Villages and Tribes

“It takes a village to raise a child.”

Most of us are familiar with this saying, but it isn’t until we become parents that we fully grasp this concept. But I’d like to expand on this, and say that it also takes a good village to keep us all healthy, evolving and thriving human beings.

With exemption of debate over gender equality, let me point out that humans have, historically, followed a model of societal functioning, in which the women remained responsible for the maintenance of the living environment and the raising of children, while men held the responsibility for protection and hunting or being the breadwinner.

For better or worse, this model is so historically prevalent, that it’s been said modern day humans tend to experience different communication and internal data processing styles according to gender, and this is suggested to be strongly related to the social dynamics we’ve followed for centuries.

In general terms, girls tend to develop language skills earlier than boys and have an overall larger vocabulary as they become adults. Men tend to have better spatial perception, being able to create 3D mental interpretations easier than women. These are simple examples and a gross generalization, but statistically, these overall tendencies seem to show some sex linked bias.

Why is that? It certainly seems to have roots in how we evolved as humans – or could it have been the other way around? Have we derived our sex differences from how we have organized ourselves socially, or did we socially organize the way we did because those differences were already there? It seems like there is one defining factor beyond need for research: women/females are the only ones to bear children and, as can be observed in mammals across the board, are equipped with hormones to breastfeed and keep themselves instinctively close to and caring for the offspring.  This factor alone, I’ll speculate, makes it logical that as women followed their motherhood instincts, men would follow the role of assuring survival of the mother and offspring, by means of physical protection and hunting for food. Psychologically adjusted humans are driven by survival instincts, on the individual, micro (family) and macro (species) levels.

Regardless of how this chicken and the egg dilemma played out in our evolution, what we do know is that men in their hunting activities needed to either have or develop spatial perception and the ability to remain silent in order to not only be successful in the hunt, but also as means of survival against potential predators. Developing verbal communication skills was absolutely secondary. Women, on the other hand, relied on those very communication related skills to perform their function, which not only involved communicating with and teaching language to the child, but also socialization with other women in the same position, creating a mutually supportive and protective environment that was more conducive to succeeding in raising children and carrying on their overall duties. Women organized in groups among themselves, also had more likelihood of survival (physical and psychological) and more resilience, as opposed to being isolated from the group. That… is the village.

Exceptions and feminist philosophies aside, fast forward to modern days and we see a drastically different picture. Mothers find themselves largely isolated in their roles, while also sharing responsibility in the financial stability and survival of the family. Never before has the village been more important – and yet, now is when it’s most lacking.

The truth is, we are all social beings, it’s in our fundamental human design. Personally, I am a mother with introversion tendencies (note that this isn’t necessarily related to shyness!! In my case, it isn’t.), so I do pretty well in my own company and a fairly high level of introspection. However, even introverts as defined by Carl Jung, despite being more inwardly inclined, are still social beings with a very real need for human interaction, physical touch, communication and exchanges. This is so ingrained in our existence, that babies and young children in orphanages who are properly fed and have all basic physical survival needs met, but deprived from love and individualized attention and interaction, either die or end up with “cognitive, behavioural and psychological disfunction”.

As a collective, we also have a shared consciousness that plays a part in how we build our perception of reality on a macro level. Since diversity is inherent to our human experience, this more subjective perception of reality, as well as how we objectively experience it, naturally varies in accordance to a combination of different factors. But when, from within the collective, we start identifying similarities in these perceptions and opinions in other people, we begin to form tribes.

Why do we do that? Because tribes validate our perception of reality and our opinions, and they contribute in expanding our beliefs, values, social interchanges, skills, perceptions, goals  and accomplishments, whatever they may be. Furthermore, tribes give us a sense of belonging, satisfying those innate needs as social beings and keeping us from experiencing the detrimental effects of isolation. Isolation can negatively affect many cognitive functions, including how we perceive reality. We, humans, seem to instinctively grasp that and naturally look for different forms of interaction to validate and make sense of our perceptions and experiences. Even when physical contact isn’t present, we can still derive beneficial critical thinking simply from being exposed to other opinions and paradigms. Today, for better or worse, social media represents a window to the outside world, aiming in our ability to mentally connect to it.

How does this relate to narcissistic abuse? – you may ask.

