Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: Rebuilding a Life of Empowerment and Happiness

GoodTherapy | Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse: Rebuilding a Life of Empowerment and HappinessNarcissistic abuse is particularly insidious as it almost always damages every aspect of a person’s sense of self including their mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. Because of this, it’s important to begin to heal from this form of abuse from the inside out. With the right resources, it is possible to do more than just beat the pain, and instead, find a newfound sense of joy and self-empowerment in the aftermath.  

The Nature of Narcissism: Decoding the Disorder 

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a diagnosable Cluster B personality disorder marked with an inflated sense of self-importance, deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy that often results in dysfunctional relationships. It can be found adjacent to antisocial personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder in the DSM. 

Deeply rooted insecurities are often the source of NPD, and the grandiose behaviors exhibited by narcissists are generally nothing more than defense mechanisms used to mask a very fragile ego. Cultural factors and social expectations can predispose an individual to this disorder, which also has a genetic component.   

It is important not to correlate every case of high confidence or egocentrism with an actual mental health condition. In today’s world, selfie culture is the norm, and it would minimize the damaging effects of NPD to assume that every person who snaps and shares photos of themselves has the disorder. In fact, it’s been estimated that a very small percentage of the population lives with this condition. This is where it’s important to consider the root causes of NPD and develop an understanding of an individual’s internal motivations.  

While personality disorders are generally considered incurable, symptoms of NPD can be well-managed with therapy, and often, with medication. The biggest hurdle, however, is getting those with NPD to accept and engage in treatment. Some have argued this is why it’s difficult to determine exactly how many people meet the criteria and, therefore, estimates remain low. 

Understanding Its Impact 

Acknowledging that NPD is marked by grandiosity, a need for constant admiration from others, and a lack of empathy, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that being in a relationship with someone with NPD would be difficult. If an individual can’t intimately connect with another person and share in their experience, it’d be challenging to advance any form of relationship with them. The issue is much deeper than just not making a genuine connection with others, however. The trouble stems from a narcissist’s underhanded intentions in the connections they do choose to make. 

Because those with NPD can’t intimately connect, they tend to only pursue relationships they see as beneficial to them, and there is almost always an end game to a narcissist’s willing participation. In other words, a narcissist views others as an extension of self – those they pursue have something they want. Of course, if that “thing” goes away, the narcissist does, too. They’re very quick to discard this person and simply move on. 

To get what they desire from relationships, narcissists nearly always lie and manipulate their victims. In fact, they’re known to use an especially detrimental form of manipulation called “gaslighting.” This is when they attempt to alter a person’s experience and make it their own.  

 Constant gaslighting makes victims begin to question their own perception of reality, which accomplishes two goals – it wears down a victim’s self-esteem and makes them more dependent on the narcissist. It also makes it tough for a person to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong even when they intuitively know something is “off” or they’re feeling hurt or betrayed by the narcissist.  

Because they can’t put a finger on why they feel this way, victims often blame themselves. They choose not to leave, and this allows for the cycle of abuse to continue. Over time, a sense of self is lost and, generally, a victim becomes isolated from meaningful people, places, and things in their “previous” lives.  

Can the Abuse Get Physical?  

The short answer is, yes, absolutely. Narcissists pride themselves on outward appearances, so they’ll often lead with mental and emotional tactics, which don’t leave visible marks. However, if a victim begins to recognize they’re being mistreated and speaks up, the abuse can quickly turn physical.  

 The term that’s commonly used for this is “narcissistic wrath.” Again, those with NPD have a fragile ego they’ll do anything to protect. When this is exposed, it infuriates them. Everything they’ve done to ensure others don’t see them for who they truly are is put in jeopardy and the individual responsible for this can begin to experience more overt abuse.  

In addition to pushing, shoving, hitting, choking, suffocating, and other common abusive reactions, narcissists also tend to intensify mental and emotional turmoil. They may move around the victim’s personal belongings in a very real attempt to drive them mad, or they may secretly contact a victim’s loved ones, friends, and even co-workers to spread lies about them. If a victim summons enough strength to leave their abuser, this is often met with “smear campaigning,” which involves defaming a person’s reputation as a last-ditch effort to instill control when the abuser can no longer exert control over the victim directly. 

What Happens if a Victim Returns? 

Victims of narcissistic abuse who’ve managed to break free frequently return to this relationship at some point. Not only has the abuser done a thorough job of stripping the victim of their own sense of self-worth, turning their lives entirely upside down, but chances are, the perpetrator hasn’t changed at all.  

