Fear of Insanity Narcissism and Denial of Feeling : more insights from Alexander Lowen

the experience of horror (in childhood) makes one question one’s sanity.  What one is experiencing does not make sense, it doesn’t accord with one’s image of reality which even a baby has on a biological level.  To avoid the resulting mental confusion, one must dissociate and deny all feelings.  As long as one sticks to logic, one is safe.  But feelings are life, and one cannot fully avoid emotional experiences no matter how coolly one plays it.  The narcissist faces the risk of being overwhelmed by feelings and going wild, crazy, or mad, should his defence of denial break down.  This is especially true of anger. Every narcissist is afraid of going crazy, because the potential for insanity is in his personality.  This fear reinforces the denial of feeling creating a vicious cycle.

Reading the above paragraph again in Lowen’s book today gave me more insight into my brother, who threatened to walk out on me last October when I got angry with him.  It reminded me of terrifying incidents he faced in childhood and of how my father did pretty harsh things to him as a boy as his own childhood had been similarly harsh.  I was in tears again last week after yet another conversation with my brother where we was working as hard as he could to split off all expression of emotion.  I usually leave every interaction with him crying or disturbed in some way.  Now instead of feeling angry I  just feel really sad for him as I don’t ever think he will look at the roots of his own workaholism.  Once again I shed heaps of tears after I got off the phone on Thursday.  It is not that he is an unkind person either, all time the conversation revolved around helping my sister and I to get the best interest possible on the money Mum has left us.

It is now never the less a great comfort to me to be able to say I now know I am not crazy and I know why his side of the family have sidelined me before as well as other members of my family, looking upon us with such distain and disapproval due to our emotions.  That said I am also aware of the charge of anger that I have carried which I know I inherited from my mother’s side of the family.

Collapsing into a state of helplessness may be one response to such terror or violence in childhood.  Flight or fight may be two other  responses but both the later would often be blocked by an abusive parents.  Escaping or fighting back may be shamed or made  impossible as was the case of Bill whose story Lowen covers in Chapter 7 of this book.

Bill did not feel any anger.  He denied his anger, just as he denied his fear.  Instead, he adopted an attitude of submission and attempted to understand the irrational behaviour of his father, and others,  His submission to his father may have had a lifesaving value, but almost cost him his life.  (Bill was later on nearly killed by a hitchhiker he and a friend picked up on the side of the road who began to attack them.)

Lowen explains how Bill then came to fear his own anger.

(he).. believed that if he lost his head he might kill someone.  But to lose your head is equivalent to going crazy. Bill was terrified of the potential craziness in himself as he was of the craziness of others.  When I made this interpretation to him he remarked, “Now I know why I became a psychiatrist.”

Not everyone will be able to contain their rage from such incidents, others will act it out.  Lowen tells the story of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam”, serial killer who murdered 6 and wounded 7 others.

What then are the dynamics that precipitate a seemingly sane person into insane action? … there must be some subconscious force.. This force is the denied feeling of anger.  Because the anger is denied, it is not experienced, which would give he person some control over it.

Many narcissists develop an ego unconscious split in these circumstance which means at times such subconscious forces can erupt and cause havoc or be projected on others.  Such and effect is called flooding…. an overwhelming feeling or excitation which ..”(temporarily drowns us)…in the torrent of sensation.  Imagine a river overflowing its banks and sweeping across the surrounding country side.  In a similar way the gush of feeling wipes out normal boundaries of the self, making it difficult for the person to distinguish between inner and outer reality.  Reality becomes confused and nebulous….. (there is a sense of) nothing solid to cling on to.  The person feels ‘at sea,’ estranged.

Such estrangement is not dissimilar to dissociation although Lowen compares it to disorientation.   The flooding of something we held down can make us dizzy, it may erase normal consciousness for a time.  It may well be what we experience in a panic attack (repressed or split off lively life energy or anger).  We can also be overwhelmed by pleasant sensations and if our sense of happiness or joy was also supressed or shamed in childhood we can begin to get fearful of insanity when we start to feel energised or even happy.

In the bioenergetic therapy Lowen used feelings which have been repressed or shut down are helped to liberate by the therapist who assists in the process so flooding and disorientation is not as intense as it would be if we were misunderstood or unsupported in the process.

The problem is that those damaged in childhood continue to carry split off emotions such as anger and sadness into adulthood, we may even attract relationships with others who act them out for us or vice versa, one partner can then pretend they are okay, it’s just their partner that is the problem.

Lowen points out in his book Narcissism : Denial of the True Self the connection between being called ‘mad’ (as in insane) when one is actually angry.

To say a person is mad may mean that person is either crazy or angry.  What this tells us is that anger is not an acceptable emotion.  Children are taught very early on to curb their anger; often they are punished if, in the course of an angry reaction, they hurt someone.  Disputes, they are admonished should be settled amicably and with words.  The ideal is to have reason prevail over action.

But conflicts can not always be settled amicably, with reasoning.   Tempers may flare.  I don’t mean one has to resort to physical violence to express an angry feeling.  Anger can be expressed in a look or by the tone of one;s voice.  Once can assert with feeling.  “I am angry with you.”  Some situations do call for the physical expression of anger.  If violence is used on you it may be appropriate to fight back.  Without the right to strike when one is hit, one feels powerless and humiliated.  We have seen what that can do to the personality.

I strongly believe that if children were allowed to voice their anger at their parent’s whenever they felt they had a legitimate grievance, we would see far fewer narcissistic personalities.  Giving a child this right would allow a real respect for the child’s feelings.

Lowen goes on to site an experience of watching a Japanese woman being hit by her daughter in anger.  He explains how in Japan a child is never disciplined before the age of 6 because they are regarded to be innocent  and such children don’t end up disrespectful or misbehaving.  However when the right of angry expression is denied a child it has an adverse impact and then there are the parents who cannot express their own anger with a child in a healthy way and use punishment instead.  Lowen doesn’t negate the need for discipline, only the use of power and control in the face of a child the parent does not have a healthy way of relating to and helping to develop emotionally.

Such repression of anger in a person in childhood means anger stays present in the person’s system much later in life.  In his bioenergetic therapy Lowen helps patient to discharge repressed anger so that it does not stay trapped inside.  However as he points out, the fear of ones anger and belief it will prove one is insane is a difficulty that many narcissistically injured person’s face on the path to healing.

For narcissists to know themselves, they have to acknowledge their fear of insanity and to sense the murderous rage inside that they identify with insanity.  But they can only do this if the therapist is aware of those elements and is not afraid of them.  I find it helpful to point out to my patients that what they believe is insane – namely, their anger – is in fact sense if they can accept it.  In contrast, their behaviour without feeling, which they regard as sane,is really crazy.

The behaviour without feeling that Lowen mentions here in fact leads to the growing or development of what he calls a thick skin, a protective defensive layer which will allow no real feeling for self or others in those with a narcissistic defence,

such denial is achieved by deadening the surface to stimuli, its effect is to rigidify the ego.  … the result is a diminishing of the ego’s capacity to respond emotionally to reality or to change reality in line with one’s feelings.. the ego’s safety lies in a deadened body, with little emotion.  Yet this very deadening creates a hunger for sensation, leading to the hedonism typical of a narcissistic culture.

But true feeling is then increasingly hidden behind a façade and the building charge of need and hidden feeling is defended against.  Thus addictions come to play a role in diverting attention from the truth.

By contrast those who develop a borderline defence to such negation actually become excessively thin skinned, unable to throw off hurts lodged deep inside from the past often from unfeeling narcissists.  Their work is to understand the source of pain and not project it onto the present, understanding how deeply its roots lie hidden in an often unconscious past.

 

 

 

 

The final 3 strategies for overcoming the effects of self absorbed or emotionally unavailable parents.

This is the final installment which follows on from two earlier posts on the header subject and contains exerpts that come from Chapter 6 of Nina Brown’s book Children of the Self Absorbed : A Grown Up’s Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents.

Change of Pace

(We can) become so stuck in one or more routines that (we) limit (ourselves) from expanding (our) horizons, meeting new people or challenges, learning and developing (our) resources and talents, and limiting our choices.  Thus, (we) place restraints on (ourselves) and limit (our) personal growth and development in some ways.  An occasional change of pace can energize (us) and (our) thoughts in many ways, enrich (our) inner self, and provide for wonder and beauty in (our) life.

This is not to say that (we) should disrupt (our) life and do away with (our) routines.  Such routines are beneficial.  For example, I do my writing in the morning, shortly after I wake up.  I first read the paper and have a cup of coffee.  After that I pick up my pad and pen and begin to write. You want to maintain your constructive routines.

A change of pace is not a major disruption, it is doing something different on a trial basis to see if it is right for you, energizing in some way, or has other positive outcomes.  It can be almost anything that is different from your usual routine.

Mindfulness

Becoming mindful teaches our valuable concentration that can help you stay focused on what is truly important in your life.  This  can be very helpful to you in interactions with your self absorbed parent, where your heightened emotional state can be distracting, even disabling.  Once you get distracted or lost, you’re left with the same old feelings.

Mindfulness is done with conscious thought and intention.   You expand your awareness in the moment and notice, appreciate, and even sometimes savour what you are experiencing.  This awareness allows you to notice things you didn’t notice before, being something into clearer focus, sort through confusing stimuli and zoom in on important aspects, reduce some anxiety, and help you feel more in control.  For example, lets suppose after by becoming more mindful you notice and experience the following with your self absorbed parent :

  • Your parent is saying the usual hurtful things, but you are not confused about why he is doing this and are able to see the fear your parent has of becoming old and no longer in control.
  • The words used by your parent seem meaningless and inaccurate and, although designed to hurt you, are bouncing off you like ball bearings bouncing off a wall.
  • You are able to discern your parent’s anxiety without taking it on or even feeling that you must fix it.
  • You are becoming aware that a role shift is in process, and that your parent is fighting but is also consciously unaware of it.
  • You leave the interaction less upset and stressed than usual.

Mindfulness allows you both to expand and contract.  You expand your awareness and contract your focus.  Practice the following exercise as many times as you possibly can throughout your day.  It doesn’t take long to do it, but you can do it as long as you wish.

Developing Mindfulness

Procedure:  This excercise can be done sitting, standing, reclining, walking and so on.  However it is best to be alone in a quiet place.

  1. Empty your mind.
  2. Don’t fight intrusive thoughts.
  3. Concentrate on your breathing and how this makes you feel.  Try to slow your breath.
  4. Become aware of your body, its tense spots, and its pleasurable spots.
  5. Focus on what you are experiencing, doing and feeling.  Stay with that and expand your awareness of sensations – seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting.
  6. Notice colors, shapes, forms, sounds, and how your body feels.
  7. Continue your expansion as long as you wish.

Reduce your Self Absorption

This suggestion is the basis for entire books on narcissism, but we’ll only touch on the subject in his book  The major premise for this suggestion is that sef absorbed behavior and attitudes are not constructive or helpful.  It is important to remember that, just as your self absorbed parent cannot see his (or her) undeveloped narcissism, you are unaware of behaviors and attitudes you have that are reflective of undeveloped narcissism.  Your undeveloped narcissism can do the following:

  • Prevent you from detoxifying yourself.
  • Inhibit you from developing sufficient boundary strength.
  • Keep you in a position where you can be easily wounded.
  • Interfere with developing and maintaining meaningful and satisfying relationships.
  • Get in the way of your reaching out and connecting to others.
  • Keep you in a defensive state all of the time.

Be aware that (reducing self absorption) is a life long endeavour and that you are mostly unaware of your self absorbed behaviors and attitudes, but they do have a significant effect on your self and on your relationships.

End of direct quotes

Facing the fact that we too are self aborbed is difficult.  In one way we need self absorption for a time in order to delve into what is going on inside and understand how and why we are reacting as we do.  However it is now proven by research into mental health and happiness that happiness rests upon being able to sustain healthy mutual life giving, love filled connections with others.  This ability to connect is what is primarily wounded or undeveloped in narcissism and if we were raised with emotional neglect or by self absorbed wounded parents.  Learning to reach out and connect and show empathy and understanding to and of others is a life time work.  But it has great rewards.

