When people think of trauma, they tend to imagine isolated events like natural disasters or car accidents.
But trauma can take many forms.
Narcissistic abuse is a soul-crushing form of trauma because it slowly builds up like an avalanche. In many cases, it affects your identity and mental health on a very deep level for several years.
That’s why the stages of healing after narcissistic abuse are an ongoing process – not an instantaneous event.
Healing from complex trauma and PTSD from narcissistic abuse requires a much different approach than recovering from isolated traumatic events.
Just like someone working through drug or alcohol recovery, it’s crucial to work through the phases of trauma recovery.
It’s not fast or easy, but you’ll come out the other end more dignified, stronger, and kinder than you ever were before the abuse.
Why Healing from Narcissistic Abuse Is Different
In reality, complex trauma from narcissistic abuse is similar to living under siege from war (fighting and psychological torture) and a blockade (emotional, spiritual, and even physical isolation) for many years.
This is not to say narcissistic abuse is on par with living in a war zone but that the same psychological implications are at play.
Like someone living under the threat of war for several years, you start to wonder why this abuse happens to you while others get to live in peace. It feels like you’re being tortured by a blockade restricting your access to the rest of the world.
Surely, something must be wrong with you or this abuse wouldn’t continue.
This outlook generally doesn’t apply in cases of trauma from car accidents and other isolated events.
Sure, some folks might suffer a car accident and wonder why God would allow such a thing to happen to them. But in general, people tend to recognize that car accidents and natural disasters are random events over which they have no control.
People don’t usually blame themselves for fires and earthquakes but we blame ourselves for narcissistic abuse. Healing from narcissistic abuse is different because it attacks your very sense of self, your psyche, and your spirit.
How Narcissistic Abuse Affects You on a Deeper Level
Narcissistic abuse is a frequent outcome of trying to have a healthy, functional relationship with a personality-disordered person over a long time. It’s a disordered person’s reaction to having a close relationship.
Over the course of a relationship with a narcissist, you will develop cognitive dissonance and a devastating trauma bond due to their strategic use of psychological manipulation techniques such as the silent treatment.
At first, you might suffer through a heated fight every now and then. Things calm down and you write it off as a one-time event.
You ignore the red flags. They’re just a tortured soul, right?
But then the fighting increases its pace. You start to notice that in every scenario, you’re wrong – even when you started the conversation by asking for an apology or basic respect.
How many times have you tried to confront the narcissist – even politely – about something they’ve done that hurt you only to have them turn the conversation into an abusive situation? How many times have you found yourself apologizing to the narcissist at the end of these conversations?
The narcissist must always be the victim – even when they’ve treated you horribly.
If the narcissist always has to be the victim, that means someone else must always be the perpetrator. Yep, that’s your role: You’re the antagonist and they’re the protagonist in the hypothetical movie playing inside the narcissist’s head.
The problem is that after weeks, months, or years of this very subtle manipulation, you start to actually believe it on a deep level – usually without even realizing it.
It impacts how you view yourself and everyone around you. You start to believe that you’re worthless, can’t do anything right, and no one could ever enjoy your company.
The Choice Point
Each time you experience another cycle of emotional abuse with the narcissist, there is a window of opportunity called a Choice Point. It’s in this place where we have the chance to change the negative cycles that have become a pattern in our lives.
In that space, we can either keep making the same choices that keep us entangled in toxic relationships, or we can choose a different path. We can choose other ways of behaving and different ways of thinking.
Every choice we make is creating our future.
It’s challenging to stop and think about this when you’re in constant fight-or-flight mode during narcissistic abuse. But, the choices we make now not only affect our future, but the futures of our children, our grandchildren, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and our society.
In moments of betrayal and emotional devastation – which are inescapable inside narcissistic abuse – we just want to feel better about ourselves, to stop the pain, and for things to change back to “normal”.
But what we typically don’t think about in those moments is what could happen in the next week, year, or decade when we choose to stay in toxic relationships. We don’t recognize that we are creating ripples that will affect our friends and family, other individuals, and ultimately, the world.
Many people believe they’re immune from the effects of narcissistic abuse – until they get fired from their job, their pet is harmed or killed, they have a psychotic breakdown, or their child commits suicide due to constant verbal assaults and being made to feel unworthy.
- We don’t ponder that we might be ruining our career because we won’t stop answering an abusive partner’s text messages in the middle of a corporate meeting – putting ourselves at risk of homelessness.
- We may not recognize that when we experience repeated stress from emotional and verbal abuse, our brains are being restructured… for the worse.
- We don’t think about how staying in toxic relationships will likely set our children up to be either narcissistic or codependent, thereby perpetuating generational dysfunction.
