Many, many women – and far too many men – know what it feels like to live under the thumb of a malignant narcissist. This is the truth: A very small portion of the population is devoid of empathy and stalks other humans like prey, uses them for their own purposes or merely dehumanizes and neglects them. They do not relate. They do not change. They do not see the light. Ever.
Survivors of malignantly narcissistic fathers or stepfathers, mothers or stepmothers; survivors of abusive siblings or partners know this. Whether consciously or subconsciously. We know, on a cellular level, in our bodies as well as our minds, what it feels like to be controlled by that certain type of person. Some of us have been, for whole lifetimes, bereft of the words for this feeling. Without a name or a label for it. But we know it in our bones.
Now, with the promise of a malignant narcissist at the helm of our country, that feeling is present for all of us. The ones for whom this is not their first rodeo – the survivors – the trigger this election has unleashed is profound and relentless. Every news story rings with the danger. He is here. He is powerful and he is unchecked.
Trauma therapists know that after a trigger come the automatic reactions. Muscle tension, shortness of breath, intrusive thoughts, surges of fear, relationship disruption, failure to perform basic self-care, numbing, dissociation, self-blame, generalized fear, rage, feelings of powerlessness, anhedonia (the inability to enjoy things.)
All these descriptions render clinical the special flavor of that trigger experience. That feeling in our bones, the painful scars of abuse survived, tingling with presence. Like the way a rainy day makes a formerly broken bone ache. That rainy day is here. And it is not going away.
Americans have lived, since the Bay of Pigs without a threat of war on our soil. Many of us have felt deeply trusting and at ease. America is safe. Others of us have traveled and lived abroad. Our foreign friends told us the tearful stories of narcissists in charge, the effects of hatred and genocide on Bosnia, Rwanda and the like. Precious few Americans are still alive to tell the stories of the Nazi Holocaust, though their families urge generations to never forget. But the survivors of narcissists in this country alone know the score. We know what the narcissist is capable of.
Here is what we know.
Before you reach the place where you accept it, you will fantasize that he will change. You will tell yourself it’s not that bad. You will take responsibility for all the things you have done that made his behavior possible. You will put your head in the sand. You will shut down. You will rage inside and say nothing outside. You will keep to yourself how terrible it feels and only share a version you believe is for public consumption. You will be invalidated by those who only see his charm and magnetism and you will believe you are alone. That you have no power.
You will do this, possibly, for a long time. And each day that you do it, you will feel him erode your sense of self, your sense of agency, your belief in the power of justice to work its magic.
And you will see no way out.
Traumatized people are tired. I work with them every day, so I know. But they are wise. They have been tested. And they have some advice for us during this time. A time that tries men’s souls. So I speak for them when I say this.
There is a way out. Here it is:
Know what you are dealing with.
Do not rest in the fantasy that he will change.
Separate from his voice, resist fear and hatred and protect those who are most vulnerable.
Never, never blame yourself.
You didn’t ask for this.
It was his job not to exercise terror in the first place. It is part of the human compact.
Find your humanity, deep in your core, where it has lived since the day you were born.
Feel your feelings and allow them to guide you.
Fan the flames of courage when they appear within.
Connect with safe people and stand up.
And in these ways, you will be free.
God Bless America.