Surviving the Narcissist
The fall-out from living with someone who has a personality disorder, specifically Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), is all too real. Some call it Narcissistic Victim Syndrome (NVS), Trauma-Associated Narcissistic Symptoms (TANS), or Post Traumatic Narcissism Syndrome (PTNS).While not yet officially written into the DSM-V, we know that people who have lived with an individual with Narcissistic Personality Disorder will often experience lasting symptoms that impact their self-esteem, emotional stability, physical health and overall well-being.
If you have been in this type of relationship and are reeling from the experience, perhaps you can relate to what I write here, about how it began and the impact that unfolded. It usually starts with a lot of love-bombing from the narcissist and an attraction and connection that feels magical. Almost “other-worldly”. At first, they feed you with so much love and adoration, that it touches a unmet longing within you. But the individual with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is like a tracker, who seeks out their target. Typically, they are drawn to the empath or highly sensitive person to whom they can link. They move toward the relationship with an intensity and passion, showering you in flattery, romance and promises of a future. During the love-bombing phase, they will focus on you with a fierceness and expect your attention to be on them as often as possible. And whenever you pull your attention elsewhere, they will react with hostility, manipulation and more control…that follows with an apology and more love-bombing. “See how much I love you” is one ploy they use to keep you engaged.
Their adoration and connection to you is very enticing and once you are in the throes of romance with a narcissist, they want to be your savior. Whether they are overt or covert in their narcissism, they want to help you and will show up with a solution or a way to fix things in your life. They look for vulnerable partners who need their support. They will promise you that they are your guardian, your grounding cord. If you have been hurt in the past, they will gain your trust by reassuring you that they will never hurt you like those who came before. If you have had a narcissistic parent or two, your inner child longs to believe in this kind of love and promise of safety, and you give over your heart and trust. Once you’re fully in; the romance phase will end and you will begin feeling destabilized in mind, body and spirit. And the Narcissist will ensure that you believe you are the problem.
That’s their game. And they are masters at it.
Soon into the relationship, you will start exhibiting symptoms of trauma. If you have any PTSD upon entry, you will begin reliving your past traumas, as your nervous system reacts to the toxic dynamic being recreated. And your partner, the narcissist, will insist this trauma has nothing to do with their behaviors.
Below are some of the symptoms you may experience if you have been living with a narcissist:
- You are not validated for your feelings or experience. If you bring up how you feel about anything that they are doing, they will twist it, change the subject or tell you what you did to them to make that happen. You will end up losing track of what you raised in the first place and never really get a direct or supportive response to your concern or request. You will question yourself, wonder what happened and walk away feeling frustrated, blamed or angry. If you do get angry at this, they will use that anger to point out that “you are just an angry person”.
- Constant exhaustion. They demand more and more from you, and this often happens over time. First its your attention, approval, acceptance. Then they will allow you to take on more and more responsibility for your lives together. As they do less, you pick up the slack. This can be physical responsibility for children, caring for the house or earning an income. Wherever there is any real slack in your lives together, they expect you to make up the difference and deny that this is happening. As you are doing more, they become resentful that you are not giving them enough time and attention because you’re always drained and exhausted from picking up the slack. You’re overworked and blamed for not being unavailable.
- Cognitive Dissonance. The narcissist insists they love you like nobody’s business. But there is always a disconnect between their action and words. If they are a covert narcissist, they may seem adoring but they also lie, cheat, manipulate, deflect responsibility and act like they do not. They expect you to absolve them of all wrong doing and never question their motives. When they cause harm, they insist its solely because you led them to it. They gaslight – making you question your sense of reality. Whenever you raise a concern, they deflect and insist you’re complaining or its just that you are too sensitive or its your problem or drama. They tell you that you’re always hurt, always upset. They never accept that they have any part in what’s destabilizing you. And then, you begin doubting your reality.
- Easily Triggered, Hyper-Sensitivity and Intense Reactivity. You never feel safe, because they violate your trust so often and manipulate your reality, that your amygdala goes on overdrive. This means your sympathetic nervous systems lives in fight, flight or freeze all the time. You start becoming easily triggered, as you live in an unsafe environment and toxic energetic that your partner insists is just “you”. You become reactive, yelling, crying or speaking in ways you never have in your life. The the dynamic is likely recreating a childhood wound and your instability is feeding the narcissist’s energy and need to blame. When you react, that’s their evidence that you have the problem and that’s why they are so miserable.
- Constant Rumination. You find yourself obsessively trying to understand or resolve the discord. You are searching for the formula to make them happy, help them thrive, get them to live their best life. You are constantly trying to help but nothing works because they assume zero responsibility for their actions or lives. If they are a covert narcissist, they live off of your success, social relationships and perceived status. You lead them to people, places and things but that too fails because they cannot make real connections. You may support them through grad school or finding themselves and still, they tell you that you’re never doing enough, giving enough or that your triggered state is why they aren’t doing better. You lose touch with your self-care and personal enjoyment. You lose sleep. You are stuck in the loop of obsessing over how to help them find work, a social network, hobbies, and resources or make your relationship better.
