Growing Through Pain
Narcissistic attacks can spur positive personal growth.
Posted Jul 26, 2020
The psychological damage rendered by a narcissist can be lifelong and deeply penetrating. However, studies have found that while it is likely to develop negative side effects from trauma, it is equally likely to develop positive coping mechanisms and experience personal growth. It is entirely possible that individuals can experience growth as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances (Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2014). Transcending, or overcoming, the adverse initial environment is both a process and an outcome; for example, the coming to terms with trauma and identifying positive changes in one’s life.
Being entangled with a narcissist is a surefire way to put mental health and well-being at risk. The repeated cycle of abuse from the narcissist takes a toll on the victim’s self-esteem, self-worth, resilience, and humanity. Breaking free from a narcissistic relationship can be incredibly difficult but will open the door to positive personal growth.
Growth from crisis is not a new concept. In mythology, the phoenix is said to repeat a cycle of burning itself to death and emerging anew from the ashes. To the Egyptians, the phoenix was a symbol of the sun repeating its own cycle of setting and rising, dying and birthing. Moving through history, Mary Queen of Scots embroidered her motto En ma Fin gît mon Commencement ("In my end is my beginning”) while imprisoned by her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Throughout the history of the world and civilizations, humans are consistent witnesses to the cycle of struggle and victory, pain and healing, holding back and bursting forward. Healing is ever easy, but growth is always possible.
In the mid 1990’s researchers Dr. Richard G. Tedeschi and Dr. Lawrence G. Calhoun structured the theory of post-traumatic growth. They defined post-traumatic growth as “the experience of individuals whose development, at least in some areas, has surpassed what was present before the struggle with crises occurred” (2004, pg. 4). They noted that psychiatric studies dating back to World War I focused on the responses of people faced with traumatic situations and how they can be restored to better health. In fact, Tedeschi and Calhoun found that growth after traumatic events outnumbers reports of psychiatric disorders (2004). Tedeschi and Calhoun have reported post-traumatic growth in people who have experienced core-shaking events of bereavement, HIV infection, cancer, heart attacks, accidents, house fires, sexual assault, sexual abuse, combat, and hostage situations (2004).
Having a relationship with a narcissist – be it a parent, partner, sibling, friend, or even work colleague – can be traumatizing. A 2015 study found that an increasing number of research found a strong relation between narcissism and various forms of aggression, including hostility, domestic violence (mental/physical), and maltreatment (Crouch et al). Individuals involved with a narcissist are subjected to increased levels of depression, anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem. Ironically, existing in such a high-stress environment means the non-narcissist’s community network will be very small, non-supportive, and consist of other highly stressed individuals (Kalish et al, 2015). All of this creates a breeding ground for trauma and psychological damage. For children who grow up with narcissistic parents, the family environment affects the development of self-esteem (Orth, 2017). The trauma of the external environment eventually encroaches on the child’s internal environment and results in a negative image of self and love.
Despite the threats to happiness and peace, post-traumatic growth points to a possibility of clarity. It is not just a byproduct of trauma; rather, it is a catalyst for growth and change (Chowdhury, 2020). Suffering presents opportunities for coping, building resilience, improving physical health and well-being, and empowerment. Through an ending can be born a new beginning.
Check back for the next installment of the Growth Through Pain profiles.
Jayawickreme, E. and Blackie, L.E.R. (2014). Post traumatic growth as positive personality change: evidence, controversies, and future directions. European Journal of Personality, 28(4), 312-331. DOI:10.1002/per.1963
Tedeschi, R. G., & Blevins, C. L. (2015). From mindfulness to meaning: Implications for the theory of posttraumatic growth. Psychological Inquiry, 26(4), 373-376. DOI:10.1080/1047840X.2015.1075354
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18. Retrieved from https://sites.uncc.edu/ptgi/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/01/PTG-Conceptual- Foundtns.pdf