I have been in more than one relationship in my life that qualified as narcissistically abusive, and have been in trauma recovery for over a decade. Of the 3 stages of identified recovery, I am entering Stage 3 as a resilient survivor, dedicated to using my own experiences for helping others on their own journeys.
Although this article deals specifically with trauma related to romantic relationships, the concepts are also applicable to family trauma and workplace narcissistic bullying; both of which I have also experienced. Narcissistic abuse can be loosely defined (in my own words) as a “toxic relationship environment where damage is inflicted by persons whose poor coping and communication skills cause them to diminish another person’s sense of security and well-being in order to avoid the discomfort of reflection on their own shortcomings.”
Here are 8 core realizations that recently helped me personally transition from survivor mode to the third stage, “learning resilience” mode.
1. It will take time for you to realize and admit to what is going on. You may have spent 30 minutes on a bad date, or 6 months living with someone, or have a marriage that spans decades. Do not let anyone criticize you for “staying.” The research suggests that most people give their relationship about 7 tries before finally giving up. This realization made me stop criticizing myself for staying in relationships too long.
2. Precision in language and terminology is empowering. It has helped me immensely to delve into professional articles and videos that explain gaslighting, emotional flashbacks, attachment styles, word salad, cPTSD, stages of recovery, stonewalling, and other concepts with clear definitions, precise examples, and techniques for processing their effects.
3. It is unhelpful to attempt to diagnose, or “help” the other person. Their actions are enough for you to make the decision on how to deal with their behavior- you are under no obligation to try to understand them. Most likely, first of all, you are not a licensed professional qualified to make that judgement. What you are always qualified to say is “something that person does is hurting me.” By focusing on the behavior and not the person, you can detach emotionally and then objectively analyze the situation itself and your place in it- including what outcome you are or are not willing to work towards.
4. There are well outlined grieving stages associated with the disempowerment that happens from this type of trauma, and some very good resources at understanding how this abuse affects every area of life through mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual erosion of your self-esteem, health, finances, and life. One of the most important stages for me was letting myself sit with the effects of prolonged trauma and understand how they were impacting me- and thus starting the grief processes of working through the depression, mind fog, addictive behaviors, and shock stages into later stages of seeking understanding (self) and rewiring my behaviors and thought patterns to relinquish the situation’s control.
5. You will be tempted to think you are overreacting. I assure you that you are not. I found myself doing this just the other day, about an ex with an explosive temper who I woke up thinking about nostalgically. It was helpful that I had done some writing exercises around this person, and went back to read things like, “remember how he almost killed you in a major car accident when you asked him to slow down while driving? Or stalked your friends with a gun?” In fact, one of the most impactful things I learned as I perused abuse literature is how the car is often the favorite location of choice for an abusive person. It has to do with the psychology of being in a private space, with you as the captive audience. Three of my ex-narcs used the car as one of the favorite battlegrounds. By documenting what they do or say that makes us feel disempowered, devalued, dismissed, endangered, degraded, or humiliated; and/or what damage they did, you can change the dialogue from “maybe I misinterpreted what happened” to “that would have affected anybody.”
6. We will always be tempted to also second-guess ourselves and ask if something about us, or something we did, “caused” the problem. It did not. Here is why. We are wired to “make things work,” and we know that relationships are work, and will have their ups and downs. We are taught (rightly) that the only person we can change is ourselves, so when something is not working, our first reaction, as normal human beings, is to ask, “what do I need to do differently?” This is part of every healthy relationship- but it must be stated that it ONLY works if both are putting in the effort.
One of my biggest recovery breakthrough moments came when I learned how to analyze my own communication patterns and motivations. I learned to finally put my extremely critical “maybe the problem really is me” voice to rest, by examining how I approach difficult conversations. If you approach them with the intent to resolve or improve a situation, you are not the narcissist. You will make a mess of attempts to interact with narcissistic abuse, because that is how the abuse itself works. Learning assertive and transformative communication techniques helps address this issue- the more you know, the less power it will have.
7. There is evidence that the rarest Meyer’s Briggs personality type, the INFJ, seem to be the type most likely to be targeted by narcissistic abuse, whether or not the person classifies formally as personality disordered (see #3). While there is some debate in the literature about the validity itself of the MB personality types, the examination of the link between the INFJ characteristics and propensity for being misunderstood is a pretty powerful tool for understanding “why did this happen to me?” I test as this type, and it was an eye-opener for me.
8. You cannot just “go it alone” and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” It does not work that way. We require safe spaces, “soul companions,” and adequate objective support to even get us to the point of confronting a situation. Often, your family will have unfortunately been turned against you in some manner, so an outside network of non-related people is many times a crucial piece of building resilience. It is also very helpful to ask trusted people in your circle for their feedback about the quality of your relationship- what they saw and experienced, and if they ever had any concerns.
In my own worst example, I learned that my ex was so paranoid and jealous that he offered his underage daughter sexually to a student of mine because he was certain the student and I were going to have a sexual connection (a complete fabrication). This was, to me, the final piece that brought it all home of just how bad that relationship was- and is only one example. These circles exist outside of the help of a licensed counselor or therapist- I consider them supplemental and complementary support networks.
There are literally hundreds of resources available on this topic. With respect to the 8 points above, here are a few I found particularly useful in both my own recovery and in the shamanic supplemental work I do with others.
1,6, 7: The book by Shahida Arabi was particularly helpful in tying these concepts together.
2: Several online YouTube video channels are dedicated to this theme; some are better than others. One I particularly liked was Ross Rosenberg’s work on classifying the terms and breaking them down. Thomas G. Fiffer’s work with the Good Men Project on his website and in his book were also very good resources.
3: Beverly Banov Brown’s channel is particularly helpful for explaining this concept, and she has several useful videos that explain why you should not look to get even, etc. I also particularly liked Susan Winter’s work on concretely evaluating if someone is worth another chance- a decision that only you can make.
4,5.:Michelle Lee Nieves has a great video that explores 20 ways that this type of abuse affects a person going through it. For the stages of grief, she also offers this video. For a chilling recorded real life example of “car terrorism,” she offers a victim’s own harrowing story here.
5: Many of the previous examples mentioned describe the necessity for journaling your experience as a technique for making sense of it. I also particularly like (and teach) a psychological technique for reducing trauma’s effect on the mind and body that involves a series of precise writing exercises that a therapist taught me years ago.
8: Parker Palmer’s work on building trust in communities and relationships is particularly enlightening in this topic.
I am also very fond of Brene Brown’s groundbreaking work and techniques for examining and overcoming shame triggers for resilience, which can be found in several of her books.
Rachael Shenyo is a US national living and working in Central America as a development specialist, scientist, writer, and life coach. In her coaching, she specializes in helping people find and hear their inner voice, and act upon their life goals. In her scientific work, she works with climate change. Her professional profile may be found on LinkedIn.