Yvette is a NWFL affiliate therapist specializing in trauma and abuse. Her clients often include women who are recovering from psychological, emotional, sexual, spiritual, and physical abuse.
One of the areas you specialize in is recovery from narcissistic abuse. Can you tell us what that means?
Narcissistic abuse is a particular form of psychological abuse committed by someone who has high narcissistic traits. Those who have suffered narcissistic abuse often struggle to feel they own their own mind from the cycles of manipulation, gas-lighting, and interpersonal exploitation that have conditioned them to focus on the needs of their abuser instead of their own. This often makes survivors feel crazy, when in reality, they are far from it. My work with survivors is to provide them a safe space to begin to feel and untangle all that has been manipulated in their relationship with a narcissistic person so they can begin to trust their gut, which has often been denied in the cycle of abuse.
How might one’s intuition become injured?
This is where gas-lighting comes into play. Gas-lighting is when an abuser intentionally makes you distrust your perception of reality and question your sanity. And there are many subtle ways this happens. Over time, as this continues, victims lose a sense of grounding and dismiss what their gut is telling them. In this, their intuition becomes stifled, or injured. It doesn’t register danger, threat, or violence the same way as those who have not experienced abuse. What is important to point out, is that while our intuition can be injured, it can also be healed. Learning to listen to our gut, trust what it is telling us, and then act on it, are ways we feed and strengthen our intuition.
Talk to us about those ruminating thoughts that survivors of abuse often suffer from.
There is much to say about the dynamic of rumination. On one level, rumination is a distraction from the terror and grief of facing the reality that the person who is supposed to cherish and love us the most is not. Worse yet, they are actually harming us. When a survivor ruminates, they are trying to make meaning, and usually land in a place of self-blame or self-annihilation. This is a conditioned response to abuse and what keeps a victim stuck in the cycle of abuse. What needs to be said, is that at some point in life (likely childhood), it served as a means of survival. To blame ourselves and work harder is often easier than facing the wrath and terror of calling the abuser out. And in childhood, calling out abuse is often not an option. In my experience, what is usually under rumination is a sense of fear, panic, or dread. And it can be so hard-wired in us that rumination is often well underway before we are even aware it is occurring. But this too, can heal over time. Once we feel safe, we can learn to observe rumination in ourselves, be curious about what it serves, extend compassion, and then begin to imagine new ways to direct that energy.
Can you speak to the chemical addiction in the brain that happens with abuse?
When abuse occurs, there is a heightened sense of arousal, meaning our bodies are very alert. This requires certain neurochemicals to dump in our body. These chemicals are a cocktail of stress chemicals, as well as bonding chemicals, and the rise and fall of these chemicals leave us in a state that needs soothing. They are very powerful and cause intense cravings to reconnect with the abuser. This is why it is often hard for victims to leave. Getting out of an abusive relationship is like giving up a drug. Initially, everything in the survivor’s body and brain will feel compelled to go back to the abuser. That’s why it is important for survivors to understand how their biology is affecting their cycle of abuse. The antidote for this addiction is sustained healthy connection, which is why safe friends, support groups, and therapy are important for survivors to heal. To understand more about the neurochemical process, read this article.
Do you find that women in abusive situations are usually very competent?
Absolutely. Especially when it comes to narcissistic abuse. By definition, a narcissistic lacks a sense of self, so they prey on competent partners to help fill the void they cannot acknowledge in themselves. Women in abusive relationships are often insightful, empathetic, attuned, intelligent, self-reflective, and hard-working. In the beginning of abusive relationships, abusers will praise their victims for these strengths, but over time, they begin to envy and resent them, and that is when the psychological abuse begins.
Tell us about your theory of change.
Gregory Bateson said, “Things are what they are because of the way they relate to other things.” This is true not only for nature, but for humans. We are what we are because of the people, places, cultures, and ideologies we have related to. To me, this speaks of Trinitarian theology and a model for relationship. We are meant to be connected, yet individuated, and the field of neuroscience has confirmed this: we are open loop systems designed for attachment. To change, we need a safe and healthy relationship where we can explore all that has contributed to shape us as people. As a trauma and abuse therapist who uses interpersonal and narrative therapy, I believe the stories of our lives are held in the body. If you think about it, the only “thing” that has been with us in every moment of our life is our body. In order to change, we have to listen and engage how stories are held in it. When we do this with safe others, we are given opportunities for reparative experiences that heal and move us along in our healing journeys.
Can you talk about how survivors often learn to live in their brain because it’s not safe in their body?
When our primary attachment figure who is supposed to love us, harms us instead, it feels too scary to live in the body. This is a coping mechanism. Like rumination, it protects us from feeling the terror of abuse and neglect. Often, it was learned first in childhood. In therapy one of the main goals is to create safety so we can begin to be curious and feel what our bodies hold. This is also how we begin to repair and nourish our intuition.
