This column is dedicated to my sister, who is my best friend and wise counsel in so much of this learning
In Part 2, I wrote about painful shock, our instantaneous reactions to stabilize us until we have time to heal, and the everyday process that we use to resolve trauma.
In a relationship with a sociopath, something goes wrong with this process. We don’t handle “bad things that happen to us” in an expeditious way. It may be that we do not have skills for fast processing of emotional trauma, because we are burdened by residue of previous trauma. But beyond that, the typical sociopathic technique of recruiting us through seductive love-bombing, followed by withdrawal of positive attention, can disable our normal responses.
Instead of clearly recognizing that we are victims of abuse, we become confused about our own involvement. Because we responded positively to the seduction, we are from the beginning volunteers or collaborators in what happened to us. When our “perfect lovers” inexplicably turn cold, critical and demanding, we are left dealing with emotional attachments to our precious memories. This chaotic emotional landscape sets the stage for further emotional abuse and predation.
Adapting to the Unthinkable
Denial is the topic of this piece. In denial, we assume that we have power over certain aspects of our relationship with a sociopath. It is a form of magical thinking. It also plays an important role in recovery.
My friends: Kathy, what do you mean he’s moving back in with you again? It took you months to stop crying over him last time.
Me: No, it’s really okay. We had a good talk. He’s just needs my support. It was my fault for not trusting him. He really cares about me. He was so tender and open. Can’t you hear how happy I am?
Is it any wonder people think we’re crazy? But until we “learn through” this situation, we may feel as crazy as they think we are.
In the Kubler-Ross model of grief processing after receiving a terminal diagnosis, denial is a rejection of reality. “This isn’t happening to me.” It is the same difficulty we face in the loss of a loved one, absorbing the information that a life resource has disappeared. First response to trauma often includes a massive rush of endorphins (the “feel good” brain chemical) that anesthetizes pain and helps prevent us from dying or breaking down. This is why the first response of survivors is often inexplicably confident and relaxed about the future.
But denial is also a psychological state that can endure forever. In denial, we avoid the cause-and-effect reality of our pain. If our sociopath relationship causes us pain, we look for its causes anywhere but in the sociopath’s bad intention toward us. When we look at our situation with the sociopath, we see the benefits and good potential, rather than the disasters that we’re living through.
Swept Off Our Feet
The purpose of denial is not to reduce the pain, but to avoid acknowledging the cause of it. In our relationships with sociopaths, we have at least two significant reasons for denial. One is that, like a drug pusher, the sociopath has successfully pushed past our normal self-protective boundaries and conditioned us to emotional merger in an environment of “perfect love.” We have lost independence of thought and feeling, and acquired a new need to keep us stable — the “perfect love.” We are now junkies.
The difference between this emotional merger and a healthy love relationship is that the development was dominated by the sociopath. It was conducted in a way that rewarded us for fast emotional response and penalized us for trying to slow it down for rational consideration.
As a result, we do not have a well-understood set of reasons for our involvement, except that this person was so accurate in pushing our buttons. Without those reasons, it is harder for us to go back and compare our current reality with any logical choices that we made. We begin these relationships in disorientation that seems to be “perfect” because it reflects our dreams or emotional needs, but does not reflect our well-boundaried, thoughtful, self-caring identities.
The second and even more compelling reason to avoid acknowledging the cause of our pain is the knowledge of our own collusion. We said yes to this. (It is not until later in the healing process that we understand what we were up against, and forgive ourselves.) If we are causing ourselves this pain, our identities are seriously compromised. We don’t know who we are anymore. If we can’t extricate ourselves from the relationship, the threat to our internal integrity is magnified.
So denial “protects” us from the knowledge that our drug of choice is a destructive force on our lives, and that we are causing our own pain. (One of those facts is true.)
The Impact of Shutting Down
Denial is an act of will. A deliberate not knowing. However, denial does not always occur at the conscious level, especially if we have backgrounds of unhealed childhood abuse. Likewise, major adult trauma — like rape or combat experiences — can overwhelm our everyday trauma-processing skills, making us more likely to “get stuck” at early-stage processing.
Denial is not just a stage in healing. It is also a radical coping response to certain circumstances. If we cannot escape a situation, if we are dependent for survival on the perpetrators of trauma, if we can’t exercise our defensive flight-or-fight impulses without increasing our risk, shutting down our awareness of cause and effect is a way of managing our responses to the situation. Like that first endorphin rush after a painful shock, shutting down is a means of survival.
In later life, if we have never adequately processed and healed from these situations, this type of shutting down may still be our best and final response to any traumatic event. Because it may be embedded in blocked memory, the whole mechanism may occur below the realm of consciousness.
If we are using denial as a self-protective technique, we may have an unusual pain tolerance, a lack of awareness of risk, and a constant “hum” of anxiety interfering with emotional or logical activity. Our knowledge of cause and effect of pain is not destroyed, only blocked. Our protective “alert” system keeps generating emotional noise, trying to draw our attention to the situation. Even after it is long past. Because we have not yet finished learning from it, so we can move on with our identities intact. The fact that this painful trauma is still “live” means that we are reactive to anything that looks like a reoccurrence, causing post-traumatic stress responses.
Magical thinking is the idea that we can alter reality by our thoughts. In many cases, we do influence events by envisioning our preferred outcomes, and acting on opportunities to create the future we want. But when magical thinking becomes the attempt to obliterate feelings that originate in our survival responses, we move into the realm of the impossible and self-destructive. We are attempting to magically change the present, not create the future. Rejecting our feelings splits our psyches into parts of ourselves that we accept and parts that we do not. Fear and rejection of ourselves makes us more likely to view the world in terms of fear and rejection.
