Healing from Narcissistic Abuse
Updated: Aug 20
If you've ever spent countless hours worrying about someone else's wellbeing at the expense of your own, blaming yourself for their hurts and lacking, and racking your brain for ways to please them, it's likely you've been in a relationship with someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder or traits of the condition. Central traits are 1) an inflated sense of self, causing feelings of arrogance and entitlement, and 2) a lack of concern for how others are feeling, causing feelings of anger/fear, jealousy, and exploitive behaviors.
Many of the behaviors described above, the very definitive traits of Narcissism, are abusive in nature. Hence the term narcissistic abuse.
The crazy making thing about being in a relationship with a narcissist, whether it's your family member, partner, or boss, is that they're incapable of seeing how you're feeling yet they readily tell you what you're feeling and thinking and ascribe imagined negative motives to your actions (a behavior called projection).
One way of putting it is that a narcissist is the biggest star and the biggest victim in their life. The way they see it, all others in their life are a reflection or an extension of them. Thus, your role as someone in their orbit is either that of a supporting actress/actor or villain- and often alternates between the two. (Yes, it's exhausting.)
Healing from the roller coaster of narcissistic abuse takes time and courage. It takes time to grieve the deep losses involved with having been in a close relationship with someone with narcissistic personality traits- the loss of your own sense of self and trust being chief among them. And, it takes courage to believe yourself versus what the narcissist programmed you to believe- that you're wrong.
Here's how this often looks in real time. Things start out seemingly loving- perfect, even- but the relationship turns increasingly conflictual over time. You slowly begin to doubt yourself- a practice that only increases with time spent with the person. Maybe you were inconsiderate? How could you have forgotten to include them in that group outing? Or, how could you have invited them at the wrong time and in the wrong way? Your self esteem erodes. Your anxiety grows. It seems you can never do things the right way.
The painful effect that narcissistic behaviors have on a person is the same whether or not they were carried out intentionally. I'm not about vilifying people with narcissistic personality traits that may be largely beyond their control or the result of past trauma as personality disorders are commonly thought to be. I'm here to point out that you deserve a positive sense of self, regardless.
In a healthy relationship, you can share what you're really thinking and feeling, set boundaries, and communicate about difficult things all without risking a blow up. In fact, being vulnerable and talking about difficult things can actually help your relationship grow stronger. This is not possible in a relationship with someone with narcissistic traits who can't own or apologize for any wrong doings, much less see a reason to change their behavior.
Getting Off The Roller Coaster
It can be scary to think about leaving but the reduction in anxiety that people experience after separating from a narcissistic partner is often surprising to them. Simply put, not living with a narcissist alleviates many of the worrisome problems- the need to walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting them, the need to self medicate to cope with the anxiety, etc. This isn't to say that it's easy. There are typically ongoing unwanted reactions, including them bad mouthing you to everyone in town. But, removing the added stress of living with them often makes it much easier to cope.
If the person is a parent or other family member, the journey is a little bit different. What distinguishes parental narcissism is the deeply rooted nature of the impact is has on you, the adult child. There is often C PTSD that one has to contend with. And, there is serious cultural pressure to respect and take care of family (even when that family member has never been able to do so for you and even neglected and abused you). Thus, the recovery process isn't as simple as leaving a partner. It's a longer term more internal battle.
I recommend some form of ongoing support to help you heal from parental narcissism. Therapy allows for an in depth look at how you were hurt and how you can heal from narcissistic abuse- parental or otherwise. If you have been impacted, I invite you to look around and see what resources, books, and therapy appeals to you. There is a lot of good stuff out there to help people find relief and happiness.
In my practice, I have found self talk to be a game changer and I would like to leave you with a few affirmations, right now.
-It's okay to take a break. It doesn't mean things will always be this way.
-I can't control what another adult is thinking and feeling. The only thing I can control is myself.
-It is not up to me nor is it even possible for me to be responsible for another adult's happiness.
-The only person who can control their happiness is that person.
-It's okay for me to focus on myself. I can't heal until I can learn to do so.
-I am not a terrible person. That is just a voice left over in my head.
-Healthy people support me and want me to feel better. I can find and focus on these people.
-I need relationships in which both/all people's needs are respected.
Please, be gentle with yourself. This is a tough but important topic. And, let me know if you think that I might be able to help you.
(Note: I used gender neutral pronouns throughout this article intentionally to denote that anyone can have narcissistic traits.)