Pick Your Hard

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Here we are again, another January filled with messages advising us of our need to change. Change your hair, change your body, change your lifestyle, change your perspective. In January the motivation and drive to create change reaches a fever pitch as we recover from the holidays, leading to resolutions and goals that may or may not be met. We promise ourselves we will upend our life, start fresh, and never look back.

And we start out on that path with all the energy and enthusiasm you could ask for. We hit the gym in our brand-new fitness gear (30% off at Generic Big Box Store, this week only!), get a sassy fresh haircut, and put on our best new face.

But then something happens. We become tired from overextending ourselves in our quest for self-renewal. Or we realize we bit off too big a bite to chew all at once. Maybe we miss a day of working toward our goal and become discouraged. Or we find ourselves struggling against the inertia of daily life, remembering why we haven’t followed through on making these changes before.

Why does this happen?

Captain Obvious here: Things are hard

It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: change is hard. I mean, it’s hard. No matter how positive a change may be, we may not be fully on board with ourselves trying to make it. We may have parts that have good reason to want to stay in this place of relative comfort, or at least familiarity - because who knows what’s out there, over that horizon? Sure, there could be greatness. But there could be monsters, too.

Most people read these articles and seek out therapy because the parts of them that want to do things differently are talking louder than the ones that want to stay the same. But that inside argument may go back and forth quite a lot. And both sides have valid and important arguments. Staying the same means you don’t have to face the unknown. If you never challenge your toxic mother-in-law, you don’t have to deal with the wrath and recriminations. If you never tell your dad how his favoritism hurts you, you don’t have face even more rejection. There are risks you can avoid, if you choose to remain where you are.

Of course, what hasn’t been said so much is that it is also hard to stay the same.

Staying in your familiar role in a narcissistic or emotionally abusive relationship is a choice. A choice that requires sacrifice. A choice that requires immensely hard work to retain your sense of self and your will in the face of continued toxicity.  A hard choice.

The difficulties you face in daily life may not change much, because your capacity to influence them is restricted by your decision to remain. It may be an agonizing choice. It may be one that you struggle with for months or years before coming to a decision. And far from being a failure or sign of weakness, I think of it as simply this: a choice that is hard.

Pick your hard

I’ve seen memes on my Facebook feed, among other places, saying something along the lines of “Being overweight is hard. Getting fit is hard. Pick your hard.” Personally, I don’t think that weight and fitness are necessarily correlated - there are some incredibly strong weightlifters who would also be considered overweight or obese - but there’s one aspect of that quote that I like. Pick your hard is an accurate description of a choice that family members and loved ones of emotionally abusive people face every day.

It is hard to stay put in a bad relationship where you suffer pain every day. It is hard to paddle upstream and try to shift a family dynamic that may have existed for numerous generations. Every day presents the choice: Pick your hard.

You may not make the same choice every day, and that is okay. Maybe today, you feel strong, supported, and badass. So you choose to speak up for yourself and call out your gaslighting boss for giving you misleading or manipulative directions. And maybe next week, you’re exhausted from fending off the onslaught of passive aggressive memos that follow speaking up, so you simply roll your eyes and pretend not to notice it. Each day, each interaction, you pick your hard.

It's not always bad

Let me not frame this as a sentence that life will always suck, or that you’re doomed to always struggle. I truly do not believe that this is the case. There will be times when picking your hard feels like a daily, or even constant, series of choices. There will be other times when you make your choice and then life goes on pretty smoothly for awhile.

Sometimes, when the hard you pick most often is change, the momentum builds to the point where you are not forced into the choice as often - because people learn that you are not the same person anymore, and their old tactics and strategies are much less effective. Getting to that place takes time, focus, and the wherewithal to pick that hard more often than not.

Sometimes you will choose not to fight that battle, or to take a break from being the only one to stand up and say “this is not okay.” That doesn’t make you weak. It means you are choosing a different hard right now. If changing a troublesome relationship is your ultimate goal, you’ll pick a different hard when you’re ready to. So try to give yourself some grace and compassion for the times when the hard you pick is not the one you want. You will get there. Change can be a lonely road, but I believe in the journey you have chosen.

What I know about you

In closing, here’s what I know about you. Whether your journey is straightforward or features pauses, reboots, and detours, you will get where you want to go. There will be lonely times and hard times, but there will be joy and pride as well. Here is what I know about you as you pick your hard each time; from the classic and enduring “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss:

All Alone!

Whether you like it or not,

Alone will be something

you’ll be quite a lot

 

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

 

But on you will go

though the weather be foul.

On you will go

though your enemies prowl.

On you will go

though the Hakken-Kraks howl.

Onward up many a frightening creek,

though your arms may get sore

and your sneakers may leak.

 

On and on you will hike.

And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems

whatever they are.

 

You've got this.

The Post-Holiday Letdown

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The decorations are coming down. The ornaments have been put away. The trees are out on the sidewalk, and most of us will be ok with not seeing another candy cane for 11.5 more months. Most holiday obligations have been fulfilled, and now we just have to find places to put all the stuff we accumulated throughout the holiday season. It’s a little bittersweet to put away the twinkly lights and special decor, but can also be a relief to be done with the busy-ness of the season.

And now there’s that other thing that begins to happen around this time of year: The post-holiday letdown. The crash after the sugar rush, the jarring return to “normal life,” the explosive exhalation that comes after holding your breath for the better part of six weeks. The moment when you wake up and realize it’s all over for another year, and you have to go back to work today.

 The big exhale

In The Return of the King, on the eve of one of the greatest battles for the fate of Middle Earth, Gandalf spends a quiet moment of reflection with young Hobbit Pippin. Pippin observes that the city seems very quiet on the eve of battle. “It’s the deep breath before the plunge,” Gandalf says gravely. We spend a lot of time on that deep breath before the busy, tense, exciting, and hectic holiday season. We prepare, psych ourselves up, strategize our boundaries and exit strategies, and practice our polite-but-firm no’s. But sometimes we forget something: The exhale after the plunge. 

Have you released that breath yet? Perhaps you’ve found yourself feeling still keyed up, or finding it hard to relax and settle back into daily life. Maybe you fled with relief into a normal workweek, only to find yourself unexpectedly irritable, short-fused, or easily overwhelmed. Are you ready to cry over nothing, snapping at your partner, or suddenly revisiting griefs you thought you’d long since let go of? 

Welcome to the letdown

While the lights are shining on pretty wrapping paper and sparkling pine trees, we can sometimes forget about or distract ourselves from the painful side of family gatherings. We can focus on how this year, your MIL’s passive aggressive comments didn’t bother you so much, or how you didn’t have to witness a screaming match between two relatives. Or you can put all your attention on firmly redirecting that aunt that insists on foisting her outdated and unsolicited parenting advice where it isn’t wanted.

It’s after the lights die down and the sparkly distractions fade that the letdown happens. When there’s nothing else to distract us from the hard part: the realization that despite all the hard work you’ve done to heal, recover, and build a better life for yourself, you can still be hurt by people you love.

Whether the pain is caused by direct nastiness, distance and detachment, or simply the lack of caring that you’ve come to be so familiar with, the pain can be shocking. The reminders that some things don’t change that much, no matter how much you have changed, can burn. And the grief that follows can be devastating in its intensity.

The letdown can be beautiful

Before one of their songs skyrocketed to popularity through its appearance in A Walk to Remember, surfer band Swtichfoot was relatively unknown. One of my favorite songs from an earlyish album is entitled The Beautiful Letdown. Although the song has a religious bent, I think there is relevance to those who struggle with their outsider status within their own families.

It was a beautiful letdown

When we crashed and burned

When I found myself alone

Unknown and hurt

It was a beautiful letdown

The day I knew

All the riches this world had to offer me

Would never do

 

In a world full of bitter pain and bitter doubt

I was trying so hard to fit in until I found out

I don’t belong here

 

What makes the letdown hard is that we are forced to again confront the pain of being part of a family that does not see, unconditionally love, or respect us. Being ignored, devalued, and pressured to fall in line hurts. And the holidays tend to bring out the narc in most narcissists. 

What makes the letdown beautiful is that it is a reminder of something very important: you don’t belong here because you have chosen to break that chain. You stand out because you don’t fall in line anymore. You have chosen a different path. The letdown is painful, but there can be beauty in it as well.

Honor your grief

Even seeing the beauty in being an outsider doesn’t fully negate the pain of being around abusive or disinterested family members, and I don’t want to imply that it should. If you find yourself breaking down all over again about those childhood memories, or feeling the pang of jealousy as your dad fawns over your sister’s boyfriend and ignores your family, you have a right to your feelings. Honor and send compassion to your grieving parts. This may be the first time there’s been enough room in your awareness for them to voice the pain they still carry. That pain is real and valid, and they deserve your care.

Those parts may still hold even the tiniest bit of hope that maybe this year would be different. No matter how much your pragmatic parts anticipate the same old-same old, those hopeful parts may have still been wishfully thinking of a different outcome. Disappointed hopes can be heard through the letdown.

Nurture yourself

You may not be a New Year’s Resolutioner (I’m not), but this could be a lovely opportunity. An opportunity to practice self-kindness and care for your wounded parts in the aftermath of the letdown.

What do your sad parts need to hear from you right now? Give them a hug and tell them.

What relationships do you find supportive and fulfilling? Build on those.

Where do you feel seen, loved, and appreciated? Spend more time there.

Be kind to yourself. Replenish your depleted reserves. Feel the letdown, and then pick yourself up and remember that you are beautiful and loved.

Reflecting on a Year

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Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?

 “Seasons of Love,” from the Broadway musical Rent

Here we are again, just a few short days from the closing of another year. With the stroke of a clock hand, we bid farewell to one year and welcome a new one. Between 11:59pm and 12:00am, both everything - and at the same time, nothing - changes. Life rolls onward, bringing remnants of the last moment along for the ride as we enter the next moment. 

It’s a time for us to reflect on the last 525, 600 minutes, and to consider how we have used that time. It is a time that many people create goals for the coming year, in hopes of creating a better life one day at a time. If it’s been a hard year, the transition from one to another can feel like a relief. Even if you wake up in 2019 and the circumstances that plagued you in 2018 remain the same, it can feel like a fresh start. 

There are a million articles about New Year’s Resolutions, how to set them, and what to do when you struggle to keep them. Set them or don’t set them, that’s up to you. What I’d like to do today is to help you find a new way to review the last 525,600 minutes as you close one year and step into the next.

Relationships that nurture

Many of the articles I write focus on what’s difficult about toxic, emotionally abusive, or narcissistic relationships. There’s a lot of pain there that deserves to be acknowledged, heard, and spoken to. But it is equally important to celebrate the relationships that are defined by nourishment, support, and love. 

What relationships have fed your soul in this last year? Which ones have brought you joy, made you feel seen, heard, and loved? What is special about those relationships?

Think about the people in your circle that meet the needs your narcissistic loved one could or cannot. Take a moment to send a thought of appreciation and gratitude out into the universe for those relationships. And maybe send a verbal thank you to those people as well. We all need love to thrive, and a nurturing, supportive, unconditionally loving relationship is worth celebrating and treasuring!

Passions that inspire

Do you have a special hobby, recreational activity, or - if you’re very lucky - career that brings you true joy and passion? Something that inspires you to develop a skill or talent, brings you pride in your accomplishments, or simply warms your heart to do?

Celebrate your passions. Think about the times in the last year that you have felt truly, vigorously alive. Even, or maybe especially, if you were never taught or encouraged to pursue those passions. You have interests, skills, and talents that are unique to you. You get to celebrate those, whether or not a narcissistic loved one can do the same. 

See if you can spend some time before the year ends engaging in a favorite activity or passion. Your passions can inspire and motivate you. What better way to ring in the new year than by celebrating them?

Love that you give

Just as important as the relationships that nurture you are those that allow you to bring your most loving, compassionate Self into the relationship. What relationships allow you to feel the most You? What friendships, family relationships, and other connections spark a feeling of openness, connection, and loving acceptance?

And when have you been able to shine that loving light inward, giving yourself some of the same care and affection that you give others?

Whether bringing love to your own soul is something that comes easily to you, or tiny sparkles that peek through dense cloud cover, celebrate the love you have to give. Giving love to others is most easily done when you can bring love to yourself as well. Give your heart a hug and see if you can be thankful for its capacity to love yourself as well as others. Loving yourself can be a work in progress - the point is that you have the heartspace and the love available to give yourself. And you deserve what you have to give.

I hope that your 2018 has been a year of growth, love, and joy. And my wish for you as we approach 2019 is that the next year will bring even more.

Happy New Year, my dears!

Practicing Self-Kindness During the Holidays

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I know it’s cliche, but I’m going to say it anyway. Can you believe Christmas is only a week and a half away?! When did that happen? 

It’s funny how time works with big events. They can feel so far off - until suddenly they’re looming up in front of you. The busy-ness of the holiday can certainly contribute to that. With parties, family events, and seasonal activities filling your calendar, the big day can sneak up on you. In all the hustle and bustle, it’s easy to lose track of the day to day matters - like how you’re actually doing during this season.

Behind the scenes

I had an interesting experience this week. December 13 marked one year since my father passed away. I’ve known this day was coming and thought about it for quite some time. I took time off work to give myself time to be with any and all feelings that arose that day. All day, I did daily life and waited to see how I would feel.

Well, interestingly I felt pretty normal - right up until I noticed myself grabbing a pan of hot cookies straight out of the oven bare-handed! (I’m ok, no burns!) What on earth is going on with me? I wondered - until I realized, this was my grief parts showing up behind the scenes. The same parts made me need a nap in the middle of the day, although that is also partly due to being 8 months pregnant. And then they showed up again in the evening, as the exact hour from one year ago that I received the news of my dad’s passing approached.

Sometimes our unhealed or still-healing parts kind of sneak up on us from behind the scenes. Even knowing that that day would bring lots of feelings, I was caught by surprise at several points by emotions that surged up over seemingly minor triggers. And it’s literally my job to understand how these things work!

So today I’m going to focus on something beyond the usual “self-care during the holidays” tip lists that pop up all over this time of year. Self-care is an extremely important and valuable skill to practice, but today I want to talk about two slightly different terms: self-presence, and self-kindness.

What is Self-presence?

Have you ever had the experience of feeling disconnected to your present reality? Feeling like you’re floating through your day, or the things happening around you aren’t really touching you? Like you should be having a response to something, but you just aren’t?

We all space out sometimes. The clinical term for spacing out and losing connection to your presence is dissociation. At the milder end, it looks like checking out for a moment, or highway hypnosis - reaching your destination without any real memory of the stops, turns, and driving process to get there. On the very severe end, it can include a person fractured into multiple personalities, which is called Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder).

Dissociation is a very normal experience, for the most part. Highway hypnosis does not mean you have DID, and realizing you just missed part of a conversation because you drifted off doesn’t mean you are seriously mentally ill. Dissociation can, however, give you some good information about how your present is affecting you behind the scenes.

If you find yourself spacing out every time your coworker brings up family holidays, that might be an indicator that you’ve got some parts that are struggling to face the upcoming holidays with (or without) your family. If you attend a Christmas party and find yourself just smiling and nodding with no idea what the conversation is actually about, you might have parts that can’t allow you to be fully present. This is a good opportunity to be curious about what might be happening behind the scenes in your inner world.

See if you can hold space for any parts of you that are having a hard time. You can do this by carving out time to sit in a quiet, private space and inviting your overwhelmed, stressed, and struggling parts to be present with you and let you know what they need. And that leads to the next piece of this: self-kindness.

Isn't that just self-compassion, or self-care?

Self-kindness is inherently caring, and care comes from having compassion. I use this phrase to differentiate from the usual expectation of self-care, which is often along the lines of taking a bubble bath or going for a run to relieve stress. Those things are valuable and worthwhile, but I want to focus on a different dimension of caring for oneself today. Today we are talking about a mindset of kindness toward yourself.

Take some time to check in with yourself and get a sense of what parts are struggling with the present. Give yourself the gift of time in your own presence (haha, see what I did there?). When you sit down with your anxious, overwhelmed, depressed, or spaced out parts, I want you to look inside for kindness toward them. Kindness brings an attitude of welcome for these parts, which may get pushed to the backburner more often than not. Kindness says “I welcome and embrace these parts of me.” Kindness is an offer.

In order to practice self-kindness, you must have some self-compassion. Notice how you feel toward the parts of you that check out of a painful present, or that make you feel numb. Do you feel love and appreciation? Annoyance and irritation? Do you want them to stay forever and protect you from a cruel world? Do you wish they’d go away and never come back?

See if you can find some appreciation for your numbing or dissociating parts. They are trying to help you face a hard world. And see if you can also find some compassion and gentleness for your tender, raw, and vulnerable parts. All parts of you have value. And all parts of you do best when they can feel your care for them.

Ok, so how do you do that?

What does self-kindness actually look like, if not bubble baths or running stress away? This is the fun part - you get to experiment and find out! Perhaps part of you resents having family expectations at this time of year, and just wants to enjoy the pretty lights and festive decorations. Can you take that part of you on a tour of a beautifully decorated neighborhood? Or go visit a Christmas display?

Maybe part of you wants to just go ice skating and pretend there are no holidays. Can you take that part of you to a rink, get some hot chocolate, and glide (or flop, if you’re like me) your way across the ice without scolding yourself for wanting this? 

Maybe part of you wants to Grinch out and bah-humbug every Christmas caroler who passes by. Can you wrap that part in a cozy blanket, turn on Die Hard, and find your own Christmas tradition to enjoy?

Self-kindness is a practice. You build it by learning to listen to your own wants and needs, and giving yourself permission to follow them. So if you want to decorate, sing carols, and bake all the cookies - do it. If you want to stay home in your own quiet space and contemplate the year just past - do that. If you want to celebrate your childlike parts that love the snow, the lights, and bright wrapping paper, embrace it.

But make sure you wear oven mitts, because that’s just a good idea in general.

Happy holidays to those who celebrate, and warm thoughts to those who do not.

How Do I Get My Teen to Talk to Me?

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Recently I had a really great conversation with parents at a PTO meeting. We talked about signs of stress and anxiety in teens and how parents can help. During our conversation, some parents expressed that their teens don’t share with them when they are upset or stressed, often just giving them one-word answers when asked how their day was. So how can you help your teen when they don’t share openly about their feelings?  

Consider the setting and timing: The setting and timing can have a lot to do with your teen’s comfort level opening up. When they come home from school and they are tired from their day, they may not want to share openly about their school day and how they feel really worried about their math grade. Catching your teen at times when they can share more organically, without the pressure of direct eye contact can be helpful. Driving in the car can be a great location for a conversation, when you and your teen are both focused on the road and at times may have the dark of night to create a more safe space. Going for a walk or walking the family dog with your teen can provide another setting to open up conversation. Exercise releases natural endorphins in the brain so your teen may be feeling more positive and likely to talk. Again, the conversation can feel safer and more natural as you walk and talk without constant direct eye contact.  Playing a card game or a board game together is another option. This is a strategy many therapists use with teen clients to help build rapport and spark more natural conversation as teens adjust to a counseling setting. Another setting is bedtime, tucked into their beds, away from the stress of the world. Although you may be focused on getting your teen to sleep, knowing how crucial sleep is to their health, the quiet of the night can trigger time to think and process with you.  

Ask open-ended questions: When asking questions, remember that closed questions, such as “Did you like school today?” with answers such as yes/no, can be limiting. Open-ended questions, such as “What was the best part of your day?” challenge your teen to think about their day and give an answer with more detail. It also provides an opportunity for follow up questions as your teen responds.  

Normalize tough emotions: This was a great reminder from one of the parents in the group that highlighted how sharing stories about your own struggles experienced that day can help to normalize tough emotions, especially if you suspect your teen may be struggling with something. For example, you may share that you felt stressed at work when you were trying to tackle a large to-do list. This can normalize that even adults feel stress or negative emotions. It can also provide you an opportunity to share how you manage tough emotions to cope.

Take a non-judgmental stance: If your teen finally opens up and they are met with anger, fear, or judgment, this can quickly shut them down and send a message that they can’t talk to you. It can be challenging to control your immediate response, but coming from a place of love and asking follow up questions to gain a better understanding of what your teen is sharing can keep you in the loop rather than getting shut out. You are entitled to your feelings, so take the time to breath and process when the conversation has ended, thinking about what next steps should be rather than being reactive or harsh in the moment.  

The moral of the story - if your teen wants to talk, take the time to listen, even if it is a time that does not feel convenient. Let them know you are interested and supportive and if you really can’t talk at that time, give them a specific time that you will circle back to the conversation. Being a teen is tough, and being a parent to a teen can be even more difficult between the worry and guessing game as to how your teen is doing. So be creative when finding a time and space that feels comfortable for your teen to talk. Try to be open and as non-judgmental as possible, letting your teen know you will do your best to understand and help them find solutions to their struggles. And finally, pat yourself on the back for the hard work and dedication it takes to be a parent!

Time to be SELFISH!

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“I don’t deserve to be here.” This is a common statement by teens feeling forced to attend therapy by their parents. Many people see a need for therapy as when something is going wrong or they’re struggling. I can understand why teens feel that therapy is a punishment; they have to meet a stranger and begin talking about their deepest feelings. It’s overwhelming to say the least!!

Therapy is a time to be selfish, no not the ‘me me me’ negative type of selfish we all think. Although, yes it is a time to just talk about you: how you’re feeling, how you see events, how life is affecting YOU. Many times in the world, we get told being selfish is a bad thing, but really why is taking time to focus on yourself such a bad thing?? Yes, we’ve all been taught to share our toys in kindergarten because we want to be nice, but sometimes it’s nice to not have to share everything with everyone!

Many teens don’t feel they’re allowed to be selfish and so they start shaming themselves. Therapy is (typically) that one hour/one time a week that they get to just focus on themselves. Trying to help teens break down the norm that it’s okay to focus on them and that therapy is a blessing rather than a punishment is a difficult task, but needed. Teens then have available a non-biased person to support them, not focused on anything but helping them better themselves. Helping them become the best self they can be!! In that term, why would therapy or selfishness ever be a bad thing?!?

Blog Roundup: Walking on Eggshells

By Amy Marlow-MaCoy

The holidays can be a hard time for a lot of people struggling with difficult (and narcissistic) families. Read these blog posts, guides, and tips to prepare for the next family gathering.

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20 Questions to Help You Find Clarity

When it comes to your family, yourself, your children, your parents, your partner, and your work – do you find yourself asking something along the lines of “Which way do I go?”

Do you ask yourself the same questions over and over again, feeling stumped and frustrated that you can’t seem to get past this point? Ever wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you just can’t make the call and pick a path?

Maybe it’s not so much that you can’t pick the path. Maybe you just need some help finding better questions. Finding the right question, it seems, is key to moving forward.

Let’s take a look at some clarifying questions that can help you better understand what you’re struggling with - and maybe point the way to a new direction to explore!

When You’re Too Much and Not Enough (At the Same Time)

Did you know it's possible to feel like you are not enough AND too much - all at the same time?

Too sensitive, too touchy, too emotional...and not important enough, not successful enough, not good enough. Sound familiar?

Read on about the phenomenon of being too much and not enough at the same time - and how to let go of those conflicting self-beliefs

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Why You Still Feel Small Around Your Emotionally Abusive Family

We often associate the holidays with connection, family, and love, but not all families work like this. If your holidays are joyous times spent in celebration with loved ones, that is wonderful! If your holidays are more like torture sessions punctuated by a lot of food, then this blog post below may help you out.

10 Questions to Help You Get Unstuck

Do you feel stuck and struggle to create change in your life, no matter how much you desire it?

Take a look at Amy’s guide to help you explore where you feel stuck, where you desire change, and where you feel ambivalent toward anything that shakes up the status quo.

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The Highly Sensitive Person in a Narcissistic Home

Have you ever cried while listening to a moving piece of music? Ever looked at an interesting piece of art and found yourself getting goosebumps? Or do you sometimes just know that someone is upset just by standing near them, without them needing to say a word? If this sounds familiar, you might be a Highly Sensitive Person.

In many ways, HSPs are a narcissist’s dream, and being highly sensitive in a toxic environment can leave deep wounds. Fortunately, even the most highly sensitive of HSPs can learn to gently place boundaries and practice self-care.

If you are a Highly Sensitive Person who struggles to separate your feelings from others, feels deeply selfish for tending to your own needs, or feels overwhelmed by the needs of others, take heart. Your sensitivity is not a curse, and it can be a wonderful gift. You can’t turn it off, but you can learn to care for and nurture yourself, just as you do those around you.

It Didn’t Start With You: Tracing the Roots of Narcissistic Abuse

This blog post focuses on how trauma can haunt multiple generations of a family, creating the perfect recipe for a narcissist. The good news? You don't have to continue the trend. Every day brings the opportunity to choose differently.

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(Un)Tangled: 5 Traits of Adult Children of Narcissists

This blog post focuses on the traits of narcissism displayed by Mother Gothel in Disney's Tangled. Read about 5 signs you might have been raised by a narcissist, as demonstrated by Rapunzel!

Do any of these posts resonate with you? We're less than a week away from Amy's wonderful support group for adults struggling with narcissistic and emotionally immature relationships. Sign up now!

20 Questions to Help You Find Clarity

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How many times have we seen it in movies - the main character is stuck at a crossroads and asks a question of his wise old mentor figure. (It’s usually something along the lines of “Which way do I go?”) And almost inevitably, the mentor replies “That’s the wrong question.”

Usually, the main character thinks for awhile before coming up with a new, better question, gains some clarity, and is off to the races again. Finding the right question, it seems, is key to moving forward.

Have you ever found yourself asking the same questions over and over again, feeling stumped and frustrated that you can’t seem to get past this point? Ever wondered if there’s something wrong with you because you just can’t make the call and pick a path?

Maybe it’s not so much that you can’t pick the path. Maybe you just need some help finding better questions. Let’s take a look at some clarifying questions that can help you better understand what you’re struggling with - and maybe point the way to a new direction to explore!

Questions about family

Instead of asking: Do I absolutely have to see my narcissistic family at the next holiday gathering?

Try these: What do I think might happen if I chose to attend the gathering?

What do I think might happen if I chose to stay home?

How do I want to handle it if either of these situations occur? What can I do differently this time than I have done in the past?

Questions about myself

Instead of asking: What is wrong with me that I can’t just cut off my mom?

Try these: What am I worried that I will feel if I stop talking to my mom?

What do I think will change if I remove an important relationship from my life?

What kind of relationship do I want to have with my mom, and is it possible to get any closer to that?

Questions about my kids

Instead of asking: Am I ruining my kids because I’m afraid I'm secretly a narcissist too?

Try these: Am I fostering an environment where my kids can grow, learn, and develop?

Am I open to hearing feedback from them that can develop our relationship, even if it’s not always positive?

Am I supporting my kids in exploring and developing their interests and skills so that they can become more themselves?

Questions about my partner

Instead of asking: Why doesn’t my partner understand how things are for me at the holidays?

Try these: How can I communicate clearly and effectively with my partner?

What do I need him or her to know about my feelings, wants, and needs?

What do I need from my partner to feel supported this holiday season?

Bonus: What stops me from asking my partner for what I need?

Questions about work

Instead of asking: Why can’t I get myself together at work?

Try these: What is not working for me at work?

Where am I feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or confused at work?

Who can I ask for support with this project?

Questions about my self-care

Instead of asking: When can I go on a Netflix binge to recuperate from stressful events?

Try these: What do I find upsetting or triggering about this event?

What do I need in order to feel safe, grounded, or supported?

Who can I ask when I need help?

What can I do for myself to actively soothe and care for myself?

Pick at least one question from each category and cozy up with a journal to explore your crossroads with some new questions. You never know, some of these questions might also turn up at the wonderful Walking on Eggshells workshop next weekend! There’s still a few spots left - this week will be your last chance to sign up and reserve your space. I can’t wait to see you there!

I Am Grateful for Your Faults

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In the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle’s very relatable heroine Meg travels across the universe (several times) to save her family. Despite her fears and her belief that she is deeply unprepared, Meg faces each obstacle as it comes. She suffers for her efforts, and has to come face to face with her fears in order to save the little brother she so loves.

As Meg prepares to brave the terrible danger to save little Charles Wallace, she turns to her whimsical guides for reassurance and support. One of my favorite moments is this brief exchange between Meg and her whimsical guide, Mrs. Whatsit:

“Meg, I give you your faults.”

“My faults!” Meg cried. “But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”

“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “However, I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy on Camazotz.”

Looking through a different lens

Many of the traits Meg perceived as faults turned out to be strengths in disguise. She is sensitive, smart, stubborn, and nonconformist. Her anger, and her sheer contrariness – the bane of her existence in many settings – turn out to be exactly what she needs to remain safe and strong in rescuing her father and brother. In the beginning of the story, Meg is relentlessly pressured to correct her faults. In the end, they turn out to be powerful assets.

Over the years, I have sat with many clients who feel fatally flawed, broken, or irreparably damaged because they struggle with anger, depression, anxiety, or low self-worth. So many fear that these faults they perceive mean they are ultimately unlovable, or that the abuse they suffered was truly deserved.

But here’s my big secret: What you see as faults, I see as fiercely strong protector parts dedicated to keeping you safe. In an abusive, chaotic, or otherwise unstable environment, your heart and mind will do whatever they can to help you get through. Sometimes that involves tapping into parts that society dislikes, such as angry parts, defensive parts, depressed parts, or stubborn parts.

Sometimes that even looks like developing protectors that push away the good things and people in your life. Sometimes clients sit down with parts that hate coming to therapy, that look for ways to push me away, or that will do anything to avoid looking at painful things. And you know what? 

I am grateful for those parts. 

Thank goodness for your “faults”

I am grateful for your angry protectors. I appreciate them for their fierceness and their dedication to protecting you from vulnerability. And I appreciate them for helping you stand strong in an environment that tried to knock you down.

I am grateful for your avoidant parts. You know, the ones that help you sidestep difficult conversations in order to minimize distress and tiptoe around conflict. I am grateful to them for helping you traverse the minefields. I am thankful that they can help you get to the other side just a little crispy instead of going up in a fireball.

I am grateful for your depressed and anxious parts. These are the parts that show you where the pain is.  They push you to do everything you can to control your world and reduce your pain. I am also grateful to them for letting you know it’s time to get help.

I am grateful for your stubborn parts. The ones that dig their heels in, refuse to give in, and keep you from being pushed around by people with a vested interest in controlling you. They tell you when we are approaching a tender spot in therapy. They send up a warning flag to tread lightly. I am especially grateful to them for guarding your sore spots so diligently. (Even when that means they are secretly flipping me off behind the scenes for asking questions that get too close to those sore spots.)

A gift to yourself

It would feel a bit pompous for me to gift you your faults, but I wanted to express my gratitude to the parts of you that may be unsung heroes. Yes, those parts can become overzealous and cause challenges on their own. But the fact remains that even our “faults” have value, and without them we would not be.

I am grateful for your faults, and grateful for mine.

I wish you a peaceful, relaxing, and joyful Thanksgiving.

Why You Still Feel Small Around Your Emotionally Abusive Family

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Learning the dance

When I was in middle and high school, I performed in my dance studio’s annual, original Christmas show: The Adventures of Rudolph. Although the storyline differed from the classic animated movie and song, the show was beloved by young children throughout my area. At this time of year, we would have been well into rehearsals and rapidly approaching full run-throughs of the show. Opening day would be only a few weeks away.

The process of learning and rehearsing the choreography was intense and grueling. We practiced the movements over and over, hour after hour, until they became second nature. If you played a piece of music from just about any part of the show right now, I could still tell you exactly which steps came next. The movements arethat ingrained in me even after all this time.

The reason for this was twofold. First, the constant repetition helped us build our stamina and get accustomed to the flow of the choreography. But the second, maybe more important reason, was that rehearsing the choreography repeatedly helped us develop muscle memory. Muscle memory is a phenomenon where the body learns what it needs to do so well that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing. The body remembers what comes next, and you execute the movements without conscious thought.

Ok, so what does this have to do with therapy, holidays, or narcissistic families?

The dance of family relationships

We are entering the time of year where many people spend more time than they usually would around their families of origin. The day before Thanksgiving is the biggest travel holiday of the year, and many of us will be driving or flying to spend time with family on or around the next week. This can be a wonderful, joyous time for those who have close, loving relationships with their families. For others, it is a minefield to be navigated with utmost care and caution.

One of the harder aspects of this navigation is the tendency for adult children of narcissists to fall back into old roles and patterns when they spend time around their emotionally immature parents. “I’m 35 years old!” you cry. “Why do I still feel like the 5-year-old who just got screamed at for getting mud on the floor?” Strong, confident, assertive adults can revert to anxious, withdrawn, or depressed shells of themselves in the presence of emotionally abusive loved ones. Why does this happen?

This is muscle memory of the mind: to slip back into patterns and roles so well rehearsed that they become automatic.

In a performance setting, muscle memory is a valuable skill. When the stage lights come up and you hear your musical cue, you can step on stage with confidence, and without the fear of forgetting your choreography. Drilling the choreography until you know it in your sleep lets you focus on your connection with the audience and your fellow performers. It also cuts down on stage fright, because you don’t have to think about what you’re doing – you just do it.

The steps you learned

In any family, we build relationships around learning how to interact with each other. In a loving, healthy family those interactions have built-in room for growth and change over time. Young children are more strictly supervised, taught, and attended to than older children, who earn independence as they demonstrate maturity. Teens will ideally receive more independence, as well as experiencing more natural consequences as they make choices based on their growing autonomy and self-motivation. And adult children will be given the opportunity to revisit and revise their relationship with their parents, moving from parent-child hierarchical relationships into more peer-like status.

When you grow up in a narcissistic or emotionally abusive family, roles tend to be more rigid, restrictive, and immutable. The narcissistic parent was and continues to be the epicenter of the family well of emotions. Their needs and wants will be paramount, and the child’s changing needs and wants will be secondary. These parents enforce their expectations by rewarding compliance and punishing anything that deviates from the roles they want their children to occupy. There is little or no room for growth, maturity, or renegotiation as the children grow up. Even as adults, the children of these families may experience significant subtle or overt pressure to always remain “the child” rather than ever becoming a peer.

Narcissistic parents miss out on a great deal by trying to keep their children in a role they have outgrown. Unfortunately, their driving concern is to meet their own needs first and foremost. An adult child may rebel against their role as family scapegoat, invisible child, or even golden child. When this happens,  the parent will try to pressure the adult child back into their expected place. Resistance is not futile, but it is hard.

Learning new steps is hard

It can be terribly frustrating to go on autopilot and join in a dance you no longer want to be a part of. No matter how much you want to change, you can still get sucked into the old patterns and cycles. Falling into those old cycles can also trigger self-critical parts to take potshots at you. This can add to your overall sense of shame and failure.

Instead of hating on your autopilot/muscle memory parts, consider this: those parts of you that fall back into the old familiar roles are not doing it to stunt your growth. They’re doing it because you know this role very, very well – and when you know a role so well you could do it in your sleep, there is much less chance of making a mistake in front of a watchful audience.

Muscle memory is a powerful thing. Mental muscle memory may be even more powerful, because the cues that trigger our performance can be so subtle that we don’t even notice them happening. Or, if we do notice them, it can be hard to stop ourselves responding to them. It can feel scary, lonely, or simply flat-out wrong to intentionally miss your cue – especially when you know the choreographer is watching in the wings, waiting to address any mistakes.

Muscle memory kept you safe(r)

If you played the music from Rudolph right now, but asked me to do different choreography, I would struggle for awhile. My body still remembers the steps and performance quality for each role, and that’s just from intensive rehearsals for a few months at a time over a period of six years. How much stronger must the muscle memory of 20 years of fulfilling a role be? 30 years?

So be kind and gracious with yourself if you find yourself falling back into the familiar steps. Noticing your participation is a good starting point to begin questioning whether these are steps you want to continue dancing. Your muscle memory parts are very good at their jobs because they have had to be. Don’t underestimate the power and value of self-preservation in an emotionally abusive or toxic environment.

Curtain call

If you fall into old patterns, be kind to yourself. Be curious and compassionate with your muscle memory parts: What feels important about playing this role? What feels scary about missing a cue? And how has performing the memorized choreography helped you in the past?

Sometimes our muscle memory parts don’t know that time has passed. They don’t know we’re no longer the nervous kid waiting in the wings with costume and makeup ready. These parts have done a hard job (and done it well) for a long time, and as far as they know nothing has changed. The music, the costumes, the lighting – it all looks the same. So you may need a gentle reminder to yourself about what has changed.

Perhaps those parts will find some relief in hanging up their pointe shoes and wiping off the stage makeup. Perhaps they will have some grief about making those changes. Whatever responses you have, give yourself room to feel them all. And give your muscle memory parts a round of applause as they take a bow. After all, they’ve done a hard piece of work so that you didn’t have to consciously think about doing it. Bravo!

You are not alone

If your holidays are more commonly marked with a grimace than actual cheer, you’re not alone. Contact me today to sign up for the Walking on Eggshells workshop, where you will have space to explore your muscle memory parts and learn some new choreography in a supportive community.

Space is limited, so don’t miss your chance to participate in this wonderful workshop. Reach out today! Now is your time.