The above meme pretty much explains the entirety of what this post is about and I could easily leave it at that. But I am just itching right now to talk about this, because I feel like I just accomplished something pretty great–all because I was finally willing to take a big risk, one I normally wouldn’t take: I let go of my fear of rejection long enough to tell someone I’ve grown to care about and like very much (as a friend) the truth about the way I felt about them, instead of skirting around my real feelings and avoiding the subject (but secretly going nuts).
I’ve always assumed (because of my internal programming) that I didn’t deserve to be liked or loved, and used to even push away people I liked through either becoming too needy and demanding (stepping over their boundaries), or too avoidant and aloof (building up too many boundaries for protection). There was no in between for me–it was always one or the other. I had no ability to regulate my reactions to others or defenses against them.
I also believed that I wasn’t loveable or even likeable, due to my internal programming. My NM (narcissist mother) taught me that I was not (though she never said she didn’t love me, I just knew because her actions and behaviors told me she did not). I believed that if anyone ever got to know “the real me,” whatever THAT was, that they would grow to hate me. And, because I was always sabotaging myself, sometimes I (unconsciously) made sure that would actually happen — by demanding too much, being too needy or high maintenance, or sometimes, rejecting THEM when I feared they might be getting ready to reject ME (pre-emptive rejection). I did a lot of projecting too. Assuming people were angry at me when actually I was the one who was angry at them. Assuming they felt sorry for me when I actually just felt sorry for myself. And assuming they would leave when actually it was really me who wanted to leave. In those cases, I could beg them to stay and be able to tell myself I did nothing wrong when they finally DID leave me. Yes, I could be a manipulative little bitch! (But I had no idea what I was doing).
All this borderline crap was so painful, that over time, I built a thin covert-narcissistic defense over these unstable and unpredictable behaviors. (By the way, my therapist finally agrees with me that this is exactly what happened). I stopped trying to reach out to anyone; I kept to myself, became a near recluse. I avoided people when they would approach me, or made excuses why I was too busy. I’d tell myself I didn’t like people–only animals (who would never judge or shame me and would always appreciate me). I’d tell myself I was too good for other people anyway so I didn’t have to feel that shame of feeling left out of things (which I’d really set myself up for by sabotaging any incipient friendships when they seemed to be getting too close).
Even online, where I generally feel safer connecting with people and making friends, I’d still hold other people at arm’s length and let them tell me a lot more about themselves than I’d ever tell them (except in my blog posts). I still felt like if I revealed too much, even online, I’d be dismissed as the “weak loser” my inner judge (really my mother’s nagging voice) always told me I was. I cared about the friends I met online and could allow myself a little more emotional vulnerability (and could allow myself to empathize with them) than I could with others in real life, but still stopped myself at a point just short of a true emotional connection. Eventually most of these friends moved on to more fertile waters, where there’d be more emotional give and take.
A few months ago, I met a new friend, one who I felt I could very much relate to in many ways, although some circumstances are different. We had similar childhoods and reacted to our cold, abusive, more outgoing and garrulous mothers in similar ways. Neither of us dared outshine our sparkling, charming, narcissistic mothers so we became shadows of what we could have been, never taking risks, never reaching out in healthy, authentic ways. We walled ourselves off from others to avoid further rejection. We are both broken people, in therapy for early childhood trauma, but we are also both beginning to heal as we learn to navigate the many strange new feelings that are now finally becoming accessible to us. We are not at the same stage of our journeys, but we have met at a kind of crossroads where both our journeys have met. I believe this woman is a teacher to me, who came at a time when it was needed. I may be a teacher to her as well, though I don’t want to assume that.
Although I value and care about all my online friends, I felt a kind of special kinship with this particular woman. I had a strong feeling she had something very important to teach me that no one else could. We began a tentative friendship, sometimes talking about the “deep stuff,” but mostly skirting around the real issues out of fear of revealing too much or making ourselves too vulnerable. Over time, my affection and caring for this woman deepened (not romantic feelings, just a desire for deeper and more meaningful friendship) but I began to worry that if I told her how I really felt, that I would be rejected. Again, that was me projecting my own insecurity onto her. But on the other hand, this person is shy and avoidant, and it seemed logical that I might easily scare her away if I revealed too much, just as I can be so easily scared by too much emotional intensity from others.