Abusers and manipulators in general (not only those with narcissistic traits) are notorious for attempting (and, often, succeeding) to isolate victims. It tends to be a gradual process, but also all pervasive. They undermine our interests and hobbies, rob us of our sense of passion and purpose. They undermine our relationships, to include our families, until we are left with no support system in place. They may physically isolate us from the outside world, by limiting our interactions and whereabouts or through building a life either at remote locations or far away from family and friends. Through continuous abuse, they also undermine our physical and psychological ability to work, or may directly create issues in the work environment, resulting in negative consequences, ranging from how you are perceived by bosses, coworkers or clients, to downright compromised employability. Finally, abusers also intentionally deprive us of physical touch and meaningful human interactions.

If, on top of that, you have one or more children with a narcissist, you may also suffer a combination of feelings of abandonment along with his competition against the child for your attention. I have personally experienced both. Never in my entire life had I jumped through so many hoops at once, and the isolation was very, very real. To the point of denying me the opportunity to be with my family at all, unless they went on an intercontinental trip to visit, just to, then, be disrespected by the narcissist and feel like they weren’t welcome.

Through isolation, the narcissist severely injures us in our innate need for communication, social interaction, our sense of belonging and purpose, our ability to expand our skills, ideas, passions, opinions, self and lives, rendering us, effectively, captive.

When we reach that level of isolation, we have given away our power to the narcissist and become very easily controlled. Our cognitive functioning can take a severe hit – in fact, actual brain injury has been shown to be detectable in MRIs and CAT scans as result of emotional and psychological abuse alone – without the presence of any physical violence. Something to think about, isn’t it? 

Within this framework, the isolation tool in the narcissist’s toolbox ultimately leads victims into a “survival mode” type of state, feeling like all our energy is directed towards keeping our faces barely above the water and kicking to prevent drowning. Basic survival needs take precedence over critical thinking and we have no energy or cognitive ability left to make sense of the abuse and leave. This is very serious, but the most isolating product of all this comes from the realization that no one outside of the relationship is aware of what is happening to you. I’ll say it again, in other words: you are the only person with the terrifying  knowledge of the abusive circumstances. This could happen for a number of reasons:

  1. The chaos is so all pervasive, covert and coercive, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to explain it to others.
  2. You are afraid of facing consequences if you try reaching out to people, knowing it will produce rage in the narcissist.
  3. You have tried reaching out, but people don’t get it.
  4. Or worse, they didn’t believe you. If your narcissist is covert, this is very real.

Either way, you are alone, debilitated and under relentless attack. Breaking free of this situation, in which isolation is used as weapon, becomes a matter of survival – and this could mean psychological, or physical, or both.

Victims don’t leave narcissists. We break free from them. We escape them. Leaving implies a choice between two viable options. And while we may choose to break free and escape, rarely does staying represent a viable option if you wish to survive

This is because, in the face of extended abuse, while at the same time in deprivation of villages and tribes, our basic functioning as proper human beings is completely warped. This can happen to such severe extents, that some victims are rendered unable to recognize a way out and end up committing suicide. Kim Wilson describes this as the perfect crime – and I happen to agree. This is the most extreme measure, no doubt, but it needs to be acknowledged as the only way some victims find to break free and escape, regardless.

When we do escape the nightmare alive and start processing the insanity, often times we, then, suffer from self imposed isolation. Our perception of the world and people in it has changed. We are unable to trust, have blocks connecting with other people at a normal capacity, and feel strangely safer in isolation.

There’s a place for this stage of healing, I won’t deny. But keeping ourselves in self imposed isolation is a mistake. The trick here is to choose wisely who to break isolation with.

New people may not always be the best way to start, because this often triggers feelings of suspicion over their true character, intentions and nature. The most effective way to relearn how to connect is to start spending time with people we already have a history of established trust with. This could be family members, old friends, or even children. You need to access your village.

Alternatively, after you’ve gone far enough in your healing journey that your health has stabilized and CPTSD has diminished, then you could break isolation by establishing some new relationships that won’t depend on depth or trust, but will take you out of the house and help you rebuild your sense of self, worth and confidence. This could look like enrolling in classes related to hobbies and passions that have been sitting in the back burner or, my favorite one, volunteering. Volunteering is such an all encompassing activity.

