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.