Those with NPD actually gain “narcissistic supply” from “winning” their sadistic games, meaning they gain energy from exploiting others whereas living in constant contention will deplete an average person. An ultimate win in the narcissist’s mind would come from luring a victim back once their perceived opponent has managed to leave.  

Victims who’ve stayed with narcissists long enough to be left confused, isolated, and alone, and with limited options to move forward, are especially vulnerable to returning. And, unfortunately, once a victim returns, the narcissist generally performs an ultimate “discard.” Even if the individual with NPD seems to have changed, they’re still fundamentally incapable of feeling empathy, so their motives are almost always impure. Instead, they usually try to take what little good the victim has left in their lives and throw it all away, experiencing a sense of satisfaction when they can do so and exit abruptly, leaving the victim to pick up the pieces.  

 Ever heard the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results?” Unfortunately, expecting different results from reentering into a partnership with a narcissist almost always ends with the victim being left worse off than they were prior. And just like the cycle of addiction, every “relapse” will make it more difficult for the victim to heal as a result. 

Narcissistic Abuse & Declining Mental Health 

Given all that was said above, it becomes evident that it’s important to identify signs of narcissistic abuse early on so victims can leave before things get any worse. The longer an individual stays in a relationship with a narcissist, the more time the abuser has to chip away at their self-efficacy. Getting out as quickly as possible can save a victim from more lasting issues tied to trauma, including the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

Before we come to any conclusions concerning how easy or difficult it is to identify early warning signs, we have to first take a look at another commonly referred to term when it comes to narcissistic abuse – “love-bombing.” This is the period, at the very beginning of the relationship, where the narcissist does everything in their power to lure in, and eventually trap, their victim with supposed love, attention, and adoration. Many victims find this to be endearing, and only come to realize that these efforts are especially over-the-top, overpowering, and even desperate, after they cease later on. 

Examples of love-bombing might include buying luxury items, including expensive gifts, vacations, or vehicles. It may involve paying off a partner’s debt or sending daily bouquets of flowers to desks at work. Or it may present in the form of excessive communication and compliments that make the partner believe they need to move the relationship along more quickly than they normally would.  

 The love-bombing phase almost always ends with abrupt and significant changes to a victim’s life which include the person relinquishing a fair amount of control (i.e., they’ve moved in with their partner, married them, combined all of their finances, etc.). At this point, the narcissist has succeeded in their quest to gain control and their true intentions become evident. They no longer have to put on a façade, and the mask begins to fall off. 

It is in this next phase that internal alarm bells will start to go off and a victim may feel significant buyer’s remorse. 

The Fight or Flight Response 

One of the most noteworthy internal alarm bells humans have is their natural “fight or flight” instinct. This inherent trait is meant to protect a person against an external threat. While the fight or flight response was especially vital for protecting our ancestors from natural predators, in modern-day life it has become less of a necessity. Despite this, the mind and body have a hard time distinguishing between being attacked by a tiger in the wild and amplified distress caused by work deadlines, piling bills – or being in an unhealthy relationship.  

When it comes to being in a relationship with a narcissist, the fight or flight response can both come in handy and end up being detrimental over time. Feeling this way can signal something’s off in the relationship, which helps with a victim’s decision to leave. But, at the same time, being “stuck” there for too long can cause difficult-to-reverse anxiety, paranoia, and hypervigilance. This is why it’s important for victims to maintain a sense of self-trust and to not second-guess what their body is telling them. 

Learning to trust this signal in the very beginning and initiating self-care can protect against lingering distress and bring one back into balance. In abusive relationships, self-care equates to leaving and rebuilding. 

Other Warning Signs 

Other indicators of narcissistic abuse include gradual disconnection from family and friends, not having control over finances, suspecting a partner is only sharing half-truths or feeling as if their stories don’t add up. One’s partner may also be unable to account for part or all of their day and they may get notably defensive when asked where they were. They may also be exceptionally unemotional unless and until they feel cornered.  

 Remember, those with NPD don’t experience emotions like others and their attempts to engage with people tend to come across as atypical or forced. It is also difficult for them to read the emotions of others. So, they commonly present as stoic or respond oddly to social-emotional cues unless provoked. When provoked, their anger can be over the top. 

 If these indicators aren’t obvious enough early enough, victims will begin to feel symptoms of progressing mental health issues including feeling lonely, anxious, lethargic, and depressed. Over time, deeper feelings of helplessness, unworthiness, and chronic discontentment will start to creep in, anxiety and depression will become more pronounced, and it may also be difficult to sleep or to function effectively in one’s day-to-day. This is when a victim is coming dangerously close to developing acute stress disorder and, eventually, PTSD. 