Last year, around Christmas time, I decided to visit this institution that takes in children who are in dysfunctional or abusive families, or whose families can’t take proper care of them. I spent an afternoon with these children, showering them with love, affection, and individualized attention. They had just taken in a newborn girl and I got to hold her, feed her, sing for her. I donated diapers and formula. Additionally, I bought the other children a few toys I could afford, so they would have Christmas gifts to open. This type of experience puts us in touch with the goodness in us, with a sense of giving, meaning and purpose. We realize there’s value in us. And it helps people who may be struggling – in this case, with issues I had personally struggled with, myself (being in an abusive environment). This allows us to create temporary emotional connections, that don’t represent any type of risk, thus helping us to rebuild our trusting muscles in a healthy way. It is as beneficial for the people, children or animals we choose to help, as it is potentially healing for us.

I have also enrolled in two health coach certification courses, which now allows me to start a coaching business from home. This serves so many purposes:

  1. I connected with my passion for nutrition and a drive to help people and families to lead healthier lifestyles.
  2. It gave me a sense of value and purpose.
  3. It made me feel engaged, productive, reinserting myself in the world.
  4. It gave me the possibility of a new career and potential income.
  5. It helped me reestablish a sense of identity.
  6. It helped me feel accomplished, when I completed my goals and received each certification.
  7. It enhanced my outlook into the future, with new goals and things to look forward to.
  8. It kept my mind occupied in a healthy way.
  9. It gave me a sense of belonging, when in touch with other like minded people.
  10. It gave me better tools to improve my son’s and my own health.
  11. I had fun.

Theses are just a couple of examples of things that worked well for me, and hopefully it will inspire you to consider your options on what may work for you.

Last, but not least, it is of incredible value for victims and survivors to find a way to connect with other victims and survivors. Our sense of isolation, even when among other people, can remain very alive in our minds, in the absence of understanding and validation over our experience with abuse. As much as friends, families and therapists may have a genuine intention to understand and relate, there is nothing like realizing that other people have been through incredibly similar experiences and did, or still do, deal with a similar aftermath. There’s something powerfully validating and soothing in getting in touch with other survivor’s stories, be it through blogs, YouTube videos, one or one or group interactions. There are many online communities where victims and survivors find and support each other, allowing us to create connections with others who truly get it. This, is a tribe. Don’t underestimate the healing power of this tribe.

For me, this has initially come in the form of meeting someone through a completely unrelated outlet, who happened to also had been a victim of borderline/narcissistic abuse. We both had an incredibly validating experience sharing our stories and, to this day, find support in each other. When I put it this way, it may seems like all breeze and flowers, but let me tell you: even in this type of interaction, I have found many roadblocks. I’ve felt triggered and reacted defensively in more than one occasion towards this person (and it doesn’t look like this will completely stop anywhere in the near future), I still find it difficult to fully connect and engage, despite having a consistent history of nothing but kindness for over 2 years with this person. Be aware, these things can happen. But there’s something to be said about the capacity for holding space, empathy and understanding that another survivor in a more advanced stage of a healing process can and is willing to extend. About being able to understand why you feel triggered sometimes, because they’ve been there, themselves. And there’s also something to be said about how this aids in our recovery, when through compassion and empathy we start exercising our ability to listen to our inner voice and intuition, and develop internal tools to act and react in healthier ways. Even if that means we take two steps forward and one step back, we are still moving forward.

Please note that this isn’t an excuse to keep yourself stuck while someone else absorbs the backlash of your pain. Instead, this is an invaluable opportunity to feel grateful and do the work towards healing. This is our responsibility and people’s resilience and willingness to help us needs to be acknowledged as a gift, rather than a given.

Also, in certain stages of our own healing, we can keep this chain going by becoming, ourselves, a link to other people’s recoveries. As part of this tribe, it is helpful to be both supported and supportive. This very blog is, for me, an attempt to be a link in this chain.

I encourage you, if you are a victim or survivor of any type of abuse, to take steps and move in the opposite direction of self isolation, after breaking free from abuse imposed isolation. Access your village. Find your tribe. Human beings don’t thrive in isolation. Develop assertiveness, boundaries, confidence, rebuild your sense of passion and purpose, then apply these skills to help yourself navigate through already established, and new connections when you’re ready. We all want to thrive, it is in our human design. When victimized, we are in survival state. When we identify as survivors, we’ve taken a quantum leap and start to live again. When we begin to healthily and consciously connect again, that’s where potential for thriving lives. Keep that as your goal, because there’s no effective strategy in the absence of direction.

Please leave a comment if you feel ready to start taking those steps. In finding each other, we become stronger. In healing, we become alive. In having villages and tribes, we remind ourselves we are human. Born with the right for freedom, love and acknowledgement and the gifts of empathy and connection.

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