship was when I went no contact with my mother. My very first human connection was also my very first conscious disconnection. It was a big one, a painful one, and a controversial one but it was the one in which I had the most intimate and intricate knowledge of how deep and real the toxicity was. It had poisoned my life for thirty-three years. It had nearly destroyed my health, self-worth, and my sanity.
I was in therapy and self-educating about the full spectrum of narcissistic personality disorders when I realized my mother was a malignant narcissist and would never be capable of self-awareness or change. She confirmed it when in our last conversation ever, I said I would be willing to work out our differences in the presence of a counselor and she screamed, “THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN!” At which point, I had to make a change for myself, my sanity, and my health. I left behind the story of my life. The story that had defined who I was and where I belonged in the world. I left behind the codependent dynamic that would have been a kind of safety net for me in bad times and way of sharing life in the good times. I walked away from any legacy, inheritance, or sense of belonging. I left behind my father and my sister. I walked away from my future children’s grandparents and any hope of being unconditionally loved by a mother and father. It was the best decision I ever made. It caused me to have the space in my head to focus on my marriage which had been tumultuous, to say the least, for all of its three years.
About a year later, I walked away from my marriage. With my therapist, I was able to connect all the ways in which I was drawn to my ex-husband because of his similarities to my mother and father who are both narcissists. I started to understand that my ex-husband’s behavior was triggering my Complex-PTSD symptoms. With every panic attack that caused me to feel like I was losing my mind, I sought answers to what was wrong with me.
By separating from my husband and physically getting away from the toxicity, I realized that, indeed, I was not going insane, my relationship was a crazy-making one, and that my husband was emotionally and psychologically abusive. I made a choice for my own good, for his good, and for the good of his two children to not be a part of the abusive crazy-making any longer. Rather than dragging my husband to therapy and trying to get him to change, I decided to change myself, my location, and my marital status.
As empaths, we can become so focused on reading the other person, that we don’t have any space to be present in our own bodies. When I was able to look inward and sense what I needed, a plan of action became much more clear. I left behind my home, career, a joint bank account, and my life partner with the clothes on my back, the debt I had incurred while supporting him, and my rusted out Chevy Malibu. I borrowed money from a friend to put a deposit down on a rental, and took nothing of my ex-husband’s except his name.
I spent some time out of town, visiting family, and traveling. I started to engage situations in which I felt used or manipulated with a better sense of self. Rather than acquiescing without question or flying off the handle, I started to think, “What is my boundary here? What are my choices as an autonomous human being?” I began to feel less pulled around by my nose, as I had my entire life, and more in control of my feelings, my life, and my choices. It wasn’t my job to tell someone they were overstepping their bounds, it was my job to maintain my own boundaries.
With this newfound sense of self, I came home to file for divorce and move back in with my former roommate. I had been living with her when I got engaged to my ex-husband. I walked back into her house five years later a completely different person than the one who had left. Since I had gotten married, emancipated from my parents, and divorced, I had a stronger sense of myself and a very low tolerance for toxic people. I had become a badass (only in the sense that I wasn’t a complete pushover any longer).
I had been living there about a week, and, in that time, my former roommate tried to gaslight and control me by using manipulation, lying, nitpicking and threats. It quickly dawned on me that our entire relationship had been built on this toxic dynamic. I hadn’t noticed it before, not like this. I knew she was bossy and demanding and left nitpicky post-it notes everywhere, but I didn’t realize that our relationship had only worked because I would jump when she said, “Jump.”
I had become impervious to her narcissism, and this agitated her. By simply maintaining my personal boundaries for a week, she suddenly flew into a narcissistic rage, threw all of my belongings outside and changed the locks while I was away from home. She sent a text telling me what she had done without any explanation as to why. The cops who escorted me into her house stated that I had several grounds on which to sue. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “She isn’t worth it,” and walked out.
