Tell Me, How Do I Feel?

Warning: this post contains possible triggers for survivors of emotional & psychological abuse.

For my entire life, I have had my feelings questioned, mocked, and dictated to me by the ones who were supposed to love me the most. The message I’ve received is that my feelings are wrong, invalid, merely a tool of manipulation, and/or I am not entitled to them at all. Furthermore, others are more entitled to their opinions about my feelings and why I am experiencing them. I now know that is not true, and I am working to repair the damage it has caused, as it has affected every aspect of my life.

Narcissists love to share their expertise on everything, especially when it comes to other people’s emotions. After all, they are experts on…well, just about everything if you ask them, but particularly feelings. (Obviously.) They won’t hesitate to let anyone know what they think of their emotions (and opinions for that matter), which is that they are unforgivably wrong if they are not in total alignment with that of the narcissist. Why? In my view, there are a few reasons.

1. The Narcissist is Always Right

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Because the narcissist is always right in their mind, if someone has a negative reaction to their behavior, that person must be wrong. For example, my first memory is being berated by my father from the driver’s seat of the car as I sat defenselessly in the backseat. He was screaming at me about how stupid I was. I have no idea what I could have possibly done to deserve that degree of a verbal tirade at such a young age, as I couldn’t have been much older than about three years. (But then again, I rarely knew what I was getting in trouble for with him. He was very volatile and anything could set him off.)

I remember saying, “I’m not stupid,” over and over again as I sobbed. I remember watching my mom through tear soaked eyes as she sat in the passenger seat doing nothing to stop it, wondering why she wouldn’t defend me (she must have agreed with him), which turned out to be a theme throughout my life. Then I got in even more trouble for “arguing” with him and he threatened to “give me something to cry about” (that was a favorite of his) because, in his mind, his abuse of me was completely warranted due to whatever minor infraction I had just committed. I remember him twisting the situation and actually managing to become the victim of a toddler by accusing me of trying to manipulate him by crying (another of his greatest hits).

A couple of days ago, my soon-to-be ex did the same thing to me. Here’s the extremely abridged story. We started arguing. The topic and reason don’t matter because the outcome was the same as it always is. There was no resolution because he cannot communicate constructively, and resorts to abuse to “win” any argument. When I reacted to his belittling of my emotions, he became exceptionally condescending, said some more incredibly hurtful things dressed up as his opinions to which he is entitled (of course), and then told me my feelings about it were ridiculous. I told him I felt like I was about to cry in a foolish attempt to communicate my pain to him, and his response was, “of course you are! That’s your go-to!” (Smacks of accusing me of trying to manipulate him with my tears, doesn’t it? I was trying to get him to understand that he was hurting me and to stop being abusive toward me, so we could talk rationally. If that’s manipulation, so be it.) When I tried explaining that I was legitimately hurt by what he said, he went into stonewall mode and told me to leave him alone; thereby, successfully (in his mind) becoming my victim because he didn’t want to talk about it anymore, and I was trying to make him do something against his will. He knew he couldn’t “win” the argument, so he shut me down with insults and wouldn’t let me speak, because he thinks whomever has the last word automatically wins. The whole thing is fairly despicable and 100% pathetic when you stop to think about it.

Playing the victim is an excellent way to shift blame and continue being right. Moreover, it is key to maintaining the narcissist’s facade. When the target reacts to the abuse naturally, they will minimize their own actions and dismiss the other person’s feelings, because if they acknowledge their behavior as the cause, they can no longer be right. Additionally, this requires them to turn the situation around and paint the target as the aggressor or abuser. To that end, the narcissist will use any of the other abusive tactics they have in their arsenal to manipulate their target, control other people’s perception of that person, and portray themselves as the victim.

2. You Are Their Projector Screen

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Compounded by their inability to see people for who they genuinely are, and their unbelievable lack of empathy for others, narcissists are masters of projection. They project their own traits, behaviors, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings onto their targets, while mimicking that person’s positive characteristics. They essentially have two selves: a false self and a true self. The false self is a facade they project outwardly for others to see and to protect their true selves. It is mainly comprised of an idealized, grandiose version of themselves, combined with some of their target’s most admirable attributes, and it masks their true self, which has been critically damaged. Since their primary goal is preserving their false self, they use projection as a way to free themselves of their undesirable personality traits and transfer them to the target by accusing them of doing the very things the narcissist is guilty of doing. Oh, the hypocrisy!

