Narcissistic abuse recovery may be the most difficult thing you ever do, but if you are reading this page you may already know that. It may seem like there is no way out of the misery and distress that you are experiencing. Just when you think you are getting a handle on things, something happens and you are thrown back into confusion, chaos and conflict. It may feel like there is no way to make sense of what happened, or of what is still happening, even though you may have already left the abusive relationship.
So lets have a look at the dynamics in a narcissistic relationship and what happens afterwards. This relationship could be a one to one relationship or a group situation, such as in a work environment or a destructive cult.
Because of the nature of psychological abuse there are many factors that you have to take into consideration. Here are a list of some of the most important and we will consider each in turn.
(Don't get hung up on the word victim. People don't like to think of themselves as victims but it is actually a good word to describe someone who has been in a relationship with a narcissist. And just because one has been a victim does not mean one is going to be a victim forever. People can and do go through a process of narcissistic abuse recovery and no longer feel or act like victims.)
A narcissist will typically be controlling your emotions from the word go. All the flattery and compliments and making you feel good at the start of the relationship (called love bombing) was part of the emotional control exerted by the narcissist. Being enamored with or in love with someone, especially when it happens fast, means that the victim is not thinking very clearly or logically. The exhilaration or euphoric clouds one's judgment. This is why people ignore their friends and family when warned about the narcissist initially. They feel so good that they literally have no sense of problems or danger.
Later on, the narcissist learns all your weak points (some of which they even create!) and then uses these to make you feel bad, shame, guilty, fearful, unworthy, unlovable and a whole host of other emotions. While they have little or no emotions themselves it's interesting just how good they are at manipulating and controlling the emotions of those around them. And control them they do. People typically talk about having been on an emotional roller coaster during the relationship and it can even be worse after a breakup.
These constant ups and downs in the relationship keep you off balance and make it very difficult for you to think straight. It also means that you are so busy that you don't even have time to stop and think and reflect on the relationship itself and what's actually going on.
The emotional manipulation typically leads to phobias, which are fears that are disproportionate to reality. Victims have phobias about leaving the relationship, believing that they may not be able to cope without the narcissist, that they may never find anyone else to love them or that they may even die without the narcissist. There are often extreme fears about what might happen to them if they cross or betray the narcissist or go against the narcissist in any way.
The world the victim lives in gets narrower and narrower as time goes on, with the victim typically living in a sort of eternal present, always vigilant against upsetting the narcissist in order to avoid that explosive and unpredictable temper.
As you go through your narcissistic abuse recovery, beware of anyone who offers you help by teaching you to control your emotions. You have had way too much control of your emotions already in the relationship and it's much more important to be able to express them and to learn how they were controlled rather than to 'not feel bad'. The thing is that as you go through a narcissistic abuse recovery you are going to have bad patches for a while.
By controlling your emotions, this gives the narcissist a very powerful way to control your thinking, your decision making and your behavior.
At the start of the relationship, the narcissist makes you feel very good. When you think about the narcissist, you get this nice warm glow all over and so you make certain decisions in relation to the narcissist and you behave in a certain way, too. This first impression is very significant because it is often difficult for us to change these first impressions.
Later, however, when the bad behavior kicks in, it is initially forgiven and forgotten because the victim has the idea that the narcissist is a great person. The narcissist typically starts the abusive behavior after the victim has committed in some way. It could be living together, or in business together or married or some other level of involvement.
As the victim comes more and more under the influence of the narcissist the mental abuse gets more frequent and more destructive. Now, instead of moving towards pleasure, the victim starts to move away from pain. The narcissist causes such upset that the life of the victim begins to revolve around not upsetting the narcissist. The decisions the victim makes and the behaviors are organized around making sure the narcissist is comfortable and has what he or she wants.
There is often a reward and punishment system in place. Do something that the narcissist does not want and there is a punishment (of which there is a huge range) and do or say what the narcissist does want and there is a reward (which are typically few and far between). A reward can simply be that the narcissist does not start an argument!
The victim may consider that they have the situation under control in the sense that they know how to assess the mood of the narcissist and based on this they decide what they can say or do, or what they shouldn't say or do, so as not to upset the narcissist. But this is a 'trick' of psychological abuse. The narcissist has 'trained' the victim how to make such decisions by the very act of the reward and punishment system.
