“Don’t blame a clown for acting like a clown. Ask yourself why you keep going to the circus.” ~Unknown
When I first experienced narcissistic abuse as an adult, it was a at a time when the term “narcissistic abuse” was not so heard of or understood.
I had met a handsome, intelligent, charismatic, and charming man, and as is typical in abusive relationships, had been completely overwhelmed by the intensity and ‘love’-overload of the early stages.
Before I could catch my breath, though, the nitpicking started, and so did the heated arguments, the jealousy, the cutting contact, and disappearing for days on end—shortly followed by dramatic make-ups, apologies, gifts, and promises.
And so had begun the emotional roller coaster ride that is dating a narcissist.
Many months later, I found myself becoming a different person. I was stressed, anxious, paranoid, increasingly isolated, and cranky. I was totally lost and felt like nobody understood. Friends couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just end things. We were hooked in a destructive bond.
At the worst points being caught in a toxic relationship feels utterly maddening. After months of relationship highs and lows, of it being on and off, the gaslighting, accusations, and coercive control, I honestly began to believe I was losing my mind.
I was stuck trying to make sense of my experience, and the logical part of my mind was desperately searching for answers to so many questions:
Why did he cheat?
What was so wrong with me?
Why did he lie?
What were lies and what was the truth?
Was any of it real?
Did he ever really say the things he said?
Was he even capable of love?
How could things have been different?
What else could or should I have done?
These are some of the same questions I hear my clients ask now when they come to me for support in healing from narcissistic abuse.
The Journey of Healing
My own recovery started one particularly frantic night. I was incredibly upset and desperate to make sense of what was going on. Searching online, I happened to come across information about sociopaths and narcissists and this particular kind of psychological abuse.
This was a pivotal moment. I had never heard anybody use the term “narcissistic abuse,” and at that time (this was many years ago), there was hardly any information around about it. But I knew, the moment I read this, that this was it. It shifted my whole perspective. It was shocking, confusing, although overall, an unbelievable relief. I realized this was a ‘thing’ and that for the first time, other people understood. More importantly, there was a way out.
Reading more about psychological abuse, I arrived at my first key point in healing:
I Realized It’s Not Me—I’m Not Crazy!
Toxic relationships will leave you feeling like you are mad. Often abusive partners will reinforce this by never taking responsibility and constantly telling you in various ways that it is your fault or your issues.
My narcissistic partner would criticize and undermine me in all sorts of strange and subtle ways, including judgments or ‘suggestions.’ He would often communicate in ways that would leave me doubting or questioning myself. As is the power of being with a narcissist, at the time, I was eager to please and impress.
If I ever pulled him up on any of the criticisms, he accused me of being negative, told me he was trying to support my personal growth, that I was being sensitive, paranoid, that I was over-reacting, or that I had issues. This kind of abuse in itself is maddening. I realized that all of what I had been feeling was in itself the symptoms of being in an emotionally abusive relationship.
I was not and am not mad, but I was in a mad relationship. I found as I cut contact and removed myself from the toxic dynamic that my sense of sanity swiftly returned. This is something that many sufferers I work with now also experience. You are not crazy, but if you are in an abusive relationship, you are in a relationship dynamic that will leave you feeling like you are.
Letting Go of the Need to Understand and Know
It’s our mind’s natural tendency to want to make sense of our experience; however, with narcissism and narcissistic behavior, there is no sense. You can’t apply logic to illogical actions. I created a lot of distress for myself in the early part of my recovery by desperately clinging onto the fantasy that I somehow could understand all the what’s and whys.
Being able to let go of this need to know is a big step in recovery. This was not easy at the time, but I managed this by practicing mindfulness and learning to recognize when my thoughts or attention would drift to the narcissist or on trying to work out the answers or understand the non-existent logic.
As I became aware of my thoughts drifting to such a futile task, I would then try and tune into my feelings in that moment and ask myself “How am I feeling right now?”
I’d mentally label the emotion and any physical sensations that went along with it.
Then, knowing more clearly how I was feeling (sad, angry, etc.) I would ask myself “What do I need? What can I do for myself right now that is a loving and supportive thing to do?”
Sometimes this would be to allow myself to cry, punch a pillow, reach out to a friend, or go and treat myself to something nice—to practice self-care. It was a step-by-step process to find ways in which I could gently feel my feelings and attend to my own needs. This also included the feelings I had about not having answers and accepting that maybe I never will. You can gently let go with this refocus and self-care. Make a choice about what may be harmful of helpful to your healing and recovery.
Considering My Own Narcissism
I laugh now that my break-up lasted longer than the actual relationship did! The toxic dynamic was addictive and really hard to let go of from both sides.
An empath will care, forgive, understand, and put a narcissist’s needs before their own. A narcissist will crave the attention, contact, and power. It becomes a dance.
Narcissists tend to have a disorganized attachment style. Relationships will be push and pull, on and off, up and down. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is a lot like being on an emotional roller coaster ride. It’s exhilarating and draining, but if you stay on, going round and round for long enough you will get sick!
Because of the attachment style, the moment a narcissist senses you are pulling away, they will instinctively aim to pull you back in again, throwing all sorts of bait in order to hook you back.
I was hooked back again and again by broken promises and wanting to believe the fantasy of how things could be.
I was also hooked by believing that somehow, I could be the one to change him, to make him see, to help him love and feel loved, to make things different, to help him be the person I hoped and believed he could be.
Truth be told, I wanted to be the one to capture and hold his attention and interest. However, such is the demands of narcissistic supply that it’s impossible that can ever be one person forever.
