What coping strategies do you fall back on when life is hard?
One of the important truths that survivors of narcissistic abuse always seem to underestimate is the degree to which they have been stretched to the very limit over a long period of time. Inevitably, that leaves a person drained and overthinking. Plus, it likely gets in the way of them taking a very necessary step back to reflect on their own coping strategies.
As a survivor of narcissistic abuse, you have had extensive experience of life being hard – most likely from a very young age. In order to survive, you were forced to acquire a lot of coping strategies.
Especially when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place early on, as so many of us did, you don’t have the luxury of the time or space to reflect on your coping strategies. All you can do is get on with getting through difficulties as best you can at the time.
Over the years, the challenge of battling singlehanded with abuse became your norm. So, you kept on employing and normalising your coping strategies. Today, we need to explore how those coping strategies might be affecting you now.
But before I talk about your likely coping strategies, I’ll admit to one of my own.
My pesky coping strategy
There haven’t been too many newsletters from me over the past year because one of my coping strategies is shutting down when things get tough – and things have been monstrously tough. My first line of defense is always to resort to the great British Stiff Upper Lip for as long as possible and just keep going.
That works quite well… until it doesn’t.
However, I only know for sure that it isn’t working anymore when I turn into this desperate person on a sinking ship who jettisons everything she possibly can in the attempt to stay afloat.
I learned the technique of shutting down and jettisoning most everything in order to stay afloat early in life – because it became clear that nobody in my family was ever going to support me.
It was that kind of family.
The ethos of the family, as set by my narcissistic father, was competitive rather than compassionate. There was never enough attention or approval to go around – still less love. So, if you wanted what there was, you would have to fight for it. But you had to have the temperament to fight dirty for it.
I didn’t have that temperament.
Instead, I became overly self-reliant and shut down. That enabled me to survive.
However, it did not set me up to thrive, at all.
The big problem with coping strategies
The big problem with coping strategies is that they enable us to get by. Just. But they don’t empower us to blossom into our full authentic self.
Still, getting by is an essential prerequisite for thriving. So, you need to be grateful to that younger self who found a way to keep herself – and you – from going under.
And you need to move beyond that position.
How do you do that?
By becoming aware of your normalised – and therefore unnoticed – coping strategies . (I’ll admit, I’m still becoming aware of the full extent of my shutting down strategy and how it has impacted my whole life.) You can’t change what you don’t recognize. It can take a while to eradicate every last manifestation of coping strategies. But every manifestation that you can liberate yourself from will help improve your quality of life.
The dreaded coping strategy employed by all survivors of narcissistic abuse
Perhaps the most prevalent coping strategy of all of us survivors of narcissistic abuse that really blights our quality of life is self-blame and self shame.
When you grow up in an environment where kindness and compassion are conspicuous only by their absence, blame and shame become the order of the day. Abusive people, especially abusive loved ones, use blame and shame both to motivate you and to demotivate you to the point of paralysis.
Now, I accept that this may sound like a crazily self-contradictory statement. But just think about it for a moment.
Abusers use blame and shame to motivate you to work harder at doing whatever it takes to earn their – unattainable – love and approval. But equally, they use blame and shame to discourage and prevent you from ever achieving, in your own right, anything that would detract from their power and control over you.
Naturally, they normalize their behavior through constant repetition.
So what do you learn about blame and shame?
Being in a narcissistic environment compels you to learn two key things about blame and shame:
- Blame and shame are the most effective tools to keep you on the straight and narrow.
- That you lack the wherewithal to ever do, be or have whatever it is that most matters to you.
The normalization of blame and shame teaches you to use the blame and shame method of motivation & demotivation – on yourself.
Of course, you would never apply that method to other people because you are smart and empathic enough to know that it would hurt rather than help them.
But when it comes to you…
You automatically fall back on that old coping strategy. You flip into Old Testament mode, lest you spare the proverbial rod and spoil your… claim to be a decent human being.
How well has it worked for you so far?
Drawing on my own personal experience and the experience of the thousands of women I have worked with over the years, I would argue that it works extraordinarily well… but only to keep you feeling incredible ill at ease in your own skin.
The effects of blame and shame on your life
The Blame and Shame Strategy compels you to see yourself as some kind of emotional outcast. That is no way to go about acquiring the love and sense of belonging that you seek.
Far better to spoil the rod of self-blame and self shame and spare your wounded inner child.
Nobody should have to carry other people’s toxic projections on their shoulders throughout their life.
And that is only one more or less universal copying strategy.
Another almost universal coping strategy
The other almost universal coping strategy that I would urge you to look out for in your own life is giving up on yourself.
Often that translates into expressions like these two old faithfuls:
“I’m broken” and
“it’s too late for me. I can never….”
But it doesn’t stop there.
So many of us have suffered with suicidal ideation because we didn’t see that we could ever put the pieces of our broken selves back together. Some survivors of abuse have ended up killing themselves, some have made one or more attempts.
Mostly because we were taught to give up on ourselves. Because we lived in such a bleak, comfortless world that the thought of no longer being a part of it felt like the the only possible comfort.
We were never taught that we could be held – emotionally – through that despair by someone’s care.
Still less did we ever learn to hold ourselves emotionally.
Two different approaches to despair
My own experience, both personal and professional, points to the huge difference between sinking into those feelings of despair and isolation and bearing witness to ourselves and holding ourselves emotionally.
Every coping strategy that we learned in our abusive environment was about battening down the hatches and “getting on with It” – whatever “it” was. We were not taught to validate and care about our own feelings.
We were not taught to listen to our own distress.
There is a world of difference between silencing your distress and listening to it. Silencing your distress is a coping mechanism that works, after a fashion, until that distress bursts its banks and washes over you, more or less submerging you.
Bearing witness to your distress is a very different way of responding. For obvious reasons, most of us don’t want to sit down and bear witness to our distress, for as long we can just stay a couple of steps ahead of it.
So, we tend to keep going until that despair submerges us. But that can be the point at which we finally decide to hold ourselves emotionally.
How do you bear witness to your own despair?
You bear witness to your own distress by listening to yourself. And by talking to yourself with the same compassion that you would to a dear friend.
How not to talk to yourself
Just because you are talking to yourself inside your own head that does not give you a licence to be vile to yourself.
You would walk through fire not to be vile to someone who needed your support.
Some of the things that you would definitely not say include:
- “It’s not that bad.”
- “Pull yourself together. Other people have it worse.”
- “You’re pathetic.”
- “You should be able to cope better than that.”
- “Everybody else can cope.”
- “You only have these problems because there is something wrong with you.”
- “You’re cursed”.
- “You only have yourself to blame.”
- “You’re unlovable.”
- “It’s all your fault.”
- “Let’s face it, it’s never going to get any better.”
- “That’s your life over.”
- “You will be alone and unloved for the rest of your days.”
- “What’s wrong with you?”
You would never say any of that to anyone that you cared about because you know just how evil and hurtful it would be for them.
So, isn’t it time that you stopped using those old Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child techniques on yourself?
Your internal dialogue matters
Bearing witness to yourself and speaking nicely to yourself won’t magically transform your life, in 5 minutes.
But it will start to transform your internal dialogue and the way that you feel about yourself, the world and your future.
If that idea makes sense but you don’t feel able to do that on your own, then set up a Breakthrough Session. There are ways in which I can help you at a deeper level than is possible in a newsletter.
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.
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