The fact that the victim believes they are making their own decisions has very significant ramifications. For example, it hides from the victim the fact that the narcissist is influencing practically all of the decisions of the victim. It also means that the victim is motivated to continue in the relationship because thinking they are making their own decisions gives them a sense of control. Unfortunately it also traps the victim into thinking that they are responsible for various things that the narcissist blames them for. This belief of the victim that they are responsible for anything that is bad or wrong in the relationship is particularly difficult to unwind later on during narcissistic abuse recovery.
Victims of narcissists typically believe that the narcissist loves them and cares for them and has their best interests at heart. At least until they learn that the narcissist is heartless and even then it takes a while to get your head around the idea that some people don’t have emotions. Until this is fully accepted there is always hope that the narcissist might change and the victim continues to wish for a relationship that is fair or where they are treated nicely.
The memories of the nice times at the start of the relationship reinforce these desires. Sometimes the victim thinks that they might be wrong about the narcissist and that they (the victim) deserve the bad behavior for the way they are and this leads the victim to think that if only they could change the narcissist would be better. Added to these things are the promises of the narcissist that he or she will change and this also plays on the emotions of the victim and gives hope.
All these things are part of the psychological abuse and mind control. The narcissist is not going to change.
If you thought that you were superior to everyone around you and that you deserved the best of everything and all your problems were because of the fools and incompetents around you, would you feel a need to change? Of course not. This is why narcissists rarely go for treatment of their narcissism.
Watch out, though, if they offer to go to therapy with you as a way to get you back. They still ain't gonna change. They will, however, learn more about what's going on in your head and that information will be used against you. It's also a real disaster if they fool the therapist and manage to put all the blame on you. This is so destructive that if you suspect you are in a relationship with a narcissist (or a psychopath) you should never go to couples therapy with them.
Because they don't change, the more time you are with them the more chance they have to manipulate you. This is why all the experts suggest no contact. The sooner you get away from them the easier and quicker your narcissistic abuse recovery will be. Maintaining contact with them, whether in person or by email or messages, means they continue to play mind games with you and you lose. It really is as simple as that.
But... getting away from them is not an easy matter at all. They have invested a lot of time and energy into shaping you to be the way they want you to be so they typically won't give you up without a fight. In the same way that in business they say that it's easier to keep a customer than get a customer, for the narcissist it's easier to keep a victim than to go through all the effort to create a new one.
You can expect all sorts of tactics from them, apologizing, telling you that they made a mistake, telling you that you made a mistake, saying that you will never find anyone to love you they way they do (thank goodness!), threatening you, threatening suicide, promising you the sun, moon and stars, and a whole host of other emotional manipulation techniques. Then they will often cycle through them all again!
But there is something else that is very powerful that draws you back to them.
An important aspect of psychological abuse and mind control is dependency. There are things that a narcissist does and says that causes dependency in their victims.
This is independent of the personality of the victim before the relationship. It does NOT mean that a victim has a dependent personality, is co-dependent or has addiction problems. Most experts in the field of mind control agree that anyone is susceptible to being caught by a narcissist. This means that there is no particular personality type that is vulnerable to being captured by a narcissist or psychopath. Everybody is vulnerable. Even psychologists who work with narcissists and psychopaths may go into an interview with one of them, knowing they are a narcissist, and still be fooled!
So how specifically do they create the dependency? One way is by alternating criticism with compliments. The victim obviously feels good with the compliment and bad with the criticism. This sets up in the victim a desire for approval from the manipulator. When they are criticized by the manipulator, whom they hold in high regard, they feel that they have let the manipulator down and it often motivates them to work harder for the manipulator so that they receive a compliment later instead of a criticism. Eventually their well being depends on the mood of the manipulator and whether the manipulator is saying good or bad things to them. In extreme cases, the victim even depends on the narcissist to know who they are, too.
Narcissists also erode the self esteem of the victims and cause them to doubt themselves. When a victim has their own ideas and opinions derided and belittled and they are made to feel bad and stupid for thinking differently from the narcissist, eventually the victim learns to doubt themselves. And if they doubt themselves, who do they turn to to know what to think and do? To the narcissist, of course. By doing this they believe it will help them not to get into trouble. If the narcissist tells them what to do, there should be no problem. Of course, it never works out this way because the unpredictable nature of the narcissist means that there is always trouble. After all, nothing is ever enough for the narcissist!
