Uber Calm in a Narcissistic World


Several years ago, I did a talk for a local GLBT advocacy group. I stood at the front of a large meeting room and talked about discrimination and ignorance, the need for education. A topic I lectured on every week in my classes. But in the middle of my presentation, not one, but two bullies, from two different parts of my life, strode in together and stood at the back of the audience – both of them tall with chins held high, both having exploited my trust, attacked my reputation, and interfered in my relationships.

I choked.

My throat like sandpaper, my oxygen disappeared. My speech evaporated into meaningless dry word-strings. I cut it short because I couldn’t inhale and I slumped into a chair on the front row. Later, a student of mine came over to (I suppose) be friendly and said, “Not a public speaker, are you? Me either.” I wanted to slap him. I wanted to explain how Broca’s area shuts down in the presence of danger . . . but that part of my brain was still frozen in (irrational) fear.

From that moment forward, I used the words Bully and Narcissist interchangeably, because they’re almost synonymous.

A world full of narcissists?

It seems like it these days. And the more grandiose the bully, the more apparently successful in this world. If she lacks conscience, she can bend the truth to create alternate planes of reality that favor her. Lacking empathy, he can use people, make them feel inferior and in need of him. Our narcissism epidemic springs from widespread attachment trauma, early childhood neglect, and the indulgent, self-absorbed elements of our capitalist culture.

We all deal with narcissism, ours or someone else’s. Some looks obvious: inflated ego, meanness if you stand up to them, destruction toward other people’s work and relationships. But a lot of narcissism happens covertly as emotional sabotage.

I grew up around lots of unwitting bullies. In my family’s fundamentalist religious group, boys had too much power over girls. They learned, from their fathers, to dominate. Families passed down traumatic attachments through the generations. And the combination of sexist dogma with early emotional deprivation made these men very afraid of sharing power with women. They abused, gaslighted, and made women feel ashamed of their bodies and sexuality.

I grew up primed to be bullied by a narcissist. Now, with distance from the fundamentalism and the bullying, I see narcissistic patterns in every part of our society.

More than ever, we need to notice bullies for what they do to us. We need awareness of how we’re being manipulated to feel fear and shame.

Who’s Your Narcissist?

Who makes you nervous? Who do you dread? Who triggers all your feelings of inadequacy, unattractiveness, and insignificance? Who do you over-admire? Who seems so cool and smart you could never be good enough for them? Maybe a leader. Maybe someone who’s made your work miserable. Maybe someone close who drains you, leaves you lonely and confused with each contact. Maybe someone you love.

Narcissistic people try to silence us. They overpower with bluster, triangle themselves in our friendships, and invalidate our thoughts. Narcissistic people don’t always look like criminals. Sometimes they look like our parents or neighbors.

You need a way to differentiate from the narcissist, become more you (less apologetic, less nervous, less someone else). With narcissistic people, you need a way to stay grounded and know who you are.

Consider a radical act: Get calm in the presence of your narcissist.

The disobedience of calming helps you become more you, not so compliant or ashamed, not so easily manipulated.

You already do yoga. You meditate. You tap. You have a mental calming place . . . a mountain cabin, a treehouse, a hammock. You take deep breaths and exhale slowly. You think of your most trusted friend.

Calm at the Center

Calm at the Center


Try this . . .

  1. Think of your calm place now. Breathe.
  2. Notice what happens in your body when you think of your favorite chair, your yoga mat, your run.
  3. Notice the center point of stillness as your body-mind slows down.
  4. Now, imagine having this calming process while in the presence of your narcissist. Allow that person to do whatever they do, to be agitated or aggressive (they are always more anxious than you), while you stay still at the center.
  5. Just notice everything. Watch with curiosity. Come back to your breath.
  6. Affirm yourself: I can leave if I want to; I have my own thoughts and feelings; I can keep myself safe.
  7. If you notice guilt, pressure, or anxiety, just acknowledge it and let it slide away from you.

Now write for 10 minutes about this exercise. What do you notice about yourself? What is it like to get still and focused on your inner calm while the narcissistic person is there, doing whatever they do?

This exercise will not solve the entire problem of being bullied or dominated, but it will help you start seeing differently. It may even help you regain something you lost (like, um, your voice).

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Leaving Home to Find My Higher (Grownup) Self

Growing Up Paisley from Flowers Reborn, Deborah Cox, 2016

Growing Up Paisley from Flowers Reborn, Deborah Cox, 2016

I Write to Grow Up

I struggle to differentiate, as we all do. Leaving home is a lifelong process, as described by Murray Bowen, the father of family systems theory. But writing my novel, Wife Material, about the process of leaving home, catapulted me forward. That’s why I so recommend life-writing as part of trauma recovery. If I can create story around the invisible problems of fundamentalist Christian culture, I understand myself better and pull myself further out of that mindset.