And yet I long for emotional intensity, in spite of my fear of it. I know that you can’t feel truly alive until you can be vulnerable and open your heart to another person, even though there’s a risk of being hurt. But I’m lonely and isolated and tired of living behind walls of my own making.
I talked to my therapist about this at length. I told him I wanted to reach out to this friend and tell her my feelings, even though I was scared to death. He encouraged me to do so, saying it would be good practice for me and that even if I was rejected, it would still be a big step for me just for having tried. He asked me to think about whether I was ready. I did, and realized I was.
This morning I finally did it. I was a nervous wreck, imagining the worst and trying to brace myself for her inevitable escape! I never trusted myself to know when I’d breached someone else’s boundaries because I never learned how to keep good boundaries or know how to navigate those of others. I was taking a huge chance!
But I’ve had practice now, and in therapy have learned a lot about being able to tell without asking when it’s okay to remove boundaries or when it’s best to step away or build reinforcements. So my friend and I finally talked on Facebook. We talked for over an hour. I told her how protective and maternal I felt toward her, so much so that the thought of anyone hurting this incredibly strong but vulnerable woman (who is younger than me) makes me feel so enraged I would want to beat them to a pulp (and I’m not a violent type of person at all). Maybe I have a “rescuer complex,” I don’t know, but why analyze it? Once I started talking, things got easier. I spilled out my need to explore my own vulnerability with her and start to navigate these “dangerous” waters of meaningful emotional connection and real friendship.
It turned out that she was grateful that I brought my feelings up, because she had been worrying she might have told me too much before (she hadn’t). But after my admission, she realized I was someone she could trust and she could feel safe opening up even more. We both got pretty emotional, and if we were physically in front of each other, this would have been the moment we embraced and the swelling movie-music would have started up.
A few minutes later she sent me a heartbreaking post (in PDF) she had written a few days before about her cold, narcissistic mother and how helpless she had always felt in front of her. It was so raw and vulnerable and beautifully written (and I could relate to it so much) that it brought me to tears. My friend said it also had made her feel so vulnerable and triggered after she wrote it that she decided to take her whole blog down (a blog which she had never made public). I think that at some point she will probably want to share that post with the world, because I think it would help so many people and it touched me so much. But I understand if she’s not ready for that yet. It’s a big step, one that might be too overwhelming for her at the moment. I’m just so grateful and moved that she trusted me enough to share it with me.
I know I need to respect her boundaries and not be too pushy about that or anything else. I’ve realized that learning to connect with another person, and learning when boundaries should be removed or stay in place, is like an intricate dance — knowing when it’s your turn, when it’s the other person’s turn, being careful to not to step on the toes of the other, but still remain courageous enough to reveal your heart when it feels right and sometimes learn to let go and let your partner spin you around. And also, always be willing to risk the possibility you may fall and get hurt.
Relationships are kept in balance and become healthy through empathic understanding of and respect for each other’s need for either more space or deeper connection, and this type of empathy is, fortunately, something we both possess, but just were never trained to use — and never had the confidence to try.
I feel like I made progress today, and I can’t wait to tell my therapist. I know he will be proud of me, but mostly I’m proud of myself for taking a risk and finding that instead of the rejection I’d so feared, that I helped someone else open their heart to me even more. As my friend said to me later, we are helping each other learn, and this is a valuable and wonderful experience for both of us which can help us grow even more, as long as we’re both mindful about it. Everyone you meet in life has the potential to become a teacher, and my friend has taught me today that vulnerability is the greatest kind of strength and the only thing that can lead us out of the darkness.
I have found Brene Brown’s videos incredibly helpful. Anyone who has struggled with trauma, shame, and fear of vulnerability would do well to watch her videos. I’ve already posted “The Power of Vulnerability,” and have watched it dozens of times. Here’s another one I just watched called “Listening to Shame.” Brene is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever seen. Follow her on Youtube!
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.
How awesome is my therapist? Let me count the ways.
Actually, I won’t do that. I’ve already described in many other posts why he totally rocks. I don’t think I’m idealizing how great he is. Well, maybe just a little, but I think it’s pretty normal.
I’m just going to describe one of the many reasons why he’s so awesome, because this is something that happened last night.
He’s not afraid to show his vulnerability. He’s not afraid to show me he has emotions. This helps me, because it makes it safer for me to express my own buried emotions. I never had a therapist who did that before, and I think that’s why my other therapists could never get through to me and I’d eventually quit.