This dependency drives the victim back to the narcissist all the time. The programming of the narcissist is like a master program that the victim uses to think and make decisions. If the victim has any questions or doubts, they ask themselves, 'what would the manipulator say or do, or what would they want me to say or do?' And this is how the victim organizes their lives. In effect, you could say that the narcissist becomes their purpose in life.
Now it is becoming more obvious just how pervasive the influence of the narcissist is.
I said that the narcissist affects their victim at many levels. He (or she) affects the environment that the victim occupies. He affects their behavior. He affects their capabilities. He also affects the beliefs of the victim (and some of the victim's beliefs that were installed by the narcissist can be even stronger than normal, healthy beliefs). And ultimately, the narcissist changes the personality of the victim.
If we consider that the personality is the essential character of a person, made up of the patterns of thoughts, feelings and actions along with the psychological mechanisms behind these things, then a person's personality is fairly consistent over time and when we know something of a person's personality, we feel we know how a person will act in certain situations which allows us to trust that person.
Now what the narcissist does is to basically 'unfreeze' the personality, changes are made and this new but false personality is frozen in place. When friends and family say to the victim that they have changed in the relationship with a narcissist, they are referencing the end result of this process. Outsiders may say that they don't recognize the person any more, this person may have been outgoing, confident, cheerful, strong, social, carefree and full of life. Since the relationship started the person has become, withdrawn, worried, sad, secretive, lacking humor, reclusive, fearful, dependent on the partner, they have lost their sparkle, and they seem depressed almost. The outsiders often comment they hardly recognize their friend any more.
How does the narcissist do this? Well, all the criticism, humiliation, belittling, shouting, name calling and derogatory stuff has the effect of making the person feel bad about themselves. The victim ends up believing that who they are is the cause of the problems they have. This is also what cults do to members, by the way. They amplify the problems that members have, then link these to the person's way of being in the world. This motivates the person to change themselves in some way. And what way is that? In whatever way the narcissist proposes, of course. The narcissist has all the answers, they know what's best, their opinions and ideas are perfect and if only everyone thought like they did, everyone could have a life as ideal as theirs.
So the victim is forced along a path where they have to believe what the narcissist wants, think the way the narcissist wants and act the way the narcissist wants. In this way the narcissist molds the personality of the person to be the way they want it, that is, submissive, doing the bidding of the narcissist, believing every word the narcissist says, making the narcissist's wants and needs a priority and giving all time and attention to the narcissist. In this way, the victim ends up being dependent on the narcissist, the victim is checking with the narcissist, in one way or another, to know what to do, to think and to feel. (In a sick and twisted way, the narcissist then criticizes the victim for being this way, for not having their own opinions, for not being able to make decisions and not having any initiative.)
Anyway, this imposed personality is called the pseudopersonality and it dominates and controls the real personality, which is never totally destroyed. This description is actually a very useful way to think about what happens in a narcissistic relationship. This is not the same as split personality or multiple personalities. The pseudopersonality is imposed by the narcissist and it is something that is learned. (This means that it can be unlearned.)
These two personalities help explain many things. One example is the internal conflict that exists in the victim. One part of them may hate the narcissist for the way that they are treated but another part loves them and wants things to improve. One part wants to run away but another can't imagine not being in the relationship. This internal battle between what the real personality wants and what the pseudopersonality is programmed to do can cause considerable suffering for the victim. This may prolong the relationship because the victim, unable to make sense of the situation, believes that they themselves are actually the root of the problem and that the narcissist is actually right about them. This is even more destructive for the victim because it reinforces all the distorted ideas of the narcissist.
Any narcissistic abuse recovery obviously means undoing all the programming of the pseudopersonality so that the person's real personality is allowed to resurface, so to speak, so that it can become the driving force and take control once again.
Most people are unaware of how influence processes work. Sure they know some basic ideas such as that when a business says that there are only a few items left they are using the scarcity principle to try and make the product more attractive. Or when the ad announces that 8 out of 10 cats prefer this type of food, the information about how those 10 cats were actually chosen is kept a secret.
But they don't understand that when someone flatters them, even if they know the flattery is an exaggeration or just plainly not true, it still has a profound effect on them. They may not understand that when a narcissist asks for a favor (at the start of the relationship) that the narcissist could care less about the thing they ask for, what they are checking is their victim's response.
Nor do they know that when the narcissist does a favor, again they are not doing it for the benefit of the victim, they are checking how the victim responds. And then later on there are multiple ways in which the narcissist 'cashes in' on this favor, none of which are for the benefit of the victim, of course!
