Narcissism and Recovery

By Charlotte Grey 07/31/15

Learning to love yourself a little too much.


I believe my higher power puts the right people in my path when I'm ready for the message they're there to bring me. I'm seven years sober from angel dust, heroin, cocaine, and alcohol addiction. At five and a half years, I began working with a sex addiction therapist. She connected my pathological pattern of trapping myself in unhealthy relationships to covertly abusive messages my mother has been giving me since I was little, defining it as narcissism. My relationship with her was a daily war no matter how many 12-step suggestions I could scrounge from AA. The tools for children of a narcissistic parent have been the only ones to give both of us peace of mind. I'm not here to diagnose her or take her inventory, but as they say in AA, if the solution works, you have the problem. Processing these trauma memories has been so intense that I've wanted to get high to escape them; this specialized therapy has been crucial for my recovery.

Narcissism is characterized by overt grandiosity that attempts to heal a deeply buried, damaged self-worth, usually absorbed from the narcissist's parents. The narcissist verbally attacks at the slightest notion of perceived criticism, both blind to and in blatant denial of their harm. A friend used this visual:

I'm standing across a room screaming at my mother to walk. She becomes infuriated that no matter how hard she tries, she can't do what I'm asking. But what she doesn't know is that she doesn’t have legs. The saddest part is her parents were the ones who amputated them.

When my mother is embodying her narcissism, she is infuriating, overbearing, demanding, needy, irrational, overprotective, and manipulative. She openly accuses others of this. She accepts nothing less than perfection. Recently, one of my younger sisters sadly confessed that she thinks I'm "Mom's favorite;" our mother never fails to mention that someone else is doing better, putting her children in competition with one another. Her love is conditional, though those conditions aren't defined. Cross her and she'll never forget it. 

She denies my reality. The night my appendix was about to burst, she accused me of "being dramatic" and demanded that I sleep off what she diagnosed as gas pain (her boyfriend convinced her to take me to the ER). Praise is rare and barbed with criticism. When I happily announced I was 100% financially independent, she congratulated me, commenting that she supposes my job can give me enough to live off of, though I should be able to make more. Keyword: able. She sees others as fundamentally invaluable. Author Pia Mellody describes this as the "one-up, one-down" trait. My mother views others as an extension of herself, violating physical and emotional boundaries. She once asked how large my boyfriend's penis was and if the sex was good; when I went to sell my car that I invested $10,000 into, she claimed it was hers since she was the contract guarantor and gave it to my sister.

Hitting an emotional bottom with our relationship, my therapist suggested detaching with love. It took over a year, because I was codependently trapped in what author Patrick Carnes calls the "betrayal bond:" there's an addictive and desperate desire to change the abuser, which traps the abused in a cycle of abuse, atonement, rationalization, and re-abuse. I backed away slowly and stopped calling, no longer voluntarily offering personal information or asking her input. Now that I'm financially independent, she doesn’t have leverage over me. We talk only when she initiates, usually by text because it's the most distant and succinct form of communication. If I respond immediately, she doesn't incessantly call until I answer. 

I limit in-person interactions to once a year and make sure we're in public, are limited in time, and I have a friend with me; she's on her best behavior if she thinks she needs to impress someone. No matter what she says, I agree. To protect my wounded inner child from catatonic depression, I intentionally dissociate while engaging with her. The book, Children of the Self-Absorbed, brilliantly suggests avoiding eye contact and visualizing peaceful mental imagery, like the beach. I once watched ballet videos while we were on the phone. The techniques don't trigger her narcissism and I can be present in a way that's tolerable for me. 

For a while, I couldn't form opinions or make decisions because she used to forcibly do that for me. I consciously experienced profound shame for my every action, as though I somehow failed and should do better. I had weak psychological boundaries, taking on others' feelings as though whatever they're going through was happening to me. Through several 4th step inventories, I was horrified to see that I'd adopted her narcissism. My therapist gave me two options: recover or repeat. A friend once rephrased the term "character defects" as "maladjusted coping mechanisms" to show me that I'm not the "bad girl" my mother accuses me of being; instead, I have a choice to lovingly notice where I exercise the trait and can work to transforming it into a healthier way of relating to others and myself.

First, I had to stop talking about myself. A former sponsor taught me how to have conversations with others and only ask about them. I started substituting my negative inner voice for positive affirmations, and began confronting the fear, depression, and anxiety that arose instead of judging the feelings and trying to ignore them. I defined my values, morals, ethics, and interests. Respecting boundaries, I request permission to pet a neighbor's dog or enter a colleague's office. I don't interrupt conversations and let someone finish speaking before responding. I celebrate others' successes and give compliments instead of suggesting improvement, unless they specifically asked for my feedback. I embrace mistakes as learning experiences, which are blessings for my personal growth. Just as the 12th step emphasizes service to other alcoholics, I humbly found healing for my narcissism through these little acts of love. 

Through therapy, I realized I was choosing friendships, boyfriends, and bosses who were spitting images of my narcissistic mother. It was as if I were trying to vicariously heal my relationship with my mother through others. I now put my energy into nurturing peaceful, healthy, validating relationships where I feel loved and can return that love openly, unconditionally, and by choice. If triggered, I can recognize the source and apply the above tools to combat any depression. For months, I was chronically late to work because of oversleeping after heavy therapy sessions. When my job asked me to come in earlier, I was grateful for the push to resist succumbing to the fallout from healing my trauma.

My mother is probably traumatically wounded just like I am; I identify with the panic I hear in her voice when I trigger her. I know in my heart she did the best that she could in raising me and loving me, and I love her for that. I'm powerless over my biological family. I accept that I can't change her, though I can change the way I handle our relationship. I've heard in the rooms that there are no victims, only volunteers, which I understand as my voluntary willingness to let my ego dominate and fight her, to depend on her as the source of my self-esteem. Today, I don't have to act from my wounds. From reparenting myself, I finally found the love my inner child desperately craved. The best part is, it comes from within me.

Author-recommended for further reading:

Children of the Self-Absorbed, 2nd edition by Nina W. Brown EdD LPC

Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggle for Self by Elan Golomb, PhD

The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships by Patrick Carnes, PhD

Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody and Andrea Wells Miller

Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw

Charlotte Grey is a pseudonym for a writer in New York.


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