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Wisdom I’d Time-Travel Back To Teach My 20-Year Old Self

A psychologist's personal journey past toxic relationships

Image by Dr Perpetua Neo

I was delighted to turn 30, because I exited an abusive relationship for good. In my head, I filed that away as The Twenties Chapter. 

With the wisdom of hindsight and detachment from the everyday battlefield that was my life, I’ve since learned that toxic relationships are the silent stealthy sanity sucks. 

We wrongly believe we can shoulder the pain and carry our metaphorical crosses for just another day. Since then, I’ve taught thousands of women that we can put down that cross and burn it, letting the ashes fertilize the glorious gardens that we truly are.

1. Your story matters

Contrary to ideas that women who have been in toxic relationships with Dark Triad Personality Types (Psychopaths, Narcissists, Machiavellians) are weak and powerless, author Sandra Brown found that they are likely to be highly-educated and successful professionals. The one thing, however, that they have in common is that they tend to be over-empathetic.

Whilst most of us see empathy as a good thing, empathy is a slippery slope that can lead to burnout.

My younger self understood that everyone has a story. It was with this that I could excuse the most abhorrent behaviour in others, and how I allowed my psychopathic abuser to keep continuing with his behaviours, because I was suckered in by his story.

You see, in having empathy for others, I forgot to have empathy for myself.

I forgot to consider my own story, subjecting myself to harsher standards than I’d hold someone else against.

And when someone wheedled their way into my heart, I’d overgive and feel responsible for their wellbeing, blaming myself when things went wrong with them. But the problem is, Dark Triad types are experts at tugging at your heart strings.

So if I were to time-travel back, the first thing I’d tell my younger self that her story matters. And how she honours her story determines the chapter she is currently writing, and her future.

And at the heart of it, she’d need to know this: You are so worthy of honouring yourself.

2. Listen to your body’s wisdom

When I teach women to Detox Their Heart, regardless of whether it’s a lover, colleague or family member, an early exercise is to identify similarities of how your body reacts to these toxic personalities.

What does your gut say when you meet such a person? 

Chances are, your gut tells you something’s very wrong, but because you don’t know how to honour your body’s wisdom, you ignore it.

The thing is, when you have a toxic person wreck havoc in your life, they wouldn’t be the only ones historically or presently. Life is a house of mirrors, and until you smash those mirrors, they’ll keep popping up like those Whac-a-mole puppets in arcades.

I’ve identified my body’s warning signs as The Five Fs.

  • Fascination: Dark Triad types always fascinate me, capturing my brain in rapturous curiosity.
  • “Friend”: Male Dark Triad types get close on the pretext of being a friend, but really, they’re more interested in being more-than-friends, even if they do not name it.
  • Fast: Dark Triad types accelerate the relationship progress by taking up your time, energy and attention. We’re not talking about long-standing friendships that evolve into something else; rather we are talking about time-space compression, where any sort of relationship becomes a Lamborghini going from 0 to 200mph in 1.8 seconds.
  • Frenzied Intellectual Bypass: As explained above, my gut always said ‘No, there’s something wrong’. But my brain would engage in a frenetic Intellectual Bypass, where I’d excuse their behaviours away rationally. 
  • Friend-mo-flage: I am always hesitant to introduce said fascinating Dark Triad type to my friends, because I know I have to explain something away.

3. Know the red flags

I’ve often wondered why we learn in school how to calculate the area under a curve and memorise 300 Chinese idioms, but are clueless when it comes to Dark Triad types. Individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder alone are thought to make up about 6.2% of the population.

Common traits include:

  • Superficial, glib charm
  • Transactional, calculative thinking
  • Manipulativeness, lying, twisting facts
  • Love-bombing
  • Sadism
  • Dominating you in the name of some ethos

Another clear indicator is poor boundaries. Dark Triad types are experts at trampling all over the things you say ‘no’ to. My colleague Katie Kozlowski (Healer) describes this phenomenon as one they will ignore you or tell you you’re being selfish.

At the same time, it boils down to our own boundaries, and the extent to which we are asserting them, as my friend Terri Cole (Relationship Expert & Psychotherapist) says. This is because we aren’t setting our boundaries right, especially if we feel selfish or guilty. Instead, she advises that boundaries aren’t meant to punish, but rather, protect us.

Most importantly, I’d tell my 20-year old self that these people cannot and will not change. That realisation hammered the last nail in the coffin of my relationship, and led me to leave for good.

Put simply, their brains and personalities simply aren’t wired to do so, and holding them accountable is what keeps you trapped in the cesspit.

4. Self-inflicted stigma is the biggest stigma

Society punishes difference.

Speaking to various introverted friends, we exchanged war stories on how we were expected by organisations we worked in to be extroverted. And whilst we could pretend with various degrees of success, it made us feel as though something was very wrong with us.

But everybody has their sore spots. The chapters in their lives they are ashamed of, the traits they feel make them less ‘normal’, and the skills they think they lack.

Until we can own all these bravely, these insecurities are how Dark Triad types wheedle their way into our lives, pretending to understand us. And then, they use them against us.

What’s worse is how we turn societal stigma against ourselves, and self-inflicted stigma is the biggest stigma that continuously rips open the sutures of fresh wounds.

I made a list of every metaphorical demon I had a year before I left my abusive ex-partner. Introversion. Panic attacks. Dyspraxia. Things in my family line I didn’t like. And I faced them one by one.

I remembered a maxim that a hacker in a Chinese television series used as his password “Change what you cannot accept; accept what you cannot change”.

And I became determined to do exactly that. I embarked on a pilgrimage of deep healing and personal growth. As for the skills I thought I lacked, I simply committed to picking up the most important ones.

Today, I’ve learned to walk my talk, rather than hiding behind my professional experience and credentials. It is liberating, and contrary to my old fears, makes me more relatable to my clients.

In the words of one recently, “I chose you because you are truly joyful. Not just because you have a lot of fancy degrees”.

This joy comes from owning who I am, exorcising self-inflicted stigma.

5. Discernment isn’t negativity

If I think back to the time I fell under my toxic ex’s spell, it coincided with a time when I was exploring spirituality deeper.

Unfortunately, though, the world of spirituality is also rife with charlatans and narcissists, who pervert spirituality for their own ends.

So I believed I was a bad person everytime I tried to stand my ground, because I was told what made me uncomfortable was merely my own projection. And even though I wasn’t physically attracted to him initially, the words from others, “You need to be less picky, less judgmental and more accepting” kept ringing in my ears; eventually I caved.

My friend Dr Jonathan Marshall (Leadership Expert & Psychotherapist) explains that spiritual narcissists inhabit a world where people are trying to excise the unhealthy sides of their ego, meaning they are especially permeable to influence. This makes them hungry for someone to look up to, where the platitudes uttered by others are likelier to be seen as truths.

“They can be so smooth and convincing— ponytails, an Ubud-going male who can tell you about your chakras. He understands you in a way you’ve never had anyone listen so well before”, Jonathan says.

I had a good chuckle when I heard those words, in the calm after my personal storm.

But it’s a piece of wisdom I’d give my 20-year old self.

To never hand my wisdom over to somebody else, because discernment is not negative.

Instead, discernment is the highest form of wisdom. And just because my gut tells me that someone is pretending, it doesn’t make me a bad person.

It simply means I’m trusting my innate wisdom, whilst keeping an open mind.

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For a power-retrieval meditation after a toxic relationship, go here. Or click here to learn more about Dr Perpetua Neo’s Detox Your Heart program, where you can rise from present or past toxic relationships quickly and deeply

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