My phone tells me how many hours I spend online. The weekly report offers comparisons from one week to the next; Was I up 33% from last week? Was it an average of 2 hours today compared to 3.5 hours this time last week?
I don’t track metrics like this. I don’t know my resting heart rate or how many hours of REM sleep I got. If I did know I’d probably panic. So I don’t check. Trauma wouldn’t make those numbers look too good anyway.
But I do wish I could track how many hours I spend in silent rumination, often without realizing it.
How often do I catch myself, while driving, reliving an injustice in my head? How often have I drifted off to sleep hours later than desired because I was caught in a loop rehashing a fight? How often do I sit motionless — almost paralyzed — because I am stuck reconfiguring how I “could” or “should” have reacted to a situation?
How much of my life is lived in fantasy? When the real world provides no justice, do I spend more time envisioning implausible scenarios of validation and vindication than I do actually taking steps to heal? Does my trauma linger because I spend so much time imagining people finally believing me and “taking my side”, but not enough time moving forward toward my purpose, peace and wholeness…
Invisible Trauma Bond
Rumination is the invisible trauma bond that, even if you have been no-contact for years, keeps you locked in pain. Rumination means you are still living with the strings of a narcissistic system attached to you, winding tighter and tighter around you, slowly crushing you and cutting off your aliveness. It’s like a sweater that is snagged on a nail; Except the nail in this case is narcissism. You can walk away…but if you keep the mental channel open, the sweater unravels.
This is because, when we ruminate, we are not in the present moment. As such, we are not making decisions that are based on our needs, acting in our best interest, feeling fully present in our lives and bodies, or actively participating in our lives. There is no autonomy, agency or embodiment when we are ruminating. The invisible trauma bond also perpetuates our people-pleasing and fawning behaviours and keeps us in “survival mode”, which prevents us from making decisions with clarity. It fogs up our sense of self, distorts our identity and takes up a lot of mental space. When we spend so much time hyper-focusing on what was, has been, could have been, or is about to be, we lose our footing in the present moment. The tide sweeps us out to sea and we flounder and flail, wondering how we will ever find safe land and recovery.
This also takes a toll on our body: Physiologically, your body doesn’t know the difference between rumination and experiencing. What you are thinking about is causing real-time responses in the body. Your brain is “re-situating” you in a trauma/unsafe scenario and as such, is activating the body’s survival responses just as if you were actually re-living the trauma.
When you live a significant amount of your life in rumination — meaning rehashing, reliving, reconfiguring, and regretting — then the space that your body and brain have for feelings of joy, hope, fulfillment, wholeness and peace gets crowded out. You only have so much mental, emotional and physical energy at your disposal (especially when you are in recovery) and it is getting used up focusing on pains, betrayals and injustices that keep you bonded to the toxic narcissistic or scapegoating system.
So why do we do it if all it means, metaphorically, is we are “drinking poison and hoping the enemy gets sick?” And how do we “unhook” our sweater from the nail of narcissism?
Daydreams and Nightmares
Rumination can be separated into three categories: The Good, The Bad, and The Fantasy
The Good (Times): Thinking about times in our life when we felt alive, joyous, safe, wonderous, confident, and safe is a really important part of recovery. For example, recalling specific times in our lives when we felt strength, hope, confidence, resilience, capacity, and capability is a cornerstone of solution-focused coaching. Additionally, our bodies have memories and therefore these visualizations have tangible impacts at the emotional, mental, and even physiological levels if used strategically. If we can remember — at our deepest physiological levels — what it means to belong, be loved, safe, cared for, and accepted — then we are more able to re-write our relational blueprints and ensure stronger, happier, healthier relationships in the future, with others and with ourselves.
However, those of us with significant attachment trauma often lack “access” to this type of rumination. Some people have limited memories of childhood, or have trauma amnesia (certain memories, times, or experiences — even good ones — are seemingly erased from the taxonomy of our lives) and so we are left with odd gaps.
