Steps in Overcoming Childhood Trauma and Narcissistic Abuse


Overcoming childhood trauma and narcissistic or parental abuse are extremely difficult but it is doable. When I started this journey, I couldn’t see for miles — hundreds and thousands of miles. Turbulent airflow forever.

Many healing steps, which follow the 12-step program, didn’t fit me. I am not a proponent of “surrendering to a higher power” or “forgiving” the perpetrator. I believe that those steps, taken too early, can further harm or cause internal denial and invalidation of the victim’s experience. Giving oneself over to a higher power can also put the victim back into the disempowered position, causing one to be susceptible to love bombers and the easy promises of religious and cult groups.

Many victims never had a childhood or a loving parent who took care of their wants and needs. As adults, they see themselves and treat themselves the same way that their abusive caretaker(s) took care of them while also seeking an all-loving parent without internally understanding that stage has passed and no one can take care of them the way that their parents were supposed to. What’s more, they often end up seeking people just like their abusive caretaker(s) without understanding why. They also try to manipulate external circumstances to get what they want. Once a schema is established, confirmation bias sets in, and all events and experiences are interpreted in ways that fit the schema. For example, I believed that I would only be acceptable if I made myself less than others. I sought out experiences or experienced the world in ways that fit that hypothesis.

The survivor has to form a loving parental figure inside of themselves and learn to meet their wants and needs in healthy and direct ways.

My goal is to provide a list of steps that reground the person back into themselves by giving them a sense of knowledge, self-trust, and personal empowerment.

There are no quick or fast fix-alls nor is there someone or higher power who will save you and take away all of your pain. Medication can mitigate some side effects of trauma, but it won’t correct cognitive distortions nor help you to change maladaptive thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors formed as the result of living in a dysfunctional household. Medication can serve as an aid at the beginning of your journey but the goal is to slowly phase out of them and to become fully dependent on yourself. Once you are sure of yourself, you will begin to seek out healthier relationships and form interdependent relationships while maintaining your true self.

You have to do the hard work of learning to love yourself and be the parent that you’ve never had. This is a lifetime commitment and a lifetime journey. Some of these steps can take years.

For each of us who heals and breaks the cycle of transgenerational trauma, we are making the world a better place. Pat yourself on the back and hug yourself. You’re a hero for taking this journey.

Deep Trauma Work: The first stage is coming to the recognition that things are not working and that deep trauma work must be done.

Step 1: Things are not working

Admit that something isn’t working. Perhaps you’re a workaholic and you’re constantly exhausted. You keep hurting yourself in covert and overt ways. You’ve done everything that you can but you’re depressed or things are just not working. You don’t get along with your friends, lovers, coworkers, or parents. No matter what you do, you feel stuck in the same place.

I spent almost a decade in this stage. Burning out over and over again. Running over 20 miles a week. Going to yoga. Pushing myself to the limit meanwhile knowing in the back of my head that I hated my parents and that I hated myself. I thought that this was the way life was supposed to be. I went to AA (I wasn’t an alcoholic) and even started going to church. I watched The Secret. But nothing helped to fill the emptiness within.

When I shut down my start-up, I knew that I had to do some serious mental and emotional work, but I didn’t know what or where to start. I didn’t trust people so therapy was out of the question. I started with a book on manifestation. With books, I could agree or disagree. I jumped from one book to another before coming across some books on codependency, which led to books about attachment theory, betrayal bonding, parental neglect, and more. With each book, I felt more empowered and more knowledgeable about who I was, what happened, how I became the way that I am, and how to begin to love myself so that I can change it. I began to focus on myself instead of trying to change others.

Step 2: Understand what happened and its effects on you today

Understand the specific type of trauma that you might have experienced. If you grew up with childhood trauma, understand what type. Understand how attachment theory affects how you relate to others and what kind of partners you seek. In addition, if you grew up in a dysfunctional family system, you most likely acquired additional trauma after you left your home of origin. You might have a sex addiction, codependency, or rage attacks. You might be a workaholic or have been raped by an intimate partner. Childhood issues set you up for work and relational issues in adulthood. You might not know how to say no, how to have healthy boundaries, or even have a healthy sense of self. Or you might be so angry that you take it out on the people around you or isolate yourself completely from others. Start from the beginning of your life and examine how it shapes how you see yourself, the world, relationships, and more. A list of books can be found here.