Understanding, accepting and trusting your feelings

The following excerpt from Jonice Webb’s book Running on Empty : Overcoming Your Childhood Emotional Neglect may help you if you struggle with emotions.  I know in my own life a lot of problems were caused by not understanding nor fully accepting or trusting my own feelings.   An education in a Catholic school taught me certain emotions were really bad, such as anger.  Ideally in childhood we should be helped to understand and identify our emotions so we can use the information they give us and respond wisely, but if we were emotionally neglected we never got to build these skills.    I hope this excerpt may be of help to others who struggle with understanding and accepting their emotions.

If you were emotionally neglected, chances are you have difficulty with accepting and trusting your feelings.  Some emotionally neglected people are completely unaware of the existence of emotions.  Others push their emotions down because they have a deep seated notion that feelings are bad, will burden other people, or can make them a bad person.  Remember the following three rules:

1.  There is no bad emotion

Emotions themselves are not good or bad, right or wrong, moral or amoral.  Every human being has felt rage, jealousy, hate, destructiveness, and superiority, for example, at one time or another.  Most people have even had homicidal feelings  These feelings are not bad, and do not make us a bad person.  It’s what we do with them that matters.  Do not judge yourself for your feelings.  Judge yourself for your actions.

2.  Feelings do not always make rational sense, but they always exist for a good reason.

Emotions do not follow the principles of logic. They can seem inexplicable and unpredictable.  But every emotion can be explained if you try hard enough. With every emotion our body is trying to send us a message, no matter how bizarre that might seem.  As an example, lets go back to David, the forty something businessman who had zero supervision as a child.  David once shared with me that he occasionally felt an unbearable disgust and repulsion when he saw a random person eating at a restaurant.  He was mystified by this feeling, and worried that it might mean he was crazy.  Eventually, through a lot of exploration of his Emotional Neglect, we figured out the reason : David’s limbic system, unbeknownst to him was equating eating, the taking in of food with nurturance.  David himself took no enjoyment from food.  He had great difficulty letting himself enjoy nutritional nurturance as well as emotional nurturance.  Unconsciously, he felt disgusted when he saw someone letting down their guard, and allowing themselves to enjoy taking in nurturance.  This is an example of a feeling that seems on the surface irrational and meaningless, but was actually quite meaningful, and existed for a very good reason.

3.  Emotions can be powerful but they can be managed

Emotions that are hidden tend to have a lot of power over us.  When we are aware of an emotion, we can then take charge of it.  David felt at the mercy of his intense feelings of disgust, and sometimes avoided going to restaurants in order to avoid that feeling.  Once he realised the source of the feeling and didn’t judge himself for having it, he was at a point of full awareness and acceptance.  He started to fight it off, and the feelings of disgust lost its potency.  Eventually it disappeared altogether.

The IAAA Steps

IAAA may sound like a retirement fund but it is not.  IAAA stand for Identify, Accept, Attribute, Act.  These steps are a culmination of the three rules above.  They are the four steps to maximising the value of our emotions, and gaining energy and guidance from them.  First, Identify the feeling, then Accept it.  Do not judge it as bad or good.  Third, try to discern the reason you are having the feeling, or Attribute it to a cause; fourth, identity whether there is an Action that the emotion calls for and, if so, take it appropriately.

Whar are you feeling right now?  Close your eyes and ask yourself that question.  If the answer is ‘overwhelmed” don’t despair.  The process of making friends with your emotions may seem complicated, or even insurmountable, but you can do it.  Yes, it will take time.  But if you keep working at it, you will start to notice small changes in yourself.  The changes may be subtle and may at first seem unimportant.  But each time you have an emotional realisation that’s new to you  its a sign that you are growing and learning.  If you find yourself struggling too much, or on the verge of giving up, look for a therapist to help you.  A skilled therapist will be able to help you to build these skills, so that you can become fully connected, present and alive.

A survivor of war

I awoke this morning in such a shell shocked state but with a kind of quiet calm around me, on a clear, bright, crisp morning of sunshine.   I had a fitful night again.  Since my dental surgery I have not slept well.  The violent mid night sleep awakenings have returned again fraught with explosive feelings inside my body and memories of painful events flowing down like a river of burning coals.  And then the thoughts of my mother and all she has endured over the years of various mental disturbance and anguish in my family commencing with my older sister cerebral bleed and going on from there were running over my mind.

Seeing her in the state she was in yesterday filled me with anguish and the deepest most profound sadness.  I wanted to pick her up and take her to a place where there would be human angels to care for her and shower her with love.   Its all I want for her really.  But one central recent event particularly was haunting me.  A few years ago after my remaining sister’s third or fourth hospitalisation for catatonic depression following her sad abuse at the hands of her family where she was forceably committed to a psychiatric institution in another city while on what was a so called ‘manic’ spree my Mum had a fall down some stairs.

At the time she was trying to carry a packed suitcase of things down four flights of stairs in my sister’s apartment block to take to the hospital.  My sister had come out of the last psychiatric stay and fallen two times due to the medication she was given lowering her blood pressure.  She just collapsed and hit her head open and had to be taken to hospital again.   My mother phoned me that morning and I think she needed my help, but I didn’t want to give it.  At that point I was exhausted by the hospitalisations of my sister and her attempted suicide in 2013 and the outfall of that.  The only way I really felt ‘safe’ was by keeping my distance.   And I did not know my Mum would attempt to do such a silly thing, as she never mentioned the need to pack a suitcase.  Never the less I still feel shame and guilt which I know rationally on some level is not deserved and I need to share what goes on inside my mind as at night it has such a dark power over me.

That day around the time my Mum must have fallen or been preparing the case I was at the park with Jasper and my entire body and brain was flooded with pressure.  It was so bad I left Jasper in the confined part of the dog park and raced off into an open field a little way away.   I was only gone about 20 minutes and when I came back an angelic young man with long hair was with Jasper.  As he came towards me I put my head in my hands and just cried with the pain and overwhelm.  He was so kind and just sat with me and we talked about my struggle and my family.  It must have been around that time that my Mum fell and was lying at the bottom of the staircase 20 minutes away.  She ended up fracturing her pelvis and that injury amongst others had dogged her for 3 years.  From memory it happened in 2014 though so much has happened that I cant fully remember now.

When I bought the autobiography of Eva Schloss a few weeks ago, the woman who survived Auschwitz with her mother I shared some of it on line here.  I thought about my own connection to the survivor story and of my own hidden Jewish heritage.  (My great great grandmother renounced her Jewish ancestry and faith when she married by great great grandfather in the 1860s) and wondered why that story had such resonance and power for me.  Eva never spoke about her time in Auschwitz until the 1980s when she was asked to open a memorial to her dead step sister Anne Frank.  She remained silent for over 40 years and only then did the tears begin to fall.  I always think when we read something or are drawn to it there is a reason.  We are seeking understanding or a resonance with another’s experience or haunting.   Was I also a survivor of war.  Can we equate Nazisim with narcissism, the two are similar.

There is perhaps no way to say what I have been through is as extreme as Auschwitz but the degree of trauma in my family over the past 30 years and the painful aftermath of emotional distancing and dissociation in my family to survive has deep so deeply painful for me as the youngest.  John Bradshaw in drawing attention to birth order theory says that in the dysfunctional or traumatised family the fourth or youngest child carries the thwarted unification needs of the family.  They want to bring healing to the suffering and attention to the wounds and emotional togetherness.  They are also often an outsider or witness.  The second child is often the scapegoat and acts out the unconscious suffering of the family and is then shunned or considered a failure.  In my older sister’s case it wasn’t that she was shunned, just excluded by a chain of events that saw her marry early and leave the family before it was fully forming its place in the world, when she came back and tried to find a place in it, that was when she came badly unstuck.  By the time I came along there was precious little attention left for a young girl who was so very much younger in age than any of her siblings in a family subsumed by survival and an upwardly mobile materialist improvement project.

My own trauma of a major near death experience at the age of 17 and the loss of my teeth has all been retriggered with the latest dental work and I need to be mindful of that.   In two days time it is the 13th anniversary of the day my husband finally packed his bags and left me all alone at the coast unable to take any steps forward to get emotional help but mired by then in over 30 years of pain. So its no wonder suicidal feelings were around strongly on Sunday and have been dogging me a lot over the past week.

