Why you still feel small around your emotionally abusive family

Learning the dance


When I was in middle and high school, I performed in my dance studio’s annual, original Christmas show: The Adventures of Rudolph. Although the storyline differed from the classic animated movie and song, the show was beloved by young children throughout my area. At this time of year, we would have been well into rehearsals and rapidly approaching full run-throughs of the show. Opening day would be only a few weeks away.


The process of learning and rehearsing the choreography was intense and grueling. We practiced the movements over and over, hour after hour, until they became second nature. If you played a piece of music from just about any part of the show right now, I could still tell you exactly which steps came next. The movements are that ingrained in me even after all this time.


The reason for this was twofold. First, the constant repetition helped us build our stamina and get accustomed to the flow of the choreography. But the second, maybe more important reason, was that rehearsing the choreography repeatedly helped us develop muscle memory. Muscle memory is a phenomenon where the body learns what it needs to do so well that you don’t have to think about what you’re doing. The body remembers what comes next, and you execute the movements without conscious thought.


Ok, so what does this have to do with therapy, holidays, or narcissistic families?


The dance of family relationships


We are entering the time of year where many people spend more time than they usually would around their families of origin. The day before Thanksgiving is the biggest travel holiday of the year, and many of us will be driving or flying to spend time with family on or around the next week. This can be a wonderful, joyous time for those who have close, loving relationships with their families. For others, it is a minefield to be navigated with utmost care and caution.


One of the harder aspects of this navigation is the tendency for adult children of narcissists to fall back into old roles and patterns when they spend time around their emotionally immature parents. “I’m 35 years old!” you cry. “Why do I still feel like the 5-year-old who just got screamed at for getting mud on the floor?” Strong, confident, assertive adults can revert to anxious, withdrawn, or depressed shells of themselves in the presence of emotionally abusive loved ones. Why does this happen?


This is muscle memory of the mind: to slip back into patterns and roles so well rehearsed that they become automatic.


In a performance setting, muscle memory is a valuable skill. When the stage lights come up and you hear your musical cue, you can step on stage with confidence, and without the fear of forgetting your choreography. Drilling the choreography until you know it in your sleep lets you focus on your connection with the audience and your fellow performers. It also cuts down on stage fright, because you don’t have to think about what you’re doing – you just do it.


The steps you learned


In any family, we build relationships around learning how to interact with each other. In a loving, healthy family those interactions have built-in room for growth and change over time. Young children are more strictly supervised, taught, and attended to than older children, who earn independence as they demonstrate maturity. Teens will ideally receive more independence, as well as experiencing more natural consequences as they make choices based on their growing autonomy and self-motivation. And adult children will be given the opportunity to revisit and revise their relationship with their parents, moving from parent-child hierarchical relationships into more peer-like status.


When you grow up in a narcissistic or emotionally abusive family, roles tend to be more rigid, restrictive, and immutable. The narcissistic parent was and continues to be the epicenter of the family well of emotions. Their needs and wants will be paramount, and the child’s changing needs and wants will be secondary. These parents enforce their expectations by rewarding compliance and punishing anything that deviates from the roles they want their children to occupy. There is little or no room for growth, maturity, or renegotiation as the children grow up. Even as adults, the children of these families may experience significant subtle or overt pressure to always remain “the child” rather than ever becoming a peer.


Narcissistic parents miss out on a great deal by trying to keep their children in a role they have outgrown. Unfortunately, their driving concern is to meet their own needs first and foremost. An adult child may rebel against their role as family scapegoat, invisible child, or even golden child. When this happens,  the parent will try to pressure the adult child back into their expected place. Resistance is not futile, but it is hard.


Learning new steps is hard


It can be terribly frustrating to go on autopilot and join in a dance you no longer want to be a part of. No matter how much you want to change, you can still get sucked into the old patterns and cycles. Falling into those old cycles can also trigger self-critical parts to take potshots at you. This can add to your overall sense of shame and failure.


Instead of hating on your autopilot/muscle memory parts, consider this: those parts of you that fall back into the old familiar roles are not doing it to stunt your growth. They’re doing it because you know this role very, very well – and when you know a role so well you could do it in your sleep, there is much less chance of making a mistake in front of a watchful audience.


Muscle memory is a powerful thing. Mental muscle memory may be even more powerful, because the cues that trigger our performance can be so subtle that we don’t even notice them happening. Or, if we do notice them, it can be hard to stop ourselves responding to them. It can feel scary, lonely, or simply flat-out wrong to intentionally miss your cue – especially when you know the choreographer is watching in the wings, waiting to address any mistakes.


Muscle memory kept you safe(r)


If you played the music from Rudolph right now, but asked me to do different choreography, I would struggle for awhile. My body still remembers the steps and performance quality for each role, and that’s just from intensive rehearsals for a few months at a time over a period of six years. How much stronger must the muscle memory of 20 years of fulfilling a role be? 30 years?


So be kind and gracious with yourself if you find yourself falling back into the familiar steps. Noticing your participation is a good starting point to begin questioning whether these are steps you want to continue dancing. Your muscle memory parts are very good at their jobs because they have had to be. Don’t underestimate the power and value of self-preservation in an emotionally abusive or toxic environment.


Curtain call


If you fall into old patterns, be kind to yourself. Be curious and compassionate with your muscle memory parts: What feels important about playing this role? What feels scary about missing a cue? And how has performing the memorized choreography helped you in the past?


Sometimes our muscle memory parts don’t know that time has passed. They don’t know we’re no longer the nervous kid waiting in the wings with costume and makeup ready. These parts have done a hard job (and done it well) for a long time, and as far as they know nothing has changed. The music, the costumes, the lighting – it all looks the same. So you may need a gentle reminder to yourself about what has changed.


Perhaps those parts will find some relief in hanging up their pointe shoes and wiping off the stage makeup. Perhaps they will have some grief about making those changes. Whatever responses you have, give yourself room to feel them all. And give your muscle memory parts a round of applause as they take a bow. After all, they’ve done a hard piece of work so that you didn’t have to consciously think about doing it. Bravo!


You are not alone


If your holidays are more commonly marked with a grimace than actual cheer, you’re not alone. Contact me today to sign up for the Walking on Eggshells workshop, where you will have space to explore your muscle memory parts and learn some new choreography in a supportive community.


Space is limited, so don’t miss your chance to participate in this wonderful workshop. Reach out today! Now is your time.