I also began to learn a vocabulary that accurately described and identified my experience. At first, it was difficult to admit that I was a codependent, for fear of labeling myself something negative and therefore “faulty,” but it helped me to see my patterns, why I couldn’t and didn’t say no even though I wanted to, and helped me to begin changing my behaviors.

I also began to learn about the abuser’s pathology and began to separate it from my own. By learning about the abuser, I began to see that I wasn’t the cause of someone being mean to me. When someone devalued me, it wasn’t because I didn’t have value. Everyone has their own value system. I don’t have to believe in theirs just as they don’t have to believe in mine. It’s also okay to walk away from people who don’t value you and you don’t always have to prove your value to others. This is especially important for people of color, who are constantly being devalued, whether it’s in school, society, or at work simply because of the pigment of their skin or the shape of their eyes. It can be hard to walk away from those who you think are in power but there are people who will value you.

When you’ve been abused, in any way, or have faced racism, it can be difficult to believe that there are people who will value you just for you. That’s why it’s important to learn about an abuser or racist’s pathology. For them, it’s all about power but you don’t have to buy into their power anymore. It’s a myth. You can begin to see your own power. This is an extremely difficult concept, especially for someone who grew up in poverty. Everyone else had more and you never got what you needed. Growing up, I always had to beg others for morsels. But through your healing journey, you can begin to see that you have power too and that it can be manifested from within.

Step 3: Go to therapy — find a therapist who can bear “witness” to the traumatic events of your life by metaphorically holding your hand without saving or rescuing you.

When you have a healthier sense of who is safe and who isn’t, begin by finding a therapist that fits you. It might take a while to find a therapist who really fits you.

In the beginning, I sought out therapists like my parents. People who would give me “tough love” or bully me into becoming a better person. As I became a healthier person, I sought out more nurturing therapists. There are times when I still wonder if I am with the right therapist or if there’s a more expert therapist who can better guide me in my journey. This is okay.

During different stages of your healing journey, you’ll need a therapist to do different things. Once I found a therapist I liked, I began to go over my childhood experiences with her. I knew that I needed someone who could give me compassion, and help me to believe that I can mentally and emotionally handle those events as an adult. What’s more, I needed a therapist who didn’t make me think that I was asking for too much or that I was being overly emotional. Her acceptance of my sadness helped me to accept my own and to begin to see that maybe others can just be there for me instead of yelling or screaming at me to be quiet.

My relationship with my therapist continues to change, and we continue to do different things based on what I need. She’s not there to tell me what to do or what to expect. I’m there to learn it by myself.

Every therapist is different. Some are more focused on staying in the body, which is known as somatic therapy. My therapist is more focused on the therapeutic relationship. To her, our relationship is supposed to be a model for healthy relationships. For instance, I can tell her that I am angry, and the relationship doesn’t have to end.

Step 4: Learn what you’re addicted to, how you use it to cope, and how your protective mechanisms might be hurting you

Most people who have faced trauma will have some sort of addiction or coping mechanism. Sex can be an addiction. So is codependency. Most people know about drug or alcohol addiction. But if you’ve been to Brooklyn, you know that a lot of people are dependent on weed or workaholism or self-sabotage. You have to look beyond the obvious definitions of addiction. Anything overly used to help you from feeling a certain way and dealing with it is an addiction. Some people are addicted to unavailable people. Learn about it.

Addiction or coping mechanisms are not isolated diseases. They’re often the symptom of something deeper and greater. At this stage, you can begin to see the link between trauma and the addiction or coping mechanism that you use.

Your addictions and coping mechanisms might worsen or become heightened when you begin to do deep trauma work. This is because you’re dealing with emotions that you’ve been burying your entire life. Naturally, you'll want to run away from it or make yourself feel better by using one of your coping mechanisms. Be aware of this possibility and take steps to have a support system in place as you begin to work through trauma recovery.