For all the problems it creates, denial provides us the gift of time. It enables us to postpone trauma processing until the environment is safer or more supportive, or until we can endure facing the cause-and-effect issues. But until we are ready to move forward, everything we might learn and all our related self-protective emotions are stuffed back into a “La-la-la, I’m not thinking about this now” area of our heads.
The more we stuff, the more emotional static builds up in the background. If the sociopath is depending on our insecurity, instability, or high pain tolerance, denial makes it that much easier for the sociopath to exploit us, because we are not acting self-protectively in response to pain.
How to Care for Ourselves
Denial is probably the most toxic phase of the healing process, because we are not only reeling from painful shock, but also blocking our knowledge and feelings about it. However much we are obsessed by relationship with the sociopath, a much larger and more demanding relationship drama is occurring in our own psyches. We are at war with ourselves.
As others have noted here on Lovefraud, getting over a sociopathic relationship isn’t necessarily a linear process. We may be experiencing multiple stages of healing — including anger and forgiveness — alongside early-stage processing like denial. One reason for this is that the experience of a sociopathic relationship is so multi-layered. We experience trauma related to our beliefs about the world and changes in our material circumstances, as well as our relationships with ourselves.
The fastest way to recover our capacity to deal with other traumas is to fix our relationship with ourselves. Self-hatred drains our energy, hope and creative capacity. Part of this despair is instilled in us by the sociopath’s criticisms and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t “love,” which are part of their program to separate us from our self-trust and make us more dependent on them. But a more important source of our self-hatred is denial itself. Denial creates an environment of fear and rejection of ourselves.
The Healing Facts
In healing, we do eventually come terms with what we did to ourselves. We get there because we face two simple facts.
One is that we were vulnerable. Our vulnerability came out of the way we were taught, our previous experiences that may have left us with unhealed emotional damage, and the quality of our dreams. All of these things are part of being human. All of these things can be reconsidered and improved to makes us stronger, more able and confident in taking care of ourselves, and more creative and joyful in our lives. These improvements occur during our recovery process.
The other fact is that we were dealing with something we didn’t understand. The sociopathic strategy for predation begins with deliberately disabling other people’s self-protective responses. They do it in order to exploit other people’s social feelings, personal resources and dignity, all to fill incurable deficiencies in their characters and lives. They mask themselves as attractive people we would like to know. Until they show their predatory intentions, we are dealing with an actor playing a role. The fact that we didn’t understand is also human.
We ordinarily don’t get clear information about their intentions until we are hooked, addicted and dependent. At that point, our ability to recognize and act on the information is compromised. This doesn’t make us stupid. It makes us victims. It is pointless and it only perpetuates the trauma to hate the parts of ourselves that are innocent, hopeful, trusting and open to love. We didn’t do this to ourselves.
Getting out of denial is a cause for tears. But they are healthy tears for the right reasons. If we have been blocked in denial for a while, we may have a lot of them to shed. They are part of comforting ourselves, acknowledging our feelings and validating our right to feel them. When we’ve comforted ourselves enough, the tears will stop and we will move on to another part of healing. It does not go on forever.
We have reason to feel sad for ourselves. Something bad happened to us. We didn’t see it coming. We didn’t know what it was. We didn’t know how to protect ourselves. We didn’t know how to get out of it when it got painful. Every bit of it, including our saying yes to it and the emotional addiction that kept us attached, was not our choice. We never would have chosen it, if we understood what was really going on. Grasping the truth that a bad thing that happened to us, rather blaming it on ourselves, is a major part of healing.
To get out of denial, we may have to find the courage to ignore other people’s opinions or embedded ideas about who we “should” be. If we think we “should have been” stronger or smarter, we’re still in denial about our human vulnerability. With other people, we may have to reject with dignity any idea that this is a minor event, that we don’t have the right to take our time healing, and that we were not victimized.
Taking care of ourselves in this way speeds our recovery of self-trust. In our lives, we own the knowledge that this was a major trauma in our lives, and that it is our responsibility to ourselves to fully heal, no matter what it takes, or how long.
Recovering Our Resources
Facing the facts, getting out of self-hate, putting the blame where it belongs frees us to begin the positive work of restructuring our lives. Part of that work is thinking about what the encounter with the sociopath has to teach us. We have learned something about the world. We have also learned something about ourselves. Together, those two types of learning lead us to recreate ourselves in a number of ways.
This creation occurs in an environment of choice, not the desperation that led to denial. We use our new knowledge to develop new habits of self-care and new ideas about what we want out of our lives. All of this is good for us.
Getting out of denial and out of self-hatred also enables us to approach the world a little differently. We don’t feel the need to apologize for who we are. We need to put together a new life. We become more pragmatic, more able to work through our options, more comfortable with temporary failures, because we’re figuring out what works, not struggling to keep the lid on our feelings or to deny part of our history.
Every time we face an uncomfortable fact, we become better at undoing denial. Denial is a temporary tool for managing trauma, but it makes us vulnerable to the sociopath and other avoidable disasters. Becoming more open to truth, even when it is uncomfortable, is our first line of defense of our lives and our real identities.
To recap: A bad thing happened to us. We did not see it coming or understand it when it was happening. We did not cause it. We are survivors, and we’re learning from the experience. In healing, we not only get over our pain, but become better at living than we were before.
Namaste. The courageous, truth-seeking spirit in me salutes the courageous, truth-seeking spirit in you.