Self-pity and self-compassion: there’s a huge difference!

This somewhat older post of mine is in the same spirit as the Brene Brown videos I posted yesterday, so I decided it was time to reblog it.

Lucky Otters Haven

self-compassion

I read a post yesterday on another blog that I agreed with, except there was one thing that didn’t quite sit right with me. The post said that self-pity is an important part of healing from Complex PTSD.

In his book (which I’m still reading), Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker says that self-compassion is an important part of healing, and I think this is what the blogger actually meant. But self-compassion isn’t the same thing as self-pity, an activity which I don’t find at all healing and in fact seems to make my problems worse. Of course we have the right to engage in self pity from time to time (and probably can’t help doing so), and no one should deny us the right to do so. But for me, it just doesn’t work. It’s an unpleasant, soul-sucking experience that seems to drive my negative programming…

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Believe in you.

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believe-in-you

This…shifting.

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Since my trip to the Gulf Coast, I’ve been noticing this…shifting inside.  Other people have mentioned that they’ve noticed something in me has changed.  I think something has.

I don’t know exactly what it is, but I feel like more and more, I can see things as they actually are–and they almost always aren’t nearly so bad as I had feared.

I’m also starting to realize just how much I project ill will onto others where it doesn’t exist.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t have an emotionally toxic mother and a thoroughly evil husband, but it means that a lot of my paranoia, hypervigilance, suspicion and fear of others is often unfounded.   it’s nothing but a defensive mechanism, part of my disorder.

In a post from a few days ago, I talked about my mother in law. I thought she hated me for a long time, but during my trip I learned from my son that she doesn’t, not at all.   In fact she actually does care about me.  I projected ill will onto her because she isn’t a woman who is emotionally expressive and she’s very pragmatic in her dealings with others.    Being so hypervigilant and sensitive, I read that as “hate.”   I can think of several other examples of this too, where I realized it was me projecting things onto others in a negative way.

It’s like my vantage point has shifted.

At the same time these blinders to myself are being removed, I feel myself beginning to embrace the moment I’m in. Not just as a mindfulness practice, but as a real way of being and feeling. Maybe it’s due to trusting others–and the world–and God– more.  Maybe I’m slowly learning to trust again, the way I did when I was a child–and there’s awe and wonder there now mixed in with the tired old fear and shame. But it’s a new, more mindful kind of trust than the mindless gullibility I had as a young girl– a trust tempered with caution born of great pain.

Sometimes when I’m fully in the moment and allowing my heart to open to it, I feel this sort of melting…or shifting inside. It’s almost a physical feeling but not quite. It’s like the emotional equivalent of that warm, contented feeling that permeates through you like warm syrup  after a having a glass of wine.   It’s an expansive, almost loving feeling, toward life itself, and it’s delicious.

It’s not something I’m used to, and its fleetingness makes it almost hurt sometimes. I want this feeling. I want so much more of it. I miss it when it goes away again, and it always does.  It doesn’t last.   Right now, it’s such an elusive  thing and so fragile.   The fragility hurts, but it’s the kind of hurt that feels almost good, like the way a loose tooth hurt when you were a kid and you just had to keep pressing it with your tongue.  That doesn’t really accurately describe it, but it’s the closest analogy I can think of.

This feeling is better than any drug.   I need to feel it again…and again.   I need to internalize and make it a full-time part of me.

I know these are the real feelings of my inner child, who is no longer in such a deep slumber.

She’s beginning to wake up because someone–me–is learning to love and accept her for who she is and is no longer keeping her hidden away like some sort of shameful embarrassment.

One of my readers who is also a friend, described this exact same feeling to me in an email today. In some ways I think we’re at the same stage of our healing, although other details differ.

We talked a lot about that and about me as a child. I got this warmth in my chest, and acceptance of the child. Of me. I felt this softness inside, like something broke and became fluid. I felt warmth, maybe even love, to that child that was me. It was so nice to feel like that. Soft inside. Forgiving. No anger.
Now it has turned a bit cold again. But I wan’t to feel it again.

