As a Twelve-Step recovery coach I’ve found the journals I kept during the years I dated a narcissist to be an incredibly helpful tool for coaching clients in love with narcissists.
If you feel Toxic Shame in your relationship, you might be in love with a toxic person. I offer you Exhibit A from this October, 25, 1997 journal entry:
“Last night I got caught in full-blown codependent behavior. I realize that I’m in fear every time I’m separate from Quinn. Fear of when we’ll hook up. Why?”
Six months earlier I’d caught him cheating with another woman, which was an excellent reason for “why” I had fears when we were apart.
“I’m beginning to understand why he has all these rules about me not being allowed to come over without calling first. Instinctively, he must feel I would abuse my rights if these rules weren’t intact.”
Undoubtedly Quinn set these “rules” so he could see other woman. But to admit that to myself was to have to leave. Better to deny it and shame myself for being suspicious.
“Last night, I drove by Quinn’s house to see who he was with. He caught me red-handed. I had to admit I was checking up on him. I felt completely ashamed. No wonder he’s dragging his heels.”
There I’m blaming myself for his suspicious behavior in the hopes that if I can twist myself into the perfect pretzel shape, he’ll stop “dragging his heels” in the relationship.
“The shame I felt was so intense ... Quinn has been quite sweet and even when he withdrew this last time, there was very little animosity.”
I’m giving him credit for being “sweet” even as he continues withdrawing. Every time I behave codependently, I drown in toxic shame.
Toxic shame is learned in childhood. Our parents either neglected, abused or made us feel like we were somehow wrong for being ourselves. We may have learned we should never express or even have negative emotions like anger, sadness or fear.
To heal toxic shame we must heal the inner child that suffered the original pain.
Codependent behavior can be a map to the source of our original pain and shame in childhood.
In my case, when I allowed myself to feel the fear and sadness of my current relationship I was able to remember an incident that happened when I was eight.
My mom and stepdad were unhappily married; my mom reacted by drinking and often erupting into rage and violence toward my stepdad. I often worried she might hurt herself or be hurt by my stepdad.
One day I came home from school to find my mom gone and no note. At first I didn’t worry, but as the hours ticked by and night fell, I became increasingly certain something terrible had happened.
In a panic, I went from house to house to find her, knocking on the doors of neighbors I didn’t even know.
Finally, I found her having drinks with new neighbors.
When I burst into tears, my mom told me I was overreacting and too sensitive. Then sent me home.
She made light of my fear and ensuing sadness, which taught me it was not okay to have these feelings. That I was mistaken and foolish to feel afraid.
These types of incidences occurred throughout my childhood, so I had a river of pain I’d never addressed when I became an adult. I’d never grieved those childhood wounds, which set me up for adulthood codependency.
John Bradshaw, author of the seminal book, Homecoming; Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, says:
“Grief work is the legitimate suffering we’ve been avoiding with our neuroses ... if you are in an active addiction (which includes codependency) you are out of control and out of touch with your true feelings.
“One way adult children avoid their legitimate suffering is by staying in their heads. This involves obsessing about things, analyzing (...) and spending lots of energy on trying to figure things out.
“By obsessing on things, one does not have to feel. To feel anything is to tap into the immense reservoir of frozen feelings that are bound by your wounded child’s toxic shame.
The conundrum is, according to Bradshaw; “You can’t heal what you can’t feel.”
A Simple, Yet Profound Exercise
When you’re obsessing on and spending lots of energy on trying to figure out your romantic partner, find a quiet safe space where no one will interrupt you and sit. (Closets can be good!)
Allow yourself to get in touch with your “true feelings,” which might be anger, fear and sadness. Then think of a time in their childhood when you felt the same way.
- What age were you?
- Who caused these feelings?
- Were you told things like, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”?
- Were you told they were “too sensitive,” “acting like a baby,” or misinterpreting the situation?
- Were you made to feel ashamed about your feelings, so you learned to deny and shove them down?
Next go into the feelings - rather than shoving them down. Allow yourself to truly feel them. This might result in angry yelling, or a well of unshed tears, but it’s important to feel the feelings until they’re spent.
(If you were sexually molested or physically abused as a child this exercise should be done under the guidance of a trained professional.)
What often happens is an emotional sobriety descends that can last for several hours and even days. Much of the compulsive, codependent behavior will subside and this can often be the beginning of reclaiming yourself from your addiction to a narcissist.
It’s not a quick fix. But well worth the effort.