Step 5: Begin to heal the body, emotions, the brain

This stage is about connecting to your body, your emotions, and your brain. In all likelihood, if you have had trauma, you’re disconnected from your emotions and your body. You most likely intellectualize and dissociate from your body. It’s also about staying in your body during difficult emotions and not having to run away or cope in some other way. The Body Keeps the Score is an important book to read during this stage.

I’ve had to come back to this step multiple times and continue to do so as I begin to love and accept my body. I always saw my body as an object or as a vessel but now I am beginning to see that it is my first home.

You may also begin to trace how your childhood trauma might have links to current physical ailments. For example, internalized and self-directed anger might become depression and fatigue. You can begin to decipher the deeper roots of your health issues.

Step 6: Connect to your inner child

Rest. Cry. This might take years and an entire lifetime. Talk to your inner child. Many therapy models theorize that we all have a child inside all of ourselves. Depending on when you were first traumatized, your inner child might be stuck at that age. It’s up to you to talk to it, form a relationship with it, and learn to soothe and talk to him or her. When you’re triggered, sometimes you might become him or her. It’s okay. Get to know them and give them what they need now.

Step 7: Form a model of a healthy adult and healthy parent within yourself

This is related to Step 6. When you talk to your inner child, you learn to become a healthier adult who can soothe and be kind to your inner child. Talking to your inner child helps you to treat yourself better. When we had neglectful or abusive parents, we learn to treat ourselves the same way and never learn to treat ourselves the way that we needed. DBT also helps us to become healthier adults.

Step 8: Begin to form safe relationships with others gradually and slowly

This step is difficult. To be honest, I’m still at this step. I’m not sure who is safe and who isn’t. What’s more, I tend to feel inferior or less than around people who I think are healthy. This sense of inferiority creates a sense of shame so I don’t want to be around healthy people. It creates a trap of my own making.

I also still have difficulty setting boundaries or know when it’s okay to ask someone to explain what they mean. For example, in popular culture, it’s very common for women to call each other “bitches.” But being called a bitch for fun confuses me, especially when I’m just getting to know the person and don’t know who they are yet. Perhaps this is a red flag in of itself but I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to confront the person and say “Hey, I’m not comfortable with you calling me that, even if it’s a joke.”

It’s also easy to jump into a relationship and think that it’s going to fix everything and make you whole but as you may already know or will come to learn — nothing outside of yourself, even the most beautiful and wonderful person in the world can make you whole if you don’t do the deep work. You might not even recognize or allow a loving partner in your life if you don’t love and accept yourself. Or you might turn to old habits of tricking, seducing, or hiding your true self to find a partner.

Step 9: Setting boundaries

I’ve read tons of books on boundaries but I still have difficulty doing so in real life. I get very nervous and it feels as if my entire body shakes from the inside out. In my childhood, boundaries were not allowed. And in my first and last romantic relationship, boundaries were also seen as something that divided us rather than an individual necessity that actually helps to create healthy relationships. These experiences created a sense of fear and a negative belief that boundaries end relationships. While I understand intellectually that it’s not true, my body still hasn’t caught up.

When you begin to set boundaries, you can swing like a pendulum — from having no boundaries to having extremely rigid boundaries. That’s okay. Over time, as you begin to practice having boundaries, you’ll get to a healthy middle that feels right for you. Again, this takes time and practice but keep at it. I’m on the journey with you.

Step 10: Begin to understand what schemas, confirmation bias, and core beliefs you have about yourself, relationships, others, and the world

Based on your negative experiences, you might have formed schemas about who you are, what relationships are like, what other people are like, and how the world works. Once these schemas and core beliefs are formed, they enter the subconscious and begin to run your life without a conscious understanding. For instance, you might have a subconscious belief that authority figures are unfair and all-consuming. As you grow older, you find that you have had a slew of negative work experiences and can’t work for others. When you begin to do deep work, you might come to see that you might have unconsciously chosen those negative work environments without realizing that they were toxic in the first place and that healthy work environments do exist. Or you might think that your only value derives from saving others or saving failing businesses so you only choose people and places where you can play the savior role.