So what happened was this. He came out of his office as usual to greet me, but he did something a little different than usual. Normally, he just smiles at me and tells me he’s glad to see me (and I know he really is), then leads me into the room, and pulls up his chair so he’s facing me about three feet away. He has never laid a hand on me, but puts the least amount of distance between us I will allow.
Last night, he smiled but his smile looked sad. He looked tired and a little pale. He sighed and sat down in the chair on the other side of the end table in his waiting room. He said, “You don’t mind if I decompress for a minute, do you?”
“No, of course not,” I said, surprised. I didn’t really know what else to say. I stared at him, waiting, and somewhat intrigued. He was resting his head in his hands, elbows on knees. I wanted to give him a hug, but I didn’t.
He looked at me sheepishly. “Difficult session,” he said. Then he got up from the chair and said “Alright, I’m okay now.” I followed him inside.
That might sound weird or even unethical. After all, some people think a therapist should not share their emotions with a client, especially if those emotions involved another client. But I never see the client that comes in ahead of me. They go out a different door than I come in. I don’t even know the client’s gender.
My therapist has shown vulnerability at other times too. Once or twice, he got teary-eyed. Not crying or actual tears rolling down his face (that would be awkward and I might be tempted to run), but I could tell what I was saying made him a little emotional. He also tells me he looks forward to our visits. I don’t think there are any romantic or sexual feelings, though I could be wrong. I just think he’s more open than most therapists about the way he feels, and I think that’s what makes him so good at what he does.
My therapists’s willingness to show vulnerability has a few benefits for me:
— It makes me trust him and hence, be more willing to show my own vulnerability. I simply can’t let my emotions loose if I’m dealing with a block of wood who does nothing but stare wordlessly at me and writes things on pad of paper.
— He shows empathy for me, which helps me feel empathy for my true self (inner child), and this self-empathy then expands toward others, so I become a more empathic person.
— I feel like sometimes he models emotion for me. For example, if I’m angry but am dissociated from that anger and can’t really feel it, he picks up on it and models anger. Not at me, but toward whatever it is he thinks is making me angry. Like, one time I was talking about the time my dad stole the little picture booklets I had drawn when I was about 7 or 8; these little journals were meant for no eyes but my own. I felt violated by that, but wasn’t able to feel the anger. I kept making excuses for my dad and saying it shouldn’t have bothered me. My therapist actually looked angry and said, “I don’t care if you’re mad at him or not, I’m mad at him for violating your boundaries like that.” After that I was able to experience the anger I felt and work through that.
Whether what he’s doing is intentional or not doesn’t matter. What he’s doing is working with me. He’s an empath who holds the key to the buried parts of my mind that no one could even come close to unlocking.
Absolutely fascinating first person account of what it’s like to be a highly sensitive man … in an increasingly insensitive world.
Remember when you were a kid and had a loose tooth, how good it felt to wiggle it with your tongue, even though it bled and hurt like the dickens? Yet you HAD to keep doing it, because it felt GOOD.
Or remember that scab you just had to pick even though you knew it would bleed and hurt?
Happy feelings can be like that for some of us. Have you ever been so moved by something, or so touched, or so filled with joy it actually hurt and made you want to cry?
Having been so shut off from my emotions for so many years, I wasn’t used to feeling anything other than dreary, numb despair, an unnamed dread that something terrible was about to befall me, occasionally relieved by a sudden, irrational rage.
Lately I’ve been experiencing brief moments of sublime, positive emotions. Flickers of joy (not glee, but real joy), feeling moved or incredibly touched, especially when I’m in therapy. My therapist helps bring out these feelings in me, and I’m enjoying exploring these unfamiliar but wonderful emotions. But sometimes they are just so intense and that intensity hurts. Sometimes even the beauty of them…hurts.
Why would something so human and life-affirming make me feel almost sad? Is it because I don’t trust these feelings, or don’t trust being vulnerable to feeling them? Or is it because I know how fleeting such feelings are, and will only be replaced with the unpleasant feelings I’ve grown used to? Or do they hurt because my soul is unfolding, and in so doing, is breaking down the walls that bound it for so long? Are these just growing pains? Will I ever be able to experience these sublime emotions without sadness and pain?
