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After a string of traumatizing relationships, I felt myself spiraling downward into a deep hole of loss and confusion.
Clawing around for sanity, for a shred of any little thing to hang onto, I began my quest for answers.
I needed something to soothe the hot pit of bile that rose in my belly anytime I thought of what had happened between me and my past lovers.
So, at the next visit with my therapist, we rummaged through the rubble of my relationship history, trying to make sense of the mess.
She offered me what she could in some cases: a possible diagnosis. She explained that with some of my exes, their behaviors aligned with those of a classic sociopath with narcissistic tendencies.
Armed with some definitions, traits, and textbook descriptions, I began to rewind each of my relationships, searching for more clues. To the surprise (and delight) of my shattered heart, there was ample evidence to be found.
As I reflected back over my life, I saw how this cycle had repeated, with patterns of abusive people coming into my life, over and over again.
Relief flooded my body. I was right. They were wrong—“bad people,” even. And there was no helping any of them. They had and always would be that way.
To recover, I needed to understand my part, that I was being codependent, and then to stop showing up that way in any future relationships.
Never wanting to repeat this story ever again, I did “the work.”
I went to therapy and workshops, listened to podcasts, watched endless hours of YouTube, read a multitude of books, ate healthy foods, exercised, meditated, dated myself, and created an awesome tribe of friends—and after a couple of years of this, I felt that I was finally in a “good place.”
I declared myself free of the scourge of codependency. My next relationship would be perfect and easy. I felt confident that all of my wounds and issues were healed and I was whole.
That’s when I met him, the man of my dreams. My soul mate.
We both knew it the minute our eyes met—this was it. Every single little thing about him was perfect for me. And bonus: he had done “the work” too!
While he, too, had experienced some excruciating things in past relationships, he worked hard and fought for his soul, his freedom, and his happiness, and he’d won. Our lives intersected effortlessly and seamlessly, and within a few short months, we were happily living together, ready for our ever after.
But who knew that simply sharing space and creating a life together could break the dam wide open?
Issues, triggers, and scary negative emotions flooded our beings. Sometimes we could employ “the work,” respond calmly and smoothly, and talk things out. (We were so proud of those moments!) But sometimes we reacted, exploding like lit bombs, spraying our past messily all over the room.
How could this be? We’d done “the work!” Weren’t we beyond all of this sh*t already?
This is when I learned the real nature of narcissism.
In neurolinguistic programming (NLP), one of the first things we were taught is that people are not their behaviors, and we should never define anyone by what they do—actions taken in the moment could have a million reasons or influences (usually subconscious programming) behind them.
See, one thing I had always believed about myself is that I was not a narcissist.
At first, when I learned about the traits and behaviors, I was scared that I might be a narcissist, but my therapist reassured me that I was only reacting to what people in my previous relationships had done, and to the pain of those moments. Apparently, this was common codependent behavior.
Now that I had found myself with my soul mate, we were having some crazy moments. Like flares shot into the night sky, our tempers would fire and insane sh*t would burst out in a colorful display.
The difference was that this time, it didn’t hurt or scare me.
I could actually look at the burning embers and appreciate that they were fleeting and would be gone soon.
When we looked at the pain, welcomed it in, and allowed it to be, we still loved what we saw in one another and accepted each other fully. We never took what was happening personally (one of the great “four agreements” that Don Miguel Ruiz writes about) and as soon as the show subsided, we would quietly embrace one another, gently examining the wounds and tenderly cleaning and bandaging them.
During this process, which repeated as our stuff came up, here is what we have realized:
We are complex creatures, and like an onion, we contain many layers. Even though some things are healed on one level, things on another level will cry out for attention. When these things come up, we rejoice, because we know that they will only surface when we feel we have a safe space to be heard, seen, and healed. The body and mind, in their infinite wisdom, would otherwise hang on to it, storing it away to protect us.
When we’re triggered, and our negative emotions begin to seep out, we get excited and welcome it in to our world. “Hello, old story! I had forgotten about you! Come in, come in!” Sometimes, it just wants to be seen and known. Sometimes, it wants us to ask Byron Katie’s four questions:
Is it true?
Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
How do you react, what happens when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without that thought?
Sometimes these four questions remind my old stories that they have better places to go, and they simply leave us. Sometimes we do a little mental and emotional release, a therapy taught to us by Dr. Matt James. Sometimes we find an old, limiting belief that we want to release. Or sometimes we discover that there is simply an old habit that we can erase away, using the NLP swish pattern.
And I have discovered that this is what “the work” really is: an ongoing process of uncovering, discovering, and recovering, becoming aware and allowing what is, and fully loving and accepting every part of myself and others.
“But you two aren’t narcissists!”
And what I am finding is neither is anyone else, truly. People are not their behaviors.
If we didn’t have our tools available when the fireworks came bursting out, it would be really easy to react in ways that cause the other to feel unheard, unseen, scared, and frightened. We could easily cause one another to behave in narcissistic ways.
When I look back on my past relationships, I can see that when their wounds came up, the way I reacted to them created more pain for both of us. By not having tools and boundaries, we created this monster of an experience. And my part in those experiences is fully my responsibility. I’d waited, hoped, and prayed for things to change, instead of listening to my gut, responding instead of reacting, and creating healthy boundaries.
There are many reasons that I behaved that way, and some were not under my control.
Faulty subconscious programming and beliefs had affected me from the time I was little—these were the only tools available to me before I’d done the work; they were all I knew. It’s why I kept repeating those dreadful cycles and patterns until I thought I would literally die.
But I’ve expanded my collection. I have more options available to me now. And the top two tools in my belt are love and awareness, which create choice. I listen to my gut, I feel my feelings, and I ask them what they want me to know or learn. I don’t bury anything anymore, or wait, or hope, or pray. I clearly, lovingly, and unapologetically speak my truth at all times.
And this is why, when the fireworks start shooting, my soul mate and I sit back and enjoy the show. It really is spectacular and not at all frightening.
That’s how it goes, I have learned: whatever I believe, my brain, as my faithful servant, will spotlight it in my reality, creating mounds of evidence all around me.
When I chose the belief that there were predator-like narcissists all around me, that is what I found. When I changed that belief to “people are not their behaviors” and I allowed myself to look deep inside, I discovered that we are all pretty amazing creatures with huge hearts who only really want to love and be loved.
When we change how we look at things, what we look at changes. And with those beloved tools kept nearby, I’ve found I don’t encounter nasty narcissists anymore. They have simply vanished from my world.