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I had a total meltdown the other day.
Not quite the cataclysmic sort. But there was most definitely some melting involved: the thawing and oozing out of years of hidden, bound emotional pain in my body.
And it wasn’t even provoked by one of life’s grand gestures like a sudden death of a hero or loved one. Nor was it triggered by despair from bearing witness to a natural disaster or reading about man’s devastation of rainforests or yet more refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
It was the result of hanging up on a friend.
Yes, the mundane, inglorious act of hanging up a phone.
Hanging up had been a reflex, akin to the kind that jerks your hand away when it comes into contact with a hot stove. No thinking. Just self-preservation.
In the moments afterward, I sat there feeling dazed. My heart was racing madly. Something in me was deeply triggered. My body was on high alert. Amidst the sirens, I could still hear my resident critic: “One doesn’t end conversations that way,” she said. “Especially mature, spiritually seasoned, non-violent-communication (NVC) savvy, heart-intelligent coaches!”
My body was acting like the building was on fire. Why?
It seemed a taboo had been broken, a deeply ingrained pattern upended.
I’d been sitting outside at a café, but I had to get up and walk to escape the fire. As I “fled” in the unfamiliar Roman neighborhood where I found myself, I noticed my legs wobbly beneath me. I walked without direction, and then felt the anxiety suddenly give way to a huge wave of sadness. My sprinkler system was tripped. Tears flowed, and though there were many people on the street, I didn’t hold them back. It seemed the day for breaking taboos.
I happened upon a park, sat down on a bench, and sobbed audibly. I surrendered to the waves of sobs and sadness that became grief. I knew that the state I was in had nothing to do with my friend. It was all about me: I had just fallen prey to the exact same dynamic that I had decided to step out of forever.
No more being bullied. No more verbal abuse in the name of love. I was finally putting up that thing that I’d heard so much about for years: a boundary. Yes, at the ripe age of 50.
I’d realized rather painfully in recent years, that awareness of something—like the need to put up boundaries—does not always easily translate into the ability to do so. But I began to be more merciful toward myself about my “failings” when a friend introduced me to the existence of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome.
I’d learned a bit about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) well before the era of President Trump, before “narcissist” found its way into every fourth grade vocabulary list.
It was many years ago when a therapist mentioned NPD after hearing a few stories about a significant other. Since I’m not a psychologist, I can’t explain in clinical terms why it felt so hard to apply the term “narcissist” to this person. Maybe because I felt so seduced by the other prominent qualities: the social grace, the charm, the warmth. How could someone capable of such warmth, who had felt so safe, be so unsafe? So manipulative? Controlling? Mean? Was I seeing ghosts? Maybe it was just me.
Then, several months ago, a friend introduced me to Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome after observing my repeated pattern of deeply doubting myself. My pattern of not recognizing “unacceptable” behavior in my friendships and other social relationships. After watching dozens of videos and reading many articles, I finally felt the relief that comes when somebody else besides you sees the ghost.
Better yet: I felt the relief of realizing that the ghost was real.
As I read about NPD and narcissistic abuse, it felt a bit like trying to grasp at fog; I realized that not only is there no one-size-fits-all, but that both can be so covert. I finally grasped that applying the label narcissist had felt difficult because not all narcissists fit the “classical” box. I learned that there are many different styles of narcissist: the classical (a.k.a the exhibitionist), the vulnerable, and the malignant, all with various subtypes.
And, according to Darlene Lancer, an author of many books on narcissism and co-dependency, “Narcissism and the severity of abuse exist on a continuum. It may range from ignoring your feelings to violent aggression. Typically, narcissists don’t take responsibility for their behavior and shift the blame to you or others…”
I know that for many, in the process of trying to both understand and untangle themselves from the exceedingly frustrating, incomprehensible dynamic, one of the biggest pitfalls is the continuing expectation of that day of “reckoning”: the day when the narcissist will self-reflect and “wake up.”
I remember being convinced that if I could just communicate the right way—properly apply all my NVC, or empathic communication tools, this person would “come around” and be more rational. Reasonable. Understanding. Empathetic.
I would have saved myself such suffering if I’d realized that one of the signs of NPD is the incapacity to self-reflect. (Note: some narcissists do have the capacity to self-reflect and feel guilt.)
Almost as uncomfortable as applying the label “narcissist” was the idea that I might need “recovery” from narcissistic abuse. Especially at my age, after all the years of independence and all the self-development I’d done! It was illuminating for me to learn just how traumatized I still was. To witness how much pain and grief was trapped in my energetic system despite the years of self-development, yoga, and heart-intelligence training. Maybe there had been too many years of spiritual bypassing the pain: diminishing it. Relativizing it. Internalizing it. Applying the “It could be worse” Band-Aid.
In fact, I realize now that I’d been applying the typical defense mechanisms of those who suffer narcissistic abuse: projection (focusing on the positive traits of the narcissist), compartmentalization (focusing on positive parts of relationship and separating them from the abusive parts), and denial. I was late waking up to the reality of PTSD, Complex PTSD, and the very real and biological impact that abuse has on our brain: enlarging the amygdala, which is the seat of our fight and flight response.
But the story doesn’t end there, with me crying on the park bench—that was chapter one.
Chapter two happened a week later when I met up with my friend, Antonia, who is a counselor. She told me that she had seen my friend who had reported being mistreated by me. She reported how rude I’d been in hanging up on her.
For a moment, I started to slide down that familiar slope of regret and self-criticism. And then, thankfully, that momentum stopped. It was interrupted by a rise of heat in my belly. Some other presence was announcing itself: instead of feeling scary, it felt powerful. Anger had come to visit me. Finally. And this visitor lent a steadiness to my legs as it announced, “Ha! If you hung up on her, you can damned well believe she earned it. Newton’s third law of physics.”
How welcome and healthy this anger felt! I could feel so much energy moving in me. It was so much more energizing compared to the cloak of wrongness. In that moment the longing for this to be my first and automatic reaction arose in me. How sweet to feel that healthy anger that enables us to know when a line has been crossed, that moves us to say, “Enough!” or “This is not okay!”
As I felt that anger and life-force energy pulsing in my body, I suddenly knew what I had to do. I announced to my friend, “We have to do the Haka dance!”
I’d never actually done the Haka before, having only seen it on TV. Made famous by the All Blacks rugby team, the Haka is most known as a “war challenge” or “war cry” in Māori culture as it was traditionally performed by men before going to war. However, there are many different versions of the Haka, as it is a ceremonial dance celebrating life triumphing over death.
In that moment, my body was telling me that it was time to celebrate. Time to activate some new channels. I’d had enough of sadness, grief, and feelings of futility. It was time for some power. Time for more of that yummy heat flowing in my core.
So we searched for the Haka dance on YouTube and attempted to follow along to some of the “Best Of” videos. I’m sure we looked ridiculous, but it wasn’t about execution. It was about creating some new neural pathways. As we started mimicking the moves: sticking out our tongues, making warrior faces, and pounding our chests and thighs, it felt so cathartic! All the cells in my body began pulsing and tingling.
I realized just how different I felt doing this, because it was the opposite of the dance I’d done my whole life. I’d spent so much of my life mastering the dance of pleasing, accommodating, apologizing, and taking up less space. As I mimicked the Haka, I realized that now I was claiming my space and demanding to be seen and heard.
I experienced it as an audacious announcement: “I’m here, and woe to whomever dares to reckon with me.” The flow and fire in my body felt thrilling.
As I did the Haka, I knew that this was my new medicine, my new body mantra for narcissistic abuse recovery. This is the meditation I need: the moving act of getting present with myself, of saying, “I’m here. And I deserve to take up space.”
The next time I need to hang up a phone—if there is a next time—there will be no sirens. No fire. No guilt. Just a stomping of the feet and one wild, glorious, and guttural “Ha!”