For others, positive rumination is inaccessible because of the double-edged sword of nostalgia: When you are the victim of narcissistic abuse or family scapegoating, nostalgic moments are tainted by the fact that so many of your “good times” involve “bad” people. How can you relive moments of joy and wonder from Christmas morning, or the first time your baby was brought home from the hospital, or when you won that award when the people in those moments are the people who tormented, targeted, and abandoned you?
To make things more difficult, positive rumination can itself be triggering. When you live in a state of survival for so long (because the trauma of narcissistic abuse or ongoing narcissistic attacks is omnipresent), then remembering joyful times exposes you to the heartbreak of what has been lost. Happy memories can be painful when all they do is remind you that you haven’t felt happiness like that in so long. Nostalgia can be agonizing; like a disease that slowly snakes its way through your “happiness system”, tainting and stealing from you your capacity for joy until the future feels bleak.
The Bad (Times): Naturally, when happiness becomes painful or threatening and nostalgia becomes triggering, we go into our “safer space” (familiar place) of “negative” rumination. Negative rumination is where we spend our time rehashing and dissecting the awful things that happened; The injustices, the hypocrisy, the betrayal. We play out the scenarios like home movies over and over in our minds. These triggers feel easier to navigate compared to “happiness triggers” because we live the pain of them day in and out. We know how to handle it, we’re so used to it.
It’s not sadistic: doing this serves a purpose (albeit the method is misguided). We can imagine different endings, we can visualize ourselves speaking up (or staying quiet), we can picture ourselves acting with more courage or confidence, or doing whatever we wished we had done to honour ourselves or protect ourselves better. Imagining ourselves doing the situation differently is a way to have the power and voice we never had (or would have been dangerous to have) and it’s a way to offer ourselves validation and closure that we will never receive. It’s also good practice: If we picture ourselves engaging differently, then, if there is a next time, maybe we won’t get so knocked over or sucked in. Regret can be a guiding light if used strategically; it helps you get to know yourself deeply so you can guide your actions with more authority. Regret is not meant as a tool to judge and blame yourself even more, it’s meant to inspire and encourage you to live closer to your values and authentic self.
In this way, “negative” rumination can be a self-honouring practice: When no one else is there to validate, protect, or speak up for you, you have to do the work yourself.
It also helps us process: When we re-live and remember what happened to us, we let the agony flow over us so we can feel things fully. We need to feel emotions fully so they exit our system. When narcissistic attacks happen we go into survival mode (which puts processing on pause). We need to take time later — when we are in a safe space — to process and grieve so the chemicals associated with trauma don’t accumulate in our system.
The Fantasy: The fantasy can go in two main directions: a) Imagining painful scenarios that may never happen and b) Imagining hopeful scenarios that likely will never happen. In both cases we lose: In the first scenario, imagining a fight or a betrayal and playing it out in our head makes our body react as if it is actually happening. We flood ourselves with stress hormones and trauma sensations that can have real health consequences. In the second scenario, we get our hopes up that “this time things will be different” and then get further disappointed (and destroyed) all over again. Revenge fantasies, fix-it fantasies, romanticization, and rose-tinted glasses (sentimentalizing/memorializing) are all variations of these types of ruminations.
Imagining made-up interactions or fights (that never actually end up happening) can serve a useful purpose: It is a way to anticipate what could happen to prepare ourselves. We never want to be caught off guard again by the false hope that the system that harms us will somehow be “different this time”. So we fixate on made-up fights taking place only in our head. It’s also a way to combat the urge to romanticize the past (and forget how bad it actually was); By going into a zone where we live out abuses and betrayals that take place only in our imagination, we are reminding ourselves of what it is actually like to be bonded to those who harmed us.
It’s also possible that these fantasies are meant to combat so much of the gaslighting and experiences of not being believed that come from strangers, or even well-meaning friends and professionals. When people say things like “That doesn’t sound like them…they are always so nice” or “I can’t believe it! I’m sure they loved you and are trying their best”, our brain needs to give us imagery that helps ground us in our truth. We create plausible scenarios whereby the toxic person behaves in toxic and harmful ways which reassures us that we didn’t get things wrong. This can be soothing when we cannot find any other source of comfort.
