From Toxicity To Triumph

Grief Healing and Recovery Narcissistic Parents

Unmasking Trauma: Making Recovery From Attachment Wounding More Bearable

How heavy is your mask?

Are you walking around your life like “Trauma in a Trenchcoat”?

Meaning, are you using up all your energy to “mask” and hide away your trauma in order to appear “healthy”, “competent”, “successful”, “normal”, and “in control”?

In order to FEEL healthy, competent, successful, normal and in control?

When we struggle and stumble along our path to recovery, we often try to take shortcuts. The main shortcut we take is to use “external metrics” — i.e. things we think we should do, as opposed to what we know we actually need in each moment — as our compass towards joy, fulfillment and wholeness.

We work longer hours so we can maximize productivity when our body screams at us to take time off.

We go on yet another date so that we can “finally not be single” when what we are craving and needing most is alone time to figure out who we are and what we actually want.

We hyper-analyze stressful events to find the “root cause”, when what we really need is to just cry and let the flash of pain waft over us and loosen knots within us.

All of these things go against our body, but make us appear as if we are doing the “right thing” and “moving forward” in life.

Embracing The Ball Of Yarn

A story we are taught growing up is that life will follow a linear path. If we connect A to B to C we will end up with happiness and peace. So when A and B fail to connect — a marriage disintegrates, a job is lost, or we have family trauma that isolates us and we are too burnt out to keep pushing — we feel as if we are doing life “wrong”; that happiness will slip away from us. We force “progress” at the expense of peace.

Life, especially if marked by early attachment wounding, is more like a ball of yarn. Tightly knotted, layered, and if not held with a firm grasp, can feel like it runs the risk of unravelling and falling out of our control.

And that scares us. So we hold it. Contain it.

But it’s the letting go of the ball that allows the string to become that long linear line. When the ball of yarn rolls away from us, so much about what was tightly knit and wound up is revealed. We can see all the layers. We can allow our life to actually flow in a direction that exposes the layers bit by bit, rather than keeping them concealed and out of our grasp.

Embracing Brokenness

I called my very best friend in a flood of tears recently. The universe just seemed to be pushing down on me.

Let me admit to you right here that there are days when I can’t even take my own advice and I feel like I’m too cracked to recover. That I feel broken beyond repair by the unimaginable trauma of attachment wounding, such as narcissistic abuse and/or family scapegoating. Yes, it’s true: I sometimes spend more time exploring trauma in order to support others than I do implementing my own recovery steps.

Between my gasps and sobs, my friend said to me, “Drop the mask because you cannot heal if you don’t let the brokenness breathe”.

I have had to learn that having struggles can co-exist with having competence, productivity and purpose. I know that people don’t look to me because I have figured it all out, but because I understand it so intimately and am eager to do the figuring out alongside them.

Attachment trauma survivors grow up emotionally and psychologically alone. Recovery shouldn’t have to also be solo. But it becomes a solo battle when we cover up our painful pathways with masks and trench coats.

What Does Lowering The Mask Mean?

Unmasking is about stepping away from forcing. It’s about dropping a façade or a performance meant to “prove to others” (and ourselves) that we are Ok and will be OK at the expense of our actual needs and self-understanding.

Dropping the mask isn’t about removing any protective armour that keeps you safe in unsafe situations. It’s about choice: When do we need the mask for our well-being, and when is the mask simply for other people’s comfort?

Do we wear this mask because it is the currency we were taught to use to gain other people’s approval and acceptance? If you grew up with a narcissistic parent, you learned early on how to perform your life, rather than live it. You learned how to reflect back to your parent their “perfection”, and never reveal any of your truth. You learned how to dim your light, so as not to overshadow theirs. The mask and the trenchcoat have concealed you and protected you. It can be both.

It’s Not Vulnerability That’s Hard

Contrary to popular understanding, people with attachment trauma don’t have problems with being vulnerable. The mask that is erected is not because we feel weak when we are struggling or experiencing emotions. Instead, the mask is there because we feel fearful of our brightness: We know that our “brokenness” and “rawness” holds such an immense power to connect humanity authentically, and to expose the real conditions of this world. We know that the cracks let so much light in that it becomes blinding to those around us that are uncomfortable with the truth.

When you are taught your essence is threatening to others, you find other ways to exist and show up in the world. You know what direction you want to head in, but you have to figure out how to get there “inauthentically” — meaning in a way that doesn’t risk the “real, raw you” taking up space.

Many scapegoats were targeted because they didn’t dim this light or keep a lid on their power.

As a survival tactic, we force our way through life on the outskirts of our “actual” selves. Close enough to touch, but not integrated enough to truly feel aligned and listen to ourselves.

It’s the same for our recovery process. We seek to “get healed”, but it feels too risky to be “in healing”. We want to skip the “realness” part; the part where we are a mess. The part where we let go of the ball of yarn and let it unravel.

A Teardrop In A Lake

I had a beautiful meeting with an absolutely lovely client this morning where I shared the phrase “Like a teardrop in a lake” to explain the idea of letting our realness and our recovery unfold authentically. Admittedly it’s one of those metaphors I made up on the spot (I have a small obsession with finding metaphors in session), but luckily this one landed.

Unlike a speed boat that courses through a lake in such a way that causes immense disruption to the environment, a teardrop lands in the centre of a lake without fanfare. It’s so subtle that the ripples align with the natural ebb and flow and direction of the lake, and work their way towards the shores. This tiny ripple reaches and fills every corner of the lake without further disruption or “trauma” to the environment. It doesn’t force the lake to part. It becomes part of the lake.

A speed boat desires to go as fast as possible from A to B, and hopefully doesn’t encounter major rocks along the way. Or run out of gas. Or get snagged on seaweed. Or capsize you.

A teardrop becomes one with the process of the lake. And while it takes longer, it naturally flows around the rocks and through the seaweed and doesn’t drag anyone under.

Most of us try to take the speedboat to recovery. We try to “achieve” what wholeness, happiness, and joy ‘look like’, without ever stopping to integrate what it feels like for us. Often what happiness looks like on paper, and feels like in our body are not the same.

We try to force our way toward our purpose or needs: We seek connection, so we marry the first nice person. We want to be loved, so we give all of ourselves away to eager people intent on consuming us. We ache for acceptance and belonging, so we change who we are. We want our brightness and light to be seen and appreciated, so we pursue external validation and recognition. All these efforts end up off course of what is right and best for us. When our metrics for happiness and success are all external, we lose ourselves more and more.

The narcissist would be pleased that we have completely given ourselves up and over to the needs and whims and emotions of others. That is exactly how they needed to construct us because that is the only way they knew how to get their own needs met. To force it out of others. Thus forcing us out of ourselves.

We may know our “why” and what our purpose is; trauma makes you very in tune and self-aware. But attachment trauma makes us adept at ignoring our intuition and acting in opposition to our self-awareness. Thus, we end up using the wrong tools to get to the ‘right’ places. We may “arrive” but we are not well constructed. Like chewing on nails because our body needs iron.

Slow Is Fast

One of the ways we try to achieve recovery externally is by wearing a mask: forcing our pain into a trenchcoat and dressing up our facade. We can appear productive by becoming very busy, but we do not fulfill our needs or meet any of our actual goals. We have a thriving business and are miserable. We have a partner and are completely disconnected. We look great but feel awful. We lose sight of ourselves. We wonder why we can “achieve” all the external metrics of “recovery” but we feel more depleted than ever.

I understand the desire to “get to being healed already”. It’s pretty miserable waiting in the lake for the ripples to reach their destination. But the truth is, more happens in the waiting than in the forcing. You get more out of any recovery program by following the slow steps and taking time to really see yourself and honour your needs, than you do by having lots of meetings, making huge goals, and not being able to follow through on any of it. Recovery is like a reverse treadmill: the faster you run, the slower it goes. It’s as if you are wading through quicksand: the more you struggle to escape the deeper you sink.

So how can you become the teardrop in the lake? How can you remove the trenchcoat or mask so that you can see yourself, and also not apologize for your pain? There is nothing wrong with you if you feel broken or destitute at times. If your pain is palpable, it is because you are experiencing immense suffering and that is nothing you need to apologize for.

Removing the trench coat doesn’t mean spilling your pain all over everywhere and everyone like a trauma dump truck. It means not forcing the image of well-being when what you need to do is actually build the experienceof well-being.

Our “why” exists in the movement of our lives, not the outcomes. Our “why” directs us to how we achieve connection, appreciation, acceptance, joy, and wholeness not just that we find connection, appreciation, acceptance, joy, and wholeness in any way we can. How we get our needs met matters more than meeting the needs. Because it is the steps we take that create our embodied life and our lived experience. Recovery is about how we feel as we are living. It’s not a place we get to.

How can you experience recovery if you feel you are not allowed to exist in your brokenness? In your truth? How can you find wholeness if you distance yourself from what your body is screaming out at you for? How can you find joy if you deny your needs in order to fortify your mask?

I invite you to revel in your recovery, not just pursue it.

Recommended Articles

1 Comment

  1. This is my life that you describe so well. I am in my late 60’s and have been trying to understand this pain, despair, wishing not to “be here” anymore, for decades. I recently found Rebecca Mandeville’s YouTube channel and that guided me to her blog and to you.
    In my family, one of the main forms of abuse/keeping me in line, was shunning. From childhood into adulthood. I had a powerful realization that the reason I have yearned for and yet never achieved a sense of belonging, a being a part of a community or a tribe is that shunning is like a death when you are still alive. When they shun me I do not exist. Therefore any community or tribe I might belong to can also kill me or cause my non-existence. This shunning continues to be practiced by my older sisters to this day. I live far from them and have almost completely stopped contact.
    I have achieved a lot for being “dumb” and “incompetent”, as I was always told I was. I have a Master’s degree, have started two successful businesses (closed due to COVID, sadly), have adult children I am close to, and a few good true friends. Yet this original wound , one that continues, is still there and I can’t seem to escape it.
    I truly want to finally heal. I have been searching for a C-PTSD and/or FSA informed therapist that takes my insurance. If you can tell me how to find this I would be grateful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *