If you’ve experienced emotional abuse, you will know how it erodes your sense of self and your trust in your own judgment. When the abuse comes from a parent— someone who our culture dictates should always “have your back” — it can be devastating.
It has taken me years, a global pandemic and eight months of no contact to gain some clarity and start working through it all. Here are a few hard-won truths I’ve learned along the way.
Abuse can be subtle
My mother was far from perfect when I was growing up, but the corrosive treatment really started when I was an adult. Seeing me happy and starting a family of my own triggered her own unresolved issues, and it was like having the rug pulled out from underneath me.
The abuse was often subtle to begin with, which made it harder to make sense of. It wasn’t the trauma of growing up with an alcoholic, say, or suffering physical or sexual harm, but it was still abuse: a slow process of attrition which took place over several years.
Abuse is not your fault, ever
The more my life grew, the worse the treatment became. My mother was particularly toxic around my wedding — narcissists loathe seeing other people receiving the attention they crave — and when I was pregnant with my second child soon afterwards, I was made to feel like a worthless inconvenience. She refused to take any interest in me or my son, but still wanted to “play grannies” with my older daughter when it suited her.
All the while her attacks on my emotional health continued. In her own words, she had suffered, and now it was my turn (hello, internalized patriarchal oppression!).
I was sad and confused, but mostly too tired and overwhelmed with the demands of early motherhood to stand up for myself. I didn’t know much about narcissistic abuse then, and couldn’t understand why my own mother was more interested in trying to tear me down than in getting to know her own grandson, during one of the most vulnerable seasons of my life when I just needed love.
Silencing is abuse
My attempts at honest communication were met with denial, belittlement and rage. I was cut off from any of the emotional, practical and financial support that my sister’s compliance was rewarded with, and berated for being greedy, oversensitive and unable to stand on my own two feet if I dared to mention any of it.
I either towed the line and acted like nothing was wrong, or she would disappear from me and my daughter’s life for months at a time and badmouth me to relatives. I learned later that all these are silencing and withholding tactics used to keep give the abuser an upper hand in controlling the situation.
I felt angry, isolated and physically drained, all of which took its toll on my well-being, my marriage and my ability to mother my own children. But I thought I had no choice but to accept things as they were. If anyone else had treated me this way, I would have had no problem walking away from them — but she was my mum… right?
Your feelings are valid. No one can tell you how you experienced something
Desperate to heal the relationship, I still tried to communicate. I suggested mediation and begged my mother to seek support for her mental health; both were flat refused. A narcissist would much rather hide behind lies than do the difficult work of facing themselves.
Finally, after years of cyclic abuse, in a classic DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) maneuver, my mother accused me of not letting her see the children. The reality was the complete opposite, but it didn’t matter: a false narrative had already been created and was being broadcast around my family. I learned the hard way that if a narcissist’s ego is threatened by the truth, they will just make up something else which suits their agenda.
Listen to your body’s wisdom
To be gaslit over something so raw and emotional was horrible — exactly as it was intended to be. After years of ignoring my emotions, I ended up in the hospital with serious stress-related digestive problems.
While I was on a drip in hospital, my mother sent a text message to my husband which was intended for my sister (narcissists often enlist an enabler), saying how I was provoking her and asking her to call so they could discuss how to “deal with” me. I was desperately hurt, once again — but it was the final straw.
Anger as self love
After a lifetime of being conditioned to think of anger as negative, somehow unfeminine, and something I should be able to let go of, I finally started honoring my anger and setting boundaries. I learned that my anger was a form of self-love and protection, alerting me to the fact that the situation was no longer safe or tolerable. It was my body’s way of telling me that action was sorely needed.
You are not alone
I couldn’t afford an expensive course of therapy, so I read as much as I could. It was a relief to understand that I wasn’t alone. I had been subjected to the classic hallmarks of narcissistic abuse: gaslighting, lies, silencing, stonewalling, steamrolling of boundaries, manipulative use of money, favoritism, and smear campaigns.
I wasn’t mad, or making it up. There was a whole language to describe exactly what I had been through, and a wealth of supportive resources out there waiting to be discovered.
You have the right to walk away from toxic relationships
Covert narcissists feed off your reactions, despair, and hurt feelings. They will never apologize or take responsibility for their actions and are highly skilled in always painting themselves as the victim. After years of hurt and confusion, I finally gave up wishing things were different and did the only thing left available to me: I went “no contact.”
Estrangement is a last resort, especially during a pandemic — but it’s better than living with toxic abuse. In the end it wasn’t really even a choice; my emotional and physical body simply couldn’t take it any more.
There is no excuse for abuse
I’m still in the woods, and not sure what the future holds. But cutting ties has given me the space to start healing for now. Some things will always just hurt, but I feel stronger and more centered, happier, and have more creative energy than ever.
I feel sad knowing how all this stems from my mother’s own wounds and untreated mental health issues, and I’m sorry that her life and the world have made her this way. But while these things are all cause for compassion, they are no excuse for abuse.
I will always love my mum, but I owe it to myself and my children to break a destructive cycle which spans generations, and to choose truth and self love instead.
You do your work; they do theirs.
Gentleness is the only way through
I hope that if any of this resonates with you, you will know that you are not to blame and that you do have options. If you can’t access therapy right now (I plan to in the near future), I suggest that you:
- Read all the good quality literature on the subject you can get your hands on.
- Talk to someone you trust.
- Establish safe boundaries. You do not owe it to anyone to put up with emotional abuse.
- Make time for things which relax you and help your emotions move. For me these are yoga, running/walking, writing, spending time in nature and taking naps!
- Be excessively gentle with yourself. You have been through a traumatic experience and healing takes time.
This is brave, important work. There is power in speaking your truth and treating yourself as a priority so that you may be best aligned to be happy, healthy and of service to others and to our world in this time of great change.
The world doesn’t need you silent and stunted. You deserve to grow to your full potential and live life on your own terms.
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