The true self, with all its vibrancy, creativity and lust for life, in time, becomes a product of its environment. Those who are encouraged, thrive, and those who are shamed, shrink themselves to fit. Shame, when it is used enough on a person, moulds them inside a thick shell. Shame, like lava, burns hot at first then sets and becomes a hard shell. The hard shell that results from shame is the psychological cage.
The people in our life who we love and surrender to have the ability to empower us, or to crush us. Vulnerability comes with this risk. Our true self sits at the core of us, but it relies on the mind and body to actualise and express itself. The mind tempers our emotions and impulses based on the limitations of our world, and how the figures in our life treat us shapes our beliefs about ourselves and what is possible. Being ridiculed, shamed, yelled at, abused or neglected creates in us waves of shame and fear and tells our mind to pull back. With every negative experience that burns inside us, the psychological cage gains yet another layer to compensate.
Belief, by nature, snowballs. The more we believe and can act on our beliefs, the deeper we go. The concept of having flaws and being loved at the same time can seem foreign to some people. But when our loved ones treat us with grace, we feel worthy despite our flaws. Being encouraged to learn and explore gives us the green light to dig deeper. Being put down and jeered at tells us that it ends there. The shame which activates is painful. Nobody can tolerate it for long. As we experience this emotional eruption, instead of believing in our power and acting out our impulses, we add another layer to the psychological cage to protect us from suffering the agony which comes with fear and shame. Our emotions become dull, and our life force diminishes.
The crazy thing is, we moulded this cage on the paradigms of one person or group. Many people have based their belief system around the paranoid, selfish mind of a narcissist. What a narcissist cannot tolerate, or cannot encourage or support, is of course not where it ends. But with this psychological cage that we live in, we believe that it does. Who we are and what we can do in this world ends there.
Can you see the cage? Can you feel the cold hard shell pushing back when you get a strong emotional impulse? When you have an overwhelming desire to participate, can you feel the dark, uncompromising shadow holding you back? When you speak out about something important to you and the other person meets you with a blank stare or condescending laughter, can you feel the hot, burning shame thrusting you back into the cage where you believe you belong? When you step out of your comfort zone, can you sense the panic seeping in? Do you feel that those important people in your life are visiting you in jail, instead of both of you sitting together in freedom and communion? Do you look out onto the world, instead of feeling yourself as part of the world?
You unconsciously created the psychological cage to protect you from emotional turmoil. More accurately, another person thrust this cage on you. Although it is protecting you, it is also keeping you trapped and preventing you from experiencing the world around you. It is keeping you within the narcissist’s realm.
Withstanding and understanding your emotions is a lifelong task. The emotional reaction of your true self is a signal for growth. It is a dare to leave the cage. Nothing is holding you inside this cage anymore except for your conditioning. When a toddler has been attacked just for being themselves and being true to their impulses, it’s impossible to do anything. They have no choice but to dissociate from their true self and seek refuge in the cage. It is the psychological equivalent of abandoning your home and living in a shelter because of war and famine.
These coping strategies commonly carry into adulthood. Just because we are now adults does not mean we suddenly learnt how to be with our true self. The work still needs to be done. Also, engaging the true self brings about pain. It induces panic. Stepping out of the cage is not a simple act. It takes courage. Many of us are institutionalised. We don’t know life outside our inner prison. The metal bars come in the form of the pain which we store in our bodies and psyche. It’s difficult to accept, but this one piece of knowledge is crucial to our maturity:
Being yourself means being in pain.
Unwrapping the defence mechanisms we developed is like dismantling a bomb or digging through earthquake rubble to find a survivor. Your true self has survived the earthquake of your past. She/he is somewhere down there. But the way down involves pain. Many people fail on this journey because it takes perseverance and courage to stay with it. It takes a tolerance for pain. It calls for a painstaking search. It means having loving and understanding allies. We need to unravel our unhealthy beliefs, stop allowing our unhealthy thought patterns to define us and clench our teeth through the pain of experiencing our true self on a daily basis. Make no mistake; this will involve much effort. But if one thing can encourage you, it’s this; outside the cage, life is beautiful. Outside the cage, anything is possible.
To better understand the dynamics of narcissism and to learn about the 7 practices for narcissistic abuse recovery, check out How To Kill A Narcissist.