30 Rock: Season 3, Episode 10. “Generalissimo” Tracy Jordan accidentally roofies himself.
Healing from abuse is in many ways a grieving process. There is grief for the loss of time, sense of safety, sureness of self, and trust in the abusive person. Especially if the abuser is a parent or significant other who should have been trustworthy, there can be a lot of grief for what the person should have been.
When it comes to an abusive parent, such as a narcissistic one, some come to the conclusion that the abusive parent was never really a parent. The grief then is less for the behavior of the abusive parent, but for the realization that the parent was never a real caretaker. There is a growing internet forum on Reddit specifically aimed at children of narcissistic parents called /r/raisedbynarcissists, I mention it here because the forum’s name plays on the expression to be “raised by wolves” which seems an accurate comparison to me. To be raised by an abusive parent (or parents) is in many ways to be abandoned by the people who are supposed to be a guaranteed support system.
In my post on Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I talk about child abandonment from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. A child in the prehistoric wild abandoned by their parents is left to die. The terror that comes from being abandoned is in this setting, a survival tactic. In modern times, children are less likely to be left to be eaten by lions, and more often abandoned by their parents disdain for them. While the immediate physical danger is quite different for these different kinds of abandonment, the level of terror and pain is very similar. Children raised by hateful Narcissistic parents learn to accept disdain and emotional abandonment as a norm, and in turn sometimes develop habits of abandoning themselves.
When you grow up learning that your emotions are worthy of disdain and that the normal reaction to them is to be abandoned, it becomes challenging to take care of yourself in moments of stress, sadness, anger, and other large, negative emotions. Faced with an emotional flashback, our coping mechanisms can go wrong and we can lose ourselves in all the distress and confusion.
Self abandonment is losing yourself in something to an extent that it stunts other aspects of your life. A relatively harmless example is the academic who is so engrossed in their studies they don’t really know what pop music sounds like or have friends outside of work anymore. A relatively harmful example would be the physically abusive significant other, so lost in their anger and violence that they are barely themselves anymore. And in the middle are the rest of us, who have a variety of abandonment habits.
Habits of abandoning ourselves come in many forms, but I find they tend to fall into the same four categories as the “Four F” responses to traumatic flashbacks (fight, flight, freeze, fawn). At the heart of all self abandonment are two things: a desire to be anywhere besides the present moment and a replication of normalized abandonment behavior from childhood.
A fight response to trauma can lead to self-abandonment in the same form as the response itself: fighting. When a person flies into such an intense kind of rage it can seem like they aren’t really present in the moment or able to see themselves and their behavior. And in fact when the fight response comes from a place of triggered trauma, the raging person has abandoned themselves in their rage.
In contrast, flight responses can be more obviously an abandonment of self. Flight responses trigger a desire to focus on literally anything besides what is causing the reaction; to in some way run away from the problem. Sometimes when we burn ourselves out trying to solve a problem it can actually be helpful to indulge the flight response and focus on a math problem or cleaning the bathroom or something less emotionally stressful. But like any habit, it’s possible to take this to an extreme and abandon one’s own emotional needs in an effort to get everything “just right”. This is a bad habit of self abandonment that I am certainly guilty of, and the largest example of this in my life would be my final year of undergraduate study. Rather than address why I was so anxious as to be throwing up nearly every morning, all I did was push to finish the papers I was writing to excessive perfection. Sure my diagrams were immaculate, but I was underfed and dizzy every day.
Possibly the most easily recognizable self abandonment habits are dissociative freeze responses manifesting as a variety of addictive disorders. Having never been addicted to anything more powerful than caffeine, I want to be careful how I discuss addiction and encourage anyone with more insight to chime in and comment. But whether your addiction leads to years of intensive drug use or hours of mindless TV bingeing, the end result is the same: a disconnect from self and from the world. This is not at all to say that addiction is a conscious choice used to avoid real life, but rather an unconcious sense that since our parents abandoned us we are not worthy of our own attention and care, and so we abandon ourselves as well.
Fawn responses prey on the co-dependency we have been raised to believe is normal. In the midst of a fawn response, all others’ needs are seen as more important than our own and we feel it is more important to make others happy that to do the same for ourselves. Watching someone abandon themselves to an abusive relationship is heartbreaking — we want to tell them they are worth more than how the relationship leaves them feeling (lonely and worthless), but when stuck in an abusive relationship because of a habitual fawn response it can be nearly impossible to see yourself as deserving of something better than the current situation.
So if our parents raise us to believe we deserve no better than being abandoned (by them and then later by ourselves), how do we break this habit? How do we learn to stay present and take care of ourselves? It’s no easy task to learn to recognize how much is reasonable to indulge in our responses and to recognize the line where it becomes harmful instead of helpful, and I have no where near all the answers. There are parts of these responses that I think can actually be useful in recovering from abuse: whether it’s learning to meditate so that our dissociation is productive instead of harmful or trying to turn our fawn response onto ourselves and create an internal mechanism that cares for ourselves. In future posts, I plan to address what positive things we can take from our responses to trauma and how we can use them to help and heal instead of abandon ourselves.
Once again, here’s a brief apology for my slow posting and a small personal update with excuses. This past month I have been going back and forth to Boston and New York on bus rides that are far too long and not very conducive to writing. In the next month I hope to be able to write more frequently, but I am moving to Brooklyn in July to start a new job at a tech company, so I will be spending a lot of time apartment hunting and furniture hauling. I hope to continue my series on Things Dysfunctional Parents Don’t Teach Us and find some overlap between those posts and the beauty section of my blog.