Among the most devastating effects of being in abusive relationships, narcissistic or otherwise, is the absolute demolition of trust. That trust is often with the abuser or just other people generally, but it is also with yourself. Learning to trust again is among the greatest challenges victims of narcissistic abuse face.
Getting to Know… Me
For me, it’s not just learning to trust myself again. It’s learning who I was, what parts of me I’ve repressed or adapted to please others, what parts of me I like and don’t like, how I feel about things, and who I want to be going forward.
At some point along the way I was in a session with a therapist and he asked me what would make me happy. Not in a particular situation, but generally. I remember starting to answer by hysterically laughing, but within a minute I was full on hyperventilating in tears as I started to explain why I was laughing. Happy? What would make me happy? I’ve been trying for so long just to survive on a day to day basis and make sure [___] doesn’t end up in a ditch- what kind of question is that? What would make me happy? I just want to stop living in this insanity every day!
As I started unraveling after those first few sentences, there it was right in front of me. My life was so wrapped up in someone else – thoughts of each and every word that I said analyzed and overanalyzed, juggling logistics of every worst case scenario that could happen on a simple trip to the mall or while on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean… my life was so far out of my control and it smacked me right in the face as I tried to answer that question.
Of course, before I could answer that I had to get out of the situation. Getting out of the situation is the first step towards healing. But after you get out, there’s a lot of internal examination that is necessary. So fast forward nearly two years — I’m out and busy with the business of discovering who I am. What things scare me? What things bring me joy? What am I afraid of in relationships? What situations are triggers for me and what emotions come to the surface during those times? Do I think I’m worthy of love? Of friendship? And so much more…
One thing that narcissists and their abuse victims have in common is that they both tend to self-sabotage. Sabotage can come in the form of actual sabotage- whether it be success, happiness, or even opportunities. It can come in the form of self-loathing or depravation; it can even come in the form of anxiety, fear and loss of values.
While I’ve never personally been lacking hope, even in the most dark of days, I definitely get down – really down – from time to time. And I usually beat myself up for feeling that way, when the fact is, I’m human.
My personal brand of self-sabotage is usually from a place of perpetual unworthiness. This is where the superwoman symdrome comes in, friends. I get so down that I feel the need to overcompensate everywhere- as a mom, as a lawyer, as a daughter, as a friend, a partner, whatever. I go back to getting my self worth from “doing” — and we’ve already talked about why this is unhealthy.
There’s a learned helplessness that occurs here and causes this type of response- no matter how many times you tried in the past, no matter how many ways you’ve attempted to fix something or someone- you’ve not been able to effectuate the desired change. So there can be a tendency of giving up before you get started.
Even though that “failure” had nothing to do with you, you can’t help but personalize it. That was definitely true with me. So sometimes I will just get in a pattern of continuing what I did before- duck my head and just get by. Survive.
It takes a LOT of work to get out of the survival mindset. But growth has to start somewhere…
One additional way that self-sabotage happens for me is in what I’ve read is called value compromising. From my understanding, this is a self-preservation response when one is lacking self-worth and/or suppressing shame. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to make it sound like I don’t have values. This is just how value compromising works.
I have a natural longing for human connection. We all do. When your relational styles are unhealthy due to abuse, you have an even stronger desire for human connection because you don’t have any at the time. This can lead you to compromise a particular value to remain in connection with someone. You’re more afraid of being alone and holding true to a particular value than losing the connection you so desperately need.
Ending self-sabotage is a really difficult process. It’s something I’m working on every single day just to be aware of these tendencies.
After spending some time getting to know myself and startaing to end patterns of self-sabotage, then you can begin to figure out how to trust yourself. For me, this is actually much harder than trusting other people, which I assume based on conversations my therapist and coach have with me, is not the case for most people.
What do I mean by this? When I say that I have to learn to trust myself, what I mean is I have to learn to trust that my reactions to things are true and real and not some default defense mechanism. To use a more literal example- think of a war veteran that is suffering from PTSD after front line battle. The sound of a car backfiring may cause the person to hit the floor and take cover, which would be a learned reaction from exposure over a period of time.
If you think of abuse victims, they have similar learned reactions to both big and small things. Those learned reactions are not authentic- they’re not how the person would respond normally; they’re how the person responds after being essentially forced to respond that way.
