Narcissistic Abuse Recovery .....
What is Narcissistic Abuse? Narcissistic abuse is a very specific kind of abuse perpetrated by someone who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or very high traits of narcissism. Narcissistic Personality Disorder exists on a complex spectrum, and your therapist will not be able to officially diagnose your ex-partner, parent or boss who you suspect is a narcissist. However, there are tell-tale signs of narcissism such as low empathy, blame and manipulation, lying and a severe refusal to take responsibility or accountability for their actions. Narcissists influence their victims to question their own perception of reality, breaking down their sense of self and faith in their ability to test reality. Narcissistic abuse is sinister; it can be quiet (covert), or loud (overt). Someone with high narcissism will not take your feelings and thoughts into consideration unless it directly benefits them, but they will try to convince you otherwise. Narcissists are driven by maintaining their self-image and often demand high levels of “perfect” admiration. They can dish out criticism but cannot take it. It is for this reason that many survivors of narcissistic abuse need to go through narcissistic abuse recovery with a skilled clinician.
Narcissists see others as an extension of themselves, viewing people as a means to meet their needs, centering themselves in the story at all times and not “sharing the stage”. Narcissism includes extreme levels of selfishness, and can also include things like rage and physical abuse when the narcissist is unhappy, unfulfilled or does not get perfect admiration. If they experience “slippage” of their self-image, they might act out from a place of extreme vulnerability. Grandiosity and narcissism itself are often a cover-up for extreme insecurity. However, it may or may not be in the narcissist’s awareness that they are in fact insecure. This debate could go on forever, and wondering whether or not the narcissist is conscious of their abuse is often a fruitless contemplation.
The evidence that you’re dealing with a narcissistic person often exists in the specific kind of toll it takes on its victims. Finding the right therapist who understands narcissistic abuse recovery is not only suggestible- it’s vital. Most therapists aren’t trained to recognize the signs of narcissistic abuse, and may accidentally invalidate the victim’s perception. At the Center for Growth we have therapists who specialize in narcissistic abuse recovery and can meet the needs of clients who struggle with narcissistic abuse via a partner, ex-partner, parent, sibling, boss etc.
An Example of an Untrained Therapist (most therapists, even really good therapists don’t work with people who have a personality disorder. This is a niche speciality that is very hard to learn because it’s not intuitive and often goes against standard therapeutic training techniques.)
A client comes in for narcissistic abuse treatment after they are discarded by the narcissist. The therapist, empathic and caring, listens to their story but treats the situation as an average break-up. The therapist might suggest the client take responsibility and reflect on their part in the relationship’s demise. The therapist, not understanding that the client has been manipulated, blamed and abused might accidentally gaslight the client seeking help.
Example of an Untrained Therapist You go into therapy after a “covert” narcissistic relationship has ended. Your ex-partner has high narcissistic traits (low-empathy, not taking responsibility, extreme selfishness), but they’re quiet about it. They might even present as depressed and victim-like when you push back on them.
You explain to your therapist that your ex-partner never “heard you out”, and had a habit of embarrassing you at social events. You brought your ex to a work event and he told your boss that he’s actually “your landlord”, and that “you’re often late with the rent!” Your boss laughs it off, but you felt horrible inside, knowing that you’ve been struggling financially. Your ex is well aware of how much you’ve been struggling and that this is a vulnerability for you. You felt shut down and couldn’t enjoy the rest of the work event. You explain to your therapist that your ex would say private things in public settings, and when you’d address it with him, he’d respond with, “I love you, I was only playing around!” You explain that you felt like this was a form of control and “using vulnerability against you.”
Your therapist, while compassionate, doesn’t catch narcissism, and doesn’t understand that narcissists can be quiet and unassuming. Instead of viewing this situation through the lens of narcissistic abuse, she focused on you and your potential “insecurities.” Asking if you ever feel embarrassed in other social situations, or if you suffer from social anxiety. She might even say, “I can see how you were embarrassed in the situation, but what if your ex didn’t intentionally hurt you?” The therapist might focus on your “sensitivities” if she isn’t aware that narcissists can be quiet about their abuse, and it might not seem like they are being abusive when in fact, they are.
A therapist who is trained to facilitate narcissistic abuse recovery might catch on rather quickly that your ex was putting you in an impossible situation, and playing on your vulnerabilities to feel powerful, in control or to manipulate you into feeling small in front of your boss. A trained therapist might ask, “when else did your partner pull this kind of thing?” Or, “I can see how your ex would do something hurtful and not take responsibility for you.” A trained therapist might also validate that anyone in a social setting would feel embarrassed if their private life was exposed without consent. A trained therapist will focus on the narcissism and how it harmed you, rather than trying to get you into a reflection process about your “real or perceived sensitivities”.
Without the help of a skilled clinician, the client may be further confused and lost as a result, re-blaming themselves for the relationship’s abuse. The untrained therapist might also fail to understand the seductive quality of the narcissistic abuse cycle, and underestimate the variety of support the client needs. They may not understand that when looking back on the relationship with a narcissist, it’s less about finding fault in your actions and more about understanding your vulnerabilities that got you involved and stuck in a narcissistic relationship.