- Develop Depression. You lose your joy and engagement with the people, places and things that you had always loved before. Slowly, you stop doing what nurtures you and eventually you give that time to your partner or to the slack that you have to pick up in the imbalanced relationship. They do not partner with you, because they live off of your energy and know you will pick up the slack. You stop aiming for your goals, because you become focused on helping him achieve his or fixing his failed life. You nurture and work hard not to set him off by avoiding the behaviors that usually do (aka giving up your personal ambitions, friendships, hobbies…). You change yourself to match their patterns because they need your adoration and attention to feel stable and loved. If you are not focused on them, they feel abandoned and make you pay. The consequences for withdrawal of your attention on the narcissist is either direct aggression and control or passive-aggression through affairs and other forms of acting out.
- You start looking and feeling unhealthy. People notice the light going out within you. You feel dimmed and like you’ve lost yourself. You start having health issues. You lose or gain a lot of weight. Your self-esteem erodes. You feel disconnected from your power, purpose and self. You are suffering from soul loss.
- They disconnect you from your social network. They rarely like people. They think most people are somehow just not quite right, or not like them and they have few genuine friendships. You become their primary supply. They expect you to feed their emotional and social needs. In social settings, they will expect you to comply to their social discomforts. They either control the social interaction or disconnect altogether and expect you to go along. They cannot handle your attention being on anything other than them.
- You lose autonomy or freedom. If you continue to have a life beyond them, they may insist that they join you for most outings; professional engagements or social events or prevent you from going altogether. They cannot tolerate giving you too much rope, because it leaves them feeling abandoned. Slowly, you’ll stop enjoying free time and space, unless they are close by. They control you and you participate to avoid the conflict. You go along and every once in while they’ll say: “Go and do that”, tell you they love that you’re taking care of yourself and act as if they are giving you a gift. But when you do, they will eventually tear you down for not needing them.
- You burn out. You feel overwhelmed all the time and do not know why. You’re constantly tired and cannot pinpoint the cause. You’re picking up the slack but they deny that you are and do little to support you. You begin to feel increasingly shut down, resentful and unavailable to them. Though they are good at making grand gestures, there is never any sustained change. They blame you for wanting anything from them other than what they want to give; claiming that you don’t appreciate them enough. You are drowning in the overwhelm of being their sole source and supply emotionally, mentally and physically as they blame you for being burnt out because of it.
- You end up in therapy. You go for help, trying to understand, grow and heal yourself and the relationship. You make internal shifts and work hard to change. But, it is never enough. They usually refuse therapy – because you have the problems and they are your victim: you yell, complain, are exhausted or overwhelmed all the time and they don’t get enough of your attention while draining your resources. If they do ever go to therapy – usually at your request or insistence — they will find fault in the therapist, discredit them and usually quit.
- They may seek help, but only the help that reinforces their version of reality. Energy healers or those without psychological training appeal to them because they often fall for their charm, believe their stories and reinforce their grandiose realities or expressions of victimization.
When you finally hit bottom because they’ve broken you down, broken your heart, bankrupted you financially, emotionally, spiritually and physically — you will feel like a shell of your former self. You will realize that you have been hacked. You have sidetracked your life, lost sight of your goals and lost yourself in the process. You may enter a deep stage of grief, which may result in complicated grief, as you process through the confusion, shock, betrayal and heartbreak of realization what you endured.
First and foremost you need to know that you are not crazy! NPD’s seek out sensitives to latch onto. Its not your fault and it may have been your conditioning that led you into their snare. Be kind to yourself, educate yourself, get quality support and give yourself all the time you need to heal. If you’ve gotten out of the relationship, most people will not understand why you’re struggling after the break up because they will think and tell you that: “you are free” and suggest that you “put it all behind you”. This may feed the shame of not understanding why you cannot. But make no mistake, you have been traumatized. You are free from the daily abuse but you still have a path of recovery from all you have endured throughout your time in the relationship. Be gentle with yourself and trust that you can truly heal and transcend the impact of this trauma and reclaim your life.
Healing from Narcissistic Abuse
- Identify the truth of the abuse. It may have been obvious narcissism that was acutely toxic or the more confusing manipulation from covert narcissism. Whatever happened has shifted your brain’s chemistry. They fed on your empathy. They used it to prey on your compassion and resources. Over time, you began associating self-care, self-love and healthy connections with trauma in your neuro-pathways. As you face the reality of this abuse, take great care to rewire your brain toward self-care, self-love and joy. Learn to ground. Breathe, meditate, dance, engage in yoga and exercise, do the things you love and stopped doing but recognize that it will feel uncomfortable when you do these at first. Take time, learn how to shift with gentle care. Spend time with nurturing friends. You will need significant healing time to shift the trauma out of your system.
- Set healthy boundaries. Get the narcissist fully out of your life. They will not want to go (unless they have another relationship already lined up). Block them on your phone, email, all social media. Remove all aspects of them from your life. They are energy vampires. They feed on your distress and act like they didn’t cause it. Create a shield of light around you, so that only the emotionally honorable may enter from now on.
