In some of my latest writings, we’ve been examining some of the shadows of spirituality, including how our wellness, yoga, and spirituality circles got hijacked by QAnon. Many previously helpful wellness influencers went down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and outright fantasy and are now loudly flouting public health guidelines. Way too many of these people are spreading delusional notions about how if we just keep our vibe up, avoid the Covid vaccine, and transition to the 5D along with the other righteous people, we won’t get Covid, while all those low vibe people will continue to die. (????)
How does this happen? How might psychologically wounded people become vulnerable to cultic leadership in spiritual circles? How might trauma cause an otherwise smart doctor like Christiane Northrup to go off the rails during our Covidian era? Let’s start by examining a pattern Asha Clinton, Ph.D. (Founder of Advanced Integrative Therapy- AIT) calls “Symbiosis.” I’ll start by talking about my own insights into my trauma history.
The Trauma Of Self-Neglect (& Why Good Therapy Helps!)
I was raised in a very service-oriented family with relatives who were social justice activists, missionaries, ministers, and doctors, and I’m very grateful for their profound influence on me in this way because they raised me to give a shit about what was happening in the world beyond my privilege. They taught me to care deeply about the suffering of others but didn’t do quite as good a job at teaching me to care deeply and minister to my own suffering. In my family, self-neglect was seen as a spiritual virtue. Just as Jesus died for others on the cross, I was taught to give until I was depleted, sick, poor, and exhausted from caregiving the vulnerable. As someone who was born into a family of missionaries and doctors, I came by my tendency to prioritize protecting others over caring for myself honestly. I’ve been in therapy on and off over this tendency since moral injury, PTSD, physical illness, and suicidal tendencies caused me to leave my job as a doctor in the hospital. Aside from calling the cops and learning about restraining orders when a former partner had hit me, quitting my job was the first act of self-care I could remember ever performing.
My therapy taught me a lot about the patterns that got passed down in my family, which I have repeated over and over throughout my life. I learned about co-dependence and how to break the addiction to caring for others while martyring yourself. I learned that co-dependence and narcissism are really two sides of the same coin, and underneath the altruistic surface, caregivers are often narcissistically self-interested in controlling others via their caregiving (something my mother modeled for me in the church and my father modeled in the hospital.)
I learned that excessive caregiving is a trauma response that often arises because of boundary wounding and lack of real heartfelt care in childhood. I met the young parts in me that got smothered, dominated, and controlled rather than loved, parts that still sometimes feel desperate for someone to protect me. When I feel really hurt and vulnerable, or when I feel exhausted from having everyone else’s back while feeling alone, the party line of those young parts is, “Who’s got my back?”
What Is “Symbiosis?”
In my therapy, I learned that people with boundary wounding tend to pair into boundaryless unions-not just in romantic pairings, but in family bonding, friendships, and colleagues too. That boundaryless fusion can feel ecstatic, intimate, and addictive, giving you an intoxicating “fix” like a kind of heroin. (Trust me, I LOVE me this kind of heroin! Gimme gimme gimme!) My therapist calls this kind of boundaryless pairing “symbiosis.” This is not the kind of symbiosis where a fungus benefits from a tree and the tree benefits from the fungus. It’s quite the opposite. This kind of symbiosis refers to an early stage of childhood development when there’s no boundary between mother and baby, something that should end in toddlerhood but often does not.
This kind of symbiosis refers to both the co-dependent and the narcissist in such pairings. Asha doesn’t distinguish between the two because she says the traditional narcissist and the traditional co-dependent are both seeking power, control, and domination. They just seek it (and are variably successful at achieving it) with different strategies.
The typical narcissist seeks power, control, and domination through love bombing, gaslighting, charisma, talent, beauty, money, authority, and other assertions of power. The typical co-dependent, on the other hand, typically seeks power, control, and domination through caregiving, appearing to protect others, generously giving to others who appear needy, and “rescuing” others in ways the culture may valorize as saintly. The traditional narcissist’s need for power is more obvious. Think President Trump. The shadow of the co-dependent, however, is that this tendency to caretake others is a cover for the need to be in control, usually because being out of control was unsafe in childhood. So developing a caregiving part was an intelligent strategy at the time.
Are Caregivers Narcissistic?
Realizing this was a life-changing revelation for me when I first became aware of this psychological pattern many years ago. I had been raised to feel victimized by narcissists, so I felt busted when my therapist at the time said, “Lissa, caregivers are usually very narcissistic. Their narcissism looks like generosity, helpfulness, and caregiving. That’s how they weasel their way into people’s lives and take control of them.”
OMG. Guilty as charged! I had been doing that while patting myself on the back for being such a good person. I felt ashamed but also relieved to have some insight into a pattern that had been passed virally through my family, largely unexamined and unchecked.
What I didn’t understand until I learned about symbiosis from Asha was that when a symbiotic relationship of two boundary wounded people pair up, whether romantically, professionally, in a friendship or in a family, the person with the most ego strength (or personal power) will tend the play the role of the typical narcissist, while the one who lacks ego strength (or personal power) will be relegated to the typical co-dependent role.
Let me unpack that because it uses a lot of psychological jargon that differs from how spiritual jargon tends to work. Then we’ll examine how this might be playing out in spiritual circles during the pandemic.
In many spiritual circles, the ego is demonized and seen as something that interferes with spiritual growth, dispassionate equanimity, inner peace, and becoming One with the Divine. In psychology and trauma healing, the ego is viewed very differently. For example, before deep trauma healing and shadow work can ensue in therapy, some people need to have their ego strengthened. If someone lacks ego strength, trauma healing can have severe side effects-like psychosis, dissociation, or suicide attempts- when faced with their deepest pain. A good therapist will recognize this kind of weak or damaged ego strength and help someone get strong enough to do the deeper work.
On the other hand, some people have been wounded differently, and their egos may need to be taken down a notch or two, hopefully without a dangerous kind of shattering. If someone has a narcissistic or overbearing ego, he or she can go off the rails the way many cult leaders can. This kind of wounding is also treatable with good trauma healing, but many with narcissistic or overbearing egos do not seek treatment, making it difficult but not impossible to treat.
As it turns out, ego strength is one of those Goldilocks kinds of things. You want it just right- not too strong, not too weak. Only then can you start to grow beyond ego-identification into identifying with your Divine Self, or what in AIT is called your “Center.” The problem is that spiritual communities tend to be led by people with too much ego strength- and they tend to attract people with too little. Let’s break this down further so we can understand and have compassion for both the cultic spiritual leaders and the spiritual seekers they tend to dominate and control.
What Is Ego Strength?
In a nutshell, a healthy ego is the ability to regulate intense emotions that threaten to overwhelm you, so you can see why it would be harmful to demonize this wonderful capacity! If children are raised in loving, safely attached environments, they have the opportunity to develop a healthy ego, and this allows them the gift of self-regulation when things get rough.
The problem is that, even if you were lucky enough to have the world’s best parents, it’s almost impossible to survive childhood without trauma these days. Trauma produces unbearable emotions—unbearable considering the strength and development of the person’s ego at the time of the trauma. When a child is traumatized, the child needs to escape the intense emotions because he or she doesn’t have the necessary “ego strength “ to process and contain these intense feelings and sensations. The trauma is more or less unbearable depending on the ego strength and development of the individual, the constitution of the person, and the type and intensity of the trauma.
While many spiritual paths tend to demonize the ego or suggest that you must transcend it, in good trauma therapy methods like Internal Family Systems or Advanced Integrative Therapy, just the opposite is true. In IFS and AIT, healthy, solid ego strength is a necessary prerequisite to healing trauma, yet ego development can get arrested by trauma, so sometimes the ego needs to be strengthened before traumas can be adequately treated.
How can you tell the state of your ego strength? AIT founder Asha Clinton, Ph.D.’s description of ego strength was an epiphany for me that made so many painful patterns from my past make sense, so let me share it here in case it helps you too.
Markers of solid ego strength include:
-Assertiveness without aggression, rigidity or manipulation
-Moving easily between inner and outer worlds
-The ability to both contain and express emotion appropriately without explosive expression or emotional repression
-The appropriate use of power- People with good ego strength do not give their power away or take it from others.
-Ability to feel and tolerate fear, shame, and overwhelm without getting flooded and shutting down
How can you tell if you might have an undeveloped ego?
People with undeveloped egos:
-Engage in infantile behavior that requires dependency on others
-Tend to be incapable of handling adult responsibilities
-They lose their “Center” to others, giving their power away and being easily controlled by someone with more ego strength
-They’re unable to use their willpower to assert themselves, stand up for themselves or others, and make things happen
-They tend to lack discipline from within
People with damaged, weak, or non-existent ego strength:
-Can’t feel their feelings fully
-Get flooded with emotion when they do feel something, and their emotions can feel unbearable
-As a result, they cover up their feelings with a variety of defenses such as addiction, somatization, obsessions, compulsions, panic attacks, and dissociation
-When the ego is undeveloped, damaged, or weak, an archetype, such as the Witch or the Judge, can take over its function and run the conscious mind, replacing the ego (getting into the archetypes the way AIT does is a whole other can of worms I won’t dive into here!) In Internal Family Systems language, we would say someone without enough Self energy “blends” with parts of themselves rather than being Self-led.
