Re reading a great book by Alexander Lowen on narcissism I’ve been really thinking deeply about the problems our society seems to have with feelings… He makes the point which I mentioned in my last blog that a huge part of narcissism is the fear around the expression of feelings and the equation of deep feeling with insanity or madness. I’ve seen two of my sister’s diagnosed as bi-polar in response to situations of deep stress where they were trying to live up to an image or ideal that was out of line with what their bodies and souls could contain or manage, as a result their emotions swung out of control.. But as I watched I didn’t really see two people who were insane, just two souls struggling to break free of an insane situations… with deep issues around repression, perfection and control……
One of my favourite writers who shows a great deal of insight into the healing process of recovery is a lady called Tian Dayton. She had an alcoholic father and learned a lot from this relationship. She is a therapist herself and has written some wonderful books, including Trauma and Addiction, Emotional Sobriety and Daily Affirmations for Forgiving and Moving on. One of the meditations in that last book is titled Accepting Mood Swings. I love it so much I am including it in this post.
Today I will not be down on myself if I seem to swing in my moods through my recovery process. Mood swings have been scary to me, so I use them as a way to judge (or misjudge) my health. I force myself to be in a stable good mood and then I feel I’m okay. As I re-experience old, repressed feelings, it is possible that I will feel deeply disoriented, angry, rageful or depressed and then two hours later almost high. This is not just because I can’t control my moods – I am opening myself to all that is going on within me – I am no longer denying parts of myself so that I will fit into a designated constellation of rules. I am allowing what is happening within me to happen.
I understand that my moods might swing in this life changing process.
As Goethe wrote.
Just trust yourself, then you will know how to live.
How often don’t we trust ourselves. How often are we told we are bad or that there is something wrong with having feelings. I’ll never forget following the end of my marriage. I was in such deep grief as the loss of my husband and our life together triggered so much past pain over earlier losses that I had repressed for so many years due to my use of substances. At the time I was staying with my mother for a time and one morning my older brother made one of his visits. As soon as he entered the house I heard him ask Mum. “Where is she?”. I felt the fear in his voice.
I came out of the bedroom and the minute he hugged me the flood gates just opened up. I felt his body stiffen and pull away. “Come on”, he said, “pull yourself together”. So much is incapsulated in that moment about my struggle and his in our family. A family where it has been so hard to express feelings.
I wonder how things might have been different for both of us and for my sister’s too if we could have collapsed into that grief and pain and allowed the flood to take us home to reality. It was not to be and I watched my second oldest sister struggle with two hospitalisations including shock therapy and a suicide attempt in the absence of therapy or any form of emotional recovery. My eldest sister is bedridden now, her deep pain locked in a body which now needs ongoing care, subject to the constant drugging that is part of a care home environment.
For myself I feel blessed that even though I’ve had a struggle with emotional expression, over the past 10 years due to my involvement in an ongoing recovery programme, the tears I’ve needed to shed have been able to fall, adn the anger I’ve needed to feel, I’ve been able to express. I’ve been given a hard time about it but I’ve had the courage not to let attempts to shame me, strangle my self expression. It hasn’t been easy and its been lonely at times as it has meant the end of two relationships. But I do know that I am blessed to believe that there is nothing wrong with feeling sad or angry. I don’t have to label this mix of feelings depression, or settle for a diagnosis. I can feel the reality of my situation and express it.
I’ve been able to ride the emotional rollercoaster throughout the many ups and downs and now I don’t judge others who are riding it either, because to the extent that I have allowed these ups and downs, when I give myself permission to feel my feelings, eventually they pass and level out.
John Stuart Mill writes:
There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realised until personal experience has brought it home.
Our experience is ours and we need the courage to feel it and express it, to open our hearts to it fully, not to shut down and pretend it doesn’t exist. Because this is what makes us truly human and in the absence of such feeling and experience we become deadened on some level and perhaps narcissistic or vulnerable to narcissists.
Deadening of our feelings may, however, be a legacy of a childhood where feeling becomes intolerable due to the rage or abuse of a parent or their insensitivity to our feelings.
Lowen writes that our human emotional life is more intense than that of animals.
“We are capable of a greater love and a fuller hate, a higher joyfulness and a deeper sadness, a stronger fear and a more intense anger. And human beings can also ‘control’ their feelings through their egos. We can limit the degree of feeling, and we can act as if we had feeling. But there is a problem in doing this. Emotions are total bodily responses. For that reason, one cannot supress or deny fear, for instance, without at the same time suppressing the feeling of anger”, he writes on page 63.
Lowen explains that the narcissistic individual can express anger but it is sadness that the narcissist has problems expressing. In the absence of feeling sadness the narcissist will express anger instead and, he claims, there is no healing of the narcissistic character without the person being able to express and experience their sadness, for the anger is a defence against feeling it. Anger takes the place of sadness for the narcissist as it leaves the narcissist feeling less vulnerable. It is this vulnerability which is so difficult for the narcissist to experience without fear, due to a childhood in which it was not possible for the narcissist to experience his vulnerability without humiliation or shame. John Bradshaw in his book Healing The Shame That Binds You has addressed this issues showing how in narcissistic families feelings such as anger and sadness become bound in shame.
It is interesting as the experience I had with my last partner who had narcissistic traits was that he would become angry when I was sad. The sadness was an imposition on his freedom and threatening to his ego defences and thus too challenging for him.
My own experience with the emotional rollercoaster has shown that often that while anger is necessary to come in touch with our self and essential when figuring how and when we need to set a boundary, there are times when sadness underlies anger. The sadness is over all the longing and need that had to be repressed in a family where it could not find expression. Having the courage to feel this sadness, leads the way home to the true self, for the true self is located in the body and in the true and deep feelings, that for so long had to be repressed in order to please the parent who found such feelings intolerable, or had to split them off herself.
That is why in order to heal we need to remove the prohibition against expression of our true feelings. If this means riding the emotional rollercoaster for a time so be it, for the other option could be a deadness to what is real and without access to what is real, there is no way we will find our way home to the true self, to love, to joy, to wholeness and to peace which are the gifts of our healing quest.