For me, I wanted to fall in love. But I kept seeking bad boys or emotionally unavailable people without understanding why. I thought that I could change them and never knew that a good guy could even exist.

Step 11: Understand the effects of trauma on attraction and sexuality

This was one of the most difficult and heartbreaking realizations to come to accept. Your childhood primary relationships follow you into adulthood and shape how you see yourself, your sexuality, and who you are attracted to. That magnetic feeling you feel? Be careful — it could be drawing you to someone who is healthy for you or someone who will hurt you the same way that your primary caretakers did. Was your mother or your father your best friend? Many children believe that their parents are their best friends if their parents confide in them or depend on them. This is not the definition of a best friend. They’re using you to meet their own needs — needs that should be met by another adult and giving you responsibilities that are age-inappropriate. This engulfs the child and prevents the future adult from having their own identity and having age-appropriate relationships.

Step 12: Form a new higher power system

Depending on where you grew up, what religion was around you, and how your parents treated you — you could have a life-giving God or a punishing God. Many children also come to see their parents as gods and omnipresent. Growing up, my father often told me that “he knew everything about me.” He could see everything and know everything. When I grew up, this belief didn’t go away. Whenever I thought about sex, I thought he could see it or know about it. Whenever I did something he didn’t want me to do, even if it was healthy, I felt guilty or that I was doing something bad. Recently, I came across a therapist who said you can fire god any time and hire a new one if the one you have doesn’t serve you. I never knew that I could have power over god. In fact, I thought that if I fired god, he would kill me. That’s not a very nice god, is it? So ask yourself, what kind of god do you believe in, and does he or she serve you? Or is it your job to serve him and he will punish you if you don’t do what he says? The power dynamic between you and god says a lot about your belief system, but you have the right to question it and the power to change that. It’s your right.

Step 13: Form a strong sense of self

All of these steps are about forming a strong sense of self from the inside out and trusting yourself. It’s about knowing yourself deeply, being okay with who you are, loving yourself, and being firm with who you are even if other people don’t support you. It’s about knowing your wants and needs, and knowing how to meet them in healthy ways.

Step 14: Maintenance and consistency. Build in safety nets, processes, and systems. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Healing isn’t linear. It’s not like school or a game where you level up and graduate. It’s more like you have to repeat all of these steps over and over again and work all of these steps at the same time or focus on one step more at different phases of your life. There will be moments when you feel stagnant or where you feel like you regressed a bit. That’s okay. It’s about seeing it, giving yourself compassion, and asking yourself deeper questions to find out what’s driving you to that behavior. Sometimes it may take me weeks, months, or even years to understand why I feel so awful about something.

I’m actually going through this phase now. Every three to six months or so I’ll feel this way. I’ve been in therapy for two years, and I’ve been reading books on these issues since 2016. I know that I’m on the right path but I’m not exactly sure what the next step is and how it’s going to come about. But I know that every time I have an issue in the external world, there’s something on the inside that I have to work through. It could take weeks and months for me to understand what it is but when I face it, I can make decisions and take action that’s in my best interest.

Step 15: Recovery is a commitment

Just when I think I’ve overcome or leveled up like a Mario game, I come across something else that I didn’t know about. For instance, I am beginning to understand the role of false shame and false guilt in my life. But I didn’t even know that doubt was a feeling! I thought that doubt had to do with logic but even the definition of the word states that it is a feeling. Having been doubted by my parents my whole life, I definitely have a share of self-doubt.

I’m dedicated and committed to this effort.

All of these steps are about focusing on yourself and getting to know yourself and love yourself deeply. They’re not about focusing on what’s out there, blaming yourself, or putting your life in the hands of an all-powerful being. It’s about being integrated with yourself and empowering you to be an individual. I wish you luck on your journey! We can do it!

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Hello! I'm a narrative filmmaker in NYC. These are my private diaries. I write about mental health, childhood trauma & dysfunctional family systems. Come along on my journey as I grow as a person, heal, and pursue my dreams of being a storyteller. I'd appreciate your support!


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