Narcissism falls along a continuum of degrees from healthy to sociopathic. All of us need to have some healthy narcissism in order to survive. Narcissistic abuse occurs when one person’s behaviors cause continued harm to another, and when one person’s life force is made subservient to another.
Narcissistic abuse creates a relationship dynamic characterized by the demand that the target being a pleasing mirror for the abuser and echo his/her thoughts, desires and feelings. The target of this abuse often characterizes the relationship as having started out wonderfully, only to degrade to feeling trapped, hurt and emotionally starved.
If you are the target of narcissistic abuse, you have endured pain and confusion. You’ve been exhausted by the narcissist’s endless need for your attention, validation, ministrations, and energy. You’ve been defeated and exhausted by the sense of never being good enough.
In recovery, your physical and emotional safety is the absolute first priority. Safety is the foundation on which every other aspect of healing takes place.
Life hurts in a relationship with a narcissistic abuser.
You may be in relationship with a narcissistic abuser if:
- Your partner lets you know that you are never quite good enough. He/she has an air of superiority and reminds you over and over how inferior you (and others) are.
- You experience confusion about what you feel, think and need, and a sense that you do not matter as much as the narcissist does. He/she “corrects” you about what you actually experienced, tells you that you are crazy, lies to you, gaslights you. You come to question your own perception.
- You are told that your actions or feelings are ridiculous (therefore he/she can ridicule you for having done or felt something) and outrageous (therefore he/she is justified in acting out their rage on you).
- Any complaint that you have in the relationship is flipped into a character flaw about you. If you say their volatility and unpredictability is a problem, they will say that you are actually the one who is volatile and unpredictable (and therefore abusive). Any flaw in the narcissist will be turned around and projected onto you.
- You are blamed for your own victimization. If the narcissist explodes with anger, they will tell you it is because of what you did or didn’t do. If they cheat, they will tell you it is your fault. If you defend yourself during an attack, they will tell you that you are the one who is abusive. In his/her own mind, a narcissist is almost always in the victim role.
- You never win. Ever. There is no true empathy or compassion for you. The narcissist shows care for you only in ways that suit and do not inconvenience him/her. While there may be lots of emotion, there is not actually a two-way emotional understanding. Narcissistic abusers are endlessly capable of justifying their awful behavior (verbal, emotional, physical) and incapable of genuine remorse.
- You feel lonely, misunderstood and used in your relationship. You have a role rather than a relationship. Your role is to understand him/her, be pleasing, and be a complimentary mirror. You are rewarded for doing this well, and punished when you don’t.
- You feel shame and guilt for being unhappy in your relationship. You feel shame and guilt for having your own emotions and needs, and for wanting to say no to your partner. You are not allowed to say no.
- You have an overriding sense of being judged, evaluated, blamed and criticized.
- When he/she hurts you, you are told you are too sensitive and should learn to take a joke. Your partner lets you know that if you do not like what he/she said or did, then something is wrong with you. You are the problem. Deal with it.
- You are aware of being manipulated and controlled, of having less and less authority in your own life.
- Paying attention to anyone else’s emotions and needs except the narcissist results in explosive tantrums. You are blamed for the fighting, chaos, and crisis. You are called evil, bad, careless, callous, stupid, ugly, fat, unlovable, flawed. You are told that no one else would ever want you.
Recovery is possible.
An essential part of healing is to process the behavior of the narcissist and all the trauma, heartache, confusion, and pain they have created. Your experiences need to be talked about, and your emotions need to be expressed and understood with deep compassion.
I encourage you to do this healing work with a trained therapist who specializes in this type of recovery. Journaling about the events that haunt you, detailing the flashbacks and intrusive memories that disturb you may also help you to see them differently. Acknowledging the full damage done actually helps to heal and to put the past in the past where it can no longer hurt you.
Become an expert in self-care.
Devote yourself to self-care in the form of exercise, good nutrition, plenty of sleep, medical care, and supportive bodywork.
Spend time with people who are genuinely good for you including your friends, your children, family members, a trusted advisor, pastor or counselor. Spend time with people who are supportive of you and who are comfortable with you expressing your authentic thoughts and feelings. I strongly urge you to work with a warm-hearted therapist who is experienced in facilitating healing from this particular abusive dynamic.
Pursue some form of creative art. Music, writing, painting, sculpting, pottery, sketching, singing are all wonderful channels for you to find out what you are feeling and express yourself.
Meditate. In meditation you will find some of the peace and quiet you have been craving so deeply. If you feel called to it, prayer is also a respite and place for peace and hope, to strengthen connection with your Higher Power.
Read books and listen to podcasts that are supportive. In recovery, you grow your understanding of yourself, what you have been through, and what you want to create in your life.