For the narcissist, projection has the happy side effect of gaslighting. Projecting inaccurate character flaws onto the target, or telling them how they feel, for instance, is effectively gaslighting them. Take this example from my childhood. Not surprisingly, my father was not the most patient person. Some of my earliest memories are of being screamed at to hurry when getting ready to leave the house to go somewhere before I was even school aged. Then my father would become enraged and accuse me of purposefully going slower just because he wanted me to go faster. He would proclaim that it proved how stupid I must be, because I was obviously trying to make him angry. Please believe me, I promise I was not doing it on purpose because, contrary to his projection, I was not stupid. If I was, indeed, going slower, it was probably because there was a maniac standing over me screaming the whole time I tried to get ready, and I was a terrified little kid. I’ve also never gotten my jollies by intentionally fucking with another human being, so that had to be some kind of projection, too. I did everything within my teeny-tiny power to avoid his wrath at all times.

To give a more recent example from a different type of relationship, during our latest argument, my soon-to-be ex was literally jumping up and down like a toddler in front of me while calling me immature. As a matter of fact, projecting his immaturity on to me is a common defense mechanism. On many occasions in the past, he has used gaslighting, condescension, infantilizing, lying, and denial against me during arguments, and then when I inevitably became upset, he would suddenly be done with it, and I was the immature one for wanting to talk about my feelings. So, in other words, he thinks it’s acceptable to insult someone, but if they want to talk about how it made them feel, they are unreasonable and immature. Sorry, pal, but that’s not going to work anymore.

3. Gaslighting is Fun, Mental, and Fundamental

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Dictating the emotions of others allows the narcissistic abuser to utilize their go-to abuse tactic: Gaslighting. For a narcissist, nothing is more enjoyable than talking in circles around their target, spinning their head by twisting their words, then interrupting them so they can’t explain themselves, and telling them what they actually meant, what they really think, and how they feel. They will even say things like, “I know you better than you know yourself,” in an attempt to convince their targets that their perception of themselves is incorrect. As a result, the target becomes too dizzy with confusion to defend themselves anymore.

However, it’s not all fun and games. A crucial function is also served. Constantly telling someone what they think, how they feel, what they’re feeling is wrong, or that they’re overreacting, erodes their perception, self-confidence, and sense of self. Over time, this causes the target to question everything, including their own sanity, not only giving the narcissist instant gratification, but priming the target to become an ongoing source of narcissistic supply as well. Simply put, narcissists (and other abusers) have to break their targets down because healthy people don’t allow themselves to be abused.

Aside from making the target feel crazy because their emotions are always being challenged and invalidated, it can also make them appear that way to others, which offers the narcissist a certain amount of protection in the form of credibility. Other people in their lives will begin to side with the abuser, as they witness the decline in the target’s mental state. Consequently, the lies the narcissist tells about the target will ring true. This aids them in isolating the target from anyone who might help or be of support to them. Now when they say, “you need help,” there will be a chorus of flying monkeys to back them up. As a parent, it’s even easier for the narcissistic abuser to manipulate other family members, friends, teachers, counselors, etc. into believing the child is the problem, and they are a loving parent trying to do what is best for them. In a romantic relationship, the narcissist might start by dropping hints to mutual friends about their partner’s “strange” behavior, irritability, or overreactions; probably playing it off as concern, so those people will be less likely to believe the target if they try to ask for help.

Putting It All Together

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Once I awakened to the reality that I was the victim of narcissistic abuse, I began the long and enduring process of putting together the pieces of my life puzzle. Suddenly, so much of it made sense and I started remembering things I had forgotten long ago, which surprised me because I remembered more of my childhood than most people seem to already. I actually have kind of a scary memory, so when other incidents came flooding back, it was considerably traumatic for me. I wasn’t prepared for the memories to get worse, and sometimes I thought I couldn’t handle it.

