An Honest Gaze
A Childhood Trauma Survivor & Adoptee Talk A Taboo Topic: Narcissism & Trauma
Narcissism and trauma. The writing prompt given to me so graciously by a new comrade in healing after a phone call discussing the importance of destigmatizing the use of cannabis as a healing agent for trauma survivors. Shannon invited me to write about something buried deep in the crevices of my traumatized mind.
Narcissism and trauma.
Where even to begin?
I delayed and delayed and delayed putting pen to page on this particular matter, until almost the last moment. Procrastination is my preferred method of self-sabotage. Perfectionism in disguise. Really just a tool of avoidance. I so desperately want to be seen in my work as a writer, mental health counselor, and advocate, but when it comes down to it, I’m just as human and fallible as the people I work with.
I’m scared to heal, too. It means letting go of all of the beliefs that have helped me survive for all these years. It means holding up the mirror to myself and taking a good, long honest look. It means allowing myself to be seen.
And the truth is that I don’t want to write about narcissism and trauma because I am deeply disgusted by and afraid of the narcissistic traits I have inherited as a childhood trauma survivor and survivor of narcissistic abuse.
We become what we learn. Unless we do the work to unlearn. To look closely. To walk directly into the fire. Directly into the pain.
Cannabis has helped me face the demons of my trauma head on. She’s a spiritual plant. A grandmother plant. She holds me gently and lifts the veil between me and my buried emotions. She helps me get into my body, and really feel and pay attention to everything that lives inside. I read somewhere once that smoking plants is the most sacred way to connect to the element of fire. To pull it into the lungs. To become it. Fire is the only element that cannot exist without the help of the other elements. To consume fire is to purify.
But back to narcissism. This has been a hot buzz word amongst healing circles. It’s everywhere. Instagram, YouTube, Psychology Today, etc etc etc. Maybe the recent surge in discussions about this personality disorder is because the leader of the United States demonstrates these traits and is systematically revealing the latent hate, division, and fear present in America? Maybe it’s because we live in a hyper individualistic culture and time when the need to document ourselves has increased to the point where one single human can now be a “brand”?
Since when is it healthy to brand an identity?
Your story is not a commodity. Your pain is precious.
Anyway. My ADHD makes an appearance again. Huge shout out for all the tangential folks out there who can follow this. Love you. The ADHD brain is brilliant at taking seemingly unrelated topics and connecting the dots to form a story. You’re welcome.
Narcissism. For a word that’s so widely overused, there seems to be a lack of clarity about what it means exactly. What is narcissism?
My way of understanding something potentially emotionally overwhelming is to intellectualize and sterilize. Compartmentalize.
But before I do that, let’s first turn to story to access our hearts here.
The story of Narcissus in Greek mythology tells the story of a young man so beautiful that people fell in love with him upon first glance. Narcissus was a hunter, and resented the attention from his admirers. Showing a certain disdain for those who showed him affection, he would reject those who fell for his beauty. The story goes that one day a forest nymph named Echo happened upon him while he was hunting. She was doomed to the curse of his beauty. She did something as innocent as fall in love, calling out to the object of her affection, but received no answer. No response. The silence. The unrequited love. Drove her to madness. And she killed herself. Leaving nothing but an echo. The goddess of revenge, Nemesis, witnessed this horrific scene and decided to give Narcissus a taste of his own medicine. Restore balance. She lured him to a pool while he was once again hunting in the forest. Upon seeing his own reflection, he fell in love with the beauty before him, not understanding that he was gazing into his own eyes. He was then afflicted with the plight that all that came before him had experienced. Love. And then tragedy.
Someone so self-absorbed could never reciprocate any affection. He spent the rest of his life staring into that pool at his own face. His call never receiving a response. Until the light within him. His beauty. Could no longer be contained. He withered. And then burst into flame. Becoming the flower. Narcissus. A white plume. Petals pure. Beholden to no one. Belonging to the earth.
Oh, my heart. I can feel the pain of all of the characters in this story. I can see the victimhood inherent in both Echo and Narcissus. I’m still left confused here. Ok, let’s turn to the brain then. What does science have to say?
The modern-day view of Narcissistic Personality Disorder has been stripped of the rich complexity inherent in the Greek mythology described above. The most recent version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual V (DSM-V), a tool widely used in Psychology and Psychiatry to diagnose mental illness, defines the disorder as a cluster of traits related to:
grandiosity (inflated sense of self and entitlement)
unclear self-direction (path is chosen by what “looks good”)
lack of empathy (inability to feel or understand impact of behavior on others)
disruption in intimacy (lack of real close relationships, connections are superficial)
attention seeking (seeking approval from others)
The DSM-V briefly touches on the origin of these traits as related to childhood trauma, but does not go deep into detail into how early experiences can shape the form of someone with such a fragile ego and sense of self. This definition still leaves me unsatisfied.
Ok then, how about I turn to my own story to help us understand. The one I mentioned above. Where I both relate to these narcissistic traits and have been on the receiving end of the abuse/violence that they can lead to.
Here’s an important thing to know about me. I’m adopted.
I know, I know- this fact should have been the first thing mentioned in this article. The experience of adoption colors all of my experiences. All of my views. Even more so than my professional identity as therapist. Adoption told me I was “special” and “chosen” even though I felt like I was thrown away by my birth mother. Adoption told me that my feelings of trauma and loss related to losing my birth family were secondary to the emotions and comfort of my adoptive family. Adoption taught me that to survive I had to suppress and assimilate. Adoption taught me that my body is an object, a literal commodity to be bought and sold, to fulfill the emotional needs of the new family. Adoption gave me the gift of exquisite sensitivity, to sense what others are feeling in order to stay safe. Adoption taught me to erase myself. Adoption robbed me of my self-worth. Of my value. Adoption taught me success is the only way to earn love and prove that I am “worth keeping.” Adoption left me starving. No ego or identity to be found in this hollow body. Love is a drug and it’s the only thing that fills me up baby. When I was a kid, I used to stare for hours into the mirror searching for myself in my own reflection. Trying to see if I was still in there behind the mask I learned to wear. I needed someone, anybody, even if it was just me, to see. To witness my pain.
You following? Are you starting to get it? No?
Ok, let’s try poetry instead.
when you’ve never been fed
you say. you love me.
but you’re really just entranced.
lost in a reflection.
my eyes. mirroring back
everything. you never wanted
me. to see
the monster the light
the shadow the grief
a child. crying out
for something more
no real sustenance
ingesting. the hearts
of those that dared
brilliant blue eyes. laser vision
skinned. one look
a mask ripped off
something ugly revealed
a motherless creature
an endless well. stones dropped.
it ripples still
a lifetime of desire
who is staring back at me?
the predator. the prey
appearance the same
it’s all confusing now
my instinct hollow
in your eyes. everything
I never wanted. to see.
you said. you loved me.
I said it too.
but really I never wanted
to be lonely.
trauma bonded. wound mates
where the danger lies.
the difference between
the wolf and the sheep?
only one needs cloaking
to be able to receive
the predator captured
by the prison of self-deceit
narcissus. forever trapped
in a reflection that’s distorted
needing the other
to clearly see
the innocence. worth recovering.
a child’s survival depends on love.
we were all children once.
I’m the villain in someone’s story too.
who is who?
Whew. That felt good to get out. Poetry is the language of my body. Where I turn when my mind can’t figure something out. I think I have the answer to this question now. It’s in the mirror. It’s in the call and response. The echo.
The only difference between someone who is diagnosable as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (aka an uncaring vampire) and someone who comes out of childhood trauma with their empathy intact (a highly sensitive empath) is the ability to confront the true self. Warts and all. Let go of the false self. Strengthen the ego. Find worthiness and value from within. Even in fallibility. Even in ugliness. Even in darkness. And then forgive and thank that false self for the way that it helped you survive. And step into the light. To be your own compassionate witness.
I should be speaking to myself here. Ugh, ok, here we go:
Forgive yourself for using people and looking to others as a source of validation and love in the past. Forgive yourself for probably doing this again in the future. It takes a long time to unlearn these habits. They were conditioned into you by the experience of your adoption. This is not your fault. However, it is your responsibility to heal this wound in yourself so that you do not continue to inflict harm on yourself and others. You are capable of this and you are already doing this work. But most of all, what I need you to hear is that you are worthy. You are valuable. You are deserving of love without conditions. You do not need to earn your place in this world. Your accomplishments will never fulfill you. Satisfaction is found through self-acceptance. Self-compassion. When you can feel strong in who you are, when you can use your voice in an honest way, when you lead with forgiveness, you are unstoppable. You belong. You are here. You are here. You are here. I love you. I love you. I love you.
I don’t know if this article will be helpful to anyone but me. It has been incredibly painful to rip open these wounds. To look at my own narcissism and trace those traits back to the root. To forgive and see clearly the pain of the people in my life who have abused me with their own narcissistic traits. But I’m so grateful to myself for being brave enough to do so. Cause guess what?
In witnessing myself. In confronting my pain. I am free.