Toxic people are not worth the energy and resources it would take to get back what they take from us. Whether it’s physical, emotional, or financial, the less contact with a narcissist, the better. Leaving behind the things and emotions that tied us to the narcissist makes room for things of great value; a sense of self-worth, the capacity for real love, and the room to pursue our true passions. Life without a toxic person or the things we left in the past with them is so much more enriching than anything we could have retained.
It’s All About Boundaries
As Adult Children of Narcissists, we never had a chance to develop personal boundaries. I used to tell my therapist, “It’s like I have a sign on my forehead that says, ‘Walk all over me.’” In a way, I did. The fences around my lawn had been removed years before, leaving holes where fence posts should have been, and the muddy footprints from the trampled sod were an open invitation to any and all narcissistic personalities I came in contact with. It isn’t that we are asking to be abused, our lack of boundaries just lets anyone who doesn’t believe in boundaries wander in where other people have deterrents that aren’t worth the narcissist’s trouble.
When we first start placing our boundaries, we’re having to work hard to figure out who’s been trampling our lawns and how to shoo them away when they nonchalantly start climbing the fence to come back in. It may be difficult to fully recognize emotional and psychological abuse as abuse. Once we start making connections and being present in our feelings, it’s like finding clues to whose footprints have done the most damage in our lives. We can then recognize who to enforce those boundaries we are building with, and understand how much energy will need to go into maintaining them Many times, with a narcissist, it will mean packing up and moving to a new homestead altogether.
Hope of Healing
I hope we all find a peaceful place to land in order to heal from our pain. Healing is within our grasp, we only need to take action. Leave the lions, join the empathic herd, and run, gazelle, run to a bigger, brighter future full of love, peace, and happiness.
How have you set boundaries with the narcissist in your life?
As Adult Children of Narcissists we tend to struggle with with self-awareness and relationship issues well into adulthood. We have been victims of prolonged abuse. That has a lasting impact on us for which we are now responsible as adults who are invested in becoming self-aware and seeking healing. As an ACoN, myself, I have struggled with many traits that make life difficult.
I was raised by a mother who has every malignant narcissistic trait listed and a father who is enabling and covertly narcissistic. The important thing to remember as a victim of narcissistic abuse is that it wasn’t ever your fault.
Also, you have the power to take your life back. You have survived an insidious kind of abuse, and you have the strength and ability to find healing from that abuse.
These are some of the areas in which I have struggled as I seek to become self-aware in order to learn how to heal and become whole:
For the first thirty years of my life, I tended to be hyper-critical, not only of myself, but, of others. I acted like I was better than everyone else. I projected onto others all that was projected onto me by my mother. It became very easy to pass the buck and unburden the weight of her scorn onto the people around me.
If my mother suggested I looked like a hooker because I had a knee-length skirt on, my reaction would be to point out how slutty another girl looked at church. By comparison, I looked pretty good by lunchtime. It was a very kill or be killed mentality in my family of origin that stole decades of my life.
I was the worst version of myself. I was codependent, indecisive, secretive, and manipulative. I learned, quite skillfully, to play the narcissistic system.
I could be manipulative. Not in a diabolical way. In the way that a kidnapped victim will try to win over her captor in order to survive. I had Stockholm Syndrome. But it became a life skill that I just couldn’t justify using any longer. I would request permission to do something by highlighting the elements of the outing that most appealed to my mother, talk disparagingly about the individual I would be spending time with, and make sure my mother’s ego was boosted. I would talk about everything, except the real reason I wanted to go out, because if I were requesting to do something that made me happy, she would sabotage it. And, since I needed her permission about every single thing I ever did until I was thirty years old, it was second nature to me.
Passive-aggression is also a learned form of manipulation I struggle with. Because my narcissistic mother could not handle my feelings, I learned to express how I felt about things in an indirect way. I learned to take the most indirect route to what I wanted. I was reactive instead of proactive, I was vague instead of direct.
