Stages of Healing After Narcissistic Abuse

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If you have recently gotten out of a relationship with someone who exhibited narcissistic behavior, it can be hard to know how exactly to move forward in your healing process.

To get some help, Verywell Mind spoke with Dr. Mike Dow, PsyD, PhD, a psychotherapist with extensive experience in helping people who have experienced emotional abuse in relationships.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that all narcissists exhibit a very easy-to-spot grandiosity," explains Dow. "While many do, there are also those who can appear shy or quiet on the outside, but secretly harbor grandiose plans, negative views of others, and a fragile ego on the inside."

Thie article provides some questions that you can ask yourself to determine if you're in a relationship with someone who is a narcissist. It covers what narcissistic abuse looks like in a relationship, how to break up with a narcissist, and the stages of healing from narcissistic abuse.

How to Identify Narcissistic Behavior

Dow explains that narcissists are good at seeking out warm, sensitive people that they feel they can manipulate. If you think that the person you're with could be a narcissist, Dow says it's important to ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I getting my needs met consistently?
  • Do I sometimes get a very strong feeling I am being manipulated but then ignore it?
  • If I'm being honest with myself, am I being controlled and not getting my needs met?
  • Have I been forced to sacrifice my other relationships and priorities in a constant attempt to serve this person's needs?

If you answered "yes" to most of these questions, then it's possible that your partner, family member or friend, is a narcissist.

While Dow explains that most narcissists are younger men,he notes that this isn't always the case. That said, he says there are qualities to look out for.

If you're wondering if someone you're interested in is a narcissist, look at their other relationships. If they have a consistent pattern of relationships that were purely transactional or self-serving, that's a definite sign of narcissism.

"We all want to get our needs met, and that's healthy," says Dow. "The difference is that narcissists will throw others under the bus with no guilt if it means their needs are being met."

Dow says that another way to recognize a narcissist is to notice if they're constantly looking for praise. He urges his clients to remember that "confidence is quiet while insecurity is loud."

What Narcissistic Abuse Looks Like in a Relationship

Although narcissistic abuse is not a formally recognized diagnosis, it is often used to describe a syndrome where being in a relationship to a narcissistic partner can adversely affect one's emotional health. To begin the healing process, first, you have to identify the instances of abuse. This can be harder than it sounds.

Mike Dow, PsyD

Abuse from a narcissist is extremely manipulative and controlling. Because of their low frustration tolerance, they can explode and become very emotionally and verbally abusive. They frequently gaslight and put you down.

— Mike Dow, PsyD

Dow says that one of the most damaging aspects of narcissistic relationships is that the narcissistic partner can quickly vacillate between supportive and kind to cruel and manipulative.

Additionally, Dow notes that narcissists need to be in control. They know how to pull you back in after they've pushed you too far.

Their goal is to preserve their ego, which can be quite fragile, and these preservation attempts can be both conscious and subconscious.

Ending a Relationship With a Narcissist

If you're ready to end your relationship. Dow specifies that you should be very clear on why you're ending the relationship and that you should be prepared for the narcissist to be defensive.

He recommends that the person leaving the relationship go into the conversation with clear talking points about why they're leaving.

If you need help with this, enlist the help of a therapist. Talking it out with a loved one can also be helpful, or even journaling. Of course, you can also do all of the above.

Stages of Healing From Narcissistic Abuse

Dow explains that the primary goal for a person who is healing from narcissistic abuse is often learning to trust themselves again after years of experiencing gaslighting in the relationship. To slowly work back toward learning to trust yourself again, keep these things in mind:

  • Set boundaries: After ending the relationship, Dow advises his clients to unfollow or block them on social media, and to be willing to block their phone or emails.
  • Rely on your support system: Make sure that you are surrounding yourself with the loved ones and hobbies that support you and your mental health.
  • Trust your gut: It's vital that you listen to your own intuition, especially since narcissists have a tendency to attack that in others. "In subtle or overt ways, the narcissist has frequently communicated: 'What's wrong with YOU? You're crazy,'" explains Dow. Make a mental note when you find yourself doubting your instincts due to narratives that were written by your narcissistic partner.

Join a Recovery Program

Dow says that relationships with narcissists can commonly trigger co-dependency in their partners. "Co-Dependents Anonymous can sometimes be part of the healing journey," says Dow. "Especially for people who were previously codependent in other relationships."

Reach Out to Family and Friends

Dow explains that one common method of manipulation for narcissists is alienating their partners from their support systems.

Dow calls these support systems "cubby holes," and advises his clients to work to fill them back up. "Narcissistic abuse typically means you've emptied out these cubby holes," he says. "It's all about putting yourself together again by returning to your old priorities."

A Word From Verywell

It can be hard to admit to yourself that you've let someone manipulate you, but it's nothing to be ashamed or guilty about. Seek out a therapist who can help you identify the moments when your partner was being manipulative, and learn how to effectively set boundaries and honor your own needs.

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  1. Stinson, PhD, F. S., Dawson, PhD, D. A., & Goldstein, PhD, MPH, R. B. (n.d.). Prevalence, Correlates, Disability, and Comorbidity of DSM-IV Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Results From the Wave 2 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related ConditionsThe Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.