The victims of narcissists are not aware of the multitude of things that the narcissist is doing to them behind their back. Well, that's not strictly true, it doesn’t even have to be behind the back of the victim. The narcissists are happy to do things to their faces because the narcissist knows he or she doesn’t have to hide what they are doing because the victim simply doesn’t know what to look out for to protect themselves.
Learning about the subtleties of these things during the narcissistic abuse recovery is vital if a victim does not want to be caught again by the next narcissist they meet.
Let's say you are playing cards with someone and of the 52 cards you have 5, they have 42 and there are 5 cards face down on the table. Your cards are face up on the table in front of you and visible to the other player. They are holding their 42 cards in their hands and close to their chest so that you cannot see them. You don’t know what the objective of the game is so you don't know what you have to do to win. Nor do you know what the rules are and the other person can change the rules at any time.
This is what it's like to be a partner of a narcissistic person.
Are you going to win? The odds are very much stacked against you.
If you lose, is it your fault that you lost? Absolutely not.
If you don't have information about the system, if important things are deliberately hidden from you, then you cannot, by definition, be making informed decisions. If a patient is not told that a significant, recognized risk of his surgery is blindness, for example, then when he signs the consent form he cannot be considered to have given informed consent. If an investor is not told that the company is losing money but is led to believe that the company is doing well, if he invests then he has been conned.
In the same way, you were conned into the relationship with the narcissist. You were led to believe that the narcissist was intelligent, caring, loving, attentive and a generally nice person. You were deceived. Important details were deliberately kept from you until well into the relationship. You were sold one thing, you were given something completely different. You though you were getting a healthy, loving relationship, instead you were given a pseudopersonality and your time, energy, money, privacy, creativity and your health were taken away from you.
You are not responsible for things that you did not know were happening. You can't be blamed for these things and it's important that you don't blame yourself.
The important thing to remember here is that the pseudopersonality is programmed to accept responsibility for anything bad or for anything that goes wrong. The narcissist makes himself out to be blameless and directs the blame at those around him. You were usually first in the firing line. There is so much blame sent your way that eventually you believe it and accept it. This is a very deeply ingrained pattern in victims of narcissistic abuse and takes a while to get rid of.
There are many tricks the narcissist uses to create this belief. For example, the narcissist will often do something to deliberately provoke you. Then you respond as any normal healthy person would in such a circumstance. Let's say you get angry and answer back. The narcissist then claims that you are argumentative and aggressive. This aggravates you more and you answer back again. The narcissist then points out that he was right because you are still angry and arguing back. In that moment, it often seems that the narcissist is right, you are angry and you are arguing, and so you may consider backing down because you think that it may actually be your fault.
But the twist here is that the narcissist provoked the situation. He or she set it up. He was sufficiently irritating or rude about it that it would have been almost impossible not to be upset about it. Your response was really a natural and normal response to the situation. This is one important thing to realize about this situation.
The second important thing in this example is that you were experiencing anger and answering back. These are behaviors. This does not mean that you are necessarily aggressive nor argumentative. This is another twist that the narcissist introduces. He takes a behavior and uses it to criticize you at the level of identity. There is a world of difference between criticizing someone for something they do and criticizing them for who they are. The latter is much more hurtful and much more destructive. In fact, it's one of the ways that the narcissist destroys your personality as outlined above.
I have outlined many ideas here and as you can begin to see, there are lots of things to consider and many things that need to be understood in order to go through a narcissistic abuse recovery process and come out of it free of the narcissist and free of the influence of the narcissist.
It is a process of education where you learn about narcissists, their motivations, their actions and how they think as well as the intricacies of influence processes and destructive mind control. It's not enough to just keep going over things in your head or to just keep writing about your experiences. It's essential to have new information in order to make sense of what was done to you and to be able to 'put things in their place'. Without new information and a new way of thinking about your situation, you just end up going in circles in your head, and while over time you may feel 'not as bad' about things, the narcissist continues to intrude in your thinking and your decision making.
Working with an expert in this field is the best thing you can do because they will help you to avoid the pitfalls, they will speed up your narcissistic abuse recovery and they will help you to overcome problem ideas and beliefs that you didn’t even know were affecting you.
You can read more here about dealing with a narcissist, how to leave an abusive relationship, divorcing a narcissist, and how long it takes to recover from a narcissistic relationship. If you think you 'attract' narcissists, you can read about what really goes on here.
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If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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