This nails the feeling exactly, and so beautifully expressed.

Freeing myself from my past by making peace with it.

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Credit: Me

I woke up earlier from a very odd dream.  Unfortunately, I didn’t post about it right away, so the details are a little fuzzy, but I do remember the gist of it.  At first it made no sense to me (most dreams don’t right away), but when I realized it wasn’t to be taken literally, it began to make perfect sense.

I dreamt I was on vacation with my MN ex.  I don’t know where we were, but it was on a beach somewhere.  We were renting a beach house.   We were getting along very well (!), and at some point I felt this outpouring of love for him.   In real life, I feel nothing but a strong dislike and disgust.

Inspired by my loving feelings toward him, I told him I’d like to make things work with him again.   I apologized for my part in the destruction of our marriage and the ways I’d hurt him.  I prompted him to do the same.   He was hesitant, but he agreed, and made amends for all the terrible things he did to me and to our family.

“Let’s just let the past stay in the past now and start over, as if we just met,” I said, and he agreed to let bygones be bygones.

When I woke up, I actually laughed, because I have no loving feelings toward my ex whatsoever.  I have no desire to resume any kind of contact with him, ever.  He’s still as evil and hateful as he ever was and has grown worse over time (I know not all narcissists are evil, but THIS one definitely is!) and has zero conscience or empathy.   I also know that in real life, there’s no way he would ever be so agreeable and cooperative, even if I were to suggest such a crazy thing.

I scratched my head trying to decipher what this meant.  Obviously it wasn’t really about him.   Slowly it dawned on me that in the dream, my ex represented either my inner child (who I’ve spent years rejecting and denying) or my past.   Either way, it doesn’t matter, because both bleed into each other.  My inner child is my past, and my past is my inner child.

Slowly I’ve been learning to develop empathy for my inner child and stop pretending she isn’t there.  I’m actually learning to love her and appreciate her because her heart is so huge and she is so genuine and has so much love to give.  I’m learning to incorporate her gifts into my everyday life.  It’s not easy and sometimes I still pretend I can’t hear her because I’m still programmed to feel ashamed of her.   But I’m hearing her more, and realizing she’s not some pathetic, weak, immature little brat, but she is the real me–the one who never got to grow up because her spirit was squashed when she was so young.   I’m mature enough now–and also armed with the truth about what really happened to me–to know how to use her gifts, or at least start trying.  When I was a child, her gifts only brought me shame and I had no idea how to use them (and wasn’t allowed to use them anyway), so I rejected them.

In the process of learning to love the real me, I’m also learning to accept my past, and finally move on from it.

For as long as we can’t make peace with our past, we remain trapped in it.

BPD vs. NPD

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This graphic I made shows that BPD and NPD are really the same disorder.    Both have their roots in childhood trauma and fear of abandonment, even though the symptoms may not be evident until later childhood or adolescence.    The primary difference is the outer layer–the narcissist develops a nearly impermeable and rigid false self or mask (usually of grandiosity, but sometimes can present as do-gooder or even a victim). This mask remains stable unless narcissistic supply is removed, which causes it to atrophy, revealing the rage, fear, and hurt beneath that.

The borderline develops a highly permeable, chameleon-like outer layer.  In the diagram, it looks like a flower.   This outer layer of “petals” is analogous to the false self, but is not rigid and not even always present. It is easily penetrated and does not require narcissistic fuel from others to keep it intact.   It changes and morphs its shape and form like a Lava lamp.   Since it’s so easily broken through and is so changeable, Borderlines seem to be “crazier” and seem to have more intense mood swings than narcissists.  They are also skilled in adapting to different situations and people in a chameleon-like way: this usually manifests as codependency.  Sometimes they don’t seem to have minds of their own and take on the behaviors and belief systems of whoever they happen to be with.   Borderlines seem more emotionally unstable than narcissists because the second layer of rage/hurt/fear is often on the surface, causing the Borderline to act out in frequent rages, panic attacks or crying jags.