The Path to Recovery: Intentional Self-care 

Those who are lucky enough (albeit they may not feel “lucky” at first) to leave an abusive relationship generally have a lot of self-work to do in the aftermath. It is not uncommon to grieve the loss of their previous selves while grieving the loss of the relationship (even if it was a toxic one). There may also be significant tangible losses, including the loss of a job, home or other forms of property, or even financial stability. In most cases, victims feel as if they are starting over entirely. 

The good news is that it’s not only possible to rebuild what was lost in a physical sense, but it’s possible to thrive mentally and emotionally in the aftermath of abuse. This takes a conscious choice on the survivor’s part to make themselves a priority and engage in some much-needed self-care.  

Reintroducing activities that a person once enjoyed but may not have been able to do during the relationship can help reestablish pieces of self that were lost along the way. This will mean different things to different people, of course, and it may seem difficult at first to regain access to the person inside. Taking the time for in-depth self-reflection can bring forth ideas that aren’t readily available when trying to remember on the fly. A quiet, decluttered space, a favorite background song or scent, and a few uninterrupted moments can help summon lost memories and stir up ideas. 

A Solid Support System 

Support systems are often shattered when one is trapped in the clutches of a narcissist. Taking the time to rebuild meaningful relationships will help ensure a person is surrounded by the love and support they need as they emerge from this dark place. 

 It is important to note that it may be necessary to make amends with those who felt intentionally left behind during the storm, but many one-time victims have been amazed to find their loved ones are just waiting in the wings, having fully realized the gravity of the situation long before they did. 

Professional Help 

While regaining the love and support of a personal network is a vital step in the right direction, it may not be enough. A person may still be left with debilitating trauma symptoms that require professional treatment. Working with a therapist can help unlock lost portions of self and reconnect with these to heal sustainability. Some common interventions which address the most stubborn trauma symptoms include:  

  1. Trauma-informed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). This approach seeks to identify, challenge, and eventually eliminate faulty thinking patterns and behaviors. It is perhaps the most common “frontline” approach to addressing trauma. Through TF-CBT, abuse survivors can also learn to establish healthy boundaries so they can avoid inviting in toxicity in the future, and they can build the resilience needed to find genuine happiness again. 
  1. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This technique is used to engage both hemispheres of the brain at once to bring blocked trauma memories to the surface, reprocessing and reintegrating them. In doing so, this can lessen their impact and alleviate lingering psychosomatic symptoms.  
  1. Somatic Therapy. Somatic therapy focuses on the connection between the mind and body, encouraging individuals through various techniques to release physical tension, discomfort and/or pain caused by trauma. 
  1. Psychodynamic Therapy. Considered a deeper dive, this approach explores events that have occurred over one’s lifetime. These events may have led to core beliefs about self that make one especially vulnerable to toxic relationships. Reparenting one’s inner child is a common psychodynamic technique. 

There are many other approaches that can be used in the trauma healing process, and all of these can be used at once. It’s important to work alongside a professional and not attempt clinical interventions without therapeutic support.  

The Bottom Line 

It’s possible to heal sustainably in the aftermath of narcissistic abuse. Doing so takes a determination to reconstruct a healthy sense of self from the inside out. Engaging in self-care and reinviting in lost supports can help jumpstart the healing process, while working with a licensed therapist can further this journey substantially.  

If you believe you are in a relationship with a narcissist, reach out for help, and make leaving a priority. There is no time like the present, and taking yourself out of the equation can help you regain much-needed peace and happiness. 

If you believe you have narcissistic personality disorder, therapy is a safe space for self-exploration. Schedule an appointment today to begin your journey towards a deeper self-understanding. 

*The terms in quotes used here to describe aspects of narcissistic abuse are not clinical terms associated with NPD. However, they are frequently used in various media and it’s important for those who suspect they are being abused to familiarize themselves with these terms. 

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  • MeDenne

    February 28th, 2024 at 10:59 AM

    Where do I find these kinds of therapy. I have high suspicions that my adopted (from an orphanage at over a year old) daughter is high on narcissistic traits. I’ve experienced various levels of abuse from her for almost 21 years, with an 8 year period where we thought all the help we had gotten her had made a big difference and helped her to heal, but everything came rushing back in spades when she graduated college, moved in with her boyfriend and out on her own. I am now in mostly a state of no-contact with her and she with me. I am also her primary target for all the angst she carries inside her.

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