Let’s use a seemingly innocuous example. I mentioned how narcissists are known to ruin holidays in a post earlier this week, right? After so many holidays ending in public or private disaster, I started to avoid holidays. Now it’s interesting because I love big gatherings. I grew up spending almost every major holiday at my grandmother’s house- a 5000sf house in North Belle Vernon that often had a makeshift L or U shaped table spanning 2-3 rooms and regularly sat 50-60 people at a time. I love big holidays. I love hosting. I love family time.
But I hadn’t for the last few years and I didn’t even realize it until a few months ago when discussing with a family member what the kids and I did over the holidays. This person responded how it was strange that I just stayed home with the kids, and that’s when it hit me- I started doing that years ago because there was just too much that blew up during holidays with a narcissist.
In fact, I haven’t hosted a holiday since 2017, the year after I moved into my house. With very limited exception, I completely avoided public gatherings on the holidays because they always ended disastrously, and I Just didn’t have the desire to put myself or anyone else through it. I was also just embarrassed, and shame can be a big driver in our decision making, whether we know it or not. That was a huge leap from something that made me happy- large family gatherings. I’m peak Krista in several places- Celine Dion concerts, karate class, and family get-togethers being classic examples.
As abuse victims, we don’t even realize the ways that we’ve been “programmed” by situations to respond. So in order to trust yourself, you have to learn what these auto responses are and work to change them. My coach calls it elongating the gap – increasing the time from the stimuli to the default reaction so that you have time to notice it. You have to notice it in order to change it.
For me, I have always considered myself hyper self-aware. While that may be true, I’ve come to realize most of that is motivated from a place of seeking personal or professional development, not really from a desire to be more in touch with myself. In fact I’m significantly less aware of my emotions as I experience them, probably from years of repressing them. I used to pride myself saying that I didn’t have any emotions.
This translated to my professional life as well; heck, maybe it’s part of what makes me so good in my day job. In my five years working as in-house counsel at FedEx, I was the “bulldog.” In fact, I kind of started to hate that description as I became more aware of my codependency. But nonetheless — Difficult customer? Give it to Krista. Difficult conversation? Give it to Krista. Difficult conversation with a difficult customer? Give it to Krista and grab some popcorn. I was the Olivia Pope of commercial issues and I quite enjoyed solutioning them. I could sit through the most intense of negotiations without being rattled or thrown off my end goal; I could see the big picture and not let the emotion that comes with winning or losing prevent a solid outcome for my company.
The more that I understand myself, and the more that I learn to trust myself, the more I have to be real about who I am. I am human (see: spoiler alert, above) and I have emotions. I’m learning to give them space to be and that I am not less because I feel.
That takes trusting myself. That means letting my emotions trust me too.
Learning to trust others again after abuse of any kind is a monumental task. Want to know what makes that scarier? The fact that, according to Martha Stout, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School in her 2006 book The Sociopath Next Door,1 in 25 Americans is a sociopath. Slightly terrifying.
For me, it’s easier for me to trust others, and I think it’s because of the value compromise aspect of self-sabotage that I mentioned earlier. I put people in a box of “this person can’t hurt me” so I feel comfortable sharing with them. I tend to trust everyone until they give me a reason not to (unless it applies to my kids, I’ve been pretty great at NOT doing that with them). Well, guess what- that’s a terrible approach generally, particularly for someone recovering from an abusive relationship.
Consider this approach instead: Rather than trusting until there’s a reason not to — Trust yourself, or better yet, trust God… until someone else earns your trust. That’s a very safe approach to trusting other people.
My dad repeated something to me that he heard in a sermon- Trust man and he will always let you down. Trust God and you’ll never be disappointed.
That has really stuck with me over the years and is something one of my church counselors worked with me on a lot early on; leaning into dependence on God.
This will be especially challenging when dating again after abuse, and something I’m going to write about as it pertains to my own thought processes and when relevant, experience. Stay tuned!
The Dangers of Not Trusting Again
If you don’t go through this healing process – if you don’t learn to trust again – you will be stuck. You will continue to experience hurt and harm and unhealthy relationships. You will be stunted in your healing and continue to have old wounds reopened.
Life will keep happening to you, instead of for you. There is a law of attraction element here – you attract what you think, what you feel. Trust God or your higher power, trust yourself, and then you can trust others.
As I continue to learn how to do these things, I can tell you, it already feels worth it. <3