In this Tangled series Part 1 through Part 4, we spent much of our focus on the pathology of narcissistic abuse. Now let's borrow from our positive psychology colleagues by asking “What does ‘healthy’ look like? According to the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, it means living a pleasant, engaged and meaningful life—the opposite of life with a narcissist. So if you or someone you know is a former target of narcissism, is it possible that one form of recovery is to learn optimism and other strategies that embody wellness? Research on longevity is strongly suggesting something similar—that life-long and long-life wellness are based on gratitude, meaningful connectedness, and purpose.
Blue Zones author, Dan Buettner, points out that people with healthy friends, tend to be healthy, especially if they are part of a faith-based community. Healthy people can answer positively the question, “Why do you get up every morning?” They are closely connected, have purpose and gratitude in the community. They engage in both self-care and care for others. They make and consume interesting, if not healthy, meals together and engage in normal daily physical activity, such as gardening and walking outdoors. They are kind to themselves and others.
So, former targets of abuse must make finding healthy family and friends a high priority. Reducing or eliminating exposure to unhealthy family and friends is also a priority. At the risk of sounding simplistic, is it possible that the opposite of just about every malady associated with narcissistic abuse is “to be engaged in healthy community with significant others for a purpose greater than ourselves?” Let’s explore some ways to stay out of the tower of narcissistic abuse. It’s going to get better.
Acceptance and Habituation—The Power of Positive Replacement Psychology
Over time, it is important that the former target of narcissistic abuse accepts the fact that the person they thought they knew is a narcissistic abuser. Narcissism, in someone else, is a condition that they cannot change. They were targeted, they suffered, and there was never a normal or healthy relationship. Why is it hard not to go back to the abuser? Why does the former target ruminate about the good times and the bad? Answer: Brain chemistry has been affected by the abuse forming an addiction to the abuser.
However, that same chemistry can be re-altered with a connectedness to healthy others through the power of re-habituation, forming new habits of mind and behavior. “Habituation is a psychological learning process wherein there is a decrease in response to a stimulus after being repeatedly exposed to it” (Sincero, 2011). While it is necessary to remove the strongest trigger (no abuser contact) to the greatest extent possible, it is insufficient. Replacing the learned and detrimental reaction to triggers with healthy habituation in the context of a safe community is fundamental. Let’s call it replacement psychology. Living in health requires an interdependent community where new habits of mind and behavior replace abuse-related habits, thus rewiring the brain.
Here’s the elephant in the room. How can I trust myself to find safe and healthy people after being involved with an unsafe person? Again, if you were abused, you didn’t choose it. You were targeted because of your gifts. You didn’t go looking for it. It is not your fault, but now you have both the responsibility and the opportunity to get help.
Press into relationships with safe people and also hold back on new relationships. It’s not an either/or contradictory proposition. It's both at the same time. Those who are recovering from abuse need to press into known, safe relationships. Sometimes it means coming home to family and family friends—even the old neighborhood. In some cases, it may also mean removing yourself from unhealthy family and friends.
A new habit for some targets may be learning to hold back. Be careful about trying too soon to replace the abuser. In new romantic relationships, former targets may consider waiting, taking it slow. And remember the power of the dopamine/oxytocin effect. Again, when people have sex, they become biochemically bonded in their brains. In a new sexually active relationship, there can be a large gap between the high levels of physical intimacy associated with sex and the relatively low level of trust and commitment. For those with abuse in their past, that chasm can be filled with fear, anxiety, and associated dysfunctional behaviors. Further, there is the conflicting cognitive dissonance of reconciling new feelings with those from a past abusive relationship.
Because life takes time, trust and respect have to be earned over time. There are no short cuts for healthy relationships. In addition to slowing it down, former targets should spend time with new love or friend interests in the context of healthy family and friends. Do invite them to meet family early in the relationship. Ask trusted friends and family what they think, honestly, about this new friend. Ask yourself, “Could I live with or be friends with this person, their family, and friends as they are?” We need to believe our gut. And if the new lover hits us with the empathy/sympathy test followed by over-the-top love-bombing, run from hell. In short, when starting a new relationship, be conscientious. Eyes should be wide open, paying attention to warning signs. If there is doubt, there is no doubt. It is not time for reckless abandon.
Becoming Your Best Self, and What About Revenge?
Once fully aware of being targeted and abused, revenge may be an emotion experienced by abused individuals. In most cases, experts do NOT recommend a smear campaign or other acts of revenge that could further entangle you. Instead, former targets can choose to become their best selves (Berglas, 2019), another form of replacement psychology. Narcissists hate it when they can no longer dominate their targets because their former target is physically and psychologically free of them (Arabi, 2016). (Exception: If the abuser has committed illegal acts, call the police).
How do we get to our best selves? People who are recovering from abuse, should ask, “What do I love? “What am I good at?” “What does the world need?” These three questions form our best-self triangle. Anything inside the triangle is fair game for maximizing our potential with a clear purpose. Out of necessity, this means connecting with healthy people who share or appreciate our gifts and passions. The targeted person who was both talented and passionate before they were abused can engage that passion again and be even better at it. Again, with what former targets have learned from their own experience, they can use their gifts and experience to help others.
Reverend Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive!” Positive replacement psychology is definitely about coming alive.
Rapunzel sought help to escape the tower of Gothel’s abuse. With purpose and gratitude, she embraced a mindset of optimism. She became interdependent by reconnecting with her healthy family members (her parents). She accepted the reality of Gothel’s abuse. She chose to become her best self.
Yes, the story of Rapunzel is a fairy tale. But, just maybe, by being connected to others with gratitude and purpose, we have more positive power than we think to untangle ourselves from the tower of narcissistic abuse. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Arabi, S. 2016. Becoming the Narcissist's Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself
Buettner, D. https://www.bluezones.com/dan-buettner/
Sincero, S.M. (2011). Cognitive Learning Theory. https://explorable.com/cognitive-learning-theory
Berglas, S. (2019). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201901/the-best-way-get-rev…