But, what can you do when you’ve just found out the narcissist has cheated (once more) or you’ve discovered they told you a whopper of a lie (once more) and all you can do to get through the moment is breathe into a paper bag to prevent yourself from hyperventilating? What can you do to get off the crazy, haunting roller coaster ride?
You always have a choice
It’s almost impossible to think rationally during moments of emotional abuse. But, even during times of unbearable anguish, there exists that fraction of a second when your cognitive mind says, “See, we knew this would happen. I don’t know why you won’t listen to me.”
But then, your traumatized subconscious mind tries to beat your cognitive mind to the ground. Almost instantly, you start wondering how you can make the narcissist accountable or how you can get back into their good graces so they’ll choose you over their affair partner.
These are your choice point events. And there are much larger forces at play. Choice points are not random episodes, but wake up calls. Times where we need to read the signs and make better choices.
Some choice points are extremely important in our lives… life-changing turning points. When we can bring our awareness to when important choice points are at hand, our lives can become greatly enriched with far wiser choices.
Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Complex trauma from narcissistic abuse takes a long time to develop – sometimes years or even decades. It’s imprudent, then, to believe that healing from narcissistic abuse can be instantaneous (and you shouldn’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise).
The narcissist spent years slowly chipping away at your sense of self and spirit. As a result, healing from complex trauma and PTSD should be an ongoing process.
To be honest, complete freedom from the past isn’t really an attainable (or even an ideal) goal.
This is what people realize as they work through the phases of trauma recovery.
Narcissistic abuse doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be your whole story, but it is a major chapter in your book. It’s unwise, and quite frankly unhealthy, to think that you can simply “snap out” of this mentality while healing from narcissistic abuse.
Healing from complex trauma and PTSD simply doesn’t work that way. And if it did, it would be a dreadful form of spiritual bypassing.
It’s crucial to work through the phases of trauma recovery.
The effects of complex trauma from narcissistic abuse will follow you everywhere you go: as you seek new jobs, look for new friends, rebuild lost relationships, and try to develop an identity again.
And that new identity? It will never be the same. It will be stronger, more assertive, and even more compassionate than it was before your emotionally abusive relationship.
Healing from narcissistic abuse is a difficult and continual process but it does get better.
The Phases of Trauma Recovery
You’re probably already familiar with the five stages of grief. But what is grief? It is a traumatic event that affects you on a spiritual level.
The stages of healing after narcissistic abuse are very similar. Believe it or not, the five stages of grief are more than just a plot concept for comedy shows. It’s very important to work through each of these stages with an open heart and support system.
No one ever expects people suffering from substance abuse to recover overnight, right? No, they work through the 12 steps (or other concrete recovery programs). Ask anyone in drug, alcohol, or gambling recovery and they’ll tell you it’s an ongoing process that continues every day, sometimes indefinitely.
This may sound daunting, but have you ever met someone with years of solid recovery? They’re resilient, in control of their emotions, and living their best life.
It gets better. And the five phases of trauma recovery can help. Below, I’m going to walk you through the stages of healing after narcissistic abuse, step-by-step, with links to all the resources you need. Let’s jump in…
1. Emergency Stabilization Phase
This first phase of narcissistic abuse recovery is the most important, but it’s also the hardest.
You finally go No Contact from the narcissist and aren’t sure if you’ve made the right decision. (Maybe the police even made the decision for you.)
You’re still overstimulated from the narcissistic abuse which might still be flowing in the form of texts from strange numbers or relayed messages from mutual friends.
What you need right now is support and reassurance. The trauma has felt “normal” for so long that experiencing safety and calmness feels foreign and very wrong. You’re still vulnerable and afraid of how the narcissist will respond to everything you think or do.
During the Emergency Stabilization Phase, it’s critical to maintain No Contact or, in the case of shared custody, Extreme Modified Contact.
If you do share custody with the narcissist, it’s imperative to accept that being civil and mature is not part of the narcissist’s makeup. Therefore, do not settle into a false sense of security when the narcissist assures you they will come through for the kids or be honest with you going forward.
When you are deceived by their tricks and ulterior motives, they see it as an invitation to keep taking advantage of you…and to continue their tyranny and dictatorship over your life.
The Emergency Stabilization Phase is typically the most difficult to endure because of the psychic pull to reconnect with the narcissist and the biochemical addiction that develops after enduring repeated traumas. Breaking No Contact is undoubtedly the number one reason people stay entangled in toxic relationships much longer than they intend to, which is why maintaining No Contact should be your top priority during the stages of healing after narcissistic abuse.
2. Punching Upwards Phase
This is when you start to pick yourself back up off the floor. Your energy starts to return after the narcissist drained it for so long. (Being the target of narcissistic abuse requires a lot of your time and attention.)