It is very nearly impossible for those who have not gone through it to understand narcissistic abuse and the severity of its effects on survivors. And other family members are almost certainly too entrenched in their own role in the narcissistic family dynamic to see it for what it is. If you suddenly find yourself realizing you have been the victim of this kind of abuse, please know that you are not alone, and it is/was not your fault. You were never the problem; your abuser is and was. You are worthy of love, and you are way more than enough. Educate and empower yourself. With knowledge comes understanding; with understanding comes hope.

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Personal note: It’s been a little while! I had an awesome visit with my sister and family in New York! My nephew is doing better than expected, so I won’t give up hope that he’ll beat the odds! I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know my nephew and nieces as young adults! They are exceptionally cool humans. I can’t wait to go back this Summer! I’m back home now, though. So much has happened in the last few weeks, and I’ve been doing a lot of writing, but nothing else I can share as of yet. Sometimes it takes a bit for it to coalesce into something coherent and cohesive.

Believe it or not, I’m still working on my comprehensive article on 20+ abuse tactics employed by narcissists and others with Cluster B personality disorders. It’s been more difficult than I initially imagined it would be, and I keep having to put it on the back burner in favor of paying gigs. However, I am confident it will be a helpful resource to other survivors when complete. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or if you just need someone to talk to. 🙂

Handling Sex Daggers and Other Intrusive Energy as a Highly Sensitive Person

Warning: This post is long, deals with mature topics of a sexual nature, contains a little swearing, and may also be a potential trigger for some abuse survivors. Additionally, it was written from the perspective of a cisgender, heterosexual woman relating to cisgender, heterosexual men. I apologize in advance for my inability to be more inclusive on this particular subject. Please feel free to contact me if you have suggestions on how to correct any inadvertent cissexist language.

You know the feeling. You’re being watched. You know someone’s eyes are on you because you can literally feel them. Everyone has had this experience at some point.

The eyes are central to communication. They give us important cues about other people’s intentions and emotions. And, as it turns out, human brains are hard-wired to actually detect another person’s gaze. Studies have recorded that certain brain cells fire when someone looks directly at you (even if you cannot see the person).

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In addition, our eyes have evolved to have a much greater contrast between the sclera (the white part) and the iris (the colored part), which makes it easier to tell where a person is looking. It also makes our eyes much more expressive. Such features would be a disadvantage in many other species, most notably in predators. However, human survival relies on cooperation and communication; therefore, it is to our advantage to communicate certain things to others through our eyes. Simply put, sometimes you can convey more information with just one look than you can with your entire vocabulary.

Knowing someone is looking at you gives you the opportunity to determine their intentions towards you. Are they friendly? Are they dangerous? Do they want to take what you have? Do they want to share what they have? Are they “throwing sex daggers out of their eyes” at you? (Gratuitous Gilmore Girls reference)

If you are a woman, chances are you are even more attuned to other people’s gazes. After all, we have a lot more to figure out, specifically if the gaze is coming from a man who might be sexually interested in us.

First, let’s assume you are also attracted to said man, he isn’t giving you any weird or creepy vibes so his attention is welcomed, and you lock eyes. What happens next? To get a little science-y on you for a minute, it sets off a chain of chemical reactions in your brain. You can’t control this. Before you even have time to form a conscious thought, your brain has sized the other person up and basically decided if they are a biologically viable candidate for you to…well, mate with. But I digress. This could become another article altogether. Let’s just say, “it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship,” and leave it that, at least for now.

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What happens if you are not attracted to the person gazing upon you? Hopefully nothing. You take notice, maybe even feel a little flattered (you’ve still got “it”), and you both move on with your lives. No harm, no foul.

But, what if the gaze makes you uneasy? What does it mean when you feel violated simply because of the way a man is looking at you? To be blunt, it’s probably because his thoughts are sexually aggressive and he’s “throwing sex daggers” at you with his eyes.

Can someone you are mutually attracted to throw them at you? Sure. Being attracted to someone does not automatically exempt them from being a predator. (Wouldn’t that make dating, and life in general, a whole hell of a lot easier, though?) If you’re actually attracted to a predator, you are more likely to ignore or explain away your discomfort to your own detriment.