While boundary wounding can lead to a weak or undeveloped ego, boundary wounding in symbiotic pairings can also lead to a different kind of ego wounding, which Asha calls the “narcissistic or overbearing ego.” This is the kind of ego that tends to get especially demonized in our culture, largely because people don’t realize that it too is a trauma response. Because this type of ego pattern can cause a lot of harm for other people, we tend to single out the narcissist as someone evil, lacking in empathy, and worthy of demonizing. How can you tell if you might have a narcissistic or overbearing ego?
People with a narcissistic or overbearing ego:
-Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance
-Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration
-Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
-Exaggerate achievements and talents
-Are preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the romantic love
-Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people
-Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior
-Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations
-Take advantage of others to get what they want
-Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
-Tend to be envious of others and believe others envy them
-Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special treatment
-Struggle in relationships and feel easily slighted
-React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior
-Expect perfection of themselves and others and feel depressed and moody when they (or others) fall short of perfection
-Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation
Are The Most “Spiritual” People Narcissists?
Now let me point to the elephant in the room. Read through that description of people with narcissistic, overbearing egos, and you’ll probably recognize many that many of these qualities seem to describe those we might consider the most “spiritual” in New Age spiritual circles. Think of all the manifestation teachers, channelers, energy healers, gurus, cult leaders, mediums, psychics, and others who claim to have special spiritual powers. While typical spiritual paths praised seekers for qualities like modesty, humility, care for the vulnerable and marginalized, and asceticism, today’s New Age teachers valorize the opposite.
In the New Age, you’re seen as exceptionally “spiritual” if you’re:
1) perfectly healthy with a fit body that will never get Covid
2) wealthy because you’re practicing thinking and growing rich
3) successful because you’re manifesting your heart’s greatest desire
4) pretty and thin because you have a yoga butt and are covering up an eating disorder with raw vegan diets and cleansing
5) powerful because you’re talking to the Druids in the Galactic Chamber, or channeling Jesus, or exercising influence over others to vote for Trump or avoid wearing masks with your Divine downloads on YouTube
6) erotically superior because you’re having great Tantric sex with your Divine partner
It hurts to write out that list, because I’m feeling the pain- of myself and so many other spiritual seekers I know, who just don’t feel good enough unless they’re matching up to some idealized form of human perfection or spiritual purity. It’s EXHAUSTING. And it’s fake. And not that you should need my permission, but in case you do, you have FULL PERMISSION to stop pretzeling yourself into some twisted idea of what makes up a “spiritual person.”
If the most “spiritual” people model traits of narcissism, are those who follow them the traditional co-dependents? If so, wouldn’t that make the perfect set up for boundary wounded people with variable ego strength to find one another, experience the intoxicating rush of symbiosis, and fuse into unhealthy psychological patterns that can cause all manner of harm?
If you wonder how a loved one may have gone down the rabbit hole of the spiritualized “Trump is a lightworker” pastel “Q,” for example, see if you can identify where your loved one might fit with regard to ego strength. Do they fit the criteria for healthy ego strength? Are they more like the weak or damaged ego? Do they fit the criteria for the narcissistic or overbearing ego?
When I examine my own life, I see that I have veered to both sides of the boundary-wounded symbiotic coin. In some relationships where I can easily, even accidentally, overpower someone else, I have had the tendency to be the more narcissistic overbearing one, which can harm others. In other relationships, especially with those I judge as more spiritually advanced than me, I have a tendency to collapse and give my power away, becoming easily overpowered and dominated- until I get hurt. Thank God for good therapy, because I’m less inclined towards both tendencies now, which means healing the traumas that caused these tendencies, learning good boundaries, and coming into right relationship with power (my own and that of other people). Explaining how that happens is past my pay grade and definitely beyond the scope of this blog.
Suffice it to say that awareness of our tendencies is a good place to start. We need to remember that unless someone has a healthy ego, all other patterns are a symptom of trauma, and all trauma deserves our compassion- with good clear boundaries. Understanding how someone’s trauma may make you or someone else behave a certain way can help to open your heart, but that doesn’t mean you have to open your house to people who treat you badly.
Why I’m Taking A Break From Social Media & How You Can Help!
That’s why, after much consideration, I’ve decided to take a break from social media for a while. Not only is the documentary The Social Dilemma a terrifying wake up call about why social media can cause so much harm to individuals and our culture. 2020 has also turned social media into a platform for polarizing, abusive, hateful behavior. And I’ve done too much therapy to interrupt my caregiving patterns to tolerate abuse in the name of helping others. So…I’ll continue writing- because I love to write and because I care- but I’ll be limiting my writing to my blog and my online programs, like Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101, which you still have time to sign up for.
Register for Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 101 and we’ll send you the recording of yesterday’s first class so you can catch up by next week!
*Photo credit to Gail Wright, MD, my brave physician friend on the front lines of helping to protect us all