When I was recovering from narcissistic abuse, many therapists and coaches asked me to look for my part in the dynamic.
While self-reflection and learning are essential, I also found it was very unhelpful to dive into it too early.
And the people taking this approach tend to lack an understanding of narcissistic abuse and the brain and trauma and tended to gravitate towards self-help.
Without understanding the brain, we can’t treat and heal narcissistic abuse and can often cause more distress and damage to people trying to recover from narcissistic abuse.
To support someone recovering from narcissistic abuse, we must first understand their stage of recovery.
I have developed four steps for dealing with narcissistic abuse, and different interventions are helpful at different stages.
Let’s look at the four steps
When an abuse survivor of narcissistic abuse has just been discarded, they are often in a state of shock, confusion, and denial.
There could also be disassociation, a trauma response linked to the freeze response, which is known to cause long-term trauma and distorted memory integration.
We can compare this to someone who just had a car crash.
They are sitting confused next to their car with blood on their hands and face and are in shock.
You would not go up to them and ask them what they can learn from this incident and their role in the car crash.
Or I hope you would not but presuming you are an emotionally intelligent human being; you would try to comfort them, make them feel safe, that they are not alone, and that help is on the way.
This is called co-regulation, where someone takes over and creates safety through social connection and taking over.
One becomes a parent to the survivor who feels helpless and in a freeze response for a short period.
All they need is to know help is coming, they are not alone, and everything will be ok.
That’s what a survivor of narcissistic abuse also needs when they have just been discarded.
They need acknowledgment of their experience, know you are there to hug, listen and acknowledge them and sometimes even take over essential functions for a short while.
In shock or depression, focus on short-term needs, and if they start talking about how horrible the future will be, refocus them on what they need right now and assure them those needs will be met.
Once safety has been restored, we will have to deal with the common trauma-bond, a chemical addiction the abuse survivor often formed with the narcissist.
The addictive trauma bonding happens because of intermittent reinforcement, where the narcissist would first love-bomb you with charm, compliments, and affection with great intensity, causing a spike in dopamine.
They would likely be very physical, very fast, which cause spikes in oxytocin and when they suddenly started the narcissistic abuse and gave you the silent treatment, blame, guilt, or attacks.
This unpredictable up/down, push/pull or reward and punishment cause the same chemical imbalance and brain activity as addiction to drugs and alcohol.
So to break the trauma bond, we must treat it as an addiction.
1. Remove all access to the drug. This means going no contact and blocking the narcissist on all platforms.
2. Support group. Speak and meet with people who share your experience.
3. Therapy or coaching. Have a qualified person who can help you navigate this.
4. Having a support person, you can call when you feel low and want to unblock the narcissist and get another fix.
5. Spend plenty of time with social support.
6. Replace the dopamine and oxytocin with different activities and decrease adrenalin and cortisol through activities.
If you take the proper steps explained above, it will take approximately 90 days to go through withdrawal and detox from this addiction.
You can check my online course for detailed help on breaking the trauma bond or contact me for one-to-one recovery coaching.
In this stage, you will miss, ruminate with obsessive thoughts about your narcissistic ex, and you might believe you still miss and love your ex.
Your brain associated the feel good with your ex as the object, and so your brain believes that your ex is who can make you feel good.
When in this state, you can’t make good decisions as addiction and stress, anxiety and fear make parts of your brain go offline that you need for sound decision making.
Allow people you trust to help you make decisions when in this stage.
Let’s look at the next stage now you are detoxed from the drug.
To move on, we must go through the stages of grief.
Emotions that are not processed and allow to complete their cycle get stuck and cause us not to move on and for those experiences to continue to harm our future emotions, behavior, and relationships.
The five stages of grief are often referred to as
Grief is not a linear process, and you might start with depression or experience multiple of these simultaneously.
You can also go back to one after thinking you had completed it, and that just means there is more to be processed.
Denial is usually the first stage when we feel overwhelmed by our stress response, and so to cope, we go into denial or disassociation.
You might be denying the narcissistic abuse is happening or minimize it.
You might defend your abusive narcissistic ex and make excuses for them.
You might still believe they are this wonderful person they pretended to be in the idolization stage and not have accepted that the person you miss does not exist and was a fake.
It’s too painful for your brain to accept this yet, which is the purpose of denial.
A specialized expert narcissistic recovery coach can help you understand what happened and who your narcissistic ex is so you can move out of denial.
Anger is a natural and beautiful emotion.
It’s telling you that you have been violated and you must protect yourself.