Challenge yourself to learn and develop new skills, knowledge and abilities. This helps grow your sense of self-respect, confidence, and agency.
You are not selfish for having a self.
Narcissists train us to believe that our feelings and needs are selfish and are the cause of all problems in the relationship.
It is a basic human right to be in touch with your own thoughts, emotions, desires, and bodily sensations.
The narcissist uses classic brain washing techniques to cause you to lose touch with yourself. He/she uses shaming to fool you into feeling inferior, and to implant his/her will inside of you. They will blur, distort and eventually annihilate your connection to your true self. The narcissistic abuser wants the only voice you hear inside of you to be theirs. This is mind control.
They will use similar tactics to disconnect you from your own emotional experience, so that you do not know what you actually feel and you do not trust your own perceptions or wisdom. This taking of your own emotional life is the criminal hijacking of your heart and soul.
A devastating consequence of being the target of this kind of abuse is that you begin to believe your abuser. You identify with the insults and character smears. Being the only person in this relationship with a conscience, you take on the guilt that rightfully belongs to your abuser and you internalize their anger and blame.
This can create an internal dynamic that has you continuing to suffer their abuse long after the relationship is over. The cycle of abuse will have you acting out (against others) or acting in (against yourself) until you heal it.
Hearing the sound of your own voice.
Recovery is about creating a healthy relationship with your self. You begin to discern the difference inside between that which has been imposed by the narcissist and that which is actually you. You begin to identify your self, hear your own voice, feel your own emotions, and see your own needs. You look in the mirror and recognize who you are. And you do not berate or abuse yourself for having done so.
Meditation is a wonderful support in your recovery. Meditation teaches a way to pay attention inside: to give relaxed, full attention to habits of mind, to emotions, to perceptions of what is happening in the body. Through meditation, you strengthen your ability to connect non-judgmentally to your experiences. You learn to quiet your racing thoughts and your racing pulse. You learn to connect with yourself and feel grounded.
Staying connected with your self is the antidote for the state of chronic confusion and anxiety caused by narcissistic abuse. With relaxed, full attention you can develop and deepen your courage. You learn how to reliably calm yourself. You see life more clearly, stepping out of delusion and perceiving how things actually are. From here, you can access your own wisdom and make decisions that are in your best interest. You can treat yourself with compassion.
The narcissist strips away their target’s inner resources and creates a false sense of dependency. Recovery is a process of finding, growing, and strengthening your inner resources.
Your two most important inner resources are
your HEART and your WILL.
Connect your heart and your will.
The heart nourishes the will, and the will strengthens the heart. Your heart brings loving kindness and your will brings determination. These two elements each offer their own source of vitality to the other. The exchange of energy and power between heart and will is profound and life changing.
Strengthening your connection between heart and will, you create stability inside. You begin to consistently care for yourself and not collapse into overwhelm and dissociation. As you learn that you can rely on yourself, you realize that your sense of security actually comes from inside of you and not from someone else.
Seeing clearly the destruction they create, you give up any former reliance on toxic relationships. You stop seeking comfort from harmful people, harmful substances, and harmful habits. You protect yourself. You moderate yourself. You are free from self-sabotage.
Perhaps most importantly, you challenge any belief that you are wrong for having and expressing needs, preferences, ideas, and desires. You see the truth that you have a right to have boundaries with other people.
In fact, as you recover, you actually become comfortable and successful in asserting boundaries. You remember that you have the right to protect yourself, to have privacy, to have consistent and caring relationships.
You learn to say yes when you mean yes, and no when you mean no. You are not abused or berated or criticized by anyone (including yourself) for saying no.
Your emotional radar is engaged and you easily recognize and screen out toxic, manipulative people. Because they can’t get the control and attention they want, you are no longer a good target for narcissists and will stop attracting them.
Two-way relationships really do exist!
In recovery, you start living in a world where two-way relationships exist. In healthy two-way relationships you will experience that:
- Both people listen to each other’s requests and complaints.
- Both seek to understand the emotions, thoughts and needs of the other, and act with generosity, restraint and consideration.
- Both give positive attention, emotional support and understanding to one another.
- Both make sacrifices for the good of the other.
Full recovery is possible.
Recovering from narcissistic abuse is a practice, a daily awareness of tuning in to your own sense of self. Recovery is learning how to find yourself and then how to be yourself. Full recovery is a process that will take time, attention, and tender loving care.
You can be in healthy relationships where you give what feels right of yourself and you receive what you need from others.
And, you can live with a sense of freedom and authenticity, pursuing your own happiness and life purpose as you decide is best. Absolutely, you can do that.
Good luck on your journey, and let me know if I can help.