Narcissistic Abuse is quite a unique and often traumatic kind of psychological and emotional abuse. Having specialised in this area for over 10 years, Dr. Sarah Davies - author of How to Leave a Narcissist for Good - moving on from Abusive and Other Toxic Relationships shares her thoughts on healing and recovery from narcissistic abuse.
Recovery following this kind of highly abusive dynamic is absolutely possible. Not only that, the journey can be a highly valuable and rewarding one. One that leads to healthier and more fulfilling relationships in the long run. Recovery is about working on the relationship you have within yourself first and foremost. When that is good, usually all other relationships become much easier and healthier too.
In thinking about recovery from toxic unhealthy relationships I think it’s firstly really important to understand the common ‘ingredients’ that are almost always part of the mix in the first place.
Issues with boundaries, not understanding what healthy boundaries are or being unable to hold them.
Tendencies towards feelings of anxiety or guilt or both (these are the things that often get in the way of feeling able to hold healthy firm boundaries).
Codependency or codependent traits (caretaker, people-pleaser or fixer).
A history of unhealthy relationship dynamics (perhaps a parent or caregiver was narcissistic or codependency within family)
Self-critical / punitive to self.
Neglects proper self-care.
So with steps towards recovery and healing, it’s important to consider and work on each of the factors that are at play within the toxic relationship. Below are some brief pointers to help support recovery from narcissistic abuse and other toxic relationships.
1. Recognise their actions as abuse. Understand the nature of narcissistic abuse.
In the first instance it’s helpful to arm yourself with accurate information about narcissism and narcissistic abuse. Fortunately, nowadays there is a lot of information available. Get enough good information and knowledge to understand that whatever is happening or has happened in this regard is abuse. Narcissistic abuse can leave you feeling like it’s you and your fault. It is a serious form of emotional manipulation and psychological abuse. It is not your fault. It is also not your responsibility to try and fix or change the narcissist, or anybody else for that matter. Staying with this kind of codependent behaviour is a key issue that maintains abusive relationships or gets in the way of you being able to bring it to an end.
2. Focus less on the narcissist and more on yourself
Recovery really starts when you do the very thing that you perhaps have not been doing enough of during a toxic relationship… and that is focus less on the other person and more on yourself.
In recovery you learn to focus more on how you are feeling and what you need for yourself, that is caring, supportive and loving for you. Many people with unhealthy relationship patterns find they drift again and again into knowing all about what the other person is doing, how the other person feels or what they want or need (and this is a perfect fit for a selfish narcissist!). However, in recovery, it’s important to learn to notice anytime you drift over to habitually overthinking about the other persons actions, feelings, wants or needs and instead practice to recognise and attend to your own.
By doing this, this is usually when we stop being overly-responsible to the narcissist and instead, begin to take more responsibility for ourselves and our recovery. Often in toxic relationships we have been overly responsible for the other person. This can include justifying their abusive words or actions, or blaming ourselves and feeling like their choices or actions were in some way our own fault. This is simply not the case. When we take on the responsibilities of other people, we first of all often neglect the responsibility we have to ourselves, but we also then rob the other person from ever having to take responsibility for themselves. This is what happens in codependent relationships. Healthy interdependent relationships are when two people mostly take responsibility for themselves first and foremost.
Anybody that is willing to be overly responsible in relationships will be a magnet to a narcissist because narcissists have zero interest in taking responsibility for anything. They instead prefer to blame or shame somebody else into doing that on their behalf. For example “I cheated because you were not attentive enough”. Nonsense. Narcissists cheat because they choose to. Their choice is their choice and their responsibility - not yours.
Recovery comes with focusing more on your choices, responsibilities, feelings, wants and needs.
3. Learn to manage your own feelings of fear, anxiety and guilt
Being able to hold healthy, firm boundaries is absolutely key in managing, ending and protecting yourself from abusive relationships. Healthy boundaries are basically at the core of any healthy relationship.
In order to first of all feel more comfortable holding healthy boundaries, it is important to learn to manage your own feelings of guilt, shame, fear or anxiety. This is because fear and guilt are usually what gets in the way of us feeling comfortable holding healthy, firm boundaries. Fear and guilt are the two main feelings an abuser will use to try and provoke within you in order to stop you holding any boundaries. This is one way in how they control, manipulate and get what they want. So it’s important to learn to be able to sit more comfortably with these difficult feelings so that you feel and respond to them in a way that allows you to still hold appropriate and firm boundaries. Boundaries are such a key protective factor from toxic relationships.
Mindfulness practice can help you recognise these feelings and to help you sit more comfortably with them so as there is less urge to react.
CBT therapy is also a very helpful therapeutic tool to help challenge and change any anxious or guilt-provoking thoughts or feelings to more helpful or rational ways of thinking.
Acceptance and commitment therapy is also a helpful approach.
4. Learn how to set and hold healthy boundaries
At the root of narcissistic abuse is essentially a core issue of boundaries. Narcissists rarely respect boundaries and will have a tendency to want to push others or attempt to manipulate them in a variety of ways. Often this is progressive, subtle, and done in a way that throws up self-doubt in the partner. This only adds to the confusion and brain fog and overwhelm often experienced when in relationship with a narcissist and why this kind of relationship can be so psychologically abusive.
