Guilt and Shame | A message to survivors ‘new’ to the aftermath
(c) 2018 Rhonda Freeman, PhD
When you’re fresh out of an abusive relationship with a narcissist or psychopath your mind can feel on fire with conflicting thoughts and intense emotions. You might feel angry with your abuser; you might feel angry with yourself.
Why did this happen?
How did I miss the signs?
Why didn’t I help myself (leave) when I knew there was something seriously wrong with her/him?
Why did I allow him/her to treat me that way?
Those questions are normal and often present themselves in the beginning of the aftermath period. However, as a step toward your self-care take a moment to consider what those thoughts are doing to you.
Those thoughts reinforce negative neuro-tracts and activate various pain regions of the brain.
Ultimately, those thoughts will intensify feelings of guilt, sadness, shame, and regret rather than move you toward balance and peace. Guilt and shame have been found to activate brain regions such as the insula (e.g., pain), anterior cingulate cortex (cognitive/emotion regulation), and amygdala (e.g., emotion processing) (Michl, Meindl, Meister, Born, Engel, Reiser, & Hennig-Fast, 2015). When healing we need to activate a different set of tracts entirely; tracts associated with calmness, balance, and comfort. Guilt and shame, which many narcissists and psychopaths ignite in their partners by blaming them for the relationship problems, can easily hold a survivor in a place of pain.
I encourage you to make a figurative jump toward the following belief: From this point forward, I will not carry guilt or shame associated with her/his behavior. This does not serve me. It only inhibits me.
Why should you make a conscious effort to move away from thoughts that increase feelings of guilt and shame?
Primarily because one way to care for yourself in the aftermath is to release ‘the self’ of responsibility for behavior you did not cause. The symptoms of psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder prevent them from viewing social relationships or themselves accurately.
No they are not delusional, however I am certain you have witnessed their distorted thoughts (e.g., always blameless, self-enhancement, primitive winner/ loser dichotomous thinking, etc). You cannot base your reality on the opinion of someone who cannot fully process a situation or emotions. And judgments regarding you cannot be based upon the opinion of someone who used manipulation to control or destroy a relationship.
Here are three additional reasons you should attempt to disengage from thoughts that lead you to ponder your role in the relationship problems (which often leads to feelings of shame/ guilt):
- When we are in love we are (almost literally) not in our right mind. The neurobiology of love puts portions of our brain in charge that are not associated with logic. Now add abuse on top of that and you have probably doubled the struggles for the brain. And no we’re not done yet … add a breakup/ separation to that and the brain is going through an extreme neurochemical ‘storm’ solely because of the relationship. Love, Abuse, and Breakups are three (of a few) times the brain can be instantly sent into a significantly dysregulated state. (An example of another time would be the death of a loved one.)
- The prefrontal cortex (regulation, calming, problem solving, personality, concentration, planning, organization) takes a backseat when we are in love with someone. Trauma (abuse) and a breakup can make a person feel that portions of their prefrontal cortex is nearly out of commission. How can you possibly figure out something as complex as a Cluster B Personality disorder when the brain has the Love, Abuse, Breakup scenario present?
- I will use myself as an example. I was with my partner, who had strong psychopathic traits, for months before I accepted that he demonstrated patterns of psychopathy. I was blinded by love and missed red flags constantly. It may help you to know you are not alone when you consider this happened to someone who administers neuropsychological evaluations daily (me)! His mask was stellar, his love-bombing was perfection, and his hyperactive reward system led me to feel like he loved me. His disorder only became apparent when he shifted into the devaluation stage. As you can see, I missed it in my own guy. Yes, the neurochemistry associated with love is powerful and can make accurate analysis of your relationship difficult. Therefore, this would not be the ideal time to ponder your role in the relationship.
2. People with certain personality disorders (narcissists/ psychopaths) have an amazing ability to conceal their dark traits. Those traits will likely cause whoever loves them to suffer. It is hard to experience love from someone who has no empathy for you. At some point there will be pain when their lack of empathy is mixed with their preferred modes of interaction – manipulation, using, deceiving, attention siphoning, dominance, and cruelty. Most have been disordered since before early childhood and have practiced how to survive in a world of the non-disordered. They know what they want/ need and how to get it from others. They have been sick longer than you have been reading about their disorder – they have the upper hand. They tend to win in their game of relationships, while shifting the blame to you.
3. If you are struggling in the aftermath, the chances are high that you are a person capable of empathy, compassion, love, and kindness. Guess what? You have morals! You love hard, bond, demonstrate loyalty, and people can rely on you. You take responsibility for your wrongs and believe in fairness. Those are wonderful traits and never feel badly for them. The world needs more people like you and those traits are to be admired and passed on to the next generation. The only downside to being moral and having a sense of fairness is that those morals will naturally present themselves after an abusive relationship. Those traits (for many) could easily lead them to look at their role in the situation. This is something that normal people do (fyi – psychopaths and narcissists are not sitting around wondering what they did to ruin their relationship and how to make it right.)
- To look at our role is how mature, moral people learn from their mistakes and attempt to right any wrongs they may have caused. Are you doing that with this relationship? I encourage you to refrain from that kind of analysis if you were involved with a psychopath or narcissist (especially when you are in the education phase of healing.) In the phase when you are still raw with pain indicates that the brain is not in the best place to handle reasoning and problem solving of an emotionally charged life-event like your relationship. You could easily (erroneously) hold yourself accountable for their bad behavior and worsen your pain.
- I feel confident that once you get through that phase of understanding their pathology and cooling down the dysregulated systems of the brain, you will have very little interest in examining your role in the drama and abuse. All the manipulation, gaslighting, and coercion will be clear to you. You will ‘get’ that you could not possibly have a contributing role in their pathological behavior.
When you are in the phase of healing where the focus is on yourself, your interest will be in ensuring the proper boundaries are in place to bar out the narcissists and psychopaths that will come smiling in your direction in the future. You will be able to look back and see how some of your traits increased your vulnerability to a callous, deceitful person. However, in the beginning emotions are far too raw to give yourself a fair assessment and will only interfere with healing.
I know that you can do this and move forward with your life. It took me a while, however that extended time was because I took many wrong approaches before I settled down and got on the right healing path. I’ll share my list of wrong turns that prolonged my healing journey at another time.
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All the best,
Dr. R. Freeman