Beneath these outer layers, NPD and BPD have the same structure:   a layer of rage, hurt and fear when they are triggered, hiding the emptiness and grief under that (which is what both–especially the NPD–are so afraid of confronting and take such desperate measures to avoid feeling).  When this part of the personality structure is finally reached, the NPD/BPD feels as if they don’t exist and that is excruciating for them.   NPDs in therapy may quit at this point.   Hidden deep within the “emptiness” (which really isn’t empty at all) is the diminished and damaged true self (inner child).

The goal in therapy is to break through all those outer layers and finally reach the true self, then give him or her the nurturing and validation they should have received in the hopes that he or she can become a whole person.   It can take a very long time for this to happen, if it ever happens at all.

Borderlines, although they might seem crazier than narcissists, are more easily cured because the permeable chameleon-like outer layer is so much more easily broken through.   In contrast, the NPD false self can take months or years to even crack.   It’s a thick and stable structure, not given to weakening easily, but even the strongest concrete building has hairline cracks somewhere in its structure.   A tornado can reduce the strongest building to rubble.

The key to breaking a narcissist is to find those cracks and weaken the false self. This is usually done by removing narcissistic supply, which serves as a psychological tornado to the narcissistic defensive structure. Sometimes this has already happened; and in this more vulnerable state, with the false self temporarily disabled, a narcissist is more likely to enter therapy.   Unfortunately the narcissistic defense mechanism is so ingrained they will soon find a way to get supply again and rebuild the false self.   The therapist must work to permanently disable it but the narcissist must also be willing for this to happen.

In a low spectrum narcissist, the false self may be rather weak or thin to begin with, and for them, a cure may be more likely or happen sooner.  In low spectrum narcissists, the false self is more like a  cheaply constructed trailer than a stone castle.  It will only take a weak tornado to smash it to smithereens.

When an NPD’s mask begins to fall away, they will begin to act a lot more like a Borderline–raging, dissociating, experiencing crying jags, and showing their underlying inability to regulate overwhelming emotions.   At this point the treatment for NPD should be much the same as for BPD–empathically penetrating the “void” to reach and begin to nurture the diminished real self.

How a child develops BPD or NPD.

These disorders begin when a young child or toddler is hurt or rejected by their parents, especially the mother.  This hurt may not even be intentional–sometimes the illness, death, or absence of a non-disordered parent can set things into motion, because the child can’t discern the difference between deliberate abuse or neglect and something that cannot be helped.  Many, if not most, children who live in orphanages or are moved from foster home to foster home develop some form of Cluster B disorder.

Because a toddler or very young child has not yet completely separated their sense of self from their parents’, when they don’t receive the mirroring and unconditional acceptance they need, they feel as if they’ve been annihilated, and that feeling of annihilation becomes the black void that now surrounds the hurt or abused child.

But because the void is too painful and frightening to cope with, something else must cover that over too, and also protect and hide the inner child.  So the defensive emotions (anger, paranoia, fear, and rage) develop over the void because even though they feel unpleasant, they’re still better than the horrible feeling of having been annihilated, and they also protect the inner child from ever being hurt again.

And over that, for a narcissist, to attract people who could provide the attention and validation they never got as children, they develop a fake self, which is usually “nice” but is only a mask so it isn’t real.  If they feel that the mask is under threat of exposure, they fight tooth and nail to retain the image they want the world to see.

For the borderline, instead of developing a false self to cover the rage and other defensive emotions, they learn to adapt depending on the situation or the people, and that is why they so often become codependent.   Also, because they are closer to the void than the narcissist is, they tend to have dissociative episodes and may engage in self destructive actions like cutting to make them feel like they exist. Or they may engage in other risky behaviors or taking drugs or drinking too much in an effort to self-medicate.