By it’s very nature, an individual with narcissistic traits or personality are very unlikely to take genuine responsibility for their own actions or any situation or feel remorse and instead blame and shame others. Or they may aim to make others feel guilty or fearful in order to dump any responsibility taking on anyone and everyone else. In direct or implicit ways, a narcissist will respond and react in ways which emphasise an undertone of “it’s you and your fault” - and therefore ‘your responsibility’. A key thing to understand and know is that it’s not. This is just reflective of the kind of abuse this is.
It’s incredibly emotionally immature to not take responsibility for your own actions or choices and instead continue to finger point and blame others. Narcissists can be so highly psychologically and emotionally abusive it can leave you feeling like it’s you, that you are the mad or bad one and in extreme cases can leave you seriously doubting your own sanity.
Developing and establishing your own boundaries are key to managing relationships and in moving on from a toxic relationship.
Healthy boundaries are clear and firm. With clear boundaries comes a clarity about what is your responsibility and perhaps as importantly what is not. Your boundaries reflect what you want or do no want what you are willing to accept or not. Our personal boundaries reflect our values.
It can be helpful to think more about what you value in relationships, for yourself and your life in order to help you to become clearer about your boundaries. For example if you value trust then a partner cheating becomes a clearer boundary for you. If your values are about honesty and faithfulness, then betrayal is a deal-breaker.
The clearer you are about your own boundaries (ie. likes, dislikes, whats OK or not OK) within yourself, the easier it will be to communicate them. One thing that is key when it comes to mastering healthy boundaries though is that they are consistent. Be sure that your words and actions match.
5. Practise self-care
Many people who have grown up in codependent families will likely have had unhealthy messages about self-care. Perhaps the family message was to be a caregiver, people-pleaser or fixer therefore neglecting or sacrificing your own wants or needs for somebody or even everybody else? Maybe self-care was deemed ‘selfish’. If this was the case please know that these are the sort of dysfunctional, unhealthy, codependent sorts of ideas that play a role into why people find themselves in toxic relationships in the first place. Of course there are times when we need to put others first and this is more so in certain dynamics or situations. However, it is codependency if this is a strong pattern or one that negatively impacts on your own wellbeing.
Focusing on yourself, getting to know your own wants and needs and attending to them is healthy self-care in action.
A narcissist will usually be the first to accuse you of being ‘selfish’ in order to guilt-trip you to keep the focus on themselves and to get their own selfish needs met. They will also benefit from you attending to their wants and needs and neglecting your own because again, if you are not taking care of yourself appropriately you are more vulnerable to being manipulated and controlled.
Ways you may practise self-care include:
reaching out and talking to supportive friends, family, professionals
making time for your own relaxation or rest needs
exercising / keeping physically active
making time for your own hobbies or interests
joining a class or lesson
attending to physical self-care needs, eg. haircuts, massage, seeing a medical professional when you need to, etc.
getting mental and physical space for yourself
seeking social support
6. Practise self compassion & forgiveness
I believe self-compassion is really fundamental to recovery from narcissistic abuse, toxic relationships and trauma. Many clients I’ve worked with over the years who have found themselves in a relationship with a narcissist or have had a narcissistic parent have an alarmingly high level of tolerance for stress and abuse. At the same time, they also possess a vast capacity for kindness, forgiveness, understanding and compassion towards others, including an abuser, yet on contrast are incredibly hard on themselves. Many partners of narcissists internalise the abuser, neglect their own wants and needs and have a high punitive ‘self-talk’.
Self-talk is the internal chatter we all have within our minds. It’s there whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Our internal self-talk tends to develop from a young age, from the sorts of things we’ve heard others say (like parents, teachers, family etc), how we’ve been talked to as well as the tone in which we’ve experienced this. For example, if we had a very judgemental, impatient parent, it’s very likely we will absorb a similar tone in the way we talk to ourselves. We may end up judging ourselves harshly and be hard on ourselves. This can feel so normalised we barely notice.
For anybody having experienced narcissistic abuse, a negative internal voice that tells us it is our fault, that harshly says we ‘should be over it by now’, or that we are not enough is basically continuing on a kind of self-abuse. Negative self-talk is often a factor that manifests in perfectionism, over-achieving, low self-esteem, low self-worth, depression, anxiety, stress and burn out and more…
It’s important in recovery to try to catch what you are saying to yourself and the way in which you are saying it. Practising ‘mindfulness of thoughts’ can help with this. This is a practise where you try to notice any automatic or habitual thoughts or ways in which you speak to yourself. As you do, simply ask yourself ‘Would I speak to a loved one like this?’. If your internal chatter is punitive, chances are the answer if ‘no’.
Try to practise talking to yourself in a way you would speak to a good friend or loved one, or even imagine what might be a really compassionate, kind response instead. Most people who find themselves in an abusive relationship are actually some of the most caring, considerate and forgiving people you would want to meet. Learning self-compassion is about applying those positive characteristics to yourself.
For more on recovery from narcissistic abuse you can check out Dr. Sarah Davies book 'How to Leave a Narcissist... For Good - moving on from abusive and other toxic relationships' available in paperback and e-book, amazon, ibooks and book retailers.