As a narcissistic abuse recovery coach, I offer several fundamental insights to clients that anyone working to recover from long-term narcissistic abuse needs to know.
- A larger pattern is at work. If you have a history of narcissistic relationships, either with romantic partners or friends or both, it may be that you have come from a dysfunctional family system dominated by narcissistic parents or parents with other forms of mental illness and/or addiction. We all encounter narcissists in our lives, but those of us who stick around for abuse have typically been conditioned to such relationships in childhood. Connecting the past with the present is crucial to understanding yourself, changing patterns, and working on recovery.
- Denial is your frenemy. Denial is the child's first and only defense. When we are helpless and dependent it is safer to deny deficiencies in our parents/caregivers than to admit them to ourselves. It is also safer to blame ourselves for a problem than to question the status of the people we depend on for our survival. The child's impulse to deny the abuse and blame herself or himself for causing problems are facts of human psychology, not conscious choices. But although denial helps us survive as children, it becomes self-destructive in adulthood. As long as we are in denial, we repeat unhealthy patterns and fail to protect ourselves and those we love from further abuse. Breaking denial about a parent, spouse, or other important relationship is the first and often most difficult step in the recovery process.
- Here's the bottom line about narcissism. For those of us with emotional empathy for the feelings and perspectives of others, the narcissist's lack of empathy is incomprehensible. Emotional connectedness and empathy are childhood developmental milestones that the narcissistic personality misses. No matter how capable the narcissist may be in other areas, those developmental deficits are profound impairments. It's not a matter of finding the right way to explain your point of view, getting the narcissist to trust you, or finally somehow proving your worth. Narcissists don't care about your explanations, you can't win their trust, and your "worth" ebbs and flows with the level of service and/or status they feel you offer them. The pathological narcissist does not and never will care about your feelings or needs unless they happen to align in some way with what he or she needs. If you are the narcissist's child or spouse, that includes you.
- There is no way around grief. Processing the reality of a relationship with a narcissistic parent or partner involves loss and grief. As an adult child, you grieve the loss of the loving parent you never had, the healthy family and childhood you missed, and, most fundamentally, the person you might have been with more support. As a partner, you grieve the person you fell in love with and thought you knew, the love you didn't get, and the time you spent hoping for something that never came—the trust and intimacy that could never be. Mourning those losses is deeply painful, and takes time. Often we do anything to avoid the pain, distracting and numbing ourselves with compulsions and addictions. Many of us spend years running from grief only to find it staring us in the face in our 40s, 50s, or 60s, or even later. Sitting with our grief, acknowledging it, and moving through its full spectrum of emotion is necessary for healing.
- You have been through complex trauma. Long-term narcissistic abuse, particularly of a child, is a profound form of trauma. Children in a narcissistic home experience repeated, ongoing assaults to their sense of identity and wholeness that leave lasting emotional and physical scars. Such children or partners often manifest complex trauma, including hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain and illness. Recognizing the effects of complex trauma and treating the symptoms are essential steps on the healing path.
- You can heal. Along with our capacity for suffering is a commensurate capacity to heal. Healing happens when we recognize the larger patterns at work in our lives, overcome denial, understand the reality of narcissism, and move through our grief and trauma on the road toward a healthier and happier state of being.
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Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: the Aftermath of Violence, from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2015.