Quite frankly, I had to recognize the narcissism in this. To see the narcissistic fantasy in my idea about somehow possessing some magical powers to help him heal and change. I can’t. In fact, nobody can.
A narcissist’s healing and actions are their responsibility only—nobody else’s.
Believing on some level you can be the ‘the one’ to change a narcissist is narcissistic to some extent in itself. This doesn’t mean somebody who has this hope has narcissistic personality disorder! It’s just helpful to recognize the ill-placed hope and fantasy.
Narcissism is one of the most difficult clinical presentations for highly experienced specialists to treat. You do not have the ability or power to change or help an abuser. More to the point, why would you want to?
Let Go of Fantasy Thinking and Ground Yourself in Reality
Many people who’ve experienced narcissistic abuse become trapped in elusive fantasy. Fantasy thinking is clinging onto the hope of how you believe things could be, not how they actually are.
One of the most confusing things I experienced when in a relationship with a narcissist was distinguishing the difference between fantasy and reality. With this there can be a discrepancy between body and mind. For example, my ex constantly told me that he was being supportive. However, I didn’t feel supported.
Like in many abusive relationships, the words and the actions do not match. Nobody can really mean the words “I love you” and be violent, critical, or abusive at the same time.
In recovery, it is vital to distinguish between the hope and fantasy of how things could be and the reality of how things actually are. I often hear people describe the longing for things to be like they were “in the beginning.”
The start of an abusive relationship can be incredibly intense and powerful. This is the time the manipulator will ‘love-bomb’ and it can feel exhilarating, romantic, powerful, and highly addictive.
Intensity is not the same as intimacy though. Real intimacy takes time and is balanced. Intensity can give you a high that you continue to crave.
If you suspect you are in an unhealthy relationship, it’s important to take an honest and objective inventory of the current reality, not your ideal of how things were or could be. Right now, how safe and secure do you feel? Currently, what are the actions of your partner or ex?
It can be helpful to take pen to paper and list the current behaviors or circumstances to help regain some more realistic perspective. Perhaps asking friends or family their view too.
One of the things I feel most grateful from my experience of narcissistic abuse is that I really had to learn to take complete responsibility for myself. I had to become fully responsible for myself and my actions; my recovery, my efforts, my self-care, my finances, my health, my well-being, my life… everything.
Something I see many people do while in a toxic relationship, and even following the end of one, is to become stuck with focusing their efforts and attentions on the narcissist. Over-concerning themselves with what they are now doing, or not doing, or still trying to get them to see things another way, or holding out for an apology from them, or hoping they will change or fulfil all their promises and so on.
A particular hook I often hear about in my work now is the abusive partner dangling a ‘carrot on a stick’ when their partner attempts to end the relationship. This can be highly abusive as they step up the promises of providing you with whatever it is they know you wish for; be it proper commitment, a family, a secure home situation, financial purchases, or more.
I have honestly yet to hear an account of when any of these promises have been honored. Instead, partners are left wasting months and years, even decades, holding on the fantasy and hope that a partner will provide them with what they need.
I think it’s important to recognize the bigger perspective. If there are things you want in life, then you take complete responsibility for making them happen.
Remember, too much focus on the narcissist is a big part of the problem in the first place!
Healing comes with returning your focus to yourself, acknowledging your own feelings and emotional experience, recognizing your own wants and needs, and gently attending to those yourself.
I truly believe that healthy relationships begin with the one we have with ourselves. That includes taking full responsibility for all aspects of ourselves and our lives.
When I was in the midst of the insanity of narcissistic abuse, I felt like I was in a living hell! At the time, I absolutely would never have entertained the concept of applying gratitude to the experience! Now, though, many years later, I can truly say I am deeply grateful for the experience.
When I became aware of this particular kind of psychological and emotional abuse, the sheer depths of the pain I was experiencing propelled me to embark on a deep journey of exploration, healing, and recovery and vast personal growth, which I am now eternally grateful for.
I actively practiced writing about what I could be grateful for in each part of the experience and—as difficult as that was at the time—it helped to assist my healing.
I learned about narcissistic abuse, I learned how to spot the signs of both overt and covert narcissism so now I can spot this a mile off. With awareness, I have a choice.
I had to take a good look at my part in the dynamic, my issues of codependency. I learned boundaries. I’ve learned healthy communication. I worked with a therapist and support group to feel and heal the family origins of some issues that related to why we attract or repeat unhealthy relationship patterns in the first place.
I learned how to tune into and trust myself and my gut instinct; I always stay close to that now. I learned a huge amount about myself. I know what healthy relationships are and enjoy many of them in my life now. I’m a better, wiser, and more grateful person for going through it all.
Don’t get me wrong, I would never want to experience it ever again! But I rest confident now that, because of a full recovery, I absolutely will never need to. I do not attract that kind of person anymore. In fact, I can be quite the narcissist-repellant because I recognize the warning signs. As well as spotting the signs on the outside and recognizing the abusive actions of others, I now have clear boundaries and the self-esteem to communicate them.
I have also worked on what needed to be healed inside of me, and for that I am grateful.
About Sarah Davies
Dr. Sarah Davies is a Chartered Counselling Psychologist and Trauma Therapist based in London, UK. She is author of Never Again – Moving on from Narcissistic Abuse and Other Toxic Relationships, available from Troubador, a practical self-help guide for recovery to narcissistic abuse and toxic relationships. For more information you can view her website at drsarahdavies.com.