Saturday, August 30, 2014

Are Victims Inherently Narcissistic?

The question this posts asks leaves me a bit queasy.  Is it possible that victimhood and narcissism are related?  The victim advocate in me riles at the suggestion and yet the victim in me sees it as a distinct possibility, particularly if one becomes stuck in victimhood.  The perspective of a victim is necessarily self-centered, and there is absolutely no shame or judgment that is appropriate for that self-centeredness.  An individual who has suffered relational trauma through betrayal, abandonment or rejection is certainly and rightfully a victim.  And as a victim, she deserves the time and space to process what happened to her.  Indeed most individuals who have experienced relational trauma probably have a long history of not being self-centered enough.

But I'm wondering if it is possible for legitimate victimhood to become chronic and to move the impacted individual into more of a narcissistic state?  When I first began attending S-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and family members of a sexually addicted individual, I was initially repulsed by the idea that I could bear any responsibility in the relational trauma I had just experienced.  And I still believe that the language in some of the conference-approved literature needs to be updated to reflect the partner's experience through a trauma lens rather than that of co-addiction.  But as I am processing through the steps, I am beginning to believe that the hinge that can swing an individual from that of "narcissistic" victimhood to a fully functioning, healthy adult is step four.  Steps one through three facilitate an understanding of our own powerlessness and inability to manage our lives.  But by requiring a heroic and daring moral inventory, step four offers us a way out of that helplessness and powerlessness.  It is the key to moving from being a helpless victim to empowering ourselves for change.

Most people approach step four with reluctance and with fear.  This is particularly true for individuals who come from very legalistic religious backgrounds.  We have spent so much time thinking of ourselves as worms because of poor theology that we are frankly tired of that perspective.  And the traumatic relationships we have experienced have been rife with projected blame and carried shame.  We're tired of being the "responsible" one.  We become paralyzed by the idea that we must now analyze our own part of the equation.

Let me just pause and state for the record, that I do not believe the partner bears any responsibility in the addiction of her spouse--she didn't cause it, she certainly cannot control it or cure it  But she has vulnerabilities from wounds received in her home of origin, culturally or from other victimizing relationships.  These vulnerabilities were exploited, either knowingly or unknowingly by her addict.  This is the core issue that step four addresses--identifying and understanding those vulnerabilities.

Step four is intended to be a compassionate and empathic look at self--at strengths as well as character defects.  It is not an either/or evaluation but a both/and look at ourselves.  Character traits that are now "defects" began as a means of protection or as the Big Book calls them, "Assets gone astray."  As children, we adopted learned behaviors as a defense against a hostile and toxic environment.  Maybe we became a caretaker as a means of obtaining needed affirmation or attention from our parents  For a while, the role of caretaker worked--it provided us with significance.  But as an adult, caretaking becomes more of a liability than an asset because it makes us more prone to becoming involved with an addict.  We tend to view defense mechanisms in a negative light, however, they once were protective actions essential for our emotional survival.  We have just outgrown our need for them so step four invites us to discard those "defects/traits" that are no longer useful.

You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge and understand.  I have found that identifying character traits that have become problematic for me as an adult and seeking to understand why I needed them as a child makes it far easier to lay them down.  The "inventory" is not so much a listing of the "whats" as it is answering the "whys."  Another list of faults or defects is not that helpful, particularly for a survivor of a relational trauma.  But understanding why I have behaved in the way that I have and why these "defects" developed is far more enlightening and leads to a deeper healing.

Step four asks us to stop denying our pain and to cease from blaming and accusing others for it.  Note, that it does not absolve others but simply changes the focus from their bad behavior to our coping behavior.  Step four requires that we become willing to face our true self and to put aside the false self that has protected and defended us.  Step four demands that we become willing to make amends to others we have hurt, including ourselves.

The hallmark of a narcissistic individual is is the inability to feel empathy for another.  Step four encourages us to move into an empathic response towards our own wounded and broken self and to others we have wounded in our pain.  Step four offers the wounded victim a gentle way out of victimhood into healing and wholeness.  Hurt people hurt people so the choice we have after victimization is to allow the pain to transform us or we will inevitably transmit it to others, including ourselves.

A victim is powerless over the events that created her victimhood.  She feels vulnerable, needy, frightened and
very much alone.  Relational trauma rends the very fabric of her soul.  By gently and courageously working step four, the pain of trauma and victimhood can be transformed.  Where there was powerlessness over circumstances and even over self, a new independence of spirit that is empowered for change emerges.  Where there was low self-esteem and the incredible weight of shame, a healthy evaluation of strengths vulnerabilities is born.  And what once felt like an impossible task--making amends and moving forward from victimhood becomes an exciting and rewarding possibility.

I'm not ready to call those stuck in victimhood narcissistic because that would be adding more pain to incredibly wounded individuals.  But I am willing to admit that the pain of my victimhood generated what has become an unhealthy narcissistic bent in me.  So I'm pushing forward ever more eagerly with step four.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Is it Well with my Soul?

I was reminded recently of the story behind my all-time favorite hymn and want to digress today from my normal blog posts to explore the story behind the story.  I believe that story has something to offer to those of us who have been terribly wounded by organized religion.  Horotio Spafford was a successful Chicago attorney and real estate mogul during the mid to late 1800s.  He and his wife, Anna, were members of a well-known church in the Chicago area.  In 1870, the Spaffords only son died of scarlet fever and then during the fire of 1871, Mr. Spafford lost much of his real estate holdings.

