Engulfment, shame and loss of self

Another post from my old blog, this time one I wrote in May as I was piecing together some things about shame and being engulfed by a narcissistic mother leading to a loss of self.

In May 2017 I remember feeling as though I was on the cusp of something huge, cognitively at least – a new understanding. I was starting to realise just how many of my triggers are shame-based, how much of my behaviours are driven by shame; fear of not being good enough, terror of not doing everything perfectly and people thinking badly of me or worse – people seeing who I really am. I feel shame for needing K, anyone, anything. I feel shame when people let me down. I always thought I had high expectations of people but I don’t think I do, I think I just feel ridiculously triggered when people aren’t there or say no to me because I feel so fucking bad about myself and it just confirms how bad I am – of course they don’t want to see me or spend time with me, how could I have thought otherwise? I said in therapy how I don’t even know what it is about me that I think is so bad. K said the shame is probably formational; I have a core of shame.

And I had some big realisations at this time about my ‘core of shame’ and I made the link between my lack of boundaries and my dissociation – my dissociation into parts/alters, and the other type of dissociation I experience – depersonalisation (DP) and derealisation (DR). Near the start of therapy I had said I experience two types of dissocation – alters, and DP/DR – and I remember K saying you’ll probably find they are quite closely linked, and I believed her but I didn’t know what she meant until that time. Then all of a suddenly it made sense – my alters split off to hold feelings and needs and behaviours it was unsafe for me to experience – feelings and needs that would cause my mother to disconnect from me further and therefore put my survival at risk. So the parts hold the feelings of the real me, who needed to split off so the core me could survive. That’s why my parts aren’t just emotions, but are also ways of being in the world that would have got me into trouble and caused my Mum to disconnect further. And this is why I have many coping parts/ANPs – different selves were needed for survival depending on what my volatile and emotionally abusive mother needed at the time. I was genuinely a shape-shifter, reflecting back whatever my Mum needed in the moment. My lack of boundaries is REAL – I BECAME my mother, I held her feelings for her. She didn’t just eclipse me, she genuinely engulfed me and took me over.

‘What comes before the mirror is the mother’s face. So when one looks in one’s mother’s face, one sees oneself. To be seen and to be held by the mother are the defining events of childhood – our mother’s embrace confirms we exist, and the adoring mirror of her eyes confirms who we are’.

This doesn’t happen for infants with narcissistic mothers – their existence is never confirmed and they remain enmeshed with their mothers, unable to distinguish between themselves and others. Their mother is an empty mirror – as a baby they looked at their mother/the mirror and didn’t see themselves reflected back. How could they grow up knowing they existed? So my Mum couldn’t actually see me, for her I did not exist as separate from her. She engulfed me as in I had no sense of self. My true self was annihilated, killed off so I could be her mirror – if I showed my real self I risked death because to be real and distinct is dangerous for an infant with a primary carer like this. And so I had no mirror to learn who I was and that I existed as separate from others.

And at this point I realised how entrenched my lack of boundaries are; I don’t just not say no or not ask for what I need/want, I literally AM that other person and responsible for how they feel. I unconsciously pre-empt and take responsibility for all the feelings and thoughts of whoever I’m with or relating to. I take on their feelings and I automatically try to work out what they need from me to prevent them feeling bad, embarrassed, disappointed, etc. I don’t do this to make them ‘like me,’ it is more complex that – I AM them. I must protect them from their own feelings and sense of e.g. embarrassment if they say or do something silly. This is why I tell people I’m fine when I’m not and don’t correct them when they say something factually wrong, and it is why I accept offers of things I really don’t want, and why I am desperate to soothe people when they say self-deprecating stuff. I’m trying to protect them from feeling their own stupidity and so on. I shape-shift constantly, trying to say and do the right thing so they don’t feel bad. It’s why I find groups so hard – I cannot be who I perceive everyone needs me to be all at the same time. It is exhausting and overwhelming. These reactions are automatic. This dance is invisible but also in it I am invisible. And I’m starting to see how all this comes from being enmeshed with and engulfed by my narcissistic mother.

