Do you know what your triggers are?

One of my anger triggers is cleaning. I have such negative, painful connections to cleaning from my childhood that my first few years on my own as an adult, I pretty much refused to clean at all. That was almost 20 years ago.

Still today, even if I volunteer to clean the house and start out enthusiastically, by the time I get deep into it I’m usually feeling angry and resentful.

At work my triggers are different. They revolve around gaining approval. These cause a different reaction in me: nervousness, anxiety, embarrassment, fear. With my kids, it’s guilt.

These are the times—when I recognize I am starting to feel negative and getting worked up—that I need to stop myself and recognize that my behavior is off. When I don’t, I usually regret it: I may pick a fight, or blow up in a fit of rage.

You’ll know something has triggered you, when you find yourself getting angry, anxious, embarrassed or otherwise negative for reasons you don’t fully understand. You may feel yourself generating lists in your head of all the things your partner has done recently to upset you, or looking for someone to blame.

The first thing to remember is self-compassion. You are not perfect. You are human. You will make mistakes and have to keep trying. You can’t change a lifetime’s worth of behaviors overnight, but at least you’re trying.

Second, ask your friends, partners, or whomever you are closest to for help.  We have a natural inclination to want to do things on our own – no one was ever there for us and we learned early on that we could only rely on ourselves.

But we are no longer children living as captives to an abuser. The reality is that others do care and want to help us, and deep down we want to be able to receive their help. Without this vulnerability, we cannot build relationships where we are truly bonded to someone else — and we wind up hurting those who actually love us and pushing them away.

If you feel one of these negative spells coming on, what can you do?

  • Do not act on your feelings immediately.
  • Warn your spouse. Talk about this beforehand and come up with a plan for the next time it happens – how each of you will handle the situation. Then stick to it. If you tried your best and you failed, don’t give up. Try again. It will come easier next time.
  • Ask for the space you need to gain the necessary insight into your behavior. Take a time out or create a physical boundary between you, until you calm down (i.e. leave the house for a few hours).
  • Don’t give the “silent treatment” or otherwise indicate that your feelings are the fault of someone else withe your words, body language or actions. Instead, explain to your partner what you’re doing (taking time to think things through) and give a time frame for when you think you’ll be ready to discuss. Especially in the beginning, you may need some flexibility on time frames, which can be difficult to balance with your partner’s right/need to discuss their own feelings. If it’s taking you longer than expected, communicate that calmly and respectfully to your partner, and let them know you haven’t forgotten about it. Ask for an extension if needed.
  • Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume they meant to hurt you. At work if I receive an email I don’t like the tone of, I step away for a half hour. When I come back to it, I read it again, but this time I imagine the sender reading the email to me in the nicest possible voice/tone/delivery and see if I’m still upset. Respond based on the best possible interpretation of their message rather than the worst.
  • Do not let yourself talk about it until you’ve had a chance to think about what your deeper motivations were for getting upset and how you can handle these feelings going forward.
  • Apologize. You lose nothing by apologizing. It doesn’t make you weak to admit you didn’t get something right, it makes you a good partner. Apologizing makes us vulnerable, and we fear vulnerability, so we avoid it. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is one of the keys to your healing.
  • Practice this over and over until it becomes your new normal.

What to say to get the space you need: Calmly, “When [XYZ] happened earlier, something made me very upset and I don’t fully understand what/why. I need some time to think about why it upset me so much, so that I can address it constructively. I need [insert time frame here] to mull it over and then I promise we can discuss it. It would help a lot if we can agree to shelve this until then.”

Just saying this to your partner may be an uncomfortable level of vulnerability for you. If you can’t say it to them face-to-face, send a text, write an email, leave a sticky note. Just make sure they get the message.

This is as much an exercise in setting healthy boundaries, as it is in behavior modification. Use your time to dig as deep as you can into the root cause of what upset you.  I still struggle with each of these, but it gets just a little easier each time I try.

For help understanding your insecurities and triggers, see Who’s Pulling Your Strings?: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life. Most of our insecurities can be summed up into a handful of larger issues. For example, approval seeking or fear of abandonment. This book explains it well and offers practical advice for addressing them.

For those of us who are just becoming more self-aware and introspective, this process can take a week or two. But as you better learn your insecurities, patterns and motivations, and the more you practice changing your behavior, it will come easier and much quicker – hours as opposed to weeks.

Do you know what your triggers are? What do you do to stop yourself from acting on them? 

Becoming Self-Aware: My Story

From the Narcissists’ Perspective: Why Don’t People Like Me?

I thought I knew everything about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). I considered myself somewhat of an expert having read innumerable books, blogs, web lit, having watched YouTube videos ad nauseum and through active participation in multiple online forums for children of narcissists. I grew up with a narcissistic mother who scapegoated me from my earliest memories, and a father I later realized is a sociopath.

Narcissistic Abuse

Early on, my focus was on healing from narcissist abuse, like learning to manage the narcissists in my life, establishing boundaries, and navigating going no contact. I was the victim.

At my core, I knew I was a good person, but I could never understand why people seemed not to like me — why every relationship I had seemed to go wrong. This lifelong pattern of rejection coupled with the emotional abuse of my family of origin pointed to one answer – I am un-likeable and un-loveable.

It’s not a thought that was at the constant forefront of my mind. It was buried deep enough to inform all aspects of my life and behavior in ways I didn’t understand, but after an emotional injury it would bubble to the surface causing bouts of depression and crippling loneliness.

A Narcissist is Made

I told myself I was strong – stronger than others because I’d been through hell and I was still here. Still succeeding at school and work. Still adding value to the world. And through all that, I’ve done it alone with no help from the world which treated me like garbage. I learned not to need or rely on anyone else. I resolved to know my own value and not let the world tell me I was worthless. If no one else liked me, I resolved to like myself.