What makes us Vulnerable to Narcissistic Abuse? It’s imperative to note that anyone can end up in a relationship with a narcissist. However, if you grew up in a chaotic household, experienced childhood trauma like neglect, emotional abuse or physical abuse, you are also vulnerable to accepting this kind of treatment later in life. If you grew up needing to fight for love, or fight for your needs to be met, then you might find yourself more comfortable in a relationship with a narcissist because your needs will always matter less. Unfortunately, we tend to date what we know and what feels “comfortable” even if it puts us into unloving and impossible situations.
If you are an adult and identify as codependent, you might also find yourself in narcissistic relationships because you will put their needs over your own. You will focus on the narcissist, and the narcissist will focus on the narcissist. You will essentially self-abandon, a tendency that not only leaves you vulnerable to narcissistic abuse, but also makes the abuse that much more damaging. Narcissist’s erode their victim’s sense of self. It’s important to find a therapist that understands this and can help you rebuild.
And Lastly, if you grew up in a household where a parent or caregiver displayed narcissistic traits such as low empathy, selfishness or “giving the silent treatment”, you might be used to that kind of treatment and become permissive of it in your future romantic relationships. Narcissistic parenting can have some of the same effects as narcissistic abuse in the context of romantic relationships. However, it can be even more damaging because a parental figure is supposed to be there for you. Narcissism from a primary caregiver sets us up to be re-traumatized in future relationships unless proper intervention is provided during narcissistic abuse recovery.
The 3 Stages of Narcissistic Abuse in Romantic Relationships Narcissist relationships often follow a pattern of behaviors. The three stages can last different lengths of time depending on the situation. Although painful, understanding the stages of narcissistic abuse can be validating, and helpful going forward so that you know what to look out for when first meeting someone. Understanding the 3 stages of narcissistic abuse is vital in the process of narcissistic abuse recovery.
Love-Bombing Love-bombing is the first stage of a romantic relationship with a narcissistic person. It can often involve lavish gifts, intense and fast interest and a quick desire for commitment. The problem with love-bombing is that it can feel really amazing to have someone display grand gestures, brag to their friends about you and display so much interest and certainty about you. You might feel more wanted than you ever have before, and that can be quite intoxicating.
The issue is that the narcissist is actually creating an experience for you, and they aren’t truly a part of it. Sometimes narcissists start off spilling their guts to you, being ultra vulnerable- and at other times it’s more like smoke and mirrors. You might find them showering you with compliments, and you might get lost in the adrenaline rush of intense sex, and the feeling like “you’ve known someone forever.” However, this period of time is often laiden with a sense of underlying anxiety in the non-narcissist person. Perhaps you chalk up the anxiety to butterflies, but more often than not, your “spidey senses” are going off and you might sense something is off. Or, you might think this is how love feels. Either way, don’t beat yourself up. This stage in the game is meant to be intoxicating and to “hook you in.” Everyone likes to feel wanted and the narcissist is capitalizing on your vulnerabilities, regardless of whether or not they are conscious of it.
As the love-bombing comes to an end, you will likely be left with intense anxiety, as opposed to when a “regular” honeymoon stage ends and you feel calm, like you’ve gotten to know the person you’re dating. Unfortunately, here is when you will start to notice small ways in which the narcissist begins to devalue you.
Devaluing In narcissistic relationships, devaluation is the second stage that occurs after the love-bombing ends. Narcissistic devaluation means that the narcissistic person realizes their partner is not perfect, and cannot provide them with constant and unconditional “fuel.” Because narcissists have a deflated sense of self, they are constantly trying to re-inflate themselves or fill up their cups with other people’s love and admiration. They feel empty without admiration from an outside source, and without being able to control when and how that admiration is given. This is part of the reason why presenting a facade is imperative to the narcissist. Because if they manipulate you into thinking they are the perfect match for you, then there’s more of a chance you will show them love and attention and stay hooked on them for longer.
During the devaluation stage, the narcissist begins to see their partners as less valuable to them. And they often aren’t afraid to make that perfectly clear, even if they aren’t directly taking ownership or acknowledging what’s happening and the impact it’s having on the non-narcissistic person. This is where it gets tricky. Narcissists aren’t good at taking responsibility for their thoughts, feelings or actions. In the realm of action, narcissists are not empathic to how they are hurting others.
If feeling devalued, you may try to address this with the narcissist, only to be met with “gaslighting.” The term gaslighting means that the narcissist denies your reality, and tries to convince you (subtly) that you’re not seeing what you’re seeing. They may turn your concerns around on you, convincing you that you’re the problem, or you’re over-dramatic, or overreacting to the devaluation. When in reality, you are likely just feeling an increase in anxiety due to the shift in the narcissist’s character display. Feeling devalued hurts, and for those vulnerable to narcissistic abuse, it can confirm any fears that come from low self-esteem, or questions of value and self-worth.
You can think of devaluation as “the facade is beginning to fade,” or that the narcissist wrote a check that they can’t possibly cash. They’ve painted this picture and it’s fading fast, because all of that energy spent towards making you feel irreplaceable and idealized was more of an effort to keep you around, as opposed to a genuine effort to connect as two people. Again, the narcissist creates an experience but doesn’t necessarily allow themselves to be a part of it.
