Narcissistic abuse is a potent force which can draw you in, suck you dry and then toss you out, leaving you with shattered self-esteem, post-traumatic stress, a burning sense of worthlessness and self-hatred. It may feel like the horrors of narcissistic abuse will never leave you. You carry emotional and psychological ‘baggage,’ and might consider yourself the victim. Your identity has been hijacked and systematically erased, rendering you vulnerable to further manipulation. To top it all off, your state of anxiety and confusion continues to cripple you and stops you from taking firm action to reclaim your life. You believe yourself powerless to make a change. You are overwhelmed by and terrified of the future. Worst of all, you have no idea where to start with your recovery from narcissistic abuse.
It is true; narcissistic abuse can seriously affect a person’s willpower and render them powerless to fight back. But all it takes to make a difference is some intervention and a little bit of support. Once you light the spark, there’s no telling how brightly the fire will burn.
The following is a guide to help you start with your recovery from narcissistic abuse:
1. Know the signs of narcissistic abuse
A relationship stained by narcissistic abuse contains some of the following symptoms:
- It’s unbalanced: The other person seems to have the upper hand and the final say, and you have to struggle to get an equal footing with them. Their problems get top priority. When you try to express or assert yourself, the other person finds a way to subdue you and bring the focus back to them.
- It’s manipulative: Like being under a spell, the other person seems to have an uncanny ability to pull your strings and get their way with you. Often you don’t want them to, but it just happens. When you try to influence them in any way, you’re met with so many obstacles you give up.
- It’s intrusive: They have a permanent place in your mind. There doesn’t seem to be any psychological separation between you and them, and they enter your emotional space effortlessly. You find yourself craving some psychological ‘air’, but end up feeling enormous guilt. Being a distinct individual in control of your destiny does not feel like an option with them in your life.
- It’s rigid: You don’t experience much growth from the relationship, and it doesn’t go anywhere fast. It feels ritualistic, and you wish there were more to it.
- It’s exhausting: You walk on eggshells around that person. There’s no particular reason. Simply being around them makes you anxious, like you don’t quite stack up and have to prove yourself to them.
- It’s oppressive: It’s taken for granted that the other person is superior to you. Spending time with them leaves you with a hopeless sense of inferiority.
- It’s hollow: The relationship feels empty and sad, and you don’t get much emotional nourishment from it.
- It’s perplexing: You can never seem to find solid ground. There’s always a drama which must be addressed or something which the other person is unhappy about that you feel you need to fix. You crave peace and security, but it somehow always eludes you.
- It sucks you in: There seems to be an invisible force which sucks you toward the other person. Even when you disconnect for a while, all it takes is a simple question to draw you back in and distract you from your task. You feel powerless to resist this emotional force, which seems to take on a life of its own.
It’s important to keep these symptoms in mind so you can remind yourself that some relationship dynamics are not normal. By recognising that your relationships lack balance, you can get a perspective on how you would like your relationships to be moving forward.
2. Drop the victim label
As long as you view yourself as a victim, you will unconsciously perpetuate and empower narcissism. Although our experiences do shape us and define our present, creating an identity out of them is completely up to us. The alternative to being a victim of narcissism is to consider yourself a target of it instead. For one reason or another, you found yourself on the radar of a narcissist. That can happen to anybody, either through birth or ill fortune. The minute you become conscious of the destructive effects of narcissism and how detrimental it has been to your life, you gain the profound power of choice.
You can either let your past conditioning influence you, or you can decide to work toward a new future based on new experiences, which eventually overwrite the old ones. How a person identifies themselves is hugely important. A label is a self-fulfilling prophecy which only goes deeper. Will you be a victim without power or a target who refuses to be manipulated?
3. Establish a space immune from narcissistic abuse
The road to recovery from narcissistic abuse can be long, painful and full of frustration. This is because narcissists take away your greatest asset: your space. We all need physical space to feel safe, psychological space to think and make wise choices, and emotional space to connect deeply with our true self. The narcissist aims to snatch all of this away from you. They question and reprogram your identity, overwhelm your senses and then devour you from the inside. They aim to take away what makes you ‘you’. Your challenge will be to re-establish a space which is off their radar. Some examples include:
This can be a park where you can walk and think, a cafe where you can have a tea or coffee and read or a holy place where you can sit and ponder. The idea is to make retreating a habit. In this physical space, you can give yourself permission to feel and think without anybody to define those thoughts and emotions. Through solitude, you will come face to face with yourself, which can be a jarring experience. However, solitude is also a chance for you to ‘reset’ and to re-establish a connection to yourself and a sense of ‘me’ which does not include anybody else. It is an opportunity to ‘remember’ who you are.