 Depersonalisation, shame, engulfment and loss of self

I’ve started to see how my constant DP is related to this engulfment and this core of shame. Constant DP such as I experience is not about anxiety (lots of people get the symptoms occasionally when they are triggered, overwhelmed, and anxious, mine has a different cause because it is there all the time and it is not helped by grounding and so on). I read about how it is caused by disorganised attachment; abuse and disorganised attachment lead to DP because DP results from conflicts in the unconscious mind, it’s a defence to cover up inner conflict in the psyche. This inner conflict then is because I have had to hide my own feelings and project/mirror by mother, in order to survive. I made myself unreal by dissociating so that I could survive all the shame I felt from having feelings and needs I wasn’t allowed to have.

My Mum loved me when I reflected well on her. She didn’t love ME. She couldn’t, because she couldn’t see me. She could only see herself reflected back in me. For years now I’ve lamented that my Mum told me who I was and what I felt and what I wanted. My feelings and needs and wants were confusing to me because so often my internal experience didn’t match what my Mum told me it was. So I learnt to switch off from it and ignore my internal experiences. I shaped myself into someone who would please her.

I’ve said before that I was engulfed by my mother, that she is an engulfing narcissistic mother, but I never really understood it, or why it was so bad. Daughters of engulfing narcissistic mothers were literally engulfed; we became our mothers, we split off ourselves so they would see themselves reflected back and love us and not abandon us to die. I think I thought engulfing us meant controlling us and smothering us but I’ve just understood on a deep level that it has literally meant we had no sense of self. Our self was literally engulfed into their sense of self and our true self was annihilated. I used to understand that when we looked into their eyes we didn’t see ourselves reflected back, so we had no mirror to learn who we were and are, but I never got what this truly meant – it meant we did not exist.

So she obliterated who I was, what I felt and wanted and needed. My fear of annihilation is a fear based on experience. I am not afraid of something that might one day happen, but reliving an experience that has already happened. Annihilation: complete destruction or obliteration. This is what she did to me – my true self was destroyed. This is why I am so scared of being invisible – I was to her. And this is why I have cut off from all my feelings, it is why I am dissociated all the time – to protect me from this. I am terrified to show my true feelings, to show who I really am. I feel embarrassed and ashamed when I feel anything or show anything about myself, positive or negative – I turned my self bad as a BABY to protect her and keep her good to protect me. I dissociated all my feelings (literally – with the DP and DR I stopped existing). I feel shame around all my feelings (good and bad, happy/sad, positive/negative) because she engulfed me, I mirrored her, I absorbed her. My needs and wants were BAD – I saw in her face they were bad/inconvenient and I became that badness. I made myself bad for having needs, for existing, for having a self.

So when people SEE ME I feel shame, and TERROR. When I feel connected to someone I am afraid of annihilation. The two go hand in hand. Being connected to my mother annihilated the REAL ME. This makes real attunement, like I get from K for the first time in my life, a threat – it means I have been SEEN and being seen is dangerous, literally I could have died as a result of being seen. Disorganised attachment means connection is a source of terror – the abuse triggers the natural drive to attach and seek safety but because the caregiver is also a source of fear it triggers the fight/flight drive at the same time. It is fear without solution which defines disorganised attachment – both innate biological survival drives are activated at the same time and neither can be soothed without activating the other.

And all this also means a child never learns to process their own emotions with safe other validating and reflecting them back to them – the child is not allowed a sense of self with feelings and needs and so their only option is to avoid feelings by dissociating them and making themselves unreal, i.e. depersonalised, to avoid the inner conflict. So I continue to dissociate ALL feelings, because showing myself and my feelings was so unsafe. I experience huge internal conflicts between what I feel and experience and what I express. So the alters hold the feelings, leaving me with no feelings and no self.  This is the work of therapy – not discovering my real self, but creating her from all the split off parts of my psyche.

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