How do I even begin? What happened tonight in my therapy session was a little thing, objectively speaking, really a very little thing. But to me it was a huge, HUGE deal, maybe even a breakthrough of some sort.
I refuse to write a separate post about this, but when I got home from work, my mother called. She had gotten my phone number through my son and I took the call because it was coming from a New York phone and my mother lives in Illinois so I had no idea who it was. Normally I don’t take phone calls if I can’t tell who’s calling but for some reason I took it this time. When I heard her voice, it was like being transported back to being a five year old again. All my mindfulness skills and everything I know about narcissism and No Contact went flying out the window. I won’t go into detail because nothing of any consequence was said. She told me she just wanted to hear my voice and proceeded to ask a bunch of personal questions. I felt like she was checking up on me for her own benefit, which is probably the case. I put on my fake-nice act and answered her questions as politely as I could, telling her nothing too personal, and finally made an excuse about having a sore throat (which is actually true because I’m still sick) and had to get off the phone.
I brought up the phone call in therapy. I asked my therapist (rhetorically) why I can’t just tell her to bug off. Rationally I know nothing would happen if I did that. I know she’s read my blog so surely she knows how I feel about her. Sure, she might get mad, but really why should I care? What could she do to me? Nothing! He suggested (correctly) that I was programmed from an early age to always respond to her in a certain manner, and that programming is hard to break, and that’s what’s making it so hard for me. I started laughing about the idea of myself being a computer that could be programmed. I looked at him and told him to debug me. He laughed at that, but really it wasn’t funny. I felt a little hysterical.
I’m always a little more emotionally labile when I’m ill, and so this illness he gave me last week acted as a kind of emotional lubricant–or maybe I was just ready and what I’m about to describe was going to happen anyway.
I said I was tired of talking about my mother and I wanted to talk about my transference feelings instead. It’s what I’d been planning to talk about but my mother, even in my therapy sessions, always has a way of drawing all the attention to herself and I wasn’t going to let that happen tonight. Recently we have been meeting twice a week instead of once a week, but I won’t be able to afford to do that for too much longer, or at least for the next few weeks. I explained hard it is for me to only be able to meet him once a week because of my strong feelings of attachment. He wanted me to elaborate on this and describe how it felt. I had to think about that for awhile. The closest I could come was that it’s a little bit like limerence but without the sexual and obsessive aspects and has a more infantile quality. (There’s also a kind of mindfulness to it that’s impossible to explain but that keeps it from getting out of control.) It’s the way I imagine a baby feels about their primary caregiver. That I’m this little baby and he’s the only person who ever mirrored me or accepted me unconditionally for me. Because of that I feel extra vulnerable with him, too close to my raw core and fearing rejection while at the same time being able to let my guard down in a way I normally can’t. When I was asked to elaborate on the vulnerable feelings I had to think about it for a long time.
Finally I began to explain (in what I felt was a very childlike manner) and to my surprise I started to cry. I’ve come close to crying a couple of times recently, but this time my eyes actually filled up and a couple of tears spilled over (which I wiped away quickly). Sure, I didn’t sob and there weren’t many tears and it all ended quickly, but it happened. For just a minute, I shed real tears in front of another human being! Even more astounding to me than that, I felt no shame doing so. In fact, I was very proud of myself and even while I cried, I knew exactly what was happening and felt really, really good about it. So my tears turned to laughter and he laughed along with me. It was a real, bona fide emotional connection. How can that be? I don’t have those! I don’t connect with people! This was surreal.
“How did you do that?” I asked, sort of gobsmacked.
“I did nothing,” he said. “You did that yourself.” He was smiling.
“Then I guess you’re just the facilitator!”
“Well, I do have a degree!” he said jokingly.
We laughed again. Then the tears almost started again.
“You’re getting emotional,” he observed. “What’s going on?”
“I DON’T KNOW!” I wailed like a three year old. And I didn’t. I didn’t know why I was so emotional, but I felt happy that I was. “I just feel fragile, that’s all.” My lower lip was trembling like a toddler’s.
“I want you to know I think you’re very strong.” His eyes were shining.
So, another brick in that f*cking wall crumbled tonight.
I put my shoes back on (lately I’ve been taking them off and putting my feet on the couch–it seems to help somehow).
As I was leaving, he said our session moved him. I wanted to hug him so much right then but of course I didn’t.
Something I was thinking about…