The therapist’s office
The therapist can be an excellent guide who offers you a safe space to explore your emotions and doubts. It’s a place which can provide you with an objective mirror and restore your sanity and grip on reality, which the narcissist works hard to destroy. Narcissistic abuse is merciless and unabating, filling all the gaps in your mind until it has consumed your reality. Therapy is powerful for recovery because it challenges this reality and allows genuine insight and emotion to come through. Not only does a narcissist manipulate their target, but the target will also delude themselves in order to cope. Fantasy and delusion are natural defence mechanisms, but when you are trying to recover from narcissistic abuse, they can get in the way.
A good therapist will gently challenge your delusions and encourage you to take responsibility for your emotions as well as your life situation. Also, because of the harm that narcissistic abuse does to your self-esteem, you may lose heart when you least expect it. Narcissistic abuse creates a set of beliefs and patterns which perpetuate long after the narcissist is gone. That visit to the therapist’s office can be an excellent way to reset and get you back on track.
Stop, breathe deeply and focus on your body. Make a practice of this. Focus on your sensations and emotions. Your mind will fight for your attention, but if you have the perseverance and courage to move past your distracting thoughts, you can find a space of abundant peace. Meditation can help you find it. With meditation, there is no goal; the means is the end. This paradox takes a while to grasp, but once meditation becomes a habit, the picture becomes clearer. There is a distinct separation between you and your mind. Meditation is the practice of opening the gap so you can witness the True Self. The mind is the realm of the narcissist, and if you are heavily identified with it, you become much more vulnerable to manipulation. By practising mindfulness, you increase awareness, and by increasing awareness, you gain a powerful tool for your healing.
4. Know the obstacles to recovery from narcissistic abuse
It helps to know some of the obstacles which you will face when recovering from narcissistic abuse. By being aware of them, you can make them conscious. When they come up, you can learn to witness them while continuing to move forward. Obstacles are conditioned patterns in our mind. When we refuse to engage them, they gradually lose power over us.
Some obstacles to narcissistic abuse recovery are:
We all have an inherent need to love and feel loved. Narcissistic abuse depletes us of it and leaves us in a love-starved state. Even after you have physically freed yourself, it takes consistent, attuned care to satisfy that hunger and return you to emotional equilibrium. You can’t just shut it off. Narcissists see this hunger from a long way away and will use it to manipulate you. It’s like a gravitational force which acts against your will and clouds your judgement, which might lead you to unwittingly make the wrong choices.
Narcissistic abuse is a form of brainwashing. In order to control you, a narcissist will relentlessly attack your mind until you have an altered sense of reality. They make subjective judgements about you, they question your life choices, and they lie and feed you with false propaganda about their superiority. They make you believe things that are not true. When you have a warped sense of reality, you won’t have any idea what to change. Their reality is your reality. They have control over your mind. Having good friends to ask questions to and a good therapist is therefore paramount.
Guilt is that incessant, gnawing feeling, hacking away at you 24/7. It’s like a kick in the guts every time you do something, or say something, or even think something. It is a byproduct of a life of narcissistic abuse. When you don’t act as they expect, the narcissist will continually remind you of the ‘sacrifices’ they made for you, many of which you never requested. When you can’t make it for dinner, but ask who’s coming, you are met with “Well, you’re not coming, we know that much”, which makes you question your loyalty to the narcissist. Their strict expectations of you create numerous collision points for guilt to breed. You feel as though you’re always letting them down. Countless instances of these situations lead to habitual guilt being the default emotion accompanying many of the choices you make.
With any of these obstacles, the philosophy is simple; witness it, make it conscious, question it if need be, and then continue moving forward.
5. Remember what lies beyond narcissistic abuse
We all lose heart sometimes. Targets of narcissistic abuse do so while forgetting what it’s like to feel empowered. When you become consumed by the madness of narcissism, you forget your life purpose. You lose sight of who you are and why you are. This step is about setting your priorities straight. Narcissistic abuse recovery should be about first reclaiming your mind followed by your True Self. You are fighting to become yourself. You are fighting to claim your birthright, which includes thinking, feeling and acting in your own interest. Narcissists take that away from you and convince you that it is wrong to want it. There is a fundamental, spiritual and powerful place inside of you which can give your life clarity and meaning. When you cannot feel this vibrant presence, remind yourself that it is there. Remind yourself what you are fighting for.
When recovering from narcissistic abuse, perseverance is a must. Having a structure to follow is also crucial. Drop the victim label, establish independent space, know your obstacles, and remind yourself daily of what you are working towards. You are inherently amazing, but in a world of rising narcissism, you can easily lose sight of the fact. There is no cause more worth fighting for.
For a more in-depth guide on recovery from narcissistic abuse, check out the following books: