When you grow up in the shadow of a narcissist, it can be an excruciating and decades long process to overcome your conditioning and stand for yourself. When you are a child seeking belonging with your Mama, you will do anything to make her happy. So I became a people pleaser. Passive. Receptive. Adaptable. Flexible. I learned how to adapt to my mother’s every demand in order to avoid her wrath. Or make myself the Invisible Girl so that she remained calm at the center of our little universe.
As a young adult I called myself deeply service oriented, but it was really that I believed I had to serve others in order to be seen or loved. I often slipped into martyrdom.
I am also an empath who could feel people’s pain and would compromise everything to try make them happy (as if I ever had that power). Everything about me was oriented toward dimming my light to make others more comfortable, from my children to my partners to my friends. No one I chose to be in relationship with would recognize and honor my full self and so I made unconscious bargains for my belonging. It wasn’t until the past few years that that I established a small circle of Beloveds who radically include all of me.
It’s taking a few years of on-again/off-again practice at using my voice and standing up for myself to learn to do it with any grace. I’m still struggling. Making myself vulnerable to people who repeat the old patterns of dominating the space, mean criticism, bullying, and other verbal and emotionally violent behaviors stirs up a belly storm of anxiety. I am afraid that if I offend or if I disagree then I will no longer be valued and I will no longer belong. Isolation I choose is far better than isolation due to exclusion.
My trauma based defense mechanism to protect myself is to withdraw deep within (I am a Cancer crab after all). When I was faced with my mother’s anger and banished to my room, I would lose myself in music and reading fiction. I would retreat into the safety of my own shell where no one could dim the inner light that shined when I was connected to other people’s creativity that expressed my experience of being human.
As a deeply damaged young adult confronting the reality of raising two children alone while trying to go to college and get my head on straight, I spent most of my time hidden away in my apartment. My friendships and lover relationships were fraught with drama and pain as we triggered one another’s wounds over and over. My bedroom remained the sacred cave I would withdraw to in order to heal my many heart shatterings.
Most recently, when birth mother grief became too much for me to process I withdrew again. I isolated more deeply than ever before, even disassociating from myself. For a time I didn’t let my own Beloveds or children close to my heart. It was too much pain to share and no one understood the complexity of my experience.
Withdrawing from visibility is what I know how to do to protect myself when I am afraid. It isn’t an excuse, fragility, or an intention to avoid, it’s simply the way I know of providing myself relief under big emotional stress. It is how I know to pause before the train to emotional reactivity takes over. This is what it means in practice to be working with trauma, to recognize these patterns and learn to interpret the stimuli coming at me in the present rather than as a body memory from the past.
I’ve been actively doing trauma work for two years and I have no idea whether or when I will be fully healed. I never know what’s going to send me careening into the maze of pain at the center of my being. But I can’t allow that to keep me from shining my light, speaking my truth, or trying to build trauma informed community from an open and appropriately boundaried place. All I can do is continue to deepen my self awareness and do the work to untangle my soul from the hurt and harm of years past. And hold space for you to do the same.