The unfortunate thing about the devaluation phase is that it can last a really long time. You can stay in the relationship trying to convince the narcissistic person of your value. And they might continue to stay in the relationship in hopes they can receive “narcissistic supply”, or fuel from you. This is often the most painful, self-eroding phase in the relationship with a narcissistic person. It’s also when many folks seek therapy for narcissistic abuse recovery before they even realize they are being abused by a narcissist.
Discard The final stage in a narcissistic relationship is the dreaded discard phase. This is where the narcissist may decide that they’ve taken all they could have from you, and they end the relationship. This often leaves the victim feeling used and abused, confused about their relationship and asking themselves, “what the hell just happened?” The victim will not only be coping with the typical tragedy of a lost relationship, but they will often feel lost as a person as a result of the erosion of their reality and sense of self. They will be confused, looking back at chaotic experiences, wondering if the love was real or totally fake. And they may feel pervasive loneliness, chronic stress and trauma. Unfortunately, some narcissists will come back after discarding in hopes to re-engage in the cycle. And this is where things can get really complicated, turbulant and even more traumatizing. At this point it’s possible for the narcissistic person to return and attempt to love-bomb you again, trying to pull you back into the relationship. If this relationship reminded you at all of “home” growing up, you might be even more inclined to go back into the cycle, hopeful that “this time things will be different”. This phenomenon is also known as a “trauma bond”. And they are some of the hardest bonds to break. In narcissistic abuse recovery, your therapist will help you to understand the ways in which you’ve been bonded to the narcissist, and how to stay strong when navigating the break-up.
If you’ve been discarded by a narcissist, you need a therapist who understands what you’ve been through, and what you’re going through currently. You need support, empathy and understanding within your narcissistic abuse recovery journey. And you need someone to be real with you about the seductive qualities of these relationships and the danger to your mind, body and heart that occurs when you continuously re-engage in the devilish dance. Your therapist might advise you to go “no contact” and block the narcissist on all forms of communication. This can feel agonizing, but is often the only way out of the cycle. If you are co-parenting with a narcissist, this changes the whole landscape, but you can master techniques to make this process easier for you. You need the right kind of support in your corner!
Healing in the Aftermath Narcissistic abuse survivors often display specific behaviors and psychological struggles in the aftermath of the abuse. People who have survived narcissistic abuse experience an erosion of their sense of self; they struggle to know who they are anymore. They may struggle to know what they like, who their friends are, and who to trust. A skilled therapist will help the narcissistic abuse survivor to rebuild their sense of who they are, and help them to have faith in their perception of reality. They will help the survivor to re-instill self-trust and reclaim their likes, dislikes, values and more.
Narcissistic abuse survivors may be tuned into the needs of other people around them as a defense mechanism. They likely needed to tune into the needs of the narcissist to avoid rage, withdraw or another variety of abuse. They may have a harder time than ever prioritizing their own needs, and even realizing what their needs are after having denied them for so long. A skilled therapist will not only provide the psychoeducation about narcissistic abuse, giving the victim solid ground to stand on so that they know what’s happening to them, but they will also help the survivor to tune into themselves and recenter themselves in their own lives. Narcissistic abuse recovery is all about helping survivors to reprioritize themselves.
Narcissistic abuse survivors tend to blame themselves for things that have nothing to do with them. They may still be blaming themselves for the abuse they endured because that was the narcissist’s narrative. A skilled therapist will understand this and help explain what’s happening to the victim, as well as empower them to understand their needs, and slowly move towards encouraging them to advocate for themselves. Releasing self-blame is an important part of the narcissistic abuse recovery process. Releasing responsibility for that which you are not responsible for is imperative and empowering.
In the narcissist’s world, boundaries are optional. A survivor may have tried to implement boundaries, only to have them trampled over by the narcissistic person. The survivor might have slowly dialed back their boundaries, until they disappeared. Narcissists don’t like boundaries. A skilled therapist will help fortify the survivor’s sense of self through enforcing strong boundaries to protect themselves. In the months after abuse, it’s especially important to have strong boundaries because you are vulnerable. This also includes boundaries with the narcissistic person, and that might look different depending on who they are. A skilled therapist will understand that nuance and guide you based on your individual needs and be able to support you in your narcissistic abuse recovery.
In the aftermath of abuse, you might be left with less of a support system. You might have been isolated in your relationship with the narcissistic person. This can be extremely painful as you try to rebuild and manage the heartbreak on your own. At the Center for Growth, we offer a support group entitled, “Life After the Narcissist”, where women come together to support each other in the healing process from narcissistic abuse. This is a unique and affordable opportunity to feel seen, heard and understood by other people who really get what you’re going through. A sense of community is imperative in the healing process. We recognize that men are also affected by narcissistic women. At The Center For Growth, we also offer individual, couples and family therapy with therapists who are trained in narcissistic abuse recovery work. * For Narcissistic Abuse Recovery work we recommend individual counseling.
Richard (Rick) Snyderman, LPC, CADC, CSAT, NCC
Director of Group Therapy