I’m the objectified daughter of a narcissist. I’m not sure how bad that sounds, but I know that without bruises, abuse is often dismissed. I spent many, many years unconsciously suppressing myself, and erasing my identity so that I could become an extension of my mother. It was–I felt–the only way I could be loved.
As anyone with a narcissistic parent will tell you, there is a lot of damage to undo when you–if you ever–finally realise that you can never be acceptable and that your best way to survive as an adult, is to become yourself. For many, it’s too late because the damage done by objectification, has warped you.
And yet in one fundamental way, the legacy of my upbringing has given me the extraordinary ability of being able to put myself in other people’s shoes. When I hear stories of abuse, I know what the person who experienced abuse feels like, since I was one of them. But I also know what the person who inflicted abuse feels like, because during my childhood I stepped into my mother’s shoes. I was an extension of her. I felt her pain. I intimately knew her experience, even whilst I disliked it.
When you are not only able to step into the shoes of someone you like, but also the shoes of someone you dislike, it is a sign of empathy; even if I have no idea whether I’m able to put myself in everyone’s shoes I can always feel their pain. But being an empath, did not automatically prevent me from repeating the patterns I learned at my mother’s knee. One can be an empath and still behave abusively. I’ve done it.
There are many children of narcissists who have learned by example that the best way to survive in this world is by abusing downwards. I didn’t physically or sexually abuse, but I emotionally abused and I’m very lucky that I had the privilege to access the education and therapy which helped me heal before I did more damage. Yet emotional abuse is incredibly damaging, perhaps in part because it cannot be recognised and dealt with in the same way. Emotional abuse gets swept under the carpet because it is supported and perpetuated by society as a whole.
So my abusive behaviours–unconscious attempts to control, to manipulate, to shame, to humiliate as my mother did to me–happened. It took me time to learn the truth of what I was doing. Mistakes happened, especially when my anxiety levels climbed and I defaulted to my reptilian patterns. But my journey to the conscious, meant I became aware of them more quickly. I could take responsibility for them, and in doing so I could change them, apologise for them. Did it take away the hurt my actions caused? No; no amount of ‘sorry’ can change that.
Curiously because I’m an empath, I also felt the pain I caused. Maybe it’s also part of what helped me heal. But in the beginning I only felt disgust at myself for all that I was; abused and abuser; this disgust prevented me from being fully able to take responsibility for actions because it was so painful to look in the mirror and see the person reflected back. But whilst I could not take responsibility for the pain of others, I had to take responsibility for my abusive behaviour which caused it, if I were to change. Years passed, and I did. Unsurprisingly then, I became a counsellor.
In my line of work, I come across instances of abusive behaviour daily. They are not isolated incidents, they are systemic and prolific. I even help others to identify and call them out. I am acutely aware of how they start, even before they become ‘abuse’, because of my background.
You teach best what you most need to learn – Richard Bach
Abuse as a concept, divides our society. We glibly say that it is important to support self-esteem, that our children are loveable and worthy no matter what we do. It’s the behaviour that is bad, not the person. But there is little compassion for those who are deemed abusive. They are judged, vilified and ‘othered’. They are shamed, labelled as less worthy people. And the result? In all likelihood, to drive them deeper into the abusive survival mechanisms they once learned at their parents’ knees. I have been blamed because I will not make my mother into a monster. I understand why she did what she did, even whilst I do not condone it.
I’m no stranger to controversy. I’m well aware that people will judge these admissions. That people may vilify me for standing up and calling out my own deep rooted abusive patterning even if I believe I’ve now changed it and made amends as far as I can. Neither am I suggesting that our justice system should not be exercised to stop abuse. I support those who have experienced abuse to take all measures available to them to protect themselves. After all I have also been there.
But I am suggesting that our hostility, our condemnation and our disgust of abusers–especially when it stems from those who were not abused–does nothing to address the root cause. To prevent abuse we not only need to stop it when it happens, but also address it before it starts. To help abusers take responsibility for their behaviour so that they can change it. Disgust did not help me, it actively worked to prevent me taking responsibility.
I’m not suggesting this support be provided by the abused to their abusers. Far from it. In line with the ‘Ring Theory’ of support, I’m suggesting that we are all at different places in our individual relationships. Able to give comfort to others in their pain, even whilst we may be comforted by others in ours. We are able to give and receive more compassion.
Receiving compassion helped me. Through it, I learned to feel compassion for myself and it reduced the pain of having to face my own reality. It made it easier to step up and take responsibility, because I could still be loved even with horrible behaviours. And that meant it was easier to choose differently. I believe we need compassionate people. More of them.
So I’m hitting publish on this post. Not because I’m not still scared of judgement and rejection. As someone who was abused, those are deep scars. But because I choose to take responsibility for what I have done and the type of person I want to be; the type of person who is part of a sustainable solution.