You might experience surges of anger towards the narcissist and even at yourself for allowing the abuse to go on for so long. Without proper support and recovery, you might slip back into phase one. It’s important to note that while support groups on public social media sites might help in the beginning, they are not a source of proper support and can ultimately set you back in your recovery.
Many people don’t realize that the reason they feel so insecure and desperate after going No Contact is that they have an insecure attachment style, which manifests as open, raw emotional wounding, as well as crippling feelings of abandonment and rejection in the wake of narcissistic abuse.
Even if your attachment style wasn’t largely insecure in the beginning of your toxic relationship, it is certainly that way after narcissistic abuse.
People with insecure attachment styles focus intently on keeping the narcissist close, at the expense of their own interests and even their own values. This partly explains why narcissistic abuse victims cave into demands such as repeatedly forgiving infidelities or agreeing to work and pay all the bills while the narcissist frolics and plays with their other supply sources.
This happens because they’re desperately trying to attach to the narcissist, which only leads to more feelings of primal panic. The only way to counteract this feeling is to find an emotionally available attachment figure after initiating No Contact. This might be a friend, family member, therapist, coach, or God – in other words, someone who can be your Rock of Gibraltar…at least during the initial months of No Contact.
This is where a tried and true narcissistic abuse recovery program can make all the difference.
3. One Foot in the Door Phase
The third of the key stages of healing after narcissistic abuse is very delicate. You start to rebuild your identity, but your past tends to get in the way. You might start to give the narcissist too much credit and think “we both treated each other poorly” or “they’ve experienced abuse, too.”
Although it’s less common than during phase two, you can revert to the earlier phases of trauma recovery at any time without much warning. That’s why support and guidance from experienced professionals or transformational coaches are so important during the entire process.
Now that you’re starting to feel confident in yourself and your decisions, you might feel compelled to reach out to the narcissist on casual terms. Maybe they’ve changed? (They haven’t.)
During this phase, you will be dealing with withdrawal from the biochemical addiction that formed after repeated cycles of abuse. When you’re in withdrawal, your mind will tell you all sorts of things to get you to make contact so you can get a rush of dopamine. It will tell you that things can go back to the way they used to be, before the abuse set in with full force.
For a little while, this idea will seem feasible as your brain clings onto fragile memories, leaving you with an aching yearn. You’ll convince yourself you overreacted to everything. At the very least, you’ll find yourself seeking closure or an explanation. But take heed, reaching out to the narcissist will set you back in your recovery, or worse, land you straight back into the cycle of abuse.
Just ask survivors of narcissistic abuse who tried this approach.
4. Objective Analysis Phase
At this point in healing from narcissistic abuse, you can look back at your past objectively without feeling overwhelmed with emotions like anger or too much regret.
You’ve spent a great deal of time looking inwards and identifying emotional triggers left over from the narcissistic abuse. Now, you’re ready to start helping others who are in the early phases of trauma recovery.
Although you’ve put a lot of work into rebuilding your identity, you might find yourself slipping back into feelings of worthlessness or doubting your ability. You might not realize this is a hold-over from the abuse, but it is.
This is where most narcissistic abuse survivors suffer from the symptoms of attempted perspecticide.
Evan Stark, an award-winning researcher and professor at Rutgers is credited as first coining the term “perspecticide” in his 2007 book, Coercive Control. Perspecticide is the incapacity to know what you know, as a result of abuse.
With perspecticide, the abuser slowly chips away at your perspective until you have no thoughts of your own. Perspecticide was first used as a psychological manipulation tactic on prisoners of war and later by cult leaders, topics I’ve written about before.
The goal is to achieve a total loss of identity in the intended target.
After all, it’s much easier to control a person when they have no thoughts, opinions, and feelings of their own.
When you find yourself slipping back into the shadows of loss of self, remember how far you’ve come. You no longer have to be affected by the narcissist’s verbal holocaust or snide opinions. You no longer have to be their emotional punching bag or receptacle for their hatred.
If you’ve taken the necessary steps to free yourself, your life is a clean slate on which you can paint a beautiful watercolor of your future.
5. Acceptance and Reintegration Phase
You can see things clearly and as they are. You know your abilities and limitations – not the ones the narcissist railed into you.
At this point, you understand how to develop healthy relationships and you have the courage to take action if someone tries to treat you poorly.
Don’t ever let your guard down too much though – narcissists are everywhere. But you’ve learned how to stand up to their abuse before it gets too far.
Healing from Complex Trauma and PTSD from Narcissistic Abuse
It’s absolutely crucial to move through the five phases of trauma recovery as you’re healing from narcissistic abuse. You need to analyze how the trauma developed in order to unravel it for good.
But with the right support, you can – and you’ll be shocked how amazing it feels when you can flourish on the other side.
How To Get Started On The Stages of Healing After Narcissistic Abuse
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