Healing from narcissistic abuse is a process, and it looks different for everyone because every relationship is unique, and the same goes for emotionally abusive relationships.
You may be wondering where am I with my healing?
It is impossible to determine the number of steps or elements involved with healing from emotionally abusive relationships, it may be limitless, but in this blog, I have identified 8 main components.
1. Acknowledgement and Acceptance
To acknowledge abuse, you give it a name. You call it what it is. It is not “it might be abuse.” It is not “abuse, but he/she is good to me.” It is not “Abuse, but he/she does not mean it.” It is abuse, emotional abuse. Period.
Acceptance mirrors acknowledgment. You do not make excuses for the narcissist. You do not deny that you have been abused. You accept, and you do not fight the fact that you have been abused. Abuse is never okay.
2. Set Boundaries
Boundary setting is also limitless, but when healing from narcissistic abuse, there are three main constituents important to the process.
Physical boundary. You go no contact. You put physical distance between you and the narcissist. You change your phone number. You change your social media profiles or accounts. Or, you may block the narcissist from finding you, calling you, or commenting on your social media accounts and online platforms.
Not everyone must take measures to go no contact (some narcissists will walk away without any further contact).
You may not be able to go no contact. You may be a parent with under-age children. You may share custody of your children with a narcissist. It is impossible to manage joint custody of younger children without some form of communication.
Conversational boundary. This boundary includes communicating with the narcissist, but this can be a tool to keep abusive behavior out of it. This involves making a statement to the narcissist, such as, “When you can talk in a calm and non-abusive manner, we can have a conversation about this.” Then, stick to it.
Mental boundary. There isn’t a soul on this earth that can change how you feel/think/believe. You know your own core values. You guide your life based on your beliefs and values. When/if you are being emotionally abused (and I hope never), or perhaps when something has triggered a memory of emotional abuse, let your mind go to the truth of who you are. You are not who or what the abuser says you are (see Gaslighting Narcissistic Manipulation). You are also not your thoughts. You are your beliefs and values…this is your TRUTH. You own this, and nobody can touch it!
It can be challenging to mentally put yourself in your place of truth, especially when you are in the midst of turmoil with a narcissist. It will become a habit once you practice it a number of times. It can be difficult to remain calm and to maintain a stoic facial expression, but the less emotion you display, the less you will tangle with the narcissist. The worst thing you can do is to fight back with your own defensive words. When you are defensive, it feeds the narcissistic. It validates, in the narcissist’s mind, that you are the problem and that their behavior/words/abuse is okay. Remember this, you will continue to heal as you practice this mental boundary. There will be a day in your life when you obtain and recognize healing milestones!
3. Myriad of Emotions
When healing from narcissistic emotional abuse, you feel a myriad of “normal” emotions.
Confusion sets in early in the healing process, and typically it occurs before a victim understands what they are dealing with (narcissism). Confusion sounds like, “What is going on with my relationship?”, “Why is he/she so mean and uncaring?”, “Is he/she mentally sick or unstable?”, “How did my relationship go from being a perfect love match (i.e. love bombing) to what it is today?”, “What is this? I do not understand what is going on!”
Once you work your way through the muck of confusion, the wheels of healing begin to move.
Grief (sadness, depression) is an early part of the healing process. Even though some levels of depression can be dangerous (please seek professional help if you are thinking of harming yourself, or if depression stops you from functioning in your day-to-day life), know that sporadic and brief periods of grief and sadness are normal to the healing process.
Grief comes and it goes. When it comes early in the process, it hurts because it is a loss, and it hurts ‘big.’
A client shared her story of healing and grief: She was out with her husband (a narcissist) at a shopping mall. She knew that her marriage was deeply troubled (mental abuse and adultery that the narcissist felt no shame for). The reality that her marriage might be unfixable had begun to hit her. She was walking along in the mall, in the middle of a non-stressful conversation with her husband, when a round of grief took her by surprise. She dashed into a store where she saw shelving that she could hide behind and she cried…she bent over in sheer emotional pain. When she was able to gather herself together, she returned to where the narcissist was waiting. His words were, “What is wrong with you? People are going to think you are an idiot.” Did she feel a sting from that comment? Yes, but it also validated that even though he knew that she was grieving, and why, he still chastised her for her behavior. This became one of many turning points for her to do something to regain control of her life. Devastation eventually transformed into a sense of surety.
Shock appears early in the healing process, and this where acknowledgment and acceptance are important. Shock diminishes once the abuse is called what it is. A victim may feel a sense of shock before they feel confusion, but just as often, the sense of shock, to a lesser degree, can return throughout the many stages of healing.
(As a life coach, this is my main goal, to educate others so that they recognize what they are dealing with—narcissistic emotional abuse. A person doesn’t know what they don’t know!)
Shock can take on different looks, depending upon circumstances. In the very beginning, when the victim starts to recognize the narcissist’s behavior, it can sound like this, “I am shocked. He/she acts like they do not care about my feelings. What happened?!” Later in the healing process, the victim might feel momentary shock, “How did I spend 20 years of my life with this person?”, and then the healing continues on from there.
Anger is healthy when it doesn’t get in the way of our healing. With healing, anger must be turned into forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean that we believe the abuse is okay. Forgiveness means that we have released feelings of vengeance, hate, and hurt towards a person that we feel has harmed us. If we harbor these feelings it becomes toxic. We create anxiety and pain within ourselves, and this can lead to mental and physical unwellness.
Fear is healthy as long as it is a momentary feeling. Fear is a mechanism that can keep us from physical harm. Fear alerts us that something is wrong, that we are facing ‘real’ danger! Fear is not healthy when prolonged.
You may trust the narcissist, but you may find yourself suddenly fearing them or their behavior. This is a healthy ‘warning signal’ of proposed danger. Fear speaks to us, it tells us to take action to ensure our safety.
Anxiety is never healthy. It can lead to mental and physical health problems when prolonged. Anxiety is similar to fear, except anxiety can become chronic. Anxiety is often a manifestation of perceived fear, or fear of a poorly defined threat.
Anxiety might keep a victim awake at night. Anxiety might become a barrier in the healing process. An example of how our fear-related anxious thoughts can become a barrier to healing, “I just might not ever get out of this situation with (the narcissist), what if they turn the tables on me?” These words speak of fear, doubt, and anxiety.
Paranoia is common, especially for victims that have been involved with a covert narcissist.
Covert narcissists lack self-esteem, which makes it difficult for victims to live their lives. The covert narcissist often believes that people have hidden agendas. This can manifest into stalking the victim, and it can lead to the victim developing paranoia for some time to come. The victim may continue to feel the narcissist is watching their every step, even though it might no longer ring true. Paranoia, especially when it includes distrust, can eventually dissolve as the victim heals.
(Fear, anxiety, and paranoia are OKAY for temporary periods of time. Seek professional help if you chronically experience either/or, and if it interferes with normal functioning in your daily life.)
Shame is one of the more painful aspects of healing from emotional abuse.
Shame can prevent you from opening up to others about the abuse.
Shame can prevent victims from leaving the abuser, or from acknowledging that they are a victim of abuse.
Shame keeps people in abusive relationships for years, sometimes lifetimes. Shame can lead the victim to feel that they somehow deserve the abuse, or that if they were ‘better’ the abuse would not happen.
Always remember this: You cannot change or heal the narcissist by being better…by saying the right thing, or by doing the right thing. Clinical therapeutic treatment typically does not help a person diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, NPD (read more here). You did not cause narcissism in the abuser. Do not validate the narcissist’s behavior through your sense of shame!
I will discuss co-dependency and enabling the narcissist in future blog posts. Both of these personality types (victims) fail to recognize that abuse is wrong, and that abuse is never deserved, and each can type can blame themselves for the abuse.
Continued reading, part 2 of this blog series will be published soon. In part 2, I discuss reclaiming identity, self-compassion, celebrating you, length of healing (it may take time, and give yourself time), talk with people in your support system, and speak as a survivor, scratch that, a thriver, and NOT a victim.