What does internalized trauma look like?
To me, internalized trauma is more of a sound than a look. Meaning, there are scripts we say over and over again to ourselves that are accusatory, dismissive, harsh, unloving, dogmatic, etc. They are the sentences that are usually behind the sentences we first hear ourselves say internally. When we listen closely, we realize these scripts serve the narratives of those who benefitted from our abuse. And, in my opinion, that’s the worst part of trauma: we learn to become complicit in abuse against ourselves. It’s what evil wants. As a therapist, that’s what I get to disrupt, and I can’t think of a higher calling.
Talk to us about what you call survival mode vs. creation mode when it comes to abuse survivors.
It may sound obvious, but survivors know how to survive. It’s what they do. When in an abusive relationship, survivors are living in survival mode. When confronted with choice, it is an easy decision: go with whatever helps you survive and mitigate further harm. But when a survivor has moved out of an abusive relationship and threat is no longer present, choice is no longer based on survival, but on creation. There is freedom to choose and create. And to many survivors, that can be terrifying. It can be hard to trust it is possible to move forward freely, and without abusive relational consequences. Plus, it can expose ways we never got to develop certain abilities or capacities. And that can bring up grief. Survivors need a lot of support and celebration in this phase. It is a time of individuating and deepening in our sense of self. It also feeds and strengthens our intuition. It can be both exhilarating and scary at first, and that is completely normal.
Would you give us that quote you love by Dorothy Allison?
“Throughout my life somebody has always tried to set the boundaries of who and what I will be allowed to be. What is common to these boundary lines is that their most destructive power lies in what I can be persuaded to do to myself – the walls of fear, shame, and guilt I can be encouraged to build in my own mind.”
Yvette recommends Healing From Hidden Abuse, by Shannon Thomas, LCSW as a straightforward and easy read for those dealing with psychological abuse.
Yvette has offices in Seattle and Kirkland. To get in touch with her, please visit www.WhisperingTreeTheapy.com, or call (239) 410-7084.
Lesley Joy Ritchie is an affiliate therapist of Northwest Family Life and works as an attachment informed trauma therapist. Lesley centers her work on the understanding that what is broken in relationship is healed in relationship. Her specialties include working with families who are either in the process of fostering/adopting or who have adopted a child with developmental trauma, as well as trauma-informed individual counseling (children and adults), general family therapy and working with clients healing from domestic violence. We spoke with her about parenting and attachment.
Tell us about the PATCh program.
PATCh stands for Parenting Adopted and Traumatized Children. This program is designed to help build a foundation of attachment and attunement for foster/adoptive families as they navigate the very difficult and chaotic process of rebuilding after significant trauma. Our program provides parents with the necessary framework for understanding the impact of trauma on the developing brain as well as how to parent a child with significant trauma. We walk parents through Trauma 101, parenting strategies for kids who are easily triggered into fight, flight, freeze reactions, self-attunement skills for parents and self-regulation skills for parents, and attunement building between parent and child through play and a variety of connective experiences.
You’ve said that trauma creates a superhighway in the brain. Talk about changing the trauma cycle to one of attachment.
This is where we get to see the magic of connection and when we get to watch the tragic brokenness of past relationships become restored by safe and secure present relationships. Whether a child or adult, the reactive impulse is a cry for help. The healing begins to occur when we can replace the maladaptive self-soothing or reactive parenting response with an attuned and connective response of affirming feelings and meeting needs. The more we respond to self or others with this attunement and care, the easier it will become. This is because the superhighway of fear and rage becomes increasingly calmer and less frantic as the hurt is being nurtured in a bond of trust vs. rejected or threatened in a bond of abuse and neglect.
What is Filial Play?
Filial play is the open and free place space for parent and child to build this connective, healing bond in a therapeutic setting. In a few words, the child gets to be in charge and to feel full agency in a safe play space where the parent does not direct or correct. The goal for the play is to see the world through the child’s eyes and to find ways to mirror delight and synchronicity. The parent does a lot of mirroring with body position, facial affect and verbally. It is a beautiful space for healing.
Talk to us about kids expressing their needs in prickly ways.
We all express our needs in prickly ways when we are in some degree of distress. If the distress has reached the level of severe abuse and neglect, the prickles will look like a child being the tiny dictator that is running the household (lots of need for control, because they have lost all control to unsafe adults in the past). Another prickle I see often is long and drawn out rages that send a child into a state of hyperarousal with a racing heart rate, difficulty breathing, etc. What is being expressed here is a need for an infantile kind of steady soothing and presence that is not shaming or corrective- often the child’s emotional age is much younger than their physical age.
Can you share about creating a high nurture, high structure environment?