- Recognize and treat your addiction to them. They preyed on your wound and pulled you into their adoration and passion before twisting you and your world into something unrecognizable. You may still feel obsessed with fixing the problem, blaming yourself, getting them to be accountable or understand you. But realize, no matter what you say or do, they will never accept full responsibility for their actions or empathize with your pain. They will mock your anguish and twist your words until they are done with you. Get help and work on your own recovery.
- Forgive yourself. You have been tricked. You feel conned, manipulated, used and played because you were. Your sensitivity allowed you to stay. This individual consciously hurt you, no matter what they say. They used you for their gain socially, financially, romantically, sexually, emotionally, spiritually. They will pretend you are their mirror. They will tell you it was all you. But deep within, you know the truth. Take a good look at: Who is really doing the inner work? Who is really exploring themselves? Be clear, they are not! They used your empathy, self-reflection, openness, sociability, success, compassion and intelligence to hook you. You were pulled into a game that they masterminded and have been playing all along. Be sure, that no matter what they say to you, before they are out the door, they have a few new lovers already lined up. Forgive yourself. They are predators.
- Compassionately realize that part of you knew. You knew and disregarded it. Take a breath here. You saw the signs and didn’t want to believe them. Perhaps it was a rage early on; a lie you quickly forgave; cheating that was excused. You experienced the manipulations of your time and energy, but all within the hypnotic glare of the adoration and care you hadn’t experienced before. At first, their attention filled you like no other – they played on your childhood wounds to hook you into their trap. If you told them about past hurts, they assure you they would never do that to you and you so want to believe them. They leave big holes in their stories from their past or current life, but you let those go. When you question too much, they tell you that you’re making them feel bad. It is likely that you haven’t ever truly felt loved in your life or that you had a narcissistic parent. This trains you to fall for the narcissist without realizing it. You’ve been taught early in life, to go along with the illusion because you crave the love. But make no mistake the narcissist is a predator. They cast a wide net, seeking many partners at one time until they get a few bites. They usually play with a few who catch their interest first, until they get the one that feeds their needs the most. And then they clamp down hard through the love bombing phase. Your unhealed vulnerability is salve to their wounded perpetrating soul. And at first, they are salve to yours. Do not judge this, seek to understand and heal.
- Intuition is your blessing. You may have sharp intuition. Its been speaking to you all along, but slowly, you start rationalizing and denying its call. During the relationship, you may have lost confidence in your intuition. But it never quite goes away. Instead, it reveals their lying, betrayals and more. When your the trauma or PTSD becomes evident, intuition becomes hard to trust but you can nurture it back into a fully functioning muscle. The more you listen, the stronger it gets. Don’t shame yourself for not knowing how to do this better at the time. Recovering your intuition is part of your healing.
- Heal and evolve. Come to understand your experience and self without judgment or shame. Most people stop before this phase of the healing by remaining focused on the actions of the narcissist. But this is the time to dive deep and discover yourself. Get to know your vulnerabilities and unhealed trauma. Take time and care to know, love and heal your inner child. Learn how to self-care and self-love without fearing intimacy going forward. This is your opportunity to fully reclaim your power, discover yourself and awaken.
- Do not rush your healing process. Others who do not understand the recovery process from living in an emotionally abusive relationship with a narcissist, may think you should be well beyond it by now. But this process requires deep healing for you. You are recovering from cognitive dissonance, trauma bonding, destabilization and other effects of abuse. Be gentle with yourself and devote time to your healing.
- Shift your focus to the present. Weave time for presence to joy, love, nature, creativity and healthy interactions. While healing from trauma, give yourself permission to be here now. Resurrect your dreams, interests, friendship and hobbies. Engage in actions to lift your spirits and fill your mind, body and soul.
- Spend time in silence. Intuition and healing manifest, in part, through listening. When you sit in the quiet of yourself, you will discover who you are, once again. Or maybe for the first time. Come home to yourself through active listening, quieting practices and mindfulness. This builds a foundation through which empowerment grows.
- Activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Being in an abusive relationship made you reside in a state of hyper-vigilance, even if you were not aware of it. You rode the highs and intensity of connection and the insanity of betrayal. All of that overstimulated your sympathetic system, pumping chemicals of stress into your bloodstream and keeping you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. By activating your parasympathetic system, you retrain your brain and body to return to homeostasis. Breathing deeply, mindfulness, laying on your right side, soul retrieval and other healing practices will help.
- One step at a time. This is a journey where you are the hero/heroine of your own life. Take your time. You have survived the worst! Don’t rush. Keep it simple. Love yourself boldly. Create a new path and live your best life.
Narcissistic abuse is real. People with narcissism rarely get help for their conditions or have empathy for who they hurt. But their victims almost always seek therapy and support, as they try to recover. Remember, its not your fault. They are predators. You can have compassion for their wounded ways, but no more at your own expense. Now is the time to pull yourself free from their snare, validate your trauma, heal from it fully and rebuild you life with loving care.