“I’ve been no contact for 23 years…and I still cry every day”
“I went no-contact last week and I’ve never felt more free”
“I can’t keep playing this Rigged Game, but the thought of leaving is terrifying”
“I’m working through my recovery and discovering who I am. It’s been a journey that of course has been hard. But I never would have had this opportunity to be fully me had I stayed. It’s bittersweet”
“I didn’t have a choice to leave. I wonder if things would have been different if I could have chosen no-contact?”
“[@#&%} them! Yes, I’m angry, but I’m also, finally, so happy now. I deserved so much better and I’m making a point to reclaim my worth. Happy to be out. 6 years and counting”
“Can you help me prepare? I need to see my family of origin in a few weeks. How can I do this on my own terms?”
“How do I tell them I am out? That I won’t put up with anymore? I feel so lost”
Leaving Family Behind
These are just some of the responses I received in after my discussion on “the knot that binds us to narcissistic abuse”.
For some of you, un-tethering yourself from narcissistic abuse is cut and dry: Going no contact is the only pathway to freedom and recovery.
For others, it’s more complex; there are financial ties, housing needs, trauma bonding, family members that you want to maintain contact with, or a desire to have peace even if it means staying smaller than you would like.
My job isn’t to tell you what the “right” way to recover is. It is to understand your needs and experience and to help you feel empowered by exercising agency, autonomy and active participation in your life.
While no contact isn’t everyone’s choice, we do have to acknowledge that it is hard to recover when you are repeatedly immersed in and exposed to harm. It is hard to find freedom, joy, fulfillment and wholeness when you are navigating triggers from the past on top of new toxicities.
And yet, not having family isn’t exactly fun or freedom either. There are pains we trade for other pains. There are supports we forgo that would be useful in one area of our life, in order to heal another area of our life.
Being a survivor of narcissistic and scapegoating abuse is always about tradeoffs.
Contact/No-Contact On Your Terms?
What does it mean to navigate contact/no-contact with a narcissistic system on your terms? Is there even such a thing?
Given it is a Rigged Game – and thus the ‘terms of engagement’ are orchestrated by the narcissistic system (and twisted against you like landmines and trap doors everywhere) – how do you “successfully” engage/disengage?
It seems like an oxymoron: Can you have power when you are powerless?
A client of mine wrote to me between sessions recently to update me on an epiphany she had regarding her growth and expansion. She shared: “I remember when I felt my only path forward was to grey-rock; that I was stuck with [the narcissist] and I better figure out how best to ‘not get abused’ or to ‘protect myself better’. It felt like such a fraud; the illusion of choice and control but really it was just how to more successfully mask myself and play by their rules…
Not to say it wasn’t useful at the time – it did prevent me from getting taken down by their need for supply. And it disarmed them. But it also raised immense guilt. Which didn’t feel like staying “neutral” to me. I tore down my habit of people-pleasing but was left bare, exposed and raw. Now I was vulnerable, not to [the narcissist]…but to the horrific barrage of emotions that I had been trying to avoid by people pleasing in the first place.
It was scary. I thought recovery meant feeling empowered. Instead, I felt small and weak, and overwhelmed, and really angry. It’s like I became more glued to them through my anger and pain. Which isn’t freedom. ‘Where the [eff] is freedom??’ I wanted to scream! I thought I would be trapped in this “frozen recovery” place forever.
Then I remembered what you said about “the third door”; The secret hidden choice that isn’t obvious but rather is squashed between doors one and two. Door one was my survival response (fawn). Door two was the societal narrative of how we are supposed to “handle” narcs (grey-rock). No one had told me about choice three…which was “What is MY need?” I finally stopped and asked myself, “How do I want to proceed?” It’s a stupidly simple question and every time you asked me it in session I hated you a little bit (sorry!). Truthfully, I wanted you to tell me what to do; To tell me the ‘right’ thing to do so I could heal. What’s the prescription? But you didn’t. You just kept giving me choice.
I get it now. Thank you.”
What my client recognized is that when we try to “navigate” narcissistic systems we are still playing the rigged game. Navigating so often implies working “with” narcissists to negotiate our relationship with each other and how we are treated. It’s not a fair negotiation. To dive a bit deeper, when we are relying on our practitioner to tell us what to do and how to do it, we are still giving away our power and waiting to be told how to behave. That’s an imprint of narcissistic abuse being carried forward even when we are fully removed from the narcissistic system.
Agency, autonomy, and active participation come from making (informed!) decisions for oneself. And that is often terrifying for survivors because it usually resulted in things like punishment, abandonment, stonewalling etc. But it is also the Third Door: the one that leads to a future within YOUR hands, not curated by other people’s hands.
My job (or your practitioner’s job) is to help you with the informed part so decisions don’t feel rash, reckless, or not driven by your actual needs. Our work is to help you know what the resounding “yes” or resounding “no” in your body feels like so you don’t gaslight yourself, ignore your needs, suppress your life force, or silence your cues and intuitions. Decisions aren’t about impulsivity, they are about deep, true knowingness. They are about a self-trust and self-knowledge that was robbed from you. A good practitioner helps you restore your knowingness so you are in charge of you again.
When did you last think about what your needs were? Have you been so stuck “navigating” how to stay safe that you forgot you have needs? What might shift (for the better) in your life if you prioritized your needs, as opposed to other people’s feelings about your needs?
The Power Of Choice
A popular proverb states: You cannot control the winds but you can adjust your sails.
Adjusting your sails isn’t about hunkering down so you can go deeper into the storm while hoping that charting this course will make the storm change its mind and provide smoother seas for you to traverse…
Likewise, regarding the question of “Can you have power when you are powerless”: You are not powerless, you are just powerless to change them and their system. There is a difference.
Did anyone tell you that the most important part of recovery from trauma is choice?
That recovery isn’t about doing the “right” thing or taking a prescribed set of steps (though there are some actions that we know can be supportive…when you have the right support to navigate them)?
That recovery isn’t a place you reach or end up at, but rather a process of reclaiming choice? Big choices, small choices, and micro choices.
Narcissistic and family scapegoating dynamics rob you of choice by placing you in a perpetual survival state. There is no autonomy, agency or active participation. There is only fight, flight, freeze, fawn and force. There is only you living for them, in the way that they need you to be.
Choice is what brings you back into your own life. Into your own body.
You can choose your needs over their feelings about your needs.
You may be able to choose contact or not.
If no-contact was thrust upon you, you can choose reintegration or not.
If reintegration is not your next step, you can choose the associations you maintain with people like family friends, extended family etc.
You can choose how to grieve and feel the emotions that came with the abandonment.
You can choose to respond to texts, emails, letters or not.
You can choose to reach out to those you haven’t heard from or not.
You can choose to tell your story or not.
You can choose your recovery needs.
You choose your boundaries.
You choose how to use your voice, and who you share your voice with.
What you can’t choose is anyone else’s response.
You can’t choose to be believed.
You can’t choose to hear back from them.
You can’t choose whether they actually leave you alone or not.
You can’t choose whether they respect your boundaries or honour your voice.
You can’t choose whether they will like and respect your needs or whether they will push back at you for prioritizing yourself.
You can’t choose how they will distort your voice or truth.
You can’t choose whether they meet any of your hopes and expectations.
What you choose is your actions, not their response.
You choose your next step, not the outcome.
So often we are stuck in recovery because we are trying to choose the outcome, and bypassing our actions.
We get stuck in fawn mode hoping that if we people please enough, we will get the love we need in return.
We get stuck staying small because we think we won’t get hurt if we swallow ourselves whole and disappear our soul.
We set a boundary in the hopes they treat us better, instead of recognising the boundary is simply for us to know our limits; To have a cue for when we need to stop a conversation, walk away, practice self-care, speak no more, or speak up.
You always have choice. Even when the choice feels impossibly small.
We often feel we don’t have choice simply because the choices we want, or feel we should have, are not available to us.
Recovery comes from identifying the choices that are available and exercising them in ways that support and honour ourselves.
Yes, it’s not fair. But we are not talking about fixing unfairness, we are talking about escaping the trap of it.
Given it’s unfair, what choice do you want to make now? What is possible? What is healing? Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? What do you need?
Your Power Move
Of course, there is always planning for the expected: If you have to have an interaction with family, what is your safety plan? What is your contingency plan? What triggers can you expect to have? Who is on call to support you? What will you do if you feel yourself getting sucked into a false narrative? Will you choose to defend yourself or not fall for the trap? What phrases will you use to extricate yourself? You can practice these in advance for any “unexpected” encounters as well: When you run into them at the store. When the email arrives in your inbox. Before you respond, you can ask yourself, “What choices do I have right now?” and you can pause and take all the time you need to decide what to do or say. They can wait.
You can also plan for the feelings that come both with contact and going no-contact: Hello guilt, fear, anger, sadness, despair, rage, sorrow, and more. You cannot stop the flow of feelings, nor should you. You can make friends with them. What do you need, dear emotions? How can I care for you in ways that you were never cared for before?
You can set your boundaries and decide what you will do when they inevitably get ignored by toxic others. Remember, stating your boundary to someone is the “warning cue”. But when someone encroaches on your boundary it is up to you to enforce your boundary; it is up to you to take action. You warn them to not bring up that topic of conversation. When they bring it up, you enforce your boundary by leaving the room and not participating. You can’t control them (they have an agenda) but you can control you. They will discover that their pokes and prods and attempts to destabilize you and suck you in no longer work.
You can grey rock! Yes. It comes in handy when needed. It doesn’t stop the guilt and anxiety that arise when you stop people-pleasing and catering to other people’s emotional needs, but it does help you exit a situation with less weight bearing down on you. It can help you not get sucked in and expose you to the risk of your words and reactions being twisted and used against you. And you can plan your responses for when they ask you “What’s wrong? Why are you acting so different? It seems like you don’t care about me…”
Your power move is always that you already know how almost every interaction will go. You already know what it feels like to have sorrow and injustice and betrayal burrowed into you. You are not going to be side-swiped by emotions. You already know what it’s like to play a Rigged Game with a narcissistic system. You are not going to be side-swiped by their tactics. Every awful, unfair, hypocritical, unjust thing they do is so darn expected. Even the “unexpected” tortures are so sadly expected. Of course they would stoop that low. How typical.
You can visualize your upcoming interaction and know all their moves. You can choose how you will respond to each move. You are a star athlete when it comes to understanding the rigged game. We run into trouble when we are shocked by their behaviour. When we expect them to be different this time…
Your power move is also how you choose your expectations.
If you are no-contact, or going no-contact, you can still examine what choices you have, what triggers may arise, how you will self-care, what your needs are, and welcome in all emotions like old friends. Emotions don’t stay as long when you welcome them in and offer tea. They will linger at your door, however, if you try to shove them out.
Your power move is awareness and knowledge.
You know you will never come out emotionally unscathed. Unless you numb out (also not recommended), the rigged game will still wear you out even if you play it masterfully. So then you choose aftercare, self-care, inner-child care. You choose to love yourself fiercely in ways they never could.
Your power move is doing the exact thing they always tried to hide from you: your choice. It’s making the decision that feels aligned with you, even if it’s not best for them.
Your power move is asking yourself the question they never asked you, or let you ask yourself: What is best for YOU at this moment? How do you put yourself first?
Tell me, what is your power move? How have you created choice in your life? How have you put yourself first?