The word “daggers” implies, at the very least, that the man wielding them is penetrating you with his eyes, so to speak. And he’s probably not having a “run-of-the-mill” fantasy about you either. More than likely, he is imagining dominating you.

“Sex daggers” are not to be confused with “fuck me eyes” which tell someone they can “have you” if they want you, and can be achieved by both men and women. When you gaze back into them, they are not sexually aggressive or threatening in any way, and they definitely do not appear to have thoughts of domination behind them. If anything, they signal a sort of submission to you. They are meant to say, “take me, I’m yours” (or something). “Sex daggers” (the way I’m talking about) are strictly thrown by male predators, and it’s imperative to remember that not all men do this. If a man makes you feel violated solely by the way he looks at you, listen to your instincts. They are there to protect you. (I am learning to take my own advice, but more on that in a bit.) This is where it can become complicated and confusing if you are like me, even more so when you are also a highly sensitive person. (I’ll touch on the complications later.)

What does it mean to be a “highly sensitive person” (or HSP)?

According to Dr. Elaine Aron, “the highly sensitive person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.

But the key quality is that, compared to the 80% without the trait, they process everything around them much more—reflect on it, elaborate on it, make associations. When this processing is not fully conscious, it surfaces as intuition. This represents a survival strategy found in a [sic] many species, always in a minority of its members.”

If you are the kind of person who likes self-tests, you can take this one (and probably others) to find out if you might be (online tests are not conclusive) a highly sensitive person, but my guess is you already know if you are. 😉 (My total was 19 in case you’re wondering.)

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Some who are considered highly sensitive also identify as “empaths” or “empathic” and tend to be “tuned in” to the emotions of those around them. When they say they can “feel your pain,” they really mean it. These are the people who tend to go out of their way to make others more comfortable. I am this way, and I don’t mind admitting that it’s a little self serving. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable either, but let’s be real for a minute. If you’re uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable. I’m going to do my best to alleviate the discomfort for us both.

If you feel like we’ve suddenly entered “hooey” or “supernatural” territory, I assure you we have not. Everything discussed so far can be explained scientifically. All animals rely on instinct for survival and, I hate to break it to you, but Bloodhound Gang was right: “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals.” We can’t escape biology.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on this, but I understand it well enough to feel confident saying that anything people tend to view as “intuition” or even “psychic ability” can likely be chalked up to firing brain cells and chemical reactions all going on undetected, (as well as other things I don’t understand well enough to try to explain, but you can google it if you’re bored later), and probably a host of other things we have yet to discover and make sense of. All I can say is, nothing that occurs naturally should be considered supernatural or unnatural.

What makes someone an HSP?

Again, I am not an expert. I’m merely someone with an intense interest in understanding pretty much everything (including myself), and a compulsion to gain as much knowledge on any given subject as my brain can hold. (Evidently, some of it is stickier.) I’m pretty sure this is where a “nature versus nurture” debate could begin, but that’s yet another article.

I can tell you what I believe the contributing factors were in my case. Aside from perhaps having a personality that is conducive to hyper sensitivity and empathy, I was conditioned to be this way from birth due to narcissistic and other forms of abuse. It is a survival mechanism.

You may have learned that 7% of communication is verbal, while the other 93% is made up of vocal variety (tone of voice) and nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and even things you can’t consciously detect, like pheromones. I don’t necessarily put much weight behind the percentages because I think it’s nearly impossible to measure such things accurately. Improvable statistics aside, however, let’s look at it logically. Is it easy to lie with words? Generally, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Is it easy to control your body language? Not so much for most people. This is probably because the majority of it goes on “behind the scenes” so we don’t even realize what we’re doing. I pay more attention to people’s actions than their words for this reason. For example, when someone tells you they don’t mean to hurt you, yet they keep doing things they know are painful to you, they are lying. Believe their behavior, not their words.

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When you grow up in an abusive environment, particularly if you have a decidedly volatile authority figure, it is in your best interest to learn that person and assess their mood based on their demeanor as quickly as possible to keep yourself safe. When you never know what will set them off, you have to get good at figuring out their moods, and more importantly, their mood swings. If they are already in a bad mood, you avoid them because they will take it out on you. Unfortunately, you can’t always prevent it, though. Some severely toxic people will quite literally be fine one moment, then a raving lunatic the next, for no apparent reason. It is due to their own warped perception and disordered thinking, which is a serious oversimplification, but you get the idea. Circumstances like these programmed me to evaluate other people’s moods within seconds and adjust my behavior accordingly.