And it still plays out today. My boyfriend is very direct and literal, similar to someone with Autism, and I often hear, “What are you actually trying to say?” At which point, I have to stop talking and figure out what it is I’m really wanting from the exchange and then state it in a very direct way.
Sometimes, I don’t even know what my true desired destination is when I start feeling my way through a conversation. I feel as though it is selfish of me to have a desire, need, or want and make a request for it. In actuality, it’s selfish to place my passive-aggressive behavior on someone’s shoulders and expect them to decipher those hieroglyphics and tell me what I must be wanting. But I don’t beat myself up over it, because I can’t really help that default setting. I just try to approach it in a healthier way now.
I have such a strange relationship with restaurants and restaurant menus. I often say, “Oh, I’m not picky,” or “I’ll have what he’s having.” When my boyfriend asks me what I want to drink, he adds, “What do YOU really want?” and then high fives me for choosing the whiskey over the beer. It may seem silly and condescending, but it isn’t. It’s a necessary part of life that I’m still learning because my narcissistic mother gaslighted, sabotaged, manipulated, and controlled me into believing that I could not make sound decisions for myself, even the tiniest decisions.
It’s why I lived in her home until I was thirty. I truly believed that I would utterly fail if I made one decision for myself. This was how she kept me as her captive. She sowed the seed of self-doubt into every interaction with me. At times, making the simplest decision can trigger a panic attack.
I’ve since learned to stop, breathe, consider what it is I really want, and then state it as succinctly as possible. Without hemming and hawing, without backtracking or apologizing. The more I do it this way, the better I get.
I crawl deep inside my head when something traumatic is happening, and I see and hear everything as though I am watching myself from outside myself. I also freeze when fight or flight response is triggered in me. This could mean literally freezing my movements or just going into “do something” mode. I help the nearest person without a thought to how I’m feeling or affected, I start organizing my sock drawer to zero in on anything other than what I’m feeling in the moment.
To remove myself from my body was the best way put some distance between the real me and my narcissistic mother for thirty years. The shell of myself was the one getting the brunt of the violent rage, insults, and false accusations, not my true self. It served me well for most of my life, but it cannot serve me well in any current scenario.
I was a pessimist. And I was funny. I used sarcasm and dry humor to deflect attention from myself or what was really going on with me. I developed a public persona that seemed to not have a care in the world and had the ability to laugh everything off and get everyone else to laugh everything off.
I still resort to that at times. To feel my own feelings and to outwardly portray them was impossible for me for the first thirty years of life. I know, now, that was my way of never letting my mother see me genuinely joyful or hopeful in order to protect me from her scorn, criticism, and sabotaging. But, I died a little inside every time I hid my true self.
Living with narcissistic parents caused me to be a very defensive person. And, because I couldn’t defend myself against their false accusations or stand up for the real reasons why I did something I wanted to do, I deflected. It was always someone, or something, else’s fault.
I cannot express how damaging this is. Not being able to own my reality caused me to feel absolutely powerless to live any semblance of a normal adult life. I am learning to take my power back by owning my choices, good, bad, or indifferent. To be proactive instead of reactive, and to be confident that my own conscience can guide me through life to make healthy choices.
Trauma Bonding Addiction
Since going no contact with my narcissistic mother, I have walked away from multiple toxic relationships. I had unknowingly married an emotionally avoidant, sometimes emotionally abusive man, when I was thirty, and, like many of us ACoNs do, I was subconsciously trying to repair the relationships with my parents by repeating that relational pattern with my husband.
I was behaving as a wounded animal in my marriage and I felt crazy. It actually gave my ex husband pleasure to see me so upset. He would throw his head back a laugh when I was distraught or angry.
He seemed to thrive when I seemed mentally and emotionally unstable. The day I left him almost three years ago was the day I stopped feeling like I needed to check myself into a psychiatric hospital.
Since then, I have let go of some very toxic relationships. As I let these relationships go, I realized I had attracted people with narcissistic traits because I felt like I deserved it.