 

DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional, but I’m well-read on these disorders and these are from my observations and opinions.

Self-pity and self-compassion: there’s a huge difference!

self-compassion

I read a post yesterday on another blog that I agreed with, except there was one thing that didn’t quite sit right with me. The post said that self-pity is an important part of healing from Complex PTSD.

In his book (which I’m still reading), Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker says that self-compassion is an important part of healing, and I think this is what the blogger actually meant. But self-compassion isn’t the same thing as self-pity, an activity which I don’t find at all healing and in fact seems to make my problems worse. Of course we have the right to engage in self pity from time to time (and probably can’t help doing so), and no one should deny us the right to do so. But for me, it just doesn’t work. It’s an unpleasant, soul-sucking experience that seems to drive my negative programming even deeper than it already is.

The way I see it, the difference between self pity and self compassion is analogous to the difference between pity and empathy. I think this makes the distinction clearer.

Pity has an element of condescension or even contempt. You pity someone you dislike or look down on. It’s kind of like sympathy but it’s contaminated with judgment and scorn. You feel like you’re “better” than a person you pity. A wealthy banker may “feel sorry” for a homeless person without feeling a shred of empathy. The banker is glad they’re not homeless, and feels as if they’re above that anyway. If someone says “I feel so sorry for you,” or “I pity you,” you’re likely to feel offended and judged, not comforted. I hate being pitied so much I might be tempted to punch you if you do.

Superficially, empathy, compassion, or sympathy may seem like the same thing as pity, but they’re not the same at all. Sympathy means to feel sorry for someone without judgment or condescension, but it’s not quite the same as empathy, because it lacks the sharing of a feeling. It’s a shallower emotion, but it’s still better than pity. Compassion and empathy are interchangeable and both imply feeling “with” another person, or sharing an emotion with them. It’s giving your friend a heartfelt hug after a breakup, or laughing or crying with them when they’re happy or sad. It’s giving a homeless person your own sweater because you hate to see them shivering in the cold. There’s no condescension or judgment. When someone empathizes with you, they say, “I understand” or “that really must have hurt.” Doesn’t that feel a whole lot different than someone telling you, “I feel sorry for you.”

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Self-pity is part of our toxic programming. It’s driven by shame. Self pity is when you sit around and think about how much your life sucks and how much YOU suck. There’s no self-nurturing or comfort in self pity, no self love, only self-hatred and shame. Self-pity enforces the terrible things we’ve already come to believe about ourselves. If we’ve been told time and again how stupid, bad, clumsy, ugly, or what a loser we are by our narcissists, eventually those voices become internalized and we develop a toxic inner voice called an Inner Critic. When you’re stuck in self pity, that’s your Inner Critic demeaning you and repeating to you the same lies about yourself your narcissists already drummed into you. You learn to abuse yourself, and self-pity is just self-abuse. When you say, “I suck” or “I’m a loser” or “nothing ever goes right for me,” you’re reinforcing the toxic programming and acting as a flying monkey against yourself.

Unfortunately, for those of us who suffered from narcissistic abuse, it’s common to wallow in self pity. It’s an all too familiar state of mind, but it isn’t the real you. The things we tell ourselves when we’re stuck in self pity are lies. When I get stuck in self pity, I feel just horrible. I just want to die. I usually wind up feeling resentful and angry at the world, but also ashamed of myself for being such a helpless victim and pathetic loser. I’m consumed with shame and guilt, which leads to depression. I also can’t release the negative emotion when I’m in self pity mode. I get stuck there and it drags me down and saps from me any energy or joy. I’ve had hangovers that felt more pleasant than a bout of toxic self-pity.