At this point its early morning here as I said.  I was brought to tears by the love shown by valued followers on my last post Rocking you may never truly know how much it means just to read some kind words or to see a little heart symbol in the comments section of my post on awakening at this point in time.   I was full of such sadness and ghosting feelings of guilt over my Mum’s fall.  But I also know that what happened with my family was in so many ways far bigger than any young child in a family could fully deal with or heal.

Sad consequences of things in my family have affected me deeply.  As the youngest swept up in such wild, swirling and traumatic seas over many years I have done well to survive the war with my sanity and mental state as in tact as it is.  There has been an ocean of tears, longing and pain to navigate, an ocean of love.  Throughout it all I have managed to keep my heart as open as I possibly could.  So many times I opened it to those who were invested in me shutting it back down, those who told me to ‘put it all behind me’ or ‘get the hell as far away from it as you can’, but I know if I ran I would only take the trauma with me.  Staying here or fronting up to the past has been much harder in so many ways but I do believe it has been necessary.

I do see myself not as the saviour in all of it, which would be a kind of hubris really but more as the teller of the tale who sitting a bit far off on the sidelines is able in some strange way to give a voice to all of it.  I also know that as much as my family and its trauma and suffering has shaped me it does not need to define me as long as I bring consciousness to it, as well as to the mixed up tangled ball of thread of painful feelings which when unravelled and not shown necessary empathy and mercy could destroy me, if I let them.  In time once the telling of the tale is done I will be able to take distance but as the sober one I will always carry the ache.  I just need more emotionally than my empty well or vortex of family can truly provide.

In the end I am a survivor and hope in time to be a thriver.  I am also a witness and perhaps in some way a war reporter too, but not one who maintains only objective distance, rather one who in sinking to and at times almost being drowned in the depths of unconscious feelings that are not personal but deeply collective emerges in time with a dark pearl within which are contained all the composites of feelings and traumas gone before.  I will not be told that pearl is a stone that needs to be discarded, painful and traumatic as it has been.  This life is the one that life has given me, not chosen and I am still in the painful process of disentangling myself and finding a way to live outside of multiple traumas that could so easily have buried me.  But I am also seeing I deserve so much more, and have so much more to give.  Its just at 55 I still have not found my path.  My blog is really my only pathway to the outside at this point.  And at this point maybe I just need to accept that and be open to the possibility of change, scary as that is.

How traumatic imprint overwhelms our brain and what happens when we begin to process it : Boundary Ninja

But when trauma occurs, we get overwhelmed, and the part of our brain that they believe “processes” our experience, goes off-line so we cannot understand or assimilate the experience or feelings that it invokes. This creates a traumatic memory which present research believes is both stored differently and in a different part of the brain, then our biographical memories.  Traumatic memories are raw and unprocessed. I call it God’s Tupperware. The experience, intense feelings and all, would be stuffed in, and then the cover burped, after which I would shove the container on the back of a high shelf, to be left for years. So when I finally got around to opening a particular container, there it would be in all its glory, intense feelings and all. That is often why when we start talking about the past in therapy, it can often feel so intense, because the feelings come back with an immediacy that we do not usually experience when remembering. And it can feel overwhelming, because it WAS overwhelming at one time. So we learn to avoid anything and everything that might call up these unprocessed memories so that our life becomes circumscribed by all the things, events and feelings we MUST avoid. We dwell in a cage of our own (unconscious) making.

What we do when we heal, is to finally allow ourselves to experience those feelings, process the experience and make sense of what happened, to fit the event into our narrative so that it makes sense, and we can obtain a coherent picture of who we are and how we got that way. When we do this, we convert the traumatic memory to a biographical one. We can recall it; we may feel an echo of the sadness or pain, but it does not roar back at us with the immediacy it once had. I actually remember when I hit the point that I looked at the Boundary Ninja and said “I’m not quite sure when it happened, but what happened to me has become part of my past instead of something I’m still enduring.”

Source :  https://boundaryninjatales.com/2011/10/25/why-your-therapist-seems-cruel-but-really-isnt/