The more someone tried to dominate me, insult me, and manipulate me, the more I felt I needed to try and please them. Once I realized I was gravitating toward these types of relationships, I also learned why, and am learning the skills necessary to not get entangled with toxic people.
When I left my mother’s home and entered into my marriage, I had a lot of rage. Being married to my ex triggered a lot of old wounds for me and I would fly into a rage when he treated me in a way my mother had treated me. I was suffering from my first bouts of C-PTSD.
Once I left, I realized all the things that should have been red flags to me I was seeing as signs that I was supposed to be with that person at the time. I was convinced I could heal him and the relationship.
But all it did was bring up such deeply buried rage for the thirty years I was in that type of relationship. I still feel that familiar bristling when I sense that dynamic with another individual and I am learning to recognize the things that trigger my symptoms and to slow down or remove myself from the situation.
Reacting to a narcissistic person is the worst thing a victim can do, because it will send us careening down a slope of self-doubt, shame, and becoming a source of supply. I am learning to be angry about what the toxic person is doing, but harness that anger into doing something constructive to remove myself from being under their influence.
I don’t know about you, but I can easily open up to strangers, and they easily open up to me. We form a fast bond and then the deeper the relationship gets, I start to distrust it. I’m desperate for open and honest connection, but closer connection also means great potential for getting hurt.
I find that I’m learning to be okay with being a bit more reserved until I understand if I can truly trust someone. It is a difficult balance to strike that I think will come with time, more healing, and being more confident in myself. We need people in our lives, but we shouldn’t need people who aren’t good to us and for us.
I have had so much shame associated with my C-PTSD symptoms and recognizing the ways in which I survived my relationship with my narcissistic mother. I sometimes sound like her and I shrink back in horror at looking like the monster from whom I’ve worked so hard to escape. It is frightening and isolating.
I have learned to forgive myself, ask for forgiveness from others and try to be more mindful moving forward. It would be easy to blame all of this on my mother and just be angry and hyper-sensitive for the rest of my life in order to avoid the feeling of shame. But it would make my life a lot harder in the long run. Becoming self aware is an uncomfortable feeling, but it only lasts a short while.
Healing from narcissistic abuse is nothing to be ashamed of.
Finding Healing as an ACoN
The best thing we can do as ACoNs is strive to be self-aware. To know ourselves. To be the best versions of ourselves we can be. To discover the people we were born to be before we were tampered with in such a destructive way. Our narcissistic parents will have to live with what their lives have come to because of what they have done, but we do not have to continue to live with what they have done. We can break free and learn to heal.
Our parents were unable to love us because they could not love themselves. They could not love themselves, because they could not know themselves. They are incapable of becoming self-aware.
We can give ourselves the love our narcissistic parents were never able to give us by first knowing ourselves and accepting ourselves. It is here that we find the space for renewal, growth, and grace to love ourselves in a way we never were by our parents. It is here where we begin to heal.
If you are starting out on this journey of breaking free of a narcissistic parent, I strongly suggest finding a counselor or psychologist or coach who specializes in narcissistic abuse. It is so important to have emotional support as we delve into the journey of healing from narcissistic abuse.
I know I would never have survived the precarious nature of this journey without my therapist who has an innate understanding of my childhood wounds and the wounds I sustained well into adulthood. Living in psychological bondage was hell, and the journey to freedom and healing is proving to be far better than I could have ever imagined.
There are so many of us ACoNs roaming this earth, and I hope you’ve found this to be a place where you feel less alone and less frightened. You are not alone in your journey. You are not alone, period. Sharing our stories can be so powerful and freeing, and I encourage you to share yours in an environment that feels right to you. Leave a comment below or feel free to contact me if you too are learning to overcome narcissistic abuse by one, or both, parent(s). I would love to hear from you, and you are always welcome! Find your tribe, join the herd, and run, gazelle, run to wholeness, happiness, and freedom.