And it makes me wonder: why do fundamentalist Christians have such a hard time letting their children grow up and leave home? Take Christian home-schooling for example (I have numerous lovely friends who home-school their children, so please, if you’re one of them, I can imagine circumstances in which home-school makes sense). Take “Christian College” for example (and again, if your kid goes to Harding or Evangel or Liberty, read this with one eye closed). Some of this may be true of your family – but perhaps not. We are so complex.

But to me, home-schooling and Christian college really show the gravitational pull of the fundamentalist family . . . the frightened family. Well-intentioned parents in fundie traditions fear the process of leaving home. They dread letting their kids out into the world where differentiation happens. Because differentiation can be scary.

What if they encounter drugs? Sex? Bad attitudes?

        What if their faith gets diluted?

            What if they develop nasty habits or vulgar language?

What if they stop believing in God?

The Vital Mess of Growing Up and Leaving Home

Fear of differentiation creates the need for schools like Waltham Academy, where my protagonist, Elizabeth Campbell, grew up. At Christian schools, children are sheltered from outside influences, thus restricting their thoughts to a prescribed area that’s been deemed appropriate or familiar. Fear of differentiation creates the need for home-school. Fear of differentiation creates depression and anxiety.

Typically, when you go off to school for the first time, you step into a foreign environment. You make friends with different types of backgrounds, orientations, and lifestyles. You see contrasts with your own family values and you start to question the rules and rituals with which you’re being raised. This is normal, healthy. This is how we leave home. Birthing is painful . . . and so is launching: uncomfortable, necessary, bloody, messy, and real.

When I left Christian college for a liberal (and feminist) state university environment, I made friends with Muslims and atheists and Jews, gay men, lesbians, and transgendered individuals, and people from other spots on the globe. This triggered my realization that my parents did not know everything . . . (nor should they have) which liberated my mind and allowed me to keep growing up. Growing past them.

If I’d stayed loyal to the churched educational system in which I was raised, I’d be dead now (at least mentally). I’d have compressed myself into a small intellectual space and blocked my mind from reaching out for more new information. Root bound. Enclosed. Strangled.

Differentiation is Growing Up

Differentiation is Growing Up

Every parent is limited. I know this like never before, raising a 15-year-old whose vocabulary and imagination surge ahead of mine and leave me feeling like a dusty old relic with my relational theology. But limits are normal. We don’t know everything. Our kids will know more than us. They’re supposed to, at some point. We grow beyond our parents’ abilities to imagine . . . and that is the stuff of this beautiful world.

At its base, Wife Material describes getting free to grow up.

We all desperately need to pull and scrape and claw our way to freedom so that we can leave behind our parents’ ideologies and grow into our fullest, brightest, wisest selves.

Read Wife Material

Differentiate and Help your Parents Grow Up.

Differentiation is Growth.

Differentiation is Growth.

Depression and Stuckness

Lately, my fifteen-year-old tells me I am too rigid and he no longer believes in anything I believe in. It makes me a little weepy to hear this, but it challenges me to let go of my pre-planned images of how he would grow up. If I tried too hard to control his views, he’d just have to pull harder the other way. Differentiation is how we grow and stay engaged with life.

Depressed people tend to be bored people. Even if they are too busy with urgent responsibilities. I notice that depressed people quietly adhere to ideologies they’ve long since outgrown. They say, I could never… Yet, they show signs they desperately want to break free. Since they’re not at liberty to voice these longings, they do other things to rebel, like eat too much or lose important jobs.

Being stuck in our parents’ way of thinking restricts our growth…which is depressing.

Differentiation of Self

Each successive generation sees a bit further down the road than its parents. That makes us evolve as a society and as a global community. The fact that children become adolescents who say, Just let me be my own person! shows how forcefully the maturation process unfolds us and our children into the future and changes how we eat, drive, and talk. We live in constant change.

Change pulls us out of the funk and keeps life interesting.

Differentiation of Self happens normally as a child grows up, says No, becomes aware of her preferences, and bonds with an adult partner to form a new family. It keeps the species moving forward, which is healthy. The alternative is enmeshment, which feels like mental quicksand (think of people you’ve known who lived in their parents’ basements until they were thirty-five). Differentiation keeps us maturing into the people we were meant to be.

So if you struggle with breaking free of your family’s dysfunction, remember that your differentiation can help your parents grow up too. You, pulling in your own direction, forces your parents to mature – even if they don’t want to. Your misbehavior therapizes your family in an unexpected way, even if they go kicking and screaming into the more healthy future.

It’s all good.

I suggest these ideas for your emotional travel (growth) and for offering a hand to your folks who may see the ship disembarking and secretly wish to come along.