Because of the difficulties the family experienced in 1870 and 1871, the Spaffords decided that an extended European vacation was in order.  So they booked passage to England.  Just prior to their departure, however, Mr. Spafford was detained in the city on business but sent Anna and their four daughters on ahead of him.  On November 2, 1872, the ship that Mrs. Spafford and her children were on collided with another ship and sank within twelve minutes.  All four of the Spafford daughters died.  Mrs. Spafford was saved because a plank floated under her and kept her unconscious body from sinking in the cold Atlantic.  Her last memory of her daughters was of her baby being torn from her arms by the cold rushing water.  When she reached England, Anna sent a telegram to her husband stating, "Saved alone.  What shall I do?"

Horotio immediately boarded a ship sailing for England to be with his wife but asked the ship's captain to let him know when they were near the spot where his children had perished.  When the captain brought him to the deck as the ship neared the site of the wreckage, he informed Mr. Spafford that the water was at least three miles deep.  After contemplating his daughters' watery grave, Horotio went back to his cabin and penned the words to this well-loved hymn.

This part of the tragic story is somewhat familiar to most regular church-goers.  Many sermons have been preached on the courage and strength that Horotio drew upon to overcome unfathomable tragedy.  What is not as familiar, however, is the reaction of the Spaffords' church to their overwhelming loss.  Church elders believed that the tragedies had befallen the Spaffords due to secret sin and according to the church dogma, the children could not have gone to heaven.  At a time when comfort from their community of faith was most needed, the Spaffords experienced rejection, blame and were eventually expelled from the church.  Friends who supported them were expelled as well and it became a media scandal.  Ummm, sounds a bit familiar.

A daughter born after the tragedy later wrote about the family's life prior to 1872, "In Chicago, Father searched his life for explanation. Until now, it had flowed gently as a river.  Spiritual peace and worldly security had sustained his early years, his family life and his home.  All around him people were asking the unvoiced question, 'What guilt had brought this sweeping tragedy to Anna and Horotio Spafford?' Father became convinced that God was kind and that he would see his children again in heaven.  This thought calmed his heart but it was to bring Father into open conflict with what was then the Christian world." Source

It seems the notion of churches killing their wounded is not new nor is the tendency to blame victims of horrendous tragedy.  Expulsion, banning, finger-pointing and abusive "church discipline" are not new ideas, unfortunately.  I don't know how the Spaffords reconciled themselves to the rejection they experienced by their religious community; I don't know quite how any of us do.  My hope is that Horotio and Anna found peace in the arms of their Shepherd, even if they didn't in their church.  

I am encouraged by the communities that are springing up of disenfranchised former church attenders.  They are leaving organized religion because of abuses much like the Staffords experienced and they are finding each other.  They are banding together to heal, to encourage and to reform a system that has become unbelievably corrupt and dysfunctional.  I am privileged to be part of that group of people so can truly affirm that it is well with my soul.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Staying Safe and Sane

I live in a community that has an intense love of fireworks, which has never made sense to me because of the dryness of our natural environment.  Most cities have outlawed all fireworks except those deemed "safe and sane," which is a term designated for fireworks that do not fly or explode.  In spite of law enforcement's efforts, however, many unsafe and insane fireworks are regularly displayed around major holidays in my community.  Sometimes neighborhoods look like war zones because of this intense love of things that go boom in the night.

For a family living with the fallout of exposed pedophilia, staying safe and sane becomes a challenge.  Sometimes it feels like we are winning the effort and at other times it feels like we might as well surrender because we have already lost the war.  The collateral damage from the arrest and incarceration of a fmamily member is huge, especially when the crimes were committed against children.  Safety and sanity feel illusionary--like the desert mirage promising a respite from the heat and unquenchable thirst.

We crave validation and affirmation but are afraid to risk telling another our "secrets" for fear that we will be judged guilty by association.

Our sense of personal safety was destroyed when a family member became involved with the criminal justice system.  As all victims of trauma do, we seek to re-establish saety but since we are distrustful and suspicious, it is challenging.

We crave the ability to live productively in the world but constantly fear repercussions and exposure.  Will our employment be threatened if we tell our story?  Will we come under criminal investigation simply because we lived in proximity to the criminal?  Will we be seen as damaged goods by friends and potential romantic partners?

We want to become crusaders for children's safety but instead we guard our privacy, isolate and hide.  It is risky to identify with this form of social leprosy, it is very risky and we know it from our personal experience.

So we struggle for truth, authenticity and transparency from a place of safety.  Staying in that safe place requires every bit of faith, hope and sheer grit that we can muster up.  the boundaries of our safe place keep changing so we must shift and change with it.

We long for stability and security in a world that has become quite unstable and chaotic.  We flinch when we hear a loud noise or see a police cruiser because these are no longer symbols of help and safety.

We don't like things that go boom in the night and we don't enjoy life explosions.  We have lived through enough of those to satisfy us for a lifetime.  And really there is nothing sane or safe about holding even the "safest" firework in one's hand--sparklers are estimated to burn at 2,000 degrees--hot enough to cause significant damage to the human body.  And there certainly is nothing sane or safe about pedophilia--even for the innocent parties, which include the predator's family members.