The problem is that while it offers some semblance of “preparation”, validation or soothing, these made-up scenarios trap us in a state of heightened stress and bodily activation. Your body is being told it is under threat, and so it prepares to be constantly “on guard” for attack. As such, you end up always in survival mode and never in processing (recovery) mode.
The flip side of fantasy rumination is wishful thinking and romanticizing.
When we imagine (wishfully) that things will be different this time (or that they weren’t as bad as we remember), we can set ourselves up for danger. We reach out, we try again, or we question whether our limited/no-contact is really the best thing. Afterall, we’re so lonely. We need support. Surely we can give it another go and make it work?
We fool ourselves into thinking we have the capacity to control the outcome, which inevitably means we fall back on our people-pleasing and fawning behaviours. We contort ourselves more. We get smaller. We formulate ways we can engage and behave in order to “influence” others to be what we need them to be. We walk on an increasingly precarious tightrope balancing our safety, sanity and well-being alongside immense emotional and psychological danger. Too much wishful thinking and romanticizing means we risk convincing ourselves that we can figure out how to get someone to stand up for us, to see the truth, to call out the injustice, to love us, and to care for us.
These hopeful fantasies of change ignore the stark reality of narcissistic and family-scapegoating abuse. As a result, we wait around for apologies that will never come. We anticipate a toxic person will suddenly communicate healthily. We expect closeness and affection and we let our guard down. We start to believe that the narcissism will “repair” itself, and the parent/sibling/partner will suddenly be accountable and make amends. We fool ourselves into thinking repair is on the horizon and they will become the loving parent/sibling/partner that we know “deep down” they can be “if only they understood the impact of their behaviour”.
If you are still in contact, you can become crushed when the system uses your efforts against you to harm you more. If you are not in contact, you may never allow yourself to reach a place where you know and trust you are better off on your own. You may always harbour thoughts of “what if…” or “if only…” and you become trapped in a self-imposed prison. The more we imagine that things aren’t as bad as we experienced them to be, or that we can make things better, the smaller we become and the more our life and future slip beyond our hands.
Breaking The Invisible Bond
It’s important to visualize what a healthy, loving, safe, and supportive reaction would be from a family member or partner. You need to be reminded of what is normal and what you do deserve. You’ve been told for so long that toxicity is normal and expected that it becomes acceptable. If you didn’t have a good blueprint growing up, you need to teach your brain what is and isn’t healthy and OK. Fantasy helps jolt you back into the truth of what relational standards ought to be. It reminds you that healthy love is possible.
It’s also important to prepare yourself and to remind yourself of the reality of narcissistic and family-scapegoating abuse. Especially if you do still have some contact. Especially when you start gaslighting yourself, thinking you made it out to be worse than it was, or you start to think you can fix it and change them.
But you need to be cautious: Writing it out, talking it out, and thinking it out all serve a purpose up to a point. When the lifeboat (visualization, preparation) becomes the prison ship (spiralling, rumination), the invisible trauma bond strengthens. You are still living in their world.
Rehashing, reliving, reconfiguring and regretting never add up to recovery.
Instead, we need to remember why we have the urge to Redo all the trauma in our heads. Do we need soothing relief from the survival state and its concoction of stress hormones? Do we need a semblance of justice or hope? Do we need validation? Do we need to prepare and protect? What is the motivation behind the rumination?
All of the ways we “Re”, are ways we are trying to control an uncontrollable situation.
It comes down to this: How can you ever figure out what you need in the present moment if you are hyper-focused on what you should have done in the past, what they should have done, what you wished could have happened, and what you fear and dread and anticipate is upcoming?
How can you know what is best for you right now when you are too busy preparing for the future?
The veil of potent emotions that ruminations evoke is like a ghost of the abuse that haunts you.
Let’s bring you back some control.
Unravelling yourself is not necessary for recovery.
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