Misbehavior is Growth.

Misbehavior is Growth.

  1. Read banned books.
  2. Talk openly about your evolving spirituality (even if it’s no longer believing in anything).
  3. Disagree out loud.
  4. Make friends with people ethnically dissimilar, especially if they make you a little uncomfortable.
  5. Vote differently from your family. Tell them about it.
  6. Consider making your sex life different in some way (this, you can keep to yourself.).
  7. Go back to school. Study something opposite your current field.
  8. Read about philosophy.
  9. Take an art class.
  10. Give away stuff you don’t use.
  11. Take a trip and don’t tell your parents.
  12. Change something about your diet.
  13. Get a tattoo.
  14. Make a wardrobe change: experiment with clothes that feel more fun to wear.
  15. Learn to write naughty poems.
  16. Get some EMDR focused on staying true to yourself while in the presence of your family.

When the subject arises, embrace the chance to un-closet your changing self. (Do I always embrace the chance to un-closet? No, but I hold it as an intention.) If you block your misbehavior and maturity to keep your parents unruffled, you do so at the peril of your mental health. And you rob your parents of the chance to know who you really are. Your acting out might inspire them to do the same. (Picture your mother getting a tattoo or taking a lover.). Remember, one person’s evolution matures everybody around them a bit, even if it’s shocking and painful or fraught with disagreement.

Evolution lifts you out of depression by feeding your brain with new ideas. It propels you into things not yet imagined…the life you were meant to live.

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Stages of Spiritual Development: Rebellion Saves Lives

Rebellion Saves Lives: How acts of disobedience preserve the real you.

I loathe meetings. Most meetings bore the crap out of me and make me want to stand up and scream. Several years ago, when I worked as a university professor, I rebelled and stopped going to departmental faculty meetings. I did this out of principle and self preservation. My department housed a handful of bullies who made it their pet project to stop my creative work and shame me publicly. They dissed everybody, but especially me. So my rebellion protected me from the weekly dose of political poison that had been making me sick.

I got in trouble with the dean. I promised to take on more work than was my fair share, if only I could stay away from those toxic meetings. He didn’t understand. He tried to coerce me back into the room, every Tuesday for at least two hours, with people who wanted me to fail or die or disappear. I tried to comply. But every meeting brought some sickness: a spasm in my back, a serious fall, pneumonia that would not clear…

To sum up a long story, I quit. I walked away from a tenured position and a regular paycheck. I could no longer be true to myself and function in that environment. Friends and colleagues gasped in astonishment. “You did what????” they said.

“I did what had to be done.”

…I saved my life. When I try to imagine what it would’ve been like to comply with the college dean, I get knots in my stomach and I start to hyperventilate. At the very least, I saved my soul and my spinal column.

Keep the rebellion front and center. You need it to survive.

Think for a moment about the opposite, obedience. What does obedience mean to you? What emotions does it conjure? For me, obedience evokes tension, a sense of anger mingled with shame, a cocktail of disappointed looks and the need to hide or be perfect. Obedience makes me want to fight back or stray or run far away. Obedient servant. Obedient child. Obey your parents, your master, the law of the land. Conform to the wishes of someone in authority. Resist your urges, your impulses. Sacrifice your needs. Suppress your feelings and your unruly ideas.

Okay, I know. Civilized society requires some mutual agreement to obey the rules. I get that. Some following, some suppression. I’m glad my fellow drivers stop at red lights. And I’m not talking about anything mean or morally corrupt. Nothing destructive or cowardly. Nothing underhanded or dishonest.

I mean the kind of nuanced rebellion that helps you survive your situation. The kind of disobedience that forces you to grow. Rebellion as an act of faith. Disobedience as a form of prayer. Misbehavior as meditation. Intentional. Bold. Unscripted.

Let go the sacred cow. Unbridle your crazy notions. Speak the unspeakable. Walk away from destructive forces. Turn the dining room into your art studio. Take a leap and quit your boring job. Take boxing lessons. Say NO to meetings that give you cramps.

For more blog posts about how Healthy Rebellion helps you take steps to positive stages of spiritual development, click here:

If you have questions about my pathway for helping you, please contact me or call me today at 417-886-8262.

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Healthy Break Rule-breaking for Trauma Therapy and Family Psychology

What does rebellion have to do with depression? What does it have to do with trauma recovery or family psychology?

Rebellion is active. It changes things. It forces a new perspective. Rebellion gets you moving, which fights depression. Rebellion causes you to think on your feet. It provides just enough confusion to force you into creative mode.