The more violation you allowed, the more anger you will likely experience. A mixture of genetic, cultural, and environmental factors decides how much anger you experience, but most importantly, you must allow it to be expressed.
Give your anger a safe and physical expression.
The expression can be in the form of dance, painting, boxing, journaling, or any other physical form that feels best for you.
What’s important is that you allow it to be expressed in the physical world without harming anyone.
When you do that, you will move through this stage, and the next one is.
Bargaining is the stage where you still want to feel a sense of control.
You might start doubting yourself and think, “What if I had done x,y, or z.”
Self-doubt is expected in this stage, and to restore safety and transform the self-doubt into self-belief, you must restore your trust in your own judgment.
I do this by helping my clients with what’s called integration. By understanding what happened and the red flags, we help cognition (logic and thoughts).
We can trust our thoughts again.
By listening and expressing emotions, you learn to trust your emotional signals again.
By tuning into your body and sensing boundary violations, you can learn to trust your bodily signals, and once all three systems align, you will feel safe again and can exit the bargaining stage.
Depression is grief at its core.
It’s your parasympathetic nervous system (calm and relax) being too activated.
While you before were in high anxiety and alert (sympathetic nervous system), you are now too low and hibernating to restore the damage caused, and you let go of everything to open up for something new.
We call this depression.
For the more spiritual people, you can imagine the energy that is no longer in motion, so it becomes hard to move and do anything.
Energy in motion tends to stay in motion, so to move out of depression, we must do therapy or coaching and start doing things that restore the sympathetic nervous system, such as exercise.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or suicidal, then contact your emergency service and healthcare professional right now. You are NOT alone. And it does get better.
The next stage is.
Acceptance is a beautiful space of compassion around what happened. This is where peace is found.
Part of this process is understanding what happened, but it’s also working with self-compassion.
This is a tool I teach in my online course and coaching, as it’s been scientifically shown to have a significant impact on healing and well-being.
Once you accept the common humanity that we are all just trying to find safety and some people have learned dysfunctional strategies to feel safe, you can feel acceptance and compassion for yourself and others.
This is the space I call love.
People that have been exposed to narcissistic abuse often fit into one of the four categories
1. Co-dependent or anxious attached
2. Childhood trauma
3. Had a crisis or felt vulnerable at the point of contact
4. Felt boredom or isolated at point of contact
Suppose you have a repeated pattern of ending up with people with narcissistic personality disorder or tendencies. In that case, you should look at your attachment style and any potential childhood trauma that cause this to be re-enacted.
We continue to recreate the same circumstance to the wound we hope to resolve, but without self-awareness and what we are trying to fix, we just continue the same cycle.
Some abuse survivors with childhood trauma also see narcissistic abuse as a normal part of relationships, and we tend to gravitate towards what is familiar and known.
That’s why becoming self-aware of your patterns and wounds so you can resolve them in a safe environment with a therapist or coach is essential.
If you fit number 4, it’s easy to solve as you just take up more hobbies and passions and start being more social.
If you fit the first and second, then trauma treatment can be beneficial to avoid repeating the same patterns and improve your well-being.
An essential part of healing past trauma is what we call integration.
Our brain, in simplified terminology, has three parts.
The higher cortex is the latest to develop and is responsible for cognition, thought, and planning.
The middle part is called the limbic system, which is responsible for our emotions.
And the lower part is also referred to as the reptilian brain, which is responsible for your bodily sensations such as breathing, hunger, temperature, and so on.
When narcissistic abuse and trauma occur, the brain does not integrate memory normally because the amygdala in the mid-brain is hyper-activated, and emotions overwhelm you causing language and logic to switch off and your perception of time.
This means memories are now not stored with a timestamp and lack words to make meaning and understand the experience, which causes it to continue to cause you pain in the current moment even when the event is over.
The adrenalin and cortisol produced in large amounts when you are exposed to abuse and trauma cause your hippocampus to shut down, which is essential for storing and processing memories.
So, you get stuck in a painful loop.
Therefore, it’s so hard to move on.
An expert trauma coach will help you integrate these memories using thought, emotions, and sensations so the memory can be normally processed and stored, and that is how we can move out of trauma and finally heal.
It’s possible because I see it with my clients regularly.
That’s enough for today.
If you are in the middle of this confusing and painful place, check out the comprehensive course I did on how to heal and flourish after dating a borderline, narcissist, or socio/psychopath.
Never forget. You are worthy of love, safety, kindness & mutuality.