I think this differs depending on who the parent is and who the child is. The language I use with parents for structure is setting limits and creating a daily rhythm. So much of this process of attachment is not easy to define. It seems evident that all humans seem to thrive with a healthy mixture of freedom, creativity, routine and rhythm. I encourage parents to get to know the child and to look closely at what times of the day the child is more emotionally resilient and which parts of the day they are more emotionally reactive. The child will need a lot more nurture in those stressful parts of the day and some of the schedule will need to become more flexible, but overall life needs to be predictable and consistent- especially the emotional response of the parent(s).
Talk to us about parenting methods that affect real behavioral change but that are damaging to the child/parent relationship, such as yelling.
Every parent knows that yelling at a child is not the ideal way of correcting misguided behavior. Every parent does it at one time or another and often parents tell me that it is hard not to yell because it is the only thing that “works”. When we as parents say this it is important to look at what we mean by the word “works”. What we usually mean here is that the child submits to us and follows our direction. What we want is real change in the child, not a fear-based appeasement of the parent. Yelling works in the short-term but makes more “work” for the parent in the long term as the nervous system just becomes more dysregulated and the trauma reactions become more ingrained.
How could the parent / child power differential overlap with themes of domestic violence?
When humans are distressed we seek to self-soothe. When children are constantly powerless in an abusive/neglectful dynamic with adults, they learn to either submit to the scary adult or fight for power and control in a variety of maladaptive ways. The deep seated belief becomes, “I’ll just disappear until the scary person goes away,” or “I will never let anyone push me around again. I am in control from now on,” etc. Thus, the trauma reaction is the same as in adults and we can find ourselves in an abusive relationship where we are the one in need of all power and control or we may be the one who disappears to make it stop.
Often the trauma that is locked inside a foster kid’s body can get transferred to the foster parent. Talk to us about the importance of foster parents caring for their own mind and body, and how they might do that.
You can call this vicarious trauma or secondary trauma. It is a real phenomenon and it often looks like depression in how it manifests in the body. We are interconnected as humans, and especially as family members living in the same home. If a child is screaming for over an hour, everyone in the house is on edge. If this happens regularly for weeks and months, then everyone is exhausted, irritated and often burnt out. This is most often the reason for disruption of foster placements. If a family can get the support and care they need early on when a terrified child is placed with them, then the home environment can be preserved for all members living together. If foster parents are healthy (self-attuned) and not reactive and if they know the child’s triggers, many of these huge stress reactions can be largely decreased in frequency and duration and in many cases, eventually eliminated completely.
Talk about how one’s relationship with self can be a healing thing.
What is broken in relationship is healed in relationship… this includes our relationship to ourselves. When we are abused by another person we often blame ourselves, especially as children. When shame and self-loathing take over, the cycle of abuse continues. The focus on soul care and self attunement is THE MOST IMPORTANT ACT for those who have endured severe trauma. Moving from self-hatred to self-acceptance and refusing to abandon and retraumatize the most fragile parts of our soul/spirit/body/mind is the only hope for healing.
What is a 30 second burst of attention and when might parents use it?
Imagine yourself in the kitchen at home, dinner is cooking and you are tired after a long day. Imagine your 7 year old running into the kitchen screaming that her brother keeps locking her out of his room and won’t play with her. She is getting increasingly upset and dysregulated, demanding that you get her into the bedroom. You have the choice to:
A. Tell your daughter that you are cooking and that she needs to find something else to do until dinner is ready and ignore her screaming and kicking you while cooking.
B. You turn down the stove burner, move toward your daughter and down to her level and listen to her story about how mean brother is, show her that her feelings are important to you and focus on meeting a need in the moment (ex. can I pour you a glass of juice and can you help me finish dinner and we will solve this later, I promise). Then end the burst of attention with a silly face competition or a short staring contest.
It takes intention to meet needs and the burst of attention is an intentional but quick way to de-escalate a child’s stress reaction and to help them regulate through connection and attunement.
What are some books you would recommend to parents? How about children’s storybooks?
I love to say that the best book for a parent to read is a book that they want to read. If you don’t like to read books then listen to music, get fresh air, watch a favorite comedian, listen to a podcast that connects to your passion etc. Books are great but there is so much more than books that will get the wind back in your sales. I do love to learn, so here are a few of my favorite books, youtube videos and podcasts that have helped me and those I know on the journey of healing:
Kids books (beneficial for both kids and adults, and everyone between): Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, I love you Through and Through by Caroline Jayne Church
Adult books: The Connected Child by Karen Purvis, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, Changes that Heal by Henry Cloud, Conscious Living by Gay Hendricks, The Healing Path by Dan Allender
The Post Institute- Bryan Post’s Daily Dose on Facebook: or on Youtube:
Flourishing Foster Parenting Podcasts
A podcast I was interviewed for on trauma-informed parenting- Trauma-Informed Parenting: A FFP Coaching Call with Lesley Joy Richie
Favorite educational videos with therapist Kati Morton
You can connect with Lesley here or check out the Northwest Trauma Counseling website for more info on the PATCh Program.