I developed a hard shell. Growing up my mother scapegoated me, and in order to successfully do that she smeared me to anyone who would listen—making herself the victim. In turn, people disliked me before they ever met me. I didn’t realize that until years later. Instead from a very young age, I internalized the messages I got from the world and assumed people wouldn’t like me. At the first sign someone didn’t, I wouldn’t hesitate to confront them, in an explosive rage if need be. My thoughts were, who are you to tell me I’m worthless? I’m smart, I have value, I won’t let you tell me I don’t – in fact I’m probably better than you in a lot of ways.

I strived for perfection in order to prove that value—to the world and to myself. I refused to show weakness or to fail.  And to make sure people understood that I was actually a good/fun/worthwhile/smart person, I would let them know and remind them how amazing I was. There’s no way they couldn’t like me if they understood how special I was inside, so I made sure to put all my best qualities on display and draw others’ attention to it.

Having not grown up with it, I craved approval. I would become obsessed with understanding others’ opinions of me and trying to change their minds if it seemed they didn’t like me. I experienced anger when I couldn’t understand why I was so disliked. When someone showed me positive attention—when someone liked me—I liked them back hard and we formed fast and furious relationships that always seemed to fall apart within months for reasons I could not understand.

Becoming Self-Aware

There was so much I didn’t realize. So many years lost. It’s painful how un-self-aware I was for so long. At 34 I fell into a deep depression and sought therapy. We spent almost a year working through my feelings of inadequacy, the pain of my childhood, putting into perspective the times I felt truly hurt or abandoned. Many of my painful experiences of abandonment or rejection stemmed from encounters with other Cluster B personalities — mostly other narcissists and sociopaths. Why was I drawn to these people throughout my life and why were they drawn to me? How was I so easily manipulated by them? Why had I allowed myself to be victimized all these years?

It never occurred to me that I was my own biggest problem. At least not on the level I needed to, to understand it. There were so many layers of self-protection. Every time a relationship went wrong, I obsessed over why. But there was one thing I never considered: how my behavior made other people feel. I had very low empathy for others.

I couldn’t see past my own pain and emotions. Furthermore, I hadn’t grown up with empathy. No one had ever cared about my feelings. Really, no one in my household cared about anyone other than themselves. So in addition to never having experienced it, I had never seen it practiced, or learned how to be empathetic. I didn’t even realize I was missing empathy. In fact, I thought I was an extremely empathetic person, never realizing I was confusing sympathy for empathy. How can you miss color if you’ve only ever seen black and white?

At 35 I was diagnosed with NPD.  At first I didn’t even believe my therapist because I’d always read narcissists are incapable of seeing their own faults and behaviors and they certainly cannot change. Yes, I act like my mother sometimes, and I admit I may have “fleas”, but I don’t have the disorder, I thought. I don’t knowingly manipulate others or conduct smear campaigns, etc. My mom is that way, but I’m not.  I was changing and growing. I was looking at my own behaviors – where they stemmed from, what my triggers were, taking responsibility for my actions– and I was making better choices about how to be there for others, most importantly, learning to practice empathy.

But when I went back and looked at all those same books, websites, and forums – through the lens of how others may see my behavior, as opposed to the lens of the abuse survivor, it started to make sense. When I reread the DSM thinking of myself, instead of my mother, I was hit like a ton of bricks.

Learning to Change

I went in search of tools to help me heal myself, to be a better person. I searched for others like me who realized they have the disorder and want to grow. But there was nothing. The vast majority of material is aimed at dealing with narcissists – but almost nothing for the narcissist who has become self-aware and wants to do better.

Articles and books with titles like “How to get revenge on a narcissist” hit particularly hard now that I was on the other side of it, because I never knowingly or intentionally hurt others – in my mind I was a misunderstood, hurt little girl, discarded and rejected by the world, who was only protecting and standing up for myself because no one else ever did.

But seeing that others saw my behavior as abusive and toxic, my lifetime of failed relationships suddenly made sense. I realized I was the person people were going “no contact” with. Furthermore, I was now the narcissistic parent. It stung.

I thought about reaching out to other narcissistic abuse survivors on forums, for support, realizing this must be somewhat common (What had they tried? What worked? What advice could they give for getting over this?). After all, research shows two-thirds of children with a narcissistic parent have NPD. But sadly, now that I realized I was a narcissist, the rules on the support forums and boards were clear – no narcissists allowed.

Ironically, once I understood how NPD looks and feels from the other side, it became immediately and painfully obvious that a large slice of the people on these forums are narcissists themselves. They are painfully unaware but know that something is “off” with them emotionally, recognize they are different from others but don’t understand exactly how, struggle through bouts of depression, question why all their relationships seem to fall apart, want desperately to recover from their childhood abuse — to finally be happy and feel love — but have no idea that they themselves have the disorder. That’s why I created this site.

It’s a myth that narcissist can never seek help, gain self awareness, or that we cannot change or grow. It is a spectrum disorder, so there are people like my mother for whom that’s true. I believe she is too far gone and will never be able to face any other reality than her own. But there are also people like me, who are simply unaware of our personality disorder—deeply hurt, sad, lonely people who desperately want to change when we learn what has been causing this immense pain and turmoil our entire lives.

We are out there. And there are more of us than we may realize given the statistics. I suspect many of my fellow narcissistic abuse survivors are in the same boat as me without realizing it. If you think you have “fleas”, you may be one of these people.

We too deserve love, the support of others who understand and insight from those who’ve been where we are. I hope my experience helps others on similar journeys.

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