Try this exercise to get a feel for how a little rebellion can help you think:

Rearrange the furniture in any room of your home. Put things where you don’t think they belong. Set something at an angle. Put a bed or couch in the center of the room. Go into a different room and steal some piece of decor from it. Put that stolen object in your rearranged room. Sit in every corner of rearranged room and look at the perspective you have there. Now, make another change. How do you feel? Pick out something to sell and move it out. How do you feel?

Furniture placement may not cure your depression, but learning to mix it up causes all sorts of internal changes that heal. First and foremost, the act of breaking rules in your living space causes a recalibration of control. You have to let go of something to do this. You have to relax a standard and pooh-pooh the proper. This triggers tectonic shifts of the mind. Neurons work together differently, form groups, break out of their grooves. You learn. You assimilate new data into your working system.

Here’s another list of active rebellions to get you moving again.

  1. Clean out your closets. Donate anything that doesn’t make you feel good.
  2. Paint your front door red or green or yellow.
  3. Take belly dancing lessons.
  4. Study the art of verbal seduction.
  5. Pick a wall in your house and paint a mural on it.
  6. Trade in your mini-van for a vintage Volkswagen bus.
  7. While out on a walk, ding-dong ditch your neighbors.
  8. Send your friend an anonymous gift subscription to Wrestling USA.
  9. Wear a funny hat to the DMV.
  10. Plant catnip in your flower beds.

For more activities tools that can help with depression, check out these simple and pleasant activities that help boost your mood and energy level: http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/ACFB003.pdf

For more about Healthy Rebellions, check out this blog post:

In trauma therapy, I encourage a little healthy rebellion. Because disobedience is good for you. Because it chases away depression. Because it crowds out propriety and invites in hilarity. Because when you laugh or gasp or feel scandalous, you know you’re alive.

If you have questions about my pathway for helping you or how healthy rebellion can positively impact trauma therapy and family psychology, please contact me or call me today at 417-886-8262.

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Springfield, MO Psychologist: Disobey Your Mother to Survive

Healthy Rebellion, Part 2: Why You Must Disobey Your Mother if you Want to Survive

I am a Springfield, MO Psychologist and published author. But, I am also a mother. I get it. Mothers create structure and nurture. We tell you what to do. We train, disapprove, lecture, and reward. Because we adore you. Because it’s our job. But at some point, our love becomes smothering and what was appropriate when you were two turns into nightmarish over-control when you are ten or fifteen. And what kept you safe at fifteen robs you of your life at thirty.

Everyone must differentiate from mother: even your mother must differentiate from mother.

Maybe you find yourself editing your thoughts or ideas when your mother is around. Maybe you limit yourself physically, socially, or intellectually when you’re with her. Or maybe you take a little guilt trip when you think of her? Alone in her house with the phone not ringing?

…and maybe you feel depressed or ashamed

…and maybe you have a hard time enjoying yourself if you think she’s not okay

…and maybe you say, I could never move away because what would she do?

Blame this dilemma on some big forces. Religion and commerce deface the idea of Mother: http://www.mothersmovement.org/books/reviews/mommy_myth.htm

They teach us to treat mothering as both a shopping imperative and a life-long martyrdom, a sacred role, a covenant, a debt to be repaid. She gave us life, so we owe her everything. Which of course means we must be loyal and sweet and give her perfect grandchildren.

In reality, mothering is time-limited. Anyone with a fourteen-year-old can tell you this. It’s intensely, deliciously hard for a few years. We hold that toddler and think, how could this ever end? Then we start getting clues about the limits of our ability to mother. The teen says, “I’m not wearing that. It makes me look like a momma’s boy.” We start to really know. Part of mothering is the job of letting go.

But many mothers have huge difficulty letting go. They fear being alone, so they hold onto a child for comfort, reverse the roles, forcing the person into lifelong servitude. They get so far into the role of Motherhood, they can’t find themselves anymore – much less see their children for who they really are.

…We don’t have to destroy our mothers to thrive, but we do have to prune them back a bit. Our job = pruning. Her job = grieving, changing.

The natural process of rebellion – becoming separate and fully who you are at the deepest levels – threatens your mother. Maybe just a little bit. Maybe a lot. This is natural. Although it’s her grief, she sends you signals that your independence is unacceptable. She hints. She goes silent. She triggers huge guilt bombs that go off in your body and distract you from the important work you were meant to do in this world. It’s not personal, it’s just the process.

 You need disobedience like air and water. Here are some ideas for healthy insurgency.

  • moving a little further away
  • challenging the family religious tradition
  • wearing thrift-store clothes
  • speaking your mind
  • taking a mini vacation by yourself
  • painting your house purple
  • selling your possessions and living in a camper
  • sending Mom a note, thanking her for raising you, stating that you are fully raised now and you have good sense and can go climb Mount Everest

If you haven’t read it yet, check out my first blog about Healthy Rebellion:

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