Another contribution to my high sensitivity, specifically in regards to sexual energy, is having been sexualized at a very young age. I am not in a place where I’m ready to publicly write about this in depth, but here is what I’m comfortable saying for now. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t acutely aware of my own sexuality and the “power” it possessed. In fact, I was conditioned to believe that was the only thing even remotely “special” about me before I ever hit kindergarten. I was raised on the belief that women are secondary to men, irrational, quite often stupid, and really only good for one thing. Further, if someone “couldn’t resist” me, it was my own fault for being too sexual. (Small children don’t sexualize themselves. Adults do that to them.) I think you probably get enough of the gist without requiring any more details.

Why does everything have to be so complicated?

Remember a long time ago, when I said I would explain the complications for people like me later? You finally made it to later. Because of my childhood, as well as sexual assaults and a rape during my teens and early adulthood, I am much more sensitive to other people’s sexual energy if it is directed at me in particular. It’s probably supposed to protect me. Unfortunately, it all feels like a violation. Even if it’s a totally innocent, involuntary chemical reaction. And it doesn’t even matter if I find the man attractive either. I could be totally digging his treats, but if I get the impression he’s thinking about how I fuck, I’m out. I can’t deal. I don’t want to feel objectified in any way, by anyone, even if I like the person. I know this is not a healthy reaction to have to a healthy sexual interest, though, so I’ve been working through it.

Here’s a little confession I hadn’t told anyone until recently: I’ve never seen another human being and thought, “break me off a piece of that” (or whatever people think when they find someone attractive). In other words, the mere sight of someone has never triggered me to have a sexual thought or even just a feeling. (From what I understand, most people experience this naturally due to the rush of chemicals that occurs when they see someone they like. And now I sound like a total alien, but oh well.) I have the same response to every attractive person I see, regardless of gender. I think some variation of, “now that’s a symmetrical face,” or “wow, isn’t he aesthetically pleasing?” Yeah, I’m just that much of a nerd I guess. Of course, that’s not to say that I’ve never experienced sexual attraction for someone before, but I’ve never experienced it first. The other person has to show an interest in me to begin with…to get my neurons firing or something? (Still not an expert.)

Plus, because of my past experiences, I have a lot of trouble trusting men. Sorry, fellas. Logically, I know you’re not all bad, but I guess I feel safer assuming you are, if I don’t know you. I’m working on that, too, along with everything else.

What’s my point? I am constantly at war with what I’m perceiving and what I think about myself. So, when I get the feeling someone is into me, I automatically talk myself out of it for all of the reasons laid out above. Additionally, narcissistic abuse causes you to second guess yourself on everything. With gaslighting as its backbone, it manufactures self-doubt in its victims. It makes you believe your memory is wrong or that you’re overreacting. When this is a constant in your life from day one, it takes an unimaginable amount of strength and tenacity to rewire the circuitry of your brain, if you can even recognize the necessity for it in the first place. Then there’s the tiny matter of always being excruciatingly uncomfortable with any kind of attention (you don’t want attention from narcissists), but especially that kind. All of this makes determining a man’s intentions towards me almost impossible, and that combined with everything else is why I can’t bring myself to trust them. See? I’ve done a lot of work so far, but there’s so much more ahead of me. It’s daunting to think about it all, so I have to take it one step at a time.

This brings me to the same conclusion my last article did. It is crucial for me to be single and focused on healing myself for a long while. I don’t just have baggage. I have a complete set of beat-up, mismatched luggage that carries way more than you would think… No. Scratch that. I don’t have luggage. I have an entire bag of holding.

I, like everyone else, am a work in progress. I just happen to have been saddled with a lot more work than most. Though it is mind-numbingly frightening at times, I am genuinely grateful for this journey. I don’t know where it will lead me yet, but by the time I get there, my bag of holding will be full of invaluable lessons learned and tools I can use to help others transform their lives for the better.