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You can replace self pity with something much better that also feels a heck of a lot nicer: self-compassion. Self-compassion means acknowledging that you are a human being worthy of love, happiness and the good things in life, while empathizing with your inner child’s hurt over not having gotten those things. You give your inner child permission to feel sad or to grieve and agree with them how unfair it is that she/he got cheated or was abused. This may seem like self pity, but it’s not, because the element of judgment and shame isn’t there. You’re not beating yourself up over how terrible you think you are; you’re telling yourself you’re good and deserve better and allowing yourself to grieve. Instead of covering up your inner child with a paper bag, you’re offering her a hug.

It helps me to actually visualize my inner child. I have her talk to me and tell me what she needs and wants. I don’t judge her or try to shut her up; I just listen. If she feels sad, I tell her those feelings are valid and let her feel sad. If she feels mad, I let her express the anger (but at the same time reassure her she won’t be able to hurt anyone or anything because I won’t let her). I find that by non-judgmentally listening to what she wants and needs or how she feels, I’m eventually able to release any negative emotions and I don’t get stuck. By giving myself permission to feel without self-judgment or self-shaming, sometimes I wind up being able to cry, and as weird as it sounds, that always comes as such a relief. When I’m stuck in self pity, these healing tears never come, because the shame that’s been programmed into me won’t allow me to release them. My programming tells me the massive lie that crying is shameful and weak, when in actuality it’s sometimes the most healing thing you can do. Your Inner Critic is a narcissist who doesn’t want you to heal and that’s where all that awful self pity comes from.

Empathy begins at home.

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I know that for a very long time I’ve had issues empathizing with others on a one to one basis (with a few rare exceptions like my children). It’s not that I like seeing others in pain or want to hurt them (I don’t, at all), more that I have had so much trouble connecting to my emotions, especially tender or vulnerable feelings, that this avoidance extends to everyone else. I’ve always felt empathy when it’s “safe” though–therefore I can cry for a character in a movie or novel, or even a TV commercial. I can get quite upset reading a news story about someone who’s been abused, especially if it’s an animal or a child.

But when it comes to real life people, I just can’t allow myself to get that close. I hold everyone at arm’s length. It’s too dangerous to let them in, because they might stir up emotions I haven’t wanted to feel. Of course this means emotional (as opposed to cognitive) empathy goes out the window too. You can’t feel an emotion for someone else if you can’t even access it for yourself.

It’s a common belief that all people who lack empathy are narcissists or psychopaths (or have some kind of schizoid disorder or psychosis, or autism). But a lack of empathy is also a common symptom in people with complex PTSD. Shutting off emotions–including empathy–is a defense mechanism that protects you from further harm. The problem is, this protection also “protects” you from feeling much joy or being able to really love anyone else.

Recently I’ve been feeling a kind of tender regard for my child-self/true self. Right now she’s not integrated and feels far away sometimes, but I can feel her sadness and pain. I can also feel that she’s a good person, a gentle sensitive spirit with so much love to give. I feel a tender protectiveness now where before I felt only shame and wanted to hide her away, just as she had been hidden away by the narcissists who “raised” her. So how was I any different from them, by keeping her hidden, projecting badness and shame onto her, refusing to see her strengths? Sometimes I just want to hold her like my own child. It’s not self-pity; it’s closer to empathy and even love.

Is this where empathy begins? Does it begin with loving yourself–your true self? If you hate your real self, you cannot learn to expand empathy onto others, since you can’t even empathize with yourself. If all you feel is shame, that is going to be projected onto others. That would apply to narcissists and the personality-disordered as well as people suffering from C-PTSD.   The problem for the disordered is it may be too late for some of them.  They are so thoroughly shielded by a false self they cannot even access their real selves or only with a great deal of difficulty that could take years.  There are much stronger defenses to break through.  They may be so shut off they can’t even see the lie they are living and think it’s everyone else–not them–with the problem.

The root of attachment and trauma disorders is is rejection of the self internalized from the people who were supposed to love you and mirror you; to heal, you must be able to develop empathy for your true self. That’s what my therapist has been helping me do.

I’m only 6 years old.

Therapy was more productive tonight…