How to Heal From Narcissistic Abuse: A Step-by-Step Look
Narcissistic abuse is, in many ways, the worst kind of abuse. It is an attack on all fronts: mental, emotional, and sometimes even physical. It undermines the person's confidence and can even cause them to question their own sanity. People who have suffered narcissistic abuse often end up with PTSD or even narcissistic traits of their own. This is not surprising. Dealing with a narcissist is literally like being at war. It is being under attack all the time with no let up, no time to heal, and no way to defend yourself. Narcissism is like a virus that spreads itself to every person it touches in some way or another.
But after you get out of the abusive situation, what do you do? What can you expect? Firstly, you have to remember that it takes the body and the mind a few days to process each stressful incident that has happened. Since dealing with narcissists usually entails ongoing and even daily abuse, you may not have had the time to recover that you needed. So it's likely you will be recovering for a while. For example, it takes the body three days to recover from a physical incident of abuse and the reactions that go with it. If you're being physically assaulted every day, there is no time to recover. All of that is still in there, needing to be processed and in time, it will be. So just remember that recovery does not end with the relationship. It begins with ending the relationship. Healing takes place after the recovery as a matter of course. And even if you were not physically abused, your body goes through changes and reactions when you are upset or when abuse happens, which I'll clarify in a minute, so physical recovery time is still necessary.
Emotionally, you're likely to be very torn. You hate the narcissist for what they have done and you are likely to be very angry but you also feel that you love the narcissist on some level. You may need to grieve your relationship. It may not have been what you thought it was, but it still deserves to be grieved. You lost something important to you, and the fact that it wasn't real to the narcissist doesn't even matter. It was real to you. It was important to you. Don't be afraid to grieve for what you've lost. It's important if you want to truly heal. It's OK to say "I loved this person. I wanted to be with this person. I thought it could work" or however you feel. In a very real way, something died. In narcissistic relationships, the realization that the narcissist is not who we thought they were can feel like someone actually DID die. Acknowledge those feelings and process them. Grief is how healing starts. Grief does take time to go through and it does not start until there is a legitimate recognition that the relationship is truly over.
Grief can be complicated by things though. It may take time to recognize that the relationship is truly over and to let go of the idea of it. You may have become enmeshed with the narcissist and may be sharing what's called a trauma bond with them. Trauma bonding is a very powerful. Like the name says, it is the bonding of someone to another person through abuse or some other type of trauma. It is both biological and emotional. Bonding of any kind is not love or trust or affection, even though it feels very strong and even though there is a desire to reunite with the person. Unlike love and affection, a bond grows greater over time regardless of your actual feelings. You can have a traumatic bond with a person you don't even like, and feel unable to leave or let the relationship go even though you dislike or even hate this person.
This is often what causes people to stay in all types of relationships even though everyone involved is miserable. The push-pull of narcissistic relationships is one of the things that creates this dynamic. Fighting is exciting. Making up is exciting. The cycle of idealize and devalue, the drama in general is exciting. Not exciting in a good way, but exciting in a clinical way. Your mind and body become hyped up and upset, hormones are released, things start happening. Then the calm comes, and more hormones are released, more things start happening. This is sometimes called an arousal-jag.
Your body and mind become accustomed to this roller coaster over a period of time and eventually begin to crave it, even though intellectually you may hate it and the stress that it is causing you. The narcissist craves it, too; it's often representative of the environment they were raised in and because of that they suffer from chronic boredom and feelings of emptiness. This is one reason they intentionally provoke fights and cause problems. Without all that drama and fussing, they just don't feel alive. It may be how you were raised, too, and that's why you were susceptible to it. They - and you - also crave the affection and calm that follows the drama. Without war, you wouldn't know what peace is, right?
So there you both are, stuck in this cycle that you may not even recognize. Because of trauma bonding and enmeshment, it is very difficult to walk away from these relationships, even when you truly dislike this person and truly recognize the relationship is abusive, empty or pointless. This is why being discarded is so painful. Not only is the relationship that you put your very soul into over and your illusions totally shattered - which is bad enough in and of itself - but now you have the war with no peace. Your body and mind are addicted to that cycle and when it gets broken, it's extremely hard to deal with. Breaking trauma bonds is very difficult, and I will cover that in a future podcast, but once you do so, you are still going to be left with all of these conflicting feelings and likely grief. Let yourself feel all of it. It's normal and it's how you get through it.
Once these things are not as immediate and powerful, you may find that you are still very angry. You have every right to be. This person abused you, treated you badly and hurt you. Anger is important, as it is often the reason people leave relationships. However, holding on to anger or hatred for long periods of time is detrimental. Yes, it feels safer to be angry because anger is strong, but in the end, you are actually making yourself more vulnerable, not less by holding on to it. Don't you deserve a break? Haven't you been through enough? Now you have to carry this hate and anger and resentment around all the time on top of it all? The good news is, you don't.
If anger is acknowledged and processed, it will work itself out naturally. Be careful to let that happen, rather than trying to hold on to it. It will fade over time, as it is supposed to. One of the ways to work through your anger is to understand what happened. Emotions cloud everything. They make things much harder to see and deal with. Sometimes emotions make things hard to understand. For example, a lot of people have a hard time with believing that the narcissist's abuse is not personal. It feels personal to them, and of course it does. But with a bit of distance, from a non-emotional standpoint, we can see that it isn't about us at all.
That's one things that really helps people be less angry: understanding that this is a disordered, sick and truly miserable person who hurt you for reasons of their own that have nothing to do with you. You couldn't have changed it and you didn't cause it. There was nothing you could do. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and when the danger revealed itself, you did not recognize it because how could you? How can anyone who has not dealt with this understand it? But being angry at the narcissist doesn't hurt them. It doesn't punish them. It does nothing to them because they don't care how you feel. That's part of their disorder. It only hurts you and in time you will find that you are tired of hurting and you will let that anger go.
Once you've dealt with the recovery and all of these emotions, healing can begin. These things are very important to the healing process and if they do not take place, healing will be incomplete or will not occur. We often see incomplete healing; people say they are healed and believe they are healed, but they are still so angry, or so hyper-vigilant in relationships. This is not healing.
Probably one of the most important functions of healing is to learn why things happen and accept your role in what happened. Of course, you had no role in the narcissist's abuse but you can learn why you did not leave the relationship when the abuse became apparent, or why you became addicted to the chaos cycle in the first place so that you can prevent this from happening again. That is true healing. It's an ongoing process but it's absolutely possible. Narcissists cannot heal, they cannot acknowledge their responsibility in any situation and they cannot learn from mistakes. You can.